Riccabocca was immovable here; and the matter was settled as he decided, it being agreed that Violante should be still styled but the daughter of Dr. Riccabocca.
"And now, one word more," said Harley. "Do not confide to Mr. Leslie these arrangements; do not let him know where Violante is placed,—at least, until I authorize such confidence in him. It is sufficient excuse that it is no use to know unless he called to see her, and his movements, as I said before, may be watched. You can give the same reason to suspend his visits to yourself. Suffer me, meanwhile, to mature my judgment on this young man. In the meanwhile, also, I think that I shall have means of ascertaining the real nature of Peschiera's schemes. His sister has sought to know me; I will give her the occasion. I have heard some things of her in my last residence abroad, which make me believe that she cannot be wholly the count's tool in any schemes nakedly villanous; that she has some finer qualities in her than I once supposed; and that she can be won from his influence. It is a state of war; we will carry it into the enemy's camp. You will promise me, then, to refrain from all further confidence in Mr. Leslie?"
"For the present, yes," said Riccabocca, reluctantly.
"Do not even say that you have seen me, unless he first tell you that I am in England, and wish to learn your residence. I will give him full occasion to do so. Pish! don't hesitate; you know your own proverb—
"'Boccha chiusa, ed occhio aperto Non fece mai nissun deserto.'
"The closed mouth and the open eye,' etc."
"That's very true," said the doctor, much struck. "Very true. 'In boccha chiusa non c'entrano mosche.' One can't swallow flies if one keeps one's mouth shut. Corpo di Bacco! that's very true indeed."
Violante and Jemima were both greatly surprised, as the reader may suppose, when they heard, on their return, the arrangements already made for the former. The countess insisted on taking her at once, and Riccabocca briefly said, "Certainly, the sooner the better." Violante was stunned and bewildered. Jemima hastened to make up a little bundle of things necessary, with many a woman's sigh that the poor wardrobe contained so few things befitting. But among the clothes she slipped a purse, containing the savings of months, perhaps of years, and with it a few affectionate lines, begging Violante to ask the countess to buy her all that was proper for her father's child. There is always something hurried and uncomfortable in the abrupt and unexpected withdrawal of any member from a quiet household. The small party broke into still smaller knots. Violante hung on her father, and listened vaguely to his not very lucid explanations. The countess approached Leonard, and, according to the usual mode with persons of quality addressing young authors, complimented him highly on the books she had not read, but which her son assured her were so remarkable. She was a little anxious to know where Harley had first met with Mr. Oran, whom he called his friend; but she was too highbred to inquire, or to express any wonder that rank should be friends with genius. She took it for granted that they had formed their acquaintance abroad.
Harley conversed with Helen.—"You are not sorry that Violante is coming to us? She will be just such a companion for you as I could desire; of your own years too."
HELEN (ingenuously).—"It is hard to think I am not younger than she is."
HARLEY.—"Why, my dear Helen?"
HELEN.—"She is so brilliant. She talks so beautifully. And I—"
HARLEY.—"And you want but the habit of talking, to do justice to your own beautiful thoughts."
Helen looked at him gratefully, but shook her head. It was a common trick of hers, and always when she was praised.
At last the preparations were made, the farewell was said, Violante was in the carriage by Lady Lansmere's side. Slowly moved on the stately equipage with its four horses and trim postilions, heraldic badges on their shoulders, in the style rarely seen in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, and now fast vanishing even amidst distant counties.
Riccabocca, Jemima, and Jackeymo continued to gaze after it from the gate.
"She is gone," said Jackeymo, brushing his eyes with his coat-sleeve. "But it is a load off one's mind."
"And another load on one's heart," murmured Riccabocca. "Don't cry, Jemima; it may be bad for you, and bad for him that is to come. It is astonishing how the humours of the mother may affect the unborn. I should not like to have a son who has a more than usual propensity to tears."
The poor philosopher tried to smile; but it was a bad attempt. He went slowly in, and shut himself with his books. But he could not read. His whole mind was unsettled. And though, like all parents, he had been anxious to rid himself of a beloved daughter for life, now that she was gone but for a while, a string seemed broken in the Music of Home.
The evening of the same day, as Egerton, who was to entertain a large party at dinner, was changing his dress, Harley walked into his room.
Egerton dismissed his valet by a sign, and continued his toilet.
"Excuse me, my dear Harley, I have only ten minutes to give you. I expect one of the royal dukes, and punctuality is the stern virtue of men of business, and the graceful courtesy of princes."
Harley had usually a jest for his friend's aphorisms; but he had none now. He laid his hand kindly on Egerton's shoulder. "Before I speak of my business, tell me how you are,—better?"
"Better,—nay, I am always well. Pooh! I may look a little tired,—years of toil will tell on the countenance. But that matters little: the period of life has passed with me when one cares how one looks in the glass."
As he spoke, Egerton completed his dress, and came to the hearth, standing there, erect and dignified as usual, still far handsomer than many a younger man, and with a form that seemed to have ample vigour to support for many a year the sad and glorious burden of power.
"So now to your business, Harley."
"In the first place, I want you to present me, at the earliest opportunity, to Madame di Negra. You say she wished to know me."
"Are you serious?"
"Well, then, she receives this evening. I did not mean to go; but when my party breaks up—"
"You can call for me at The Travellers. Do!"
"Next, you knew Lady Jane Horton better even than I did, at least in the last year of her life." Harley sighed, and Egerton turned and stirred the fire.
"Pray, did you ever see at her house, or hear her speak of, a Mrs. Bertram?"
"Of whom?" said Egerton, in a hollow voice, his face still turned towards the fire.
"A Mrs. Bertram; but heavens! my dear fellow, what is the matter? Are you ill?"
"A spasm at the heart, that is all; don't ring, I shall be better presently; go on talking. Mrs.—why do you ask?"
"Why? I have hardly time to explain; but I am, as I told you, resolved on righting my old Italian friend, if Heaven will help me, as it ever does help the just when they bestir themselves; and this Mrs. Bertram is mixed up in my friend's affairs."
"His! How is that possible?"
Harley rapidly and succinctly explained. Audley listened attentively, with his eyes fixed on the floor, and still seeming to labour under great difficulty of breathing.
At last he answered, "I remember something of this Mrs.—Mrs.—Bertram. But your inquiries after her would be useless. I think I have heard that she is long since dead; nay, I am sure of it."
"Dead!—that is most unfortunate. But do you know any of her relations or friends? Can you suggest any mode of tracing this packet, if it came to her hands?"
"And Lady Jane had scarcely any friend that I remember except my mother, and she knows nothing of this Mrs. Bertram. How unlucky! I think I shall advertise. Yet, no. I could only distinguish this Mrs. Bertram from any other of the same name, by stating with whom she had gone abroad, and that would catch the attention of Peschiera, and set him to counterwork us."
"And what avails it?" said Egerton. "She whom you seek is no more—no more!" He paused, and went on rapidly: "The packet did not arrive in England till years after her death, was no doubt returned to the post-office, is destroyed long ago."
Harley looked very much disappointed. Egerton went on in a sort of set, mechanical voice, as if not thinking of what he said, but speaking from the dry practical mode of reasoning which was habitual to him, and by which the man of the world destroys the hopes of an enthusiast. Then starting up at the sound of the first thundering knock at the street door, he said, "Hark! you must excuse me."
"I leave you, my dear Audley. But I must again ask, Are you better now?"
"Much, much,—quite well: I will call for you,—probably between eleven and twelve."
If any one could be more surprised at seeing Lord L'Estrange at the house of Madame di Negra that evening than the fair hostess herself, it was Randal Leslie. Something instinctively told him that this visit threatened interference with whatever might be his ultimate projects in regard to Riccabocca and Violante. But Randal Leslie was not one of those who shrink from an intellectual combat. On the contrary, he was too confident of his powers of intrigue not to take a delight in their exercise. He could not conceive that the indolent Harley could be a match for his own restless activity and dogged perseverance. But in a very few moments fear crept on him. No man of his day could produce a more brilliant effect than Lord L'Estrange, when he deigned to desire it. Without much pretence to that personal beauty which strikes at first sight, he still retained all the charm of countenance, and all the grace of manner, which had made him in boyhood the spoiled darling of society. Madame di Negra had collected but a small circle round her; still it was of the elite of the great world,—not, indeed, those more precise and reserved dames de chateau, whom the lighter and easier of the fair dispensers of fashion ridicule as prudes; but nevertheless, ladies were there, as unblemished in reputation, as high in rank, flirts and coquettes, perhaps,—nothing more; in short, "charming women,"—the gay butterflies that hover over the stiff parterre. And there were ambassadors and ministers, and wits and brilliant debaters, and first-rate dandies (dandies, when first-rate, are generally very agreeable men). Amongst all these various persons, Harley, so long a stranger to the London world, seemed to make himself at home with the ease of an Alcibiades. Many of the less juvenile ladies remembered him, and rushed to claim his acquaintance, with nods and becks, and wreathed smiles. He had ready compliment for each. And few indeed were there, men or women, for whom Harley L'Estrange had not appropriate attraction. Distinguished reputation as soldier and scholar for the grave; whim and pleasantry for the gay; novelty for the sated; and for the more vulgar natures was he not Lord L'Estrange, unmarried, possessed already of a large independence, and heir to an ancient earldom, and some fifty thousands a year?
