The Heir Comes of Age
THE sun shone brightly, there was a triumphal arch at every road; the market-place and the town-hall were caparisoned like steeds for a tournament, every house had its garland; the flags were flying on every tower and steeple. There was such a peal of bells you could scarcely hear your neighbour's voice; then came discharges of artillery, and then bursts of music from various bands, all playing different tunes. The country people came trooping in, some on horseback, some in carts, some in procession. The Temperance band made an immense noise, and the Odd Fellows were loudly cheered. Every now and then one of the duke's yeomanry galloped through the town in his regimentals of green and silver, with his dark flowing plume and clattering sabre, and with an air of business-like desperation, as if he were carrying a message from the commander-in-chief in the thickest of the fight.
Before the eventful day of which this, merry morn was the harbinger, the arrivals of guests at the castle had been numerous and important. First came the brother of the duchess, with his countess, and their fair daughter the Lady Katherine, whose fate, unconsciously to herself, had already been sealed by her noble relatives. She was destined to be the third Katherine of Bellamont that her fortunate house had furnished to these illustrious walls. Nor, if unaware of her high lot, did she seem unworthy of it. Her mien was prophetic of the state assigned to her. This was her first visit to Montacute since her early childhood, and she had not encountered her cousin since their nursery days. The day after them, Lord Eskdale came over from his principal seat in the contiguous county, of which he was lord-lieutenant. He was the first cousin of the duke, his father and the second Duke of Bellamont having married two sisters, and of course intimately related to the duchess and her family. Lord Eskdale exercised a great influence over the house of Montacute, though quite unsought for by him. He was the only man of the world whom they knew, and they never decided upon anything out of the limited circle of their immediate experience without consulting him. Lord Eskdale had been the cause of their son going to Eton; Lord Eskdale had recommended them to send him to Christ-church. The duke had begged his cousin to be his trustee when he married; he had made him his executor, and had intended him as the guardian of his son. Although, from the difference of their habits, little thrown together in their earlier youth, Lord Eskdale had shown, even then, kind consideration for his relative; he had even proposed that they should travel together, but the old duke would not consent to this. After his death, however, being neighbours as well as relatives, Lord Eskdale had become the natural friend and counsellor of his Grace.
The duke deservedly reposed in him implicit confidence, and entertained an almost unbounded admiration of his cousin's knowledge of mankind. He was scarcely less a favourite or less an oracle with the duchess, though there were subjects on which she feared Lord Eskdale did not entertain views as serious as her own; but Lord Eskdale, with an extreme carelessness of manner, and an apparent negligence of the minor arts of pleasing, was a consummate master of the feminine idiosyncrasy, and, from a French actress to an English duchess, was skilled in guiding women without ever letting the curb be felt. Scarcely a week elapsed, when Lord Eskdale was in the country, that a long letter of difficulties was not received by him from Montacute, with an earnest request for his immediate advice. His lordship, singularly averse to letter writing, and especially to long letter writing, used generally in reply to say that, in the course of a day or two, he should be in their part of the world, and would talk the matter over with them.
And, indeed, nothing was more amusing than to see Lord Eskdale, imperturbable, yet not heedless, with his peculiar calmness, something between that of a Turkish pasha and an English jockey, standing up with his back to the fire and his hands in his pockets, and hearing the united statement of a case by the Duke and Duchess of Bellamont; the serious yet quiet and unexaggerated narrative of his Grace, the impassioned interruptions, decided opinions, and lively expressions of his wife, when she felt the duke was not doing justice to the circumstances, or her view of them, and the Spartan brevity with which, when both his clients were exhausted, their counsel summed up the whole affair, and said three words which seemed suddenly to remove all doubts, and to solve all difficulties. In all the business of life, Lord Eskdale, though he appreciated their native ability, and respected their considerable acquirements, which he did not share, looked upon his cousins as two children, and managed them as children; but he was really attached to them, and the sincere attachment of such a character is often worth more than the most passionate devotion. The last great domestic embarrassment at Montacute had been the affair of the cooks. Lord Eskdale had taken this upon his own shoulders, and, writing to Daubuz, had sent down Leander and his friends to open the minds and charm the palates of the north.
Lord Valentine and his noble parents, and their daughter, Lady Florentina, who was a great horsewoman, also arrived. The countess, who had once been a beauty with the reputation of a wit, and now set up for being a wit on the reputation of having been a beauty, was the lady of fashion of the party, and scarcely knew anybody present, though there were many who were her equals and some her superiors in rank. Her way was to be a little fine, always smiling and condescendingly amiable; when alone with her husband shrugging her shoulders somewhat, and vowing that she was delighted that Lord Eskdale was there, as she had somebody to speak to. It was what she called 'quite a relief.' A relief, perhaps, from Lord and Lady Mountjoy, whom she had been avoiding all her life; unfortunate people, who, with a large fortune, lived in a wrong square, and asked to their house everybody who was nobody; besides, Lord Mountjoy was vulgar, and laughed too loud, and Lady Mountjoy called you 'my dear,' and showed her teeth. A relief, perhaps, too, from the Hon. and Rev. Montacute Mountjoy, who, with Lady Eleanor, four daughters and two sons, had been invited to celebrate the majority of the future chieftain of their house. The countess had what is called 'a horror of those Mountjoys, and those Montacute Mountjoys,' and what added to her annoyance was, that Lord Valentine was always flirting with the Misses Montacute Mountjoy.
