"Proud to make your acquaintance, sir," said Mr. Avenel, lifting his hat. "Fine day."
"Rather cold too," said Leslie, who, like all thin persons with weak digestions, was chilly by temperament; besides, he had enough on his mind to chill his body.
"So much the healthier,—braces the nerves," said Mr. Avenel; "but you young fellows relax the system by hot rooms and late hours. Fond of dancing, of course, sir?" Then, without waiting for Randal's negative, Mr. Richard continued rapidly, "Mrs. Avenel has a soiree dansante on Thursday,—shall be very happy to see you in Eaton Square. Stop, I have a card;" and he drew out a dozen large invitation-cards, from which he selected one, and presented it to Randal. The baron pressed that young gentleman's arm, and Randal replied courteously that it would give him great pleasure to be introduced to Mrs. Avenel. Then, as he was not desirous to be seen under the wing of Baron Levy, like a pigeon under that of a hawk, he gently extricated himself, and pleading great haste, walked quickly on towards his office.
"That young man will make a figure some day," said the baron. "I don't know any one of his age with so few prejudices. He is a connection by marriage to Audley Egerton, who—"
"Audley Egerton!" exclaimed Mr. Avenel; "a d—-d haughty, aristocratic, disagreeable, ungrateful fellow!"
"Why, what do you know of him?"
"He owed his first seat in parliament to the votes of two near relations of mine, and when I called upon him some time ago, in his office, he absolutely ordered me out of the room. Hang his impertinence; if ever I can pay him off, I guess I sha'n't fail for want of good will!"
"Ordered you out of the room? That's not like Egerton, who is civil, if formal,—at least to most men. You must have offended him in his weak point."
"A man whom the public pays so handsomely should have no weak point. What is Egerton's?"
"Oh, he values himself on being a thorough gentleman,—a man of the nicest honour," said Levy, with a sneer. "You must have ruffled his plumes there. How was it?"
"I forget," answered Mr. Avenel, who was far too well versed in the London scale of human dignities since his marriage, not to look back with a blush at his desire of knighthood. "No use bothering our heads now about the plumes of an arrogant popinjay. To return to the subject we were discussing: you must be sure to let me have this money next week."
"Rely on it."
"And you'll not let my bills get into the market; keep them under lock and key."
"So we agreed."
"It is but a temporary difficulty,—royal mourning, such nonsense; panic in trade, lest these precious ministers go out. I shall soon float over the troubled waters."
"By the help of a paper boat," said the baron, laughing; and the two gentlemen shook hands and parted.
Meanwhile Audley Egerton's carriage had deposited him at the door of Lord Lansmere's house, at Knightsbridge. He asked for the countess, and was shown into the drawing-room, which was deserted. Egerton was paler than usual; and as the door opened, he wiped the unwonted moisture from his forehead, and there was a quiver on his firm lip. The countess too, on entering, showed an emotion almost equally unusual to her self-control. She pressed Audley's hand in silence, and seating herself by his side, seemed to collect her thoughts. At length she said,
"It is rarely indeed that we meet, Mr. Egerton, in spite of your intimacy with Lansmere and Harley. I go so little into your world, and you will not voluntarily come to me."
"Madam," replied Egerton, "I might evade your kind reproach by stating that my hours are not at my disposal; but I answer you with plain truth,—it must be painful to both of us to meet."
The countess coloured and sighed, but did not dispute the assertion.
Audley resumed: "And therefore, I presume that, in sending for me, you have something of moment to communicate?"
"It relates to Harley," said the countess, as if in apology; "and I would take your advice."
"To Harley! Speak on, I beseech you."
"My son has probably told you that he has educated and reared a young girl, with the intention to make her Lady L'Estrange, and hereafter Countess of Lansmere."
"Harley has no secrets from me," said Egerton, mournfully. "This young lady has arrived in England, is here, in this house."
"And Harley too?"
"No, she came over with Lady N———and her daughters. Harley was to follow shortly, and I expect him daily. Here is his letter. Observe, he has never yet communicated his intentions to this young person, now entrusted to my care, never spoken to her as the lover."
Egerton took the letter and read it rapidly, though with attention.
"True," said he, as he returned the letter: "and before he does so he wishes you to see Miss Digby and to judge of her yourself,—wishes to know if you will approve and sanction his choice."
"It is on this that I would consult you: a girl without rank; the father, it is true, a gentleman, though almost equivocally one, but the mother, I know not what. And Harley, for whom I hoped an alliance with the first houses in England!" The countess pressed her hands convulsively together.
EGERTON.—"He is no more a boy. His talents have been wasted, his life a wanderer's. He presents to you a chance of resettling his mind, of re-arousing his native powers, of a home besides your own. Lady Lansmere, you cannot hesitate!"
LADY LANSMERE.—"I do, I do? After all that I have hoped after all that I did to prevent—"
EGERTON (interrupting her).—"You owe him now an atonement; that is in your power,—it is not in mine." The countess again pressed Audley's hand, and the tears gushed from her eyes.
"It shall be so. I consent, I consent. I will silence, I will crush back this proud heart. Alas! it well-nigh broke his own! I am glad you speak thus. I like to think he owes my consent to you. In that there is atonement for both."
"You are too generous, madam," said Egerton, evidently moved, though still, as ever, striving to repress emotion. "And now may I see the young lady? This conference pains me; you see even my strong nerves quiver; and at this time I have much to go through,—need of all my strength and firmness."
"I hear, indeed, that the Government will probably retire. But it is with honour: it will be soon called back by the voice of the nation."
"Let me see the future wife of Harley L'Estrange," said Egerton, without heed of this consolatory exclamation.
The countess rose and left the room. In a few minutes she returned with Helen Digby.
Helen was wondrously improved from the pale, delicate child, with the soft smile and intelligent eyes, who had sat by the side of Leonard in his garret. She was about the middle height, still slight, but beautifully formed; that exquisite roundness of proportion which conveys so well the idea of woman, in its undulating, pliant grace,—formed to embellish life, and soften away its rude angles; formed to embellish, not to protect. Her face might not have satisfied the critical eye of an artist,—it was not without defects in regularity; but its expression was eminently gentle and prepossessing; and there were few who would not have exclaimed, "What a lovely countenance!" The mildness of her brow was touched with melancholy—her childhood had left its traces on her youth. Her step was slow, and her manner shy, subdued, and timid.
Audley gazed on her with earnestness as she approached him; and then coming forward, took her hand and kissed it. "I am your guardian's constant friend," said he, and he drew her gently to a seat beside him, in the recess of a window. With a quick glance of his eye towards the countess, he seemed to imply the wish to converse with Helen somewhat apart. So the countess interpreted the glance; and though she remained in the room, she seated herself at a distance, and bent over a book.
It was touching to see how the austere man of business lent himself to draw forth the mind of this quiet, shrinking girl; and if you had listened, you would have comprehended how he came to possess such social influence, and how well, some time or other in the course of his life, he had learned to adapt himself to women.
He spoke first of Harley L'Estrange,—spoke with tact and delicacy. Helen at first answered by monosyllables, and then, by degrees, with grateful and open affection. Audley's brow grew shaded. He then spoke of Italy; and though no man had less of the poet in his nature, yet with the dexterity of one long versed in the world, and who had been accustomed to extract evidences from characters most opposed to his own, he suggested such topics as might serve to arouse poetry in others. Helen's replies betrayed a cultivated taste, and a charming womanly mind; but they betrayed, also, one accustomed to take its colourings from another's,—to appreciate, admire, revere the Lofty and the Beautiful, but humbly and meekly. There was no vivid enthusiasm, no remark of striking originality, no flash of the self-kindling, creative faculty. Lastly, Egerton turned to England,—to the critical nature of the times, to the claims which the country possessed upon all who had the ability to serve and guide its troubled destinies. He enlarged warmly on Harley's natural talents, and rejoiced that he had returned to England, perhaps to commence some great career. Helen looked surprised, but her face caught no correspondent glow from Audley's eloquence. He rose, and an expression of disappointment passed over his grave, handsome features, and as quickly vanished.
"Adieu, my dear Miss Digby; I fear I have wearied you, especially with my politics. Adieu, Lady Lansmere; no doubt I shall see Harley as soon as he returns."
Then he hastened from the room, gained his carriage, and ordered the coachman to drive to Downing Street. He drew down the blinds, and leaned back. A certain languor became visible in his face, and once or twice, he mechanically put his hand to his heart.
"She is good, amiable, docile,—will make an excellent wife, no doubt," said he, murmuringly. "But does she love Harley as he has dreamed of love? No! Has she the power and energy to arouse his faculties, and restore to the world the Harley of old? No! Meant by Heaven to be the shadow of another's sun—not herself the sun,—this child is not the one who can atone for the Past and illume the Future."
