"But still you do not tell me how I have shown this violent displeasure: I have not, to the best of my recollection, said an angry or a hasty word."
"No; but when we love people, we know when they are offended, without their saying a hasty word—your manner has been so different towards me these three days past."
"My manner is very unfortunate. It is impossible always to keep a guard over our manners: it is sufficient, I think, to guard our words."
"Pray do not guard either with me," said Emilie; "for I would a thousand times rather that a friend should say or look the most angry things, than that she should conceal from me what she thought; for then, you know, I might displease her continually without knowing it, and perhaps lose her esteem and affection irretrievably, before I was aware of my danger—and with you—with you, to whom we owe so much!"
Touched by the feeling manner in which Emilie spoke, and by the artless expression of her countenance, Mrs. Somers' anger vanished, and she exclaimed, "I have been to blame—I ask your pardon, Emilie—I have been much to blame—I have been very unjust—very ill-humoured—I see I was quite wrong—I see that I was quite mistaken in what I imagined."
"And what did you imagine?" said Emilie.
"That you must excuse me from telling," said Mrs. Somers; "I am too much ashamed of it—too much ashamed of myself. Besides, it was a sort of thing that I could not well explain, if I were to set about it; in short, it was the silliest trifle in the world: but I assure you that if I had not loved you very much, I should not have been so foolishly angry. You must forgive these little infirmities of temper—you know my heart is as it should be."
Emilie embraced Mrs. Somers affectionately; and, in her joy at this reconciliation, and in the delight she felt at being relieved from the uneasiness which she had suffered for three days, loved her friend the better for this quarrel: she quite forgot the pain in the pleasure of the reconciliation; and thought that, even if Mrs. Somers had been in the wrong, the candour with which she acknowledged it more than made amends for the error.
"You must forgive these little infirmities of temper—you know my heart is as it should be."
Emilie repeated these words, and said to herself, "Forgive them! yes, surely; I should be the most ungrateful of human beings if I did otherwise."
Without being the most ungrateful of human beings, Emilie, however, found it very difficult to keep her resolution.
Almost every day she felt the apprehension or the certainty of having offended her benefactress: and the causes by which she gave offence were sometimes so trifling as to elude her notice; so mysterious, that they could not be discovered; or so various and anomalous, that, even when she was told in what manner she had displeased, she could not form any rule, or draw any inference, for her future conduct. Sometimes she offended by differing, sometimes by agreeing, in taste or opinion with Mrs. Somers. Sometimes she perceived that she was thought positive; at other times, too complying. A word, a look, or even silence—passive silence—was sufficient to affront this susceptible lady. Then she would go on with a string of deductions, or rather of imaginations, to prove that there must be something wrong in Emilie's disposition; and she would insist upon it, that she knew better what was passing, or what would pass, in her mind, than Emilie could know herself. Nothing provoked Mrs. Somers more than the want of success in any of her active attempts to make others happy. She was continually angry with Emilie for not being sufficiently pleased or grateful for things which she had not the vanity to suspect were intended for her gratification, or which were not calculated to contribute to her amusement: this humility, or this difference of taste, was always considered as affectation or perversity. One day, Mrs. Somers was angry with Emilie because she did not thank her for inviting a celebrated singer to her concert; but Emilie had no idea that the singer was invited on her account: of this nothing could convince Mrs. Somers. Another day, she was excessively displeased because Emilie was not so much entertained as she had expected her to be at the installation of a knight of the garter.
"Mad. de Coulanges expressed a wish to see the ceremony of the installation; and, though I hate such things myself, I took prodigious pains to procure tickets, and to have you well placed—"
"Indeed, I was very sensible of it, dear madam."
"May be so, my dear; but you did not look as if you were: you seemed tired to death, and said you were sleepy; and ten times repeated, 'Ah! qu'il fait chaud!' But this is what I am used to—what I have experienced all my life. The more pains a person takes to please and oblige, the less they can succeed, and the less gratitude they are to expect."
Emilie reproached herself, and resolved that, upon the next similar trial, she would not complain of being sleepy or tired; and that she would take particular care not to say—"Ah! qu'il fait chaud!" A short time afterwards she was in a crowded assembly, at the house of a friend of Mrs. Somers, a rout—a species of entertainment of which she had not seen examples in her own country (it appeared to her rather a barbarous mode of amusement, to meet in vast crowds, to squeeze or to be squeezed, without a possibility of enjoying any rational conversation). Emilie was fatigued, and almost fainting, from the heat, but she bore it all with a smiling countenance, and heroic gaiety; for this night she was determined not to displease Mrs. Somers. On their return home, she was rather surprised and disappointed to find this lady in a fit of extreme ill-humour.
"I wanted to get away two hours ago," cried she; "but you would not understand any of my hints, Mlle. de Coulanges; and when I asked you whether you did not find it very hot, you persisted in saying, 'Not in the least—not in the least.'"
Mrs. Somers was the more angry upon this occasion, because she recollected having formerly reproached Emilie, at the installation, for complaining of the heat; and she persuaded herself, that this was an instance of perversity in Emilie's temper, and a sly method of revenging herself for the past. Nothing could be more improbable, from a girl of such a frank, forgiving, sweet disposition; and no one would have been so ready to say so as Mrs. Somers in another mood; but the moment that she was irritated, she judged without common sense—never from general observations, but always from particular instances. It was in vain that Emilie disclaimed the motives attributed to her: she was obliged to wait the return of her friend's reason, and in the mean time to bear her reproaches—she did with infinite patience. Unfortunately this patience soon became the source of fresh evils. Because Emilie was so gentle, and so ready to acknowledge and to believe herself to be in the wrong, Mrs. Somers became convinced that she herself was in the right in all her complaints; and she fancied that she had great merit in passing over so many defects in one whom she had so much obliged, and who professed so much gratitude. Between the fits of her ill-humour, she would, however, waken to the full sense of Emilie's goodness, and would treat her with particular kindness, as if to make amends for the past. Then, if Emilie could not immediately resume that easy, gay familiarity of manner, which she used to have before experience had taught her the fear of offending, Mrs. Somers grew angry again and decided that Emilie had not sufficient elevation of soul to understand her character, or to forgive the little infirmities of the best of friends. When she was under the influence of this suspicion, every thing that Emilie said or looked was confirmation strong. Mrs. Somers was apt in conversation to throw out general reflections that were meant to apply to particular persons; or to speak with one meaning obvious to all the company, and another to be understood only by some individual whom she wished to reproach. This art, which she had often successfully practised upon Emilie, she, for that reason, suspected that Emilie tried upon her. And then the utmost ingenuity was employed to torture words into strange meanings: she would misinterpret the plainest expressions, or attribute to them some double, mysterious signification.
One evening Emilie had been reading a new novel, the merits of which were eagerly discussed by the company. Some said that the heroine was a fool: others, that she was a mad woman; some, that she was not either, but that she acted as if she were both; another party asserted that she was every thing that was great and good, and that it was impossible to paint in truer colours the passion of love. Mrs. Somers declared herself of this opinion; but Emilie, who happened not to be present when this declaration was made, on coming into the room and joining in the conversation, gave a diametrically opposite judgment: she said, that the author had painted the enthusiasm with which the heroine yielded to her passion, instead of the violence of the passion to which she yielded. The French abbe, to whom Emilie made this observation, repeated it triumphantly to Mrs. Somers, who immediately changed colour, and replied in a constrained voice, "Certainly that is a very apposite remark, and vastly well expressed; and I give Mlle. de Coulanges infinite credit for it."
Emilie, who knew every inflection of Mrs. Somers' voice, and every turn of her countenance, perceived that these words of praise were accompanied with strong feelings of displeasure. She was much embarrassed, especially as her friend fixed her eyes upon her whilst she blushed; and this made her blush ten times more: she was afraid that the company, who were silent, should take notice of her distress; and therefore she went on talking very fast about the novel, though scarcely knowing what she said. She made sundry blunders in names and characters, which were eagerly corrected by the astonished Mad. de Coulanges, who could not conceive how any body could forget the dramatis personae of the novel of the day. Mrs. Somers, all the time, preserved silence, as if she dared not trust herself to speak; but her compressed lips showed sufficiently the constraint under which she laboured. Whilst every body else went on talking, and helping themselves to refreshments which the servants were handing about, Mrs. Somers continued leaning on the mantel-piece in a deep reverie, pulling her bracelet round and round upon her wrist, till she was roused by Mad. de Coulanges, who appealed for judgment upon her new method of preparing an orange.
"C'est a la corbeille—Tenez!" cried she, holding it by a slender handle of orange-peel; "Tenez! c'est a la corbeille!"
Mrs. Somers, with a forced smile admired the orange-basket; but said, that, for her part, her hands were not sufficiently dexterous to imitate this fashion: "I," said she, "can only do like the king of Prussia and other people—squeeze the orange, and throw the peel away. By-the-bye, how absurd it was of Voltaire to be angry with the king of Prussia for that witty and just apologue!"
"Just!" repeated Emilie.
"Just!" reiterated Mrs. Somers, in a harsh voice: "surely you think it so. For my part, I like the king the better for avowing his principles—all the world act as he did, though few avow it."
"What!" said Emilie, in a low voice, "do not you believe in the reality of gratitude?"
