Tancred/Chapter XIV


The Coningsbys

THE day was brilliant: music, sunshine, ravishing bonnets, little parasols that looked like large butterflies. The new phaetons glided up, then carriages-and-four swept by; in general the bachelors were ensconced in their comfortable broughams, with their glasses down and their blinds drawn, to receive the air and to exclude the dust; some less provident were cavaliers, but, notwithstanding the well-watered roads, seemed a little dashed as they cast an anxious glance at the rose which adorned their button-hole, or fancied that they felt a flying black from a London chimney light upon the tip of their nose.

Within, the winding walks dimly echoed whispering words; the lawn was studded with dazzling groups; on the terrace by the river a dainty multitude beheld those celebrated waters which furnish flounders to Richmond and whitebait to Blackwall.

'Mrs. Coningsby shall decide,' said Lord Beaumanoir.

Edith and Lady Theresa Lyle stood by a statue that glittered in the sun, surrounded by a group of cavaliers; among them Lord Beaumanoir, Lord Mil-ford, Lord Eugene de Vere. Her figure was not less lithe and graceful since her marriage, a little more voluptuous; her rich complexion, her radiant and abounding hair, and her long grey eye, now melting with pathos, and now twinkling with mockery, presented one of those faces of witchery which are beyond beauty.

'Mrs. Coningsby shall decide.'

'It is the very thing,' said Edith, 'that Mrs. Coningsby will never do. Decision destroys suspense, and suspense is the charm of existence.'

'But suspense may be agony,' said Lord Eugene de Vere, casting a glance that would read the innermost heart of Edith.

'And decision may be despair,' said Mrs. Coningsby.

'But we agreed the other night that you were to decide everything for us,' said Lord Beaumanoir; 'and you consented.'

'I consented the other night, and I retract my consent to-day; and I am consistent, for that is indecision.'

'You are consistent in being charming,' said Lord Eugene.

'Pleasing and original!' said Edith. 'By-the-bye, when I consented that the melancholy Jaques should be one of my aides-de-camp I expected him to maintain his reputation, not only for gloom but wit. I think you had better go back to the forest, Lord Eugene, and see if you cannot stumble upon a fool who may drill you in repartee. How do you do, Lady Riddlesworth?' and she bowed to two ladies who seemed inclined to stop, but Edith added, 'I heard great applications for you this moment on the terrace.'

'Indeed!' exclaimed the ladies; and they moved on.

'When Lady Riddlesworth joins the conversation it is like a stoppage in the streets. I invented a piece of intelligence to clear the way, as you would call out Fire! or The queen is coming! There used to be things called vers de société, which were not poetry; and I do not see why there should not be social illusions which are not fibs.'

'I entirely agree with you,' said Lord Milford; 'and I move that we practise them on a large scale.'

'Like the verses, they might make life more light,' said Lady Theresa.

'We are surrounded by illusions,' said Lord Eugene, in a melancholy tone.

'And shams of all descriptions,' said Edith; 'the greatest, a man who pretends he has a broken heart when all the time he is full of fun.'

'There are a great many men who have broken hearts,' said Lord Beaumanoir, smiling sorrowfully.

'Cracked heads are much commoner,' said Edith, 'you may rely upon it. The only man I really know with a broken heart is Lord Fitz-Booby. I do think that paying Mount-Dullard's debts has broken his heart. He takes on so; 'tis piteous. "My dear Mrs. Coningsby," he said to me last night, "only think what that young man might have been; he might have been a lord of the treasury in '35; why, if he had had nothing more in '41, why, there's a loss of between four and five thousand pounds; but with my claims—Sir Robert, having thrown the father over, was bound on his own principle to provide for the son—he might have got something better; and now he comes to me with his debts, and his reason for paying his debts, too, Mrs. Coningsby, because he is going to be married; to be married to a woman who has not a shilling. Why, if he had been in office, and only got 1,500l. a year, and married a woman with only another 1,500l., he would have had 3,000l. a year, Mrs. Coningsby; and now he has nothing of his own except some debts, which he wants me to pay, and settle 3,000l. a year on him besides."'

They all laughed.

'Ah!' said Mrs. Coningsby, with a resemblance which made all start, 'you should have heard it with the Fitz-Booby voice.'

The character of a woman rapidly develops after marriage, and sometimes seems to change, when in fact it is only complete. Hitherto we have known Edith only in her girlhood, bred up in a life of great simplicity, and under the influence of a sweet fancy, or an absorbing passion. Coningsby had been a hero to her before they met, the hero of nursery hours and nursery tales. Experience had not disturbed those dreams. From the moment they encountered each other at Millbank, he assumed that place in her heart which he had long occupied in her imagination; and, after their second meeting at Paris, her existence was merged in love. All the crosses and vexations of their early affection only rendered this state of being on her part more profound and engrossing.