That evening Harley L'Estrange arrived at his father's house. The few years that had passed since we saw him last had made no perceptible change in his appearance. He still preserved his elastic youthfulness of form, and singular variety and play of countenance. He seemed unaffectedly rejoiced to greet his parents, and had something of the gayety and tenderness of a boy returned from school. His manner to Helen bespoke the chivalry that pervaded all the complexities and curves of his character. It was affectionate, but respectful,—hers to him, subdued, but innocently sweet and gently cordial. Harley was the chief talker. The aspect of the times was so critical that he could not avoid questions on politics; and, indeed, he showed an interest in them which he had never evinced before. Lord Lansmere was delighted.
"Why, Harley, you love your country after all?"
"The moment she seems in danger, yes!" replied the Patrician; and the Sybarite seemed to rise into the Athenian. Then he asked with eagerness about his old friend Audley; and, his curiosity satisfied there, he inquired the last literary news. He had heard much of a book lately published. He named the one ascribed by Parson Dale to Professor Moss; none of his listeners had read it.
Harley pished at this, and accused them all of indolence and stupidity, in his own quaint, metaphorical style. Then he said, "And town gossip?"
"We never hear it," said Lady Lansmere.
"There is a new plough much talked of at Boodle's," said Lord Lansmere.
"God speed it. But is not there a new man much talked of at White's?"
"I don't belong to White's."
"Nevertheless, you may have heard of him,—a foreigner, a Count di Peschiera."
"Yes," said Lord Lansmere; "he was pointed out to me in the Park,—a handsome man for a foreigner; wears his hair properly cut; looks gentlemanlike and English."
"Ah, ah! He is here then!" and Harley rubbed his hands.
"Which road did you take? Did you pass the Simplon?"
"No; I came straight from Vienna."
Then, relating with lively vein his adventures by the way, he continued to delight Lord Lansmere by his gayety till the time came to retire to rest. As soon as Harley was in his own room his mother joined him.
"Well," said he, "I need not ask if you like Miss Digby? Who would not?"
"Harley, my own son," said the mother, bursting into tears, "be happy your own way; only be happy, that is all I ask."
Harley, much affected, replied gratefully and soothingly to this fond injunction. And then gradually leading his mother on to converse of Helen, asked abruptly, "And of the chance of our happiness,—her happiness as well as mine,—what is your opinion? Speak frankly."
"Of her happiness there can be no doubt," replied the mother, proudly. "Of yours, how can you ask me? Have you not decided on that yourself?"
"But still it cheers and encourages one in any experiment, however well considered, to hear the approval of another. Helen has certainly a most gentle temper."
"I should conjecture so. But her mind—"
"Is very well stored."
"She speaks so little—"
"Yes. I wonder why? She's surely a woman!"
"Pshaw," said the countess, smiling in spite of herself.
"But tell me more of the process of your experiment. You took her as a child, and resolved to train her according to your own ideal. Was that easy?"
"It seemed so. I desired to instil habits of truth: she was already by nature truthful as the day; a taste for Nature and all things natural: that seemed inborn; perceptions of Art as the interpreter of Nature: those were more difficult to teach. I think they may come. You have heard her play and sing?"
"She will surprise you. She has less talent for drawing; still, all that teaching could do has been done,—in a word, she is accomplished. Temper, heart, mind,—these all are excellent." Harley stopped, and suppressed a sigh. "Certainly I ought to be very happy," said he; and he began to wind up his watch.
"Of course she must love you," said the countess, after a pause. "How could she fail?"
"Love me! My dear mother, that is the very question I shall have to ask."
"Ask! Love is discovered by a glance; it has no need of asking."
"I have never discovered it, then, I assure you. The fact is, that before her childhood was passed, I removed her, as you may suppose, from my roof. She resided with an Italian family near my usual abode. I visited her often, directed her studies, watched her improvement—"
"And fell in love with her?"
"Fall is such a very violent word. No; I don't remember to have had a fall. It was all a smooth inclined plane from the first step, until at last I said to myself, 'Harley L'Estrange, thy time has come. The bud has blossomed into flower. Take it to thy breast.' And myself replied to myself, meekly, 'So be it.' Then I found that Lady N——-, with her daughters, was coming to England. I asked her Ladyship to take my ward to your house. I wrote to you, and prayed your assent; and, that granted, I knew you would obtain my father's. Iam here,—you give me the approval I sought for. I will speak to Helen to-morrow. Perhaps, after all, she may reject me."
"Strange, strange! you speak thus coldly, thus lightly, you, so capable of ardent love!"
"Mother," said Harley, earnestly, "be satisfied! I am! Love as of old, I feel, alas! too well, can visit me never more. But gentle companionship, tender friendship, the relief and the sunlight of woman's smile, hereafter the voices of children,—music that, striking on the hearts of both parents, wakens the most lasting and the purest of all sympathies,—these are my hope. Is the hope so mean, my fond mother?"
Again the countess wept, and her tears were not dried when she left the room.
Oh, Helen, fair Helen,—type of the quiet, serene, unnoticed, deep-felt excellence of woman! Woman, less as the ideal that a poet conjures from the air, than as the companion of a poet on the earth! Woman, who, with her clear sunny vision of things actual, and the exquisite fibre of her delicate sense, supplies the deficiencies of him whose foot stumbles on the soil, because his eye is too intent upon the stars! Woman, the provident, the comforting, angel whose pinions are folded round the heart, guarding there a divine spring unmarred by the winter of the world! Helen, soft Helen, is it indeed in thee that the wild and brilliant "lord of wantonness and ease" is to find the regeneration of his life, the rebaptism of his soul? Of what avail thy meek prudent household virtues to one whom Fortune screens from rough trial; whose sorrows lie remote from thy ken; whose spirit, erratic and perturbed, now rising, now falling, needs a vision more subtle than thine to pursue, and a strength that can sustain the reason, when it droops, on the wings of enthusiasm and passion?
And thou, thyself, O nature, shrinking and humble, that needest to be courted forth from the shelter, and developed under the calm and genial atmosphere of holy, happy love—can such affection as Harley L'Estrange may proffer suffice to thee? Will not the blossoms, yet folded in the petal, wither away beneath the shade that may protect them from the storm, and yet shut them from the sun? Thou who, where thou givest love, seekest, though meekly, for love in return; to be the soul's sweet necessity, the life's household partner to him who receives all thy faith and devotion,—canst thou influence the sources of joy and of sorrow in the heart that does not heave at thy name? Hast thou the charm and the force of the moon, that the tides of that wayward sea shall ebb and flow at thy will? Yet who shall say, who conjecture how near two hearts can become, when no guilt lies between them, and time brings the ties all its own? Rarest of all things on earth is the union in which both, by their contrasts, make harmonious their blending; each supplying the defects of the helpmate, and completing, by fusion, one strong human soul! Happiness enough, where even Peace does but seldom preside, when each can bring to the altar, if not the flame, still the incense. Where man's thoughts are all noble and generous, woman's feelings all gentle and pure, love may follow if it does not precede; and if not, if the roses be missed from the garland, one may sigh for the rose, but one is safe from the thorn.
The morning was mild, yet somewhat overcast by the mist which announces coming winter in London, and Helen walked musingly beneath the trees that surrounded the garden of Lord Lansmere's house. Many leaves were yet left on the boughs; but they were sere and withered. And the birds chirped at times; but their note was mournful and complaining. All within this house, until Harley's arrival, had been strange and saddening to Helen's timid and subdued spirits. Lady Lansmere had received her kindly, but with a certain restraint; and the loftiness of manner, common to the countess with all but Harley, had awed and chilled the diffident orphan. Lady Lansmere's very interest in Harley's choice, her attempts to draw Helen out of her reserve, her watchful eyes whenever Helen shyly spoke or shyly moved, frightened the poor child, and made her unjust to herself.
The very servants, though staid, grave, and respectful, as suited a dignified, old-fashioned household, painfully contrasted the bright welcoming smiles and free talk of Italian domestics. Her recollections of the happy, warm Continental manner, which so sets the bashful at their ease, made the stately and cold precision of all around her doubly awful and dispiriting. Lord Lansmere himself, who did not as yet know the views of Harley, and little dreamed that he was to anticipate a daughter-in-law in the ward, whom he understood Harley, in a freak of generous romance, had adopted, was familiar and courteous, as became a host; but he looked upon Helen as a mere child, and naturally left her to the countess. The dim sense of her equivocal position, of her comparative humbleness of birth and fortunes, oppressed and pained her; and even her gratitude to Harley was made burdensome by a sentiment of helplessness. The grateful long to requite. And what could she ever do for him?
