But Elizabeth—O beautiful! Sure 'twas joy to see her! Her hair, agleam with gold, was rolled back and carried in massive braids that crowned and bound her head in the Grecian taste, confined by a bandeau of pearls that crossed her brow. Her Grecian robe (indeed the fair Miss Lebeau had played Calista in it) was a white satin with a fall of lace, and round her slender throat a chain of seed pearl. Mrs Bellamy knew her business. 'Twas simple, but simplicity becomes a goddess, and frills and flounces can but distract the eye from loveliness that seems native to heaven. Her mother surveyed her in a kind of amaze and then turned to Maria.
'Twas peculiar to these two fair sisters that they adorned each other and each appeared more beautiful when both were in company. Indeed't was said later that this contributed much to their triumphs. Maria now appeared in a fine India muslin embroidered in gold wheat-ears—a robe which't is to be feared Mr Sidney of the East India Company, the rich nabob of Jubblepore, had laid at the feet of George Anne in pursuance of a suit not wholly disdained. No matter! On Maria it shone like the raiment of the youngest of the angels, draping yet expressing her fair limbs with a seductive reserve that was art embellishing nature. She had a row of seed pearl like her sister, and one rose of faintest pink nestled in her virgin bosom. Her hair of burning gold was dressed in curls a la mouton, as Mrs March expressed it, and a string of pearls wove through the rich tresses.
But 'tis useless to describe beauty. As well dry a rose in a book and look for bloom and dew. It depends on bright eye and smiling lip and wordless sweetness and the fall of exquisite lashes and the tone of music and—and this poor scribbler lays down his pen and attempts no more to paint where the great artists later owned themselves vanquished.
"And all is prepared," cries George Anne, exulting. "For my mother's job coach is at hand to take my three beauties; and distress not yourself, my dearest Madam, for I engage to remain with your little family will return in the coach when it deposits you here. And now, children, peep and whisper no longer, but come see your lovely mama and sisters before they go to conquer the world."
'Twas the kindest heart! She clapped her hands, and in rushed the three children like Bedlam let loose, careering round and about the three, shouting, laughing, and begging to be took also. Raisins and oranges from George Anne's reticule alone restored them to their beds in peace.
"'The Golden Vanity' has sent forth two incomparable beauties," says she at the door as they stepped into the coach. "May it bring them the luck of its heroine and more."
* * * * *
St. Patrick's Hall was all of a blaze with wax candles and flambeaux, and shining mirrors set in with gilt Cupids, and twinkling of fairy lights in the great glass lustres and their glittering chains of drops and pendants. Garlands of green, with roses interspersed, were in swags and loops about the splendid walls, where hung the pictures of bygone viceroys in ribbon and star, in frames to match the mirrors that multiplied the scene a hundredfold.
And, more than all, the handsomest women in Ireland were decked out in silks and satins and all the family jewels, and they sparkling like the lustres above their heads. And all the gentlemen in uniforms and silk stockings showing off their fine calves, and they strutting with their swords and squiring the ladies and bowing. And above it all the Throne, with the velvet canopy and the Royal Arms, and my Lord Harrington, his Excellency, sitting like a picture of himself, with his stars and orders and his coat of sky-blue velvet laced and embroidered with gold; and as each pretty lady came up to him and swept her curtsey he lifted her by the hand and kissed her cheek; for the Viceroy has that privilege, and many a man envied him a few of the kisses, if they did not envy them all.
And now at the great doors appeared three ladies, quietly, like persons used to assemblies, though to be honest their knees were trembling under them and their little hearts quaking. So they were passed on from one golden image to another, until they arrived before his Excellency, the company politely making way, and a whisper that rose to a buzz running with them. "Lord! who are they?"—"Who can they be?"—"Look at the girls!"—"Exquisite!"—"Beautiful!"—"For my part I see nothing in them. Vilely dressed. Very far from modish."—"Too tall."—"Too short"—in fact, every expression of approval and disfavour. But every lady stood on the tips of her satin shoes to see, and every gentleman took the fullest advantage of his height; and had poor Harry been there, he had died of jealousy. Alas! even his fond letters were not in Elizabeth's gentle bosom, but tossed forgot on the bed in Britain Street, with George Anne casting the eye of sensibility on them.
And now the officer who performed the introduction took Mrs Gunning's gloved hand, very stately, and led her before the Throne.
"The Honourable Mrs. Gunning, your Excellency."
Down she flowed in a magnificent curtsey, her hands supporting her brocade on either side, her head bent majestic—Beauty adoring Power. Suddenly my Lord steps nimbly forward on the dais.
"What?" he cries. "Do my eyes deceive me? Impossible! But sure I have the happiness to see the daughter of my old friend, and I am honoured beyond expression to welcome her beneath my roof. Where have you been retired? And what are these two lovely nymphs? Your daughters? No, sure it can't be and you all youth and beauty yourself. Present them."
And while mama blushed and bridled, the magic words were spoke, and the two dropped the gentlest curtseys, and rising, received a salute more than usual warm from his Excellency on either fair blushing cheek. 'Twas observed he lingered an instant on Maria's. Viceroys, too, are human.
'Twas an instantaneous conquest—how could it be otherwise? A moment later they were the centre of a competing crowd of gentlemen, and glances of coldness and aversion raining on them from ladies only a little less fair and now deserted. That his Excellency was the first victim, none could doubt, for when he was not in company with the beauties, he was discoursing of them to others. True it is that he conducted the Dowager Rathconnel to the supper-table, but equally true that he left the lady seated before such dainties as ensure an old age of gout, disengaging himself with a nimble wit that should have appeased her, and sought out the mother of the Graces, devoting himself to memories of old times with a gusto, while Maria and Elizabeth danced and smiled on their adorers, blooming and beautiful.
"My dear Madam," says his Lordship, "how is it possible that you have lived so retired for fifteen years? 'T was not justice to your admirers— of whom I was ever one. How came it about?"
"Why, your Excellency," says the lady very serious, "'twas not with my good-will. You know well that my late father's good heart was his chief possession; and my husband—alas!"
Sure a pause and downcast eyes are more expressive than any words. His Excellency shook his majestic peruke, and echoed the lady.
"Alas! Cards, horses, the bottle—how many a wife and mother hath had cause to curse that fatal trinity! And 'tis even so, Madam?"
She applied George Anne's laced handkerchief to her eye, then smiled faintly and seeing opportunity, seized it.
"I would not cloud this festive scene, your Excellency, yet why should I reserve from a tried friend that I and my poor daughters—"
"Yes, yes!" cries his Lordship, very impatient.
"—Are here this night in borrowed dress," continues Mrs G. solemnly, "and are indebted even for the shoes upon their feet to the kindness of an actress, Mrs Bellamy."
"Good Ged!" says Lord Harrington, genuinely shocked, and the more so that he had himself known Mrs. Bellamy some years since. "Sure it can't be! I won't believe it. Indeed, we must discourse further of this. Come hither!"
Profoundly interested, he led her to a withdrawing-room and there they fell into so deep discussion that never had he been such a negligent host. And when Mrs. Gunning left the withdrawing-room, it was with an imperial head held high, and a flush in her cheek which became her so well that the most prying female eye would not give her a day over thirty.
His Excellency led out Maria to a minuet. Twice he took Elizabeth down the country dances. The generous wines had warmed his heart, the glow of beauty kindled it to flame, and it was plain to be seen that his eyes were only for the fair Gunnings. The world followed his example,—when does it otherwise?—and a petal from Maria's rose, a look from the violet dark-lashed eyes of Elizabeth, were the prizes of the night.
A party of noblemen escorted them to the doors on leaving, and 'twas with the utmost difficulty Mrs. Gunning persuaded them it was unnecessary to ride in cavalcade about the coach to Britain Street. When the ladies were gone, they returned to the Banqueting Hall to toast "The Irish Beauties," and break their glasses in their honour until the floor was strewn with broken crystal, and the celebrants were most of them borne speechless to their beds. Indeed, a challenge passed between my Lords Cappoquin and Tuam upon a dispute as to which lady was the greater Venus.
Never was such a triumph! And Mrs Gunning, falling into George Anne's arms in Britain Street, declared with tears of joy:—
"You were right, entirely right, my dearest Madam. I am promised a handsome pension on the Irish Establishment, and his Excellency counsels me to transport my girls to London, where, he considers, they may pretend to the highest matches, and promises introductions worthy of them. And, O Madam, playing at faro in the cardroom, I won a milleleva—no less!— Fifty guineas!—Lord! was ever anyone so happy!"
Tears of sensibility stood in George Anne's eyes. She was one who shared to the full the griefs or triumphs of her friends. She wrung Mrs G.'s hand and embraced the fair conquerors, scorning to mention the rent in Maria's muslin gown, and the stain of wine on Elizabeth's satin. It was a generous heart, and had earned more gratitude than she afterwards received from two, at least, of the ladies.
'Twas amazing to Mrs Gunning and Maria now that ever they had contemplated the stage—so very far below their pretensions; and it took but a week to open the former lady's eyes to the little cracks in George Anne's reputation. She saw plainly that such a friendship could be no aid to their soaring aspirations; and indeed her ambition had now spread its wings to some purpose. The Earl of Harrington having advanced the first installment of her pension, she immediately moved their lodging to the genteeler Mount Street, and Britain Street was forgot, along with George Anne. Sure a mother must be prudent! Elizabeth only forsook not her friend, going to wait upon her and carrying with her many of the posies left in daily homage to her sister and herself. She had little in her power, for money was still none too plenty; but kindness and gratitude smell sweeter even than roses, and these she carried in handfuls straight from a grateful heart to George Anne.
It smoothed not her own path in Mount Street, for Mrs Gunning's pride grew with what fed it, and though admiration was plenty, offers were few. It might be that the enmity of the Dublin ladies stood in their way, for certain it is that Mrs G. was never a favourite. Where she judged well to flatter, she flattered too openly; where she disliked and saw no gain, she insulted; and many gentlemen would have retired from her acquaintance, but for Maria's frolicsome gaiety and the sweetness of Elizabeth. It gained ground about the city that there was much scheming in Mount Street with a view to rich husbands, and it smirched the girls as well as their mama, and put thorns in their way. It made the men bolder than they should be, and the women cold.
Maria was the hardier and took it as a necessity of their situation; but the milder Elizabeth wept often on George Anne's kind bosom over the insults (as she took it) which Mrs Gunning received with rapture, as hopeful signs of love. And, whatever the actress's own case might be, 'tis certain she showed more delicacy in dealing with the girl than did her lady mother.
