Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The two beauties of the Camberwell assemblies, 1778
THE TWO BEAUTIES OF THE
CAMBERWELL ASSEMBLIES, 1778.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AGGESDEN VICARAGE.”
“Aunt Margaret, it is too dark to see that embroidery any longer. Tell me a story.”
The speaker looked somewhat too old to proffer such a request. But Isabella Redmayne Wentworth, at “sweet seventeen,” a woman in many things, was in others still a child.
“Papa is asleep—fast asleep,” she continued, following the glance of Mrs. Margaret Fordyce to the gentleman seated in the arm-chair by the blazing log-fire.
“My dear, I have told you all my stories again and again.”
“But you must have some more, or make one.”
Mrs. Margaret, who was not the girl’s real aunt, but loved her dearly, looked long into her face.
“Auntie! please be quick.”
“How like you are to your grandmother, Elsie!”
“Not half so handsome as that portrait up-stairs. I wish I were!”
“Child, I do not;” said Mrs. Margaret with her calm sweetness. Isabella Wentworth’s beauty was a dower that she already feared might spoil as good a heart and as generous a temper as Herefordshire could boast, “‘Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but the woman that feareth the Lord shall be praised.’”
Isabella was silent a minute, but from her gaze into the placid, softened face above her, did but draw one inference, that beauty might endure to the last years of the longest life, and but then be at its sweetest.
“Well, my love, but your story, I have thought of one.
“When I was young—sixty years ago now—we lived at Camberwell, a very different place then from now, my dear,” added the old lady with something of a sigh, “a gay place, too, but we were happy and young enough to be gay. Well, my love, we had our monthly assemblies and many other pleasant meetings now passed away or despised. At these assemblies often met two of the greatest beauties whom you could have found within ten miles of London then, now I think you might search England through, in vain, to equal one of them. My dear, I cannot give you their real names, so we will call them Augusta and Lucy.”
“How jealous they must have been of one another!” Isabella interposed.
“My love,” said the old lady, much shocked, “they were the dearest friends. Augusta was a tall, fine girl of seventeen when I first knew her, with a handsome ingenuous face, somewhat haughty, but very beautiful nevertheless; it was her fine, upright figure and stately carriage that the gentlemen so admired.” The old lady paused and sighed. “Lucy was only one year younger, and a little graceful thing with light hair and a fair complexion; her eyes, I was told, were very lovely, blue and open. She loved Augusta with all her heart, they were companion beauties, no rivals.”
“I should not like that!”
“My dear, may you ever find as dear a friend as Lucy did in Augusta; Lucy was poor, Augusta rich, yet she loved and sought her. Well, mouth after month were these two girls admired, and many a husband given to either,” and Mrs. Margaret smiled. “but folks found they were mistaken; the year came round, and they were still but Misses. Meantime, Lucy had been with her father—poor thing she had no mother—to visit an uncle in—we will say, Berkshire. He was the rector of a little country parish; the autumn was rainy; he had no wife—no children; and whilst her uncle and father were out shooting or fishing, Lucy was left alone with the housekeeper, a tabby cat, and Robinson Crusoe.”
“I should have run home.”
Mrs. Margaret smiled and paused.
“My dear, they were the happiest days of her life; I was going to say the last happy days of her life, but that would have been far from true, though once she thought so. Well, near the end of her visit, the family came back to the hall; there was grand rejoicing and bell-ringing, for with them came the son and heir, a young man just returned from America,—he had been wounded at Saratoga. Well, Lucy’s uncle went to pay his respects to the Squire and his lady. Now, my dear, the Squire was old and gouty, and my lady a good wife to him—yes, a good woman—to all be their due; but proud—very proud. Well, the Squire was laid up with so sharp an attack that week, he could not return the call, nor did Lucy see any of the family till the Sunday, when my lady and her son appeared in the large hall-pew. The Squire’s lady looked like a Squire’s lady in those days,—none of your flimsy muslins and barèges; but Lady Anne then and ever was in the richest brocade, one, my dear that would have stood by itself, well displayed by her hoop. Lucy watched her as she sailed up the aisle, and thought her the finest lady she had ever seen. My dear, she was also the cruelest.”