Thus musing, she wandered alone through the curving walks; and this sort of mock-country landscape—London loud, and even visible, beyond the high gloomy walls, and no escape from the windows of the square formal house—seemed a type of the prison bounds of Rank to one whose soul yearns for simple loving Nature.
Helen's revery was interrupted by Nero's joyous bark. He had caught sight of her, and came bounding up, and thrust his large head into her hand. As she stooped to caress the dog, happy at his honest greeting, and tears that had been long gathering at the lids fell silently on his face (for I know nothing that more moves us to tears than the hearty kindness of a dog, when something in human beings has pained or chilled us), she heard behind the musical voice of Harley. Hastily she dried or repressed her tears, as her guardian came up, and drew her arm within his own.
"I had so little of your conversation last evening, my dear ward, that I may well monopolize you now, even to the privation of Nero. And so you are once more in your native land?"
Helen sighed softly.
"May I not hope that you return under fairer auspices than those which your childhood knew?"
Helen turned her eyes with ingenuous thankfulness to her guardian, and the memory of all she owed to him rushed upon her heart.
Harley renewed, and with earnest, though melancholy sweetness, "Helen, your eyes thank me; but hear me before your words do. I deserve no thanks. I am about to make to you a strange confession of egotism and selfishness."
"Judge yourself, and then decide which of us shall have cause to be grateful. Helen, when I was scarcely your age—a boy in years, but more, methinks, a man at heart, with man's strong energies and sublime aspirings, than I have ever since been—I loved, and deeply—"
He paused a moment, in evident struggle. Helen listened in mute surprise, but his emotion awakened her own; her tender woman's heart yearned to console. Unconsciously her arm rested on his less lightly.
"Deeply, and for sorrow. It is a long tale, that may be told hereafter. The worldly would call my love a madness. I did not reason on it then, I cannot reason on it now. Enough: death smote suddenly, terribly, and to me, mysteriously, her whom I loved. The love lived on. Fortunately, perhaps, for me, I had quick distraction, not to grief, but to its inert indulgence. I was a soldier; I joined our armies. Men called me brave. Flattery! I was a coward before the thought of life. I sought death: like sleep, it does not come at our call. Peace ensued. As when the winds fall the sails droop, so when excitement ceased, all seemed to me flat and objectless. Heavy, heavy was my heart. Perhaps grief had been less obstinate, but that I feared I had causes for self-reproach. Since then I have been a wanderer, a self-made exile. My boyhood had been ambitious,—all ambition ceased. Flames, when they reach the core of the heart, spread, and leave all in ashes. Let me be brief: I did not mean thus weakly to complain,—I to whom Heaven has given so many blessings! I felt, as it were, separated from the common objects and joys of men. I grew startled to see how, year by year, wayward humours possessed me. I resolved again to attach myself to some living heart—it was my sole chance to rekindle my own. But the one I had loved remained as my type of woman, and she was different from all I saw. Therefore I said to myself, 'I will rear from childhood some young fresh life, to grow up into my ideal.' As this thought began to haunt me, I chanced to discover you. Struck with the romance of your early life, touched by your courage, charmed by your affectionate nature, I said to myself, 'Here is what I seek.' Helen, in assuming the guardianship of your 'Life, in all the culture which I have sought to bestow on your docile childhood, I repeat, that I have been but the egotist. And now, when you have reached that age when it becomes me to speak, and you to listen; now, when you are under the sacred roof of my own mother; now I ask you, can you accept this heart, such as wasted years, and griefs too fondly nursed, have left it? Can you be, at least, my comforter? Can you aid me to regard life as a duty, and recover those aspirations which once soared from the paltry and miserable confines of our frivolous daily being? Helen, here I ask you, can you be all this, and under the name of—Wife?"
It would be in vain to describe the rapid, varying, indefinable emotions that passed through the inexperienced heart of the youthful listener as Harley thus spoke. He so moved all the springs of amaze, compassion, tender respect, sympathy, child-like gratitude, that when he paused and gently took her hand, she remained bewildered, speechless, overpowered. Harley smiled as he gazed upon her blushing, downcast, expressive face. He conjectured at once that the idea of such proposals had never crossed her mind; that she had never contemplated him in the character of wooer; never even sounded her heart as to the nature of such feelings as his image had aroused.
"My Helen," he resumed, with a calm pathos of voice, "there is some disparity of years between us, and perhaps I may not hope henceforth for that love which youth gives to the young. Permit me simply to ask, what you will frankly answer, Can you have seen in our quiet life abroad, or under the roof of your Italian friends, any one you prefer to me?"
"No, indeed, no!" murmured Helen. "How could I; who is like you?" Then, with a sudden effort—for her innate truthfulness took alarm, and her very affection for Harley, childlike and reverent, made her tremble lest she should deceive him—she drew a little aside, and spoke thus,
"Oh, my dear guardian, noblest of all human beings, at least in my eyes, forgive, forgive me, if I seem ungrateful, hesitating; but I cannot, cannot think of myself as worthy of you. I never so lifted my eyes. Your rank, your position—"
"Why should they be eternally my curse? Forget them, and go on."
"It is not only they," said Helen, almost sobbing, "though they are much; but I your type, your ideal!—I?—impossible! Oh, how can I ever be anything even of use, of aid, of comfort to one like you!"
"You can, Helen—you can," cried Harley, charmed by such ingenuous modesty. "May I not keep this hand?" And Helen left her hand in Harley's, and turned away her face, fairly weeping.
A stately step passed under the wintry trees.
"My mother," said Harley L'Estrange, looking up, "I present to you my future wife."
With a slow step and an abstracted air, Harley L'Estrange bent his way towards Egerton's house, after his eventful interview with Helen. He had just entered one of the streets leading into Grosvenor Square, when a young man, walking quickly from the opposite direction, came full against him, and drawing back with a brief apology, recognized him, and exclaimed, "What! you in England, Lord L'Estrange! Accept my congratulations on your return. But you seem scarcely to remember me."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Leslie. I remember you now by your smile; but you are of an age in which it is permitted me to say that you look older than when I saw you last."
"And yet, Lord L'Estrange, it seems to me that you look younger."
Indeed, this reply was so far true that there appeared less difference of years than before between Leslie and L'Estrange; for the wrinkles in the schemer's mind were visible in his visage, while Harley's dreamy worship of Truth and Beauty seemed to have preserved to the votary the enduring youth of the divinities.
Harley received the compliment with a supreme indifference, which might have been suitable to a Stoic, but which seemed scarcely natural to a gentleman who had just proposed to a lady many years younger than himself.
Leslie renewed: "Perhaps you are on your way to Mr. Egerton's. If so, you will not find him at home; he is at his office."
"Thank you. Then to his office I must re-direct my steps."
"I am going to him myself," said Randal, hesitatingly. L'Estrange had no prepossessions in favour of Leslie from the little he had seen of that young gentleman; but Randal's remark was an appeal to his habitual urbanity, and he replied, with well-bred readiness, "Let us be companions so far."
Randal accepted the arm proffered to him; and Lord L'Estrange, as is usual with one long absent from his native land, bore part as a questioner in the dialogue that ensued.
"Egerton is always the same man, I suppose,—too busy for illness, and too firm for sorrow?"
"If he ever feel either, he will never stoop to complain. But, indeed, my dear lord, I should like much to know what you think of his health."
"How! You alarm me!"
"Nay, I did not mean to do that; and pray do not let him know that I went so far. But I have fancied that he looks a little worn and suffering."
"Poor Audley!" said L'Estrange, in a tone of deep affection. "I will sound him, and, be assured, without naming you; for I know well how little he likes to be supposed capable of human infirmity. I am obliged to you for your hint, obliged to you for your interest in one so dear to me."
And Harley's voice was more cordial to Randal than it had ever been before. He then began to inquire what Randal thought of the rumours that had reached himself as to the probable defeat of the Government, and how far Audley's spirits were affected by such risks. But Randal here, seeing that Harley could communicate nothing, was reserved and guarded.
"Loss of office could not, I think, affect a man like Audley," observed Lord L'Estrange. "He would be as great in opposition—perhaps greater; and as to emoluments—"
"The emoluments are good," interposed Randal, with a half-sigh.
"Good enough, I suppose, to pay him back about a tenth of what his place costs our magnificent friend. No, I will say one thing for English statesmen, no man amongst them ever yet was the richer for place."
"And Mr. Egerton's private fortune must be large, I take for granted," said Randal, carelessly.
"It ought to be, if he has time to look to it."
Here they passed by the hotel in which lodged the Count di Peschiera.
Randal stopped. "Will you excuse me for an instant? As we are passing this hotel, I will just leave my card here." So saying he gave his card to a waiter lounging by the door. "For the Count di Peschiera," said he, aloud.