Nor had she much comfort from Mr Harry's letters. His father remained adamant; and though he writ, 'twas more carelessly, and a rumour reached Dublin that coupled his name with the great fortune Miss Hooker, and was generally took for truth. Mrs Gunning greeted it with pleasure, regarding Mr Harry as a gone-by and much below her hopes; but though Elizabeth's heart was not wounded, her pride was pierced to the quick. It seemed that all the world conspired to humiliate her, and she asked herself what was the use of beauty, if it meant this and no more. She sighed and left his last letter unanswered.
Miss Maria too had her troubles. My Lord Errington pursued her with ardour, and his handsome rakish face and gallant impudence drew the pretty moth towards the heat and flame of a dangerous candle. Folly, no more, but his lady took her vengeance in scandals that spread about the town, and a duel was fought that did Maria no good and kept off worthier pretenders to her hand; and indeed it was not a day too soon when the family packed up their belongings and changed the air to London. The girls outshone all others—true! but 'twas thought more in beauty than discretion, for Elizabeth must needs sink with her family. The world draws not nice distinctions.
But to say they were courted in London is to say little. They broke triumphant upon the town, supported by letters from his Excellency, and the town received them with frenzy, as it might the great Italian singer or the new lions at the Tower, or what not. Amongst the greatest, the Duke of Hamilton put himself at their disposal, urged thereto by a particular letter from my Lord Harrington and his own love of beauty. He dangled about them daily, and it must be owned that from the first moment of meeting Mrs Gunning fixed the eye of cupidity on his Grace. For of all the matches of the Kingdom James Hamilton was the greatest available. Duke of Brandon in England, of Chatelherault in France, of Hamilton in Scotland, of vast possessions, of suitable age and gallant presence, a princess need not have disdained his hand. A great prince, indeed, and knowing it possibly too well,'t was he to dazzle a girl's eye and carry her heart by storm! For hearts—it was never supposed his Grace possessed one; at least, he wore it not on his sleeve, but was ever cold and haughty, though it was well known he liked a pretty woman as well as any—short of the wedding ring. He hung about the new beauties as a gentleman will, until wagers began to be laid at White's as to which had caught his favour, and where would fall the handkerchief of the Grand Bashaw.
Meanwhile, his attentions made them more than ever the mode, and the town gallants swarmed about them like bees, at the Assemblies where they figured, attended by my Lord Duke in ribbon and star. As the days went by, however, the anxious mother observed that his preference was for Elizabeth, and that he had no thought to interfere with my Lord Coventry, who could not keep his eyes off Maria, though he committed himself no further than the Duke. Indeed, stories were now freely circulated concerning Britain Street and the poverty and shifts of the family, and wagers were laid that neither the one nobleman nor the other looked for more than a few months' amusement with the two loveliest girls in England. Mrs. Gunning was openly called the Adventuress, and it was a favourite sport with some ladies to imitate her Irish accent and carnying ways with those she would please; and doubtless Maria angled a little too openly for her lord. They were, in short, easy game for the mockers, and Elizabeth shrunk daily more into the shade. It appeared as if it would be the Dublin story over again.
Mr. Harry came at once to their lodging on his return from Yorkshire, and to be sure, had not a word to say of Miss Hooker. He would have saluted Elizabeth, but she drew back with a curtsey, her manner sweet and cold as an autumn dawn with a touch of winter in the air. He found her changed, and no wonder, and said as much with some anger.
"It should not surprise you, Harry," says she serenely. "I am now eighteen, and have seen the world, as you have also. Our betrothal was a child's game. I like you too well to be your ruin. Marry Miss Hooker, of whom I hear. 'Tis your best way, and obedience to parents a plain duty."
"You were not so wise in Dublin," replies Mr. Lepel, casting a jealous eye on the fair monitress. If her looks had changed it was to a more radiant sweetness, and there was that in the way her long silken lashes lay on her fair cheek that dwarfed Miss Hooker's fortune. He had better have kept his distance from the siren, he thought with bitterness. But sure a little pleasant dallying could hurt neither Miss Hooker nor his father—a summer pastime and no more; and if the tales flying about town were but the half of them true, he might hope for this, especially with the past pleading for him in Elizabeth's tender heart. Sure there was a softening in her glance. He pushed his chair somewhat nearer and took her hand. She withdrew it, and removed her seat farther away.
"Is my Elizabeth angry with her Harry," cries he with a fine dramatic air. "Does she forget those happy days when we were all to one another? What is Miss Hooker or Miss Any-person to come between us? What—"
"Your future wife, as I understand," says Elizabeth, perfectly calm. "No, Mr Lepel—I know the world now, better than I could wish" (she sighed), "and I desire not your attentions. I—"
But Mr Lepel broke in, pale and furious.
"And is it thus you speak, you heartless jade? Clothes, jewels, balls, 'tis these you value. Is there a woman alive that will not sell her soul for the like? O God, why are fair faces made to madden us? Now I have seen you once more, how can I return to that flat-faced—"
She rose, with a wave of her hand that dismissed him; but he ranted on in a towering passion of wrath and grief. It had all burst up anew in his heart, in and for a moment. He believed himself hardly used indeed.
"Could I bury my father and inherit his land, you would not use me thus. It is all a cursed thirst for gold, and you are for sale like an Eastern slave. Who is the highest bidder? But I know well. What am I to compare with—"
"His Grace the Duke of Hamilton!" announces Mrs Abigail, very demure in her pinners at the door; and in walks his Grace, magnificent in manners and dress, and Mr Lepel's fury stopped on a breath, though he could not regain countenance as readily as Elizabeth. She rose to meet the visitor— a rose in June; and he might take the blush of anger which was due to Mr Lepel for a welcome to himself.
What could Mr Harry do but draw back, stammering and looking foolish under the cold glance Duke Hamilton bestowed on him. Prudence counselled, "Withdraw. What do you here?" Angry Love retorted, "Here I stay. What! Shall I leave the field to a rival?" And so, flung himself in a chair glaring defiance, Elizabeth palpitating between the two. 'Twas not surprising that she drew nearer to the Duke, as if for protection; that there was an imploring softness in her face as she looked up to him; that she saw him greater, handsomer, stronger than ever, beside this idle and futile young man who had reviled her. The carelessness of his glance at Mr Lepel seemed to fling his pretensions in the mud—his haughty coolness to degrade the young man; and to such thoughts women are responsive. If her heart was touched before, the dart went deeper now She held her head higher, deerlike, and wasted no words on the unwelcome guest.
The two gentlemen, seeing neither could outstay the other, departed presently together, Mr Lepel saying with assumed lightness as he bowed, hat in hand, at the door: "We had not the pleasure to see Madame la mere, your Grace, and no doubt but she is slipped away on some hunting errand. I wonder what new fox is broke cover. Half the world bets on my Lord Coventry still!"
The Duke returned not his salute, and Lepel could not tell whether or no his arrow had gone home through the armour of chilly pride and silence. He himself strode angry and ashamed down the street.
That same evening a Council of Three was held in the lodging, Mrs. Gunning with her mask of smiles laid by, Maria fretful, Elizabeth grave and retired in her own thoughts. The ladies had but the one bedroom, with a little closet for the youngest adjoining.
"Girls," says Mrs Gunning, "'Tis time I spoke plain. This six weeks in town hath reduced my purse till I am frighted to look in it; and what have we to show? Young women with not half your looks are married and settled since we came hither. We have had a vast deal of froth and flutter, but nothing solid. Were it possible to live on sweetmeats and dress in posies, we have a fine prospect, but not else. I see nought before us but Britain Street—or worse.", Maria shrugged her white shoulders.
"What more can we do, mama? Sir James Ramsden has offered marriage, and Captain Golightly; and Mr. Lennox has asked Elizabeth, and Mr. Lepel—" "What signifies all that?" cries Mrs. Gunning. "Don't let them slip. They'll serve for the future perhaps, if all fails. Elizabeth, I command you on your duty that you please Mr. Lepel, though not more than sufficient to content him. If we can't better him—But, Maria, what said my Lord Coventry to you at Lady Lowther's ball? I saw him very earnest."
"Nothing that mightn't be in the news-prints, mama. His breed of black shorthorns filled his thought and tongue. I protest I loathed the man's folly. 'Tis an insipid creature when all's said."
"No man with a coronet is insipid. He is grave and reserved, and I would he had been Elizabeth's admirer rather than yours, for they could have sat silent in a corner together. But what of the Duke, child? My hopes are sadly sunk."
Elizabeth flamed in a blush, less beautiful than painful. A sore heart was behind it. She replied not. Mrs. Gunning frowned.
"Well, girls, you're easy enough, but so am not I. Now therefore listen while I speak my mind."
'Tis needless to be particular in recording the lady's speech, which was much to the point in dealing with their needs and stratagems. She spoke for many minutes and at the end tears of shame and anger were in Maria's lovely eyes. If Elizabeth wept,'twas behind a sheltering hand.
"What signifies grumbling?" finishes Mrs Gunning. "'Tis as plain as the nose on your face. Elizabeth's is the best chance, and if she makes her match my Lord Coventry will kiss your slipper, Maria. The Duchess's sister can marry where she will."
'Twas vain to interrupt. Mrs Gunning sailed on, maternal, imperative, and took no heed. It would be impertinence to intrude on the talk that followed, and the plan laid for the entrapping of his Grace, of whom it may be said that he could protect himself against even the assaults of beauty better than Mrs Gunning supposed. But Elizabeth, borne down by two to her one, fought a losing game.
"I hate the man," she cried with spirit, and knew 'twas false as she said it. "I'd sooner sweep a crossing—"
Mrs Gunning smiled contemptuous.
"Not you! You came pretty near it in Britain Street, and 'tis known how you relished it. Beggars, my dear, can't be choosers. The Duchess of Hamilton may have as much delicacy as she pleases. Miss Elizabeth Gunning can't afford it. There's no more to be said."
Yet Elizabeth said it furiously, and in vain.