"Apparently," cried Mad. de Coulanges, who was still busy with her orange, "apparently, madame is a disciple of our Rochefoucault, and allows of no principle but self-love. In that case, I shall have as bitter quarrels with her as I have with you, mon cher abbe;—for Rochefoucault is a man I detest, or rather, I detest his maxims—the duke himself, they say, was the most amiable man of his day. Only conceive, that such a man should ascribe all our virtues to self-love and vanity!"
"And, perhaps," said the abbe, "it was merely vanity that made him say so—he wished to write a witty satirical book; but I will lay a wager he did not think as ill of human nature as he speaks of it."
"He could hardly speak or think too ill of it," said Mrs. Somers, "if he judged of human nature by such speeches as that of the king of Prussia about his friend and the orange."
"But," said Emilie, in a timid voice, "would it not be doing poor human nature injustice to judge of it by such words as those? I am convinced, with M. l'abbe, that some men, for the sake of appearing witty, speak more malevolently than they feel; and, perhaps, this was the case with the king of Prussia."
"And Mlle. de Coulanges thinks, then," said Mrs. Somers, "that it is quite allowable, for the sake of appearing witty, to speak malevolently?"
"Dear madam! dear Mrs. Somers!—no!" cried Emilie; "you quite misunderstood me."
"Pardon me, I thought you were justifying the king of Prussia," continued Mrs. Somers; "and I do not well see how that can be done without allowing—what many people do in practice, though not in theory—that it is right, and becoming, and prudent, to sacrifice a friend for a bon-mot."
The angry emphasis, and pointed manner, in which Mrs. Somers spoke these words, terrified and completely abashed Emilie, who saw that something more was meant than met the ear. In her confusion she ran over a variety of thoughts; but she could not recollect any thing that she had ever said, which merited the name of a bon-mot—and a malevolent bon-mot! "Surely what I said about that foolish novel cannot have offended Mrs. Somers?—How is it possible!—She cannot be so childish as to be angry with me merely for differing with her in opinion. What I said might be bad criticism, but it could not be malevolent; it referred only to the heroine of a novel. Perhaps the author may be a friend of hers, or some person who is in distress, and whom she has generously taken under her protection. Why did not I think of this before?—I was wrong to give my opinion so decidedly: but then my opinion is of so little consequence; assuredly it can neither do good nor harm to any author. When Mrs. Somers considers this, she will be pacified; and when she is once cool again, she will feel that I could not mean to say any thing ill-natured."
The moment Mrs. Somers saw that Emilie was sensible of her displeasure, she exerted herself to assume, during the remainder of the evening, an extraordinary appearance of gaiety and good-humour. Every body shared her smiles and kindness, except the unfortunate object of her indignation: she behaved towards Mlle. de Coulanges with the most punctilious politeness; but "all the cruel language of the eye" was sufficiently expressive of her real feelings. Emilie bore with this infirmity of temper with resolute patience: she expected that the fit would last only till she could ask for an explanation; and she followed Mrs. Somers, as was her usual custom upon such occasions, to her room at night, in order to assert her innocence. Mrs. Somers walked into her room in a reverie, without perceiving that she was followed by Emilie—threw herself into a chair—and gave a deep sigh.
"What is the matter, my dear friend?" Emilie began; but, on hearing the sound of her voice, Mrs. Somers started up with sudden anger; then, constraining herself, she said, "Pardon me, Mlle. de Coulanges, if I tell you that I really am tired to-night—body and mind—I wish to have rest for both if possible—would you be so very obliging as to pull that bell for Masham?—I wish you a very good night.—I hope Mad. de Coulanges will have her ass's milk at the proper hour to-morrow—I have given particular orders for that purpose."
"Your kindness to mamma, dear Mrs. Somers," said Emilie, "has been invariable, and—"
"Spare me, I beseech you, Mlle. de Coulanges, all these grateful speeches—I really am not prepared to hear them with temper to-night. Were you so good as to ring that bell—or will you give me leave to ring it myself?"
"If you insist upon it," said Emilie, gently withholding the tassel of the bell; "but if you would grant me five minutes—one minute—you might perhaps save yourself and me a sleepless night."
Mrs. Somers, incapable of longer commanding her passion, made no reply, but snatched the bell-rope, and rang violently—Emilie let go the tassel and withdrew. She heard Mrs. Somers say to herself, as she left the room—"This is too much—too much—really too much!—hypocrisy I cannot endure.—Any thing but hypocrisy!"
These words hurt Emilie more than any thing Mrs. Somers had ever said: her own indignation was roused, and she was upon the point of returning to vindicate herself; but gratitude, if not prudence, conquered her resentment: she recollected her promise to bear with the temper of her benefactress; she recollected all Mrs. Somers' kindness to her mother; and quietly retired to her room, determining to wait till morning for a more favourable opportunity to speak.—After passing a restless night, and dreaming the common dream of falling down precipices, and the uncommon circumstance of dragging Mrs. Somers after her by a bell-rope, she wakened to the confused, painful remembrance of all that had passed the preceding evening. She was anxious to obtain admittance to Mrs. Somers as soon as she was dressed; but Masham informed her that her lady had given particular orders that she should "not be disturbed." When Mrs. Somers made her appearance late at breakfast, there was the same forced good-humour in her countenance towards the company in general, and the same punctilious politeness towards Emilie, which had before appeared. She studiously avoided all opportunity of explaining herself; and every attempt of Emilie's towards a reconciliation, either by submissive gentleness or friendly familiarity, was disregarded, or noticed with cold disdain. Yet all this was visible only to her; for every body else observed that Mrs. Somers was in remarkably good spirits, and in the most actively obliging humour imaginable. After breakfast she proposed and arranged various parties of pleasure: she went with Mad. de Coulanges to pay several visits; a large company dined with her; and at night she went to a concert. In the midst of these apparent amusements, Emilie was made as unhappy as the marked, yet mysterious, displeasure of a benefactress could render a person of real sensibility. As she did not wish to expose herself to a second repulse, she forbore to follow Mrs. Somers to her room at night; but she sent her this note by Mrs. Masham.
"I have done or said something to offend you, dear Mrs. Somers. If you knew how much pain I have felt from your displeasure, I am sure you would explain to me what it can be. Is it possible that my differing in opinion from you about the heroine of the novel can have offended you?—Perhaps the author of the book is a friend of yours, or under your protection. Be assured, that if this be the case, I did not in the least suspect it at the time I made the criticism. Perhaps it was this to which you alluded when you said that the King of Prussia was not the only person who would not hesitate to sacrifice a friend for a bon-mot. What injustice you do me by such an idea! I will not here say one word about my gratitude or my affection, lest you should again reproach me with hypocrisy—any thing else I am able to bear. Pray write, if you will not speak to me.
When Emilie was just falling asleep, Masham came into her room with a note in her hand.
"Mademoiselle, I am sorry to waken you; but my mistress thought you would not sleep, unless you read this note to-night."
Emilie started up in her bed, and read the following note of four pages.
"Yes I will write, because I am ashamed to speak to you, my dear Emilie. I beg your pardon for pulling the bell-cord so violently from your hand last night—you must have thought me quite ill-bred; and still more, I reproach myself for what I said about hypocracy—You have certainly the sweetest and gentlest temper imaginable—would to Heaven I had! But the strength of my feelings absolutely runs away with me. It is the doom of persons of great sensibility to be both unreasonable and unhappy; and often, alas! to involve in their misery those for whom they have the most enthusiastic affection. You see, my dear Emilie, the price you must pay for being my friend; but you have strength of mind joined to a feeling heart, and you will bear with my defects. Dissimulation is not one of them. In spite of all my efforts, I find it is impossible ever to conceal from you any of even my most unreasonable fancies—your note, which is so characteristically frank and artless, has opened my eyes to my own folly. I must show you that, when I am in my senses, I do you justice. You deserve to be treated with perfect openness; therefore, however humiliating the explanation, I will confess to you the real cause of my displeasure. When you spoke of the heroine of this foolish novel, what you said was so applicable to some part of my own history and character, that I could not help suspecting you had heard the facts from a person with whom you spent some hours lately; and I was much hurt by your alluding to them in such a severe and public manner. You will ask me, how I could conceive you to be capable of such unprovoked malevolence: and my answer is, 'I cannot tell;' I can only say, such is the effect of the unfortunate susceptibility of my heart, or, to speak more candidly, of my temper. I confess I cannot, in these particulars, alter my nature. Blame me as much as I blame myself; be as angry as you please, or as you can, my gentle friend: but at last you must pity and forgive me.
"Now that all this affair is off my mind, I can sleep in peace: and so, I hope, will you, my dear Emilie—Good night! If friends never quarrelled, they would never taste the joys of reconciliation. Believe me,
"Your ever sincere and affectionate
No one tasted the joys of reconciliation more than Emilie; but, after reiterated experience, she was inclined to believe that they cannot balance the evils of quarrelling. Mrs. Somers was one of those, who "confess their faults, but never mend;" and who expect, for this gratuitous candour, more applause than others would claim for the real merit of reformation. So far did this lady carry her admiration of her own candour, that she was actually upon the point of quarrelling with Emilie again, the next morning, because she did not seem sufficiently sensible of the magnanimity with which she had confessed herself to be ill-tempered. These few specimens are sufficient to give an idea of this lady's powers of tormenting; but, to form an adequate notion of their effect upon Emilie's spirits, we must conceive the same sort of provocations to be repeated every day, for several months. Petty torments, incessantly repeated, exhaust the most determined patience.