L'Estrange started; and as Randal again took his arm, said, "So that Italian lodges here; and you know him?"
"I know him but slightly, as one knows any foreigner who makes a sensation."
"He makes a sensation?"
"Naturally; for he is handsome, witty, and said to be very rich,—that is, as long as he receives the revenues of his exiled kinsman."
"I see you are well informed, Mr. Leslie. And what is supposed to bring hither the Count di Peschiera?"
"I did hear something, which I did not quite understand, about a bet of his that he would marry his kinsman's daughter, and so, I conclude, secure to himself all the inheritance; and that he is therefore here to discover the kinsman and win the heiress. But probably you know the rights of the story, and can tell me what credit to give to such gossip."
"I know this at least, that if he did lay such a wager, I would advise you to take any odds against him that his backers may give," said L'Estrange, dryly; and while his lip quivered with anger, his eye gleamed with arch ironical humour.
"You think, then, that this poor kinsman will not need such an alliance in order to regain his estates?"
"Yes; for I never yet knew a rogue whom I would not bet against, when he backed his own luck as a rogue against Justice and Providence."
Randal winced, and felt as if an arrow had grazed his heart; but he soon recovered.
"And indeed there is another vague rumour that the young lady in question is married already—to some Englishman." This time it was Harley who winced. "Good heavens! that cannot be true,—that would undo all! An Englishman just at this moment! But some Englishman of correspondent rank I trust, or at least one known for opinions opposed to what an Austrian would call Revolutionary doctrines?"
"I know nothing. But it was supposed merely a private gentleman of good family. Would not that suffice? Can the Austrian Court dictate a marriage to the daughter as a condition for grace to the father?"
"No,—not that!" said Harley, greatly disturbed. "But put yourself in the position of any minister to one of the great European monarchies. Suppose a political insurgent, formidable for station and wealth, had been proscribed, much interest made on his behalf, a powerful party striving against it; and just when the minister is disposed to relent, he hears that the heiress to this wealth and this station is married to the native of a country in which sentiments friendly to the very opinions for which the insurgent was proscribed are popularly entertained, and thus that the fortune to be restored may be so employed as to disturb the national security, the existing order of things,—this, too, at the very time when a popular revolution has just occurred in France, and its effects are felt most in the very land of the exile;—suppose all this, and then say if anything could be more untoward for the hopes of the banished man, or furnish his adversaries with stronger arguments against the restoration of his fortune? But pshaw! this must be a chimera! If true, I should have known of it."
[As there have been so many revolutions in France, it may be convenient to suggest that, according to the dates of this story, Harley no doubt alludes to that revolution which exiled Charles X. and placed Louis Philippe on the throne.]
"I quite agree with your lordship,—there can be no truth in such a rumour. Some Englishman, hearing, perhaps, of the probable pardon of the exile, may have counted on an heiress, and spread the report in order to keep off other candidates. By your account, if successful in his suit, he might fail to find an heiress in the bride."
"No doubt of that. Whatever might be arranged, I can't conceive that he would be allowed to get at the fortune, though it might be held in suspense for his children. But indeed it so rarely happens that an Italian girl of high name marries a foreigner that we must dismiss this notion with a smile at the long face of the hypothetical fortune-hunter. Heaven help him, if he exist!"
"Amen!" echoed Randal, devoutly.
"I hear that Peschiera,'s sister is returned to England. Do you know her too?"
"My dear Mr. Leslie, pardon me if I take a liberty not warranted by our acquaintance. Against the lady I say nothing. Indeed, I have heard some things which appear to entitle her to compassion and respect. But as to Peschiera all who prize honour suspect him to be a knave,—I know him to be one. Now, I think that the longer we preserve that abhorrence for knavery which is the generous instinct of youth, why, the fairer will be our manhood, and the more reverend our age. You agree with me?" And Harley suddenly turning, his eyes fell like a flood of light upon Randal's pale and secret countenance.
"To be sure," murmured the schemer.
Harley, surveying him, mechanically recoiled, and withdrew his arm.
Fortunately for Randal, who somehow or other felt himself slipped into a false position, he scarce knew how or why, he was here seized by the arm; and a clear, open, manly voice cried, "My dear fellow, how are you? I see you are engaged now; but look into my rooms when you can, in the course of the day."
And with a bow of excuse for his interruption to Lord L'Estrange, the speaker was then turning away, when Harley said,
"No, don't let me take you from your friend, Mr. Leslie. And you need not be in a hurry to see Egerton; for I shall claim the privilege of older friendship for the first interview."
"It is Mr. Egerton's nephew Frank Hazeldan."
"Pray, call him back, and present me to him. He has a face that would have gone far to reconcile Timon to Athens." Randal obeyed, and after a few kindly words to Frank, Harley insisted on leaving the two young men together, and walked on to Downing Street with a brisker step.
"That Lord L'Estrange seems a very good fellow."
"So-so; an effeminate humourist,—says the most absurd things, and fancies them wise. Never mind him. You wanted to speak to me, Frank?"
"Yes; I am so obliged to you for introducing me to Levy. I must tell you how handsomely he has behaved."
"Stop; allow me to remind you that I did not introduce you to Levy; you had met him before at Borrowell's, if I recollect right, and he dined with us at the Clarendon,—that is all I had to do with bringing you together. Indeed I rather cautioned you against him than not. Pray don't think I introduced you to a man who, however pleasant and perhaps honest, is still a money-lender. Your father would be justly angry with me if I had done so."
"Oh, pooh! you are prejudiced against poor Levy. But just hear: I was sitting very ruefully, thinking over those cursed bills, and how the deuce I should renew them, when Levy walked into my rooms; and after telling me of his long friendship for my uncle Egerton and his admiration for yourself, and (give me your hand, Randal) saying how touched he felt by your kind sympathy in my troubles, he opened his pocket-book, and showed me the bills safe and sound in his own possession."
"He had bought them up. 'It must be so disagreeable to me,' he said, 'to have them flying about the London moneymarket, and those Jews would be sure sooner or later to apply to my father. And now,' added Levy, 'I am in no immediate hurry for the money, and we must put the interest upon fairer terms.' In short, nothing could be more liberal than his tone. And he says, he is thinking of a way to relieve me altogether, and will call about it in a few days, when his plan is matured. After all, I must owe this to you, Randal. I dare swear you put it into his head."
"Oh, no, indeed! On the contrary, I still say, Be cautious in all your dealings with Levy. I don't know, I 'm sure, what he means to propose. Have you heard from the Hall lately?"
"Yes, to-day. Only think—the Riccaboccas have disappeared. My mother writes me word of it,—a very odd letter. She seems to suspect that I know where they are, and reproaches me for 'mystery'—quite enigmatical. But there is one sentence in her letter—see, here it is in the postscript—which seems to refer to Beatrice: 'I don't ask you to tell me your secrets, Frank, but Randal will no doubt have assured you that my first consideration will be for your own happiness, in any matter in which your heart is really engaged.'"
"Yes," said Randal, slowly; "no doubt this refers to Beatrice; but, as I told you, your mother will not interfere one way or the other,—such interference would weaken her influence with the squire. Besides, as she said, she can't wish, you to marry a foreigner; though once married, she would—But how do you stand now with the marchesa? Has she consented to accept you?"
"Not quite; indeed I have not actually proposed. Her manner, though much softened, has not so far emboldened me; and, besides, before a positive declaration, I certainly must go down to the Hall and speak at least to my mother."
"You must judge for yourself, but don't do anything rash: talk first to me. Here we are at my office. Good-by; and—and pray believe that, in whatever you do with Levy, I have no hand in it."
