In a Winter City/Chapter 7
Foreign Floralia, i.e., that portion of Floralia which is not indigenous to the soil, but has only flown south with the swallows, is remarkable for a really god-like consciousness—it knows everything about every body, and all things, past, present, and to come, that ever did, could, would, should, cannot, will not, or never shall happen; and is aware of all things that have ever taken place, and of a great many things that never have done so. It is much better informed about you than you are yourself; knows your morals better than your confessor, your constitution better than your doctor, your income better than your banker, and the day you were born on, better than your mother. It is omniscient and omnipresent, microscopic and telescopic; it is a court-edition of Scotland Yard, and a pocket-edition of the Cabinet Noir; it speeds as many interrogations as a telegraph-wire, and has as many mysteries as the agony column of a newspaper—only it always answers its own questions, and has all the keys to its own mysteries, and what is still more comforting, always knows everything for "certain."
It knows that you starve your servants because you are poor and like to save on the butcher and baker; it knows that you overpay them because you are rich and want them to keep your secrets; it knows that your great grandmother's second cousin was hanged for forgery at Tyburn; it knows that your silk stockings have cotton tops to them; it knows that your heirloom-guipure is imitation, made the other day at Rapallo; it knows that your Embassy only receives you because—hush—a great personage—ah, so very shocking; it knows that you had green peas six weeks before anybody else; it knows that you have had four dinner parties this week and are living on your capital; it knows that when you were in Rome you only went to the Quirinal Wednesdays, because (whisper, whisper, whisper)—oh, indeed it is perfectly true—had it on the best authority—dreadful, incredible, but perfectly true!
In point of fact there is nothing it doesn't know.
Except, to be sure, it never knows that Mrs. Potiphar is not virtuous, or that Lady Messalina is not everything she should be; this it never knows and never admits, because if it did it could not very well drink the Potiphar champagne, and might lose for its daughters the Messalina balls. Indeed its perpetual loquacity, which is "as the waters come down at Lodore," has most solemn and impressive interludes of refreshing dumbness and deafness when any incautious speaker, not trained to its ways, hints that Mrs. Potiphar lives in a queer manner, or that Lady Messalina would be out of society anywhere else; then indeed does Anglo-Saxon Floralia draw itself up with an injured dignity, and rebuke you with the murmur of—Christian charity.
In other respects however it has the soul of Samuel Pepys multiplied by five thousand. It watched the progress of intimacy between Lady Hilda and the ruined lord of Palestrina, and knew "all about it,"—knew a vast deal more than the persons concerned, of course; it always does, or what would be the use of talking?
Gossiping over its bonbons and tea in the many pleasant houses in which the south wintering northern swallows nestle, it knew that he and she had been in love years and years before; the family would not let her marry him because he was so poor; it was the discovery of his letters to her that had killed poor old rich Vorarlberg; he and her brother had fought in the Bois—indeed!—oh yes, it was hushed up at the time, but it was quite true, and he had shot her brother in the shoulder; the surgeon who had attended the wounded man had told the physician who had attended the sister-in-law of the cousin of the most intimate friend of the lady who had vouched for this. There could not be better authority. But there never was anything against her?—oh dear me, no, never anything—everybody said this very warmly, because everybody had been, hoped to be, or at least would not despair of being, introduced to her and asked to dinner. It was very romantic, really most interesting; they had not met for nine years, and now!—ah, that explained all her coldness then, and that extraordinary rejection of the Crown Prince of Deutschland, which nobody ever had been able to understand. But was it not strange that he had never tried to resume his old influence before? No, he was as proud as he was poor, and besides they had quarrelled after the duel with her brother; they had parted one night very bitterly, after one of the Empress's balls at St. Cloud, out on the terrace there; but he had always refused to give up her portrait; somebody had seen it upon his chest when he had been stripped in the hospital after Custozza; oh yes, they remembered that perfectly.
Altogether they made such a very pretty story that it was quite a pity that it was not true, and that the subjects of it had never met until the Duc de St. Louis had brought them face to face that winter. The one real truth which did begin to embitter the life of the Lady Hilda and lie heavy on her thoughts, waking and sleeping, was one that the garrulous gossiping Pepys-like northern swallows, chirping so busily, did not guess at all. Indeed, this is the sad fate which generally befalls Gossip.
It is like the poor devil in the legend of Fugger's Teuffelpalast at Trent; it toils till cock-crow picking up the widely-scattered grains of corn by millions till the bushel measure is piled high, and lo!—the five grains that are the grains always escape its sight and roll away and hide themselves. The poor devil, being a primitive creature, shrieked and flew away in despair at his failure. Gossip hugs its false measure and says loftily that the five real grains are of no consequence whatever.
The Duc de St. Louis, who had not got the five grains any more than they had, yet who could have told them their bushelful was all wrong, like a wise man, seeing the project of his affections in a fair way towards realization—at least, so he thought—prudently abstained from saying one word about it to any one.
"Trop de zèle" spoiled everything, he knew, from politics to omelettes, from the making of proselytes to the frying of artichokes. A breath too much has before now toppled down the most carefully built house of cards. When to let things alone is perhaps the subtlest, rarest, and most useful of all knowledge.
A man here and there has it; it may be said that no woman has, has had, or ever will have it. If Napoleon had had it he might have died at eighty at St. Cloud instead of St. Helena. But genius, like woman, never has been known to have it. For genius and caution are as far apart as the poles.
"Tout va bien," the Duc said to himself, taking off his hat to her when he saw Della Rocca by her carriage; meeting them in discussion before some painting or statue that she was about to buy; or watching them tête-à-tête on some couch of a ballroom, or in some nook of a gas-lit grove of camellias.
"Tout va bien," said the Duc, smiling to himself, and speeding on his way to his various missions, reconciling angry ladies, making the prettiest flatteries to pretty ones, seeking some unobtainable enamel, ivory, or elzevir, penning sparkling proverbs in verse, arranging costume quadrilles, preventing duels, and smiling on debutantes, adjusting old quarrels, and hearing new tenors; always in a whirl of engagements, always courted and courteous, always the busiest, the wittiest, the happiest, the most urbane, the most charming, the most serene person in all Floralia. "Tout va bien," said the Duc, and the town with him: the two persons concerned were neither of them quite so sure.
Meanwhile, for a little space the name and fame and ways and wonders of the Lady Hilda which filled Floralia with a blaze as of electric lights, quelling all lesser luminaries, was almost disregarded in a colossal sentiment, a gigantic discussion, a debate which, for endless eloquence and breathless conflict, would require the dithyrambs of Pindar meetly to record:—the grave question of who would, and who would not, go to the Postiche ball, .
"Number One goes to dine with Number Two, only that he may say he did so to Number Three," some cynic has declared; but Floralia improves even on this; before it goes to dine or dance, it spends the whole week in trying to find out who all the Number Fours will be, or in declaring that if such and such a Number Four goes it does not think it can go itself—out of principle—all which diversions wile its time away and serve to amuse it as a box of toys a child. Not that it ever fails to go and dine or dance,—only it likes to discuss it dubiously in this way.
The Postiche ball was really a thing to move society to its depths.
The wintering-swallows had never been so fluttered about anything since the mighty and immortal question of the previous season, when a Prince of the H. R. Empire, a United Netherlands Minister, and a Duc et Pair of France, had all been asked to dinner together with their respective wives at an American house, and the hostess and all the swallows with her had lived in agonies for ten days previously, torn to pieces by the terrible doubts of Precedence; beseeching and receiving countless counsels and councillors and consulting authorities and quoting precedents with the research of Max Müller and the zeal of Dr. Kenealy.