A subdued light of wax candles—the most flattering light in the world— made the parlour enchantment when his Grace sauntered in one evening, later. Posies were in the bowpots, and a delicate scent of violets in the air. On a table by the window lay a magnificent chicken-skin fan sent by my Lord Coventry for Maria's birthday: it was covered with rosy figures of Cupids swinging garlands in blue air, the mother-of-pearl sticks latticed with gold. It lay beside a lace handkerchief, as if a fair hand had flung it careless down. A decanter of purple Burgundy, with two glasses, was hard by, and a small painting of the lovely sisters from the hand of Neroni, who had asked the favour to depict them as wood-nymphs. They advanced, smiling and bearing a garland between them down a forest glade, while two Cupids concealed behind a tree aimed a dart at each fair breast.
The Duke contemplated this work of art, smiling at his own thoughts, and not pleasantly. Presently the door opened and Mrs Gunning and Maria entered, in hats and capes, followed by Elizabeth, dead pale and in a negligee with blue ribbons, her hair falling in long tresses to the knee, confined only with a fillet of ribbon. She looked not even her eighteen years in this dress, and had a most touching beauty. His Grace kissed Mrs Gunning's hand, yet with the half-contemptuous air of the great man. Some might resent such a kiss as an insult, but the lady's armour was defensive as well as offensive. Says she, curtseying:—
"I beg a thousand pardons, your Grace, but we are disturbed with an unexpected call. 'Tis what we never imagined, but can't refuse. Good Mrs Acton, a friend of our Dublin days, is took ill and hath sent for us to Harbour Street. She is unattended in London; I know your Grace's sensibility will excuse us."
"Why, Madam, friendship is so rare a virtue that 'tis worth proclaiming at the Exchange. I will give myself the pleasure to wait on you another evening."
His hat was beneath his arm; he picked up his clouded cane.
"I thank your Grace." Mrs Gunning's voice was stately. It changed as she turned to Elizabeth. "And now, my flower, my dove, repose yourself on the couch, and Mrs Abigail will bring you the lavender drops, and let me find my treasure well and smiling on my return."
"What? Does not Miss Elizabeth accompany her mama?" The tone was alert.
"By no means, your Grace. She has ailed all day with her head, and is not fit for a sick chamber. Farewell, child. I wait your Grace."
He took Mrs Gunning's hand to conduct her to the coach; 'twas as pretty a comedy as ever George Anne Bellamy played. He laughed inwardly leading her to the door, and on the stairs discoursed charmingly on the last masquerade at Vauxhall. Without the hall door he paused.
"Is Miss Elizabeth Gunning too ailing, Madam, to receive a friend for a few moments? Permit me to assist you."
And before the lady could reply, he bundled the two into the coach, and was halfway up the steps ere Mrs Gunning could cry: "I know not, your Grace. A moment perhaps—"
He bowed from the door.
"Be easy, Madam. I will myself administer the lavender drops if needful."
It was impossible for the Duke to hasten himself, for this he had never done within the memory of man; but 'twas scarce a minute since he had left the room when he reentered, half fearing to find his pretty bird flown. Not so, however. She leaned against the shutter, her eyes fixed on the evening sky. It seemed she had forgot his Grace, for her expression was sorrowful and quiet, unlike the female trifling he expected, and he heard a faint sigh. She turned, startled.
"Forgive me, my Lord Duke. I think I can't stay. My head—"
She would have glided to the door. 'Twas provocative, however meant, and he put himself in her way. She tried the other side of the table. He blocked that also, and was before her again. Finally she ceased the attempt and stood with eyes cast down.
"Child, don't hasten. Give me a few minutes. I see you alone for the first time and never so lovely as now. Is it your long hair, or what is it? Sure the angels have locks like this."
He lifted a heavy tress as if marvelling. She snatched it from him like an aggrieved queen; then, seeming to recollect herself, stood silent again. 'Twas but a schoolgirl, with trembling lips and veiling hair. He took her hand like a man accustomed to be obeyed, as indeed he was.
"Child, your mama hath left you in my care, and you can't desire I should relinquish the pleasure. Such an opportunity no gentleman could resist. Be seated, Madam, and let us discourse."
'Twas all on one side, for she had not opened her lips. But she obeyed him, and sat in the chair he handed her to, as passive as a marble lady. He seemed at a loss to continue, and stood looking at her where she drooped, then took a chair beside her.
"You are pleased to be less cordial than I have known you, Madam. Is it whim or anger? I like a woman's pretty coquetries as well as any man, but this silence—"
It still continued. She was snow and marble. Not a word. Only the dark lashes like fans on her cheek. Not a gleam rewarded him.
"A sullen beauty!" says his Grace languidly, "but yet a beauty beyond all others. So here we sit!" He drew out his jewelled timepiece.
"I give you a minute, Madam—nay, two. And if by then you have not spoke, I will try if the warmth of a kiss on those sweet lips won't thaw the ice. I swear it!"
He laid the sparkling toy at her elbow on the table, and stared in her face. 'T is certain his Grace had dined. He was not wont to treat any woman thus unless where it was asked for. A minute went by—the tick was audible, but she moved not. And now a slow hot tear scorched its way down her cheek. If this followed mama's instruction, it bettered it. The tune was scarce out when he springs up and cries with triumph:—
"I was not mistook. Your silence asks a kiss, child, and James Hamilton was never the man to refuse a woman's challenge. Give me your lips, and more."
His swashbuckling Border ancestors were stirring in his veins, and for a moment his face coarsened and his eyes were gross. He caught her by the two arms and bent his mouth upon hers.
In a flash the fair statue was living and dangerous. He was a strong man, she a wisp of a girl; but she flung him off and stood glaring at him.
"How dare you?" she panted, and could no more. The eyes were unveiled at last and rained fire on him. Never had any person seen her look thus; she faced him gallantly. He applauded as if it had been the Woffington or any other fair game.
"'Tis prettily done—but I see your drift, Madam. If a young lady is left by her friends and her own desire to sit alone with one of the best-known men in town, she takes the consequences. Yet I would not have missed Lucretia—she lacked only the dagger in her hand. But the comedy may end. Give me your lips, child, and coquet no more."
"Sir—if you are a gentleman—"
"Madam, I am a lover."
"Oh,'tis too much—too much!" she cries. "I have undertook what was beyond me, and I can't—I can't carry it through. I would if I could—I cannot!"
The strange words, the despair in her face was no stage-play. The Duke knew sincerity when it cried aloud. Still grasping her hands, he stood at arm's length, staring in her face.
"You cannot, Madam? What mean you? Are you in earnest?"
Not withdrawing her hands, fast held and quivering, she kept silence. He could feel the pulses flutter in her wrists, and the fumes of wine cleared slowly out of his brain and carried the brutality with them.
"Have the condescension to explain yourself. You are safe in my company now. Possibly I was mistook, but I supposed you not unwilling for our tete-a-tete. Accept my apologies if this is not the case. I thrust no attentions on women who dislike them."
"Sir, I will explain, and go, and never see your face again. I die of shame."
He could still feel the pitiful flutter in her wrists. He relaxed his grip and handed her to her chair,—a gentleman again,—James, Duke of Hamilton and Brandon. "I see myself gravely in error, Madam. I await your words."
She would not sit, nor he. They stood apart now, and he could scarce hear the silver tremble of her voice.
"Sir, we are poor. You know this. And last night my mother did ask me whether I supposed your Grace had any feeling for me beyond careless goodwill. I knew not. What could I say? And she then revealed to me—oh, how reveal it now!—that our little means is all but spent, and that gone, we must retire into poverty and misery again. Also that there are debts, and prison for debtors. Also that any match for my sister is impossible to hope for—No—how can I tell it! And she did say that if we could hope— could but know that—"
Her voice died on her lips. She hung her head in agony. He took her up.
"The task is too hard for you. Let me continue. Your mama said that, if she and your sister withdrew and left you with me, if you put forth your charms (and God knows there were never such!), 'twas possible you might set the sweetest trap for the rich man, and with his aid clamber out of the mud and sit secure beside him. Confirm me if I don't err. Confess!"
"I confess." The words scarce broke the silence.
"And love was not in the bargain," the cruel voice persisted. "Mama did not enquire whether James Hamilton was distasteful to you or the reverse. He was a moneybag—no man. Confess again."
"I confess. Sir, we have used you very ill. I ask your pardon. I was a fair mark for insult." Her head dropped lower. She could not otherwise hide her face, but shame overflowed it in waves of crimson.
"To be frank, Madam, I have never found your mother congenial company. 'Twas not for her I sought this house. Tell me, was this her plot only? Was it acceptable to you?"
"At least, I followed it. She is my mother. I am one flesh and blood with her. If she is a plotter, so too am I. I bid your Grace farewell, and pray for so much pity as that you will never come this way again, nor see me, lest I die at your feet."
"Madam, do I owe you no apology?"
"I think none, your Grace. You acted as the woman you took me for might, I suppose, expect. Let me go."
A singular thing happened here. The Duke, the haughtiest and coldest of men, bent his knee and carried her hand to his lips. So on Birthnights he kissed the late Queen's hand, she standing before the Throne. Then stood very grave. "Madam, I entreat your pardon. I have shown you a side of a man's character very unfitting for your eyes and you but the child you are. Forgive me, and ere we part for ever, answer me one question, in token of your pardon. Had I been but James Hamilton, the lowest of my clan—could you have honoured me with any regard?"
She stammered, trembling before this melancholy gentleness.
"I know not."
He persisted, gentle but firm:
"We have perhaps something to pardon each other. I ask again—would this have been possible?"
Constrained, she sought for breath. Because a cold handsome face softens, because distrust is melted, shall a woman let her heart fly like a bird to a man's bosom?
"Sir, you ask more than I can answer."
Still the eyes insisted, and now the strong hand held hers.
"Sir—I think—I believe—it had not been impossible."
"What—not James Hamilton—no more?—with a shieling on the moors, and the heather-cock for food, and a Hamilton plaid to wrap his heart's darling, and a fire of peats to sit by, and this hand empty but for love and his claymore?—Would the beauty of the world have come to his breast?"
His voice was a strong music—a river in spate. His eyes caught hers and held them.
"'Tis not impossible. But oh, how should I prove it—prove it? There's not a word I say but rings false now. Leave me—leave me. I have said too much."
