While we were speaking, the Princess Royal entered, fresh and bright as the day, to inspect the case and add to it her own little tribute, a posy of beautiful satin flowers made by her own fair hands. This she attached to the case.
"I really think it very pretty," she said, adding in the most winning manner, "I hope Miss Burney and Miss P. approve it. Princess Elizabeth's gift is a fairing from Cheltenham—a most elegant little box, containing a bottle of rose perfume which came to mama from India, in the great box from the Bengal Nabob."
This would add interest to the gift, these bottles consisting of a minute tube of the precious oil of roses, enclosed, as it were, in a thick tube of embossed glass, ornamented with gold and sealed. Each of the lovely Princesses now brought her gift, and each spoke with us with the most conciliatory softness. Princess Elizabeth said laughing:—
"How go the equerries' teas, Miss Burney? Do they still insist on their right to wait on you, even when Mrs Schwellenberg is present?"
Miss Burney curtseyed, a little out of countenance. I put in my word:—
"Why, Ma'am, they are very constant. We have much entertainment from Colonel Manners and Mr de la Giffardiere—especially the latter."
"I can believe that," said she, laughing again. "His spirits grow more boisterous daily. Mama says an hour of his company is like a walk in a high wind. But you know how we all value and respect him. What a contrast to poor Colonel Digby!"
"I imagine, Ma'am, that Colonel Digby too is recovering his spirits a little under our united kind treatment. He was even observed in a melancholy smile yesterday," said I.
Her Royal Highness smiled with a soft meaning kindness on Miss Burney, whose eyes were fixed on the floor. This convinced me, if I had needed conviction, that the Queen intended the allusion she had made to Colonel Digby, and there had been a something in her tone, indescribable but audible, which indicated disapproval. I considered myself that the man had quite as much encouragement as he needed if his intentions were serious. I could not make him out. There were times when I saw a growing interest in Miss Burney, and he indeed haunted her parlour; yet was I assured that in London he was assiduous in waiting on Miss Gunning—a young lady with every advantage of fortune, beauty, and connection. I own the thought sometimes occurred to me that he might be that most despicable of characters—a male flirt. I had thoughts sometimes also of a word of warning to Miss Burney, but was restrained by fear of her displeasure.
Two days later Colonel Manners and Colonel Digby waited on us to tea, Mr de la Giffardiere following. Colonel Digby wore his Vice-Chamberlain's uniform, being to wait on the Queen, and a very handsome sight he made, adding all the advantages of birth and breeding to extreme good looks. Miss Burney, with a pleasure she could not conceal, found the conversation turn to "Evelina," Colonel Manners praised it in his gay light-hearted way, and declared its special glory in his eyes to be the character of Captain Mirvan. He asserted it was that which gave rise to the suspicion that the author was a man, since a lady could scarcely be supposed capable of drawing a portrait of such vulgarity in such bold strokes. I now saw Miss Burney wavering whether to receive this as compliment or insult, when immediately Colonel Manners, whom no awe can check, broke out into Dibdin's song, applying it, as it were, to Captain Mirvan:—
I've a spanking wife at Portsmouth Gates, A pigmy at Goree. An orange-tawny up the Straits, A black at St. Lucie. Thus whatsomedever course I bend I lead a jovial life—
Miss Burney rose indignantly, and the more so as Mr de la Giffardiere, who could never resist the absurd, was applauding vehemently, and even Colonel Digby smiling. She cast one awful glance upon the offender, and was quitting the room, when Colonel Digby threw himself in front of the door.
"Miss Burney shall not deprive us of the happiness of her company without a word of entreaty," said he, fixing his eyes upon hers, "My friend Manners would be the first to deplore having offended the delicacy of any lady, and especially that lady whose genius created Captain Mirvan. But Miss Burney will condescend upon forgiveness when she hears he has been sharing His Majesty's barley water after a day's hunting. It always goes to his head with most boisterous results."
It was drolly said, indeed, though with his usual languor, and no other intervention would have stopped the exit. She graciously consented to return to her seat, and Colonel Manners immediately and absurdly fell on his knees before her, offering to kiss her shoe like the Pope's, if she would but pardon him.
"Alas, I was compelled to drink the barley water, Ma'am. I think it right to be civil to the King, though Heaven knows a violent drink like that is not what one should prefer after a hard day's hunting. I had chose something milder, had it been in my power."
She smiled faintly, and Colonel Digby, visibly to please her, uttered a very handsome praise of "Cecilia," specially dwelling on the chapter of the Opera Rehearsal. Her eyes followed his every movement. I perceived but too well the growing interest, and pitied the poor lady were her feelings to be deeply engaged; for I believed he turned his melancholy to as good account with others as with herself. I could not but note how his visits to her were made at times when he could almost count upon finding her alone. If his intentions were serious, all was well. Otherwise I could not approve it.