But the Postiche ball was a much wider, indeed almost an international matter; because the Anglo-Saxon races had staked their lives that it should be a success; and the Latin and Muscovite had declared that it would be a failure; and everybody was dying to go, and yet everybody was ashamed to go, a state of mind which constitutes the highest sort of social ecstacy in this age of composite emotions.
Mr. and Mrs. Joshua R. Postiche, some said, were Jews, and some said were Dutch, and some said were half-castes from Cuba, and some said were Americans from Arkansas, and some said had been usurers, and some gin-spinners, and some opium dealers, and some things even yet worse; at any rate they had amassed, somehow or other, a great deal of money, and had therefore got into society by dint of a very large expenditure and the meekest endurance of insults; and had made an ancient palace as gaudy and garish as any brand-new hotel at Nice or Scarboro', and gathered in it all the cosmopolitan crowd of Floralia; some of the Italian planets and Muscovite stars alone hanging aloof in a loftier atmosphere, to the very great anguish of the Joshua R. Postiches.
The ball was to be a wonderful ball, and the cotillon presents were whispered to have cost thirty thousand francs, and there were various rumours of a "surprise" there would be at it, as poor Louis Napoleon used to promise the Parisians one for the New Year. Louis Napoleon's promises always ended in smoke, but the surprise of the Joshua E. Postiches was always to be reckoned on as something excellent:—salmon come straight from the Scotch rivers; lobsters stewed in tokay du krone; French comic actors fetched from Paris; some great singer, paid heaven knew what for merely opening her mouth; some dove flying about with jewels in his beak for everybody, or something of that sort, which showed that the Joshua R. Postiches, wherever they had been "raised," or even if they had kept a drinking-bar and eating-shop in Havannah, as some people said, were at all events persons who knew the requirements of their own generation and the way to mount into "La Haute."
Why they wanted to get there no mortal could tell; they had no children, and were both middle-aged; but no doubt, if you have not been used to them, the cards of countesses are as balm in Gilead, and to see a fashionable throng come up your staircase is to have attained the height of human desire.
At any rate, the Joshua B. Postiches had set their souls on this sort of social success, and they achieved it; receiving at their parties many distinguished and infinitely bored personages who had nothing to do in Floralia, and would have cut them in Paris, Vienna, or London, with the blandest and blankest stare of unconsciousness.
Madame Mila was on the point of adding herself to those personages.
"I must go to the ball," she said. "Oh, it will be the best thing of the season except Nina Trasimene's—I must go to the ball—but then I can't endure to know the woman."
"Can't you go without knowing her?" said the Lady Hilda. "That has been done———"
Madame Mila did not feel the satire.
"Yes; one could do it in Paris or London; but not in a little place like this," she answered, innocently. "I must let them present her to me—and I must leave a card. That is what's so horrid. The woman is dreadful; she murders all the languages, and the man's always looking about for a spittoon, and calls you my lady. They are too dreadful! But I must go to the ball. Besides, our own people want Maurice to lead the cotillon. Now Guido Salvareo is ill, there's nobody that can come near Maurice———"
"But I suppose he would not dare to go if you were not there?"
"Of course he would not go; the idea! But I mean to go—I must go. I'm only thinking how I can get out of knowing the woman afterwards. It's so difficult in a small place, and I am always so good-natured in those things. I suppose it's no use asking you to come, Hilda? else, if you would, you could cut them afterwards most deliciously, and I should do as you did. Left to myself, I'm always too good-natured."
"I would do most things to please you, my dear Mila," answered her cousin, "but I don't think I can do that. You know it's my rule never to visit people that I won't let visit me—and I don't like murdered languages, and being called 'my lady.'"
"Oh, the people are horrid—I say so," answered the Comtesse. "I shall have nothing to do with them, of course—after their ball."
"But surely, it's very low, Mila, that sort of thing. I know people do it nowadays. But really, to be a guest of a person you intend to cut next day———"
"What does it matter? She wants my name on her list; she gets it; I'm not bound to give her anything more. There is nothing unfair about it. She has what she wants, and more than she could expect. Of course, all that kind of persons must know perfectly well that we only go to them as we go to the opera, and have no more to do with them than we have with the opera door-keepers. Of course they know we don't visit them as we visit our own people. But if snobbish creatures like those find pleasure in entertaining us, though they know quite well what we think of them, and how we esteem them, and why we go to them—well, I don't see that they deserve anything better."
"Nor I," said the Lady Hilda. "Only I shouldn't go to them—that's all. And it is very funny, my love, that you, who have lived in all the great courts of Europe, and have had your own Embassy in London, should care one straw for a ball at the Joshua R. Postiche's. Good gracious! You must have seen about seventy thousand balls in your time!"
"I am only six years older than you, Hilda," said she, tartly. "I suppose you've been telling Della Rocca not to go to the Postiche's—Olga and the Baroness and Madame Valkyria, and scores of them have been trying to persuade him all the week, because if he stay away so many of the other men will; and none of us can stir him an inch about it. 'On peut être de très-braves gens—mais je n'y vais pas,' that is all he says; as if their being 'braves gens' or not had anything to do with it; and yet I saw him the other day with his hand on a contadino's shoulder in the market-place, and he was calling him 'carissimo mio.'"
"One of his own peasants, most likely," said the Lady Hilda, coldly. "I have never heard these Postiches even mentioned by M. Della Rocca, and I certainly have nothing whatever to do with where he goes or doesn't go."
"He is always with you, at any rate," said Madame Mila; "and if you would make him go, it would only be kind of you. You see we want everybody we know, so that we may be sure to make the square dances only of our own people, and not to see anything of anybody the Postiches may have asked themselves. Little Dickie Dorrian, who's managing it all, said to the woman Postiche, 'I'll bring the English division if you'll spend enough on the cotillon toys; but I won't undertake the Italians.' Now if Della Rocca———"
"Would you want a new dress, Mila?" said the Lady Hilda; "I am sure you must if you're going to a woman you can't know the next day."
"I should like one, of course," said the Comtesse, "but I've had thirty new ones this season already—and what I owe Worth!— not to talk of the Maison Roger———"
"Let me give you one," said the Lady Hilda. "Worth will do anything at short notice for either of us; and I must think this poor Postiche woman ought to see you in a new dress, as she's never to see you again."
"You are a darling, Hilda!" said Madame Mila, with ardent effusion, rising to kiss her cousin.
Lady Hilda turned to let the caress fall on the old guipure lace fichu round her throat, and drew her writing-things to her to pen a telegram to M. Worth.
"I suppose you don't care to say what colour?" she asked as she wrote.
"Oh no," answered the Comtesse. "He remembers all the combinations I've had much better than I do. You dictate to him a little too much; I've heard him say so———"
"He never said so to me," said the Lady Hilda, with a laugh. "Of course I dictate to him. Whatever taste your dress-maker, man or woman, may have—and he has genius—there are little touches which should always come from oneself, and which can alone give originality. That is why all that herd of women, who really do go to Worth but yet are nobodies, look hardly the better for him; he thinks about us, and we think about ourselves; but he doesn't think about them, and as they have no thought themselves the result is that they all look as conventional and similar as if they were dolls dressed for a bazaar. Women ought to be educated to more sense of colour and form. Even an ugly woman ought to be taught that it is her duty to make her ugliness as little disagreeable as possible. If the eyes and the taste of women were cultivated by artistic study, an ill-dressed woman would become an impossibility. If I were ever so poor," continued the Lady Hilda impressively, "if I were ever so poor, and had to sew my own gowns, and make them of serge or of dimity, I would cut them so that Giorgione or Gainsborough, if they were living, would be able to look at me with complaisancy—or at all events without a shudder. It is not half so much a question of material as it is of taste. But nowadays the people who cannot afford material have no taste; so that after us, and the women whom Worth manages to make look decently in spite of themselves, there is nothing but a multitude of hideously-attired persons, who make the very streets appalling either by dreariness or gaudiness:—they never have any medium. Now a peasant girl of the Marche, or of the Agro Romana, or of the Pays de Vaud, is charming, because her garments have beauty of hue in them, and that other beauty which comes from perfect suitability and———Ah! come sta Duca?"