"You can't prove it? But you can, and if you prove it, I will distrust God's mercy before I will distrust my girl. All you have told me was known to me—known to all the town. It rings through the streets that the fair Gunnings and their mother are schemers; that they love none and seek only the best price for their charms. Marry me now, this hour, Elizabeth, and face the world that will call you plotter and adventuress. For they will so! There's no club in town but will ring with the story of how the beauty was cunningly left to a half-drunk man's advances. That's how Horry Walpole and all the old women of both sexes will have it! All this will be known through your mother's folly and your Abigail's chatter, and they will tell how you trapped me, how I would have escaped and could not for the snares about my feet. Marry me and face this, if you will, and I will believe you love me, for you will stand a disgraced woman for all time. Marry me not, and I will make your way easy with gold, and your mother shall tell her own tale, and not a smirch on your name and fear not but another rich man will give you all I could, and not a spot on it. Choose now once and for all. I have seen and I know how my coronet will sting you with shame—with shame set in it."
He did not embrace her. 'Twas the strangest wooing. The clock pointed to eleven. The house was dead silent. Her eyes widened with pain and fear. She looked piteously at him.
"They will say you caught me drunk, whom you could not catch sober. They will say you forced the marriage, lest I escape. There is nothing they will not say but the truth—that my sweetheart is the sweetest, the purest, the proudest woman alive. Your delicacy will be trod in the mud, Madam. Will you take your man at that? Will you crawl through the dirt to his heart?"
His fire kindled hers. Her eyes glittered.
"And if they believed me worthless—that is not what I ask. What would your Grace think?"
He smiled with peculiar sweetness.
"Child, you know. Look at me."
And still she trembled.
"Beloved, adored!" he cried. "Think you I knew not 'twas death to you to tell the truth? Shall a man find a pearl in the dirt and not set it over his heart. I have loved you since first I saw your fair face, and now I honour you. Come to me and bless me; and when these fools cackle and gibber, I shall know how to protect my wife."
His arms went round her.
"I will do it," she said.
The minutes passed in an exquisite joy, plucked out of shame like a rose from a torrent. He left her and went to the door, and leaning over the balustrade, called down the stair:—
A young man, handsomely dressed and something of a fop after his valet-fashion, sprang up the stair—his Grace's gentleman. His master, very tranquil and haughty, was by the door—the fair Miss Gunning erect in her chair.
"Armitage, proceed at once to my house, and acquaint my chaplain, Mr MacDonald, that this lady and I are to be married immediately. Desire him to come hither with all that is necessary, and lose not a moment."
And seeing Armitage hesitate like a man wonderstruck, the Duke stamped his foot and set him flying down the way he came, calling after him:—
"Desire Mrs Abigail to come up this moment."
They heard the door shut violently, and Mrs Abigail came up, very demure and curtseying to the ground.
"Be seated, good woman. Your lady will excuse you. We wait the Reverend Mr MacDonald, with ring and licence, and you and Armitage shall serve for witnesses to the marriage. Now I think of it, call also the woman of the house."
He carried it masterfully, and Elizabeth, no more than any other woman, could be insensible to that charming tyranny. He stood behind her chair while the woman called for Mrs Mann—who came, mortally afraid of her company.
"Shall Mrs Abigail braid my hair?—it tumbles all about me," says Elizabeth, questioning her master timidly.
"'Tis so great a beauty I will not have it hid," he cries, standing behind her chair where the long locks lay on the ground.
Silence again, and the time passing.
At last, a sound as if Armitage propelled somewhat before him up the stair, and into the room walks his Grace's gentleman, and before him a stout personage in bands and cassock, so breathless from haste as to be incapable of any speech.
"Hath he the licence?"
"He hath, your Grace, but he declares that the occasion being so great, and the incumbent of Mayfair Chapel, Dr Keith, being at home and the chapel open, for the greater solemnity 'twere well to have the marriage solemnised there. 'Tis but ten minutes, and I have brought the chariot, if it please your Grace."
And now, puffing sore, the clergyman put in his plea,—not for delay, the Duke's face forbade that,—but that all be done with ceremony.
"If a word more be said, I send for the Archbishop!" swears his Grace, flushed and handsome. "My chariot's at the door. Bundle in all who can. Madam, allow me."
He drew the bride's hand to his, and preceded them down the stair, holding it high as in a minuet. The women followed without a word. Elizabeth went in a dream, half-enchantment, half-nightmare.
The chapel was dark and musty—no time to light the lamps; but Mr Armitage, the facile, the adroit, a perfect Mercury and old in experience, called in four linkmen waiting by their ladies' empty chairs in the street outside.
These grimy fellows stood upon the altar steps, two at a side, lighting the book the parson opened, his voice resounding through the silent place with startling loudness. Behind the bridal pair huddled the women.
"Dearly Beloved, we are met together—" and so to the close. But his voice was muffled beside the clear ring of James Hamilton's. His "I will" fell like a sword on the air. He was never a man to show his heart but to the one in whose hand it lay, and his tone disdained all but the woman who stood by him. He put his signet ring on her finger, and they turned from the altar man and wife.
"Give each of these men five guineas, and bid them light her Grace to her chariot, Armitage. Take you the women back to Mrs Gunning's lodging, where we follow. I thank you, Mr Keith, for the best service any man ever did me. It shall not go unrewarded."
He handed her into the chariot with the utmost ceremony; and when the door was closed, flung himself on his knees before her, clasping her waist.
"My dear—my girl, how shall I thank you? Think you I don't know what it hath cost you—and the proof you have given me that your heart is mine. My wife—my sweetheart!"
'Twas half after twelve when Mrs Gunning returned with Maria, being a prudent woman, and resolved that, if the criminal did not hang himself, it should not be for want of rope.
"The chariot's at the door and the light still in the parlour!" she whispered; "sure, he can't be there still? Heaven send he be not drunk and asleep. 'Twas mere folly to leave the wine!"
Not a sound. They approached as it were on tiptoe up the stair, and softly opened the door.
My Lord Duke, attended by Armitage, stood before them, splendid in his dark red velvet laced with silver, the blue ribbon crossing his breast. He held Elizabeth by the hand, she pale as ashes but perfectly composed.
Mrs Gunning gave a fine dramatic start, Maria advancing behind her, devoured with curiosity.
"What—what can this mean? Little did I expect to find your Grace here at this hour. Elizabeth, I fear you have been vastly imprudent. Your good name—" She might have said more but the Duke came forward, very magnificent.
"Madam, permit me to introduce a stranger," says he, with emphasis on the word, "Her Grace the Duchess of Hamilton."
"Lord! Then 'tis to be!" cries Mrs Gunning, all radiant, and mistaking his meaning. "O my sweet child, my Elizabeth—how have you took me by surprise! When shall it be, your Grace?"
"Madam, it is done. Miss Gunning became my bride in the Mayfair Chapel— was it twenty minutes since, Armitage?"
"Fifteen, your Grace."
"'Twas all in order—a clergyman?—'twas legal?" pants Mrs Gunning, her hand to her heart.
"Assuage your maternal fears, Madam." His lip was disdainful—he set her a world away. "All was as you could have wished. Permit the Duchess and myself to wish you farewell and good night—or rather good morning."
He led Elizabeth to the door, which Armitage held open. It closed behind them, and their steps were heard descending. The Duchess had not said a word.
There was silence until the chariot had rumbled away, when Mrs Gunning found her voice.
"I did not credit her with such skill. She hath played her cards well indeed. I would give the world to know what passed."
"That we shall never know," says Maria. "He's not the man to tell his secrets, nor she neither. Sure, they're a pair."
"Well, Heaven send you show the like skill with my Lord Coventry. You can't do better. Lord, how my heart beats for joy!"
"I shall not need, Madam," says Miss Maria coolly. "She has ensured my match with her own. The Duchess of Hamilton's sister won't go begging for a husband. 'Tis now but to choose my wedding silk. Come, let us to bed. These late hours hurt my bloom. Let us however drink a toast in this wine to old Mother Corrigan and the Golden Vanity. 'Tis the least we can do. Blow out the candles."
(Elizabeth, later Duchess of Argyll, bore her honours with dignity and became a very great lady. Maria, Countess of Coventry, died aged twenty-seven, not untouched by scandal, and a victim to her own frivolity. Mrs Gunning received a valuable appointment as Housekeeper at one of the royal palaces. "The Luck of the Gunnings" became a proverb.
It has been disputed which of the two famous actresses, Peg Woffington or George Anne Bellamy had the honour of setting the beauties forth in life. Mrs. Bellamy's claim has the better evidence, especially in view of the Countess of Coventry's distinguished impertinence to her a few years later.)
Maria Walpole Countess of Waldegrave Duchess of Gloucester 17(?)-1807
Horace Walpole was convinced that even the Gunnings envied the beauty of Maria Walpole, his niece. "Yesterday," he writes, "t'other famous Gunning dined there. She has made a friendship with my charming niece, to disguise her jealousy." To the surprise of all London, Maria, daughter of Sir Edward Walpole and Maria Clements, married the Earl of Waldegrave, "for character and credit the first match in England." At her husband's death, she refused the Duke of Portland, but secretly married the Duke of Gloucester, brother to the King. Her admirers point out the romance of her fortunes—how she was daughter of a milliner, granddaughter of a great Prime Minister, widow of an Earl, wife of a Duke, sister-in-law to the King, mother of the three ladies Waldegrave, and, in her second marriage, mother of Prince William and the Princess Sophia.
Sir Joshua Reynolds made seven portraits of the lovely "Walpole Beauty." Years afterward, when he was at work on his famous painting of her three daughters, Walpole begged him to pose them "as the three Graces, adorning a bust of the Duchess as the Magna Mater." "But," adds the veteran of Strawberry Hill, with what resignation he can muster, "my ideas were not adopted."
The Walpole Beauty
[From a packet of letters, written in the middle of the eighteenth century by Lady Fanny Armine to her cousin, Lady Desmond, in Ireland, I have strung together one of the strangest of true stories—the history of Maria Walpole, niece of the famous Horace Walpole and illegitimate daughter of his brother, Sir Edward Walpole. The letters are a potpourri of town and family gossip, and in gathering the references to Maria Walpole into coherence, I am compelled to omit much that is characteristic and interesting.]
Why, Kitty, my dear, what signifies your reproaches? I wish I may never be more guilty than I am this day. I laid out a part of your money in a made-up mantua and a petticoat of Rat de St. Maur, and for the hat,'twas the exact copy of the lovely Gunning's—Maria Coventry. And though I won't flatter you, child, by saying your bloom equals hers (for I can't tell what hers may be under the white lead she lays on so thick), yet I will say that your Irish eyes may ambuscade to the full as well beneath it, though they won't shoot an earl flying, like hers, because you have captured your baronet already!
But 'tis news you would have—news, says you, of all the gay doings of the town.