All this time, Mad. de Coulanges went on very smoothly with Mrs. Somers; for she had not Emilie's sensibility; and, notwithstanding her great quickness, a hundred things might pass, and did pass, before her eyes, without her seeing them. She examined no farther than the surface; and, provided that there was not any deficiency of those little attentions to which she had been accustomed, it never occurred to her that a friend could be more or less pleased: she did not understand or study physiognomy; a smile of the lips was, to her, always a sufficient token of approbation; and, whether it were merely conventional, or whether it came from the heart, she never troubled herself to inquire. Provided that she saw at dinner the usual couverts, and that she had a sufficient number of people to converse with, or rather to talk to, she was satisfied that every thing was right. All the variations in Mrs. Somers' temper were unmarked by her, or went under the general head, vapeurs noirs. This species of ignorance, or confidence, produced the best effects; for as Mrs. Somers could not, without passing the obvious bounds of politeness, make Mad. de Coulanges sensible of her displeasure, and as she had the utmost respect for the countess's opinion of her good breeding, she was, to a certain degree, compelled to command her temper. Mad. de Coulanges often, without knowing it, tried it terribly, by differing from her in taste and judgment, and by supporting her own side of the question with all the enthusiastic volubility of the French language. Sometimes the English and French music were compared—sometimes the English and French painters; and every time the theatre was mentioned, Mad. de Coulanges pronounced an eulogium on her favourite French actors, and triumphed over the comparison between the elegance of the French, and the grossierete of the English taste for comedy.
"Good Heaven!" said she, "your fashionable comedies would be too absurd to make the lowest of our audiences at the Boulevards laugh; you have excluded sentiment and wit, and what have you in their place? Characters out of drawing and out of nature; grotesque figures, such as you see in a child's magic lantern. Then you talk of English humour—I wish I could understand it; but I cannot be diverted with seeing a tailor turned gentleman pricking his father with a needle, or a man making grimaces over a jug of sour beer."
Mrs. Somers, piqued perhaps by the justice of some of these observations, would dryly answer, that it was impossible for a foreigner to comprehend English humour—that she believed the French, in particular, were destitute of taste for humour.
Mad. de Coulanges insisted upon it, that the French have humour; and Moliere furnished her with many admirable illustrations.
Emilie, in support of her mother, read a passage from that elegant writer, M. Suard, who has lately attacked, with much ability, the pretensions of the English to the exclusive possession of humour.
[Footnote 1: "Il est tres-difficile de se faire une idee nette de ce que les Anglais entendent par ce mot; on a tente plusieurs fois sans succes d'en donner une definition precise. Congreve, qui assurement a mis beaucoup d'humour dans ses comedies, dit, que c'est une maniere singuliere et inevitable de faire ou de dire quelque chose, qui est naturelle et propre a un homme seul, et qui distingue ses discours et ses actions des discours et des actions de tout autre.
"Cette definition, que nous traduisons litteralement, n'est pas lumineuse; elle conviendrait egalement a la maniere dont Alexandre parle et agit dans Plutarque, et a celle dont Sancho parle et agit dans Cervantes. II y a apparence que l'humour est comme l'esprit, et que ceux qui en ont le plus ne savent pas trop bien ce que c'est.
"Nous croyons que ce genre de plaisanterie consiste surtout dans des idees ou des tournures originales, qui tiennent plus au caractere qu'a l'esprit, et qui semblent echapper a celui qui les produit.
"L'homme d'humour est un plaisant serieux, qui dit des choses plaisantes sans avoir l'air de vouloir etre plaisant. Au reste, une scene de Vanbrugh ou une satire de Swift, feront mieux sentir ce que c'est, que toutes les definitions du monde. Quant a la pretention de quelques Anglais sur la possession exclusive de l'humour, nous pensons que si ce qu'ils entendent par ce mot est un genre de plaisanterie qu'on ne trouve ni dans Aristophane, dans Plaute, et dans Lucien, chez lea anciens; ni dans l'Arioste, le Berni, le Pulci, et tant d'autres, chez les Italiens; ni dans Cervantes, chez les Espagnols; ni dans Rabener, chez les Allemands; ni dans le Pantagruel, la satire Menippee, le Roman comique, les comedies de Moliere, de Dufreny, de Regnard etc., nous ne savons pas ce que c'est, et nous ne prendrons pas la peine de la chercher."—Suard, Melanges de Litterature, vol. iv. p. 366.]
Mrs. Somers then changed her ground, and inveighed against French tragedy, and the unnatural tones and attitudes of the French tragic actors.
"Your heroes on the French stage," said she, "always look over their right shoulders, to express magnanimous disdain; and a lover, whether he be Grecian or Roman, Turk, Israelite, or American, must regularly show his passion by the pompous emphasis with which he pronounces the word MADAME!—a word which must certainly have, for a French audience, some magical charm, incomprehensible to other nations."
What was yet more incomprehensible to Mad. de Coulanges, was the enthusiasm of the English for that bloody-minded barbarian Shakspeare, who is never satisfied till he has strewn the stage with dead bodies; who treats his audience like children, that are to be frightened out of their wits by ghosts of all sorts and sizes in their winding sheets; or by a set of old beggarmen, dressed in women's clothes, armed with broomsticks, and dancing and howling out their nonsensical song round a black kettle.
Mrs. Somers, smiling as in scorn, would only reply, "Madame la comtesse, yours is Voltaire's Shakspeare, not ours.—Have you read Mrs. Montagu's essay upon Shakspeare?"
"Then positively you must read it before we say one word more upon the subject."
Mad. de Coulanges, though unwilling to give up the pleasure of talking, took the book, which Mrs. Somers pressed upon her, with a promise to read it through some morning; but, unluckily, she chanced to open it towards the end, and happened to see some animadversions upon Racine, by which she was so astonished and disgusted that she could read no more. She threw down the book, defying any good critic to point out a single bad line in Racine. "This is a defiance I have heard made by men of letters of the highest reputation in Paris," added la comtesse: "have not you, Mons. l'Abbe?"
The abbe, who was madame's common voucher, acceded, with this slight emendation—that he had heard numbers defy any critic of good taste to point out a flat line in Phaedre.
Mrs. Somers would, perhaps, have acknowledged the beauties of Phaedre, if she had not been piqued by this defiance; but exaggeration on one side produced injustice on the other: and these disputes about Racine and Shakspeare were continually renewed, and never ended to the satisfaction of either party. Those who will not make allowances for national prejudice, and who do not consider how much all our tastes are influenced by early education, example, and the accidental association of ideas, may dispute for ever without coming to any conclusion; especially, if they avoid stating any distinct proposition; if each of the combatants sets up a standard of his own, as the universal standard of taste; and if, instead of arguments, both parties have recourse to wit and ridicule. In these skirmishes, however, Mad. de Coulanges, though apparently the most eager for victory, never seriously lost her temper—her eagerness was more of manner than of mind; after pleading the cause of Racine, as if it were a matter of life and death, as if the fate of Europe or the universe depended upon it, she would turn to discuss the merits of a riband with equal vehemence, or coolly observe that she was hoarse, and that she would quit Racine for a better thing—de l'eau sucre. Mrs. Somers, on the contrary, took the cause of Shakspeare, or any other cause that she defended, seriously to heart. The wit or raillery of her adversary, if she affected not to be hurt by it at the moment, left a sting in her mind which rankled long and sorely. Though she often failed to refute the arguments brought against her, yet she always rose from the debate precisely of her first opinion; and even her silence, which Mad. de Coulanges sometimes mistook for assent or conviction, was only the symptom of contemptuous pity—the proof that she deemed the understanding of her opponent beneath all fair competition with her own. The understanding of Mad. de Coulanges had, indeed, in the space of a few months, sunk far below the point of mediocrity, in Mrs. Somers' estimation—she had begun by overvaluing, and she ended by underrating it. She at first had taken it for granted that Mad. de Coulanges possessed a "very superior understanding and great strength of mind;" then she discovered that la comtesse was "uncommonly superficial, even for a Frenchwoman;" and at last she decided, that "really Mad. de Coulanges was a very silly woman."
Mrs. Somers now began to be seriously angry with Emilie for always being of her mother's opinion: "It is really, Mlle. de Coulanges, carrying your filial affection too far. We cold-hearted English can scarcely conceive this sort of fervid passion, which French children express about every thing, the merest trifle, that relates to mamma!—Well! it is an amiable national prejudice; and one cannot help wishing that it may never, like other amiable enthusiasms, fail in the moment of serious trial."
Emilie, touched to the quick upon a subject nearest her heart, replied with a degree of dignity and spirit which surprised Mrs. Somers, who had never seen in her any thing but the most submissive gentleness. "The affection, whether enthusiastic or not, which we French children profess for our parents, has been of late years put to some strong trials, and has not been found to fail. In many instances it has proved superior to all earthly terrors—to imprisonment—to torture—to death—to Robespierre. Daughters have sacrificed themselves for their parents.—Oh! if my life could have saved my father's!"
Emilie clasped her hands, and looked up to heaven with the unaffected expression of filial piety in her countenance. Every body was silent. Mrs. Somers was struck with regret—with remorse—for the taunting manner in which she had spoken.
"My dearest Emilie, forgive me!" cried she; "I am shocked at what I said."