She interrupted herself, and turned to Della Rocca, who was standing behind her, the servant's announcement of him having been unheard: it was her day to receive.
"Oh, that the rest of your sex, Madame," he said, after his salutations were made, "could sit at your feet and take in those words of wisdom! Yes, I heard most that you said; I can understand your tongue a little; you are so right; it is the duty of every woman to make herself as full of grace as she can; all cannot be lovely, but none need be unlovely."
"Exactly; women are reproached with thinking too much about dress, but the real truth is, they do not think enough about it—in the right way. They talk about it dreadfully, in the vulgarest fashion, but bring any thought to it they don't. Most women will wear anything if it be only de rigueur. I believe if I, and Princess Metternich, and Madame de Gallifet, and Madame Aguado, and a few like us wore that pea-green silk coat and waistcoat which the Advanced Thought Ladies of America are advocating as the best new kind of dress for women, that you would see ten thousand pea-green coats and waistcoats blazing in the streets the week afterwards———"
"Not a bad idea for the Cotton Costume ball," said Madame Mila. "I will have a pea-green coat and waistcoat, a tall hat, and hessians; and call myself 'Advanced Thought.'"
"To be completely in character, Mila, you must have blue spectacles, a penny whistle, a phial full of nostrums, a magpie for your emblem, and a calico banner, inscribed 'Everything is Nothing!'———"
"Charming! It shall be the best thing there. Draw it for me, Della Rocca, and I will send the sketch to Paris, so that it can all come in a box together, magpie and all."
He drew a sheet of paper to him, and sketched the figure in ink, with spirit.
"You have all the talents—so many thanks," said Madame Mila, looking over his shoulder.
Della Rocca sighed.
"If I have them I have buried them, Madame—but, indeed, I can make no such claim."
"So many thanks," echoed the Comtesse. "Pray, don't say a word about it, or we shall have a dozen 'Advanced Thoughts' in calico. Hilda, I am just going to Nina's to see about the Muscadins. I have resolved we shall play that piece or no other. I shall be back in ten minutes, ask Olga to wait;" and Madame Mila wafted herself out of the room, and downstairs to the courtyard, where the coupé and the exemplary Maurice were waiting.
"How she does amuse herself!" said Lady Hilda, a little enviously. "I wish I could do it. What can it matter whether they play the Muscadins or anything else!"
"Plus on est fou, plus on rit," said Della Rocca, sketching arabesques with his pen. "Nay, that is too impolite in me to charming Madame Mila. But, like all old proverbs, it is more true than elegant."
"Do you know, Madame," he continued, with a little hesitation, "I have often ventured to think that, despite your brilliancy, and your position, and all your enviable fate, you are not altogether—quite happy? Am I right? Or have I committed too great an impertinence to be answered?"
"No impertinence whatever," said the Lady Hilda, a little wearily. "You may be right; I don't know; I am not unhappy certainly; I have nothing to be unhappy about; but—most things seem very stupid to me. I confess Mila's endless diversions and excitements are quite beyond me. There is such a terrible sameness in everything."
"Because you have no deeper interests," he answered her. He still sat near her at her writing-table beside the fire, and was playing with the little jewelled boy who held her pen-wiper.
She did not answer him; and he continued "I think you have said yourself, Madame, the cause why everything seems more or less wearisome to you—you have 'nothing to be unhappy about'; that is—you have no one for whom you care."
He thought that her proud delicate face coloured a little; or it might be the warmth from the fire of oak-logs and pine-cones.
"No; I don't care about people," she answered him indifferently. "When you have seen a person a few times—it is enough. It is like a book you have read through; the interest is gone; you know the mot d'énigme."
"You speak of society; I spoke of affections."
The Lady Hilda laughed a little.
"I can't follow you. I do not feel them. I like Clairvaux, my brother, certainly, but we go years without seeing each other quite contentedly."
"I spoke of affections, other affections," replied Della Rocca, with a little impatience. "There is nothing else that gives warmth or colour to life. Without them there is no glow in its pictures, they are all painted en grisaille. Pleasure alone cannot content any one whose character has any force, or mind any high intelligence. Society is, as you say, a book we soon read through, and know by heart till it loses all interest. Art alone cannot fill more than a certain part of our emotions; and culture, however perfect, leaves us unsatisfied. There is only one thing that can give to life what your poet called the light that never was on sea or land—and that is human love."
His eyes rested on her; and for once in her life her own eyes fell; a troubled softness came for a moment on her face, dispersing all its languor and its coldness. In another moment she recovered herself, and smiled a little.
"Ah! you are appassionato, as becomes your country."Della Rocca looked at her with something of disappointment and something of distaste; he rose and approached the grand piano. "You allow me?" he said, and touched a few of the chords. He sang very low, and almost as it were to himself, a canzone of the people —
"Si tu mi lasci, lasciar non ti voglio,
Se m' abbandoni, ti vo seguitare
Se passi il mare, il mar passare io voglio,
Se giri il mondo, il mondo vo' girare," &c.
The words were very simple, but the melody was passionate and beautiful; his voice, so low at first, rose louder, with all the yearning tenderness in it with which the song is laden; and the soft sounds echoed through the silent room, as they had echoed ten thousand times in moonlit nights of midsummer, over the land where Romeo and Stradella and Ariosto loved.
His voice sank softly into silence; and Lady Hilda did not move.
There was a mist that was almost like tears in her proud eyes; she gazed into the fire, with her cheek leaning on her hand; she did not speak to him; there was no sound but the falling of some burning wood upon the hearth.
"The simplest contadina in the land would understand that," he said as he rose; "and you, great lady though you are, cannot? Madame, there are things, after all, that you have missed."
"Go back and sing again," she said to him, taking no notice of his words; "I did not know you ever sang———"
"Every Italian does;—or well or ill," he answered her. "We are born with music in us, like the birds."
"But in society who hears you?"
"No one. An atmosphere of gas, candles, ennui, perfume, heat, and inane flatteries! ah no, Madame—music is meant for silence, moonlight, vinepaths, summer nights———"
"This is winter and firelight, a few arm-chairs and a great deal of street noise; all the same, go back and sing me more."
She spoke indifferently and lightly, leaning her hand back on her chair, and hiding a little yawn with her hand; she would not have him see that he had touched her to any foolish, momentary weakness. But he had seen. He smiled a little.
"As you command," he answered, and he went back and made her music as she wished; short love lyrics of the populace, sonnets set to noble airs, wild mournful boat-songs, and snatches of soft melodies, such as echo all the harvest-time through the firefly-lighted corn: things all familiar to him from his infancy, but to her unknown, and full of the force and the yearning of the passion which was unknown to her also, and in a certain way derided by her.
He broke off abruptly, and came and leaned on the chimney-piece near her, with his arm amongst the little pug-dogs in Saxe, and figures and fountains in Capo di Monte, which she had collected in a few weeks from the bric-à-brac people. He did not speak; he only looked at her where she sat, with the firelight and the dying daylight on the silver fox-furs fringing her dress, on the repousse gold and silver work of her loose girdle, on the ends of the old Spanish lace about her throat; on the great rings that sparkled on her white fingers, which were lying so idly clasped together on her lap.
"You sing very beautifully," she said, calmly, at length, with her eyes half closed and her head lying back on the chair-cushions. "It is very strange you should be so mute in society."
"I never sang to a crowd in my life, and never would. Music is an impulse, or it is nothing. I could never sing save to some woman who———"
He paused a moment.