The countess could find no companions in the Duke and Duchess of Clanronald, because, as she told her husband, as they could not speak English and she could not speak Scotch, it was impossible to exchange ideas. The bishop of the diocese was there, toothless and tolerant, and wishing to be on good terms with all sects, provided they pay church-rates, and another bishop far more vigorous and of greater fame. By his administration the heir of Bellamont had entered the Christian Church, and by the imposition of his hands had been confirmed in it. His lordship, a great authority with the duchess, was specially invited to be present on the interesting occasion, when the babe that he had held at the font, and the child that he had blessed at the altar, was about thus publicly to adopt and acknowledge the duties and responsibility of a man. But the countess, though she liked bishops, liked them, as she told her husband, 'in their place.' What that exactly was, she did not define; but probably their palaces or the House of Lords.
It was hardly to be expected that her ladyship would find any relief in the society of the Marquis and Marchioness of Hampshire; for his lordship passed his life in being the President of scientific and literary societies, and was ready for anything from the Royal, if his turn ever arrived, to opening a Mechanics' Institute in his neighbouring town. Lady Hampshire was an invalid; but her ailment was one of those mysteries which still remained insoluble, although, in the most liberal manner, she delighted to afford her friends all the information in her power. Never was a votary endowed with a faith at once so lively and so capricious. Each year she believed in some new remedy, and announced herself on the eve of some miraculous cure. But the saint was scarcely canonised before his claims to beatitude were impugned. One year Lady Hampshire never quitted Leamington; another, she contrived to combine the infinitesimal doses of Hahnemann with the colossal distractions of the metropolis. Now her sole conversation was the water cure. Lady Hampshire was to begin immediately after her visit to Montacute, and she spoke in her sawney voice of factitious enthusiasm, as if she pitied the lot of all those who were not about to sleep in wet sheets.
The members for the county, with their wives and daughters, the Hungerfords and the Ildertons, Sir Russell Malpas, or even Lord Hull, an Irish peer with an English estate, and who represented one of the divisions, were scarcely a relief. Lord Hull was a bachelor, and had twenty thousand a year, and would not have been too old for Florentina, if Lord Hull had only lived in 'society,' learnt how to dress and how to behave, and had avoided that peculiar coarseness of manners and complexion which seem the inevitable results of a provincial life. What are forty-five or even forty-eight years, if a man do not get up too early or go to bed too soon, if he be dressed by the right persons, and, early accustomed to the society of women, he possesses that flexibility of manner and that readiness of gentle repartee which a feminine apprenticeship can alone confer? But Lord Hull was a man with a red face and a grey head on whom coarse indulgence and the selfish negligence of a country life had already conferred a shapeless form; and who, dressed something like a groom, sat at dinner in stolid silence by Lady Hampshire, who, whatever were her complaints, had certainly the art, if only from her questions, of making her neighbours communicative. The countess examined Lord Hull through her eye-glass with curious pity at so fine a fortune and so good a family being so entirely thrown away. Had he been brought up in a civilised manner, lived six months in May Fair, passed his carnival at Paris, never sported except in Scotland, and occasionally visited a German bath, even Lord Hull might have 'fined down.' His hair need not have been grey if it had been attended to; his complexion would not have been so glaring; his hands never could have grown to so huge a shape.
What a party, where the countess was absolutely driven to speculate on the possible destinies of a Lord Hull! But in this party there was not a single young man, at least not a single young man one had ever heard of, except her son, and he was of no use. The Duke of Bellamont knew no young men; the duke did not even belong to a club; the Duchess of Bellamont knew no young men; she never gave and she never attended an evening party. As for the county youth, the young Hungerfords and the young Ildertons, the best of them formed part of the London crowd.
Some of them, by complicated manouvres, might even have made their way into the countess's crowded saloons on a miscellaneous night. She knew the length of their tether. They ranged, as the Price Current says, from eight to three thousand a year. Not the figure that purchases a Lady Florentina!
There were many other guests, and some of them notable, though not of the class and character to interest the fastidious mother of Lord Valentine; but whoever and whatever they might be, of the sixty or seventy persons who were seated each day in the magnificent banqueting-room of Montacute Castle, feasting, amid pyramids of gold plate, on the masterpieces of Leander, there was not a single individual who did not possess one of the two great qualifications: they were all of them cousins of the Duke of Bellamont, or proprietors in his county.
But we must not anticipate, the great day of the festival having hardly yet commenced.