And how is her Gunning Grace of Hamilton, you ask, and do the folk still climb on chairs at Court to stare at her? Vastly in beauty, child. She was in a suit of fine blue satin at the last Birthnight, sprigged all over with white, and the petticoat robings broidered in the manner of a trimming wove in the satin. A hoop of the richest damask, trimmed with gold and silver. These cost fourteen guineas a hoop, my dear. Who shall say the ladies of the present age don't understand refinements? Her Grace had diamonds plastered on wherever they would stick, and all the people of quality run mad to have a stare at so much beauty, set off with as much glare as Vauxhall on a fete night, and she as demure as a cat after chickens.
But 'tis always the way with these sudden-come-ups, they never have the easy carriage that comes from breeding, and 'tis too much to expect she should be a topping courtier.
You must know Horry Walpole was there, in gray and silver brocade, as fine and finical a gentleman as ever, and most genteelly lean; and says I to him:—
"What think you, Mr Walpole, of our two coquet Irish beauties? Do they put out all the fire of our English charmers?"
So he drew himself up and took a pinch of rappee (can't you see him, Kitty, my girl?), and says he:—
"Madam, to a lady that is herself all beauty and need envy none, I may say we have a beauty to be produced shortly to the town that will flutter all the world, excepting only the lady I have the honour to address."
And, Lord! the bow he made me, with his hat to his heart!
"La, man," says I, "who is she? But sure I know. 'T is the Duchess of Queensberry reduced a good half in size and with a new complexion."
But Horry shook his ambrosial curls.
"No, Madam, 'pon honour! A little girl with the vivacity of sixteen and brown eyes, brown hair—in fact, a brown beauty."
And then it flashed on me and I says:—
"Good God!—Maria! But sure she can't be presented. 'Tis impossible!" And could have bit my silly tongue out when't was said.
He shrugged his shoulders like a Frenchman,—'tis the last grace he picked up in Paris,—and turned from me to the new lady errant, Miss Chester, who models herself on the famous Miss Chudleigh.
But nothing could equal the horrid indecency of Miss Chudleigh's habit at the Ranelagh Masquerade some five years back, when Mrs Montagu, observing her, said: "Here is Iphigenia for the sacrifice, but so naked the high priest may inspect the entrails of the victim without more ado." And says Horry: "Surely, 'tis Andromeda she means herself, and not Iphigenia!" I thought we should have died laughing. The Maids of Honour were then so offended not one of 'em would speak to her. They are not such prudes today, and Miss Chester has as much countenance as she looks for. Alas, it takes a wise woman, if not a good one, to know just where certainty should stop and imagination take its place!
But, Kitty child, who do you guess is the new beauty? I give you one, I give you two, I give you three! And if 'twas three hundred, you'd be never the wiser. Why, Maria Walpole, you little blockhead! Maria, the daughter of Sir Edward Walpole, Horry's brother. What think you of that? But Sir Edward never was married, says you. True for you, Kitty, but don't you know the story? No, to be sure. There's no scandal in Ireland, for St. Patrick banished it along with the snakes and their poison, because the island that has so many misfortunes would have died of another.
Well, take your sampler like a good little girl and hearken to the history of the lovely Maria that's to blow out the Gunning candles. Let me present to your la'ship Sir Edward Walpole, brother to the Baron of Strawberry Hill. A flourish and a sliding bow, and you know one another! Sir Edward, who resembles not Horry in his love for the twittle-twattle of the town, is a passable performer on the bass viol, and a hermit—the Hermit of Pall Mall. But the rules of that Hermitage are not too severe, child. 'Tis known there were relaxations. And notably one.
The Hermit some years since was lodged in Pall Mall; and in the lower floors was lodged a dealer in clothes, with prentices to fetch and carry.
Lord! says Kitty, what's this to the purpose? Attend, Madam. The curtain rises!
'Tis an old story: the virtuous prentice—and the unvirtuous. There was one of them—Dorothy Clement, a rustic beauty, straw hat tied under the roguish chin, little tucked-up gown of flowered stuff, handkerchief crossed over the bosom, ruffled elbows. 'Tis so pretty a dress, that I protest I marvel women of quality don't use it! However, this demure damsel looked up at Sir Edward under the hat, and he peeped under the brim, and when he left the house and returned to his own, what should happen but the trembling beauty runs to him, one fine day, for protection, swearing her family and master have all cast her off because 'twas noted the gentleman had an eye for a charming face.
Well, child, 'tis known hermits do not marry. 'Tis too much to ask of their Holinesses. But he set a chair at the foot of his table for the damsel, and bid her share his pulse and crusts; and so 'twas done, and whether in town or country, the Hermitess kept him company till she died. Sure the Walpoles are not too fastidious in their women, excepting only Horry of Strawberry Hill, who has all the finicals of the others rolled up in his lean body.
Well, Kitty, there were four children: a boy,—nothing to the purpose,— and Laura, Maria, and Charlotte. And the poor lasses, not having a rag of legitimacy to cover 'em, must needs fall back on good behaviour and good looks. I saw Laura, a pretty girl, in the garden at Englefield some years since, when I was airing in Lady Pomfret's coach; and as we looked, the little hoyden Maria comes running up in muslin and blue ribbons, all health and youth and blooming cheeks and brown curls and eyes—a perfect Hebe. And 'tis she—the milliner's brat—that's to borrow the Car of Love and set the world afire. But she can't be presented, Kitty; for our high and mighty Royals frown on vice, and not a single creature with the bar sinister can creep into Court, however many may creep out. And that's that!
And now I end with compliments and curtseys to your la'ship, and the glad tidings that one of the virgin choir of Twickenham, those Muses to which Mr Horace Walpole is Apollo, has writ an Ode so full of purling streams and warbling birds, that Apollo says he will provide a sidesaddle for Pegasus, and no male shall ever bestride him again.
O la, la, la! Was you ever at the Bath, child? Here am I just returned, where was great company, and all the wits and belles, and Miss Biddy Green, the great city fortune, run off with Harry Howe, and her father flourishing his gouty stick in the Pump Room and swearing a wicked aristocracy should have none of his honest guineas. But he'll soften when he sees her presented at Court, with feathers stuck in her poll and all the city dames green with spite. 'Tis the way of the world.
But to business. The town is talking with hundred-woman noise on the marriage that Laura,—by courtesy called Walpole,—the Hermit's eldest daughter, makes tomorrow. 'Twill astound you, Lady Desmond your Honour, as much as it did your humble servant. For Miss Laura honours the Church, no less, with her illegitimate hand, and no less a dignitary than a Canon of Windsor! Is not this to be a receiver of stolen goods? Does not his Reverence compound a felony in taking such a bride? What say you? 'Tis Canon Keppel, brother to Lord Albemarle; and mark you, Kitty—the Honourable Mrs Keppel has the right to be presented where Miss Laura might knock at the door in vain! We come up in the world, child; but the Walpoles had always that secret.
'Twill set the other charming daughters dreaming of bride-cake. All the world talks of Maria, a shining beauty indeed. Horry Walpole is enchanted at Miss Laura's match—sure, an illegitimate Walpole, if niece to the Baron of Strawberry, is worth a dozen of your Cavendishes and Somersets! I laughed like a rogue in my sleeve when says Horry to me at my drum:—
"Colonel Yorke is to be married to one or both of the Miss Crasteyns, great city fortunes—nieces to the rich grocer. They have two hundred and sixty thousand pounds apiece. Nothing comes amiss to the digestion of that family—a marchioness or a grocer."
Says I, flirting my fan:—
"'Tis gross feeding, sure, Mr Walpole. Now, had it been a royal illegitimate."
He looked daggers, and took a pinch of snuff with an air. Never was a man with more family pride, though he affects to scorn it.
What think you of this latest news of Lady Coventry? The people are not yet weary of gazing upon the Gunnings, and stared somewhat upon her last Sunday was se'night in the Park. Would you believe it, Kitty, that she complained to the King, and His Majesty, not to be outdone in wisdom, offers a guard for her ladyship's beauty. On this she ventures into the Park, and, pretending fright, desires the assistance of the officer, who orders twelve sergeants to march abreast before her and a sergeant and twelve men behind her; and in this pomp did the silly little fool walk all the evening, with more mob about her than ever, her blockhead husband on one side and my Lord Pembroke on the other! I'm sure I can't tell you anything to better this, so good night, dear cousin, with all affectionate esteem.
Great news, your la'ship. I am but just returned from a royal progress to visit the Baron of Strawberry Hill. Strawberry was in prodigious beauty— spring flowers, cascades, grottoes, all displayed to advantage in a sunshine that equalled June. The company, her Gunning Grace of Hamilton, the Duchess of Richmond, Lady Aylesbury, and your humble servant.
Says Mr Horace, leaning on his amber-top cane and surveying us, as the three sat in the shell on the terrace and I stood by:—
"Strawberry Hill is grown a perfect Paphos. 'Tis the land of beauties, and if Paris himself stood where I do, he could never adjudge the golden apple."
He writ the same to George Montagu after, who showed the letter about town:—
"There never was so pretty a sight as to see the three sitting. A thousand years hence, when I begin to grow old, if that can ever be, I shall talk of that event and tell the young people how much handsomer the women of my time were than they are now."
There's a compliment like a fresh-plucked rose from the Lord of Strawberry. It reads pretty, don't it, child? Horry was in vast wit—'twas like the Northern Lights hurtling about us—made us blink! The Duchess of Richmond pretending she could not recall her marriage-day, says Horry:—
"Record it thus, Madam. This day thousand years I was married!"
'Twas not till a week later I discovered this to be a bon mot of Madame de Sevigne. His jewels are polished very fine, but 'tis not always in the Strawberry mine they are dug. But to our news—What will your Honour pay me for a penn'orth?
Tis of our beauty, Maria—ahem!—Walpole. The pretty angler has caught her fish—a big fish, a gold fish, even a golden-hearted fish, for't is Lord Waldegrave! A belted earl, a Knight of the Garter, no less, for the pretty milliner's daughter. You don't believe it, Kitty? Yet you must, for't is true, and sure. If beauty can shed a lustre over puddled blood, she has it. Lord Villiers, chief of the macaronis, said, yesterday was a week:—
"Of all the beauties Miss Walpole reigns supreme—if one could forget the little accident of birth! Her face, bloom, eyes, teeth, hair, and person are all perfection's self, and Nature broke the mould when she made this paragon, for I know none like her."
