His Majesty is happy at present in the loss of "that old deaf woman," as he lately called my Lady Suffolk, who was once his greatest blessing. There is much I could tell you, but think best not to commit to paper, save that I hear from my Lord Hervey (who is as much as ever in the Queen's confidence) of the farewell of Lady Suffolk to Her Majesty. She lamented to the Queen that she no longer met with the same attention from His Majesty. "I told her," said the Queen, "that she and I were no longer of an age to think of these sort of things in such a romantic way, and as wishing not to encourage it, bade her take a week to consider of the business and give me her word to read no romances meanwhile, and I was sure she would think better of her present concern."
She cares little who rules the King, so she and Sir Robert Walpole rule the kingdom; and indeed does both with the skill of a juggler tossing balls at Bartholomew Fair. Suffice it to say that she is as complaisant as ever, and treats the favourites, be they who they will, with a condescending and smiling geniality that enables her to give many an unexpected stab—the dagger hid in flowers. 'Tis thus, in my opinion, every sensible woman in the like case should carry herself. 'Tis not tears and agonies that move that sex, but good humour and composure, and thus are they left to their follies while common sense pursues its own objects. Yet, will a future age credit (what my Lord Hervey tells me) that our sovereign Lord, wishing to meet the daughter of the French Regent,—a Princess whose reputation is known to all the world,—writ thus to his Queen, "C'est un plaisir que je suis sur, ma chere Caroline, vous serez bien aise de me procurer, quand je vous dis combien je le souhaite"?
Never was woman mistress of so much tact, nor with more need of it. He struts like a little despot while the beggars sing in the street:—
You may strut, dapper George, but 't will all be in vain, We know 't is Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.
He thinks her his slave, and all his sultanas tremble at her nod! Lord, what a world do we live in! I wonder in how many private homes 'tis the same.
She is, indeed, an extraordinary woman; and for my part, despising men and women alike for their motives, I could at this instant form a ministry of women, with the Queen at their head, no more silly and impudent than they who now suppose themselves to guide the fortunes of the country. If the Gods have any relish of humour,—and 'tis to be thought they have, else had they not created such a miserable little crawling species,—they must often be witty at our expense. Quelle vie!
I comprehend her well. When I give my friendship and confidence and meet with a scurvy return, 'tis not anger nor aversion it produces in me, but a complete indifference. Was I to hear tomorrow that Mr Wortley had a train of charmers as long as Captain Macheath's in the "Beggars' Opera," 'twould not inflict a pang, so long as he kept within the bounds of prudence and family decency; and indeed, 'tis as my poor sister Gower said to me more than once: "'Tis you, sister, for a merciless good sense that makes you accommodate yourself without complaint to what had drove another woman distracted." We not married two years before I had to complain of his indifference and negligence (though no worse), and writ him plainly to that effect, concluding in the words that, as this was my first complaint, so it should be my last. I kept my word, and he his course, and we now correspond with good temper on family interests, and no more.
But since I have spoke of the "Beggars' Opera," know that I have myself become possessed of a Polly lovelier than any Lavinia Fenton that ever played the part. 'Tis a romance—heaven send it go no further! Here is the first chapter.
Being some weeks since at Twicknam, I did not see company awhile, owing to my cousin's death; for though, as I writ at the time of my father's, I don't know why filial piety should exceed fatherly fondness, and still less cousinly, still there is a decency to be exprest in black bombazine and retirement. Besides, a thousand nothings kept me engaged. I passed a part of the time writing satires upon the little crooked viper of Twicknam, Pope—that may appear one day with a decoration from my Lord Hervey's pen; for Pope's last lampoon on me is a disgrace to any nature above that of a baboon. So all was pastoral and tranquil.
But, as the Fates would have it, walking one day by the river and (I suppose) pulling off my glove, I lost the diamond ring that was my mother's,—the plainest thing and such as may be found anywhere,—a ring about the finger, of small brilliant sparks. 'Twas not the value, which is nothing, but I returned home in a scold with my woman Pratt, that was walking behind me and thinking of nothing but her face, which some commending have turned her head or she must have seen it fall. She is a fool, even for her nauseous class. Seeing nothing better to be done, I caused notices to be writ and stuck about the village that a Lady of Quality having dropt her ring etc., would give a reward. And having wrote of my loss to Mr Wortley, my son, and a few friends, fixed my mind with my usual good sense that I would see it no more.
For upwards of a week nothing took place. I was seated in the garden with my tent-stitch, when out comes Pratt to say a young woman requested an audience of me. I was vexed to be disturbed, having on my mind a letter that morning received to say that young rake, my son, was run off from Hinchinbrook and none knew where—but you are no stranger to his behaviour. I therefore sent word by Pratt that I could not see her, well knowing she would add any force to the information that my words lackt. But I was vexed to the blood by my young rogue, knowing not where to find him, and suspecting sonic low haunt in the Fleet.
To my astonishment returns Pratt presently, flouncing and bridling, and with her a young woman—Heavens! No, but one of the nymphs of the Thames, or rather, for they are somewhat oozy hereabouts, a dryad of the Richmond woods, indeed as beautiful a person as ever I saw in my life. There is not one of our reigning girls to be compared with her for a moment and even my Lord Hervey's Molly Lepel would vanish beside her, nor could Paris have any doubt where to bestow the apple. I am an amateur of beauty and can't forget your Ladyship's praise of my commendation of the fair Fatima, saying you never before knew one fine woman do such justice to another. So here I repeat myself.
This fair creature was drest in a plain suit of minunet that had seen better days, and a straw hat tied with ribbons over a cap of thread lace. But her eyes! large, black, and languishing, they would have recalled to me those verses addrest to the daughter of Sultan Achmet,—
Your eyes are black and lovely, But wild and disdainful as those of a stag,
but for the fall of lashes that hid their soft fire; her hair raven-black, a bloom I never saw equalled in this country, and her lips a veritable scarlet and shaped for every sweetness.
Thinks I—'t is well the Duke of Wharton and his club for gallantry can't see this paragon, else—but I leave the rest to your discretion, for your Ladyship knows "Sophia" as I call him, as well as I. However, the agreeablest girl in the world came forward and dropt a curtsey, with her eyes on the ground, and offered my ring, excusing herself on the scruple that she must needs give it into my own hand—and all this in a voice like music.
I leave you to guess if I was pleased, for the ring was on my mother's hand when she died, and 'twas so prettily tendered, too.
"Well, child, I thank you for your pains," says I "and will, of course, be answerable for the reward, but give me leave to add that, if I can serve you in any other manner, 'tis not my custom to leave service forgot; if I am not mistook, your mind is not as free from care as a well-wisher could like to see it."
Indeed, there was an air of melancholy about her which moved me prodigiously, and seeing Pratt flouncing and bustling in such a manner as denoted her curiosity and jealousy, I dismist her to the house. She can't endure a face that eclipses her own curds-and-whey skin, and lookt upon my little thread-satin beauty with a true court malice. I was, however, really desirous myself to know what had brought so much beauty to misfortune.
"Madam," says she, "my story is so common that it needs not detain your ear. My father was a rich Turkey merchant, and I wanted for nothing that money could buy. But he was bit by some scheme for making more, three years since; a scheme he compared—alas, too late!—to the South Sea Bubble itself. And in this he lost all, and I had the pious duty to support him by my needleworks. However, he sunk under his miseries into a melancholy that deprived him of life two years since. I nursed him to his last sigh and then, desiring to lead a life of virtue, I entered the family of Mrs Lamb, the Levant merchant's lady and a cousin of my father, to care her children. She carried them down here for an airing, and walking with the little misses yesterday, I found this ring and have the happiness to restore it."
She spoke with a propriety I can't describe, and curtseyed to retire. Indeed, my dear Lady D——n, you had yourself been seduced into the step I next took, though how far 'twas prudent, I leave you to judge, allowing the uneasiness beauty causes, go where it will.
"Child," says I, "I thank you, and as for the reward—"
She stopt me with a simplicity and integrity that could not but confirm my first opinion.
"'Tis not possible, Madam, I should accept it for an act of honesty common to all decent persons. Refuse me not that privilege, and permit me to retire, with thanks to your Ladyship for so encouraging a reception."
Again she curtseyed, but I detained her. 'Twas truly a pleasure to see so charming a creature.
"Child, if not possible I should serve you in one way, it may in another. If the question be not disagreeable, are you happily placed with this city lady?"
Her fine eyes moistened.
"No, Madam. Not but what Madam means well, but she possesses not an easy humour, and Miss Nanny, Susan, Betty, and the rest are hard to be controlled. I receive but my clothes and food and 'tis very true—"
She stopt what she would have said, with all the easiness of a girl of quality, but a modesty they have exchanged for the paint-pot and whitewash in which they now blaze out. What she did not say left much to be guessed. 'T is certainly these rich city folk for an illiberality of mind and petty spitefullness that inflicts countless stings on their dependants. 'Twas a weakness, I own, but it then came into my mind on a high point of generosity (with which I am sometimes took like a colic) to do what I could for the poor creature. 'Twas to be seen she was educated, and she presently confirmed my belief that she could read, write, and cast accompts to perfection, and was skilled in needleworks and household management. Her expectations of payment did not run high, and 'tis but reasonable I should consider of this. So was I tempted into what you may censure as an indiscretion, and said I was in need of one to overlook my family of servants, and be about myself and my girl, who hath picked up some little grossnesses from Pratt that I like not. Not that I would dismiss Pratt, but put this one somewhat above her as her training deserves. 'Twas charity and carefulness combined.