Emilie took Mrs. Somers' hand between hers, and endeavoured to smile. Mrs. Somers resolved that she would keep, henceforward, the strictest guard upon her own temper; and that she would never more be so ungenerous, so barbarous, as to insult one who was so gentle, so grateful, so much in her power, and so deserving of her affection. These good resolutions, formed in the moment of contrition, were, however, soon forgotten: strong emotions of the heart are transient in their power; habits of the temper permanent in their influence.—Like a child who promises to be always good, and forgets its promise in an hour, Mrs. Somers soon grew tired of keeping her temper in subjection. It did not, indeed, break out immediately towards Emilie; but, in her conversations with Mad. de Coulanges, the same feelings of irritation and contempt recurred; and Emilie, who was a clear-sighted bystander, suffered continual uneasiness upon these occasions—uneasiness, which appeared to Mad. de Coulanges perfectly causeless, and at which she frequently expressed her astonishment. Emilie's prescient kindness often, indeed, "felt the coming storm;" while her mother's careless eye saw not, even when the dark cloud was just ready to burst over her head. With all the innocent address of which she was mistress, Emilie tried to turn the course of the conversation whenever it tended towards dangerous subjects of discussion; but her mother, far from shunning, would often dare and provoke the war; and she would combat long after both parties were in the dark, even till her adversary quitted the field of battle, exclaiming, "Let us have peace on any terms, my dear countess!—I give up the point to you, Mad. de Coulanges."
This last phrase Emilie particularly dreaded, as the precursor of ill-humour for some succeeding hours. Mrs. Somers at length became so conscious of her own inability to conceal her contempt or to command her temper, that she was almost as desirous as Emilie could be to avoid these arguments; and, the moment the countess prepared for the attack, she would recede, with, "Excuse me, Mad. de Coulanges: we had better not talk upon these subjects—it is of no use—really of no manner of use: let us converse upon other topics—there are subjects enough, I hope, upon which we shall always agree."
Emilie was at first rejoiced at this arrangement, but the constraint was insupportable to her mother: indeed, the circle of proper subjects for conversation contracted daily; for not only the declared offensive topics were to be avoided, but innumerable others, bordering on or allied to them, were to be shunned with equal care—a degree of caution of which the volatile countess was utterly incapable. One day, at dinner, she asked the gentleman opposite to her, "How long this intolerable rule—of talking only upon subjects where people are of the same opinion—had been the fashion, and what time it would probably last in England?—If it continue much longer, I must fly the country," said she. "I would almost as soon, at this rate, be a prisoner in Paris, as in your land of freedom. You value, above all things, your liberty of the press—now, to me, liberty of the tongue, which is evidently a part, if not the best part, of personal liberty, is infinitely more dear. Bon Dieu!—even in l'Abbaye one might talk of Racine!"
Mad. de Coulanges spoke this half in jest, half in earnest; but Mrs. Somers took it wholly in earnest, and was most seriously offended. Her feelings upon the occasion were strongly expressed in a letter to a friend, to whom she had, from her infancy, been in the habit of confiding all her joys and sorrows—all the histories of her loves and hates—of her quarrels and reconciliations. This friend was an elderly lady, who, besides possessing superior mental endowments which inspired admiration, and a character which commanded high respect, was blessed with an uncommonly placid, benevolent temper. This enabled her to do what no other human being had ever accomplished—to continue in peace and amity, for upwards of thirty years, with Mrs. Somers. The following is one of many hundreds of epistolary complaints or invectives, which, during the course of that time, this "much enduring lady" was doomed to read and answer.
"TO LADY LITTLETON.
"For once, my dear friend, I am secure of your sympathizing in my indignation—my long suppressed, just, virtuous indignation—yes, virtuous; for I do hold indignation to be a part of virtue: it is the natural, proper expression of a warm heart and a strong character against the cold-blooded vices of meanness and ingratitude. Would that those to whom I allude could feel it as a punishment!—but no, this is not the sort of punishment they are formed to feel. Nothing but what comes home to their interests—their paltry interests!—their pleasures—their selfish pleasures!—their amusements—their frivolous amusements! can touch souls of such a sort. To this half-formed race of worldlings, who are scarce endued with a moral sense, the generous expression of indignation always appears something incomprehensible—ridiculous; or, in their language, outre! inoui! With such beings, therefore, I always am—as much as my nature will allow me to be—upon my guard; I keep within what they call the bounds of politeness—their dear politeness! What a system of simagree it is, after all! and how can honest human nature bear to be penned up all its days by the Chinese paling of ceremony, or that French filigree work, politesse? English human nature cannot endure this, as yet; and I am glad of it—heartily glad of it—Now to the point.
"You guess that I am going to speak of the Coulanges. Yes, my dear friend, you were quite right in advising me, when I first became acquainted with them, not to give way blindly to my enthusiasm—not to be too generous, or to expect too much gratitude. Gratitude! why should I ever expect to meet with any?—Where I have most deserved, most hoped for it, I have been always most disappointed. My life has been a life of sacrifices!—thankless and fruitless sacrifices! There is not any possible species of sacrifice of interest, pleasure, happiness, which I have not been willing to make—which I have not made—for my friends—for my enemies. Early in life, I gave up a lover I adored to a friend, who afterwards deserted me. I married a man I detested to oblige a mother, who at last refused to see me on her death-bed. What exertions I made for years to win the affection of the husband to whom I was only bound in duty! My generosity was thrown away upon him—he died—I became ambitious—I had means of gratifying my ambition—a splendid alliance was in my power. Ambition is a strong passion as well as love—but I sacrificed it without hesitation to my children—I devoted myself to the education of my two sons, one of whom has never, in any instance, since he became his own master, shown his mother tenderness or affection; and who, on some occasions, has scarcely behaved towards her with the common forms of respect and duty. Despairing, utterly despairing of gratitude from my own family and natural friends, I looked abroad, and endeavoured to form friendships with strangers, in hopes of finding more congenial tempers. I spared nothing to earn attachment—my time, my health, my money. I lavished money so, as even, notwithstanding my large income, to reduce myself frequently to the most straitened and embarrassing circumstances. And by all I have done, by all I have suffered, what have I gained?—not a single friend—except yourself. You, on whom I have never conferred the slightest favour, you are at this instant the only friend upon earth by whom I am really beloved. To you, who know my whole history, I may speak of myself as I have done, Heaven knows! not with vanity, but with deep humiliation and bitterness of heart. The experience of my whole life leaves me only the deplorable conviction that it is impossible to do good, that it is vain to hope even for friendship from those whom we oblige.
"My last disappointment has been cruel, in proportion to the fond hopes I had formed. I cannot cure myself of this credulous folly. I did form high expectations of happiness from the society and gratitude of this Mad. and Mlle. de Coulanges; but the mother turns out to be a mere frivolous French comtesse, ignorant, vain, and positive—as all ignorant people are; full of national prejudices, which she supports in the most absurd and petulant manner. Possessed with the insanity, common to all Parisians, of thinking that Paris is the whole world, and that nothing can be good taste, or good sense, or good manners, but what is a-la-mode de Paris; through all her boasted politeness, you see, even by her mode of praising, that she has a most illiberal contempt for all who are not Parisians—she considers the rest of the world as barbarians. I could give you a thousand instances; but her conversation is really so frivolous, that it is not worth reciting. I bore with it day after day for several months with a patience for which, I am sure, you would have given me credit; and I let her go on eternally with absurd observations upon Shakspeare, and extravagant nonsense about Racine. To avoid disputing with her, I gave up every point—I acquiesced in all she said—and only begged to have peace. Still she was not satisfied. You know there are tempers which never can be contented, do what you will to please them. Mad. de Coulanges actually quarrelled with me for begging that we might have peace; and that we might talk upon subjects where we should not be likely to disagree. This will seem to you incredible; but it is the nature of French caprice: and for this I ought to have been prepared. But, indeed, I never could have prepared myself for the strange manner in which this lady thought proper to manifest her anger this day at dinner, before a large company. She spoke absolutely, notwithstanding all her good-breeding, in the most brutally ungrateful manner; and, after all I have done for her, she represented me as being as great a tyrant as Robespierre, and spoke of my house as a more intolerable prison than any in Paris!!! I only state the fact to you, without making any comments—I never yet saw so thoroughly selfish and unfeeling a human being.
"The daughter has as far too much as the mother has too little sensibility. Emilie plagues me to death with her fine feelings and her sentimentality, and all her French parade of affection, and superfluity of endearing expressions, which mean nothing, and disgust English ears. She is always fancying that I am angry or displeased with her or with her mother; and then I am to have tears, and explanations, and apologies: she has not a mind large enough to understand my character: and if I were to explain to eternity, she would be as much in the dark as ever. Yet, after all, there is something so ingenuous and affectionate about this girl that I cannot help loving her, and that is what provokes me; for she does not, and never can, feel for me the affection that I have for her. My little hastiness of temper she has not strength of mind sufficient to bear—I see she is dreadfully afraid of me, and more constrained in my company than in that of any other person. Not a visitor comes, however insignificant, but Mlle. de Coulanges seems more at her ease, and converses more with them than with me—she talks to me only of gratitude, and such stuff. She is one of those feeble persons who, wanting confidence in themselves, are continually afraid that they shall not be grateful enough; and so they reproach and torment themselves, and refine and sentimentalize, till gratitude becomes burdensome (as it always does to weak minds), and the very idea of a benefactor odious. Mlle. de Coulanges was originally unwilling to accept of any obligation from me: she knew her own character better than I did. I do not deny that she has a heart; but she has no soul: I hope you understand and feel the difference. I rejoice, my dear Lady Littleton, that you are coming to town immediately. I am harassed almost to death between want of feeling and fine feeling. I really long to see you and to talk over all these things. Nobody but you, my dear friend, ever understood me.—Farewell!