Towards the evening, Randal was riding fast on the road to Norwood. The arrival of Harley, and the conversation that had passed between that nobleman and Randal, made the latter anxious to ascertain how far Riccabocca was likely to learn L'Estrange's return to England, and to meet with him. For he felt that, should the latter come to know that Riccabocca, in his movements, had gone by Randal's advice. Harley would find that Randal had spoken to him disingenuously; and on the other hand, Riccabocca, placed under the friendly protection of Lord L'Estrange, would no longer need Randal Leslie to defend him from the machinations of Peschiera. To a reader happily unaccustomed to dive into the deep and mazy recesses of a schemer's mind, it might seem that Randal's interest in retaining a hold over the exile's confidence would terminate with the assurances that had reached him, from more than one quarter, that Violante might cease to be an heiress if she married himself. "But perhaps," suggests some candid and youthful conjecturer,—"perhaps Randal Leslie is in love with this fair creature?" Randal in love!—no! He was too absorbed by harder passions for that blissful folly. Nor, if he could have fallen in love, was Violante the one to attract that sullen, secret heart; her instinctive nobleness, the very stateliness of her beauty, womanlike though it was, awed him. Men of that kind may love some soft slave,—they cannot lift their eyes to a queen. They may look down,—they cannot lookup. But on the one hand, Randal could not resign altogether the chance of securing a fortune that would realize his most dazzling dreams, upon the mere assurance, however probable, which had so dismayed him; and on the other hand, should he be compelled to relinquish all idea of such alliance, though he did not contemplate the base perfidy of actually assisting Peschiera's avowed designs, still, if Frank's marriage with Beatrice should absolutely depend upon her brother's obtaining the knowledge of Violante's retreat, and that marriage should be as conducive to his interests as he thought he could make it, why—he did not then push his deductions further, even to himself,—they seemed too black; but he sighed heavily, and that sigh foreboded how weak would be honour and virtue against avarice and ambition. Therefore, on all accounts, Riccabocca was one of those cards in a sequence, which so calculating a player would not throw out of his hand: it might serve for repique, at the worst it might score well in the game. Intimacy with the Italian was still part and parcel in that knowledge which was the synonym of power.
While the young man was thus meditating, on his road to Norwood, Riccabocca and his Jemima were close conferring in their drawing-room. And if you could have seen them, reader, you would have been seized with equal surprise and curiosity: for some extraordinary communication had certainly passed between them. Riccabocca was evidently much agitated, and with emotions not familiar to him. The tears stood in his eyes at the same time that a smile, the reverse of cynical or sardonic, curved his lips; while his wife was leaning her head on his shoulder, her hand clasped in his, and, by the expression of her face, you might guess that he had paid her some very gratifying compliment, of a nature more genuine and sincere than those which characterized his habitual hollow and dissimulating gallantry. But just at this moment Giacomo entered, and Jemima, with her native English modesty, withdrew in haste from Riccabocca's sheltering side.
"Padrone," said Giacomo, who, whatever his astonishment at the connubial position he had disturbed, was much too discreet to betray it,—"Padrone, I see the young Englishman riding towards the house, and I hope, when he arrives, you will not forget the alarming information I gave to you this morning."
"Ah, ah!" said Riccabocca, his face falling. "If the signorina were but married!"
"My very thought,—my constant thought!" exclaimed Riccabocca. "And you really believe the young Englishman loves her?"
"Why else should he come, Excellency?" asked Giacomo, with great naivete.
"Very true; why, indeed?" said Riccabocca. "Jemima, I cannot endure the terrors I suffer on that poor child's account. I will open myself frankly to Randal Leslie. And now, too, that which might have been a serious consideration, in case I return to Italy, will no longer stand in our way, Jemima."
Jemima smiled faintly, and whispered something to Riccabocca, to which he replied,
"Nonsense, anima mia. I know it will be,—have not a doubt of it. I tell you it is as nine to four, according to the nicest calculations. I will speak at once to Randal. He is too young, too timid to speak himself."
"Certainly," interposed Giacomo; "how could he dare to speak, let him love ever so well?"
Jemima shook her head.
"Oh, never fear," said Riccabocca, observing this gesture; "I will give him the trial. If he entertain but mercenary views, I shall soon detect them. I know human nature pretty well, I think, my love; and, Giacomo, just get me my Machiavelli;—that's right. Now leave me, my dear; I must reflect and prepare myself."
When Randal entered the house, Giacomo, with a smile of peculiar suavity, ushered him into the drawing-room. He found Riccabocca alone, and seated before the fireplace, leaning his face on his hand, with the great folio of Machiavelli lying open on the table.
The Italian received him as courteously as usual; but there was in his manner a certain serious and thoughtful dignity, which was perhaps the more imposing, because but rarely assumed. After a few preliminary observations, Randal remarked that Frank Hazeldean had informed him of the curiosity which the disappearance of the Riccaboccas had excited at the Hall, and inquired carelessly if the doctor had left instructions as to the forwarding of any letters that might be directed to him at the Casino.
"Letters!" said Riccabocca, simply; "I never receive any; or, at least, so rarely, that it was not worth while to take an event so little to be expected into consideration. No; if any letters do reach the Casino, there they will wait."
"Then I can see no possibility of indiscretion; no chance of a clew to your address."
"Nor I either."
Satisfied so far, and knowing that it was not in Riecabocca's habits to read the newspapers, by which he might otherwise have learned of L'Estrange's arrival in London, Randal then proceeded to inquire, with much seeming interest, into the health of Violante,—hoped it did not suffer by confinement, etc. Riccabocca eyed him gravely while he spoke, and then suddenly rising, that air of dignity to which I have before referred became yet more striking.
"My young friend," said he, "hear me attentively, and answer me frankly. I know human nature—" Here a slight smile of proud complacency passed the sage's lips, and his eye glanced towards his Machiavelli.
"I know human nature,—at least I have studied it," he renewed more earnestly, and with less evident self-conceit; "and I believe that when a perfect stranger to me exhibits an interest in my affairs, which occasions him no small trouble,—an interest," continued the wise man, laying his hand on Randal's shoulder, "which scarcely a son could exceed, he must be under the influence of some strong personal motive."
"Oh, sir!" cried Randal, turning a shade more pale, and with a faltering tone. Riccabocca, surveyed him with the tenderness of a superior being, and pursued his deductive theories.
"In your case, what is that motive? Not political; for I conclude you share the opinions of your government, and those opinions have not favoured mine. Not that of pecuniary or ambitious calculations; for how can such calculations enlist you on behalf of a ruined exile? What remains? Why, the motive which at your age is ever the most natural and the strongest. I don't blame you. Machiavelli himself allows that such a motive has swayed the wisest minds, and overturned the most solid States. In a word, young man, you are in love, and with my daughter Violante."
Randal was so startled by this direct and unexpected charge upon his own masked batteries, that he did not even attempt his defence. His head drooped on his breast, and he remained speechless.
"I do not doubt," resumed the penetrating judge of human nature, "that you would have been withheld by the laudable and generous scruples which characterize your happy age, from voluntarily disclosing to me the state of your heart. You might suppose that, proud of the position I once held, or sanguine in the hope of regaining my inheritance, I might be over-ambitious in my matrimonial views for Violante; or that you, anticipating my restoration to honours and fortune, might seem actuated by the last motives which influence love and youth; and, therefore, my dear young friend, I have departed from the ordinary custom in England, and adopted a very common one in my own country. With us, a suitor seldom presents himself till he is assured of the consent of a father. I have only to say this,—if I am right, and you love my daughter, my first object in life is to see her safe and secure; and, in a word—you understand me."
Now, mightily may it comfort and console us ordinary mortals, who advance no pretence to superior wisdom and ability, to see the huge mistakes made by both these very sagacious personages,—Dr. Riccabocca, valuing himself on his profound acquaintance with character, and Randal Leslie, accustomed to grope into every hole and corner of thought and action, wherefrom to extract that knowledge which is power! For whereas the sage, judging not only by his own heart in youth, but by the general influence of the master passion on the young, had ascribed to Randal sentiments wholly foreign to that able diplomatist's nature, so no sooner had Riccabocca brought his speech to a close, than Randal, judging also by his own heart, and by the general laws which influence men of the mature age and boasted worldly wisdom of the pupil of Machiavelli, instantly decided that Riccabocca presumed upon his youth and inexperience, and meant most nefariously to take him in.
"The poor youth!" thought Riccabocca, "how unprepared he is for the happiness I give him!"
"The cunning old Jesuit!" thought Randal; "he has certainly learned, since we met last, that he has no chance of regaining his patrimony, and so he wants to impose on me the hand of a girl without a shilling. What other motive can he possibly have? Had his daughter the remotest probability of becoming the greatest heiress in Italy, would he dream of bestowing her on me in this off-hand way? The thing stands to reason."
Actuated by his resentment at the trap thus laid for him, Randal was about to disclaim altogether the disinterested and absurd affection laid to his charge, when it occurred to him that, by so doing, he might mortally offend the Italian, since the cunning never forgive those who refuse to be duped by them,—and it might still be conducive to his interest to preserve intimate and familiar terms with Riccabocca; therefore, subduing his first impulse, he exclaimed,
"Oh, too generous man! pardon me if I have so long been unable to express my amaze, my gratitude; but I cannot—no, I cannot, while your prospects remain thus uncertain, avail myself of your—of your inconsiderate magnanimity. Your rare conduct can only redouble my own scruples, if you, as I firmly hope and believe, are restored to your great possessions—you would naturally look so much higher than me. Should these hopes fail, then, indeed, it may be different; yet even then, what position, what fortune, have I to offer to your daughter worthy of her?"