"Who was music in herself," he added with a smile; it was not what had been upon his lips.
"Then you should not have sung to me," she said, still with half-closed eyes and a careless coldness in her voice. "I am all discord; have you not found that out?—every woman is, now-a-days; we have lost the secret of harmony; we are always wanting to be excited, and never succeeding in being anything but bored."
"These are mere words, Madame," he answered her, "I hope they are not true. By discord I think you only mean inconsistency. Pardon me—but I think you are all so wearied because of the monotony of your lives. I dare say that sounds very strangely to you, because you pursue all the pleasures and all the extravagances that are obtainable. But then all these are no novelties, they are merely habits. Habit is nothing better than a harness; even when it is one silvered and belled. You have exhausted everything too early; how can it have flavour? You pursue an unvarying routine of amusement: how can it amuse? The life of the great world is, after all, when we once know it well, as tiresome as the life of the peasant—perhaps more so. I know both."
"All that may be right enough," said the Lady Hilda, "but there is no help for it that I see. If the world is not amusing, that is not our fault. In the Beau Siècle, perhaps, or in Augustan Rome—"
"Be very sure it was the same thing. An artificial life must grow tiresome to any one with a mind above that of a parrot or a monkey. If we can be content with it, we deserve nothing better. What you call your discord is nothing but your dissatisfaction—the highest part of you. If it were not treason to say so, treason against this exquisite apparel, I would say that you would be more likely to know happiness were you condemned to the serge and the dimity you spoke of to Madame Mila an hour ago."
He had sunk on a stool at her feet as he spoke, and caressed the silver fox and the gold girdle lightly; his hand touched hers in passing, and her face grew warm. She put a feather screen between her and the fire.
"That is the old argument of content in the cottage &c," she said, with a slight laugh. "I do not believe in it in the least. If it be 'best repenting in a coach and six' it must be best to be bored in an arm-chair———"
"Perhaps! It is not I, certainly, who should praise poverty!" he said, with some bitterness, and more sadness; "and, indeed, poverty or riches has little to do with the question of happiness; happiness can come but from one thing———."
"A good conscience? How terribly moral you are."
"No:—from our emotions, from our passions, from our sympathies; in fine, from Love."
His hand still played with the gold gypsire of the girdle as he sat at her feet; his eyes were lifted to her face; his voice was very low; in all his attitude and action and regard there were an unuttered solicitation, an eloquence of unspoken meaning; she was silent:—then the door opened; he dropped the girdle, and rose to his feet; there came a patter of high heels, and a chime of swift aristocratic voices; and into the room there entered the Princess Olga, attended by her constant shadow, Don Carlo Maremma, with Lady Featherleigh behind her, accompanied by her attendant, Prince Nicolas Doggondorf.
"Ma chère, there is a regular riot going on at Nina's," said the Princess Olga, advancing with both hands outstretched. All about those Muscadins. Mila has seceded in full form, and, of course, M. des Gommeux with her. Blanche will only play if they have 'II faut qu'une porte,' &c, which is as old as the hills, and Mila won't play at all if Blanche be allowed to play anything. They have quarrelled for life, so have Mila and Nina. They are slanging each other like two street boys. Alberto Rimini is on his knees between them, and the Duc is declaring for the five thousandth time that it is the last he will ever have to do with theatricals. I left while I could escape with life. What a pity it is that playing for charity always developes such fierce hostilities. Well, Paolo,—have you thought better of the Postiche ball? No? How stiff-necked you are! I do believe Carlo will be the only Italian there!"
"It will be a distinction to inscribe on his tombstone, Madame," said Della Rocca. "But then he goes under command———."
"And under protest," murmured Don Carlo.
"Which does not count. When one is no longer a free agent———"
Princess Olga hit him a little blow with her muff.
"But why should you not go to the Postiches? Just as you go to the Veglione; it is nothing more."
"Madame,—I am very old-fashioned in my ideas, I dare say, but I confess I think that no one should accept as a host a person he would never accept as his guest. I may be wrong———"
"Of course you are wrong. That is not the question at all," said Princess Olga, who did not like people to differ with her. "Joshua R. Postiche will never dream of being asked to shoot your wild ducks or your partridges. All he wants is that you should just be seen going up his staircase, and drinking his champagne. Society is full of Postiches: low people, with a craze for entertaining high people. They don't care how we insult them, nor how we laugh at them, provided our cards lie in the bowl in their hall. We take them at their own valuation, and treat them as we treat the waiters at Spillman's or Doney's; we have paid the bill with our cards."
"That is to say, we have paid with our names—which should represent all the honour, dignity, and self-respect that we have inherited, and are bound to maintain, for our own sakes and for those who may come after us."
"Oh, mon Dieu, quel grand sérieux!" cried the Princess, impatiently. "But, of course, if you've been sitting with Hilda you have got more stiff-necked than ever. What do you say, Hilda? Isn't it ill-natured of him? He need only walk in, bow once to the woman, and look on at the edge of the ball-room for twenty minutes. The other men will go if he will do as much as that."
"I think M. della Rocca quite right not 'to do as much as that,'" said the Lady Hilda. "Why Society ever does as much as that, or half as much, or anything at all, for Joshua R. Postiche, I can never tell. As it does,—to be consistent everybody should dine with the fruit woman from the street corner, and play écarté with their own chimney sweeps."
"Oh, we shall come to that, Madame," said Nicolas Doggondorf. "At least, if chimney sweeping ever make heaps of money; I don't think it does; it only chokes little boys———."
"Ce bon Monsieur Postiche sold rum and molasses," murmured Don Carlo.
"What's it to us what he sold?" said Lady Featherleigh. "We've nothing to do with him; we're only going to his ball. You talk as if we asked the man to dinner.""What does the Archduchess Anna always say: 'Où je m'amuse—j'y vais.' So we do all. I hear he has been put up for the Club; is it true?" added the Princess to Carlo Maremma.
"Yes, Krunensberg has put him up," he answered her, "but he shall never get into it, while there are any of us alive."
"Et s'il n'y a qu'un, moi je serai celui-là," quoted Della Rocca.
"But he has lent Krunensberg heaven knows what—some say two million francs," said Lady Featherleigh. Prince Krunensberg was a great personage, and, for a foreigner, of great influence in the Club.
"Chère dame," said Della Rocca, "if we elect all Krunensberg's creditors we shall have to cover three streets with our club-house!""Oh my dear! I am half dead!" cried Madame Mila, flashing into the room, gorgeous in the feathers of the golden pheasant, arranged on the most exquisite combination of violet satin, and bronze velvet, and throwing her muff on one side of her and her parasol on the other, while Maurice des Gommeux, who was the most admirable of upper servants, stooped for them and smoothed their ruffled elegance. "I am half dead! Such a scene I never went through in my life. I, who hate scenes, and never have any hardly even with Spiridion! Oh, has Olga told you? Yes; it is horrible, infamous, intolerable!—after all I have done for that odious Dumb Asylum—and my costumes ordered for the Muscadins, and half the part learnt! It is all Krunensberg's doing—and the Duc didn't stand out one half as he should have done; and Blanche!—the idea—the little wretch is made of wood, and can't even open her mouth! As for Krunensberg, he deserves to be shot! It is all his influence that has set Nina against the Muscadins—just to spite me! What I have gone through about this wretched theatre—and then to have that little chit of a Blanche set over my head, a little creature, only married out of her convent last year;—it is unbearable; of course, neither I nor des Gommeux shall play. Oh, here comes the Duc;—no, Duc, it is not the slightest use! If you have that ridiculous musty old piece of De Musset's, or if you have Blanche in it at all you don't have Me in anything. A nice morning's work you have made of it! Nina and I shall never speak again."