Sure never was gratitude more lively exprest than when she fell on her knee and kist my hand, protesting and vowing her life should be the monument to my goodness. And indeed, think what you will, Madam, 'tis a girl more suited to the company of persons of quality than to city dames that drive behind a pair of Suffolk Dumplings with coachman to match, their own hair and portliness dressed out in the last mode but three. For this girl fashion mattered not. I dare to swear the more she put off, the fairer she mist appear, even as our general mother Eve gained no lustre from her fig leaves nor furs.
'Twas not till the matter was settled and she retired, that my good sense asserted itself, and thus it said:—
"Come, Madam, what do you know of this nymph that you should be in such haste to make yourself her guardian? Did you ever know gratitude, or even decency, in return for a favour? And here have you took a girl into your family that will certainly draw every rake within thirty miles to hunt down the prey?"—"No matter," says my conscience (did you credit its existence, my dear Lady D——n? for so did not I), "if you take not pity on the wench, she will in three years' time be chargeable to the parish, with a brat in either hand, cast off for a newer face." 'Tis the way of the men, and those that trust them embark their little capital into worse than the South Sea Bubble. I resolved to keep her very secluded and say nothing of my Polly Peachum (whose name, by the way, is Anne Wentworth) outside the house, but indeed might as well endeavour to stifle a promising scandal as such beauty! However, she arrived a week later with her meagre outfit. 'Twas an odd whim, I own.
Don't I see you now, saying as you read, "Well do I know the sequel. Mr Wortley comes up from Hinchinbrook and loses the acorn he is pleased to call his heart to Mrs Anne." You are much mistook, Madam, and was it to be she, I had as soon that as another, for I might thus acquire the merit with my husband which the Queen gains with hers by choosing his inamoratas. It fell out far otherwise to your expectations; and, but for Pratt's gruntings and grumblings about cuckoos picked up in the street, which Mrs Anne bore with smiling patience, I had vaunted every day my good fortune in lighting on such beauty and merit.
My first alarm took place when Molly Skerret comes down one day and sees her engaged over the lace ruffles of my negligee. Says she:—
"Are you mad, Lady Mary, that you will needs have a beauty about you like yonder? All the men will be running after her. She is a close resemblance to Sally Salisbury, that hath been the rage—she that some time back stabbed young Finch and fled to France."
I set it down to spite, for dear Molly is no beauty herself. But the very next day my troubles begun, for the viper of Twicknam, happening to spy her in the garden in attendance on my girl, went home swelling with poison and writ the following, which was handed about all over the place and in the town.
Narcissa widely from the world retired So soon's sne saw her slighted charms expired. But since she still must hope another spring, (As snakes collect their poison ere they sting,) She chose a lovely nymph to keep her sweet, And, willing to be cheated as to cheat, When in her glass the glowing charmer shone, She fondly dreamed the image was her own.
This made a great talk, which was against my wish to keep the girl retired. But you will credit, my dear Lady D., that the malice of this little crooked monster, who should from affinity be conversant with the habits of snakes, would not set me against the poor innocent wench that caused it, and I contented myself with the caution to her that she should keep in the garden and speak with no men but what I judged proper. I fear none the less that there may be a difficulty in keeping her, impossible to be overcome, but will tell you further in replying to your obliging favour just received.
Before concluding this epistle, which indeed is more truly to be called a novel, I would have you know that Lady Polden was inoculated, together with all her family, for the smallpox two months since, excepting only Miss Jenny, that none could persuade from fear of the lancet. All recovered after a day or two's disagreeables, but poor Miss Jenny catching the distemper, supposedly at a masquerade, fell a victim at the age of eighteen, and was buried a week last Monday in all the forms. 'Tis certain there are those would sooner die with the approval of the doctors than live to dance on their graves without it.
My daughter presents her duty to you. I have designs myself to cross to France ere long, but will not be particular as to plans until I am more resolved.
I am affectionately yours.
* * * * *
(Two months later)
My Dear Madam,—
I know not whether I do well or ill in acquainting you with a matter so delicate, as there is none other but my Lord Hervey to whom I dare confide it, and 'tis but to you and to him I would be obliged for assistance. But friendship, if an illusion, is the last left me, and I won't dismiss it until I am compelled. 'Tis certainly absurd that one human being should depend upon any other for anything, for alone we are born and die, and it may be thought the Great Author of our being intended us to walk the way alone that conducts from the one to the other, else had he made our minds more accessible. For my part, if truth be a merit, I can say I never had an affection, but what I regretted it sooner or later, or made a confidence, but what I wished it recalled. Excepting in one case, which I leave to your discernment. And such is my vexation at this minute that, was I to be born in another incarnation as Pythagoras pretends, I would be a foundling, indebted to none who could exact repayment of the gift of life forced upon an unwilling victim to please the humour of others.
If I write a little bitter I know your kind cpncern will excuse me in view of what I relate. I am extreme annoyed and fluttered, yet would not be a vain lamenter neither. Life is still endurable when met with an easy common sense, and this I call to my aid on this occasion.
I had a mind to return to London about a month since, when word came that my young rake of a son would come hither for a few days, with his friend Carew. I knew not the young man, but remember his father in the Thoresby days, and the old man now being dead, the youth is well to pass in the world in a small way and hath inherited the old Devon grange.
However, I took this as a sign of grace in my prodigal, and desired Anne to see the rooms prepared and that she should not attend me with my tent-stitch after dinner, as wishing to keep flint and steel apart, which your Ladyship will admit was a prudence to be desired. And so went down to receive the young men.
You are not now to learn that Edward, with all his follies, hath a very pleasant humour when he chooses, and a tongue not unworthy of his family; and young Carew being very conversable and well-featured and full of odd stories of the authorities at Oxford and the liberties they allow themselves under the mask of gravity, the evening past extreme agreeably, and it was late when I left them to their bottle.
Pratt and Anne Wentworth attended me to bed, and I desired the last to put my pearl necklace into my dressing-box with the dressing-plate, with which she complied in her obliging manner and took the key as customary. This done, I dismist them and writ a few lines to my Lord Hervey, and so to sleep.
The next day we past on the river in a water party and sillabubs at Richmond and what not; and evening come I asked for my necklace and—Lord bless me!—'twas not to be found. Anne, pale as her smock, was looking in all corners,—and Pratt, also, but with purst lips as who should say, "Your Ladyship now sees what copies of whimsies and foundlings,"—till I was vexed to the blood with them both, and knew not what to say next; the more so, since I had seen Mrs Anne gathering flowers for the bowpots after sunrise, and young Carew staring after her like a zany. I don't doubt but what there had been a thousand sweet nothings before I opened my window. The house was hunted in vain, and all the comfort Edward could give me was the assurance of his father's anger at my folly in taking a stranger into the house; which is most abominably true, Mr Wortley loving to find fault and invent it where not found.
By this time Pratt was weeping like a crocodile, and the Bow Street runners sent for to come and take particulars lest the pearls be sold in Drury Lane. Indeed, my dear Madam, I could not close an eye for vexation, and to complete it could not but remark that young Carew kept casting sheep's eyes at Mrs Anne that looked as lovely as a weeping angel, could such be supposed. How different are tears in one woman and another! Pratt, her nose inflamed, her eyes scarce visible in swelled lids, might have been exposed to the Duke of Wharton and his "Schemers" without an ounce of virtue lost on either side; whereas Anne, with the liquid pearls hung on her lashes as if to replace the lost ones, was a dish for the Gods. 'Tis no manner of use to scold the Fates for what they give or withhold; but I swear 'tis easy known they are women, such favourites do they make without reason.
We returned to London without loss of time, and the young men remained on in my family for awhile—a course I took because the investigators are such filthy drunken beasts as I would not bring myself to endure their presence, and thought it more fitting that Edward should direct them. 'Twas more than a week ere they returned, with the news that pearls answerable to the description were sold at a receiving "ken" about Drury Lane. My blessed offspring, who (by the way) is grown extreme handsome, endeavoured to learn more certainly, but was told with surprising impudence that they were likely out of the kingdom by this time. The wretch that kept the place was took in custody and closely questioned; but naught could be got from him but that a young madam whom he supposed a nymph of Drury Lane had sold it, saying she had it from her young cully of a lover, and she would not have the sale known for worlds, but had occasion for the money. Asked to describe her, he said so many were his dealings as he took no particular heed beyond that she was handsome, and a way with her, says he, that would whistle a bird off a bough.
God forgive me—'twas not wonderful I looked at Mrs Anne, and the thought came in my mind how little I knew but her own story, and my own folly that took up with a stranger on what I might call a mere spasm of liking. She saw it, for she hath a gift of reading faces, and says she:—
"Your Ladyship, I am sensible that suspicion is like to rest on me, for Mrs Pratt is some time in your family and I but new come. This is a hanging matter, Madam, and I beseech you have so much pity for a poor girl as permit me a few days more before I am handed over to these cruel men. 'Tis the bare truth that, so far from stealing, I would give my life to repay the debt I owe your goodness. And sure I that restored a jewel unasked am scarce to be now held guilty. Have pity upon your poor girl, Madam! and delay but till Mrs Lamb and her family return from the Wells to speak for me."
'Twas so well exprest and carried so much truth that, though I called myself a thousand weak fools, I could not refuse her, and so set a week and lamented my own weakness in regard of beauty, that might be a man for the sensibility I have for it but that I detect their little cunning tricks. I know not how I am so oddly made up, unless it be the merciless good sense of which my poor sister Gower complained; but I am no more like to believe a woman ill-behaved because she is handsome (as women do), than to think her innocent (as a man would do) for the same excellent reason.