Not till he had succeeded in the general effect—which, it must be owned, he did his best to create—did Harley seriously and especially devote himself to his hostess. And then he seated himself by her side; and, as if in compliment to both, less pressing admirers insensibly slipped away and edged off.
Frank Hazeldean was the last to quit his ground behind Madame di Negra's chair; but when he found that the two began to talk in Italian, and he could not understand a word they said, he too—fancying, poor fellow, that he looked foolish, and cursing his Eton education that had neglected, for languages spoken by the dead, of which he had learned little, those still in use among the living, of which he had learned nought—retreated towards Randal, and asked wistfully, "Pray, what age should you say L'Estrange was? He must be devilish old, in spite of his looks. Why, he was at Waterloo!"
"He is young enough to be a terrible rival," answered Randal, with artful truth.
Frank turned pale, and began to meditate dreadful bloodthirsty thoughts, of which hair-triggers and Lord's Cricket-ground formed the staple.
Certainly there was apparent ground for a lover's jealousy; for Harley and Beatrice now conversed in a low tone, and Beatrice seemed agitated, and Harley earnest. Randal himself grew more and more perplexed. Was Lord L'Estrange really enamoured of the marchesa? If so, farewell to all hopes of Frank's marriage with her! Or was he merely playing a part in Riccabocca's interest; pretending to be the lover, in order to obtain an influence over her mind, rule her through her ambition, and secure an ally against her brother? Was this finesse compatible with Randal's notions of Harley's character? Was it consistent with that chivalric and soldierly spirit of honour which the frank nobleman affected, to make love to a woman in mere ruse de guerre? Could mere friendship for Riccabocca be a sufficient inducement to a man, who, whatever his weaknesses or his errors, seemed to wear on his very forehead a soul above deceit, to stoop to paltry means, even for a worthy end? At this question, a new thought flashed upon Randal,—might not Lord L'Estrange have speculated himself upon winning Violante; would not that account for all the exertions he had made on behalf of her inheritance at the court of Vienna,—exertions of which Peschiera and Beatrice had both complained? Those objections which the Austrian government might take to Violante's marriage with some obscure Englishman would probably not exist against a man like Harley L'Estrange, whose family not only belonged to the highest aristocracy of England, but had always supported opinions in vogue amongst the leading governments of Europe. Harley himself, it is true, had never taken part in politics, but his notions were, no doubt, those of a high-born soldier, who had fought, in alliance with Austria, for the restoration of the Bourbons. And this immense wealth—which Violante might lose, if she married one like Randal himself—her marriage with the heir of the Lansmeres might actually tend only to secure. Could Harley, with all his own expectations, be indifferent to such a prize?—and no doubt he had learned Violante's rare beauty in his correspondence with Riccabocca.
Thus considered, it seemed natural to Randal's estimate of human nature that Harley's more prudish scruples of honour, as regards what is due to women, could not resist a temptation so strong. Mere friendship was not a motive powerful enough to shake them, but ambition was.
While Randal was thus cogitating, Frank thus suffering, and many a whisper, in comment on the evident flirtation between the beautiful hostess and the accomplished guest, reached the ears both of the brooding schemer and the jealous lover, the conversation between the two objects of remark and gossip had taken a new turn. Indeed, Beatrice had made an effort to change it.
"It is long, my Lord," said she, still speaking Italian, "since I have heard sentiments like those you address to me; and if I do not feel myself wholly unworthy of them, it is from the pleasure I have felt in reading sentiments equally foreign to the language of the world in which I live." She took a book from the table as she spoke: "Have you seen this work?"
Harley glanced at the title-page. "To be sure I have, and I know the author."
"I envy you that honour. I should so like also to know one who has discovered to me deeps in my own heart which I had never explored."
"Charming marchesa, if the book has done this, believe me that I have paid you no false compliment,—formed no overflattering estimate of your nature; for the charm of the work is but in its simple appeal to good and generous emotions, and it can charm none in whom those emotions exist not!"
"Nay, that cannot be true, or why is it so popular?"
"Because good and generous emotions are more common to the human heart than we are aware of till the appeal comes."
"Don't ask me to think that! I have found the world so base."
"Pardon me a rude question; but what do you know of the world?"
Beatrice looked first in surprise at Harley, then glanced round the room with significant irony.
"As I thought; you call this little room 'the world.' Be it so. I will venture to say, that if the people in this room were suddenly converted into an audience before a stage, and you were as consummate in the actor's art as you are in all others that please and command—"
"And were to deliver a speech full of sordid and base sentiments, you would be hissed. But let any other woman, with half your powers, arise and utter sentiments sweet and womanly, or honest and lofty, and applause would flow from every lip, and tears rush to many a worldly eye. The true proof of the inherent nobleness of our common nature is in the sympathy it betrays with what is noble wherever crowds are collected. Never believe the world is base; if it were so, no society could hold together for a day. But you would know the author of this book? I will bring him to you."
"And now," said Harley, rising, and with his candid, winning smile, "do you think we shall ever be friends?"
"You have startled me so that I can scarcely answer. But why would you be friends with me?"
"Because you need a friend. You have none?"
"Strange flatterer!" said Beatrice, smiling, though very sadly; and looking up, her eye caught Randal's.
"Pooh!" said Harley, "you are too penetrating to believe that you inspire friendship there. Ah, do you suppose that; all the while I have been conversing with you, I have not noticed the watchful gaze of Mr. Randal Leslie? What tie can possibly connect you together I know not yet; but I soon shall."
"Indeed! you talk like one of the old Council of Venice. You try hard to make me fear you," said Beatrice, seeking to escape from the graver kind of impression Harley had made on her, by the affectation partly of coquetry, partly of levity.
"And I," said L'Estrange, calmly, "tell you already that I fear you no more." He bowed, and passed through the crowd to rejoin Audley, who was seated in a corner whispering with some of his political colleagues. Before Harley reached the minister, he found himself close to Randal and young Hazeldean.
He bowed to the first, and extended his hand to the last. Randal felt the distinction, and his sullen, bitter pride was deeply galled,—a feeling of hate towards Harley passed into his mind. He was pleased to see the cold hesitation with which Frank just touched the hand offered to him. But Randal had not been the only person whose watch upon Beatrice the keen-eyed Harley had noticed. Harley had seen the angry looks of Frank Hazeldean, and divined the cause. So he smiled forgivingly at the slight he had received. "You are like me, Mr. Hazeldean," said he. "You think something of the heart should go with all courtesy that bespeaks friendship—
"'The hand of Douglas is his own.'"
Here Harley drew aside Randal. "Mr. Leslie, a word with you. If I wished to know the retreat of Dr. Riccabocca, in order to render him a great service, would you confide to me that secret?"
"That woman has let out her suspicions that I know the exile's retreat," thought Randal; and with quick presence of mind, he replied at once,
"My Lord, yonder stands a connection of Dr. Riccabocca's. Mr. Hazeldean is surely the person to whom you should address this inquiry."
"Not so, Mr. Leslie; for I suspect that he cannot answer it, and that you can. Well, I will ask something that it seems to me you may grant without hesitation. Should you see Dr. Riccabocca, tell him that I am in England, and so leave it to him to communicate with me or not; but perhaps you have already done so?"
"Lord L'Estrange," said Randal, bowing low, with pointed formality, "excuse me if I decline either to disclaim or acquiesce in the knowledge you impute to me. If I am acquainted with any secret intrusted to me by Dr. Riccabocca, it is for me to use my own discretion how best to guard it. And for the rest, after the Scotch earl, whose words your Lordship has quoted, refused to touch the hand of Marmion, Douglas could scarcely have called Marmion back in order to give him—a message!"
Harley was not prepared for this tone in Mr. Egerton's protege, and his own gallant nature was rather pleased than irritated by a haughtiness that at least seemed to bespeak independence of spirit. Nevertheless, L'Estrange's suspicions of Randal were too strong to be easily set aside, and therefore he replied, civilly, but with covert taunt,
"I submit to your rebuke, Mr. Leslie, though I meant not the offence you would ascribe to me. I regret my unlucky quotation yet the more, since the wit of your retort has obliged you to identify yourself with Marmion, who, though a clever and brave fellow, was an uncommonly—tricky one." And so Harley, certainly having the best of it, moved on, and joined Egerton, and in a few minutes more both left the room.