"You are well born! all gentlemen are equals," said Riccabocca, with a sort of easy nobleness. "You have youth, information, talent,—sources of certain wealth in this happy country,—powerful connections; and, in fine, if you are satisfied with marrying for love, I shall be contented; if not, speak openly. As to the restoration to my possessions, I can scarcely think that probable while my enemy lives. And even in that case, since I saw you last, something has occurred," added Riccabocca, with a strange smile, which seemed to Randal singularly sinister and malignant, "that may remove all difficulties. Meanwhile, do not think me so extravagantly magnanimous; do not underrate the satisfaction I must feel at knowing Violante safe from the designs of Peschiera,—safe, and forever, under a husband's roof. I will tell you an Italian proverb,—it contains a truth full of wisdom and terror,
"'Hai cinquanta Amici?—non basta. Hai un Nemico?—e troppo.'" ["Have you fifty friends?—it is not enough. Have you one enemy?—it is too much."]
"Something has occurred!" echoed Randal, not heeding the conclusion of this speech, and scarcely hearing the proverb, which the sage delivered in his most emphatic and tragic tone. "Something has occurred! My dear friend, be plainer. What has occurred?" Riccabocca remained silent. "Something that induces you to bestow your daughter on me?" Riccabocca nodded, and emitted a low chuckle.
"The very laugh of a fiend," muttered Randal. "Something that makes her not worth bestowing. He betrays himself. Cunning people always do."
"Pardon me," said the Italian, at last, "if I don't answer your question; you will know later; but at present this is a family secret. And now I must turn to another and more alarming cause for my frankness to you." Here Riccabocca's face changed, and assumed an expression of mingled rage and fear. "You must know," he added, sinking his voice, "that Giacomo has seen a strange person loitering about the house, and looking up at the windows; and he has no doubt—nor have I—that this is some spy or emissary of Peschiera's."
"Impossible; how could he discover you?"
"I know not; but no one else has any interest in doing so. The man kept at a distance, and Giacomo could not see his face."
"It may be but a mere idler. Is this all?"
"No; the old woman who serves us said that she was asked at a shop 'if we were not Italians'?"
"And she answered?"
"'No;' but owned that 'we had a foreign servant, Giacomo.'"
"I will see to this. Rely on it that if Peschiera has discovered you, I will learn it. Nay, I will hasten from you in order to commence inquiry."
"I cannot detain you. May I think that we have now an interest in common?"
"Oh, indeed yes; but—but—your daughter! How can I dream that one so beautiful, so peerless, will confirm the hope you have extended to me?"
"The daughter of an Italian is brought up to consider that it is a father's right to dispose of her hand."
"But the heart?"
"Cospetto!" said the Italian, true to his infamous notions as to the sex, "the heart of a girl is like a convent,—the holier the cloister, the more charitable the door."
Randal had scarcely left the house before Mrs. Riccabocca, who was affectionately anxious in all that concerned Violante, rejoined her husband.
"I like the young man very well," said the sage,—"very well indeed. I find him just what I expected, from my general knowledge of human nature; for as love ordinarily goes with youth, so modesty usually accompanies talent. He is young, ergo, he is in love; he has talent, ergo, he is modest, modest and ingenuous."
"And you think not in any way swayed by interest in his affections?"
"Quite the contrary; and to prove him the more, I have not said a word as to the worldly advantages which, in any case, would accrue to him from an alliance with my daughter. In any case: for if I regain my country, her fortune is assured; and if not, I trust" (said the poor exile, lifting his brow with stately and becoming pride) "that I am too well aware of my child's dignity, as well as my own, to ask any one to marry her to his own worldly injury."
"Eh! I don't quite understand you, Alphonso. To be sure, your dear life is insured for her marriage portion; but—"
"Pazzie-stuff!" said Riccabocca, petulantly; "her marriage portion would be as nothing to a young man of Randal's birth and prospects. I think not of that. But listen: I have never consented to profit by Harley L'Estrange's friendship for me; my scruples would not extend to my son-in-law. This noble friend has not only high rank, but considerable influence,—influence with the government, influence with Randal's patron, who, between ourselves, does not seem to push the young man as he might do; I judge by what Randal says. I should write, therefore, before anything was settled, to L'Estrange, and I should say to him simply, 'I never asked you to save me from penury, but I do ask you to save a daughter of my House from humiliation. I can give to her no dowry; can her husband owe to my friend that advance in an honourable career, that opening to energy and talent, which is more than a dowry to generous ambition?'"
"Oh, it is in vain you would disguise your rank," cried Jemima, with enthusiasm; "it speaks in all you utter, when your passions are moved."
The Italian did not seem flattered by that eulogy. "Pish," said he, "there you are! rank again!"
But Jemima was right. There was something about her husband that was grandiose and princely, whenever he escaped from his accursed Machiavelli, and gave fair play to his heart.
And he spent the next hour or so in thinking over all that he could do for Randal, and devising for his intended son-in-law the agreeable surprise, which Randal was at that very time racking his yet cleverer brains to disappoint.
These plans conned sufficiently, Riccabocca shut up his Machiavelli, and hunted out of his scanty collection of books, Buffon on Man, and various other psychological volumes, in which he soon became deeply absorbed. Why were these works the object of the sage's study? Perhaps he will let us know soon, for it is clearly a secret known to his wife; and though she has hitherto kept one secret, that is precisely the reason why Riccabocca would not wish long to overburden her discretion with another.
Randal reached home in time to dress for a late dinner at Baron Levy's.
The baron's style of living was of that character especially affected both by the most acknowledged exquisites of that day, and, it must be owned, also, by the most egregious parvenus. For it is noticeable that it is your parvenu who always comes nearest in fashion (so far as externals are concerned) to your genuine exquisite. It is your parvenu who is most particular as to the cut of his coat, and the precision of his equipage, and the minutia, of his menage. Those between the parvenu and the exquisite, who know their own consequence, and have something solid to rest upon, are slow in following all the caprices of fashion, and obtuse in observation as to those niceties which neither give them another ancestor, nor add another thousand to the account at their banker's,—as to the last, rather indeed the contrary! There was a decided elegance about the baron's house and his dinner. If he had been one of the lawful kings of the dandies, you would have cried, "What perfect taste!"—but such is human nature, that the dandies who dined with him said to each other, "He pretend to imitate D——! vulgar dog!" There was little affectation of your more showy opulence. The furniture in the rooms was apparently simple, but, in truth, costly, from its luxurious comfort; the ornaments and china scattered about the commodes were of curious rarity and great value, and the pictures on the walls were gems. At dinner, no plate was admitted on the table. The Russian fashion, then uncommon, now more prevalent, was adopted, fruit and flowers in old Sevres dishes of priceless vertu, and in sparkling glass of Bohemian fabric. No livery servant was permitted to wait; behind each guest stood a gentleman dressed so like the guest himself, in fine linen and simple black, that guest and lacquey seemed stereotypes from one plate.
The viands were exquisite; the wine came from the cellars of deceased archbishops and ambassadors. The company was select; the party did not exceed eight. Four were the eldest sons of peers (from a baron to a duke); one was a professed wit, never to be got without a month's notice, and, where a parvenu was host, a certainty of green peas and peaches—out of season; the sixth, to Randal's astonishment, was Mr. Richard Avenel; himself and the baron made up the complement.
The eldest sons recognized each other with a meaning smile; the most juvenile of them, indeed (it was his first year in London), had the grace to blush and look sheepish. The others were more hardened; but they all united in regarding with surprise both Randal and Dick Avenel. The former was known to most of them personally, and to all, by repute, as a grave, clever, promising young man, rather prudent than lavish, and never suspected to have got into a scrape. What the deuce did he do there? Mr. Avenel puzzled them yet more. A middle-aged man, said to be in business, whom they had observed "about town" (for he had a noticeable face and figure),—that is, seen riding in the Park, or lounging in the pit at the opera, but never set eyes on at a recognized club, or in the coteries of their "set;" a man whose wife gave horrid third-rate parties, that took up half a column in the "Morning Post" with a list of "The Company Present," in which a sprinkling of dowagers fading out of fashion, and a foreign title or two, made the darkness of the obscurer names doubly dark. Why this man should be asked to meet them, by Baron Levy, too—a decided tuft-hunter and would-be exclusive—called all their faculties into exercise. The wit, who, being the son of a small tradesman, but in the very best society, gave himself far greater airs than the young lords, impertinently solved the mystery. "Depend on it," whispered he to Spendquick,—"depend on it the man is the X. Y. of the 'Times' who offers to lend any sum of money from L10 to half-a-million. He's the man who has all your bills; Levy is only his jackal."