Some more days past, and I had other cause to regret my course; for passing a door ajar, I looked through the crack, hearing voices, and found Mrs Pratt conversing very much at her ease with my prodigal—a thing which, though well enough in Congreve's comedies, is what I will not have in my family. I am so ill-bred as to be quite insensible to the romantic nights that are now the vogue and, walking into the room, spoke my mind, desiring Mrs Pratt to be so good as pack her boxes and depart within the hour, which was accordingly done, I having her boxes looked through ere she went, so much assurance awaking my suspicion that perhaps she could tell more of the pearls than anyone, if so disposed. However, nothing found, and so off she went in a sulky silence, my son and heir talking very high and railing upon me for injustice. He took himself off next morning with young Carew (who however behaved very genteelly throughout), saying as he flung away, that God only knew but they might next be suspected, and they had better depart while their characters were safe. You know the silly cant he is apt to talk as well as any.
I was fluttered and wearied when they departed, and had, what is rare with me, a touch of the vapours; but there was Anne, hearing me come up, and did all to support me that a feeling heart and good sense could dictate. Will your Ladyship credit me when I tell you the poor girl had had good reason all along to suspect Mrs Pratt might have a hand in the thievery, but would not speak as knowing nothing for certain, and sparing to trouble me with the understanding she surprised between Pratt and my young gentleman. Her good sense and heart were a cordial, and I drew a little consolation in considering that I would now retain her about my person and enjoy a little peace in a worthy attendant. For, though I have known no instances of honour and integrity but among those of high birth, still there are exceptions, no doubt, to be found to any rule. So resolving, I sat down to write to my rake that I had sufficient reason to think his Dulcinea might know more of the pearls, and to request he would oblige me by using his best endeavours to trace them.
What a bubble is hope! Two days later comes a letter from young Carew, expressing himself with decency and respect, to tell me that with my permission he had made up his mind to marry Mrs Anne Wentworth, who was not unwilling to hear his suit, since he knew not where else he could find so much beauty coupled with good sense and modesty. He doubted not but I would approve his resolution.
'Twas somewhat of a blow. I had come to like the girl about me as a lap dog or any other little fondling. Her every look was a caress, and her voice as soft as violets. Also she hath mended my girl's manners of a hundred little indelicacies gathered from Pratt's pertness. I had willingly kept her, but 'twas not to be. What! shall a young beauty refuse a comfortable home and other matrimonial delights for a lonely woman! Not she!
I gave them what, by courtesy, may be called my blessing, and my suit of blue lutestring to Mrs Bride, and she threw herself at my feet, and I actually came near shedding a tear to see her overflowing gratitude. 'Twas worthy such a set of verses as Pope writ when the rural lovers were killed in each other's arms by a stroke of lightning.
No doubt Carew is a fool—yet I think a wise one. She will play him no tricks and stratagems, and will be a fair Lady Bountiful in his moated grange, and will care her children and the poor, and con possets and caudles with the parson's wife—Pshaw! what sickly stuff do I write that should know better. 'Tis liker she will play him false in a year, with some booby squire that rides to hounds and swaggers in with his boots a mass of mud to drink himself silly after a dinner of roast pig. And for me, I have replaced her next day with a Mrs Susan—the Duchess of Montagu's late woman, that hath all the pertnesses and the tricks of her trade.
Well—'tis the way of the world. Set not your heart on anything. A hard heart that values nothing is the only wear, and 'tis evident Scripture so enjoins it. My glass tells me I am still a personable woman, and 'tis open to me to find amusement in making a lover—and myself—happy if so I choose—and if 'twere not so dull a pastime. And there is crimp and quadrille for the asking, and the new game that is just come up.
Horace Walpole is crossing the Channel and will give this to your Ladyship's hand. And the favour I would have of you (in all secrecy) is this—that you would cause enquiry to be made with caution at Breguet's in the Rue des Moineaux, whether he hath had lately any sale of pearls from England. 'Twas a thing spoke of as not impossible, that they should find their way there, for I hear from H. W. and others that the man is a well-practised receiver of such goods from England. But with caution, I entreat, and with no mention to H. W., for I begin to have an anxiety that I have not as yet mentioned to any.
Pray be so good as send your reply by special hand. I await it uneasily. It may be that I have the spleen, but though I have done with knight-errantry for distrest beauty, I wonder sometimes whether my little Anne Carew have not a happier fate than any woman of fashion. 'Tis but a modest grange in Devon; but those two simple souls will taste of happiness there and in each other, and the world will not trouble them. The seasons will come and go, and when they lie in the churchyard 'twill not be with tons of marble and scutcheons of lies above 'em, but with nature's covering of snow in winter and leaves and flowers in summer. They'll sleep the sweeter. I would willingly have her with me still. Present my compliments to our Embassador. I may yet have to ask his good offices, but am still in hopes to avoid this.
Your Ladyship's most affectionate, as ever.
* * * * *
(A month later)
My Dear Madam,—
Herewith the end of the romance I have inflicted on your obliging attention, and I am now to tell you your comments were fully justified and I have writ myself down an ass and invoked as fine a lampoon as Pope could write in gall and vinegar. "Sappho" will be as nothing to it, and indeed that I, that know the world or should know it, should behave so like a country bumpkin new come to town is gall and wormwood to myself. I cannot hide from a friend what all the world will soon ridicule, and had sooner you heard it from me than another. Was you to reproach my folly as I deserve, you will write volumes and I promise to read with seasonable humility. Sure I must be falling into premature dotage.
I was at Twicknam again, somewhat ailing with My common swelled face, when I was told Mr Carew would see me. I refused, but he would take no denial and indeed forced his way in—so pale that I could expect nothing but the worst news of my son and implored him to speak. 'Twas some time and took a dram to restore him before he could answer, what with his haste and fluttered spirits. But when he did—'twas to tell me Madam had flown the day they married. The ceremony was scarce over and they returned to the house, when, making some excuse, she slipt from the room. He waited as long as a bridegroom's patience would hold out and followed her; but found she was nowhere to be seen. Your kindness, Madam, will conceive the horror with which he searched everywhere, but could get no news. The least he could suppose was that she was murdered for the diamond ring he gave her on the occasion.
At the last he had recourse to the law, and what a discovery was there. Who think you was my paragon—the compendium in little of all the female virtues? Why, Sally Salisbury's niece! and the equal of Sally herself for worthless good looks and behaviour. She is not yet well known to the town or I could not have been so took in. But you will recall that Molly Skerret observed the likeness to that drab Sally on seeing her. Good Heaven, that I had heeded, and not harboured the slut!
Yet there is worse to follow, and I know not how to tell such folly, but must do so. She is the wife of my son, whom indeed I knew capable of any wickedness short of robbing his mother. He picked the hussy up in the Fleet and wed her, and then, being in debt, the thought struck the promising pair that my jewels might meet their needs. He took advantage of the loss of my ring to have it copied, and the rest followed easy with a fool like me.
"But I beseech you, Madam," says poor Carew, shaking in every limb, "that you would have the goodness to review your jewels, since the only way I can reason upon her continuing with you and pretending to accept my addresses was to take time while Mrs Pratt was under suspicion to make off with more and keep you easy about them. The pretended love-affair with Mrs Pratt was plainly to be a false scent."
I sent for my cases, and find my chain of diamonds, my gold etui set with diamonds, my Turkish clasp with emeralds, and other things disappeared with my Venus. I enclose the list and description, for I learn Miss Sally Salisbury is now in Paris, and it is probable that her niece and nephew (my son) have joined her or committed the jewels to her good offices. I am ashamed to give your Ladyship such trouble about this trifle, yet beg your obliging enquiries in the Rue des Moineaux or where else your Lord may suggest. But by all means keep it from Horace Walpole. I want not his bitter tongue to lick my sores. 'Tis of course certain we cannot use the law, considering who is involved—a point Madam no doubt laid her account with when she carried through the plot.
Lord, when I think of my sentiment wasted on the arrant hussy! My green churchyards and Lady Bountifuls and all the praise of simplicity and parade of folly that took me because of a pretty face and arts from the gutter. Well, 'tis the miserable truth that this young fool (who sure must get it from his mother) did wed this slut at the Fleet two years since, and hath damned himself for life. He is now as weary of her as is to be expected, and besought me to deliver him from the consequence of his folly. Beside that fact the affair of the diamonds seems shrunk, for nothing can be done, nor does he deserve it. He whines like a whipt dog in his letters.
I would my father had lived to see the soundness of Mr Wortley's reasoning, when he refused to entail his estates upon a future child of whose vices and disposition he could know nothing. 'Twould certainly be the young gentleman's utter ruin had he money to handle in reversion. I will not trouble you with the number of falsehoods he has stuft into his letters.
I have trained myself to fortitude, and go about with as many knives stuck in my heart as our Lady of the Seven Dolours that I saw in Vienna, but make much less display of them. The best news I could have at this moment would be the young villain's death, for the misery he will yet bring upon himself and others is too certain. For Madam, she will doubtless be heard of yet in a manner that the decency of my sex obliges me to soften. I doubt they will both end on the gallows, though indeed her face will probably save her that or any penalty.
Well, I have done with such fragments of a heart as I had, and wish it may never trouble me more. I am sick of the cant of sentiment and duties and suchlike, which is the mask men use to cover what will not bear considering. Let me write of it no more. The open wickedness of the world we live in is preferable to hypocrisy and cringing. I will rather laugh with others than be a laughing-stock. I sicken at this complication of folly and falsity. I go to the Bath shortly, and look for change and pleasure there, though Mr Wortley speaks of passing through on his way to Bristol, I know not for what. Lord Hervey is resolved to come there, though I fear it will not please his lady, who seems resolved to keep so general a blessing to herself, which is more than she or any can hope. She takes it, however, with easy good sense, and wisely, for there's nothing on earth, I protest, worth a tear.
The rage for cards runs higher than ever, and let me conclude my romance and this long paper with a pretty parable of them that is making the round of the town. Will your Ladyship guess the author? 'T is called "The Goddesses of Chance."