"Miss Burney is so evidently the Muse of Comedy," cried Mr de la Giffardiere, "that I wonder you, Manners, and you, Digby, do not fear her ironic pen. What if she record this scene in the third volume, for which all the world attends! There are only two persons who will emerge with grace—Miss P. and myself. We tread on awful ground with a lady so gifted."
Mrs. Schwellenberg now made her appearance, and the talk changed, with Colonel Manners gravely enquiring after the health of her pet frogs, and the gentlemen shortly after left, a circumstance not very pleasing to her.
"What for they always—what you call—run away when I come?" she cried. "I like it not. Or if he stay,—that Colonel Manner,—he sleep! Sleeps he with you, Miss Burney? He sleep always with me. It is not to bear!"
We could not forbear laughing, and it was goodhumouredly taken.
The cloud of fearful blackness which was to overshadow the nation soon broke upon us in His Majesty's illness. I had for some time suspicion that all was not well. It was his habit to talk with most condescending frankness to all whom he trusted, and I, as an old servant, had the happiness to be thus honoured. It could, therefore, be no secret to me that his mind was often agitated in the highest degree about public matters, and to my thinking had never recovered its tone since the disasters with regard to his American colonies. His outward fortitude was astonishing at the time of the rebellion; but it preyed inwardly and undoubtedly was the first and most galling link in the chain of misfortune which surrounded him from private and public sources. I have been told on high authority that the falling of the largest diamond from the Crown on the Coronation Day was a prognostic which His Majesty supposed awfully fulfilled when those rebellious colonies broke away from his sceptre.
It is not in my power, as it would not be my duty, to give an account of circumstances which involved the whole nation in mourning when it beheld the reason of its Monarch eclipsed. Be mine rather the female task to describe how it affected the celebrated lady who is the subject of these notes.
All then was confusion, and the habits of the Royal family so intermitted, whether at Windsor or Kew, that those attached to the household came and went as they pleased, although the strictest inquisition followed all that was allowed to pass outside the walls, lest reports adverse to His Majesty's health should reach the party of the Princes, his sons, who caught eagerly at any facts they might distort in a way to gain the Regency for the dissolute Prince of Wales, and cast the Queen completely into his power. It so happened that one day I was seated to my knotting behind the Japan screen in the parlour apportioned by the Prince to Her Majesty at Kew. My knotting had fallen on my knee as I gazed pensively at the prospect of oaks and beeches in all their verdure, when I heard voices, and Her Majesty and the Princess Royal entered, talking earnestly as if continuing a conversation.
"Mama, I do indeed think the news is true, and if so you will desire that we should soon give Colonel Digby joy. It is not absolutely certain—"
Here I stepped forth from behind the screen, curtseying deeply. The notion in my mind was that Colonel D. had announced his coming engagement with Miss Burney. He had visited her sedulously during the King's illness, and, I might add, somewhat in defiance of Her Majesty's hints to that lady, and had brought his little son more than once to visit her—a step which could not but appear very particular.
The Queen saw me advance with her usual gracious composure, and the Princess greeted me charmingly. She wore a morning negligee embroidered all over with roses, and looked what she was—the Rose of England.
"You have appeared at an opportune moment, Miss P.," said Her Majesty. "The matter in hand is one where I rely on your discretion. Princess Royal, inform Miss P. of what you have heard."
She took her seat, and the sweet Princess, standing behind her mother's chair, related to me with her own artless candour that she had heard, from a source which she did not give, though unimpeachable, that an engagement subsisted or shortly might subsist between Colonel Digby and Miss Gunning, and she thought—she feared—
Here she hesitated in the most pleasing manner. I now fully understood, but it became me to remain silent and hear the Queen's pleasure. My beloved Queen spoke presently and even—marvellous to relate—with a touch of the gentle archness which so adorned her before His Majesty's all-overshadowing malady. Her fortitude was astonishing.
"My good Miss P., you have heard the Princess Royal, and I am full sure the announcement you expected was of a kind far nearer home. Am I wrong?"
I hurriedly said I had indeed expected and hoped—Her Majesty would pardon my confusion. I scarce knew what I was saying, for it rushed on my mind that, if this were true, the effect on Miss Burney's health and spirits might be serious—his attentions having been so public.
"I have noticed and heard how frequent Colonel Digby's visits to her have been," continued Her Majesty; "and if this has reached me, it is certain that others must have felt his attentions to be particular. I cannot acquit him."
"Nor I, Ma'am," I cried eagerly, and interrupted myself in such a breach of etiquette. She proceeded composedly:—
"I believe Colonel Digby is frequently with Miss Burney. You have the same impression, Princess Royal?"
The fair Princess softly murmured that she had. I could not but suspect Mrs Schwellenberg the informant, nor yet blame her. All must depend upon the colouring given.