To this long letter, Lady Littleton replied by the following short note.
"I hope to see you the day after to-morrow, my dear friend; in the mean time, do not decide, irrevocably, that Mlle. de Coulanges has no soul.
Mrs. Somers was rather disappointed by the calmness of this note; and she was most impatient to see Lady Littleton, that she might work up her mind to the proper pitch of indignation. She stationed a servant at her ladyship's house to give her notice the moment of her arrival in town. The instant that she was informed of it she ordered her carriage; and the whole of her conversation during this visit was an invective against Emilie and Mad. de Coulanges. The next day, Emilie, who had heard the most enthusiastic eulogiums upon Lady Littleton, expressed much satisfaction on finding that she was come to town; and requested Mrs. Somers' permission to accompany her on her next visit. The request was rather embarrassing; but Mrs. Somers granted it with a sort of constrained civility. It was fortunate for Emilie that she was so unsuspicious; for her manner was consequently frank, natural, and affectionate; and she appeared to the greatest advantage to Lady Littleton. Mrs. Somers threw herself back in the chair and sat silent, whilst Emilie, in hopes of pleasing her, conversed with the utmost freedom with her friend. The conversation, at last, was interrupted by an exclamation from Mrs. Somers, "Good Heavens! my dear Lady Littleton, how can you endure this smell of paint? It has made my head ache terribly—where does it come from?"
"From my bedchamber," said Lady Littleton. "They have, unluckily, misunderstood my orders; and they have freshly painted every one in my house."
"Then it is impossible that you should sleep here—I will not allow you—it will poison you—it will give you the palsy immediately—it is destruction—it is death. You must come home with me directly—I insist upon it—But, no," said she, checking herself, with a look of sudden disappointment, "no, my dearest friend! I cannot invite you; for I have not a bed to offer you."
"Yes, mine—you forget mine—dear Mrs. Somers," cried Emilie; "you know I can sleep with mamma."
"By no means, Mlle. de Coulanges; you cannot possibly imagine—"
"I only imagine the truth," said Emilie, "that this arrangement would be infinitely more convenient to mamma; I know she likes to have me in the room with her. Pray, dear Mrs. Somers, let it be so."
Mrs. Somers made many ceremonious speeches: but Lady Littleton seemed so well inclined to accept Emilie's offered room, that she was obliged to yield. She was vexed to perceive that Emilie's manners pleased Lady Littleton; and, after they returned home, the activity with which Emilie moved her books, her drawing-box, work, &c., furnished Mrs. Somers with fresh matter for displeasure. At night, when Lady Littleton went to take possession of her apartment, and when she observed how active and obliging Mlle. de Coulanges had been, Mrs. Somers shook her head, and replied, "All this is just a proof to me of what I asserted, Lady Littleton—and what I must irrevocably assert—that Mlle. de Coulanges has no soul. You are a new acquaintance, and I am an old friend. She exerts herself to please you; she does not care what I think or what I feel about the matter. Now this is just what I call having no soul."
"My dear Mrs. Somers," said Lady Littleton, "be reasonable; and you must perceive that Emilie's eagerness to please me arises from her regard and gratitude to you: she has, I make no doubt, heard that I am your intimate friend, and your praises have disposed her to like me.—Is this a proof that she has no soul?"
"My dear Lady Littleton, we will not dispute about it—I see you are fascinated, as I was at first. Manner is a prodigious advantage—but I own I prefer solid English sincerity. Stay a little: as soon as Mlle. de Coulanges thinks herself secure of you, she will completely abandon me. I make no doubt that she will complain to you of my bad temper and ill usage; and I dare say that she will succeed in prejudicing you against me."
"She will succeed only in prejudicing me against herself, if she attempt to injure you," said Lady Littleton; "but, till I have some plain proof of it, I cannot believe that any person has such a base and ungrateful disposition."
Mrs. Somers spent an hour and a quarter in explaining her causes of complaint against both mother and daughter; and she at last retired much dissatisfied, because her friend was not as angry as she was, but persisted in the resolution to see more before she decided. After passing a few days in the house with Mlle. de Coulanges, Lady Littleton frankly declared to Mrs. Somers that she thought her complaints of Emilie's temper quite unreasonable, and that she was a most amiable and affectionate girl. Respect for Lady Littleton restrained Mrs. Somers from showing the full extent of her vexation; she contented herself with repeating, "Mlle. de Coulanges is certainly a very amiable young woman—I would by no means prejudice you against her—but when you know her as well as I do, you will find that she has no soul."
Mrs. Somers, in the course of four-and-twenty hours, found a multitude of proofs in support of her opinion; but they were none of them absolutely satisfactory to Lady Littleton's judgment. Whilst they were debating about her character, Emilie came into the room to show Mrs. Somers a French translation, which she had been making, of a pretty little English poem, called "The Emigrant's Grave." It was impossible to be displeased with the translation, or with the motive from which it was attempted; for it was done at the particular request of Mrs. Somers. This lady's ingenuity, however, did not fail to discover some cause for dissatisfaction. Mlle. de Coulanges had adapted the words to a French, and not to an English air.
"This is a favourite air of mamma's," said Emilie, "and I thought that she would be pleased by my choosing it."
"Yes," replied Mrs. Somers, in her constrained voice, "I remember that the Countess de Coulanges and her friend—or your friend—M. de Brisac, were charmed with this air, when you sang it the other night. I found fault with it, I believe—but then you had a majority against me; and with some people that is sufficient. Few ask themselves what constitutes a majority—numbers or sense. Judgments and tastes may differ in value; but one vote is always as good as another, in the opinion of those who are decided merely by numbers."
"I hope that I shall never be one of those," said Emilie. "Upon the present occasion I assure you, my dear Mrs. Somers, that I was influenced by—"
"Oh! my dear Mlle. de Coulanges," interrupted Mrs. Somers, "you need not give yourself the trouble to explain about such a trifle—the thing is perfectly clear. And nothing is more natural than that you should despise the taste of a friend when put in competition with that of a lover."
"Of a lover!"
"Yes, of a lover. Why should Mlle. de Coulanges think it necessary to look astonished? But young ladies imagine this sort of dissimulation is becoming; and can I hope to meet with an exception, or to find one superior to the finesse of her sex?—I beg your pardon, Mlle. de Coulanges, I really forgot that Lady Littleton was present when this terrible word lover escaped—but I can assure you that frankness is not incompatible with her ideas of delicacy."
"You are mistaken, dear Mrs. Somers; indeed you are mistaken," said Emilie; "but you are displeased with me now, and I will take a more favourable moment to set you right. In the mean time, I will go and water the hydrangia, which I forgot, and which I reproached myself for forgetting yesterday."
Emilie left the room.
"Are you convinced now, my dear Lady Littleton," cried Mrs. Somers, "that this girl has no soul—and very little heart?"
"I am convinced only that she has an excellent temper," said Lady Littleton. "I hope you do not think a good temper is incompatible with a heart or a soul."
"I will tell you what I think, and what I am sure of," cried Mrs. Somers, raising her voice; "that Mlle. de Coulanges will be a constant cause of dispute and uneasiness between you and me, Lady Littleton—I foresee the end of this. As a return for all I have done for her and her mother, she will rob me of the affections of one whom I love and esteem, respect and admire—as she well knows—above all other human beings. She will rob me of the affections of one who has been my friend, my best, my only constant friend, for twenty years!—Oh! why am I doomed eternally to be the victim of ingratitude?"
In spite of Lady Littleton's efforts to stop and calm her, Mrs. Somers burst out of the room in an agony of passion. She ran up a back staircase which led to her dressing-room, but suddenly stopped when she came to the landing-place, for she found Emilie watering her plants.
"Look, dear Mrs. Somers, this hydrangia is just going to blow; though I was so careless as to forget to water it yesterday."
"I beg, Mlle. de Coulanges, that you will not trouble yourself," said Mrs. Somers, haughtily. "Surely there are servants enough in this house whose business it is to remember these things."
"Yes," said Emilie, "it is their business, but it is my pleasure. You must not, indeed you must not, take my watering-pot from me!"
"Pardon me, I must, mademoiselle—you are very condescending and polite, and I am very blunt and rude, or whatever you please to think me. But the fact is, that I am not to be flattered by what the French call des petites attentions: they are suited to little minds, but not to me. You will never know my character, Mlle. de Coulanges—I am not to be pleased by such means."
"Teach me then better means, my dear friend, and do not bid me despair of ever pleasing you," said Emilie, throwing her arms round Mrs. Somers to detain her.
"Excuse me—I am an Englishwoman, and do not love embrassades, which mean nothing," said Mrs. Somers, struggling to disengage herself; and she rushed suddenly forward, without perceiving that Emilie's foot was entangled in her train. Emilie was thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Mrs. Somers screamed—Lady Littleton came out of her room.
"She is dead!—I have killed her!"—cried Mrs. Somers. Lady Littleton raised Emilie from the ground—she was quite stunned by the violence of the fall.