"What was L'Estrange saying to you?" asked Frank. "Something about Beatrice, I am sure."
"No; only quoting poetry."
"Then what made you look so angry, my dear fellow? I know it was your kind feeling for me. As you say, he is a formidable rival. But that can't be his own hair. Do you think he wears a toupet? I am sure he was praising Beatrice. He is evidently very much smitten with her. But I don't think she is a woman to be caught by mere rank and fortune! Do you? Why can't you speak?"
"If you do not get her consent soon, I think she is lost to you," said Randal, slowly; and before Frank could recover his dismay, glided from the house.
Violante's first evening at the Lansmeres had passed more happily to her than the first evening under the same roof had done to Helen. True that she missed her father much, Jemima somewhat; but she so identified her father's cause with Harley that she had a sort of vague feeling that it was to promote that cause that she was on this visit to Harley's parents. And the countess, it must be owned, was more emphatically cordial to her than she had ever yet been to Captain Digby's orphan. But perhaps the real difference in the heart of either girl was this, that Helen felt awe of Lady Lansmere, and Violante felt only love for Lord L'Estrange's mother. Violante, too, was one of those persons whom a reserved and formal person, like the countess, "can get on with," as the phrase goes. Not so poor little Helen,—so shy herself, and so hard to coax into more than gentle monosyllables. And Lady Lansmere's favourite talk was always of Harley. Helen had listened to such talk with respect and interest. Violante listened to it with inquisitive eagerness, with blushing delight. The mother's heart noticed the distinction between the two, and no wonder that that heart moved more to Violante than to Helen. Lord Lansmere, too, like most gentlemen of his age, clumped all young ladies together as a harmless, amiable, but singularly stupid class of the genus-Petticoat, meant to look pretty, play the piano, and talk to each other about frocks and sweethearts. Therefore this animated, dazzling creature, with her infinite variety of look and play of mind, took him by surprise, charmed him into attention, and warmed him into gallantry. Helen sat in her quiet corner, at her work, sometimes listening with almost mournful, though certainly unenvious, admiration at Violante's vivid, yet ever unconscious, eloquence of word and thought, sometimes plunged deep into her own secret meditations. And all the while the work went on the same, under the small, noiseless fingers. This was one of Helen's habits that irritated the nerves of Lady Lansmere. She despised young ladies who were fond of work. She did not comprehend how often it is the resource of the sweet womanly mind, not from want of thought, but from the silence and the depth of it. Violante was surprised, and perhaps disappointed, that Harley had left the house before dinner, and did not return all the evening. But Lady Lansmere, in making excuse for his absence, on the plea of engagements, found so good an opportunity to talk of his ways in general,—of his rare promise in boyhood, of her regret at the inaction of his maturity, of her hope to see him yet do justice to his natural powers,—that Violante almost ceased to miss him.
And when Lady Lansmere conducted her to her room, and, kissing her cheek tenderly, said, "But you are just the person Harley admires,—just the person to rouse him from melancholy dreams, of which his wild humours are now but the vain disguise"—Violante crossed her arms on her bosom, and her bright eyes, deepened into tenderness, seemed to ask, "He melancholy—and why?"
On leaving Violante's room, Lady Lansmere paused before the door of Helen's; and, after musing a little while, entered softly.
Helen had dismissed her maid; and, at the moment Lady Lansmere entered, she was kneeling at the foot of the bed, her hands clasped before her face.
Her form, thus seen, looked so youthful and child-like, the attitude itself was so holy and so touching, that the proud and cold expression on Lady Lansmere's face changed. She shaded the light involuntarily, and seated herself in silence that she might not disturb the act of prayer.
When Helen rose, she was startled to see the countess seated by the fire, and hastily drew her hand across her eyes. She had been weeping.
Lady Lansmere did not, however, turn to observe those traces of tears, which Helen feared were too visible. The countess was too absorbed in her own thoughts; and as Helen timidly approached, she said—still with her eyes on the clear low fire—"I beg your pardon, Miss Digby, for my intrusion; but my son has left it to me to prepare Lord Lansmere to learn the offer you have done Harley the honour to accept. I have not yet spoken to my Lord; it may be days before I find a fitting occasion to do so; meanwhile I feel assured that your sense of propriety will make you agree, with me that it is due to Lord L'Estrange's father, that strangers should not learn arrangements of such moment in his family before his own consent be obtained."
Here the countess came to a full pause; and poor Helen, finding herself called upon for some reply to this chilling speech, stammered out, scarce audibly,
"Certainly, madam, I never dreamed of—"
"That is right, my dear," interrupted Lady Lansmere, rising suddenly, and as if greatly relieved. "I could not doubt your superiority to ordinary girls of your age, with whom these matters are never secret for a moment. Therefore, of course, you will not mention, at present, what has passed between you and Harley, to any of the friends with whom you may correspond."
"I have no correspondents, no friends, Lady Lansmere," said Helen, deprecatingly, and trying hard not to cry.
"I am very glad to hear it, my dear; young ladies never should have. Friends, especially friends who correspond, are the worst enemies they can have. Good-night, Miss Digby. I need not add, by the way, that though we are bound to show all kindness to this young Italian lady, still she is wholly unconnected with our family; and you will be as prudent with her as you would have been with your correspondents, had you had the misfortune to have any."
Lady Lansmere said the last words with a smile, and left an ungenial kiss (the stepmother's kiss) on Helen's bended brow. She then left the room, and Helen sat on the seat vacated by the stately, unloving form, and again covered her face with her hands, and again wept. But when she rose at last, and the light fell upon her face, that soft face was sad indeed, but serene,—serene, as with some inward sense of duty, sad, as with the resignation which accepts patience instead of hope.
The next morning Harley appeared at breakfast. He was in gay spirits, and conversed more freely with Violante than he had yet done. He seemed to amuse himself by attacking all she said, and provoking her to argument. Violante was naturally a very earnest person; whether grave or gay, she spoke with her heart on her lips, and her soul in her eyes. She did not yet comprehend the light vein of Harley's irony, so she grew piqued and chafed; and she was so lovely in anger; it so brightened the beauty and animated her words, that no wonder Harley thus maliciously teased her. But what, perhaps, she liked still less than the teasing—though she could not tell why—was the kind of familiarity that Harley assumed with her,—a familiarity as if he had known her all her life,—that of a good-humoured elder brother, or a bachelor uncle. To Helen, on the contrary, when he did not address her apart, his manner was more respectful. He did not call her by her Christian name, as he did Violante, but "Miss Digby," and softened his tone and inclined his head when he spoke to her. Nor did he presume to jest at the very few and brief sentences he drew from Helen, but rather listened to them with deference, and invariably honoured them with approval. After breakfast he asked Violante to play or sing; and when she frankly owned how little she had cultivated those accomplishments, he persuaded Helen to sit down to the piano, and stood by her side while she did so, turning over the leaves of her music-book with the ready devotion of an admiring amateur. Helen always played well, but less well than usual that day, for her generous nature felt abashed. It was as if she were showing off to mortify Violante. But Violante, on the other hand, was so passionately fond of music that she had no feeling left for the sense of her own inferiority. Yet she sighed when Helen rose, and Harley thanked Miss Digby for the delight she had given him.
The day was fine. Lady Lansmere proposed to walk in the garden. While the ladies went up-stairs for their shawls and bonnets, Harley lighted his cigar, and stepped from the window upon the lawn. Lady Lansmere joined him before the girls came out.
"Harley," said she, taking his arm, "what a charming companion you have introduced to us! I never met with any that both pleased and delighted me like this dear Violante. Most girls who possess some power of conversation, and who have dared to think for themselves, are so pedantic, or so masculine; but she is always so simple, and always still the girl. Ah, Harley!"
"Why that sigh, my dear mother?"
"I was thinking how exactly she would have suited you,—how proud I should have been of such a daughter-in-law, and how happy you would have been with such a wife."
Harley started. "Tut," said he, peevishly, "she is a mere child; you forget my years."
"Why," said Lady Lansmere, surprised, "Helen is quite as young as Violante."
"In dates-yes. But Helen's character is so staid; what it is now it will be ever; and Helen, from gratitude, respect, or pity, condescends to accept the ruins of my heart, while this bright Italian has the soul of a Juliet, and would expect in a husband all the passion of a Romeo. Nay, Mother, hush. Do you forget that I am engaged,—and of my own free will and choice? Poor dear Helen! A propos, have you spoken to my father, as you undertook to do?"
"Not yet. I must seize the right moment. You know that my Lord requires management."
"My dear mother, that female notion of managing us men costs you ladies a great waste of time, and occasions us a great deal of sorrow. Men are easily managed by plain truth. We are brought up to respect it, strange as it may seem to you!"