Isabella looked up.
Mrs. Margaret smiled. “But she was a very handsome woman for all that, my love, and used her fan, and curteseyed to the people with surpassing grace and dignity. Her wide skirts filled the little aisle, and so behind her walked the young Colonel. He—well, my dear, he was the best-looking man I ever saw,—a better-looking man than you can ever hope to see. He was dressed in a Pompadour coat, laced with silver, and wore one arm still in a sling, Well, and Lucy—silly little Lucy—could not keep her eyes off that fine, pleasant-looking gentleman. Yes, his very looks were pleasant. Silly did I say she was? She was worse than silly—wrong. If she had that morning thought—as she ought to have done—of man’s Maker, instead of man, and kept her eyes upon her book, almost all the trouble which she ever knew would have been spared her. She and her father were to leave Berkshire the middle of that week. On the Tuesday young Colonel Redworth called to make his father’s excuses; the poor old man could not leave the house. Well, Lucy was sitting in the arbour, working; silly child—she longed to go in, but shame kept her out; she felt whose voice it was that she caught occasionally. Well, my dear, he and her uncle came out into the garden,—the Hector had in old times been the Colonel’s tutor,—they came towards her, and Lucy heard a frank, pleasant voice say:
“Ah, do you remember that last lesson in the arbour, and how you said I should kill you before I’d done with it? I should be a more attentive pupil now, I hope; let us see it again.”
They turned towards the arbour, they came nearer and nearer; Lucy waited till escape was too late, and then by a silly, sudden impulse rose to free. Her uncle—he was so fond and proud of her—called her back; good manners compelled her to turn round and curtesey. Colonel Redworth bowed.
“My dear, I believe myself he felt in love with her at that moment; but others told her, he never loved her at all. They say Lucy never looked so lovely as when blushing and confused, and she was confused enough then.”
“Aunt, you say, ‘They tell me:’ Didn’t you know her yourself?”
“My dear, I never saw her; but Augusta, her great friend, I often saw every day for months, and she knew poor Lucy’s story as well as Lucy did herself. Well, Colonel Redworth was a charming man—a very charming man; if he fell in love with Lucy, it was little wonder that she did so with him. That evening came a note from Lady Anne, asking Mr.—we will call the Rector—Jervis to dinner, and trusting that his brother and niece would accompany him. Well, my dear, the day named was Thursday. Lucy and her father were to have gone back to Camberwell on the Wednesday. Lucy persuaded her father to stay; at least, his brother did, for he saw how Lucy’s wishes lay. They went. My lady had a great respect for the family, and received them with little stiffness for her—still, stiffly enough. The old Squire was too ill to be in the drawing-room, they were to find him at the dining-table; thus the Colonel gave Lucy his hand, and led her through the grand hall amid the powdered men; my dear, if Lucy had thought, she might have known that she never could be mistress in such a house, or wife of such a fine gentleman—her father was but a solicitor.”
“Oh!” said Isabella, as if this announcement made the heroine much less interesting.
“So good, so upright, so honoured a man,” pursued Mrs. Margaret, with her calm smile, “that Lucy never wished it otherwise. Well, I am talking of the Colonel handing Lucy across the hall—her first touch of the strong, tender hand of that good gallant man. How she treasured it, and still treasures its memory. Well, after dinner the four elders fell to whist, and the Colonel and Lucy were left alone. She was well educated for those days, and if he had not profited much by his education, in early life, he had seen much service, and used his wits since. He talked, and she was at home enough in his subjects to make a good listener, and to make proper answers. Once or twice she fancied my lady turned and eyed them a little sharply, but this, I think, was only her fancy. Lady Anne then never for a moment dreamt of her son’s thinking of such a simple girl. Well, the next day Lucy and her father went home. Augusta was the first to come and see her. Lucy was wonderfully shy and unwilling to speak of her visit. Augusta pressed and rallied her, until she laid her head on her friend’s shoulder, burst into tears, and told of that frank, gracious gentleman, Thomas Red—worth. She poured out her full heart in praise, till Augusta laughed, and said, ‘Take care how you let me see him. If he be such perfection, I shall want him for myself.’