"Oh! speak to me! dearest Emilie, speak once more!" said Mrs. Somers.
As soon as Emilie could speak, she assured Mrs. Somers that she should be quite well in a few minutes. When she attempted, however, to walk, she found she was unable to move, for her ankle was violently sprained: she was carried into Lady Littleton's room, and placed upon a sofa. She exerted herself to bear the pain she felt, that she might not alarm or seem to reproach Mrs. Somers; and she repeatedly blamed herself for the awkwardness with which she had occasioned her own fall. Mrs. Somers, in the greatest bustle and confusion, called every servant in the house about her, sent them different ways for all the remedies she had ever heard of for a sprain; then was sure Emilie's skull was fractured—asked fifty times in five minutes whether she did not feel a certain sickness in her stomach, which was the infallible sign of "something wrong"—insisted upon her smelling at salts, vinegar, and various essences; and made her swallow, or at least taste, every variety of drops and cordials. By this time Mad. de Coulanges, who was at her toilet, had heard of the accident, and came running in half dressed; the hurry of Mrs. Somers' manner, the crowd of assistants, the quantity of remedies, the sight of Emilie stretched upon a sofa, and the sound of the word fracture, which caught her ear, had such an effect upon the countess, that she was instantly seized with one of her nervous attacks; and Mrs. Somers was astonished to see Emilie spring from the sofa to assist her mother. When Mad. de Coulanges recovered, Emilie used all her powers of persuasion to calm her spirits, laughed at the idea of her skull being fractured, and said, that she had only twisted her ankle, which would merely prevent her from dancing for a few days. The countess pitied herself for having such terribly weak nerves—congratulated herself upon her daughter's safety—declared that it was a miracle how she could have escaped, in falling down such a narrow staircase—observed, that, though the stairs in London were cleaner and better carpeted, the staircases of Paris were at least four times as broad, and, consequently, a hundred times as safe. She then reminded Emilie of an anecdote mentioned by Mad. de Genlis about a princess of France, who, when she retired to a convent, complained bitterly of the narrowness of the staircase, which, she said, she found a real misfortune to be obliged to descend. "Tell me, Emilie, what was the name of the princess?"
"The Princess Louisa of France, I believe, mamma," replied Emilie.
Mad. de Coulanges repeated, "Ay, the Princess Louisa of France;" and then, well satisfied, returned to finish her toilette.
"You have an excellent memory, Mlle. de Coulanges," said Mrs. Somers, looking with an air of pique at Emilie. "I really am rejoiced to see you so much yourself again—I thought you were seriously hurt."
"I told you that I was not," said Emilie, forcing a smile.
"Yes, but I was such a fool as to be terrified out of my senses by seeing you lie down on the sofa. I might have saved myself and you a great deal of trouble. I must have appeared ridiculously officious. I saw indeed that I was troublesome; and I seem to be too much for you now. I will leave you with Lady Littleton, to explain to her how the accident happened. Pray tell the thing just as it was—do not spare me, I beg. I do not desire that Lady Littleton, or any friend I have upon earth, should think better of me than I deserve. Remember, you have my free leave, Mlle. de Coulanges, to speak of me as you think—so don't spare me!" cried Mrs. Somers, shutting the door with violence as she left the room.
"Lean upon me, my dear," said Lady Littleton, who saw that Emilie turned exceedingly pale, and looked towards a chair, as if she wished to reach it, but could not.
"I thought," said she, in a faint voice, "that this pain would go off, but it is grown more violent." Emilie could say no more; she had borne intense pain as long as she was able: and now, quite overcome, she leaned back, and fainted. Lady Littleton threw open the window, sprinkled water upon Emilie's face, and gave her assistance in the kindest manner, without calling any of the servants; she knew that the return of Mrs. Somers would do more harm than good. Emilie soon recovered her recollection; and, whilst Lady Littleton was rubbing the sprained ankle with ether, in hopes of lessening the pain, she asked how the accident had happened.—Emilie replied simply, that she had entangled her foot in Mrs. Somers' gown. "I understand, from what Mrs. Somers hinted when she left the room," said Lady Littleton, "that she was somehow in fault in this affair, and that you could blame her if you would; but I see that you will not; and I love you the better for justifying the good opinion that I had formed of you, Emilie.—But I will not talk sentiment to you now—you are in too much pain to relish it."
"Not at all," said Emilie: "I feel more pleasure than pain at this moment; indeed my ankle does not hurt me now that I am quite still—the pleasant cold of the ether has relieved the pain. How kind you are to me, Lady Littleton, and how much I am obliged to you for judging so favourably of my character!"
"You are not obliged to me, my dear, for I do you only justice."
"Justice is sometimes felt as the greatest possible obligation, especially by those who have experienced the reverse.—But," said Emilie, checking herself, "let me not blame Mrs. Somers, or incline you to blame her. I should do very wrong, indeed, if I were, in return for all she has done for us, to cause any jealousies or quarrels between her and her best friend. Oh! that is what I most dread! To prevent it, I would—it is not polite to say so—but I would, my dear Lady Littleton, even withdraw myself from your society. This very day you return to your own house. You were so good as to ask me to go often to see you: forgive me if I do not avail myself of this kind permission. You will know my reasons; and I hope they are such as you will approve of."
A servant came in, to say that her ladyship's carriage was at the door.
"One word more before you go, my dear Lady Littleton," said Emilie, with a supplicating voice and countenance. "Tell me, I beseech you—for you have been her friend from her childhood, and must know better than any one living—tell me how I can please Mrs. Somers. I begin to be afraid that I shall at last be weary of my fruitless efforts, and I dread—above all things I dread—that my affection for her should be worn out. How painful it would be to sustain the continual weight of obligation without being able to feel the pleasure of gratitude!"
Lady Littleton was going to reply, but she was prevented by the sudden entrance of Mrs. Somers with her face of wrath.
"So, Lady Littleton, you are actually going, I find!—And I have not had one moment of your conversation. May I be allowed—if Mlle. de Coulanges has finished her mysteries—to say a few words to you?"
"You will give me leave, I am sure, Emilie," said Lady Littleton, "to repeat to Mrs. Somers every word that you have said to me?"
"Yes, every word," said Emilie, blushing, yet speaking with firmness. "I have no mysteries—I do not wish to conceal from Mrs. Somers any thing that I say or think."
Mrs. Somers seized Lady Littleton's arm, and left the room; but when she had entire possession of her friend's ear, she had nothing to say, or nothing that she would say, except half sentences, reproaching her for not staying longer, and insinuating that Emilie would be the cause of their separating for ever.—"Now, as you have her permission, will you favour me with a repetition of her last conversation?"
"Not in your present humour, my dear," said Lady Littleton: "this is not the happy moment to speak reason to you. Adieu! I give you four-and-twenty hours' grace before I declare you a bankrupt in temper. You shall hear from me to-morrow; for, on some subjects, I have always found it better to write than to speak to you."
Mrs. Somers continued during the remainder of the day in a desperate state of ill-humour, which was increased by finding that Mlle. de Coulanges could neither stand nor walk. Mrs. Somers was persuaded that Emilie, if she would have exerted herself, could have done both, but that she preferred exciting the pity of the whole house; and this, all circumstances considered, was a proof of total want of generosity and gratitude. The next morning, however, she was alarmed by hearing from Mrs. Masham, whom she had sent to attend upon Mlle. de Coulanges, that her ankle was violently swelled and inflamed.—Just when the full tide of her affections was beginning to flow in Emilie's favour, Mrs. Somers received the following letter from Lady Littleton:—
"Enclosed, I have sent you, as well as I can recollect it, every word of the conversation that passed yesterday between Mlle. de Coulanges and me. If I were less anxious for your happiness, and if I had not so high an opinion of the excellence of your disposition, I should wish, my dear friend, to spare both you and myself the pain of speaking and hearing the truth. But I know that I have preserved your affection many years beyond the usual limits of female friendship, by daring to speak to you with perfect sincerity, and by trusting to the justice of your better self. Perhaps you would rather have a compliment to your generosity than to your justice; but in this I shall not indulge you, because I think you already set too high a value upon generosity. It has been the misfortune of your life, my dear friend, to believe that, by making great sacrifices, and conferring great benefits, you could ensure to yourself, in return, affection and gratitude. You mistake both the nature of obligation and the effect which it produces on the human mind. Obligations may command gratitude, but can never ensure love. If the benefit be of a pecuniary nature, it is necessarily attended with a certain sense of humiliation, which destroys the equality of friendship. Of whatever description the favour may be, it becomes burdensome, if gratitude be expected as a tribute, instead of being accepted as the free-will offering of the heart: 'still paying still to owe' is irksome, even to those who have nothing Satanic in their natures. A person who has received a favour is in a defenceless state with respect to a benefactor; and the benefactor who makes an improper use of the power which gratitude gives becomes an oppressor. I know your generous spirit, and I am fully sensible that no one has a more just idea than you have of the delicacy that ought to be used towards those whom you have obliged; but you must permit me to observe, that your practice is not always conformable to your theory. Temper is doubly necessary to those who love, as you do, to confer favours: it is the duty of a benefactress to command her feelings, and to refrain absolutely from every species of direct or indirect reproach; else her kindness becomes only a source of misery; and even from the benevolence of her disposition she derives the means of giving pain.