Lady Lansmere smiled with the air of superior wisdom, and the experience of an accomplished wife. "Leave it to me, Harley, and rely on my Lord's consent."
Harley knew that Lady Lansmere always succeeded in obtaining her way with his father; and he felt that the earl might naturally be disappointed in such an alliance, and, without due propitiation, evince that disappointment in his manner to Helen. Harley was bound to save her from all chance of such humiliation. He did not wish her to think that she was not welcomed into his family; therefore he said, "I resign myself to your promise and your diplomacy. Meanwhile, as you love me, be kind to my betrothed."
"Am I not so?"
"Hem. Are you as kind as if she were the great heiress you believe Violante to be?"
"Is it," answered Lady Lansmere, evading the question—"is it because one is an heiress and the other is not that you make so marked a difference in your own manner to the two; treating Violante as a spoilt child, and Miss Digby as—"
"The destined wife of Lord L'Estrange, and the daughter-in-law of Lady Lansmere,—yes."
The countess suppressed an impatient exclamation that rose to her lips, for Harley's brow wore that serious aspect which it rarely assumed save when he was in those moods in which men must be soothed, not resisted. And after a pause he went on, "I am going to leave you to-day. I have engaged apartments at the Clarendon. I intend to gratify your wish, so often expressed, that I should enjoy what are called the pleasures of my rank, and the privileges of single-blessedness,—celebrate my adieu to celibacy, and blaze once more, with the splendour of a setting sun, upon Hyde Park and May Fair."
"You are a positive enigma. Leave our house, just when you are betrothed to its inmate! Is that the natural conduct of a lover?"
"How can your woman eyes be so dull, and your woman heart so obtuse?" answered Harley, half laughing, half scolding. "Can you not guess that I wish that Helen and myself should both lose the association of mere ward and guardian; that the very familiarity of our intercourse under the same roof almost forbids us to be lovers; that we lose the joy to meet, and the pang to part. Don't you remember the story of the Frenchman, who for twenty years loved a lady, and never missed passing his evenings at her house. She became a widow. 'I wish you joy,' cried his friend; 'you may now marry the woman you have so long adored.' 'Alas!' said the poor Frenchman, profoundly dejected; 'and if so, where shall I spend my evenings?'"
Here Violante and Helen were seen in the garden, walking affectionately arm in arm.
"I don't perceive the point of your witty, heartless anecdote," said Lady Lansmere, obstinately. "Settle that, however, with Miss Digby. But to leave the very day after your friend's daughter comes as a guest!—what will she think of it?"
Lord L'Estrange looked steadfastly at his mother. "Does it matter much what she thinks of me,—of a man engaged to another; and old enough to be—"
"I wish to heaven you would not talk of your age, Harley; it is a reflection upon mine; and I never saw you look so well nor so handsome." With that she drew him on towards the young ladies; and, taking Helen's arm, asked her, aside, "If she knew that Lord L'Estrange had engaged rooms at the Clarendon; and if she understood why?" As while she said this she moved on, Harley was left by Violante's side.
"You will be very dull here, I fear, my poor child," said he.
"Dull! But why will you call me child? Am I so very—very child-like?"
"Certainly, you are to me,—a mere infant. Have I not seen you one; have I not held you in my arms?"
VIOLANTE.—"But that was a long time ago!"
HARLEY.—"True. But if years have not stood still for you, they have not been stationary for me. There is the same difference between us now that there was then. And, therefore, permit me still to call you child, and as child to treat you!"
VIOLANTE.—"I will do no such thing. Do you know that I always thought I was good-tempered till this morning."
HARLEY.—"And what undeceived you? Did you break your doll?"
VIOLANTE (with an indignant flash from her dark eyes).—"There!—again!—you delight in provoking me!"
HARLEY.—"It was the doll, then. Don't cry; I will get you another."
Violante plucked her arm from him, and walked away towards the countess in speechless scorn. Harley's brow contracted, in thought and in gloom. He stood still for a moment or so, and then joined the ladies.
"I am trespassing sadly on your morning; but I wait for a visitor whom I sent to before you were up. He is to be here at twelve. With your permission, I will dine with you tomorrow, and you will invite him to meet me."
"Certainly. And who is your friend? I guess—the young author?"
"Leonard Fairfield," cried Violante, who had conquered, or felt ashamed, of her short-lived anger.
"Fairfield!" repeated Lady Lansmere. "I thought, Harley, you said the name was Oran."
"He has assumed the latter name. He is the son of Mark Fairfield, who married an Avenel. Did you recognize no family likeness?—none in those eyes, Mother?" said Harley, sinking his voice into a whisper.
"No;" answered the countess, falteringly.
Harley, observing that Violante was now speaking to Helen about Leonard, and that neither was listening to him, resumed in the same low tone, "And his mother—Nora's sister—shrank from seeing me! That is the reason why I wished you not to call. She has not told the young man why she shrank from seeing me; nor have I explained it to him as yet. Perhaps I never shall."
"Indeed, dearest Harley," said the countess, with great gentleness, "I wish you too much to forget the folly—well, I will not say that word—the sorrows of your boyhood, not to hope that you will rather strive against such painful memories than renew them by unnecessary confidence to any one; least of all to the relation of—"
"Enough! don't name her; the very name pains me. And as to confidence, there are but two persons in the world to whom I ever bare the old wounds,—yourself and Egerton. Let this pass. Ha!—a ring at the bell—that is he!"
Leonard entered on the scene, and joined the party in the garden. The countess, perhaps to please her son, was more than civil,—she was markedly kind to him. She noticed him more attentively than she had hitherto done; and, with all her prejudices of birth, was struck to find the son of Mark Fairfield the carpenter so thoroughly the gentleman. He might not have the exact tone and phrase by which Convention stereotypes those born and schooled in a certain world; but the aristocrats of Nature can dispense with such trite minutia? And Leonard had lived, of late at least, in the best society that exists for the polish of language and the refinement of manners,—the society in which the most graceful ideas are clothed in the most graceful forms; the society which really, though indirectly, gives the law to courts; the society of the most classic authors, in the various ages in which literature has flowered forth from civilization. And if there was something in the exquisite sweetness of Leonard's voice, look, and manner, which the countess acknowledged to attain that perfection in high breeding, which, under the name of "suavity," steals its way into the heart, so her interest in him was aroused by a certain subdued melancholy which is rarely without distinction, and never without charm. He and Helen exchanged but few words. There was but one occasion in which they could have spoken apart, and Helen herself contrived to elude it. His face brightened at Lady Lansmere's cordial invitation, and he glanced at Helen as he accepted it; but her eye did not meet his own.
"And now," said Harley, whistling to Nero, whom his ward was silently caressing, "I must take Leonard away. Adieu! all of you, till to-morrow at dinner. Miss Violante, is the doll to have blue eyes or black?"
Violante turned her own black eyes in mute appeal to Lady Lansmere, and nestled to that lady's side as if in refuge from unworthy insult.
"Let the carriage go to the Clarendon," said Harley to his servant; "I and Mr. Oran will walk to town. Leonard, I think you would rejoice at an occasion to serve your old friends, Dr. Riccabocca and his daughter?"
"Serve them! Oh, yes." And there instantly returned to Leonard the recollection of Violante's words when, on leaving his quiet village, he had sighed to part from all those he loved; and the little dark-eyed girl had said, proudly, yet consolingly, "But to SERVE those you love!" He turned to L'Estrange, with beaming, inquisitive eyes.
"I said to our friend," resumed Harley, "that I would vouch for your honour as my own. I am about to prove my words, and to confide the secrets which your penetration has indeed divined,—our friend is not what he seems." Harley then briefly related to Leonard the particulars of the exile's history, the rank he had held in his native land, the manner in which, partly through the misrepresentations of a kinsman he had trusted, partly through the influence of a wife he had loved, he had been drawn into schemes which he believed bounded to the emancipation of Italy from a foreign yoke by the united exertions of her best and bravest sons.
"A noble ambition!" interrupted Leonard, manfully. "And pardon me, my Lord, I should not have thought that you would speak of it in a tone that implies blame."