The Duc laid his hat aside; his delicate features were puckered, weary, and troubled.
"Mais, Madame, pardon!—mais vous avez toutes dit les choses les plus affeuses!———"
"Women always do, Duc, when they are in a passion," said Lady Hilda. "There is nothing like a scene for discovering our real opinions of one another. Why! you look actually—worried! I thought nothing ever ruffled you by any chance whatever."
"Madame," said M. de St. Louis, stretching himself, with a sigh, in a low chair beside her and the fire, "I have always sedulously cultivated serenity. I believe serenity to be the whole secret of human health, happiness, longevity, good taste, sound judgment, everything in point of fact that is desirable in the life of a human being. But, alas! we are all mortal, and our best plans are but finite. In an evil moment, when Pandora's box was packed, there was put in with it by the malice of Mercury a detonating powder, called Amateur Rivalry. When all the other discords were dispersed, this shot itself into the loveliest forms and the gentlest bosoms; and where it explodes—the wisest man stands helpless. He cannot reconcile the warring elements nor retain any personal peace himself. I am the slave of Madame Mila; I adore the dust of the exquisite shoes of Madame Nina; I am penetrated with the most absolute devotion to Madame Blanche;—when these heavenly graces are ready to rend each other's hair, what can I do? What can I be except the most unhappy person upon earth? To reconcile ladies who are infuriated is a hopeless dream; it were easier to make whole again a broken glass of Venice. It makes one almost wish," added the Duc with a second sigh, "almost wish that Molière had never been created, or, being created, had never written. But for Molière I doubt very much if the Drama, as an Art, would have lingered on to the present time."
"Console yourself, my dear Duc," said Lady Hilda, "console yourself with a line from Molière: 'Cinq ou six coups de bâton entre gens qui s'aiment ne font que ragaillardir l'amitié.' Mila, Nina, and Blanche will kiss each other to-morrow; they must, or what becomes of the great Contes de Mère d'Oie Quadrille to open the Roubleskoff ball next week?"
"I shall never speak to either of them as long as I live," said Madame Mila, still ruffling all her golden feathers in highest wrath. "As for the quadrille—the Roubleskoff must do as they can. I do think Krunensberg has made Nina perfectly odious; I never saw anybody so altered by a man in my life. Well, there's one thing, it won't last. His 'affairs' never do."
"It will last as long as her jewels do," said Carlo Maremma.
"Oh, no, he can't be quite so bad as that."
"Foi d'honneur!—since he left the Sant' Anselmo you have never seen her family diamonds except in the Paris paste replica, which she tells you she wears for safety, and because it is such a bore to have to employ policemen in plain clothes at the balls———"
"Talk of policemen!" said Madame Mila, "they say we're to have a caution sent us from the Prefecture about our playing baccarat the other night at the café—they say no gambling is allowed in the city—the idea!"
"While the State organises the lotteries!—how very consistent," said the Lady Hilda.
"All your gaming is against the law, angels of my soul," said Carlo Maremma.
"Then we'll all leave Floralia," said Madame Mila. "The idea of not being able to do what one chooses in one's own rooms!—there is one thing, we can always go up to Roubleskoff's;—they will never dare to caution him. But what is the use of all this fuss?—everybody plays—everybody always will play."
"The Prefect is much too wise a man ever to imagine he can prevent ladies doing what they like," said Maremma. "It is those tremendous losses of young De Fabris the other night that have made a stir, and the Prefect thinks it necessary to say something; he is afraid of a scandal."
"Good gracious! As if anything filled a city half so well as a scandal! Why ———"Floralia have a good gaming place like Monte Carlo? we shouldn't want to use our own rooms then
"I confess," said the Duc, in his gentle, meditative voice, "I confess that, like Miladi here, I fail to altogether appreciate the moral horror of a game at baccarat entertained by a municipality which in its legislation legalises the lottery. All gaming may be prejudicial to the moral health of mankind; it is certainly so to their purses. I am prepared to admit, even in face of Madame Mila's direst wrath, that all forms of hazard are exceedingly injurious to the character and to the fortunes of every person tempted by them. It may be impossible even to exaggerate their baneful influences or their disastrous consequences. But how can a government which publicly patronizes, sustains, and enriches itself by lotteries, have any logic in condemning the pastime of hazard in a private drawing-room or a private club-house? I confess I cannot see how they reconcile both courses. A government, whatever it be, should never be an anomaly."
"Lotteries are to us what bull-fighting is to Spaniards, and revolutions are to the French," said Carlo Maremma. "Every nation has its especial craze. The lottery is ours."
"But is it for a government to intensify and pander to, and profit by a national insanity?" said Della Rocca with much seriousness. "When Rome bent to the yell of Panem et Circences, the days of her greatness were numbered. Besides, the Duc is quite right—it is a ridiculous anomaly to condemn games while you allow lotteries. Great harm may result from private gambling—greater still from the public gaming-tables—but the evil after all is not a millionth part so terrible as the evil resulting from the system of public lotteries. The persons who are ruined by ordinary gaming, are, after all, persons who would certainly be ruined by some vice or another. The compound of avarice and excitement which makes the attraction of hazard does not allure the higher kinds of character; besides, the vice does not go to the player—the player goes to the vice. Now, on the contrary, the lottery attacks openly, and tries to allure in very despite of themselves the much wider multitude that is the very sap and support of a nation—it entices the people themselves. It lures the workman to throw away his wage— the student to spend his time in feverish dreams—the simple day-labourer to consume his content in senseless calculations that often bring his poor empty brain, to madness. The lottery assails them in the street, is carried to them in their homes, drops them some poor prize at first to chain them in torment for ever afterwards. It changes honesty to cunning, peace to burning desire, industry to a perpetual waiting upon chance, manly effort to an imbecile abandonment to the dictates of signs and portents, and the expectancy of a fortune which never comes. High-born gamblers are only the topmost leaves of the tree of the State; they may rot away without detriment to the tree, but the lottery lays the axe to the very trunk and root of it, because it demoralises the people."
Lady Hilda listened, and watched him as he spoke with a grave and almost tender meditation in her eyes; which M. de St. Louis saw, and seeing, smiled.
"Say all that in the Chamber, caro mio," muttered Carlo Maremma.
"I would go to the Chambers to say it, or to worse places even, were there my chance it would be attended to. Madame Mila, have I been so unhappy as to have offended you?"
"I am a top leaf that may rot! I was never told anything so rude in my life—from you too! the very soul of ceremonious courtesy."
Della Rocca made his peace with her in flowery flattery.
"Well, I shall play baccarat to-night in this hotel, just because the Prefect has been so odious and done that," said Madame Mila. "You will all come home with me after the Roubleskoff's dinner? Promise!"
"Of course," said the Princess Olga.
"Of course," said Lady Featherleigh.
"Of course," said everybody else.
"And if the gendarmes come in?"
"We will shoot them!"
"No; we will give them champagne—surer and more humane."
"I wish the Prefect would come himself—I should like to tell him my mind," continued Madame Mila. "So impudent of the man!—when all the Royal Highnesses and Grand Dukes and Duchesses in Europe only come to winter cities for play. He must know that."
"My dear Mila, how you do put yourself out about it," said the Lady Hilda. "Send ten thousand francs to the public charities—you may play all night long in the cafés then."
"Madame, j'ai l'honneur de vous saluer," murmured Della Rocca, bending low before her.
When the door had closed upon him and left the others behind, a sudden blankness and dullness seemed to fall on her: she had never felt the same thing before. Bored she had often been, but this was not ennui, it was a kind of loneliness—it was as if all about her grew grey and cold and stupid.