"Colonel Digby's confidential favour with us all disappoints me the more in the course he has taken," continued the Queen. "There has been a touch of something insincere. And I have heard also that the poor Schwellenberg is left entirely to herself while these visits take place. I thought this hard and so dropped a hint to Miss Burney, which I failed not to see was resented. Have you, my good Miss P., observed anything of this?"
Catching the encouraging eye of the Princess, I ventured to say I was not wholly a stranger to the fact that Mrs Schwellenberg felt herself somewhat dropped out in these visits, so agreeable to the gentleman. Miss Burney I alluded not to.
"Another hint I offered," proceeded the Queen, "when my hair was dressing one night, and I was informed the Schwellenberg was very unwell and needed company, but found Miss Burney was engaged as usual with Colonel Digby. I asked Miss Burney, without leading up to the subject, whether he had been here. She coloured very high and admitted it and, on further questioning, displayed a knowledge of all his movements which I own surprised me, especially on her complaining of the want of variety here—a fact that made any visitor welcome, as she told me."
"Can it be possible, Ma'am," I cried, "that at this time of universal sorrow, Miss Burney should so far forget the cruel facts as to reproach—"
I was softly interrupted in my turn.
"I am far from blaming Miss Burney," said the amiable Queen. "It has been a time of gloom for all. I am only considering, from these circumstances and others I could name, how sharp and severe may be her disappointment when she hears the news which has reached the Princess Royal."
Such goodness did, I confess, moisten my eyes, for had I been the commentator, I might have been tempted to say that any little coquetries were misplaced at a time of national grief, and especially so in Miss Burney, whose extreme sensibility, somewhat paraded in words, was in its highest flight as regarded the King's health. Only that morning she had cried out:—
"What must be the guilt of that implacable country which, in breaking away from his mild majestic sway, sowed the seeds of the malady which reduced the best of kings and men to a condition where this fell disease could prey upon his overcharged heart and brain! Surely the blessing which disowns its present cannot attend its future!"
But this is a digression.
"What we are to consider, Miss P.," said the benignant Queen, "is how best to hint this news to Miss Burney so that her mind may be gradually accustomed. It is to be remembered that, in her confined home circle, she can have met but few so distinguished and eligible as Colonel Digby. I am perhaps not wholly free of blame from having introduced her to so new a sphere. I never contemplated that she would so soon liberate herself from the control of the Schwellenberg."
Gracious Powers! I, who had once accidentally heard Miss Burney term Mrs S. "Cerbera," could have told Her Majesty that Miss Burney was the last person in the world to permit Mrs S., or any other person in the world, to control her, as might appear by her rejoinders to Her Majesty herself.
"If," said the Princess, interposing with a gentle civility, "such a hint could be dropped to Miss Burney, it might spare her much pain. She is so gifted—so high-strung—"
"We leave it to your good heart," said the Queen. "We wish all that is good to Miss Burney. You will see I cannot commit it to the Schwellenberg. These literary ladies have high flights, I believe, and are a more fragile porcelain than ordinary folks. Do your best, my good Miss P., and I shall be well satisfied."
The Princess sweetly requested permission to retire with me and we were about to withdraw, when the Duchess of Ancaster entered, and the Queen informed her of Colonel Digby's supposed engagement. The Duchess laughed with all her own humour.
"What, Ma'am? Miss Gunning? No, surely Miss Burney! I am Miss Burney's advocate as regards her just rights and claims. Miss Gunning is but an interloper.
"I will wager that Miss Burney at last secures Colonel Digby, whatever his struggles. He is but a bird hovering a few inches above the charming serpent's jaws, which are open to receive him. I know not how our sex has ever acquired the reputation of flight, for it has ever appeared to me that apparent flight was but a feint to encourage pursuit not otherwise forthcoming. Believe me, Ma'am, that your Majesty will yet see Colonel Digby overtaken and captured by the united arts of 'Evelina' and 'Cecilia.'"
"Come, Duchess," said Her Majesty, with the little arch smile she sometimes wears; "you would not have us believe the Duke made a very desperate race of it, would you?"
"Indeed, Ma'am, I did my part as well as others," the kind Duchess said, laughing, "and but for my efforts, who knows what indiscretion he might have committed? Do but consider the late marriages made by noble lords who shall be nameless! Miss Burney probably is Colonel Digby's destined saviour, or so believes herself."
So the lively lady rattled on, until I withdrew, following the Princess.
"Pray do your best, Miss P.," she whispered softly at the door. "I feel for poor Miss Burney—I do indeed. Colonel Digby has been so particular in his attentions. And her health is never strong."
She sighed as she glided off to join the Princess Elizabeth for their sketching-lesson. Sure never was such a bouquet of beauty and warm hearts as these Royal sisters! I know not which I can distinguish more than another, though perhaps the Princess Royal is my pattern for all that is excellent and sweet.