"The ambition in itself was noble," answered Harley; "but the cause to which it was devoted became defiled in its dark channel through Secret Societies. It is the misfortune of all miscellaneous political combinations, that with the purest motives of their more generous members are ever mixed the most sordid interests, and the fiercest passions of mean confederates. When those combinations act openly, and in daylight, under the eye of Public Opinion, the healthier elements usually prevail; where they are shrouded in mystery, where they are subjected to no censor in the discussion of the impartial and dispassionate, where chiefs working in the dark exact blind obedience, and every man who is at war with law is at once admitted as a friend of freedom, the history of the world tells us that patriotism soon passes away. Where all is in public, public virtue, by the natural sympathies of the common mind, and by the wholesome control of shame, is likely to obtain ascendancy; where all is in private, and shame is but for him who refuses the abnegation of his conscience, each man seeks the indulgence of his private vice. And hence in Secret Societies (from which may yet proceed great danger to all Europe) we find but foul and hateful Eleusinia, affording pretexts to the ambition of the great, to the license of the penniless, to the passions of the revengeful, to the anarchy of the ignorant. In a word, the societies of these Italian Carbonari did but engender schemes in which the abler chiefs disguised new forms of despotism, and in which the revolutionary many looked forward to the overthrow of all the institutions that stand between Law and Chaos. Naturally, therefore," added L'Estrange, dryly, "when their schemes were detected, and the conspiracy foiled, it was for the silly, honest men entrapped into the league to suffer, the leaders turned king's evidence, and the common mercenaries became—banditti." Harley then proceeded to state that it was just when the soi-disant Riccabocca had discovered the true nature and ulterior views of the conspirators he had joined, and actually withdrawn from their councils, that he was denounced by the kinsman who had duped him into the enterprise, and who now profited by his treason. Harley next spoke of the packet despatched by Riccabocca's dying wife, as it was supposed, to Mrs. Bertram; and of the hopes he founded on the contents of that packet, if discovered. He then referred to the design which had brought Peschiera to England,—a design which that personage had avowed with such effrontery to his companions at Vienna, that he had publicly laid wagers on his success.
"But these men can know nothing of England, of the safety of English laws," said Leonard, naturally. "We take it for granted that Riccabocca, if I am still so to call him, refuses his consent to the marriage between his daughter and his foe. Where, then, the danger? This count, even if Violante were not under your mother's roof, could not get an opportunity to see her. He could not attack the house and carry her off like a feudal baron in the middle ages."
"All this is very true," answered Harley. "Yet I have found through life that we cannot estimate danger by external circumstances, but by the character of those from whom it is threatened. This count is a man of singular audacity, of no mean natural talents,—talents practised in every art of duplicity and intrigue; one of those men whose boast it is that they succeed in whatever they undertake; and he is, here, urged on the one hand by all that can whet the avarice, and on the other, by all that can give invention to despair. Therefore, though I cannot guess what plan he may possibly adopt, I never doubt that some plan, formed with cunning and pursued with daring, will be embraced the moment he discovers Violante's retreat,—unless, indeed, we can forestall all peril by the restoration of her father, and the detection of the fraud and falsehood to which Peschiera owes the fortune he appropriates. Thus, while we must prosecute to the utmost our inquiries for the missing documents, so it should be our care to possess ourselves, if possible, of such knowledge of the count's machinations as may enable us to defeat them. Now, it was with satisfaction that I learned in Germany that Peschiera's sister was in London. I knew enough both of his disposition and of the intimacy between himself and this lady, to make me think it probable he will seek to make her his instrument and accomplice, should he require one. Peschiera (as you may suppose by his audacious wager) is not one of those secret villains who would cut off their right hand if it could betray the knowledge of what was done by the left,—rather one of those self-confident vaunting knaves of high animal spirits, and conscience so obtuse that it clouds their intellect, who must have some one to whom they can boast of their abilities and confide their projects. And Peschiera has done all he can to render this poor woman so wholly dependent on him as to be his slave and his tool. But I have learned certain traits in her character that show it to be impressionable to good, and with tendencies to honour. Peschiera had taken advantage of the admiration she excited, some years ago, in a rich young Englishman, to entice this admirer into gambling, and sought to make his sister both a decoy and an instrument in his designs of plunder. She did not encourage the addresses of our countryman, but she warned him of the snare laid for him, and entreated him to leave the place lest her brother should discover and punish her honesty. The Englishman told me this himself. In fine, my hope of detaching this lady from Peschiera's interests, and inducing her to forewarn us of his purpose, consists but in the innocent, and, I hope, laudable artifice, of redeeming herself,—of appealing to, and calling into disused exercise, the better springs of her nature."
Leonard listened with admiration and some surprise to the singularly subtle and sagacious insight into character which Harley evinced in the brief clear strokes by which he had thus depicted Peschiera and Beatrice, and was struck by the boldness with which Harley rested a whole system of action upon a few deductions drawn from his reasonings on human motive and characteristic bias. Leonard had not expected to find so much practical acuteness in a man who, however accomplished, usually seemed indifferent, dreamy, and abstracted to the ordinary things of life. But Harley L'Estrange was one of those whose powers lie dormant till circumstance applies to them all they need for activity,—the stimulant of a motive.
Harley resumed: "After a conversation I had with the lady last night, it occurred to me that in this part of our diplomacy you could render us essential service. Madame di Negra—such is the sister's name—has conceived an admiration for your genius, and a strong desire to know you personally. I have promised to present you to her; and I shall do so after a preliminary caution. The lady is very handsome, and very fascinating. It is possible that your heart and your senses may not be proof against her attractions."
"Oh, do not fear that!" exclaimed Leonard, with a tone of conviction so earnest that Harley smiled.
"Forewarned is not always forearmed against the might of beauty, my dear Leonard; so I cannot at once accept your assurance. But listen to me! Watch yourself narrowly, and if you find that you are likely to be captivated, promise, on your honour, to retreat at once from the field. I have no right, for the sake of another, to expose you to danger; and Madame di Negra, whatever may be her good qualities, is the last person I should wish to see you in love with."
"In love with her! Impossible!"
"Impossible is a strong word," returned Harley; "still I own fairly (and this belief alone warrants me in trusting you to her fascinations), that I do think, as far as one man can judge of another, that she is not the woman to attract you; and if filled by one pure and generous object in your intercourse with her, you will see her with purged eyes. Still I claim your promise as one of honour."
"I give it," said Leonard, positively. "But how can I serve Riccabocca? How aid in—"
"Thus," interrupted Harley: "the spell of your writings is, that, unconsciously to ourselves, they make us better and nobler. And your writings are but the impressions struck off from your mind. Your conversation, when you are roused, has the same effect. And as you grow more familiar with Madame di Negra, I wish you to speak of your boyhood, your youth. Describe the exile as you have seen him,—so touching amidst his foibles, so grand amidst the petty privations of his fallen fortunes, so benevolent while poring over his hateful Machiavelli, so stingless in his wisdom of the serpent, so playfully astute in his innocence of the dove—I leave the picture to your knowledge of humour and pathos. Describe Violante brooding over her Italian Poets, and filled with dreams of her fatherland; describe her with all the flashes of her princely nature, shining forth through humble circumstance and obscure position; waken in your listener compassion, respect, admiration for her kindred exiles,—and I think our work is done. She will recognize evidently those whom her brother seeks. She will question you closely where you met with them, where they now are. Protect that secret; say at once that it is not your own. Against your descriptions and the feelings they excite, she will not be guarded as against mine. And there are other reasons why your influence over this woman of mixed nature may be more direct and effectual than my own."
"Nay, I cannot conceive that."
"Believe it, without asking me to explain," answered Harley.
For he did not judge it necessary to say to Leonard: "I am high-born and wealthy, you a peasant's son, and living by your exertions. This woman is ambitious and distressed. She might have projects on me that would counteract mine on her. You she would but listen to, and receive, through the sentiments of good or of poetical that are in her; you she would have no interest to subjugate, no motive to ensnare."
"And now," said Harley, turning the subject, "I have another object in view. This foolish sage friend of ours, in his bewilderment and fears, has sought to save Violante from one rogue by promising her hand to a man who, unless my instincts deceive me, I suspect much disposed to be another. Sacrifice such exuberance of life and spirit to that bloodless heart, to that cold and earthward intellect! By Heaven, it shall not be!"
"But whom can the exile possibly have seen of birth and fortunes to render him a fitting spouse for his daughter? Whom, my Lord, except yourself?"
"Me!" exclaimed Harley, angrily, and changing colour. "I worthy of such a creature?—I, with my habits! I, silken egotist that I am! And you, a poet, to form such an estimate of one who might be the queen of a poet's dream!"
"My Lord, when we sat the other night round Riccabocca's hearth, when I heard her speak, and observed you listen, I said to myself, from such knowledge of human nature as comes, we know not how, to us poets,—I said, 'Harley L'Estrange has looked long and wistfully on the heavens, and he now hears the murmur of the wings that can waft him towards them.' And then I sighed, for I thought how the world rules us all in spite of ourselves, and I said, 'What pity for both, that the exile's daughter is not the worldly equal of the peer's son!' And you too sighed, as I thus thought; and I fancied that, while you listened to the music of the wing, you felt the iron of the chain. But the exile's daughter is your equal in birth, and you are her equal in heart and in soul."
"My poor Leonard, you rave," answered Harley, calmly. "And if Violante is not to be some young prince's bride, she should be some young poet's."
"Poet's! Oh, no!" said Leonard, with a gentle laugh. "Poets need repose where they love!"