"There was long since in the Moon four Goddesses. One was the Queen of Riches, the second the Queen of Love, the third the Queen of Power, and of the fourth you'll hear anon. 'Tis to be supposed the fourth received the most homage; for a thing known loses its value, as when a man despises his own wife and thinks Lord M.'s a descended Venus, when, was the case reversed, his own would be his object.
"On a certain day these ladies, being, after all, women, disputed between themselves on a point of precedence.
"Says the Goddess of Riches, jingling her diamonds:—
"'I come first with all. I am worshipt in every polite country, and even the blacks fight over the shells that are their coinage. I give not only gold but all it can buy, inclusive of such bagatelles as love and honour, and all the other little nothings men cry up when they have a mind to be droll. I need give no examples though I might cite the late marriage of my Lady M. E. at the age of fifteen to a wealthy lord of seventy-five that shall be nameless. Undoubtedly I am Queen of all.'
"'Not by any means,' says the Goddess of Hearts, adjusting her crown with a simper. ''Tis I am supreme. 'Tis known a young rake will sell his last estate to win a smile from Miss Sally Salisbury and other worthy ladies. And hath not the Countess of H——t lately run off with her footman? I lead statesmen and kings by the nose. Many such moral examples could I give if needful.'
"The Goddess of Power, brandishing her club with a brawny arm, then replied:—
"'I beg your Ladyships would cease twattling when 'tis in my power with a crack of my club to silence you all. I leave you to judge whether anything in life is so powerful as what can end it. What's love when a crack on the sconce can kill it, or riches when a blow can turn it over to the grimacing heir-at-law? No, no, ladies. Strength comes first, and this was seen when the Strong Man was at Bartholomew Fair and half the beauties ran after him and poured their gold in a perfect Pactolus at his feet. Show your good sense, therefore, by a discreet silence.'
"But still they disputed, and at last the fourth said:—
"'Sisters, let us descend to earth, that we may settle the question which I see not how else to conclude.'
"'But how shall we go?' says the three at once.
"'We will go as the Queens of Chance, and men may sport with us, play with us, revile us, men and women alike. And they shall sell us their honour, love, and whatever else they have marketable, and on the day of Judgment we four will see whose bag is fullest of their commodities. 'Tis the only way to settle the dispute. And in the end all shall come to me.'
"And the three said: 'And who are you, Madam?'
"And says she: 'With my black spade I dig the earth where all shall lie. 'Tis I will be the Black Hag of the Pack, and you shall strip them and I will dig their graves. Be it known to you that I am Destiny herself.'
"So they came to earth, and are the Queens of Diamonds, Hearts, and Clubs. But if the Queen of Spades be in your hand, say the gambler's prayer backward, for she is the chance you can't reckon in the game, or in life or death."
I think it neatly turned, whoever did it, and I declare this little writing hath so affrighted the fine ladies, that Mrs Murray swooned away at the Duchess of Manchester's, finding the Queen of Spades in her hand at commerce, and was forced to be revived with strong waters. His Grace of Wharton, known to you and me as "Sophia," hath given up cards altogether, though whether it be the parable, I know not. And the viper of Twicknam is so jealous that he did not himself write this piece, that he spews his venom in all directions, in hope some will settle on the author. His pleasure to scourge alike the follies and virtues of mankind is, for aught I know, the liveliest this world affords. The follies are, at least, inexhaustible, and none need be at a loss for amusement that can taste them, whether in themselves or others.
The Queen, who I can't undertake to commiserate for bad health, so hard a life as she leads, hath had the unspeakable blessing to see her lord return from Hanover, after a storm which induced his faithful subjects to believe they had lost him. Will your Ladyship credit that the wits affixed a paper to the walls of St. James's Palace with, writ on it, this following:—
"Lost or strayed out of this house, a man who has left a wife and six children on the parish. Whoever will give tidings of him to the churchwardens of St. James's Palace, so as he may be got again, shall receive four shillings and sixpence reward.—N.B. This reward will not be increased, nobody judging him to be worth a crown."
Impudence indeed! But I hear from Lord Hervey that she is counselled by Sir Robert Walpole to invite Madame Walmoden hither from Hanover, to amuse his leisure. 'Tis done as you might throw a bone to a dog, while Her Majesty and the Walpole pursue the business of governing. I have no sort of liking for either, but own, had that woman been a man, she had been a great one, so entirely does she subdue her heart and all the femininities in her to what her reason demands. When she dies, and it can't be long first, from what I hear, the fool she leaves will drift like a stick in a stream.
Well, I sicken of England and of the town and the wits and all else. My mind is made up to quit this country ere long, and seek peace abroad, where I found it when I was younger than I am now. Folly! I tell myself so, and yet I will do it, when one or two businesses I must attend on are finished. 'Tis not that I am a lamenter over that I have told you. I care not what happens to my prodigal, and had sooner be out of hearing of his doings. When a cup is broke, throw it from you and think of it no more. But whether 'tis the spleen or the vapours, I have a mind to cross the water and seek a new earth, if not a new heaven. Here I am in neither, but in purgatory. Quelle vie!—'Tis what I say daily.
Adieu, my dearest Madam—may it not be long before we meet.
M. W. M.
(The son of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the misery of her life, and it is the historic truth that he made much such a marriage as I have described. It is said he turned Mohammedan after the death of his parents. A portrait of him in a most aggressive turban is in existence. The reason for Lady Mary's leaving England in 1739, and returning only to die in 1762, has never been known.)
Maria Gunning Countess of Coventry 1733-1760
Elizabeth Gunning Duchess of Hamilton and of Argyll 1734-1790
"'Tis a warm day," remarks George Selwyn in a letter to Lord Carlisle, "and someone proposes a stroll to Betty's front shop; suddenly the cry is raised, 'The Gunnings are coming,' and we all tumble out to gaze and to criticize."
The two lovely sisters from Roscommon in Ireland, introduced by their beauty, were the sensation of fashionable England in 1751. Maria, a year the elder, was the more dashing and at first the more conspicuous of the two. She became Countess of Coventry, and died at twenty-seven. Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, after his death, refused the Duke of Bridgewater, but later married the Duke of Argyll. Four of her children were Dukes, two of Hamilton and two of Argyll.
So much Irish luck and beauty kept the Gunnings constantly in the centre of court affairs. A poem celebrating their conquests was entitled, "The Grand Contest between the Fair Hibernians and the English Toasts."
The Queen of the Bluestockings said of them, when she saw them together, "Indeed very handsome; nonpareille, for the sisters are just alike take them together, and there is nothing like them."
The Golden Vanity
A Story of the First Irish Beauties The Gunnings
It was the year of grace 1750, and old Mother Corrigan sat outside her door in Slattern Alley, smoking her short black pipe with a relish; and't was a good day with her, for she had told his fortune that morning for Squire Tyrconnel, on his way to fight a duel in the Phcenix Park with Lawyer Daly; and when it was finished, says she to him:—
"Let you count the buttons on his body-coat, your Honour, and fix the third from the top in your eye. And when you stand up to him, say a prayer and pink him with your swordeen in that very spot, and the Lord grant him a bed in heaven, the old villain, for he'll never be asking one on earth again."
And as she said, so it was, and old Daly turned up his toes and never spoke more, when the Squire got him in the third button. And an hour after, Squire Tyrconnel sent his purse with five golden guineas in it, and a pound of the best rappee to be found in the Four Courts, and all for Mother Corrigan, and she was a proud woman that day. Her house was stuffed as full of money as an egg of meat; but no one would think it to look at her; for she had it all hid away like an old fairy, so that no one would give a thought to it.
She was sitting at her door at the top of Slattern Alley where it turns into Britain Street, and she in the best of good tempers, when a lady came by with two young daughters beside her—a tall woman, with a fine blossoming colour in her face and an air like a peacock spreading his tail and her eyes as clear as spring water. It would be hard to see a finer woman of her age in a day's walk, and all the gentlemen going to and from the Castle must turn to have another look at the three of them. Her dress might be handsome at first sight; but, closer, you could see she had it held up with pins and stitches, and a bit of good lace fell over it to hide the wear in the front. Also, she drew her feet under her hoop, that they might not be noticed, though they were as small as a young child's. And so she minced along with steps like mice, for fear of showing the burst in her shoe.
But for all that she held up her head like the deer in the Lord Lieutenant's park, and her pride was enough for a queen, and too much for a poor lady walking the Dublin streets and holding her skirt up out of the mud.
But it was the two she had with her that any lady might be proud of. There were never two such out of heaven; and sure it may be believed, for the world has said it often enough since that day, and will say it to the end of time. For the elder was a sweet rogue, with hair like red gold clean out of the fire, and eyes like a blue June morning, and cheeks like May flowers that a rose has kissed, and lips that better than a rose would kneel to kiss one day; and her smile lit up the street, and she tripped along as light as a spring breeze.
But the younger—sure the Lord was well pleased the day he made her face, for't was perfection's self, Her hair was a dark brown veined with gold, and her eyes like purple violets with the rain on them; and when she closed her long lashes 'twas like a cloud over the stars; and her mouth, and the soft smile, and the dimple that dipped when she laughed—a man would stand all day to watch her and not think long. 'Tis a strange thing that one girl will be like that, all beauty and shining sweetness, and another, perhaps as good,—for better she could not be in her heart,—will be a poor sorrowful little victim that a cat would not look at in the dark!
And old Mother Corrigan saw them coming, and she took her pipe out from between her teeth, and says she:—
"Halt here, my ladies, the three of you, and hear the fortune that's waiting you—the way you'll be ready when it comes."