“My dear, ‘There is many a true word spoken in jest.’ The next assembly night came, and there, to Lucy’s surprise, was Colonel Redworth. How she blushed and started—how her heart beat. He made his way to her, he asked the honour of her hand for all the cotillons that evening. Poor silly girl, she consented. How happily she danced, every step a pleasure. Well, it is well to be young and happy after all! At supper Lucy sat next Augusta. She longed to hear her opinion of her partner. It did not come. At length she ventured to say:
“‘Did I say one word too much?’
“‘No, no, indeed,’ answered Augusta, quickly. Then, laughing, ‘He is vastly superior to any one here.’
“They left the room together. Lucy saw Colonel Redworth’s eye follow them, glance from her to her companion, back to her, and then rest upon her companion. Isabella—from that moment she was jealous of her friend. She sat down on the nearest seat, Augusta lingered only a moment beside her, and then went to her mother. She, too, felt that they were henceforth rivals.
“Elsie,” continued the old lady, clasping her hands upon her lap, “I cannot follow that winter through, it was shameful to both; they set themselves one against the other, they struggled each to be the lovelier. Sir Thomas and Lady Anne came to town; their weight went with the better born and more wealthy, otherwise I think Lucy would not have been forgotten. As it was, she was. She felt her chance was hopeless; Elsie, in her weak love she knelt and prayed Augusta to have mercy, and—was mocked and scorned. Each night Augusta gained ground, Lucy sat by and watched her triumph. My dear, early in the spring, Mr. Redworth married her.”
“And she led him a dog of a life ever after, I hope?”
“My love, I never wished so. I cannot justify Augusta, but I do not judge as I did then. Then Lucy had many admirers but few lovers, for she had little position and no fortune—then all I thought of was David and the ‘one ewe lamb.’
“My dear, I need not tell you that from that day Lucy and Augusta never met, never wrote. Lucy thought her heart would break. My dear, how often we think so, when life has plenty of cares and pleasures yet. Pride made her first bear up, then, thank God, the Bible. And she had a father for whom to live, who never again lost his first place in her affections.
“Well, my dear, only three years later, I saw Colonel Redworth’s death in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The name never met Lucy’s eyes again. Years passed on, her father died in a good old age; Time had healed her wound. She smiled now at her simplicity in thinking ever to be the wife of such a man: and rejoiced that the temptation to leave her father alone, yea, to desert him—what must she have done else in becoming daughter-in-law to Sir Thomas and Lady Anne?—had never been set before her. Time, I say, had healed this wound, but there was one he could not heal. The rankling indignation and shame at Augusta’s treachery. She still called her friend’s conduct by no gentler name. So sharp had been the fight, each had learnt well nigh to hate the other, and they forgot, as we too often do, ‘he that hateth his brother is a murderer.’ And yet this, when Lucy thought the grave must have closed over Augusta, and that her own time must be short.
“Well, my love, Lucy had grown an old woman. Her ties were very few. My love, when life is waning away, it is hard to feel we shall leave no one behind to mourn us and to miss us,—so selfish are we to the end! She was staying for a few days in the new home of one of the few friends left her, the daughter of a friend of early days, now a grandmother herself,—one who at the time of Lucy’s fiercest trial had been yet unborn. The young people were going to explore an old manor house twelve miles distant, open to the public by the courtesy of the owner one day in each week. The day came. Mrs. Tylecote was not able to go with them. Poor things! no one could bear them to be disappointed, and Lucy offered to take her place, little used to such doings now.
“She was very sad and lonely just then. Two days before she had heard, as she believed, of the death of the last friend left her of her own generation. But the morning was bright and sunny, her young friends happy and merry, and, my dear, before they reached the manor house, Mrs. Lucy was as happy as the youngest there. My love, never sit still and cling to sorrow when a duty comes in your way,—meet it, and it will leave a blessing behind it.
“We explored oak-panneled parlours, and dismal dungeons below the foundation of the present house, which in the reign of Elizabeth had taken the place of the old Norman castle. Finally, the old housekeeper took us the round of the portrait gallery. There were formal, rich-coloured Holbeins, pensive Vandykes, voluptuous Lelys, and charming Sir Joshuas; and, my dear, amongst them, a portrait of Augusta Clinton.