Harley was struck by the answer, and mused over it in silence. "I comprehend," thought he; "it is a new light that dawns on me. What is needed by the man whose whole life is one strain after glory—whose soul sinks, in fatigue, to the companionship of earth—is not the love of a nature like his own. He is right,—it is repose! While I!—it is true; boy that he is, his intuitions are wiser than all my experience! It is excitement, energy, elevation, that Love should bestow on me. But I have chosen; and, at least, with Helen my life will be calm, and my hearth sacred. Let the rest sleep in the same grave as my youth."
"But," said Leonard, wishing kindly to arouse his noble friend from a revery which he felt was mournful, though he did not divine its true cause,—"but you have not yet told me the name of the signorina's suitor. May I know?"
"Probably one you never heard of. Randal Leslie,—a placeman. You refused a place; you were right."
"Randal Leslie? Heaven forbid!" cried Leonard, revealing his surprise at the name.
"Amen! But what do you know of him?
"Leonard related the story of Burley's pamphlet."
Harley seemed delighted to hear his suspicions of Randal confirmed. "The paltry pretender;—and yet I fancied that he might be formidable! However, we must dismiss him for the present,—we are approaching Madame di Negra's house. Prepare yourself, and remember your promise."
Some days have passed by. Leonard and Beatrice di Negra have already made friends. Harley is satisfied with his young friend's report. He himself has been actively occupied. He has sought, but hitherto in vain, all trace of Mrs. Bertram; he has put that investigation into the hands of his lawyer, and his lawyer has not been more fortunate than himself. Moreover, Harley has blazed forth again in the London world, and promises again de faire fureur; but he has always found time to spend some hours in the twenty-four at his father's house. He has continued much the same tone with Violante, and she begins to accustom herself to it, and reply saucily. His calm courtship to Helen flows on in silence. Leonard, too, has been a frequent guest at the Lansmeres: all welcome and like him there. Peschiera has not evinced any sign of the deadly machinations ascribed to him. He goes less into the drawing-room world; for in that world he meets Lord L'Estrange; and brilliant and handsome though Peschiera be, Lord L'Estrange, like Rob Roy Macgregor, is "on his native heath," and has the decided advantage over the foreigner. Peschiera, however, shines in the clubs, and plays high. Still, scarcely an evening passes in which he and Baron Levy do not meet.
Audley Egerton has been intensely occupied with affairs, only seen once by Harley. Harley then was about to deliver himself of his sentiments respecting Randal Leslie, and to communicate the story of Burley and the pamphlet. Egerton stopped him short.
"My dear Harley, don't try to set me against this young man. I wish to hear nothing in his disfavour. In the first place, it would not alter the line of conduct I mean to adopt with regard to him. He is my wife's kinsman; I charged myself with his career, as a wish of hers, and therefore as a duty to myself. In attaching him so young to my own fate, I drew him necessarily away from the professions in which his industry and talents (for he has both in no common degree) would have secured his fortunes; therefore, be he bad, be he good, I shall try to provide for him as I best can; and, moreover, cold as I am to him, and worldly though perhaps he be, I have somehow or other conceived an interest in him, a liking to him. He has been under my roof, he is dependent on me; he has been docile and prudent, and I am a lone childless man; therefore, spare him, since in so doing you spare me; and ah, Harley, I have so many cares on me now that—"
"Oh, say no more, my dear, dear Audley," cried the generous friend; "how little people know you!"
Audley's hand trembled. Certainly his nerves began to show wear and tear.
Meanwhile, the object of this dialogue—the type of perverted intellect, of mind without heart, of knowledge which had no aim but power—was in a state of anxious, perturbed gloom. He did not know whether wholly to believe Levy's assurance of his patron's ruin. He could not believe it when he saw that great house in Grosvenor Square, its hall crowded with lacqueys, its sideboard blazing with plate; when no dun was ever seen in the antechamber; when not a tradesman was ever known to call twice for a bill. He hinted to Levy the doubts all these phenomena suggested to him; but the baron only smiled ominously, and said,
"True, the tradesmen are always paid; but the how is the question! Randal, mon cher, you are too innocent. I have but two pieces of advice to suggest, in the shape of two proverbs,—'Wise rats run from a falling house,' and, 'Make hay while the sun shines.' A propos, Mr. Avenel likes you greatly, and has been talking of the borough of Lansmere for you. He has contrived to get together a great interest there. Make much of him."
Randal had indeed been to Mrs. Avenel's soiree dansante, and called twice and found her at home, and been very bland and civil, and admired the children. She had two, a boy and a girl, very like their father, with open faces as bold as brass. And as all this had won Mrs. Avenel's good graces, so it had propitiated her husband's. Avenel was shrewd enough to see how clever Randal was. He called him "smart," and said "he would have got on in America," which was the highest praise Dick Avenel ever accorded to any man. But Dick himself looked a little careworn; and this was the first year in which he had murmured at the bills of his wife's dressmaker, and said with an oath, that "there was such a thing as going too much ahead."
Randal had visited Dr. Riccabocca, and found Violante flown. True to his promise to Harley, the Italian refused to say where, and suggested, as was agreed, that for the present it would be more prudent if Randal suspended his visits to himself. Leslie, not liking this proposition, attempted to make himself still necessary by working on Riccabocca's fears as to that espionage on his retreat, which had been among the reasons that had hurried the sage into offering Randal Violante's hand. But Riccabocca had already learned that the fancied spy was but his neighbour Leonard; and, without so saying, he cleverly contrived to make the supposition of such espionage an additional reason for the cessation of Leslie's visits. Randal then, in his own artful, quiet, roundabout way, had sought to find out if any communication had passed between L'Estrange and Riccabocca. Brooding over Harley's words to him, he suspected there had been such communication, with his usual penetrating astuteness. Riceabocca, here, was less on his guard, and rather parried the sidelong questions than denied their inferences.
Randal began already to surmise the truth. Where was it likely Violante should go but to the Lansmeres? This confirmed his idea of Harley's pretensions to her hand. With such a rival what chance had he? Randal never doubted for a moment that the pupil of Machiavelli would "throw him over," if such an alliance to his daughter really presented itself. The schemer at once discarded from his objects all further aim on Violante; either she would be poor, and he would not have her; or she would be rich, and her father would give her to another. As his heart had never been touched by the fair Italian, so the moment her inheritance became more doubtful, it gave him no pang to lose her; but he did feel very sore and resentful at the thought of being supplanted by Lord L'Estrange,—the man who had insulted him.
Neither, as yet, had Randal made any way in his designs on Frank. For several days Madame di Negra had not been at home either to himself or young Hazeldean; and Frank, though very unhappy, was piqued and angry; and Randal suspected, and suspected, and suspected, he knew not exactly what, but that the devil was not so kind to him there as that father of lies ought to have been to a son so dutiful. Yet, with all these discouragements, there was in Randal Leslie so dogged and determined a conviction of his own success, there was so great a tenacity of purpose under obstacles, and so vigilant an eye upon all chances that could be turned to his favour, that he never once abandoned hope, nor did more than change the details in his main schemes. Out of calculations apparently the most far-fetched and improbable, he had constructed a patient policy, to which he obstinately clung. How far his reasonings and patience served to his ends remains yet to be seen. But could our contempt for the baseness of Randal himself be separated from the faculties which he elaborately degraded to the service of that baseness, one might allow that there was something one could scarcely despise in this still self-reliance, this inflexible resolve. Had such qualities, aided as they were by abilities of no ordinary acuteness, been applied to objects commonly honest, one would have backed Randal Leslie against any fifty picked prize-men from the colleges. But there are judges of weight and metal who do that now, especially Baron Levy, who says to himself as he eyes that pale face all intellect, and that spare form all nerve, "This is a man who must make way in life; he is worth helping."
By the words "worth helping" Baron Levy meant "worth getting into my power, that he may help me."
But parliament had met. Events that belong to history had contributed yet more to weaken the administration. Randal Leslie's interest became absorbed in politics, for the stake to him was his whole political career. Should Audley lose office, and for good, Audley could aid him no more; but to abandon his patron, as Levy recommended, and pin himself, in the hope of a seat in parliament, to a stranger,—an obscure stranger, like Dick Avenel,—that was a policy not to be adopted at a breath. Meanwhile, almost every night, when the House met, that pale face and spare form, which Levy so identified with shrewdness and energy, might be seen amongst the benches appropriated to those more select strangers who obtain the Speaker's order of admission. There, Randal heard the great men of that day, and with the half-contemptuous surprise at their fame, which is common enough amongst clever, well-educated young men, who know not what it is to speak in the House of Commons. He heard much slovenly English, much trite reasoning, some eloquent thoughts, and close argument, often delivered in a jerking tone of voice (popularly called the parliamentary twang), and often accompanied by gesticulations that would have shocked the manager of a provincial theatre. He thought how much better than these great dons (with but one or two exceptions), he himself could speak,—with what more refined logic, with what more polished periods, how much more like Cicero and Burke! Very probably he might have so spoken, and for that very reason have made that deadest of all dead failures,—a pretentious imitation of Burke and Cicero. One thing, however, he was obliged to own,—namely, that in a popular representative assembly, it is not precisely knowledge which is power, or if knowledge, it is but the knowledge of that particular assembly, and what will best take with it; passion, invective, sarcasm, bold declamation, shrewd common-sense, the readiness so rarely found in a very profound mind,—he owned that all these were the qualities that told; when a man who exhibited nothing but "knowledge," in the ordinary sense of the word, stood an imminent chance of being coughed down.