"Fortune!" says the lady, stopping, a girl in each hand; "'Tis the black fortune and the sad fortune that befell me since the day the gold ring was on my finger. And I don't want to hear any more, so I don't; for if I had more to bear than I have this minute I wouldn't face the morn's morrow."
But Mother Corrigan rose up as nimbly as a woman to a dance, and she looked the lady in the eyes as if she was as tall as herself, and, "Come in," says she, "for though 'tis a poor place, the beauty of the three of you will light it like candles, and 'tis here your luck begins."
So they went in, and the lady said she had not so much as a silver bit to cross her hand with, and indeed would have pulled her daughters back; but the old woman would not have it.
"Leave it so," says Mother Corrigan, "what matters an empty hand today when you'll fill the two hands of me with gold when the luck comes that's coming? Give me your word, my lady, and I'll take it for as good as five guineas."
So she gave her word to fill Mother Corrigan's hand with golden guineas; and the two young girls were standing by, their cheeks like burning roses for fear and hope, as the old witch caught the lady's hand, and gabbled something that was not a prayer, and the words came from her like a person talking in their sleep.
"High blood and poverty. Sure, your father had a crown on his head and no gold to gild it with."
But the lady pulled her hand away angrily.
"Then you know who I am. What's the good of play-acting? I guessed this would be the way of it!"
"I don't know and I don't care," says the old woman with a grin. "I'm telling you what I see, and till this minute I never laid eye on you or yours. Don't you be speaking again, for there's no sense in that; but harken!"
So she told her her father was poor and proud, an Irish lord with a castle in a bog and an old coach with the cloth hanging off it in flitters and the plough-horses to draw it; and that he never gave her a penny since she married, for he had it not to give. And she told her her husband was no better, but running after the cards and dice all day, so that all the world cried folly on her for taking up with him.
"But no matter!" says Mother Corrigan, "for you did a good deed for yourself that day you stood up with him in the church."
"A good deed!" says the lady, very angry. "Don't you be a foolish old woman, and you so near your end. For I got nothing out of it but care and crying and pinching poverty and five children that I don't know how to put the bread in their mouths; and this minute I'm as lonesome as a widow, for my husband is off and away in the country, and here am I in Dublin; and if I know how to get bit or sup for them it's as much as I do know."
But the old woman shook her head till her teeth rattled.
"Let you be easy and take what's coming. I see you sitting in a king's house, and the walls all gilded gold, and the carpets like moss that your foot would sink into, and riches and grandeur, and everyone bowing down to the mother of the beauties."
"Well, if the half of it's true," says the lady, "the first news should come to me is that I'm a widow; for 'tis impossible it should happen as you say with a husband that hasn't one penny-piece to rattle on a tombstone."
"You'll not be a widow for many a day, and 'tis your husband's name brings the luck."
"You don't know what his name is. You couldn't If you'll tell me his name, I'll engage to believe any mortal thing you tell me."
So the three looked at the old woman; but she took another look at the hand as she might be reading a book, and:—
"Good-day to you, Mrs Gunning, and good-day to his Lordship's daughter,— my Lord Mayo,—and good-day to the mother of the two beauties that'll sweep the world."
And she clucked and chuckled to herself, highly diverted with their astonishment. How did she know it? What that old woman did not know would make but a short story. 'T was said she had informants over the whole countryside, like a Minister of the Crown.
They stared, for they were new come to Dublin, running from their debts in Roscommon and taking the chance to pick up husbands in the city, and there was not one there who knew them.
So she took the youngest girl's hand in hers and says she:—
"You'll marry the highest man, bar one or two, in England. And you'll not be content with that; for when you bury him, you'll marry the highest man in Scotland; and if I sat here till tomorrow, I couldn't tell you the half of the riches and glory that's waiting for you. You'll have to crawl through the black mud to get the first; but after that 'tis a clear course, and the mud won't stick to a duchess's gown, young Miss Elizabeth Gunning!"
A duchess! Elizabeth's eyes were like winter stars, they so sparkled—they would put out the light of diamonds. She held herself like a young poplar and says she:—
"And if you're right, old woman, or anything like it, I'll come and see you when I get promotion, and my Lord Duke shall fill your pockets with gold."
But Mother Corrigan grinned like a dog.
"I haven't a pocket, my Lady's Honour. My hand's good enough; but I'll not be here when you come riding back to poor old Dublin in yer coach and six —and now for the fairy of the world!"—And she took the hand of the eldest, who was shaking like a leaf and expecting to hear of a prince and his blue ribbon at the least, and her eyes fixed on the old witch like two blue lakes with the stars dipping in them.
But she shook her head.
"A great man, but not so big a man as your sister's." (The girl looked jealous daggers at Elizabeth.) "A fine man, and the gold lace on him, and velvet and silk stockings, and gold buckles shining in the shoes of him, and a big house to live in, and fine clothes for your back, and—"
She stopped dead, like a horse pulled up on his haunches; but the young Maria twitched her by the raggedy sleeve.
"Go on. What is it? I want to hear."
"Don't ask me, and you so beautiful!"
"I do ask, and I'll have it out of you. I suppose you mean I'll get old and ugly like yourself."
"You'll never be old and ugly. Them that remembers you will remember the loveliest thing God ever made when he took clay in his two hands."
"I don't know what she means," says Maria fretfully. "But sure some women are handsome till they die. Tell us when will the luck come, and how?"
"With the Golden Vanity and a woman with a man's name. And now leave me, my three queens, and I'll have a drop to warm me old bones and a whiff of the pipe to put the life in me. But don't forget the old woman when the great lords is kneeling before you and pouring the diamonds out of baskets before ye—and send the golden guineas, and—"
So she went on mumbling and muttering, and that was the first and last time the old hag told a fortune for love and not for money. She had not long to tell any, for she died next May, and not a soul to cry for her.
* * * * *
They stepped out into the sunshine, their heads high, and scarce a word to say to each other; for all three were thinking of the promises as light and glittering as soap bubbles. And Maria would not spare a word to Elizabeth, for not a woman but must walk after the heels of a duchess, and she was all for leading.
"The Golden Vanity!" says Elizabeth. "Mama, what should that be? When I'm a duchess—"
"I don't know, and most likely 'tis not worth knowing." Mrs. Gunning was angry. Her fine brows were drawn together. "Leave talking of duchesses, you silly fools, and go get the herrings for tea. I have left the children too long as it is."
So she marched down Britain Street like a queen, for all her burst shoe,— a shabby street it was for such ladies,—and the two walked off to Fishmonger's Alley, and not a head but turned to look at them.
"Faith, they're goddesses and no mistake!" says gay Mr Councillor Egan, on the way from the Law Courts, with his mulberry face and his mulberry velvet coat. 'Twas to Lawyer Curran he said it, and in a small city like Dublin the name held, and the two were called the Goddesses from that time.
Old Corrigan's words gave them courage for a while; but what can hold up against a diet of herrings day in and day out? And that was all the poor lady could give her family. What was she to do? Mr Gunning had took himself off to Castle Coote, his beggarly place in the country, where he could dice and drink in peace with the neighboring squireens, and live off claret and the skinny fowls that pecked about the avenue; and she had the weight of the children on her spare shoulders.
'Twas about this time that young Harry Lepel, the first man they met, in a way of speaking, fell in love with Elizabeth, the younger. The way it happened was this. She was walking down Mount Street with Maria, and she let fall her purse, and nothing in it but a pocket-piece to save her gentility. Harry was strolling off to my Lord Cappoquin's, from mounting guard at the Castle (for at that time his Lordship lived in Merrion Square); and indeed Mr Lepel was as fine a figure of a young man as a girl could wish to see, in his regimentals all laced with gold and his handsome head above them—a brown man with dark eyes. And seeing a young madam drop her purse, he stooped for it and, coming up behind them, saluted very stiff and offered it, and the two turned and looked him in the face.
'Tis certain a man might come up a thousand times behind a woman's back and not be startled as Harry Lepel was when he saw them; for there never was, nor will be, two such sisters. 'Twas like a battery suddenly unmasked; and what chance had the poor devil that was marching up to it like an innocent? The only thing he could do was to surrender at discretion—but to which lady? That was the trouble. Elizabeth Gunning settled it for him.
"I thank you, Sir," says she, with a smile that had ruined St. Anthony, for she was one that smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth—a golden sunshine that the heart opened to naturally.
He was stuttering and stammering. "Madam, I thank you for the happiness of touching anything your hand hath blessed."
'Twas sudden, I allow; but then, so too was her beauty. At all events, he dared no more, not having the courage, though all the will, to linger, and was turning off when a queer thing happened. But 'twas to be.
A drunken poltroon of a bargeman was coming up from Liffey-side, lurching and yawing like a Dutch hooker in a gale; and seeing them in a little bunch on the cobblestones, he took an anger at them in his wooden head, and, whether purposely or not I know not, but he elbowed up against Miss Maria and drove her into the dirty kennel; and she gave a faint scream, for her shoes were destroyed with the mud, and it was the only pair she had to her name. So what does Mr Lepel do but let drive straight from the shoulder at the offender, and in a minute the shoes and the lady were out of the kennel and the bargeman lying there as snug as snug, and the oaths he let out of him blackening the air like a flight of crows. So Mr Lepel, smiling with set lips like a picture, says to the girls:—
"Ladies, permit me to escort you to your home. 'Tis much to be regretted the streets are not safe for beauty unattended, though to be sure I have the happiness to profit by the circumstance. I trust it hath been no shock to your sensibility?"
And, indeed, tears had gathered in Elizabeth's eyes; but Maria was laughing like a Hebe, and looking up in his face—the blue-eyed lovely rogue!
"We thank you, Sir. 'Tis what our own brother had done had he been more than five. But while he is in the nursery, we must be obliged to kind strangers for protection."