"I have said enough; and I know that you will not be offended. The moment your understanding is convinced and your heart touched, all paltry jealousies and petty irritations subside, and you are always capable of acting in a manner worthy of yourself. Adieu!—May you, my dear friend, preserve the affections of one who feels for you, I am convinced, the most sincere gratitude! You will reap a rich harvest, if you do not, with childish impatience, disturb the seeds that you have sown, to examine whether they are growing.
"Your faithful friend,
This letter had an immediate and strong effect upon the mind of Mrs. Somers: she went directly with it open in her hand to Emilie. "Here," said she, "is the letter of a noble-minded woman, who dares to speak truth, painful truth, to her best friend. She does me justice in being convinced that I shall not be offended; she does me justice in believing that an appeal to my candour and generosity cannot be in vain, especially when it is made by her voice. Emilie, you shall see that I am worthy to have a sincere friend; you shall see that I can even command my temper, when I have what, to my own feelings and understanding, appears adequate motive. But, my dear, you are in pain—let me look at this ankle—I am absolutely afraid to see it!—Good Heavens! how it is swelled!—And I fancied, all yesterday, that you could have walked upon it!—And I thought you wanted only to excite pity!—My poor child!—I have used you barbarously—most barbarously!" cried Mrs. Somers, kneeling down beside the sofa. "And can you ever forgive me?—Yes! that sweet smile tells me that you can."
"All I ask of you," said Emilie, embracing Mrs. Somers, "is to believe that I am grateful, and to continue to make me love you as long as I live. This must depend upon you more than upon myself."
"I know it, my dear," said Mrs. Somers. "Be satisfied—I will not wear out your affections. You have dealt fairly with me. I love you for having the courage to speak as you think.—But now that it is all over, I must tell you what it was that displeased me—for I hate half reconciliations: I will tell you all that passed in my mind."
"Pray do," said Emilie; "for then I shall know how to avoid displeasing you another time."
"No danger of that, my dear. You will never make me angry again; for I am sure you will now be as frank towards me as I am towards you. It was not your adapting that little poem to a French rather than to an English air that displeased me—I am not quite so childish as to be offended by such a trifle; but I own I did not like your saying that you chose it merely to comply with your mother's taste.—And you will acknowledge, Emilie, there was a want of sincerity, a want of candour, in your affected look of astonishment, when I mentioned M. de Brisac. I do not claim your confidence as a right—God forbid!—But if the warmest desire for your happiness, the most affectionate sympathy, can merit confidence—But I will not say a word that can imply reproach. On the contrary, I will only assure you, that I have penetration sufficient always to know your wishes, and activity enough to serve you effectually, even without being your confidante. I shall this night see a friend who is in power—I will speak to him about M. de Brisac: I have hopes that his pension from our government may be doubled."
"I wish it may, for his sake," said Emilie; "but certainly not for my own."
"Oh! Mlle. de Coulanges!—But I have no right to extort confidence. I will not, as I said before, utter a syllable that can imply reproach. Let me go on with what I was telling you of my intentions. As soon as the pension is doubled, I will speak to Mad. de Coulanges about M. de Brisac."
"For Heaven's sake, do not!" interrupted Emilie; "for you would do me the greatest possible injury. Mamma would then think it a suitable match, and she would wish me to marry him; and nothing could make me move unhappy than to be under the necessity of acting contrary to my duty—of disobeying and displeasing her for ever—or else of uniting myself to M. de Brisac, whom I can neither love nor esteem."
"Is it possible," exclaimed Mrs. Somers, with joyful astonishment, "is it possible that I have been under a mistake all this time? My dearest Emilie! now you are every thing I first thought you! Indeed, I could not think with patience of your making such a match; for M. de Brisac is a mere nothing—worse than a mere nothing; a coxcomb, and a peevish coxcomb."
"And how could you suspect me of loving such a man?" said Emilie.
"I never thought you loved him, but I thought you would marry him. French marriages, you know, according to l'ancien regime, in which you were brought up, were never supposed to be affairs of the heart, but mere alliances of interest, pride, or convenience."
"Yes—des mariages de convenance," said Emilie. "We have suffered terribly by the revolution; but I owe to it one blessing, which, putting what mamma has felt out of the question, I should say has overbalanced all our losses: I have escaped—what must have been my fate in the ancient order of things—un mariage de convenance. I must tell you how I escaped by a happy misfortune," continued Emilie, suddenly recovering her vivacity of manner. "The family of M. de Brisac had settled, with mine, that I was to be la Comtesse de Brisac—But we lost our property, and M. le comte his memory. Mamma was provoked and indignant—I rejoiced. When I saw how shabbily he behaved, could I do otherwise than rejoice at having escaped being his wife? M. le Comte de Brisac soon lost his hereditary honours and possessions—Heaven forgive me for not pitying him! I was only glad mamma now agreed with me that we had nothing to regret. I had hoped that we should never have heard more of him: but, lo! here he is again in my way with a commission in your English army and a pension from your generous king, which make him, amongst poor emigrants, a man of consequence. And he has taken it into his head to sigh for me, because I laugh at him; and he talks of his sentiments!—sentiments!—he who has no principles!—"
"My noble-minded Emilie!" cried Mrs. Somers; "I cannot express to you the delight I feel at this explanation. How could I be such an idiot as not sooner to see the truth! But I was misled by the solicitude that Mad. de Coulanges showed about this M. de Brisac; and I foolishly concluded that you and your mother were one. On the contrary, no two people can be more different, thank Heaven!—I beg your pardon for that thanksgiving—I see it distresses you, my dear Emilie—and believe me, I never was less disposed to give you pain—I have made you suffer too much already, both in mind and body. This terrible ankle—"
"It does not give me any pain," said Emilie, "except when I attempt to walk; and it is no great misfortune to be obliged to be quiet for a few days."
Mrs. Somers' whole soul was now intent upon the means of making her young friend amends for all she had suffered: this last conversation had raised her to the highest point both of favour and esteem. Mrs. Somers was now revolving in her mind a scheme, which she had formed in the first moments of her partiality for Emilie—a scheme of marrying her to her son. She had often quarrelled with this son; but she persuaded herself that Emilie would make him every thing that was amiable and respectable, and that she would form an indissoluble bond of family union and felicity. "Then," said she to herself, "Emilie will certainly be established according to her mother's satisfaction. M. de Brisac cannot possibly stand in the way here; for my son has name and fortune, and every thing that Mad. de Coulanges can desire."
Mrs. Somers wrote immediately to summon her son home. In the mean time, delighted with this new and grand project, and thinking herself sure of success, she neglected, according to her usual custom, the "little courtesies of life;" and all Lady Littleton's excellent observations upon the nature of gratitude, and the effect produced on the mind by obligations, were entirely obliterated from her memory.
Emilie's sprained ankle confined her to the house for some weeks; both Mad. de Coulanges and Mrs. Somers began by offering in the most eager manner, in competition with each other, to stay at home every evening to keep her company; but she found that she could not accept of the offer of one without offending the other; she knew that her mother would have les vapeurs noirs, if she were not in society; and as she had reason to apprehend that Mrs. Somers could not, with the best intentions possible, remain three hours alone, with even a dear friend, without finding or making some subject of quarrel, she wisely declined all these kind offers. In fact, these were trifling sacrifices, which it would not have suited Mrs. Somers' temper to make: for there was no glory to be gained by them. She regularly came every evening, as soon as she was dressed, to pity Emilie—to repeat her wish that she might be allowed to stay at home—then to step into her carriage, and drive away to spend four hours in company which she professed to hate.
Lady Littleton made no complimentary speeches, but every day she contrived to spend some time with Emilie; and, by a thousand small but kind instances of attention, which asked neither for admiration nor gratitude, she contributed to Emilie's daily happiness.
This ready sympathy, and this promptitude to oblige in trifles, became extremely agreeable to Mlle. de Coulanges: perhaps from the contrast with Mrs. Somers' defects, Lady Littleton's manners pleased her peculiarly. She was under no fear of giving offence, so that she could speak her sentiments or express her feelings without constraint: and, in short, she enjoyed in this lady's society, a degree of tranquillity of mind and freedom to which she had long been a stranger. Lady Littleton had employed her excellent understanding in studying the minute circumstances which tend to make people, of different characters and tempers, agree and live happily together; and she understood and practised so successfully all the honest arts of pleasing, that she rendered herself the centre of union to a large circle of relations, many of whom she had converted into friends. This she had accomplished without any violent effort, without making any splendid sacrifices, but with that calm, gentle, persevering kindness of temper, which, when united to good sense, forms the real happiness of domestic life, and the true perfection of the female character. Those who have not traced the causes of family quarrels would not readily guess from what slight circumstances they often originate: they arise more frequently from small defects in temper than from material faults of character. People who would perhaps sacrifice their fortunes or lives for each other cannot, at certain moments, give up their will, or command their humour in the slightest degree.
Whilst Emilie was confined by her sprained ankle, she employed herself in embroidering and painting various trifles, which she intended to offer as souvenirs to her English friends. Amongst these, the prettiest was one which she called the watch of Flora. It was a dial plate for a pendule, on which the hours were marked by flowers—by those flowers which open or close their petals at particular times of the day. "Linnaeus has enumerated forty-six flowers which possess this kind of sensibility; and has marked," as he says, "their respective hours of rising and setting." From these forty-six Emilie wished to select the most beautiful: she had some difficulty in finding such as would suit her purpose, especially as the observations made in the botanic gardens of Upsal could not exactly agree with our climate. She sometimes applied to Mrs. Somers for assistance; but Mrs. Somers repeatedly forgot to borrow for her the botanical books which she wanted: this was too small a service for her to remember. She was provoked at last by Emilie's reiterated requests, and vexed by her own forgetfulness; so that Mlle. de Coulanges at last determined not to run the risk of offending, and she reluctantly laid aside her dial-plate.