I took my doubting way to Miss Burney's parlour. She was writing, as was her wont. If it were not another novel, it must have been a daily mass of information to her friends. In all she did seemed a little mystery that promoted not the unreserve so essential to friendship. Perhaps it might be a part of the profession of a writer of fiction; but it made itself felt.
She looked up smilingly.
"Pray take a seat, Miss P. I hope your gratifying entry is with good news of that precious health on which Britain hangs. I hear this black cloud begins to turn its silver edges."
I agreed, and she then spoke of cheerful details she had had from Lady Charlotte Finch. It appeared that there were now much longer intervals of rational quiet. He had alluded to public matters with a piety and reason the most exalted, which moved all who heard almost to tears. Oh, that those rebellious subjects beyond the ocean could have heard their Monarch! Yet why should this be my aspiration when there were rebels, and filial ones, close at hand, to rejoice in his misfortune!
I was about to reply when the door opened without knocking, and Colonel Digby glided in, with the words:—
"How does Miss Burney? May a friend, a friend of the faithfulest, enter to make his enquiries?"
He did not perceive me behind the opened door. Miss Burney blushed visibly, and instantly seeing me, he bowed with his own finished good-breeding and no sign of discomposure. I sat, as it were on thorns, until, Mr Smelt entering later, the talk became general and I retreated, more and more confused at the part expected of me, especially as Colonel Digby's manner appeared as softly ingratiating as ever. I felt I should be compelled to sink the truth a while longer and could only hope the Princess Royal misinformed.
The coolness between Miss Burney and Mrs Schwellenberg about this time began to be much warmed by many little kindnesses on the part of the latter as she observed Miss Burney's somewhat careworn brow. It has since been confided to me that the account given of her by Miss Burney to her friends was one of uncontrolled malignity; but though my testimony is humble, it is sincere, and I can describe Mrs Schwellenberg, apart from her acknowledged devotion to her Royal Mistress, as possessing a much more kindly heart than Miss Burney would consent to allow her. Her imperfect knowledge of English often did her an injustice and made it easy to be witty at her expense. While she thought she saw Miss Burney inflated with the pride of a caressed and flattered author, and rebelling at the necessary restrictions of court life, she certainly was watchful and sometimes disapproving; but in the time of trouble she opened out into an attention which Miss Burney's candour should have gratefully owned.
Time went on. Our beloved King recovered the use of his invaluable senses, thus escaping the snares set for him and the Queen by enemies the most difficult to subdue. This enabled us to return in triumph to Windsor—in triumph, do I say? No, but ecstasy—a kind of rapture which pervaded the whole nation, excepting the party of the Opposition. The inhabitants of every place we passed flooded out to greet their King. The people, stirred as by an earthquake, broke upon him in a wave of loyalty; and we, who almost adored him for his private benignity and public virtues, seemed swept away in the torrent. As for the Queen, what joy sat upon her sweet but wearied countenance, as she turned her eyes, swimming in tears, upon him who was the centre of all rejoicing!
I never came so near loving Miss Burney as when one day, in walking with Her Majesty's little dogs, Badine and Phillis, in the Park, she broke out into feelings warmly expressed of her sense of what the Queen's conduct had been during the scenes of agony we had witnessed. For once she forgot herself nobly, and I shall never forget her countenance as she paused and said:—
"Indeed, Miss P., when I consider Her Majesty's complicated suffering,— increased as it was to misery by attacks from quarters whence only love and duty might have been expected, harassed by politics and cabals, torn by national and foreign dissension, herself deprived of all protection, and yet protecting with almost masculine fortitude a beloved husband and King,—I say with all my heart that to have attained such heights of courage, resignation, and ability, is much, much more than to be Queen of England, or possessed of the most shining genius the world has known. I bow the knee in spirit as in body before a Mistress so truly Royal."
The generous fire in her voice was quenched by the tears in her eyes. I grasped her hand, but could not reply. Here was indeed the cry of sincerity. We walked pensively for some time in the shrubberies, and ended our airing on the great terrace.
How exquisitely pastoral, yet soul-stirring, is the view from that majestic height! The towers of Windsor Castle behind us breathing of the historic past; the Thames unrolling its silver windings below; the meadows; the roofs of Eton College lifting through the veil of foliage— can aught on earth surpass it? A distant sound of cheering from the Eton playing-fields reached us, to announce that some young votary of athletic games had reached his goal. Over all floated the sunshine. Why seek foreign shores for recreation which these sylvan bowers, so richly charged with memories of departed greatness, afford to all?