"Madam, I would not willingly remain a stranger," says Mr Harry, very eager, and touching his cocked hat. "Permit me to present myself for want of a better introducer. My name is Harry Lepel."
"I thank you, Sir. 'Twill be remembered with gratitude. May we now bid you farewell?"
Miss Maria sank down, in a curtsey so well devised that it showed the littlest foot in the world, save only Elizabeth's. A fortunate bootmaker later was to make five guineas an afternoon by showing their shoes at a penny a head to the mob that gathered to stare at them; but that time was not yet come. Mr Lepel spoke earnestly:—
"Madam, you can't suppose—'tis not possible I can permit you to return alone after such an adventure. The sun sinks and the streets are mighty ill lit. If my company is disagreeable, I can walk ten paces behind; but otherwise—"
Here Elizabeth interposed, with a fine colour in her cheek:—
"The company of our protector can't be disagreeable—'tis a favour. But, Sir, I will be frank with you: we are in Dublin incognita; our lodging is not equal to our pretensions to birth; and in short—"
She hesitated, with her eyes dropped and the lashes like night upon her cheek. The crimson bow of her upper lip trembled—a seductive picture of troubled beauty. Anyhow it did Mr Harry's business for him. He could no more have tore himself away at that moment than he could have embraced the barge-man swearing blue murder at his feet.
"Madam, these are misfortunes that may happen to the greatest, and 'tis easy seen that in your case breeding and birth combine with—beauty. Is it indiscreet to ask the name of the ladies I have the honour to address?"
"'Tis very indiscreet," says Miss Maria, with one of her bright side-glances; "but yet—should we withhold it, sister?"
"Surely not from so kind a friend." Elizabeth spoke eagerly. "Our name, Sir, is Gunning, and we are granddaughters to the late Viscount Mayo and nieces to his present Lordship. And when I add that our parents have fallen into poverty, you will comprehend—"
Her voice paused on a silver note, which had the beginning of a sob; and when Elizabeth saddened, the world must sadden with her, so lovely were her long eyes and the drooping head. Pity poor Mr Harry! Talk of Scylla and Charybdis—he stood between the Sirens, and could he have halved his heart (and many men have that power), one half had gone to either charmer.
"Madam," says he tenderly, "I feel for your sorrows more than I can express. Might I but have the happiness to be presented to your mama; for 'tis the most prodigious circumstance—I am the son of Sir Francis Lepel of Tarrington in Yorkshire, and I have heard him speak of my Lord Mayo many a time. His Lordship stood second to my grandfather in his famous duel with Lord Ayrshire thirty year since. My name will not be unknown. Permit me—"
And again he saluted, very gallant, and the three proceeded down the street, the girls on thorns for thinking of the dingy rooms, and their mother down-at-heel, and the everlasting herrings sizzling on the grate, and Lucy and Kitty screaming for their supper. 'Twas thinking thus that Maria touched Elizabeth's arm, as much as to say: "Shall we let him go?" For indeed these girls had a perfect language of signs between them, elaborated in the shifts and devices of their life; and Miss Maria, at least, was an accomplished little schemer. But Elizabeth responded not to the pinch.
"Why, Sir," says she sweetly, "the name is indeed familiar. Sitting on his Lordship's knee, often have I heard him discourse of Sir Francis. You are no stranger. Yet truth is best. We are poor, Mr Lepel. My sister and I are debarred from all the pleasures of our rank, and our only concern is how to lighten our mama's burden if we could. 'Tis this makes us hesitate, for we can't offer you the hospitality we would."
"Name it not, Madam, I entreat," says Mr Harry, trying to look into those too seductive eyes. "God forbid I should add to your anxieties. But had I the happiness to know your mama, whose beauty half Ireland knows by repute, sure I might be permitted to open the way to some pleasures. There is, for instance, a Birthnight ball to be celebrated at the Castle—"
"Sir, you are all goodness, but gentlemen understand little of the difficulties of poor young ladies of quality. How should they? We have no dresses fit for the eyes of his Excellency. Even shoes—"
She permitted a foot to appear beneath the edge of her petticoat and ambushed it again. But it had done its work.
"You tear my heart, Madam. But since that little marvel of a foot recalls Cinderella's, permit me to say that a fairy godmother smoothed the way for that young lady to a certain ball, and there she met the prince whose throne she afterwards shared."
"There are no fairies in Dublin, Sir." Her voice was like flowing honey, while the little foot so commended was bestowing a sharp kick upon the fair Maria, and thus it said:—
"Run ahead. Turn the corner and run like a lamp-lighter, and let mama know what is toward. Hide the herrings. Bundle the children to bed. Fling mama's Irish lace over her head. I can hold him fifteen minutes. Speed!"
'Tis much to be said in one kick, and it takes a woman to say and a woman to hear; but Miss Maria was a woman, though but eighteen. She smiled like Truth's self.
"Sister, if 'tis not disagreeable to you to spare me, I have the message to leave at Mrs Flaherty's, and will go forward and meet with you at our door. Excuse me, Mr Lepel. My sister is a slow walker and I a swift. I knew not 'twas so late."
Off went Miss Maria. Turning the corner, she picked up her petticoats and legged it along like a hare at dawn.
It may be thought that the acquaintance ripened in those fifteen minutes, which doubled into thirty. Elizabeth's step was slower, her voice more musical, even as a nightingale sings her sweetest to the moon. The shade of my Lord Mayo might hover about them to safeguard propriety, but Mr Harry drew as near as the rampart of the lady's hoop would permit, bending his head to catch her murmurs, and his nostrils inhaling the faint perfume of silken hair rolled back from the whitest brow in the world. They made a pair that many would have remarked, but for the ill-lit streets.
Maria awaited them at the shabby door in Britain Street.
"I would not go in, sister, lest mama should scold me for leaving you; and indeed I am but just arrived," says she demurely. And since she had not entered, 'twas singular how neat was the appearance of that dingy room; for 'twas dingy, do what you would.
The fire burned brightly, and if there was a delicate odour of herrings and onions, 'twas the worst could be said, for none were to be seen. Indeed, a rich perfume fought with it, as if a hasty hand had dashed the odours of Araby here and there to discourage the herrings. A large velvet cloak, the worse for wear, disguised the rents of the sofa, whereon sat Mrs Gunning, majestic in another of faded purple satin, beneath which her dress remained conjectural. A noble square of Limerick point was flung over her head and hung veil-like by each ear; and, indeed, with the little cherub Lucy at her feet, she might have sat for an aging Madonna.
Kitty was bundled off to the camp-bed in the back room; and sure the picture was homelike, if you studied the handsome lady rather than the ragged chairs. 'Twas the best they could do, poor souls, in fifteen minutes, and wonderful in the time. 'Tis women for quick thinking and quick acting where men are concerned; and, indeed, the look of astonishment Mrs Gunning gave as the three entered was inimitable, though already she had every particular set down in her mind. She swept the stateliest curtsey, and cast a rebuking maternal eye on her daughters, ere she addressed Mr Lepel.
But, when explanations were made, how did her brow clear and a fair-weather smile efface the frost! She welcomed him with cordial kindness, with such reminiscences of his family as warmed his heart; and though no hospitality was offered save one,—a bottle of generous claret in a silver cup enriched with the Mayo arms,—'twas given with such good-will, and served by so lovely a cup-bearer, the fair Maria, that the man does not breathe but must feel it worthy of the three ladies who tendered it. He toasted them one and all in turn, and if his bow to Elizabeth was a little lower, that circumstance did not displease Mrs Gunning.
"I leave you to judge, Mr Lepel," says she, "what it costs a mother to see her dear ones exiled from all the little gay scenes where it would become them to appear. But what can I do? My father's grandchildren, Mr Gunning's daughters, can't appear except with propriety; and why should I hesitate to tell so kind a friend that 'tis beyond my power?"
'Twas discussed between them all for an hour as to the Birthnight ball; but Mrs Gunning was resolute, nor could Mr Harry dare to make the offers that trembled on his lips. He could have groaned aloud to think on the sums he wasted nightly on gaming—one half of which would have adorned these beauties and set them free to flutter their wings in the sunshine of fashion. Later Maria, half-smiling, half-sad, told how they were promised luck by the old witch of Dublin, though she gave not all the particulars. She built not on it, she declared, nor yet did Elizabeth; and she, a soft sigh parting her lips, confirmed her sister: "the more so," says she, "that none of us can imagine what is the Golden Vanity. Is there such a ship, to be the ship of our fortunes? 'Tis that it sounds most like."
He shook his head. Mrs Gunning softly remonstrated:—
"My dears, be not giddy, nor let your heads run on such follies. There is no such name and no such thing and 'tis impossible—"
More she would have said, but a man came crying somewhat down the street, and beside him went another with a flambeau, that he might read a paper in his hand, and what the man cried was this:—
"Let the fashion of Dublin, both ladies and gentlemen, take notice that there comes presently to the theatre in Aungier Street the dramatic company which Mr Sheridan presents to his patrons in a new and luscious play, by name—"
But here was the speaker's voice drowned by a wagon passing on the cobblestones.
"What is it?" cries Mrs Gunning, running to the window; for indeed she loved the play as well as did her girls. And, as if the question had reached him, the man turned towards her and bellowed like the bull of Bashan: "The Golden Vanity!"
The little company within stared transfixed upon one another.