But though Edith was a most happy wife, and blessed with two children worthy of their parents, love exercises quite a different influence upon a woman when she has married, and especially when she has assumed a social position which deprives life of all its real cares. Under any circumstances, that suspense, which, with all its occasional agony, is the great spring of excitement, is over; but, generally speaking, it will be found, notwithstanding the proverb, that with persons of a noble nature, the straitened fortunes which they share together, and manage, and mitigate by mutual forbearance, are more conducive to the sustainment of a high-toned and romantic passion, than a luxurious prosperity.

The wife of a man of limited fortune, who, by contrivance, by the concealed sacrifice of some necessity of her own, supplies him with some slight enjoyment which he has never asked, but which she fancies he may have sighed for, experiences, without doubt, à degree of pleasure far more ravishing than the patrician dame who stops her barouche at Storr and Mortimer's, and out of her pin-money buys a trinket for the husband whom she loves, and which he finds, perhaps, on his dressing-table, on the anniversary of their wedding-day. That's pretty too and touching, and should be encouraged; but the other thrills, and ends in an embrace that is still poetry.

The Coningsbys shortly after their marriage had been called to the possession of a great fortune, for which, in every sense, they were well adapted. But a great fortune necessarily brings with it a great change of habits. The claims of society proportionately increase with your income. You live less for yourselves. For a selfish man, merely looking to his luxurious ease, Lord Eskdale's idea of having ten thousand a year, while the world suppose you have only five, is the right thing. Coningsby, however, looked to a great fortune as one of the means, rightly employed, of obtaining great power. He looked also to his wife to assist him in this enterprise.

Edith, from a native impulse, as well as from love for him, responded to his wish. When they were in the country, Hellingsley was a perpetual stream and scene of splendid hospitality; there the flower of London society mingled with all the aristocracy of the county. Leander was often retained specially, like a Wilde or a Kelly, to renovate the genius of the habitual chief: not of the circuit, but the kitchen. A noble mansion in Park Lane received them the moment Parliament assembled. Coningsby was then immersed in affairs, and counted entirely on Edith to cherish those social influences which in a public career are not less important than political ones. The whole weight of the management of society rested on her. She had to cultivate his alliances, keep together his friends, arrange his dinner-parties, regulate his engagements. What time for romantic love? They were never an hour alone. Yet they loved not less; but love had taken the character of enjoyment instead of a wild bewitchment; and life had become an airy bustle, instead of a storm, an agony, a hurricane of the heart.

In this change in the disposition, not in the degree, of their affection, for there was the same amount of sweet solicitude, only it was duly apportioned to everything that interested them, instead of being exclusively devoted to each other, the character of Edith, which had been swallowed up by the absorbing passion, rapidly developed itself amid the social circumstances. She was endued with great vivacity, a sanguine and rather saucy spirit, with considerable talents, and a large share of feminine vanity: that divine gift which makes woman charming. Entirely sympathising with her husband, labouring with zeal to advance his views, and living perpetually in the world, all these qualities came to light. During her first season she had been very quiet, not less observant, making herself mistress of the ground. It was prepared for her next campaign. When she evinced a disposition to take a lead, although found faultless the first year, it was suddenly remembered that she was a manufacturer's daughter; and she was once described by a great lady as 'that person whom Mr. Coningsby had married, when Lord Monmouth cut him off with a shilling.'

But Edith had anticipated these difficulties, and was not to be daunted. Proud of her husband, confident in herself, supported by a great establishment, and having many friends, she determined to exchange salutes with these social sharp-shooters, who are scarcely as courageous as they are arrogant. It was discovered that Mrs. Coningsby could be as malicious as her assailants, and far more epigrammatic. She could describe in a sentence and personify in a phrase. The mot was circulated, the nom de nique repeated. Surrounded by a brilliant band of youth and wit, even her powers of mimickry were revealed to the initiated. More than one social tyrant, whom all disliked, but whom none had ventured to resist, was made ridiculous. Flushed by success and stimulated by admiration, Edith flattered herself that she was assisting her husband while she was gratifying her vanity. Her adversaries soon vanished, but the powers that had vanquished them were too choice to be forgotten or neglected. The tone of raillery she had assumed for the moment, and extended, in self-defence, to persons, was adopted as a habit, and infused itself over affairs in general.

Mrs. Coningsby was the fashion; she was a wit as well as a beauty; a fascinating droll; dazzling and bewitching, the idol of every youth. Eugene de Vere was roused from his premature exhaustion, and at last found excitement again. He threw himself at her feet; she laughed at him. He asked leave to follow her footsteps; she consented. He was only one of a band of slaves. Lord Beaumanoir, still a bachelor, always hovered about her, feeding on her laughing words with a mild melancholy, and sometimes bandying repartee with a kind of tender and stately despair. His sister, Lady Theresa Lyle, was Edith's great friend. Their dispositions had some resemblance. Marriage had developed in both of them a frolic grace. They hunted in couple; and their sport was brilliant. Many things may be said by a strong female alliance, that would assume quite a different character were they even to fall from the lips of an Aspasia to a circle of male votaries; so much depends upon the scene and the characters, the mode and the manner.