"'Pon my soul," said Spendquick, rather alarmed, "if that's the case, one may as well be civil to him."
"You, certainly," said the wit. "But I never have found an X. Y. who would advance me the L. s.; and therefore I shall not be more respectful to X. Y. than to any other unknown quantity."
By degrees, as the wine circulated, the party grew gay and sociable. Levy was really an entertaining fellow; had all the gossip of the town at his fingers' ends; and possessed, moreover, that pleasant art of saying ill-natured things of the absent, which those present always enjoy. By degrees, too, Mr. Richard Avenel came out; and, as the whisper had circulated round the table that he was X. Y., he was listened to with a profound respect, which greatly elevated his spirits. Nay, when the wit tried once to show him up or mystify him, Dick answered with a bluff spirit, that, though very coarse, was found so humorous by Lord Spendquick and other gentlemen similarly situated in the money-market that they turned the laugh against the wit, and silenced him for the rest of the night,—a circumstance which made the party go off much more pleasantly. After dinner, the conversation, quite that of single men, easy and debonnaire, glanced from the turf and the ballet and the last scandal towards politics; for the times were such that politics were discussed everywhere, and three of the young lords were county members.
Randal said little, but, as was his wont, listened attentively; and he was aghast to find how general was the belief that the Government was doomed. Out of regard to him, and with that delicacy of breeding which belongs to a certain society, nothing personal to Egerton was said, except by Avenel, who, however, on blurting out some rude expressions respecting that minister, was instantly checked by the baron. "Spare my friend and Mr. Leslie's near connection," said he, with a polite but grave smile.
"Oh," said Avenel, "public men, whom we pay, are public property,—aren't they, my Lord?" appealing to Spendquick.
"Certainly," said Spendquick, with great spirit,—"public property, or why should we pay them? There must be a very strong motive to induce us to do that! I hate paying people. In fact," he subjoined in an aside, "I never do."
"However," resumed Mr. Avenel, graciously, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, Mr. Leslie. As to the feelings of our host, the baron, I calculate that they have got tolerably tough by the exercise they have gone through."
"Nevertheless," said the baron, joining in the laugh which any lively saying by the supposed X. Y. was sure to excite, "nevertheless, 'love me, love my dog,'—love me, love my Egerton."
Randal started, for his quick ear and subtle intelligence caught something sinister and hostile in the tone with which Levy uttered this equivocal comparison, and his eye darted towards the baron. But the baron had bent down his face, and was regaling himself upon an olive.
By-and-by the party rose from table. The four young noblemen had their engagements elsewhere, and proposed to separate without re-entering the drawing-room. As, in Goethe's theory, monads which have affinities with each other are irresistibly drawn together, so these gay children of pleasure had, by a common impulse, on rising from table, moved each to each, and formed a group round the fireplace. Randal stood a little apart, musing; the wit examined the pictures through his eye-glass; and Mr. Avenel drew the baron towards the side-board, and there held him in whispered conference. This colloquy did not escape the young gentlemen round the fireplace; they glanced towards each other.
"Settling the percentage on renewal," said one, sotto voce. "X. Y. does not seem such a very bad fellow," said another.
"He looks rich, and talks rich," said a third.
"A decided, independent way of expressing his sentiments; those moneyed men generally have."
"Good heavens!" ejaculated Spendquick, who had been keeping his eye anxiously fixed on the pair, "do look; X. Y. is actually taking out his pocket-book; he is coming this way. Depend on it he has got our bills—mine is due to-morrow!"
"And mine too," said another, edging off. "Why, it is a perfect guet-apens."
Meanwhile, breaking away from the baron, who appeared anxious to detain him, and failing in that attempt, turned aside, as if not to see Dick's movements,—a circumstance which did not escape the notice of the group, and confirmed all their suspicions,—Mr. Avenel, with a serious, thoughtful face, and a slow step, approached the group. Nor did the great Roman general more nervously "flutter the dove-cots in Corioli," than did the advance of the supposed X. Y. agitate the bosoms of Lord Spendquick and his sympathizing friends. Pocket-book in hand, and apparently feeling for something formidable within its mystic recesses, step by step came Dick Avenel towards the fireplace. The group stood still, fascinated by horror.
"Hum," said Mr. Avenel, clearing his throat.
"I don't like that hum at all," muttered Spendquick. "Proud to have made your acquaintance, gentlemen," said Dick, bowing.
The gentlemen thus addressed bowed low in return.
"My friend the baron thought this not exactly the time to—" Dick stopped a moment; you might have knocked down those four young gentlemen, though four finer specimens of humanity no aristocracy in Europe could produce,—you might have knocked them down with a feather! "But," renewed Avenel, not finishing his sentence, "I have made it a rule in life never to lose securing a good opportunity; in short, to make the most of the present moment. And," added he, with a smile which froze the blood in Lord Spendquick's veins, "the rule has made me a very warm man! Therefore, gentlemen, allow me to present you each with one of these"—every hand retreated behind the back of its well-born owner, when, to the inexpressible relief of all, Dick concluded with,—"a little soiree dansante," and extended four cards of invitation.
"Most happy!" exclaimed Spendquick. "I don't dance in general; but to oblige X—I mean, to have a better acquaintance, sir, with you—I would dance on the tight-rope."
There was a good-humoured, pleasant laugh at Spendquick's enthusiasm, and a general shaking of hands and pocketing of the invitation cards.
"You don't look like a dancing man," said Avenel, turning to the wit, who was plump and somewhat gouty,—as wits who dine out five days in the week generally are; "but we shall have supper at one o'clock."
Infinitely offended and disgusted, the wit replied dryly, "that every hour of his time was engaged for the rest of the season," and, with a stiff salutation to the baron, took his departure. The rest, in good spirits, hurried away to their respective cabriolets; and Leslie was following them into the hall, when the baron, catching hold of him, said, "Stay, I want to talk to you."
The baron turned into his drawing-room, and Leslie followed.
"Pleasant young men, those," said Levy, with a slight sneer, as he threw himself into an easy-chair and stirred the fire. "And not at all proud; but, to be sure, they are—under great obligations to me. Yes; they owe me a great deal a propos, I have had a long talk with Frank Hazeldean,—fine young man, remarkable capacities for business. I can arrange his affairs for him. I find, on reference to the Will Office, that you were quite right; the Casino property is entailed on Frank. He will have the fee simple. He can dispose of the reversion entirely. So that there will be no difficulty in our arrangements."
"But I told you also that Frank had scruples about borrowing on the event of his father's death."
"Ay, you did so. Filial affection! I never take that into account in matters of business. Such little scruples, though they are highly honourable to human nature, soon vanish before the prospect of the King's Bench. And, too, as you so judiciously remarked, our clever young friend is in love with Madame di Negra."
"Did he tell you that?"
"No; but Madame di Negra did!"
"You know her?"
"I know most people in good society, who now and then require a friend in the management of their affairs. And having made sure of the fact you stated, as to Hazeldean's contingent property (excuse my prudence), I have accommodated Madame di Negra and bought up her debts."
"You have—you surprise me!"
"The surprise will vanish on reflection. But you are very new to the world yet, my dear Leslie. By the way, I have had an interview with Peschiera—"
"About his sister's debts?"
"Partly. A man of the nicest honour is Peschiera." Aware of Levy's habit of praising people for the qualities in which, according to the judgment of less penetrating mortals, they were most deficient, Randal only smiled at this eulogy, and waited for Levy to resume. But the baron sat silent and thoughtful for a minute or two, and then wholly changed the subject.
"I think your father has some property in ——shire, and you probably can give me a little information as to certain estates of a Mr. Thornhill, estates which, on examination of the title-deeds, I find once, indeed, belonged to your family." The baron glanced at a very elegant memorandum-book.—"The manors of Rood and Dulmansberry, with sundry farms thereon. Mr. Thornhill wants to sell them—an old client of mine, Thornhill. He has applied to me on the matter. Do you think it an improvable property?"
Randal listened with a livid cheek and a throbbing heart. We have seen that, if there was one ambitious scheme in his calculation which, though not absolutely generous and heroic, still might win its way to a certain sympathy in the undebased human mind, it was the hope to restore the fallen fortunes of his ancient house, and repossess himself of the long alienated lands that surrounded the dismal wastes of the mouldering hall. And now to hear that those lands were getting into the inexorable gripe of Levy—tears of bitterness stood in his eyes.
"Thornhill," continued Levy, who watched the young man's countenance,—"Thornhill tells me that that part of his property—the old Leslie lands—produces L2, 000 a year, and that the rental could be raised. He would take L50,000 for it, L20,000 down, and suffer the remaining L30,000 to lie on mortgage at four per cent. It seems a very good purchase. What do you say?"