A quick step on the gravel roused me from these thoughts and, turning, I saw Colonel Digby proceeding quickly to the Queen's Lodge. To my astonishment he only bowed hurriedly and went on his way without a word. Miss Burney looked the amazement she naturally felt; and it flashed across my mind that here might be the long-sought opportunity. I seized it with a beating heart.
"We have seen but little of Colonel Digby since the King's recovery," said I.
"Oh," she replied nervously, "you know the King's attachment to him, and also the Queen's; they impose on him many important errands to London. We cannot expect—I should be the last—"
"He has many friends in London," I ventured.
"Certainly. A disposition so generous, affectionate, and kind must be entitled to all the blessings of friendship."
"And even warmer sentiments—" I hesitated.
She turned her face from me, but I could see the perturbation. I would not for the world that she should misconceive me then. Though feeling to the full the difficulty of my position, I tried to turn it lightly.
"There is one fair lady in London who is said to have a warmer interest in His Majesty's recovery, since it enables Colonel Digby to be more constant in his attendance."
There was a moment's silence.
"You allude to Miss Gunning," she replied coldly. "On the few occasions I have seen her I have thought her so cool in her likings and sentiments, so self-sufficient, that I could not think her attractive to a nature so warm as Colonel Digby's. Nor do I think her mental attainments such as to render a real friendship possible between them."
"It is difficult," I breathed, "to name the qualities which attract the other sex. But I have heard certain rumours to the effect that Colonel Digby finds Miss Gunning attractive."
She flashed her eyes on me with a kind of indignant scorn, as if suspecting some meaner motive in what I said, and coolly consulted her watch.
"I too have heard those rumours and their denial. We must return, though I am loath to quit this enchanting scene. Shall I leave you, or shall we return together?"
We walked in silence, I feeling I had miserably failed in my commission, and she discoursing of the national fetes in prospect, in a way which bespoke her hurry of spirits.
A few days later, Colonel Gwynn came into waiting, and told us Colonel Digby was taken ill in London and could not hope to resume his duties for some time. I saw the concern on Miss Burney's face. We all shared it in a measure but, alas, her pallor showed but too well how deep the shaft had pierced.
I was present that evening when she was in attendance on the Queen. Her Majesty, rousing herself from thought, said somewhat abruptly:—
"I am much displeased with Colonel Digby" (instancing her reasons and adding): "He will not come here. He has set his mind against coming. For some reason he cannot bear it. He has been in London in perfect health, and I have it on good authority that he desired it might not be told here."
I dared scarcely glance at Miss Burney. She was perfectly white and stood with her eyes fixed on the ground. The Queen, seeing she had alarmed us, glided with her benignant grace into another subject. I, who knew her mind, could perceive what was intended; but to Miss Burney it must have been a thunderbolt.
Next morning the Princess Royal, coming to my room, lovely in her flowered sacque, and without her hoop, her curls twisted with rose-hued ribbons, seemed to cast a radiance before her. She paused at the door, and said condescendingly: "May I come in?"
I hastened to set her a chair, and after a little indifferent discourse she said with a touch of melancholy:—
"I think Miss Burney has not been fairly treated. It is the Queen's opinion that Colonel Digby's conscience prevents his coming hither. We are to offer our formal congratulations to him and Miss Gunning at the Drawing-Room. I own I shall present mine with very little heart. Do you not think, Miss P., that the poor lady should be told the truth? It might come as a shock, but would be best from a friend like yourself. If all else failed, I would gladly do it. But indeed, I dare not."
I implored Her Royal Highness not to put herself out. I would be the messenger.
"That Miss Burney should have been given any pain under our roof, and by one connected with our service, is very painful to mama, who fully values Miss Burney's gifts of the mind," added the beloved Princess. "If it is to be done, however, there is no time like the present, for the news is now very generally known."
She left me, and with a trembling step I rose to seek Miss Burney's room. She was seated by the window, a large black hat with ostrich plumes shading her face, and a muslin handkerchief folded across the bosom. I had never seen her look so becoming. She was then thirty-seven or-eight years of age, as I have since learned (for that was then a carefully guarded secret), but did not look near so much; and her expression, intensely absorbed, had the pensive sweetness of a day in autumn ere the golden leaf yet flutters to its fall.
"Miss Burney," I said timidly, "I believe I intrude, but may I ask you to favour me with the copy of verses you made for Her Majesty on 'The Great Coat.'"
This was graciously granted, and a seat offered. A light conversation ensued, and at last, summoning my resolution, I said:—
"We are soon to congratulate an old friend on his approaching nuptials. Colonel Digby—"
She turned angrily, but restrained herself with a distressing effort. I continued: "I hear his engagement with Miss Gunning is confirmed."
"I too have heard it," she said haughtily; "I am therefore no stranger to your news."
She half rose, and taking the hint I hurried away, confident that she believed me not at all. I met the Princess Royal with Princess Augusta on my way, and they stopped me eagerly.