The good-natured world would sometimes pause in its amusement, and, after dwelling with statistical accuracy on the number of times Mrs. Coningsby had danced the polka, on the extraordinary things she said to Lord Eugene de Vere, and the odd things she and Lady Theresa Lyle were perpetually doing, would wonder, with a face and voice of innocence, 'how Mr. Coningsby liked all this?' There is no doubt what was the anticipation by the good-natured world of Mr. Coningsby's feelings. But they were quite mistaken. There was nothing that Mr. Coningsby liked more. He wished his wife to become a social power; and he wished his wife to be amused. He saw that, with the surface of a life of levity, she already exercised considerable influence, especially over the young; and independently of such circumstances and considerations, he was delighted to have a wife who was not afraid of going into society by herself; not one whom he was sure to find at home when he returned from the House of Commons, not reproaching him exactly for her social sacrifices, but looking a victim, and thinking that she retained her husband's heart by being a mope. Instead of that Con-ingsby wanted to be amused when he came home, and more than that, he wanted to be instructed in the finest learning in the world.

As some men keep up their Greek by reading every day a chapter in the New Testament, so Con-ingsby kept up his knowledge of the world, by always, once at least in the four-and-twenty hours, having a delightful conversation with his wife. The processes were equally orthodox. Exempted from the tax of entering general society, free to follow his own pursuits, and to live in that political world which alone interested him, there was not an anecdote, a trait, a good thing said, or a bad thing done, which did not reach him by a fine critic and a lively narrator. He was always behind those social scenes which, after all, regulate the political performers, knew the springs of the whole machinery, the chang-ings and the shiftings, the fiery cars and golden chariots which men might mount, and the trap-doors down which men might fall.

But the Marquess of Montacute is making his reverence to Mrs. Guy Flouncey.

There was not at this moment a human being whom that lady was more glad to see at her déjeûner; but she did not show it in the least. Her self-possession, indeed, was the finest work of art of the day, and ought to be exhibited at the Adelaide Gallery. Like all mechanical inventions of a high class, it had been brought to perfection very gradually, and after many experiments. A variety of combinations, and an almost infinite number of trials, must have been expended before the too-startling laugh of Con-ingsby Castle could have subsided into the haughty suavity of that sunny glance, which was not familiar enough for a smile, nor foolish enough for a simper. As for the rattling vein which distinguished her in the days of our first acquaintance, that had long ceased. Mrs. Guy Flouncey now seemed to share the prevalent passion for genuine Saxon, and used only monosyllables; while Fine-ear himself would have been sometimes at fault had he attempted to give a name to her delicate breathings. In short, Mrs. Guy Flouncey never did or said anything but in 'the best taste.' It may, however, be a question, whether she ever would have captivated Lord Monmouth, and those who like a little nature and fun, if she had made her first advances in this style. But that showed the greatness of the woman. Then she was ready for anything for promotion. That was the age of forlorn hopes; but now she was a general of division, and had assumed a becoming carriage.

This was the first déjeûner at which Tancred had been present. He rather liked it. The scene, lawns and groves and a glancing river, the air, the music, our beautiful countrywomen, who, with their brilliant complexions and bright bonnets, do not shrink from the daylight, these are circumstances which, combined with youth and health, make a morning festival, say what they like, particularly for the first time, very agreeable, even if one be dreaming of Jerusalem. Strange power of the world, that the moment we enter it, our great conceptions dwarf! In youth it is quick sympathy that degrades them; more advanced, it is the sense of the ridiculous. But perhaps these reveries of solitude may not be really great conceptions; perhaps they are only exaggerations; vague, indefinite, shadowy, formed on no sound principles, founded on no assured basis.

Why should Tancred go to Jerusalem? What does it signify to him whether there be religious truth or political justice? He has youth, beauty, rank, wealth, power, and all in excess. He has a mind that can comprehend their importance and appreciate their advantages. What more does he require? Unreasonable boy! And if he reach Jerusalem, why should he find religious truth and political justice there? He can read of it in the travelling books, written by young gentlemen, with the best letters of introduction to all the consuls. They tell us what it is, a third-rate city in a stony wilderness. Will the Providence of fashion prevent this great folly about to be perpetrated by one born to be fashion's most brilliant subject? A folly, too, which may end in a catastrophe? His parents, indeed, have appealed in vain; but the sneer of the world will do more than the supplication of the father. A mother's tear may be disregarded, but the sigh of a mistress has changed the most obdurate. We shall see. At present Lady Constance Rawleigh expresses her pleasure at Tancred's arrival, and his heart beats a little.