[Footnote 1: See Botanic Garden, canto 2.]
Young people of vivacious and inventive tempers, who know what it is to be eagerly intent upon some favourite little project, will give Emilie due credit for her forbearance. Lady Littleton, though not a young person, could so far sympathize in the pursuits of youth, as to feel for Emilie's disappointment. "No," said she, "you must not lay aside your watch of Flora; perhaps I can help you to what you want." She was indefatigable in the search of books and flowers; and, by assisting her in the pursuit of this slight object, she not only enabled her to spend many happy hours, but was of the most essential service to Emilie. It happened, that one morning, when Lady Littleton went to Kew Gardens to search in the hot-houses for some of the flowers, and to ascertain their hours of closing, she met with a French botanist, who had just arrived from Paris, who came to examine the arrangement of Kew Gardens, and to compare it with that of the Jardin des Plantes. He paid some deserved compliments to the superiority of Kew Gardens; and, with the ease of a Frenchman, he entered into conversation with Lady Littleton. As he inquired for several French emigrants, she mentioned the name of Mad. de Coulanges, and asked whether he knew to whom the property of her family now belonged. He said, "that it was still in the possession of that scelerat of a steward, who had, by his informations, brought his excellent master, le Comte de Coulanges, to the guillotine. But," added the botanist, "if you, madam, are acquainted with any of the family, will you give them notice that this wretch is near his end; that he has, within a few weeks, had two strokes of apoplexy; and that his eldest son by no means resembles him; but is a worthy young man, who, to my certain knowledge, is shocked at his father's crimes, and who might be prevailed upon, by a reasonable consideration, to restore to the family, to whom it originally belonged, the property that has been seized. I have more than once, even in the most dangerous times, heard him (in confidence) express the strongest attachment to the descendant of the good master, who loaded him in his childhood with favours. These sentiments he has been, of course, obliged to dissemble, and to profess directly the contrary principles: it can only be by such means that he can gain possession of the estate, which he wishes to restore to the rightful owners. He passes for as great a scoundrel as his father: this is not the least of his merits. But, madam, you may depend upon the correctness of my information, and of my knowledge of his character. I was once, as a man of science, under obligation to the late Comte de Coulanges, who gave me the use of his library; and most happy should I think myself, if I could by any means be instrumental in restoring his descendants to the possession of that library."
There was such an air of truth and frankness in the countenance and manner of this gentleman, that, notwithstanding the extraordinary nature of his information, and the still more extraordinary facility with which it was communicated, Lady Littleton could not help believing him. He gave her ladyship his address; told her that he should return to Paris in a few days; and that he should be happy if he could be made, in any manner, useful to Mad. de Coulanges. Impatient to impart all this good news to her friends, Lady Littleton hastened to Mrs. Somers'; but just as she put her hand on the lock of Emilie's door, she recollected Mrs. Somers, and determined to tell her the first, that she might have the pleasure of communicating the joyful tidings. From her knowledge of the temper of her friend, Lady Littleton thought that this would be peculiarly gratifying to her; but, contrary to all rational expectation, Mrs. Somers heard the news with an air of extreme mortification, which soon turned into anger. She got up and walked about the room, whilst Lady Littleton was speaking; and, as soon as she had finished her story, exclaimed, "Was there ever any thing so provoking!"
She continued walking, deep in reverie, whilst Lady Littleton sat looking at her in amazement. Mrs. Somers having once formed the generous scheme of enriching Emilie by a marriage with her son, was actually disappointed to find that there was a probability that Mlle. de Coulanges should recover a fortune which would make her more than a suitable match for Mr. Somers. There was another circumstance that was still more provoking—this property was likely to be recovered without the assistance of Mrs. Somers. There are people who would rather that their best friends should miss a piece of good fortune than that they should obtain it without their intervention. Mrs. Somers at length quieted her own mind by the idea that all Lady Littleton had heard might have no foundation in truth.
"I am surprised, my dear friend, that a person of your excellent judgment can, for an instant, believe such a strange story as this," said Mrs. Somers. "I assure you, I do not give the slightest credit to it; and, in my opinion, it would be much better not to say one word about the matter, either to Emilie or Mad. de Coulanges: it will only fill their minds with false and absurd hopes. Mad. de Coulanges will torment herself and me to death with conjectures and exclamations; and we shall hear of nothing but the Hotel de Coulanges, and the Chateau de Coulanges, from morning till night; and, after all, I am convinced she will never see either of them again."
To this assertion, which Mrs. Somers could support only by repeating that it was her conviction—that it was her unalterable conviction—Lady Littleton simply replied, that it would be improper not to mention what had happened to Mad. de Coulanges, because this would deprive her of an opportunity of judging and acting for herself in her own affairs. "This French gentleman has offered to carry letters, or to do her any service in his power; and we should not be justifiable in concealing this: the information may be false, but of that Mad. de Coulanges should at least have an opportunity of judging; she should see this botanist, and she will recollect whether what he says of the count, and his allowing him the use of his library, be true or false: from these circumstances we may obtain some farther reason to believe or disbelieve him. I should be sorry to excite hopes which must end in disappointment; but the chance of good, in this case, appears to me far greater than the chance of evil."
"Very well, my dear Lady Littleton," interrupted Mrs. Somers, "you will follow your judgment, and I must be allowed to follow mine, though I make no doubt that yours is superior. Manage this business as you please: I will have nothing to do with it. It is your opinion that Mad. de Coulanges and her daughter should hear this wonderfully fine story; therefore I beg you will be the relater—I must be excused—for my part, I can't give any credit to it—no, not the slightest. But your judgment is better than mine, Lady Littleton—you will act as you think proper, and manage the whole business yourself—I am sure I wish you success with all my heart."
Lady Littleton, by a mixture of firmness and gentleness in her manner, so far worked upon the temper of Mrs. Somers, as to prevail upon her to believe that the management of the business was not her object; and she even persuaded Mrs. Somers to be present when the intelligence was communicated to Mad. de Coulanges and Emilie. She could not, however, forbear repeating, that she did not believe the story:—this incredulity afforded her a plausible pretext for not sympathizing in the general joy. Mad. de Coulanges was alternately in ecstasy and in despair, as she listened to Lady Littleton or to Mrs. Somers: her exclamations would have been much less frequent and violent, if Mrs. Somers had not provoked them, by mixing with her hopes a large portion of fear. The next day, when she saw the French gentleman, her hopes were predominant: for she recollected perfectly having seen this gentleman, in former times, at the Hotel de Coulanges; she knew that he was un savant; and that he had, before the revolution, the reputation of being a very worthy man. Mad. de Coulanges, by Lady Littleton's advice, determined, however, to be cautious in what she wrote to send to France by this gentleman. Emilie took the letters to Mrs. Somers, and requested her opinion; but she declined giving any.
"I have nothing to do with the business, Mlle. de Coulanges," said she; "you will be guided by the opinion of my Lady Littleton."
Emilie saw that it was in vain to expostulate; she retired in silence, much embarrassed as to the answer which she was to give to her mother, who was waiting to hear the opinion of Mrs. Somers. Mad. de Coulanges, impatient with Emilie, for bringing her only a reference to Lady Littleton's opinion, went herself, with what she thought the most amiable politeness, to solicit the advice of Mrs. Somers; but she was astonished, and absolutely shocked, by the coldness and want of good breeding with which this lady persisted in a refusal to have any thing to do with the business, or even to read the letters which waited for her judgment. The countess opened her large eyes to their utmost orbicular extent; and, after a moment's silence, the strongest possible expression that she could give of amazement, she also retired, and returned to Emilie, to demand from her an explanation of what she could not understand. The ill-humour of Mrs. Somers, now that Mad. de Coulanges was wakened to the perception of it, was not, as it had been to poor Emilie, a subject of continual anxiety and pain, but merely matter of astonishment and curiosity. She looked upon Mrs. Somers as an English oddity, as a lusus naturae; and she alternately asked Emilie to account for these strange appearances, or shrugged up her shoulders, and submitted to the impossibility of a Frenchwoman's ever understanding such extravagances.
"Ah que c'est bizarre! Mais, mon enfant, expliquez moi done tout ca—Mais ca ne s'explique point—Certes c'est une Anglaise qui scait donner, mais qui ne scait pas vivre.—Voltaire s'y connaissait mieux que moi apparemment—et heureusement."
Content with this easy method of settling things, Mad. de Coulanges sealed and despatched her letters, appealed no more to Mrs. Somers for advice, and, when she saw any extraordinary signs of displeasure, repeated to herself—"Ah que c'est bizarre!" And this phrase was for some time a quieting charm. But as the anxiety of the countess increased, at the time when she expected to receive the decisive answer from her steward's son, she talked with incessant and uncontrollable volubility of her hopes and fears—her conjectures and calculations—and of the Chateau and Hotel de Coulanges; and she could not endure to see that Mrs. Somers heard all this with affected coldness or real impatience.