"Did you succeed, Miss P.?" asked each fair sister, with such sympathising faces as made me love them the better, if that were possible. The elder Princess shook her head sadly.
"Poor, poor lady! I fear he is a very heartless man. I cannot easily forgive this treatment of one we esteem."
She linked her arm in her sister's, and the two hurried away to attend the Queen, who was to consider their Drawing-Room robes just then inspecting.
Willingly would I have softened the blow, but fall at length it must! After the Drawing-Room, it became known to Miss Burney that Miss Gunning had attended and had been given joy by all the Princesses. The Princess Royal herself breathed this, with a voice like a dove and her eyes considerately averted, adding:—
"Miss Gunning was most elegant in a dress of purple gauze and silver; but I cannot think her beautiful, though some find her manners pleasing. Colonel Digby was not present."
There was a pause and then Miss Burney, deplorably pale, replied:—
"I had already heard this, Ma'am. I believe she is thought handsome. The Drawing-Room must have been particularly elegant from the rejoicing crowds who would wish to pay their duty."
No more was said on the subject. Later, she complained of headache to me, and I, breathing it into the sympathising ear of Her Royal Highness, Miss Burney was recommended, nay, commanded to return to her room, and the truly amiable Queen dispensed with her attendance.
The marriage took place in due course, and in a private house, a circumstance which met with Her Majesty's warm disapproval, as considering that a contract so solemn needs all the blessing and ratification imposed at such tunes by the church's ordinance.
During all this tune, Colonel Digby did not appear at Court, though whether by his own choice or the kind concern of Her Majesty, I cannot tell. Miss Burney visibly drooped—I could see suffering written on her face, and it awoke a sympathy which I dared not offer. The Queen's consideration for her increased, and the lovely Princesses avoided with true delicacy every subject which could recall the image of the past, making what soft amends lay in their power.
Yet but a very short while after, will it be believed that Colonel Digby sent his bride to call upon Miss Burney, having himself resumed attendance upon the Court immediately after his marriage! I sincerely felt for Miss Burney when a bustle was heard and before us there appeared the bride, glowing in health and happiness, and dressed in the last perfection of the milliner's art. Triumph, visible and exultant, sat on her brow; and as she took her place on the sofa by Miss Burney, who looked wan and aged beside so much splendour, I felt it would have declared a better heart had she deferred her visit. Miss Burney, with an effort of courage, parried all the speeches which could hardly fail to have the appearance of thrusts, and undertook to deliver the bride's duty to the Queen with a calmness which did her honour.
I have more than once in my life seen reason to congratulate myself on passing through life untroubled by the attentions of that sex which, while the blessing, is also the curse of our own, and felt this with peculiar energy during that scene, when I saw one so justly celebrated, triumphed over almost publicly by a young lady whose face was her chief recommendation.
I concluded that we should soon now lose Miss Burney and could not harshly censure (though disapproving) the course she took in attributing her waning health to the tyranny of Mrs Schwellenberg and even to the hardships of her attendance on the Queen. Nevertheless, Her Majesty more than once favoured me with the remark:—
"Large allowance must be made for Miss Burney. I foresee she will before long wish to be among the healing influences of her own home circle; and as I would not for the world dismiss her, all must be done on the foot she herself chooses, and with reluctance on my part. I know her good sense will dictate a commendable course."
Of this I was by no means certain, but could, of course, make no rejoinder; and Her Majesty's face, beneath her becoming fly-cap, beamed with a true benevolence as she pronounced these words. I have certain knowledge that she favoured Mrs Schwellenberg also with this injunction, and that she also exerted herself to show many little pleasing attentions on our return to Windsor. It was that day Miss Burney came in, with an animation to which she had long been a stranger, to say she had met Mr Boswell—friend and survivor of the Great Lexicographer—near St. George's Chapel, on his way to view the alterations, and he had arrested her steps.
"It was like a breath of fresh air in a shut room!" she cried; "and indeed almost too much for my weak health. 'O Ma'am,' he said with energy, 'when do you return to us? You must resign—you must indeed. It won't do, Ma'am. We can put up with it no longer!' I laughed and stared, but he continued: 'We shall address Dr Burney in a body. It was so resolved at the Club last week—Charles Fox in the chair. I need your aid in my book on the Great Man, soon to appear. You are to lighten the picture. In my hands he is grave Sam, great Sam, learned Sam. With your aid we will deck him with all the graces. He shall be gay Sam, agreeable Sam, and, to that end, I claim all the little pleasing billets he has written to your fair self.' So he rattled on, and I could with difficulty extricate myself. But, O Miss P., though your goodness will not repeat the scene, it was such a view of home and its surroundings as may greet the returning sailor when his country rises on his view."