More ladies came in, there were endless laughter and chatter; Princess Olga wanted some tea, and had it; the other women cracked bon-bons with their little teeth like pretty squirrels cracking fir-cones; they made charming groups in the firelight and lamplight; they made plans for a hundred diversions; they were full of the gayest of scandals; they dissected in the most merciless manner all their absent friends; they scolded their lovers and gave them a thousand contradictory orders; they discussed all the news and all the topics of the day, and arranged for dinner parties, and driving parties, and costume quadrilles, and bazaar stalls, and boxes at the theatre, and suppers at the cafés; and agreed that everything was as dull as ditchwater, and yet that they never had a minute for anything; and the Lady Hilda with the jubilant noise and the twittering laughter round her, thought how silly they all were, and what a nuisance it was having a day—only if one hadn't a day it was worse still, because then they were always trying to run in at all hours on every day, and one was never free for a moment.
"Thank goodness, they are gone!" she said, half aloud, to the Saxe cups and the Capo di Monte children on the mantelpiece, when the last flutter of fur and velvet had vanished through the door, and the last of those dearest friends and born foes had kissed each other and separated.
Left alone, she stood thinking, by the fire, with all the lights burning behind her in that big, empty room. What she thought was a very humble and pensive thought for so disdainful a lady. It was only———
"Is it myself? or only the money?"
She stood some time there, motionless, her hand playing with the gold girdle as his hand had done; her face was pale, softened, troubled.
The clock amongst the Saxe dogs and the Capo di Monte little figures chimed the half-hour after six. She started as it struck, and remembered that she was to dine at eight with the Princess Roubleskoff; a big party for an English royalty on his travels.
"Anyhow, it would be of no use," she said to herself. "Even if I did wish it, it could never be."
And she was angry with herself, as she had been the night before; she was impatient of these new weaknesses which haunted her. Nevertheless she was more particular about her appearance that night than her maids had ever known her be; she was very difficult to satisfy; tried and discarded four wholly new confections of her friend Worth's, miracles of invention and of costliness, and at length had herself dressed quite simply in black velvet, only relieved by all her diamonds.
"He said fair women should always wear black," she thought: it was not her Magister of Paris of whom she was thinking as the sayer of that wise phrase. And then again she was angry with herself for remembering such a thing, and attiring herself in obedience to it, and would have had herself undrest again only there was but one small quarter of an hour in which to reach the Roubleskoff villa; a palace of the fairies four miles from the south-gate. So she went as she was; casting a dubious impatient glance behind her at the mirrors.
"I look well," she thought with a smile, and her content returned.
She knew that he would be present at the dinner. There is no escaping destiny in Floralia: people meet too often.
The dinner disappointed her.
She thought it very long and very stupid. She sat between the Grand Duke of Rittersbähn and the Envoy of all the Russias, and Della Rocca was not placed within her sight; and after the dinner the young English Prince would talk to no one but herself, delightedly recalling to her how often she had bowled his wickets down when they had been young children playing on the lawns at Osborne. She felt disloyally thankless for his preference. He monopolised her. And as the rooms filled with the crowd of the reception she merely saw the delicate dark head of Della Rocca afar off, bent down in eager and possibly tender conversation with his beautiful country-woman, the Duchess Medici-Malatesta. She felt angered and impatient.
If she had sat alone and neglected, as less lovely women often do, instead of being monopolised by a prince, with twenty other men sighing to take his place when etiquette should permit them, she could scarcely have been more ill-content.
Never in all her life had it befallen her to think angrily of another woman's beauty; and now she caught herself irritatedly conning, across the width of the room, the classic profile and the immense jewel-like eyes of the Malatesta Semiramis. Never in all her life had it happened to her to miss any one thing that she desired, and now a strange sense of loneliness and emptiness came upon her, unreasoned and unreasoning; and she had such an impatience and contempt of herself too all the while!—that was the most bitter part of it.
After all it was too absurd,———
As soon as the departure of the royal guests permitted anyone to leave, she went away, contemptuous, ill at ease, and out of temper with herself and all the world; half ignorant of what moved her, and half unwilling to probe her own emotions further.
"Plus on est fou, plus on rit," she murmured to her pillow two hours later with irritable disdain, as she heard the voices of Mme. Mila and her troop noisily passing her door as they returned to their night-long baccarat, which was to be doubly delightful because of the Prefect's interdict.
"I wish I had been born an idiot!" thought the Lady Hilda—as, indeed, any one must do who finds himself burdened with aching brains in this best of all possible worlds.
"Perhaps, after all, you were right," said the Duc de St. Louis, driving back into the town with Della Rocca that night. "Perhaps you were right, Miladi is most lovely, most exquisite, most perfect. But she has caprices—there is no denying that she has caprices and extravagancies which would ruin any one short of the despotic sovereign of a very wealthy nation."
The Duc was a very wise man, and knew that the escalier dérobé is the only way that leads in conversation to any direct information. Their demeanour had puzzled him, and he spoke accordingly with shrewd design.
Della Rocca heard him with a little annoyance.
"She has not more caprices than other women that I know of," he answered. "Her faults are the faults rather of her monde than of herself."
"But she has adopted them with much affection!""They are habits—hardly more."
"And you were correct too in your diagnosis when you saw her first," continued the Duc, pitilessly. "To me she is most amiable always; but to the generality of people, it must be admitted that she is not so amiable."
"The amiability of most women," replied Della Rocca, "is nothing more than that insatiate passion for admiration which makes them show their persons almost nude at Trouville, and copy the ways and manners of femmes entretenues in the endeavour to rival such with us. If they wish to be decent, they do not dare to be; they must be popular and chic before all."
"You are severe, but perhaps you are right. Miladi is certainly above all such vulgarities. Indeed, she is only a little too much above everything———"
"It is better than to be below everything—even below our respect—as most of our great ladies are."
"Certainly. Still, she is a little—a little selfish."
"How should she be otherwise? She is quite alone—she has no one to care for———"
"Most women make something to care for; she has many family ties, if she cared for them—but she does not. No; she is beautiful, charming grande dame en tout—but I begin to think that it is well for the peace of mankind that she remains so invulnerable. She would probably make any man who loved her very unhappy if she married him."
"If he were a weak man, not otherwise."
"Pouf! Do you think any man would ever have control over her?"
"I am quite sure that she would never care for any man who had not."
"He would be a very bold person," murmured the Duc. "However, I am very glad that you think more highly of her. You know, mon cher, what always was my opinion as to yourself———"
Della Rocca coloured, and saw too late that his companion had forced his card from his hands in the most adroit manner. He busied himself with lighting a cigar.
"For myself," he said, coldly, "I can have no object in what I say. My own poverty is barrier sufficient. But I should be unjust not to admit what I think of her, as a friend. I believe that the habits of the world are not so strong with her that they can satisfy her; and I believe that with her affections touched, with tenderer ties than she has ever known, with a home, with children, with a woman's natural life, in fact, she would be a much happier and very different person, Mais tout cela ne me regarde pas."
The Duc glanced at him and laughed softly, with much amusement.
"Ça vous regarde de bien près—bon succès et bon soir!" he said, as he got out of the carriage at his hôtel in the city. "I told him to marry her," he thought; "but if he expect to convert her too, he must be the boldest and most sanguine man in Europe."
Lady Hilda made up her mind that she was tired of Floralia, as she meditated over her chocolate the next morning, after a night which chloral had made pretty passable, only the baccarat people had screamed so loudly with laughter on the other side of the corridor, that they had awakened her once or twice. Yes, she certainly was tired of it. The town was charming,—but then one couldn't live on pictures, marbles, and recollections, and one got so sick of seeing the same people morning, noon, and night. The fogs were very bad. The drainage was dreadful. The thermometer was very nearly what it was in Normandy or Northamptonshire for what she could see. If one did take the trouble to go into society, one might as well do it all for a big world and not a little one. It was utter nonsense about her lungs in Paris. She would go back. She would telegraph her return to Hubert.