* * * * *
For the next fortnight did the three live in a kind of rapture; and 't is not to be wondered at, the name coming so pat on the prophecy. And sure, Mr Lepel was no less moved; for he took a deeper than brotherly interest in all that touched them, his heart being caught that day in Dublin streets; and if he then thought Elizabeth a beauty, it took not a week to rank her an angel. Before the week was out, he laid his heart and the reversion of the baronetcy at her foot, not regarding the worn little shoe that cased it. For, indeed, the sisters wore the same size, and Elizabeth being the better mistress of her wardrobe, 'tis to be feared she sought often for her own, to find them gadding abroad on Miss Maria's feet and herself left to luck. 'Twas mortifying, and her heavenly blush was as much owing to this circumstance as to the gentleman's ardour.
However, taken by Mr Harry's fine person and clothes (and which was the most potent is not known), she accepted the heart, and he set about to inform his father of his good fortune, for mother he had none. 'Twas with inward quakings, for beauty, were it Helen's own, is but a blunted arrow against a seasoned heart of seventy: and Sir Francis Lepel had reached that discreet age. 'T was vain to tell him of celestial eyes and roseate bloom. God help us! 'tis little he cared for the like. The baronetcy was poor and Mr Harry expensive, and what Sir Francis looked to was a fat balance at Child's the banker's. Was the lady a fortune? And when Mr Harry, trembling, avowed that a single doit could not be hoped in that quarter, the old gentleman, his temper as well as his foot highly inflamed with gout, swore to disinherit him if the matter went further.
Poor Harry was in a sad quandary. He slept and ate ill, and 'twas provoking that Elizabeth bloomed like a rose and troubled not her fair head about Sir Francis. Her mind seemed possessed with but the one thought—to attend the Birthnight ball and, like the planet Venus, shine in her rightful heaven. And indeed Mr Harry could not fancy her heart so deeply engaged as he might wish; for he could scarce get a word in while the two peered into the mercers' shops, gloating on satin and muslin. Mrs Gunning, as improvident, was almost drawn in by them, when word came of a card debt that their papa owed to Sir Horatius Blake, and the unfortunate lady received not even the pittance that provided herrings for six hungry mouths; so that they were like to come down to dry bread, which event fairly ended all talk of the ball.
'Tis not to be supposed that Mr Harry did not offer to set all the mantua-makers in Dublin to work, though in his heart he knew his own credit did not stand immaculate. He stormed up and down the room, protesting, vowing, exclaiming; but Mrs Gunning would have none of it. Says she:—
"I do all justice to your kind heart, Mr. Lepel, but 'tis not, because we are unfortunate, that we have no pride, and 'tis impossible Miss Gunning should accept garments from the gentleman she honours with her hand."
And Elizabeth, lovelier than ever in grief, confirmed her mother, Maria stamping her foot like an angry goddess. 'Twill be admitted 'twas a hard case. And since misfortunes don't come alone, arrived a furious letter from Sir Francis, demanding instantly to see Mr. Harry, and acquainting him that his appointment in the Guards was cancelled, and he must join his new regiment in London at a day's notice. Sir Francis had good interest with the lady whose interest with His Majesty was unquestioned, and 'tis to be thought this event did not come by chance.
Oh, then were wailings and passionate embraces on the part of Mr. Lepel, Miss Elizabeth receiving them with wondering eyes. "For London, is not so far but we shall meet again, Harry," says she, with her angelical smile.
He had preferred tears, no doubt; but a man must take what comes his way, and be thankful. He, who had never before been guilty of the like, now composed a set of verses of atrocious demerit. Indeed, the first two lines will suffice:—
If from my Chloe's snowy breast I part, Grant me to know I bear with me her tears.
"'Tis very pretty!" says Chloe. "O Harry, I would you did not love me so! A girl's affections are cool and temperate, I think—at least 'tis so with me. Forget me a little,—though not too much child,—and be happy."
It might have been her mother who spoke. 'Tis certain no person ever had the appearance of sweet simplicity more than Elizabeth Gunning; but whether 'twas wholly devoid of art—Ah, well, shall we dissect the rose? Best to enjoy and ask no questions.
The day of parting he came to Britain Street, and solemnly renewed his vows in the presence of Mrs Gunning and Maria.
"And, O my Elizabeth," cries he, "pledge me once more that hand which is all my joy. Swear that neither raging seas" ('twas a day calm as milk and the Irish sea like a mirror) "nor the brutish tyranny of man shall divide us, and that our constant hearts shall never change!"
Miss Elizabeth raises heavenly eyes, a glittering moisture enhancing their brilliance.
"Have I not pledged my word, Harry; and if you believe not that, what will serve? Sure 'tis you that rove and will see fairer faces" (frantic protestations from Mr Lepel) "yet I don't doubt you. Farewell, dear Harry, and remember us when you are in the glitter of London."
She covered her face with a handkerchief, and he took the last embrace, kissed Mrs Gunning's hand and Maria's, and hurried madly from the room. Elizabeth unveiled her face and folded the handkerchief for future use.
"He's gone," says poor Mrs Gunning, seeking her own; "and if I know where tomorrow's dinner is to come from, for you all, I'm—a Dutchman!"
They mingled their tears, and Elizabeth's were real enough now. 'Tis possible, could the matter be sifted, that many more tears have been shed for absent dinners than absent lovers; and certainly, though beauty may survive without the last, it cannot without the first. There was so much of gloomy and terrible in their mama's aspect, that Maria wept also; and Kitty and Lucy, with the little John, who had all been secreted in the bedroom during the adieux, dashed in screaming at the tops of their voices, as if the heavens were falling; and so sat the poor unfortunate family drowned in tears. 'Twas not balls they thought of then, nor departing lovers, but simply bread and herrings.
A lady came down the street, picking her way through the garbage that adorned it. Her dress was hooped in the mode, and of a showy brocade, with much tinsel interwoven and very glittering, so that the ragged children in the gutter stood, finger in mouth, to see. She had a muslin cross-over upon an expansive bosom, and 'twas finely laced with Mechlin, not too clean, and set off with a black velvet ribbon about the throat, graced with a clasp of paste. A large tilted hat tied beneath her chin shaded an arch and sparkling pair of eyes, which, though not in their first youth, lighted up a face with striking features an air of easy good-humour. If her critics had accused this lady of being somewhat too goodhumored with the other sex, why 'twas perhaps natural to her circumstances and needs no further excuse. Her worst detractors never denied her a good heart, and an ear open to the lament of misery. In her hand she carried a cane of fine ebony, and altogether appeared a radiant vision of a fine woman in the purlieus of Britain Street. She paused and looked about her, bewildered.
"I declare I know not where I am got to!" says she, half aloud. "And these barbarians—'tis hard to be understood or to understand their gibberish. If now—"
And even as the words left her lips, arose a piercing wail from across the street, in which three lusty young throats united—Lucy, Kitty, and John, each outscreaming the other.
"Crimini!" says Madam, "what's this? Is Herod abroad in Dublin?" The screams redoubled. She added: "'Tis almost to be wished he was!" And stood half-laughing, half-unwilling to pass on.
"I will!" says she; and more doubtfully, "I won't! 'Tis not my business. Sure I have enough stage tears and sobs to make me distrust all I hear."
She turned resolutely away, and halted again.
"Poor lady! 'Tis a lady soothing them, and weeping herself. I will! She can but bid me exit."
And so marched to the open door, and into the narrow passage, and rapped smartly with her cane on the door of the parlour, bringing all her natural assurance to bear.
Dead silence. The screams halted, as if a tap was turned off: whoever was inside was all ears. She rapped again. And now a scuffling; and Maria opened the door, and six pairs of astonished eyes gloated on the stranger. And no less did hers on the party within; for there sat Mrs Gunning, beautiful and maternal, with the little John's curly pate on her bosom; Elizabeth, lovely as the day, leaning on one shoulder of her mother; Kitty and Lucy, golden-curled cherubs, clinging to her gown; and Maria, like a sorrowful wood-nymph, holding the door. Sure, never was such a family, and these children seemed made of some more exquisite clay than ordinary.
"Lord, am I got into heaven, for I see the angels about me!" says Madam, advancing with a reverence lower than the paltry room demanded. "Forgive an intruder, Madam, and confer a benefit. For being newly come to Dublin, I've lost my way returning from Smock Alley, and while I called up courage to enter and ask it from any other than these savages, I heard a cry that hastened my steps. Be pleased to pardon me, and say if I can be of service to yourself and your sweet family; for 'tis the plain truth—I'm dazzled as I stand, by the beauty of your olive branches."
'Tis not possible to mistake the voice of sympathy, and Mrs Gunning rising from her chair, curtseyed in her turn, and begged the visitor to be seated. "Lord, Madam," says she, "you catch us very unfit for company; but so kind a heart needs no excuse, and I will be candid with you. We are of birth and breeding like yourself." ('Twas a skilful compliment and the lady simpered.) "And therefore, as a gentlewoman of quality, you shall understand my grief when I present myself as my Lord Viscount Mayo's daughter, and add that I have not the wherewithal to clothe or feed these innocents! You are yourself too young to be a mother, Madam" (again the lady simpered), "yet will comprehend a mother's anguish. I am Mrs. Gunning of Castle Coote, and such is my condition!"
She wept again. The lady applied a laced kerchief to either eye. A touching scene.
"Madam, a heart of marble must feel for you, and mine is not marble—far from it. But sure such beauty must open all doors. Marriage—" She broke off. "Alas, Madam, in these days of money-grubbing avarice, what is beauty? My second"—she indicated Elizabeth—"is cruelly rejected by the father of a gentleman of birth not near so high as our own, because she has no estates pinned to her petticoat." "Monster!" cries the lady with spirit.
Mrs Gunning proceeded:—
"And, O, Madam, were you in want, as a lady of quality sometimes is, of a young lady to write letters, to keep accounts, and all those little useful arts such as mending lace and the like, I can truly say that in my Elizabeth you would find solid worth. She is graver than my Maria.