“Elsie, I had been with her when the first sketch was begun, with her when the last touch had been put in. I could not believe my eyes. Yes, this was that portrait, and no other, though strangely had sixty years dimmed and marred its beauties. I stood gazing and gazing, and my heart yearned to her, my old friend,—not, my dear, but that I believed her dead long ago.
“As I stood, the door of a room a little to my left opened. An aged lady came out, stately, and yet bowed; beautiful, but exceeding sad. She passed me; I curteseyed to apologise for our intrusion. She looked hard at me as she bowed in return, and passed on. She recognised me with no clue; whilst I, with that picture before me, knew not my old friend.
“How did it come there? I longed to know, but could not ask. We went down-stairs again. We were preparing to start home, when the same lady advanced towards us from a parlour.
“‘Madam,” she said, ceremoniously, ‘pardon me; but you seem a great admirer of Sir Joshua. There is one in my parlour I do not, in general, show to visitors,—but if you would—it is a master-piece—’
“She broke off, and led the way. I followed. Elsie, my heart beat as it had not done since the day I saw Colonel Redworth in the Camberwell assembly. Something in the stately figure I was following seemed familiar; and yet no wonder I knew her not. She motioned to me to stand on the rug beside her. My eyes were fixed on hers: she raised them, mine followed hers, to the picture above the mantel-piece. Oh, Elsie! it was Colonel Redworth, in a Pompadour coat, laced with silver.
“‘Meg! Meg!’ she sobbed,—she, the strong, proud woman, who had once so mocked my tears, ‘I only had him three years. He was killed by a fall from his horse. They brought him home dead. I broke your heart. This broke mine.’
“She sobbed like a child. I should not wonder if she had never shed a tear for him before.
“‘Meg! Meg!’ she gasped, ‘speak to me. Cannot you forgive me? It is one-and-fifty years—one-and-fifty years,’ she repeated, ‘since I sinned against you. And for eight-and-forty of these years I have been a widow.’
“Elsie, she was my old friend. The friend who more than sixty years ago had loved me. All was forgotten and forgiven before that.
“‘If you had not appreciated him,’ I said, (but, Elsie, think me not better than I am; it was a hard struggle),—‘if you had not appreciated him, it would have been hard for me ever to forgive you. As it is, you did but love him too well.’
“She kissed me. Elsie, my heart melted and yearned within me. I flung my arms around her and cried for joy. She fondled and caressed me, half scolding. Elsie, we both thought of the day that I had first told her of Thomas Redmayne, and we looked for the last time jealously in each other’s faces. Our love was again as if this had never come between us—nay, even the clearer for this long cloud.
“‘You have children?’ I said at last, I so longed for the face of a Redmayne.
“‘He left me with a son and daughter. The son so like him. Meg, you who knew me so strong and confident, will wonder—I ruined him by my fondness. He is dead now. Oh, Meg! I have known trouble indeed. I was glad when he died! My daughter dead also, and yet she died an old woman, too. Meg, I used to think Death had forgotten me—now, again, he will come all too soon!’
“‘Are there none then?’
“‘Yes; my daughter’s son. I will show you.’
“We crossed the hall. There were my young party standing at the door awaiting me. I never remembered them even then. She turned the handle, and entered softly.
“I looked. There, leaning back in an arm-chair, reading, was a young man of eight-and-twenty or so. He started and rose.
“‘Thomas,’ she said, ‘Mrs. Margaret Fordyce, a very dear old friend of mine.’
“He came to meet me. He was his grandfather all over. His open, gallant bearing, and all, were his. Even that charming voice and smile, which I thought never to have heard or seen again. Yet it was not the same!—Well, Elsie!”
“Oh, Aunt Margaret! This was—”
“Think of the best man you know.”
Elsie’s eyes glanced to the figure in the chimney corner. And at that moment her father justified his title to be possessor of “the most charming voice and smile.” He opened his eyes and called his daughter to him.
Isabella flew to his side, and throughout that evening looked wondrously into the face which had unconsciously earned such new interest. But the lesson of Mrs. Margaret’s history was not lost upon her.