'Tis true, but 'tis so awkward with these folk that can't be presented nor can't meet this one nor that. Still, I have had her much to my routs and drums, where 'tis such an olla podrida that it matters not who comes. But Lady Waldegrave may go where she will; and certainly the bridegroom has nothing to object on the score of birth, for he comes from James the Second by the left hand, and for aught I know a left-hand milliner is as good these Republican days. Anyhow, 'tis so, and Horry, who would have all think him above such thoughts, is most demurely conceited that a Walpole— ahem!—should grace the British peerage. Remains now only Charlotte, and I dare swear she will carry her charms to no worse market than Maria, though not so great a Venus.
I went yesterday evening to the Bluestocking Circle at Mrs Montagu's fine house in Hill Street. I am not become learned, Kitty, but 'twas to hear the lionesses roar, and because I knew the Lord of Strawberry would be there and was wishful to hear his exultations. Lord preserve us, child, what a frightening place! We were ushered into the Chinese Room, lined with painted Pekin paper, and noble Chinese vases, and there were all the lions, male and female, in a circle—the Circle of the Universe. All the great ladies of the Bluestocking Court were there: the vastly learned Mrs Carter, Mrs Delany over from Ireland, the Swan of Lichfield Miss Anna Seward, Mrs Chapone, and other lionesses and cubesses. My dear, they sat in a half-moon, and behind them another half-moon of grave ecclesiastics and savants, and Horry at the head of them, in brown and gold brocade. 'Twas not sprightly, Kitty. 'Tis true these women are good and learned, and some of them well enough in looks; but 'tis so pretentious, so serious,—I lack a word!—so censorious of all that does not pull a long face, that, when Mrs Montagu rose to meet us with the shade of Shakespeare in attendance (for no lower footman would serve so majestic a lady), I had a desire to seize her two hands and gallop round the room with her, that I could scarce restrain. But sure she and the company had died of it!
I expected great information from such an assemblage, but 'twas but a snip-snap of talk—remarks passed from one to another, but served as it were on massy plate—long words, and too many of 'em. Dull, my dear, dull! And so 'twill always be when people aim to be clever. They do these things better in France, where they have no fear of laughter and the women sparkle without a visible machinery. 'Twas all standing on the mind's tip-toe here. And when the refreshments were served I made for Horry—
On silver vases loaded rise The biscuits' ample sacrifice, And incense pure of fragrant tea.
But Bluestockingism is nourished on tea as wit on wine. "So, Mr Walpole," says I, "what is this news I hear of Miss Maria? My felicitations to the bridegroom on the possession of so many charms."
And Horry with his bow:—
"I thank your ladyship's partiality and good heart. For character and credit, Lord Waldegrave is the first match in England, and for beauty, Maria—excepting only the lady I address. The family is well pleased, though 'tis no more than her deserts, and 'twas to be expected my father's grandchild would ally herself with credit."
'Tis when Horry Walpole gives himself these demure airs that I am tempted to be wicked, Kitty. For what signifies talking? The girl is a beauty, but Nancy Parsons and Kitty Fisher are beauties, too, and if the court and peerage are opened to women of no birth, why what's left for women of quality? 'Tis certain the next generation of the peerage bids fair to be extreme ill-born, and the result may be surprising. But I held my tongue, for I have a kindness for Horry and his niece, though I laugh at 'em.
I thought Mr Walpole looked ill, and doubted whether I might hope to see him at my Tuesday rout. Says he:—
"'Tis the gout, Madam, that ungallant disorder, and had I a mind to brag, I could boast of a little rheumatism too; but I scorn to set value on such trifles, and since your ladyship does me the honour to bespeak my company, I will come if 'twere in my coffin and pain. May I hope your ladyship will favour us at Maria's nuptials? Sure the Graces were ever attended by Venus on occasions of ceremony."
He would have said more, but the Queen of the Blues swam up, protesting and vowing she had never seen such a goddess as Miss Maria Walpole; that were she to marry the Emperor of the world, 'twould be vastly below the merit of such glowing charms. And so forth.
'Tis a lady that paints all her roses red and plasters her lilies white, and whether 'tis malice, I can't tell, but believe 'tis possible to blast by praise as well as censure, by setting the good sense of one half the world and the envy of the other against the victim. So she shrugged and simpered and worked every muscle of her face, in hopes to be bid to the wedding; but Mr. Walpole only bowed very grave and precise, and turned away, and I with him. And no more circles for me, my dear; and here I conclude, and my next shall be the epithalamium.
18th May, 1759.
Kitty, child, when you was married, did you look about you from under your hat?—did you take a sly peep at the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and wonder which was the bridegroom? I did, but I'll never tell which he proved to be! Well, Maria was married two days since, and Horry Walpole favoured me today with a glimpse of the letter he writ to his friend Montagu on the occasion. 'Twas very obliging; but you know all he writes is writ with one eye on the paper and one on posterity, so 'tis no wonder if he squints a little by times. However, here's to our letter.
"The original day was not once put off—lawyers and milliners all canonically ready. They were married in Pall Mall just before dinner, and we all dined there, and the Earl and the new Countess got into their post-chaise at eight and went to Navestock alone. On Sunday she is to be presented and to make my Lady Coventry distracted. Maria was in a white and silver night gown, with a hat very much pulled over her face. What one could see of it was handsomer than ever. A cold maiden blush gave her the sweetest delicacy in the world."
So far our doting uncle, Kitty; but 'tis indeed a fair creature. I saw the long soft brown eyes lifted once and flash such a look at the bridegroom— I dare to swear Lord Waldegrave wished away then the twenty years between them. Poor Lady Coventry, indeed! Her race is run, her thread is spun, her goose is cooked, and any other trope you please; for what signifies all the white lead at the 'pothecary's compared to the warm brown of Maria's complexion and her long eyelashes!
Lady Elizabeth Keppel had a gown worthy of the Roman Empress she looks, with that beak nose and nutcracker chin. 'Twas a black velvet petticoat, embroidered in chenille, the pattern a great gold wicker basket filled to spilling over with ramping flowers that climbed and grew all about her person. A design for a banqueting hall rather than a woman; or indeed a committee of Bluestockings might have wore it to advantage. She had winkers of lace to her head, and her hoop covered so many acres that one could but approach at an awful distance and confidences were impossible—a sure reason why the modish ladies will soon drop the hoop.
I saluted the bride after the ceremony and says I:—
"Maria, my love, I attend your presentation on Sunday, and I bring my smelling-bottle for Lady Coventry. 'Tis already said her guards will now be transferred to your ladyship, together with a detachment from each ship of the Fleet, to secure so much beauty."
She has the sweetest little dimple in either cheek, and twenty Cupids hide under her lashes.
"I have no wish, Madam, to dethrone my Lady Coventry, if even 'twere possible," says she. "That lady has occupied the throne so long, that 'tis hers by right, and the English people never weary of an old favourite."
'Twas two-edged, Kitty, as you see, and I will report it to the other lovely Maria, and 'twill be pretty to see the rapiers flash between the two. 'Tis not only the men carry dress swords, child. But I thought Miss Maria a downy nestling, with never a thought of repartee, till now. 'Tis born in us, child. It begins with our first word and is our last earthly sigh.
Well, was you at the presentation, Lady Desmond, for I did not see your la'ship.
Says you: "How was that possible with the Irish Sea between us? So out with the news!"
The company was numerous and magnificent, and Horry Walpole in his wedding garment of a white brocade with purple and green flowers. 'Twas a trifle juvenile for his looks, but I blame him not; for my Lady Townshend would choose for him, though he protested that, however young he might be in spirits, his bloom was a little past. I could see he was quaking for his nuptialities—lest Maria should not be in full beauty.
T'other Maria,—Coventry,—in golden flowers on a silver ground, looked like the Queen of Sheba; and were not our Monarch anything but a Solomon, I would not say but—A full stop to all naughtiness! But I must tell you her last faux pas, for you know, child, she's as stupid as she's pretty. She told the King lately that she was surfeited with sights. There was but one left she could long to see. What, think you, it was?—why, a coronation!
The old man took it with good humour; but Queen Bess had made a divorce between her lovely head and shoulders for less.
Well, into the midst of this prodigious assemblage, with Uncle Horry quaking inwardly and making as though Walpole nieces were presented every day, comes the fair Waldegrave, gliding like a swan, perfectly easy and genteel, in a silver gauze with knots of silver ribbon and diamonds not so bright as her eyes. I dare swear not a man there but envied my Lord Waldegrave, and many might envy the beauty her husband—a good plain man, grave and handsome. But the bride! She swam up to His Majesty, like Venus floating on clouds, and her curtsey and hand-kissing perfect. Who shall talk of blood in future, when a milliner's daughter can thus distinguish herself in the finest company in Europe? 'Tis true 'tis mixed with the Walpole vintage; but when all's said and done, who were the Walpoles? If you get behind the coarse, drinking Squire Western of a father, you stumble up against Lord Mayors and what not! So 'tis a world's wonder, and there I leave it.
As for Maria Coventry—do but figure her! I saw her pale under her rouge when the bride entered, and her eyes shot sparks of fire, like an angry goddess. Could they have destroyed, we had seen her rival a heap of ashes like the princess of the Arabian Nights. I tendered her my smelling-bottle, but she dashed it from her, and then, smiling in the prettiest manner in the world, says to my Lord Hardwicke:—
"'Tis said women are jealous of each other's good looks, my Lord, but 'tis not so with me. I am vastly pleased with my Lady Waldegrave's appearance. 'Tis far beyond what was to be expected of her parentage. She looks vastly agreeable, and I hope she will favour me with her company."
'Twas cleverer than I supposed her, and sure enough she did nothing but court the bride, and now the two beauties go about to the sights and routs together and are the top figures in town, and all the world feasts its eyes upon two such works of nature—and Art it must be added, so far as Maria Coventry is concerned; she is two inches deep in white lead, and the doctors have warned her 'twill be the death of her. Kitty, I found my first gray hair yesterday. 'Tis my swan song. I am done with the beaux and the toasts and the fripperies. When I spoke to Harry Conway at the Court, his eyes were so fixed on Lady Waldegrave that he heard me not till I had spoke three times. Get thee to a nunnery, Fanny! I shall now insensibly drop into a spectatress. What care I! To ninety-nine women life ends with their looks, but I will be the hundredth, and laugh till I die!