"Sure we cannot have had the happiness to meet you for nothing. 'Twas ordained you should walk in upon us. Permit me to ask the name of our benefactress." The lady hummed and hawed a little; but not being easily daunted, she tossed up her head bravely enough ere she replied:—
"Gemini, Madam! We can't all be ladies of quality; and if we could, I see not who could provide the wants and amusements of the fashionable. To be plain with you, I am an actress—and—"
"An actress!" screams Maria, all rapture. "Sister, do you hear? Was it not this very day I said, would I could go on the stage like the famous Mrs Woffington, and other beauties such as this lady. And then should I be happy and pour all the gold I made into my mama's lap."
The lady shook her head, a little melancholy.
"Gold? Not much of that on the stage, young miss. 'Tis found there—true; but—but—indirectly. However, this concerns you not. Madam, I am in no need of such an attendant as you describe, having my dresser and—"
"I might have guessed it! When did luck ever come our way? Farewell, Madam. Return to your own happiness and abandon us to our misery."
Heart-rending! The lady drew nearer.
"Gemini, Madam! You misjudge me. A woman can but offer what's in her power. A good word from me to our manager, Mr Sheridan, and with such faces I doubt not small parts can be found for your daughters in one of the plays to be produced here, even now rehearse it, and the parts of Susan and Careless go begging, for the girls that took them are called away by their mama's illness. But dare I mention such a proposal?"
"Madam, you are all goodness and beauty!" cries Elizabeth. And Maria fell on her knees like one distraught and kissed the pretty hand in its black mitten. 'Twas known to them that Mr Sheridan's company was from London and would return there; and indeed this came like a sunburst through the cloud, for 'twas food, clothes, admiration, money, hope—and many other charming things that set them dreaming on worlds to conquer.
They swept their mama away on the wave of their delight; and indeed that poor lady was always prone to take gilding for gold so long as it glittered sufficiently.
"And what, Madam, is this play in which Susan and Peggy appear?"
"Child, 'tis 'The Golden Vanity'—a play of a poor girl that weds a rich lord and—"
Heavens and earth! She could not continue, for how describe the joy and wonder of the family! Reserve fled away. Prudence borrowed the wings of Hope, and dressed her face with rainbows. Crowding around the stranger, they entreated her name, that it might grace their prayers; and she, radiant with the sunshine she dispensed, calls out:—
"Why, girls, sure you have heard it. 'Tis I am the leading lady in all Mr Sheridan produces at present. I am George Anne Bellamy."
"George!" screams Mrs G. "'A woman with a man's name,' said old Mother Corrigan. Girls, your luck's come!" And with that falls into strong hysterics and frights them all to death.
But joy is a strong cordial, and 'twas not long ere she sat up, panting and dishevelled, with George Anne's hand in hers, telling her the story of Mother Corrigan. 'Tis to be supposed Mrs G. had heard that Mrs Bellamy's heart was not marble in any sense; but what was the lady to do? For my Lord Mayo spent his rents five years ahead, and though his good nature would give the coat off his back, that would neither clothe nor feed her family; while, as for Mr Gunning, that gentleman regarded his wife and children no more than the cuckoo that leaves her offspring to chance.
Mrs Bellamy was all ears. 'Twas prodigious, 'twas vastly astonishing, she vowed. Maria was sent out with half a guinea, and they had a comfortable dish of tea, with currant bread and what not; and she told them tales of the stage and the fine matches made by Mrs This and Signorina That, displaying little of its threadbare and much of its tinsel; and by the time the candles were lit, they were all sworn friends. They parted with embraces; for Mrs G. was as easy as George Anne, and the girls must needs follow the example set.
She had her way with Mr Sheridan, who knew 'twas as much as his play was worth to offend Mrs Bellamy; and she returned next day to announce her success, triumphing and rattling on like a girl herself, so pleased was she with their pleasure. All was joy and gladness, and she named the hour of the first rehearsal and their introduction to Mr Sheridan, who knew as well as another how pretty faces fill the playhouse; and was proceeding, when Maria, turning archly upon her, says:—
"Look you here, dearest Mrs Bellamy! Think what it will cost us to refuse this." And so holds up a splendid card, thick as boards and embellished with a gilt edge and the Royal Arms and the Irish Harp, and Heaven knows what braveries, inviting the Honourable Mrs Gunning, Miss Gunning, and Miss Elizabeth Gunning to the Birthnight ball at the Castle, on the part of his Excellency, the Earl of Harrington. Diamonds were never so bright as the eyes that sparkled above it; for the charming new prospect of the Stage had quite effaced the ball, and poor Mr Harry's trouble in securing the invitation was like to go for nothing.
"I care nothing now for it!" cries Maria, and Elizabeth echoed her; while George Anne looked thoughtfully at the Lion and Unicorn guarding a Paradise she could not hope to enter. Maria made to tear the card across; but Mrs Bellamy caught it from her hand and did not smile.
"Children," says she at last, "you know not what you talk of. I would have a word alone with your mama. Take the little ones in your hand, and go out a while in the sunshine." She thrust some cream-cakes upon them, and they did so, looking doubtfully at her cloudy eyes; and when the door shut, she turned to Mrs Gunning.
"Madam, you know well't is my wish to serve you and yours. But seeing this invitation, there's thoughts comes into my head that I must needs speak out. This" (she flicked the card) "is the life for the Miss Gunnings, and not the stage. 'T would scarce become me to tell a lady like yourself what must be faced there, but—but—'t is much! Ask Peg Woffington—ask Kitty Clive—ask George Anne Bellamy!" She hung her head.
There was silence. Mrs G. stared at her, all aghast.
"Why, yesterday, all your talk was of pleasure and success. Sure, dear Mrs Bellamy, 't was not like your kindness to draw on the poor things till they can think of naught else, and now so far otherwise."
"Why, Madam, I thought there was no other way; and if so, needs must. But seeing this, my mind misgives me and I falter. I'm a plain-dealer, Madam, with all my faults, and 't is easy to be seen your daughters are a world's wonder. I never saw the like, and that being so, 't is certain the dangers are tenfold for them. They'll see the glories and grandeurs, sure enough, but not through a wedding ring."
"If you mean, Madam, that my daughters—" Mrs Gunning flamed out, furious; but George Anne was not to be turned from her purpose. She raised her hand in a fine stage attitude.
"Madam, I wish vastly to serve you. Hear my proposal. Accept this invitation."
"Impossible. We have no dresses, no shoes, no equipage, and no means to get them. 'T is absurd!"
"'Tis not absurd. Hear me. In the theatre properties is a fine dress for Lady Modish and two more for Peggy and Susan Careless. Not perhaps what such ladies might expect, but passable. And—I know men. There's not a man will look at their gowns for looking at their faces, though the suits are well enough when all's said. I vow, Madam, you have so long lived beside the two that you forget what beauties they are. I wager my next benefit to a China orange that you'll have no more care once they are seen, but all the women mad with jealousy and the men with love. Indeed, your young madams are what one reads of in romances, but don't see. Give them this chance, and if it fails, I'm good for my offer; but I'm much mistook if you hold me to it. Gemini, Madam; use your wits! Would you have them what I won't name, when they may be what your old witch foretold?"
She smiled her charming smile, and pressed Mrs G.'s hand. The lady pondered. 'Twas disagreeable to owe such a thing to a mere actress, and one, too, whose reputation was a trifle flyblown. The stage she might have swallowed—being the lady's province and she a queen on the boards. But an entry to the world where she and her daughters had a birthright—Fie! 'twas a very different pair of shoes. But George Anne had that in her eye that would be obeyed; and seeing it, Mrs G. dropped her high tone and returned the pressure with an air of sensibility.
"'Twas said by old Corrigan that 'twas you to bring us luck, dearest Madam, and 'tis certain you are prudence itself. Sure a mother can risk nothing for her darlings. If you will ensure us the dresses, I accept; and, indeed, my Lord Harrington's father was a friend of my own revered father in happier days. 'T is possible—"
"'T is certain," cries George Anne gaily. "Not a word will I drop to Mr Sheridan, who is a perfect Israelite where theatre matters are in hand. Count on me."
She was gone ere the girls returned, and 'tis needless to tell their wonder. They preferred the stage, yet condescended to say they would favour the ball, since Mrs Bellamy counselled it. "But, never, never will it turn my heart from the charming footlights!" says Maria. "What say you, sister?"
"I know not. My taste is quieter than yours. I will tell you my mind the day after the ball. Poor Harry—'tis he has given us this."
She would say no more, but sat thoughtful.
'Twas the evening of the Birthnight ball when George Anne arrived, in a hackney coach, attended by her dresser, and scarce visible for mantua boxes. The three children were put away—their usual fate—in the beds within, and though not able to sleep for excitement, were mute as mice, lest they be punished by the closing of the door upon the ravishing glimpses they had of the parlour.
'Tis not for a mere scribbler to intrude upon the chaste mysteries of the toilet. Suffice it therefore to say that, when all was completed, George Anne and Mrs. March the dresser stood back, breathless, to contemplate the work of their hands.
Mrs. Gunning, her fine brown hair piled on her head into an edifice twisted with gauze and feathers that granted her five inches more of height, looked a Roman empress—her fine bust displayed to advantage and sustaining a necklace of stage emeralds set in pinchbeck, which could not be told from the veritable jewels, so closely were they copied for George Anne from her Grace the Duchess of Bridgewater's. Her hoop was very wide, and over it a green satin brocade flowered with gold, wherein George Anne had played Lady Modish but twenty times, and so rich that 'twould serve her great-granddaughter. 'Twas ruffled at neck and elbow with Mechlin, and the girls gazed in awe at their splendid mama. 'Twas a changed woman. She expanded, she glided, she moved, as a swan floating through her native element differs from the same lurching along the bank.