Hubert was her maître d'hôtel.
She did telegraph, and told herself that she would find immense interest in the fresco paintings which were being executed in the ball-room of that very exquisite hôtel "entre cour et jardin," which she had deserted in Paris, and in making nooks and corners in her already over-filled tables and cabinets for the tazze and bacini and ivories and goldsmith's work she had collected in the last two months; and decided that the wall decorations of the drawing-rooms, which were of rose satin, with Louis Quinze panelling, were all very barbarous, utterly incorrect, and should never have been borne with so long, and should be altered at once; the palest amber satin was the only possible thing, with silver mirrors and silver cornices, and not a touch of gilding anywhere; the idea had occurred to her before a picture in the galleries, where a silver casket was painted against an amber curtain; she would have it done immediately, and she would go back to Paris and have her old Thursday evenings again.
After all, Paris was the only place worth living in, and doctors were always alarmists—old women—everything that was stupid, unless you were very very ill, when they did seem to dilate into demi-gods, because of course you were weakened with morphine and other stuff, and did not want to die; though you ought to want to die, being a Christian, if you were in the very least degree consistent; since if you were quite sure that the next world would be so very much better than this, it was utterly illogical to be afraid of going to it:—but then were you quite sure?
The Lady Hilda sighed. This dreadful age, which has produced communists, pétroleuses, and liberal thinkers, had communicated its vague restlessness even to her; although she belonged to that higher region where nobody ever thinks at all, and everybody is more or less devout in seeming at any rate, because disbelief is vulgar, and religion is an 'affaire des mœurs,' like decency, still the subtle philosophies and sad negations which have always' been afloat in the air since Voltaire set them flying, had affected her slightly.
She was a true believer, just as she was a well-dressed woman, and had her creeds just as she had her bath in the morning, as a matter of course. Still, when she did come to think of it, she was not so very sure. There was another world, and saints and angels and eternity, yes, of course,—but how on earth would all those baccarat people ever fit into it? Who could, by any stretch of imagination, conceive Madame Mila and Maurice des Gommeux in a spiritual existence around the throne of Deity?
And as for punishment and torment and all that other side of futurity, who could even think of the mildest purgatory as suitable to those poor flippertygibbet inanities who broke the seventh commandment as gaily as a child breaks his indiarubber ball, and were as incapable of passion and crime as they were incapable of heroism and virtue?
There might be paradise for virtue, and hell for crime, but what in the name of the universe was to be done with creatures that were only all Folly? Perhaps they would be always flying about like the souls Virgil speaks of, "suspense ad ventos," to purify themselves; as the sails of a ship spread out to dry. The Huron Indians pray to the souls of the fish they catch; well, why should they not? a fish has a soul if Modern Society has one; one could conceive a fish going softly through shining waters forever and forever in the ecstacy of motion; but who could conceive Modern Society in the spheres?
Wandering thus from her drawing-room furniture to problems of eternity, and only succeeding in making herself unsettled and uncomfortable, the Lady Hilda, out of tune with everything, put off her cashmere dressing-gown, had herself wrapped in her sables, and thought she would go out;—it was just twelve o'clock.
Looking out of the window she saw a lady all sables like herself, going also out of the hôtel to a coupé, the image of her own.
"Who is that?" she asked of her favourite maid.
"That is Mdlle. Léa, Miladi," said the maid. "She came last night. She has the suite above."
"How dare you mention her?" said the Lady Hilda.
The little accident filled up the measure of her disgust. Mdlle. Jenny Léa was a young lady who had seduced the affections of an Emperor, three archdukes, and an untold number of the nobility of all nations; she was utterly uneducated, inconceivably coarse, and had first emerged from a small drinking shop in the dens of Whitechapel; she was the rage of the moment, having got a needy literary hack to write her autobiography, which she published in her own name, as "Aventures d'une Anglaise;" the book had no decency, and as little wit, but it professed to show up the scandals of a great Court, and it made some great men ridiculous and worse, so eighty thousand copies of it had been sold over Europe, and great ladies leaned from their carriages eager to see Mdlle. Jenny Léa pass by them.
Mdlle. Jenny Léa, indeed, having put the finishing stroke to her popularity by immense debts and a forced sale of her effects in Paris, was the sensation of the hour, only sharing public attention with the Père Hilarion, a young and passionately earnest Dominican, who was making a crusade against the world, in a noble and entirely vain fervour, from the pulpits of all the greatest churches on the Continent. It was "the thing" to go and hear Père Hilarion, weep with him and pray with him, and then coming out of the church doors to read Jenny Léa and talk of her. It is by these admirable mixtures that Society manages to keep itself alive.
The Père Hilarion was breaking his great heart over the vileness and the hopelessness of it all, as anyone who has any soul in him must be disposed to do. But to Society the Père Hilarion was only a sort of mental liqueur, as Jenny Léa was an American "pick-me-up:"—that was all. Society took them indifferently, one after the other. Of the two, of course it preferred Jenny Léa.
The Lady Hilda in supreme disgust went out in her sables, as Mdlle. Jenny Léa in hers drove from the door.
"What good things sumptuary laws must have been," she thought. "If such creatures had to dress all in yellow now, as I think they had once (or was it Jews?), who would talk of them, who would look at them, who would lose money about them? Not a soul. And to think that there have been eighty thousand people who have bought her book!"
"Has anything offended you, Madame? Who or what is so unhappy?" said the voice of Della Rocca, as she crossed the pavement of the court between the lines of bowing hôtel functionaries, who had bent their spines double in just the same way to Mdlle. Léa three minutes previously.
"Nothing in especial," she answered him, coldly. "Those baccarat people kept me awake half the night; I wish the gendarmes had interfered. What wretched weather it is!"
"It is a little cold; but it is very bright," said Della Rocca, in some surprise, for the day, indeed, was magnificent and seasonable. "I was coming in the hope that I might be admitted, though I know it is too early, and not your day, and everything that it ought not to be. But I was so unfortunate last night; you were so monopolised———"
She deigned to smile a little, but she continued to move to her brougham.
"Your climate is the very Harpagon of climates. I have not seen one warm day yet. I am thinking of returning to Paris."
He grew very pale.
"Is not that very sudden?" he asked her; there was a great change in his voice.
"Oh, no; I have my house there, as you know, and Monsieur Odissôt is painting the ball-room in frescoes. I have quite a new idea for my drawing-rooms, too; after all, furnishing is one of the fine arts; do you like that young Odissôt's talent? His drawing is perfection; he was a pupil of Hippolyte Flandrin. Good morning."
She was in her coupé by this time, and he was obliged to close the door on her; but he kept his hand upon it.
"Since you are leaving us so soon and so cruelly, Madame, would you honour my own old chapel frescoes as you promised?—they might give you some ideas for your ball-room." Lady Hilda deigned to smile fairly and folly this time.
"Is that a satire or a profanity—or both together?"
"It is jealousy of Camille Odissôt! I will go to Paris and paint your frescoes, Madame, if you will let me; I can paint in fresco and in tempera; I was a student in the Academy of San Luca in my time."
His words were light, and his manner also, but his eyes had a language that made the Lady Hilda colour a little and look out of the other window of her coupé.
"I must first call upon Olga; I have promised," she answered, irrelevantly. "But I will join you at your palace in an hour; perhaps she will come with me; I should not like to leave, certainly, without having seen your chapel. Au revoir."
"If you do leave, Madame, I follow!—to paint the ball-room."
He shut the carriage-door, and stood bare-headed in the wintry wind as the impatient horses dashed away. When it had disappeared he put his hat on, lighted a cigar, and strolled to his own house.
"She will not go to Paris," he said to himself. He knew women well.