"Don't ask me," said Randal, stung into rare honesty; "for I had hoped I might live to repossess myself of that property."
"Ah, indeed! It would be a very great addition to your consequence in the world,—not from the mere size of the estate, but from its hereditary associations. And if you have any idea of the purchase, believe me, I'll not stand in your way."
"How can I have any idea of it?"
"But I thought you said you had."
"I understood that these lands could not be sold till Mr. Thornhill's son came of age, and joined in getting rid of the entail."
"Yes, so Thornhill himself supposed, till, on examining the title-deeds, I found he was under a mistake. These lands are not comprised in the settlement made by old Jasper Thornhill, which ties up the rest of the property. The title will be perfect. Thornhill wants to settle the matter at once,—losses on the turf, you understand; an immediate purchaser would get still better terms. A Sir John Spratt would give the money; but the addition of these lands would make the Spratt property of more consequence in the county than the Thornhill. So my client would rather take a few thousands less from a man who don't set up to be his rival. Balance of power in counties as well as nations."
Randal was silent.
"Well," said Levy, with great kindness of manner, "I see I pain you; and though I am what my very pleasant guests would call a parvenu, I comprehend your natural feelings as a gentleman of ancient birth. Parvenu! Ah, is it not strange, Leslie, that no wealth, no fashion, no fame can wipe out that blot? They call me a parvenu, and borrow my money. They call our friend the wit a parvenu, and submit to all his insolence—if they condescend to regard his birth at all—provided they can but get him to dinner. They call the best debater in the parliament of England a parvenu, and will entreat him, some day or other, to be prime minister, and ask him for stars and garters. A droll world, and no wonder the parvenus want to upset it."
Randal had hitherto supposed that this notorious tufthunter, this dandy capitalist, this money-lender, whose whole fortune had been wrung from the wants and follies of an aristocracy, was naturally a firm supporter of things as they are—how could things be better for men like Baron Levy? But the usurer's burst of democratic spleen did not surprise his precocious and acute faculty of observation. He had before remarked, that it is the persons who fawn most upon an aristocracy, and profit the most by the fawning, who are ever at heart its bitterest disparagers. Why is this? Because one full half of democratic opinion is made up of envy; and we can only envy what is brought before our eyes, and what, while very near to us, is still unattainable. No man envies an archangel.
"But," said Levy, throwing himself back in his chair, "a new order of things is commencing; we shall see. Leslie, it is lucky for you that you did not enter parliament under the government; it would be your political ruin for life."
"You think, then, that the ministry really cannot last?"
"Of course I do; and what is more, I think that a ministry of the same principles cannot be restored. You are a young man of talent and spirit; your birth is nothing compared to the rank of the reigning party; it would tell, to a certain degree, in a democratic one. I say, you should be more civil to Avenel; he could return you to parliament at the next election."
"The next election! In six years! We have just had a general election."
"There will be another before this year, or half of it, or perhaps a quarter of it, is out."
"What makes you think so?"
"Leslie, let there be confidence between us; we can help each other. Shall we be friends?"
"With all my heart. But though you may help me, how can I help you?"
"You have helped me already to Frank Hazeldean and the Casino estate. All clever men can help me. Come, then, we are friends; and what I say is secret. You ask me why I think there will be a general election so soon? I will answer you frankly. Of all the public men I ever met with, there is no one who has so clear a vision of things immediately before him as Audley Egerton."
"He has that character. Not far-seeing, but clear-sighted to a certain limit."
"Exactly so. No one better, therefore, knows public opinion and its immediate ebb and flow."
"Egerton, then, counts on a general election within three months, and I have lent him the money for it."
"Lent him the money! Egerton borrow money of you, the rich Audley Egerton!"
"Rich!" repeated Levy, in a tone impossible to describe, and accompanying the word with that movement of the middle finger and thumb, commonly called a "snap," which indicates profound contempt.
He said no more. Randal sat stupefied. At length the latter muttered, "But if Egerton is really not rich; if he lose office, and without the hope of return to it—"
"If so, he is ruined!" said Levy, coldly; "and therefore, from regard to you, and feeling interest in your future fate, I say, Rest no hopes of fortune or career upon Audley Egerton. Keep your place for the present, but be prepared at the next election to stand upon popular principles. Avenel shall return you to parliament; and the rest is with luck and energy. And now, I'll not detain you longer," said Levy, rising and ringing the bell. The servant entered. "Is my carriage here?"
"Can I set you down anywhere?"
"No, thank you, I prefer walking."
"Adieu, then. And mind you remember the soiree dansante at Mrs. Avenel's." Randal mechanically shook the hand extended to him, and went down the stairs.
The fresh frosty air roused his intellectual faculties, which Levy's ominous words had almost paralyzed.
And the first thing the clever schemer said to himself was this,
"But what can be the man's motive in what he said to me?"
The next was,—
"Egerton ruined! What am I, then?" And the third was,
"And that fair remnant of the old Leslie property! L20,000 down—how to get the sum? Why should Levy have spoken to me of this?"
And lastly, the soliloquy rounded back—"The man's motives! His motives!"
Meanwhile, the baron threw himself into his chariot—the most comfortable, easy chariot you can possibly conceive, single man's chariot, perfect taste,—no married man ever had such a chariot; and in a few minutes he was at ————-'s hotel, and in the presence of Giulio Franzini, Count di Peschiera.
"Mon cher," said the baron, in very good French, and in a tone of the most familiar equality with the descendant of the princes and heroes of grand medieval Italy,—"mon cher, give me one of your excellent cigars. I think I have put all matters in train."
"You have found out—"
"No; not so fast yet," said the baron, lighting the cigar extended to him. "But you said that you should be perfectly contented if it only cost you L20,000 to marry off your sister (to whom that sum is legally due), and to marry yourself to the heiress."
"I did, indeed."
"Then I have no doubt I shall manage both objects for that sum, if Randal Leslie really knows where the young lady is, and can assist you. Most promising, able man is Randal Leslie—but innocent as a babe just born."
"Ha, ha! Innocent? Que diable!"
"Innocent as this cigar, mon cher,—strong certainly, but smoked very easily. Soyez tranquille!"
Who has not seen, who not admired, that noble picture by Daniel Maclise, which refreshes the immortal name of my ancestor Caxton! For myself, while with national pride I heard the admiring murmurs of the foreigners who grouped around it (nothing, indeed, of which our nation may be more proud had they seen in the Crystal Palace),—heard, with no less a pride in the generous nature of fellow-artists, the warm applause of living and deathless masters sanctioning the enthusiasm of the popular crowd, what struck me more than the precision of drawing, for which the artist has been always renowned, and the just, though gorgeous affluence of colour which he has more recently acquired, was the profound depth of conception, out of which this great work had so elaborately arisen. That monk, with his scowl towards the printer and his back on the Bible over which his form casts a shadow—the whole transition between the medieval Christianity of cell and cloister, and the modern Christianity that rejoices in the daylight, is depicted there, in the shadow that obscures the Book, in the scowl that is fixed upon the Book-diffuser;—that sombre, musing face of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with the beauty of Napoleon, darkened to the expression of a Fiend, looking far and anxiously into futurity, as if foreseeing there what antagonism was about to be created to the schemes of secret crime and unrelenting force; the chivalrous head of the accomplished Rivers, seen but in profile, under his helmet, as if the age when Chivalry must defend its noble attributes in steel was already half passed away; and, not least grand of all, the rude thews and sinews of the artisan forced into service on the type, and the ray of intellect, fierce, and menacing revolutions yet to be, struggling through his rugged features, and across his low knitted brow,—all this, which showed how deeply the idea of the discovery in its good and its evil, its saving light and its perilous storms, had sunk into the artist's soul, charmed me as effecting the exact union between sentiment and execution, which is the true and rare consummation of the Ideal in Art. But observe, while in these personages of the group are depicted the deeper and graver agencies implicated in the bright but terrible invention, observe how little the light epicures of the hour heed the scowl of the monk, or the restless gesture of Richard, or the troubled gleam in the eyes of the artisan, King Edward, handsome Poco curante, delighted in the surprise of a child, with a new toy, and Clarence, with his curious, yet careless, glance,—all the while Caxton himself, calm, serene, untroubled, intent solely upon the manifestation of his discovery, and no doubt supremely indifferent whether the first proofs of it shall be dedicated to a Rivers or an Edward, a Richard or a Henry, Plantagenet or Tudor—'t is all the same to that comely, gentle-looking man. So is it ever with your Abstract Science!—not a jot cares its passionless logic for the woe or weal of a generation or two. The stream, once emerged from its source, passes on into the great Intellectual Sea, smiling over the wretch that it drowns, or under the keel of the ship which it serves as a slave.