I sympathised and venturesomely said:—
"I would not presume to counsel, Miss Burney, but if you so crave for your family and friends, were it not well to seek their healing company? None can doubt that your health suffers under the restraints of court life, and Miss Burney's is a health valuable to the world at large."
I ever found that a little well-turned compliment softened her sense of injury. She smiled gratefully upon me and was silent; then softly pressed my hand.
I related this little scene to the tender-hearted Princess Royal who took the pains to make an opportunity with Miss Burney, when we were in attendance for that walk on the Windsor Terrace which so often presented the Royal Family to the view of a delighted people. The procession was not yet formed, Their Majesties not having appeared. She detached herself from her group of sweet sisters, holding the little darling Princess Amelia by the hand, and said:—
"Are you fit for the walk, Miss Burney? You appear tired and unwell. Permit me to make your excuses to the Queen."
She paused, and Miss Burney warmly thanked her and said tremblingly that she believed she could support herself through the walk.
"But why?" exclaimed Her Royal Highness. "Indeed, we are not such tyrants, and allow me to say, my dear Miss Burney, that if you should feel—should think you need a long rest—a releasing rest, there need be no hesitation in mentioning it to the Queen."
She repeated this with emphasis and glided away. I saw Miss Burney's eyes moisten as she turned and retreated.
Events now succeeded each other slowly but surely. The Queen had with reluctance accepted her resignation, the successor had been found, and the time drew near for departure when, most unexpectedly, my whole view was changed with regard to Miss Burney's feelings.
We were walking in the Park on a fine sunny day, having chosen the Long Walk which leads to the eminence and its noble prospect of the Castle, though scarcely with hope of reaching it so slow were our footsteps. I had led the talk to her writings and she gave me some interesting particulars of the praise "Evelina" had received from such judges as Mrs Delany and the Duchess of Portland, who agreed in thinking it a book likely to do more good than any other ever published, from its high principles wrapped in a glitter of entertainment. This was a subject on which she never wearied, and I was pressing for its continuance, when we beheld a lady approaching, leaning on a gentleman's arm—a handsome woman in a rich pelerine and jewellery—and with a start my companion caught my arm, crying softly: "Mrs Thrale—Mrs Piozzi. Good heavens! For years we have not met. Oh, could we escape."
I was no stranger to the fact that they had been the closest friends and that Mrs Thrale's most injudicious marriage with a Roman Catholic and a foreigner had ruptured the friendship on Miss Burney's very proper objection to such an alliance. It is known how society, how even the papers, rung with the scandal of a lady of birth and fortune thus forgetting what was due to herself and others. And a fresh blaze had lately been kindled by the publication of Dr Johnson's Letters and many anecdotes relative to the life at L>treatham, all of which Miss Burney had entirely disapproved. I could not sympathise with Mrs Thrale-Piozzi— impossible that any right-minded person should, but I own to the deepest curiosity to see her, and above all to witness her meeting with this discarded friend, having understood from my own friends that feeling run very high between them. Consequently I did not hurry my steps.
"For Heaven's sake, hasten!" cried Miss Burney. "'T is Mr Piozzi himself. Was ever anything so mortifying!"
Unfortunately Mrs Piozzi heard these words and recognised the speaker.
"Mortify not yourself, Miss Burney, I entreat. Mr Piozzi is obliged to hasten into Windsor to bespeak apartments at the White Hart. Delay not, Piozzi. I will follow. Do I see my Burney in good health?"
I was never so affrighted in my life. The lady, though short, had such an air of resolution and her eyes shot such lively sparks of anger hid under a show of good humour that I looked to see Miss Burney sink at my feet. She also was in a horrid fright if panting breath and fading cheeks may be trusted. I would now have fled but she detained me by the hand and presented me to a sweeping curtsey from Mrs Piozzi. Doubtless she thought my presence would confine the meeting to the forms of politeness.
Accustomed to courts, I could not consider the lady high-bred, but her energy and intelligence were overpowering.
"I have not seen you since my return, dear Burney," says she, "but am glad of this favourable opportunity to ask if what I have been told is true— that Baretti was inspired and abetted in his attack on my marriage by friends I could the least suspect. Pray emulate my candour. An open enemy is preferable to a stabbing friend."
"Surely, Madam, before a third person—" began Miss Burney, but was interrupted:—
"I have learnt to know a witness is very valuable on occasion. All I require is a plain 'Yes' or 'No.'"
"Then 'No'—a thousand times 'No,'" cried Miss Burney with immense spirit. "I know nothing of Baretti—would know nothing—a violent unprincipled man, that frightened myself. That I disapproved your marriage is known—"
"And on what impertinent grounds!" Mrs Piozzi was now trembling with rage —and as pale as Miss Burney. "Let me tell you, Madam, that a gentleman of good birth is not to be despised, and his means of L1200 per annum, though not splendour in comparison with my own revenue, set him above all mercenary imputation!"