There at his left—last but one in the row of the ministerial chiefs—Randal watched Audley Egerton, his arms folded on his breast, his hat drawn over his brows, his eyes fixed with steady courage on whatever speaker in the Opposition held possession of the floor. And twice Randal heard Egerton speak, and marvelled much at the effect that minister produced. For of those qualities enumerated above, and which Randal had observed to be most sure of success, Audley Egerton only exhibited to a marked degree the common-sense and the readiness. And yet, though but little applauded by noisy cheers, no speaker seemed more to satisfy friends, and command respect from foes. The true secret was this, which Randal might well not divine, since that young person, despite his ancient birth, his Eton rearing, and his refined air, was not one of Nature's gentlemen,—the true secret was, that Audley Egerton moved, looked, and spoke like a thorough gentleman of England,—a gentleman of more than average talents and of long experience, speaking his sincere opinions, not a rhetorician aiming at effect. Moreover, Egerton was a consummate man of the world. He said, with nervous simplicity, what his party desired to be said, and put what his opponents felt to be the strong points of the case. Calm and decorous, yet spirited and energetic, with little variety of tone, and action subdued and rare, but yet signalized by earnest vigour, Audley Egerton impressed the understanding of the dullest, and pleased the taste of the most fastidious.
But once, when allusions were made to a certain popular question, on which the premier had announced his resolution to refuse all concession, and on the expediency of which it was announced that the Cabinet was nevertheless divided, and when such allusions were coupled with direct appeals to Mr. Egerton, as "the enlightened member of a great commercial constituency," and with a flattering doubt that "that Right Honourable gentleman, member for that great city, identified with the cause of the Burgher class, could be so far behind the spirit of the age as his official chief,"—Randal observed that Egerton drew his hat still more closely over his brows, and turned to whisper with one of his colleagues. He could not be got up to speak.
That evening Randal walked home with Egerton, and intimated his surprise that the minister had declined what seemed to him a good occasion for one of those brief, weighty replies by which Audley was chiefly distinguished,—an occasion to which he had been loudly invited by the "hears" of the House.
"Leslie," answered the statesman, briefly, "I owe all my success in parliament to this rule,—I have never spoken against my convictions. I intend to abide by it to the last."
"But if the question at issue comes before the House, you will vote against it?"
"Certainly, I vote as a member of the Cabinet. But since I am not leader and mouthpiece of the party, I retain as an individual the privilege to speak or keep silence."
"Ah, my dear Mr. Egerton," exclaimed Randal, "forgive me. But this question, right or wrong, has got such hold of the public mind. So little, if conceded in time, would give content; and it is so clear (if I may judge by the talk I hear everywhere I go) that by refusing all concession, the Government must fall, that I wish—"
"So do I wish," interrupted Egerton, with a gloomy, impatient sigh,—"so do I wish! But what avails it? If my advice had been taken but three weeks ago—now it is too late—we could have doubled the rock; we refused, we must split upon it."
This speech was so unlike the discreet and reserved minister, that Randal gathered courage to proceed with an idea that had occurred to his own sagacity. And before I state it, I must add that Egerton had of late shown much more personal kindness to his protege; whether his spirits were broken, or that at last, close and compact as his nature of bronze was, he felt the imperious want to groan aloud in some loving ear, the stern Audley seemed tamed and softened. So Randal went on,
"May I say what I have heard expressed with regard to you and your position—in the streets, in the clubs?"
"Yes, it is in the streets and the clubs that statesmen should go to school. Say on."
"Well, then, I have heard it made a matter of wonder why you, and one or two others I will not name, do not at once retire from the ministry, and on the avowed ground that you side with the public feeling on this irresistible question."
"It is clear that in so doing you would become the most popular man in the country,—clear that you would be summoned back to power on the shoulders of the people. No new Cabinet could be formed without you, and your station in it would perhaps be higher, for life, than that which you may now retain but for a few weeks longer. Has not this ever occurred to you?"
"Never," said Audley, with dry composure.
Amazed at such obtuseness, Randal exclaimed, "Is it possible! And yet, forgive me if I say I think you are ambitious, and love power."
"No man more ambitious; and if by power you mean office, it has grown the habit of my life, and I shall not know what to do without it."
"And how, then, has what seems to me so obvious never occurred to you?"
"Because you are young, and therefore I forgive you; but not the gossips who could wonder why Audley Egerton refused to betray the friends of his whole career, and to profit by the treason."
"But one should love one's country before a party."
"No doubt of that; and the first interest of a country is the honour of its public men."
"But men may leave their party without dishonour!"
"Who doubts that? Do you suppose that if I were an ordinary independent member of parliament, loaded with no obligations, charged with no trust, I could hesitate for a moment what course to pursue? Oh, that I were but the member for —————! Oh, that I had the full right to be a free agent! But if a member of a Cabinet, a chief in whom thousands confide, because he is outvoted in a council of his colleagues, suddenly retires, and by so doing breaks up the whole party whose confidence he has enjoyed, whose rewards he has reaped, to whom he owes the very position which he employs to their ruin,—own that though his choice may be honest, it is one which requires all the consolations of conscience."
"But you will have those consolations. And," added Randal, energetically, "the gain to your career will be so immense!"
"That is precisely what it cannot be," answered Egerton, gloomily. "I grant that I may, if I choose, resign office with the present Government, and so at once destroy that Government; for my resignation on such ground would suffice to do it. I grant this; but for that very reason I could not the next day take office with another administration. I could not accept wages for desertion. No gentleman could! and therefore—" Audley stopped short, and buttoned his coat over his broad breast. The action was significant; it said that the man's mind was made up.
In fact, whether Audley Egerton was right or wrong in his theory depends upon much subtler, and perhaps loftier, views in the casuistry of political duties, than it was in his character to take. And I guard myself from saying anything in praise or disfavour of his notions, or implying that he is a fit or unfit example in a parallel case. I am but describing the man as he was, and as a man like him would inevitably be, under the influences in which he lived, and in that peculiar world of which he was so emphatically a member. "Ce n'est pas moi qui parle, c'est Marc Aurele."
He speaks, not I.
Randal had no time for further discussion. They now reached Egerton's house, and the minister, taking the chamber candlestick from his servant's hand, nodded a silent goodnight to Leslie, and with a jaded look retired to his room.
But not on the threatened question was that eventful campaign of Party decided. The Government fell less in battle than skirmish. It was one fatal Monday—a dull question of finance and figures. Prosy and few were the speakers,—all the Government silent, save the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and another business-like personage connected with the Board of Trade, whom the House would hardly condescend to hear. The House was in no mood to think of facts and figures. Early in the evening, between nine and ten, the Speaker's sonorous voice sounded, "Strangers must withdraw!" And Randal, anxious and foreboding, descended from his seat and went out of the fatal doors. He turned to take a last glance at Audley Egerton. The whipper-in was whispering to Audley; and the minister pushed back his hat from his brows, and glanced round the House, and up into the galleries, as if to calculate rapidly the relative numbers of the two armies in the field; then he smiled bitterly, and threw himself back into his seat. That smile long haunted Leslie.
Amongst the strangers thus banished with Randal, while the division was being taken, were many young men, like himself, connected with the administration,—some by blood, some by place. Hearts beat loud in the swarming lobbies. Ominous mournful whispers were exchanged. "They say the Government will have a majority of ten." "No; I hear they will certainly be beaten." "H—says by fifty." "I don't believe it," said a Lord of the Bedchamber; "it is impossible. I left five Government members dining at The Travellers." "No one thought the division would be so early." "A trick of the Whigs-shameful!" "Wonder some one was not set up to talk for time; very odd P—did not speak; however, he is so cursedly rich, he does not care whether he is out or in." "Yes; and Audley Egerton too, just such another: glad, no doubt, to be set free to look after his property; very different tactics if we had men to whom office was as necessary as it is—to me!" said a candid young placeman. Suddenly the silent Leslie felt a friendly grasp on his arm. He turned and saw Levy.
"Did I not tell you?" said the baron, with an exulting smile.
"You are sure, then, that the Government will be outvoted?"