Why, Kitty, your appetite for news grows by what it feeds on. Sure you are the horseleech's true daughter, crying, "Give, give!" You say I told you not of Charlotte Walpole's marriage. Sure, I did. Maria married her sister well—to young Lord Huntingtower, my Lord Dysart's son. 'Tis a girl of good sense. She loved him not, nor yet pretended to, but says she to Maria:—
"If I was nineteen, I would not marry him. I would refuse point-blank. But I am two-and-twenty, and though 'tis true some people say I am handsome, 'tis not all who think so. I believe the truth is, I am like to be large and heavy and go off soon. 'Tis dangerous to refuse so good a match. Therefore tell him, sister, I accept."
And 'twas done. I had this from Maria herself, who took it for an instance of commendable good sense; but I know not—somehow I would have a girl less of a Jew with her charms. Anyhow, stout or no, she will be my Lady Countess Dysart when his father dies; and now sure, there are no more worlds left for the Walpole girls to conquer. Their doting Uncle Horry could never predict such success. The eldest girl's husband is now Bishop of Exeter.
Poor Maria Coventry is dead—the most lovely woman in England, setting aside only t' other Maria. 'Twas from usage of white lead, Kitty, and tell that to all the little fools you know! It devoured her skin, and she grew so hideous, that at the last she would not permit the doctors to see her ruined face, but would put out her hand between the curtains to have her pulse took. She was but twenty-seven years of age.
There was not a woman in the Three Kingdoms but envied the Gunnings, and was 't not yourself told me, "the Luck of the Gunnings" was become a proverb in Ireland, and the highest wish for a girl? What will the sermonizers say now? That 'tis best to be homely and live to eighty? I know not; but 'tis as well the choice is not given, for I believe there is not ten women living but would choose as did Maria Coventry. Her beauty was her god, and if she sacrificed herself on the altar, 'tis but what the gods look for.
Sure, I am Death's herald, for I must tell you my Lord Waldegrave is dead of the smallpox, and the beauty a widow after but four years' marriage. I saw her but yesterday, full of sensibility and lovely as Sigismonda in Hogarth's picture. She had her young daughter, Lady Elizabeth, in her lap, the curly head against her bosom, the chubby cheek resting on a little hand against the mother's breast. Sure never was anything so moving as the two—exact to the picture Mr Reynolds painted.
She has a great tenderness for his memory, and well she may, when the position he raised her to is considered. 'T is like a discrowned queen, for her jointure is small, and she is now no more consequence to his party, so his death has struck away her worldly glory at a blow. Indeed, I pitied her, and wiped away her floods of tears with tenderness that was unaffected. But for such a young woman, I won't believe the scene is closed. What—are there no marquises, no dukes, for such perfection?
But 't is brutal to talk so when she is crying her fine eyes out. I wipe my naughty pen and bid you adieu.
Two days later.
I attended Mrs Minerva Montagu's reception, and there encountered the Great Cham of Literature, Dr Johnson, rolling into the saloon like Behemoth. Lady Waldegrave's bereavement was spoke of and says he:—
"I know not, Madam, why these afflictions should startle us. Such beauty invokes ill fortune, lest a human being suppose herself superior to the dictates of Providence."
"Certainly she is the first woman in England for beauty," says I, very nettled; "but 't is to be thought she had chose a little less beauty and rather more good fortune, had she been consulted. 'T is hard she should be punished for what she could not help!"
"Let her solace herself with her needleworks, Madam. A man cannot hem a pocket handkerchief and so he runs mad. To be occupied on small occasions is one of the great felicities of the female train and makes bereavement more bearable."
'T is a bear roaring his ignorance of the world, my dear. But he has a kind of horse sense (if the female train would but let him be) that makes him endurable and even palatable at times.
Mrs. Montagu informed us 't is rumoured that my Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (who you know is her cousin's cousin) thinks to return to England after being absent half a lifetime. I have a prodigious curiosity to see such a rarity. As for her beauty, that must be vanished, but her biting wit may outlive it, and Heaven send her here safe, I pray, to give a lash to the follies of more than one I could name, had I the malice. Were she to write a book of her life, 't would be the best reading in the world, could one wash their eyes and mind after reading it.
Kitty, my dear, have you forgot that, when my Lord Waldegrave died, I writ, "Are there no dukes to pursue the lovely widow?" Give honour to the prophet! She refused the Duke of Portland, that all the fair were hunting with stratagems worthy of the Mohawks. She refused this, that, and t' other. And the town said: "Pray who is the milliner's daughter, to turn up her nose at the first matches in England? Has she designs on the King of Prussia,—for our own young monarch is wed to his Charlotte,—or is it the Sultan, or His Holiness the Pope that will content her ladyship?"
No answer. But, Kitty, 't is me to smell a rat at a considerable distance, and I kept my nostrils open! Our handsome young King has a handsome young brother,—His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester,—and this gentleman has cast the sheep's eye, the eye of passion, upon our lovely widow! What think you of this? That it cannot be? Then what of the King Cophetua and other historic examples? I would have you know that in the tender passion there's nothing that cannot be. It laughs at obstacles and rides triumphant on the crest of the impossible. I knew it long since, but 't is over the town like wildfire now.
Meeting my Lady Sarah Bunbury yesterday, says she:—
"Lady Fanny, sure you know the Duke of Gloucester is desperately in love with my Lady Waldegrave. Now don't mask your little cunning face with ignorance, but tell me what's known. What have you heard from Horry Walpole?"
"Nothing, your la'ship," says I, very demure.
"Well," says she, "'t is reported the King has forbid him to speak to his fair widow, and she is gone out of town. He has given her two pearl bracelets worth five hundred pound. That's not for nothing surely. But for what?"
"Indeed, 't is an ambiguous gift, Madam," says I, whimsically; "and may mean much or little. Give me leave to ask whether 't is Pursuit or Attainment as your la'ship reads it?"
But she tossed her head, the little gossip, and off she went.
I can tell you thus much, Kitty: the Walpoles are main frightened. It may be a cast-back to the principles of the milliner mother. And there was never the difference between her and Sir Edward Walpole that there is between Maria and a Prince of the Blood. Her birth is impossible. My Lady Mary Coke asking me if the mother were not a washerwoman, says I, "I really cannot determine the lady's profession."
Poor Lady Mary is run clean mad with jealousy and spite, for 't is not so long since she believed herself on the way to be a Royal Duchess, imagining the late Duke of York to be her lover—a gentleman so passionately in love with himself as to leave no room for another. She wore her blacks when he died, like a widow. But, spitfire as Lady Mary is, 't is too true Maria is playing with fire, and there should be nothing between him and her mother's daughter. She is indeed more indiscreet than becomes her. His chaise is eternally at her door; and, as my Lady Mary says, she is lucky that anyone else countenances her at all. If they do, 't is as much from curiosity as any nobler emotion. Indeed, I fear her reputation's cracked past repair. Meeting Horry Walpole last night at the French Embassador's, he was plagued with staring crowds, and he made off after braving it a while. I hear the King is highly offended and the Queen yet more. She has a great notion of birth; and though poor, the Mecklenburg family has as good quarterings as any Royals in Europe. For my part, Kitty, I know not. Yet, if we seek for pedigree in horse and dog, 't is to be supposed worth something in Adam's breed also. And this ill-behaviour in Maria confirms me.
Yet I have visited the fair sinner, for I love her well. She can't help neither her birth nor her beauty, but sure her kind heart is all her own. She wept and would reveal nothing, but asked me to be so much her friend as to think the best of her. 'T is pity her tears were wasted on a mere woman. The drops beaded on her lashes like rain on a rose. Well, God mend all! say I. Sure none of us have a clear conscience and if anyone was to come up behind us and whisper, "I know when, how, and who!" 't is certain there are few women but would die of terror. Yet I did not think Maria a rake—though a Prince's.
'T is pity Lady Mary, the Great Wortley Montagu, is dead, that would have relished all this talk to the full. Can I forget when I visited her two years since just before she died—her vivacity and the tales she told of the junketings of Queen Anne's Court and George the First's! Gracious powers, Kitty, to think of our grandmothers' conduct and our own excellence in comparison! I have not heard a scandal since, but I have vied it with theirs and found it a mere caprice. 'T was almost affrighting to see that old lady, propped up in her chair, and croaking out tales of the grandparents of every person known to me, not forgetting my own, and laughing with a horrid glee and a fire in her ancient eye, till I expected to see her fly off like a witch on a broomstick. Sure, thinks I, no respectable young woman will be seen conversing with her grandmother after this! Mrs Montagu carried me to see her, and I could scarce thank her for it. Lord help us! does the world grow better or worse? I must take Mr Walpole's opinion.
Kitty, Kitty, 't is all come out! But I may say the town knew it after the masquerade in Soho, when His Royal Highness appeared as Edward the Fourth and Maria as Elizabeth Woodville, the pretty widow he made his Queen. You'll allow 't was a delicate way to let the cat out of the bag. It could not longer be kept within it, for the lady's sake and more. For there's to be a little new claimant one day to the Crown, if all the elder stem should fail.
They were married, Kitty, in 1766! Sure never was an amazing secret better kept! And I will say she hath borne much for the Prince's sake, and with good sense—let my Lady Mary Coke and all the Furies say what they will. But think of it—think of it! for indeed 't is scarce credible. Here's Maria No-name—the milliner's base-born daughter—to be Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Gloucester, Princess of Great Britain! Was ever human fate so surprising? 'Twas a secret even from her father and uncle, by the Duke's command; but she has now writ her father so pretty a letter that 'tis the town's talk, Horry Walpole having shewed it about. But Horry—have you forgot his pride, hid always under a nonchalance as if't was nothing? I was at Gloucester House, where she received en princesse, two nights ago; and to see Horry kiss her hand and hear him address her with, "Madam, your Royal Highness," at every word—sure no wit of Congreve's could ever equal the comedy! But if looks were all, she should be Queen of England—a shining beauty indeed! She wore a robe in the French taste, of gold tissue, her hair lightly powdered, with a bandeau of diamonds and the Duke's miniature in diamonds on her breast. He, looking very ill at ease, as I must own, stood beside her.
The King and our little Mecklenburger Queen are distracted; the royal ire withers all before it; but it can't be undone, though they will pass a Marriage Act to make such escapades impossible in the future.
But the Walpole triumph! 'Tis now proved in the face of all the world that a Walpole illegitimate is better than a German Royalty; for he might have married where he would. No doubt but Horry Walpole always thought so, yet 'tis not always we see our family pride so bolstered.