In an hour and a half she arrived at his own gates, bringing the Princess Olga with her.
She saw the grand old garden, the mighty staircases, the courts that once held troops of armed men; she saw his own rooms, with their tapestries that Flemish John Rosts had had the doing of so many centuries before; she saw the exquisite dim silent chapel, whose walls, painted by the Memmi in one portion and continued by Masaccio, were amongst the famous things of the city. She was moved and saddened; softened too; after all, the decay of a great race has an unutterable pathos; it will touch even a vulgar mind; she, arrogant and fastidious as to birth, as though she had been born before the '89, was touched by it to the core.
She had heard, too, of how he lived; without debt, yet with dignity, with the utmost simplicity and without reproach; there was something in his fortunes which seemed to her worthier than all distinction and success, something that stirred that more poetic side of her nature, which the world had never allowed to awake, but which had been born with her nevertheless. She was serious and dreaming as she lingered in the beautiful old chapel, under whose mosaic pavement there lay the dust of so many generations of his race. He noticed her silence and thought to himself:
"Perhaps she is thinking how base it is in a man as poor as I to seek a woman so rich as herself;"—but she was not thinking that at all as she swept on in her sables, with her delicate cheeks, fair as the lovely Niphétos rose, against the darkness of the fur.
That immortality which she had been doubting in the morning, did not seem so absurdly impossible here. There was religion in the place, a different one to what she had known kneeling at the messe des paresseux in the Madeleine; the sort of religion that a woman only becomes aware of when she loves.
She started and seemed to wake from a dream when Princess Olga suggested that it was time to go; Princess Olga was a person of innumerable engagements, who was always racing after half an hour without ever catching it, like the Minister-Duke of Newcastle, and like ninety-nine people out of every hundred in the nineteenth century. There was some bric-à-brac the Princess wanted somebody to cheapen for her; she bade him come and do it; he complied willingly enough. They went all three to that bric-à-brac shop, and thence to another, and yet another. Then Princess Olga, who was used to a more brilliant part than that of the "terza incommoda," left them to themselves over the faïence and marqueterie.
Lady Hilda who, despite all her fashion, liked walking like every healthy woman, dismissed her horses, and walked the length of the river-street, he with her. People meeting them began to make conjectures, and bets, harder than ever; and Italian ladies, looking out of their carriage windows, wondered for the five-millionth time at the freedom of English women—as indeed Italian ladies have good cause to do in far more reprehensible liberties.
They walked down to the piazzone and back again. It was growing dusk. She went home to her hôtel, and let him enter with her, and had some tea by the firelight; all the while he made love to her with eyes and gesture and word, as only an Italian can, and she avoided explicit declaration of it, and direct need to reply to it, with all the consummate tact that ten years' practice in such positions had polished in her.
It was a charming pastime—were it nothing more. It was quite a pity when Madame Mila entered unsuspecting, and full of new wrongs in the matter of the Muscadins and fresh gossip concerning some forty people's marriages, divorces, debts, ignominies, and infamies. It is fortunate that there are so many wicked people in Society, for if there were not, what would the good people have to talk about? they would die of paralysis of the tongue.
"You will not leave us for Paris, yet?" he murmured as he rose, with a sigh, only heard by her ear.
She smiled, and balanced a Devoniensis tea-rose idly in her hands.
"Not just yet, if your weather prove better."
He drew the tea-rose away from her fingers unseen even by the quick marmoset eyes of little Madame Mila, who as it chanced was busied making herself a cup of tea. She let it go.
"You should have seen all the men looking after that horrible Léa," said Madame Mila, drinking her compound of cream and sugar, as the door closed on him. "They have eyes for nothing else, I do think; and only fancy her having the very suite above mine—it is atrocious! They say the things at her sale fetched fabulous sums. Little pomatum and rouge pots, five hundred francs each! They say she has fixed her mind on young Sant' Andrea here; I suppose she has heard he is enormously rich. Oh, did you know Gwendolen Doncaster has come? She has lost all her money at Monte Carlo, and she has dyed her hair a nice straw colour; she looks fifteen years younger, I do assure you. Don is shooting in Dalmatia—of course she abuses him—poor old Don! I wonder how we should have got on if he had married me, as he wanted. Gwen told me Lord Derbyshire has run off with Mrs. Wheelskaitte—what he can see in her! And those open scandals are so stupid, where is the use of them? Surely you can do what you like without calling all the world in to see you doing it. When a woman has an easy husband she never need compromise herself, and Wheelskaitte certainly always was that. Oh, you never would know them, I remember, because they were new people; she was an odious creature and very ugly, but they gave very good parties in London, and their cottage was as nice a one as you could go to for Ascot. You used to like little Wroxeter, did not you? he was such a pretty boy—he has just left Eton, and he is wild to marry a girl out of a music-hall, so Gwen says. Those creatures get all the good marriages nowadays:—and two hundred débutantes waiting to be presented at the Drawing-room this month! Have you seen the new book 'Confessions d'un Feu Follet'? Maurice has just brought it to me. It is rivalling Jenny Léa, and they say it is worse—quite ummentionable—everybody is talking about it. It was out last week, and they have sold five editions. The man called Bistrim in it is Bismarck. No; I don't know that it is witty. I don't think things are witty nowadays. It is horrible and infecte—but you can't put it down till you've done it. Old Lady Mauleverer is dying at the Pace hôtel here—of undigested scandal, Featherleigh says, but I believe it's gastritis—what a nasty old woman she has always been. I have just left a card with inquiries and regrets; I do hope she won't get better. I won ever so much at play last night. I forgot to tell you so: I bought that rocaille necklace on the Jewellers' Bridge; it was only six thousand francs, and it really did belong to the Comtesse d'Albany. It's very pretty too———"
So Madame Mila discoursed, greatly to her own satisfaction. She loved so much to hear her own tongue, that she always chose the stupidest and silliest of her lovers for her chief favours—a clever man had always ideas of his own, and was sure to want to express them sometime or another. All she desired were listeners and echoes. Discussion may be the salt of life to a few, but listeners and echoes are the bonbons and cigarettes that no woman can do without.
The Lady Hilda sitting looking into the fire, with her eyes nearly closed, murmured yes, and no, and indeed, in the proper places, and let her run on, hearing not one word. Those fingers which had entangled themselves so softly with her own withdrawing the tea-rose, had left a magnetic thrill upon her—a dreamy, lulling pleasure.
That evening the good Hubert received a second telegram contradicting the first, which had announced his mistress's return, and putting off that return indefinitely. The good Hubert, who was driving her best horses, drinking her best wines, drawing large cheques for accounts never examined, and generally enjoying his winter, was much relieved, and hastened to communicate the happy change to Monsieur Camille Odissôt, whom the first telegram had also cast into great consternation consternation; since that clever but idle young gentleman, having been pre-paid half the sum agreed on for the fresco-painting, had been spending it joyously after the tastes of young artists, assisted by a pretty brown actress of the Folies Marigny, and had not at that moment even begun to touch the walls and the ceiling of the ball-room confided to his genius.
"But you had better begin, though she is not coming back," said the good Hubert, surveying the blank waste of prepared plaster. "Miladi is not often out of temper, but when she is, ouf! I would as soon serve a Russian. Better begin; paint your best, because she knows—Miladi knows, and she is hard to please in those things. Not but what I dare say, as soon as you have done it all, she will take it into her head that it looks too cold, or looks too warm, or will not compose well, or something or other, and will cover it all up with silk and satin. But that will not matter to you."
"Not at all," said Monsieur Camille, who, though he had been a pupil of Flandrin, had learned nothing of that true master's conscientiousness in art, but was a clever young man of a new generation, who drew beautifully, as mechanically as a tailor stitches beautifully, and was of the very wise opinion that money was everything.