"I spent the morning in going over the list of members with a parliamentary client of mine, who knows them all as a shepherd does his sheep. Majority for the Opposition at least twenty-five."
"And in that case must the Government resign, sir?" asked the candid young placeman, who had been listening to the smart, well-dressed baron, "his soul planted in his ears."
"Of course, sir," replied the baron, blandly, and offering his snuff-box (true Louis Quinze, with a miniature of Madame de Pompadour, set in pearls). "You are a friend to the present ministers? You could not wish them to be mean enough to stay in?" Randal drew aside the baron.
"If Audley's affairs are as you state, what can he do?"
"I shall ask him that question to-morrow," answered the baron, with a look of visible hate; "and I have come here just to see how he bears the prospect before him."
"You will not discover that in his face. And those absurd scruples of his! If he had but gone out in time—to come in again with the New Men!"
"Oh, of course, our Right Honourable is too punctilious for that!" answered the baron, sneering.
Suddenly the doors opened, in rushed the breathless expectants. "What are the numbers? What is the division?"
"Majority against ministers," said a member of Opposition, peeling an orange, "twenty-nine."
The baron, too, had a Speaker's order; and he came into the House with Randal, and sat by his side. But, to their disgust, some member was talking about the other motions before the House.
"What! has nothing been said as to the division?" asked the baron of a young county member, who was talking to some non-parliamentary friend in the bench before Levy. The county member was one of the baron's pet eldest sons, had dined often with Levy, was under "obligations" to him. The young legislator looked very much ashamed of Levy's friendly pat on his shoulder, and answered hurriedly, "Oh, yes; H——— asked if, after such an expression of the House, it was the intention of ministers to retain their places, and carry on the business of the Government."
"Just like H———-! Very inquisitive mind! And what was the answer he got?"
"None," said the county member; and returned in haste to his proper seat in the body of the House.
"There comes Egerton," said the baron. And, indeed, as most of the members were now leaving the House, to talk over affairs at clubs or in saloons, and spread through town the great tidings, Audley Egerton's tall head was seen towering above the rest. And Levy turned away disappointed. For not only was the minister's handsome face, though pale, serene and cheerful, but there was an obvious courtesy, a marked respect, in the mode in which that assembly—heated though it was—made way for the fallen minister as he passed through the jostling crowd. And the frank urbane nobleman, who afterwards, from the force, not of talent but of character, became the leader in that House, pressed the hand of his old opponent, as they met in the throng near the doors, and said aloud, "I shall not be a proud man if ever I live to have office; but I shall be proud if ever I leave it with as little to be said against me as your bitterest opponents can say against you, Egerton."
"I wonder," exclaimed the baron, aloud, and leaning over the partition that divided him from the throng below, so that his voice reached Egerton—and there was a cry from formal, indignant members, "Order in the strangers' gallery I wonder what Lord L'Estrange will say?"
Audley lifted his dark brows, surveyed the baron for an instant with flashing eyes, then walked down the narrow defile between the last benches, and vanished from the scene, in which, alas! so few of the most admired performers leave more than an actor's short-lived name!
Baron Levy did not execute his threat of calling on Egerton the next morning. Perhaps he shrank from again meeting the flash of those indignant eyes. And indeed Egerton was too busied all the forenoon to see any one not upon public affairs, except Harley, who hastened to console or cheer him. When the House met, it was announced that the ministers had resigned, only holding their offices till their successors were appointed. But already there was some reaction in their favour; and when it became generally known that the new administration was to be formed of men few indeed of whom had ever before held office, the common superstition in the public mind that government is like a trade, in which a regular apprenticeship must be served, began to prevail; and the talk at the clubs was that the new men could not stand; that the former ministry, with some modification, would be back in a month. Perhaps that too might be a reason why Baron Levy thought it prudent not prematurely to offer vindictive condolences to Mr. Egerton. Randal spent part of his morning in inquiries as to what gentlemen in his situation meant to do with regard to their places; he heard with great satisfaction that very few intended to volunteer retirement from their desks. As Randal himself had observed to Egerton, "Their country before their party!"
Randal's place was of great moment to him; its duties were easy, its salary amply sufficient for his wants, and defrayed such expenses as were bestowed on the education of Oliver and his sister. For I am bound to do justice to this young man,—indifferent as he was towards his species in general, the ties of family were strong with him; and he stinted himself in many temptations most alluring to his age, in the endeavour to raise the dull honest Oliver and the loose-haired pretty Juliet somewhat more to his own level of culture and refinement. Men essentially griping and unscrupulous often do make the care for their family an apology for their sins against the world. Even Richard III., if the chroniclers are to be trusted, excused the murder of his nephews by his passionate affection for his son. With the loss of that place, Randal lost all means of support, save what Audley could give him; and if Audley were in truth ruined? Moreover, Randal had already established at the office a reputation for ability and industry. It was a career in which, if he abstained from party politics, he might rise to a fair station and to a considerable income. Therefore, much contented with what he learned as to the general determination of his fellow officials, a determination warranted by ordinary precedent in such cases, Randal dined at a club with good relish, and much Christian resignation for the reverse of his patron, and then walked to Grosvenor Square, on the chance of finding Audley within. Learning that he was so, from the porter who opened the door, Randal entered the library. Three gentlemen were seated there with Egerton: one of the three was Lord L'Estrange; the other two were members of the really defunct, though nominally still existing, Government. He was about to withdraw from intruding on this conclave, when Egerton said to him gently, "Come in, Leslie; I was just speaking about yourself."
"About me, sir?"
"Yes; about you and the place you hold. I had asked Sir —— [pointing to a fellow minister] whether I might not, with propriety, request your chief to leave some note of his opinion of your talents, which I know is high, and which might serve you with his successor."
"Oh, sir, at such a time to think of me!" exclaimed Randal, and he was genuinely touched.
"But," resumed Audley, with his usual dryness, "Sir ——, to my surprise, thinks that it would better become you that you should resign. Unless his reasons, which he has not yet stated, are very strong, such would not be my advice."
"My reasons," said Sir ——, with official formality, "are simply these: I have a nephew in a similar situation; he will resign, as a matter of course. Every one in the public offices whose relations and near connections hold high appointments in the Government will do so. I do not think Mr. Leslie will like to feel himself a solitary exception."
"Mr. Leslie is no relation of mine,—not even a near connection," answered Egerton.
"But his name is so associated with your own: he has resided so long in your house, is so well known in society (and don't think I compliment when I add, that we hope so well of him), that I can't think it worth his while to keep this paltry place, which incapacitates him too from a seat in parliament."
Sir —— was one of those terribly rich men, to whom all considerations of mere bread and cheese are paltry. But I must add that he supposed Egerton to be still wealthier than himself, and sure to provide handsomely for Randal, whom Sir —— rather liked than not; and for Randal's own sake, Sir —— thought it would lower him in the estimation of Egerton himself, despite that gentleman's advocacy, if he did not follow the example of his avowed and notorious patron.
"You see, Leslie," said Egerton, checking Randal's meditated reply, "that nothing can be said against your honour if you stay where you are; it is a mere question of expediency; I will judge that for you; keep your place."
Unhappily the other member of the Government, who had hitherto been silent, was a literary man. Unhappily, while this talk had proceeded, he had placed his hand upon Randal Leslie's celebrated pamphlet, which lay on the library table; and, turning over the leaves, the whole spirit and matter of that masterly composition in defence of the administration (a composition steeped in all the essence of party) recurred to his too faithful recollection. He, too, liked Randal; he did more,—he admired the author of that striking and effective pamphlet. And therefore, rousing himself from the sublime indifference he had before felt for the fate of a subaltern, he said, with a bland and complimentary smile, "No; the writer of this most able publication is no ordinary placeman. His opinions here are too vigorously stated; this fine irony on the very person who in all probability will be the chief in his office has excited too lively an attention to allow him the sedet eternumque sedebit on an official stool. Ha, ha! this is so good! Read it, L'Estrange. What say you?" Harley glanced over the page pointed out to him. The original was in one of Burley's broad, coarse, but telling burlesques, strained fine through Randal's more polished satire. It was capital. Harley smiled, and lifted his eyes to Randal. The unlucky plagiarist's face was flushed,—the beads stood on his brow. Harley was a good hater; he loved too warmly not to err on the opposite side; but he was one of those men who forget hate when its object is distressed and humbled. He put down the pamphlet and said, "I am no politician; but Egerton is so well known to be fastidious and over-scrupulous in all points of official etiquette, that Mr. Leslie cannot follow a safer counsellor."
"Read that yourself, Egerton," said Sir ——; and he pushed the pamphlet to Audley.
Now Egerton had a dim recollection that that pamphlet was unlucky; but he had skimmed over its contents hastily, and at that moment had forgotten all about it. He took up the too famous work with a reluctant hand, but he read attentively the passages pointed out to him, and then said gravely and sadly,