Meagre as a skeleton, he looked the genteelest phantom you can conceive, in puce velvet and steel embroideries. For my part, I am well content, and wish Her Royal Highness joy without grimace. 'Tis true I laugh at Horry Walpole, for in this town we laugh at everything, from the Almighty to Kitty Fisher; but I have a kindness for him and for Maria, and had sooner they triumphed than another. 'Tis not so with the town. O Kitty, the jealousy and malice! 'Twould take fifty letters to tell you the talk, from the Court down.
Well, Her Royal Highness gave me her hand to kiss, very gracious. She will not let her dignity draggle in the mud, like others I could name. But whether she would have been more easy with Portland or another, I will not determine. The Fates alone know, and sure they can't be women, they keep their secrets so well!
Fanny Bueney Madame D'Arblay 1752-1840
"Send me a minute Journal of everything," begs Mr. Crisp, "and never mind their being trifles—trifles well-dressed are excellent food, and your cookery is with me of established reputation."
Fanny Burney's letters, full of "trifles well-dressed" are as delightful as the novels, "Evelina," "Cecilia," and "Camilla," that made her famous. The skill of her writing and the charm of her character, "half-and-half sense and modesty," won her the friendship of Burke, Sheridan, Walpole, Warren Hastings, Hannah More, the Queen, and Dr. Johnson.
"She is a real wonder," said Johnson to Mrs. Thrale.
When Queen Charlotte made her second-keeper of the robes, her novel-reading friends protested that she had been "royally gagged and promoted to fold muslins." After four years of it, she returned to her home, her writing, and her marriage with General d'Arblay. With the proceeds of her most profitable novel, she built Camilla Cottage, where, with her good Alexandre and her gay little son, she could live and write, "Pleasure is seated in London, joy, mirth, society; but happiness, oh, it has taken its seat, its root, at West Humble!" She lived to be eighty-eight.
Yet the world still thinks of her on those youthful visits at Mrs. Thrale's in Streatham, when, if she seemed about to take her leave, Dr. Johnson would exclaim, "Don't you go, little Burney, don't you go!"
A Bluestocking at Court
[The following is endorsed: "Miss P.'s Narrative of the causes leading to the celebrated Miss Burney's retirement from Court in the year 1791."]@@The intention of this narrative of Miss Burney's later residence at the Court of Their Majesties King George the Third and Queen Charlotte is simple. I am informed that reports spread among her friends have given birth to the notion that she was harshly treated, her genius slighted, and herself subjected to an odious tyranny from Mrs Schwellenberg, the Keeper of the Robes, and that she fled from the scene of such cruelties as the only means of preserving her health and life. As an eyewitness, I may be permitted to set forth another view which, though uncoloured by the rosy or lurid hues of the genius of the author of "Evelina," may be received as a plain account of what took place, especially with regard to the Honourable Colonel Digby and the causes of the lady's quitting the circle of the attendants on Royalty. These humble notes will not appear to the world until all concerned are reposing in the dust of the tomb.
I had the distinction to be early made privy to Miss Burney's intention to resign her appointment; but this less from any wish of her own, than as I concluded from my own observation. She did not suspect this, nor that the Queen's ready penetration had prepared her also for the coming resignation before it was respectfully laid at her feet. Indeed, much of what follows she was a total stranger to, and might have found it difficult to credit had it been known to her.
It was the custom that, while Her Majesty's head was powdering and her powdering-gown had been placed upon the Royal person, she should be left sola with her friseur, when she usually read the newspapers. On a certain day, however, she despatched Miss Burney for me, adding that she need not return; and when I arrived, addressed me as follows—the man not comprehending what was said:—
"There is a little matter which I have wished to open with you. I have some reason to believe Miss Burney's spirits a little sunk. Do you, Miss P., remark any failure in this respect?"
Her Majesty, all sweetness and benignity, fixed her eyes on me as well as the operation she was undergoing would permit (the man casting clouds of powder about her), and awaited my reply. Much embarrassed, for it is the first rule of courts to make no comment on the affairs of others to the ear of Royalty, I stammered a few words, to the effect that I thought Miss Burney imagined her health a little declined, but could offer no opinion of my own.
"She is a lady," continued the Queen, "no longer in her first youth, who has been accustomed to much adulation in her own circle, and may miss that incense."
I murmured that it might be supposed the dignity of a life in the Royal service—but was gently interrupted:—
"No. We have neither the time nor the inclination to make the Court a Bluestocking circle, and Miss Burney may prefer such surroundings. But, why I address you, my good Miss P., is to enquire whether Miss Burney has made any observation, of course not confidential, which would lead you to suppose her unsettled in her intentions?"
I believed that I realised Her Majesty's views. She would probably prefer that the severance should come from herself and not from the lower quarter. Alas, how little did I do justice to the benevolence of her character! I hurriedly replied that I knew nothing of Miss B.'s mind further than all the world might know, and within myself earnestly wished Her Majesty might turn the subject of her remarks. She, however, thought proper to continue with a mingled dignity and sweetness which distinguishes all she utters.
"All this is spoke in a confidence which must not be broke. But if there were any little agitation of the affections which—"
Here the Royal speaker was herself interrupted by a cloud of powder which the unconscious friseur flung over the edifice then erecting. It gave me a moment for hasty reflection. Impossible!—who could suppose that Her Majesty, in whose presence every look was restrained, every word calculated, could have remarked the preference by which I had long known Miss Burney distinguished Colonel Digby? He, in the first anguish of bereavement of a lovely and beloved partner, did undoubtedly seek Miss Burney's sympathy. So much was visible to all. There was even a certain luxury of grief,—a heightening of the loss,—which gave his very handsome and attractive person an interest few could resist. Many indeed might have been ready for the tender office of consolatrix, but it was Miss Burney who was specially chosen, and the conviction formed in my own mind that the sympathy she so feelingly tendered was not untinged by a rosy flush of expectation. The caution incident to life at Court hindered my breathing so delicate a suspicion to any, and that Her Majesty's calm but piercing eye should have discerned any preference did indeed animate my soul with astonishment.
"Ma'am, your Majesty's observation so far exceeds my own poor powers," said I fluttering, "that, while it is impossible for me to deny, it is equally impossible for me to confirm it. Miss Burney's superior talents, her reserve, constitute a barrier which—"
"I know—I knew," interrupted the Queen, "that I could not expect any confirmation from you. You are discretion itself. I am surrounded by discretion. We will not now pursue the subject further. Will you oblige me, my good Miss P., by preparing the pocket-case which I give Lady Harcourt today."
The hint was an order. I respectfully retired at once, leaving Her Majesty almost concealed in the cloud of powder which was casting about her headdress.
Any little unusual occurrence at Court causes comment, and I was obliged to meet the questioning gaze of the ladies in attendance with composure. I mentioned that Her Majesty had given me directions about Lady Harcourt's pocket-case, and said no more. Miss Burney followed me to the room where it was laid out in readiness for wrapping—a trifle of extreme elegance, pink satin spangled with silver and fitted with all the little furniture of gold scissors, bodkins, thimble, and so forth, which the venerated friend might accept as a compliment both royal and affectionate. Miss Burney admired it with me.
"It resembles that formerly given to sweet Mrs Delany," said she. "Dear excellence—sweet heavenly angel departed to her kindred sphere! What wonder that Their Majesties' discernment should single her out for the veneration due to age and piety so unaffected. She is gone, but how will this gift presented to the equally worthy Lady Harcourt bring the tear to her eye and the almost pang of gratitude to her bosom!"
I made an appropriate reply, but reflected. These gushes of feeling on the part of Miss Burney sometimes appeared to me a little overwrought and designed to conceal a sharpness of wit and observation which she feared to exercise in courtly circles. In this resolve she was doubtless discreet, but it gave her conversation a turn of unreality which impressed as might the use of some perfume of Araby to conceal a less romantic odour. It affected my own candour disagreeably. Possibly the praise received by the author of "Evelina" might cause her to abandon the common modes of conversation and talk literary, if I may so express it; but it was, to my knowledge, a great disappointment to the Queen, who loved good talk and in her position could expect but little of it. She had formed great hopes of the wit and originality of Miss Burney, and was always met only by a sentimental silence, coupled with an affected modesty which promised nothing fresh. Her reading-aloud was also not of a high order, and her slender knowledge of books, apart from her own, astonished the hopeful Queen, who had looked forward to much pleasing entertainment in her company.
There were also other difficulties. Miss Burney's extreme sensitiveness to her own dignity operated as a hindrance to herself as well as her friends. Never can I forget her expression on hearing that a bell was to be the means of her summons to attend her Royal Mistress. She was ever ready to anticipate a slight; and that I may not be supposed malicious in this statement, I will cite what was said by her old friend, the brilliant Mrs Thrale-Piozzi on this circumstance:—
"I live with her in a degree of pain which precludes friendship—dare not ask her to buy me a ribbon—dare not desire her to touch the bell, lest she should think herself slighted."
It can readily be imagined that slights would in such a case be imagined where none were intended.
It was a habit Miss Burney encouraged in herself to use the longest words to express the simplest opinions. Colonel Manners, who laughed at all and everyone, declared she had made the illustrious Dr Johnson her model, and would slyly note down some of her most flowing periods to deliver them, enhanced by humour, when she had left the room. I mean only to imply that she chose the corporeal style of the famous Doctor without acquiring the zest and gusto of that great man.
But this is to digress.
"The equerries will attend us at tea today, Miss P.," she observed. "Colonel Manners and Colonel Digby will be present and Mr de la Giffardiere. Colonel Digby's spirits depend much upon female support and sustentation. He loves to contemplate the melancholy aspects in a way which cannot but be harmful to a character so feeling."
I replied collectedly:—
"Colonel Digby owes much to Miss Burney for all the consolations of literature and religion so charitably offered. But indeed who would not sympathise with his bereavement of a partner so lovely that, should he ever think of replacing her, beauty of the first order must be his object."
This was perhaps a little pointed, but I could never agree in Dr Johnson's estimate of her as "Pretty Burney," and she was not reckoned a pretty woman by others. She had not the graces of height nor elegance in movement, and might in complexion be called a brown woman. The eyes, while expressive, were decidedly green. If I add that she slightly stooped, though by no means sufficiently to be a deformity, and that her features were, on the whole pleasing, I have been honest in my description.