'T was with the greatest effort my companion now clung to her cautious decorum, for she was palpitating violently as she held to my arm.
"Madam, money was not in question. A woman who will marry a foreigner and a Roman Catholic, in both respects her country's foe, must expect—"
I looked for an explosion but, as happens when women quarrel, Mrs Piozzi's humour took the most unexpected turn. She laughed:—
"Ah, Fanny, Fanny, that was the world's voice. Time was you loved me kindly; but the world you always did and will love reverentially. Well— continue!—'t is worth it. The world has its prizes to give and I have none now. I did not even provide a husband for my friend, and your Royals have not been more successful—I know not why. The day may come when you yourself may fall back on a foreigner and Roman Catholic, and, if so, may he be as good as mine and may you live as happy with him!"
She curtseyed and made to move on. I thought of this later when Miss Burney married M. D'Arblay, a Frenchman and Roman Catholic. I wondered then if she recalled this scene and her own strictures. She bridled with dignity.
"I can scarce imagine Dr Burney's daughter doing the like, Madam. My tastes are all English. But is it well to prolong this talk? Our ways of life are now so different—"
"Truly all is changed—and you with it. But I was ever a prophet, Fanny, and I venture to tell you that you have so overloaded your heart and your wits with caution and fear of the world's opinion that when you take pen in hand once more you 'll find it clogged and heavy. 'T will move on stilts instead of the light heels that danced 'Evelina,' and the ungrateful world will say, 'There goes a woman that if she had shut her eyes on forms and opened them on nature had been the glory of her age.' You are too fearful of the world, Fanny. I flew in its face and found its bark worse than its bite, and that if you kicked it, it crawled to kiss your feet. And so now good-bye."
They both curtseyed angrily, and Mrs Piozzi proceeded quickly down the drive, then suddenly turned and ran back, both hands outstretched:—
"Fanny, Fanny, I can't—" she panted. "It all so rose on me with the sight of you. My master at the table, and Johnson in his chair booming out his wisdoms, and Burke, and poor Goldie—Oh, the poor dead days—the sad dead days—and you a part of them all; and could I say a word to wound you, no matter what you did to me! You that were a part of it all—I felt as if I would kill it outright if I left you in anger. Can one kill ghosts?—they are but ghosts, and yet—Oh, Fanny!"
She held out her shaking hands. I knew this shockingly disordered Miss Burney's notions of propriety and that a lady out of favour with the great world should be seen by me thus familiar with her, and she at Court. She barely touched the hand.
"It was to the memory of those days your friends looked to keep you in a becoming path," said she. "Indeed I share your affection for them, but to remember them thus—"
"Do you so?" says the other a little wildly, and drawing back to dash the tears from her eyes. "Then remember them your way and I 'll remember them mine, and so our paths go east and west: (then turning to me,) I'm sure I ask your pardon, Ma'am, for what must appear so declamatory and high-flown. We Welsh folk, like all the other poor Celts, are allowed romantic flights sometimes to make sport for the sober English. Farewell, Miss Burney. My! best compliments and respects attend your father."
She ran off again very quick and tripping. We stood looking after her till Miss Burney spoke:—
"The tenderness I had and have for her is not to be expressed nor compared save with the love of David for Jonathan. How have I been wounded! Yourself, my dear Miss P., is a witness to her ungoverned passions. Your delicacy will not prefer to entail the misery of explanation on me."
I hurriedly disclaimed any wish to pursue the subject, and she was silent as if revolving the scene. But why should I now hesitate to own that though all the propriety of speech and silence had been on Miss Burney's side, my own sympathies were engaged with the poor lady. I thought a heart that less weighed opinion must have melted at her appeal to fond memories, gushing warm from a sensibility that she could not control. Since that interview, when I have heard Mrs. Piozzi censured I could comprehend the high romantic notion with which she had entered on her marriage, and the more so, since I had been credibly informed that Mr Piozzi was in all respects admirable could he but have had the blessing to be born an Englishman and Protestant.
"Dear Miss P., I trust to you to keep this painful meeting a secret," said my companion. "I know your serious and respectable character too well to doubt you will draw the veil over the wild ungoverned temper of one once so honoured."
I promised and reserved my thoughts and we turned back to the Castle. But the events of this astonishing walk were not yet at an end. We were nearing the gates of the gardens, when we saw Colonel and Mrs Digby beneath the trees on the further side. They were not conversing and the whole width of the path was between them. It gave rightly or wrongly an air of dissatisfaction, of weariness in each other's company, that struck me as instantly as it did my companion, though of course it could be no surprise to see them where all the Household took their airings when they would. She drew me sharply behind a tree.
"Miss P.," she said in breathless agitation, "it is not the least of my sufferings here that I know it is supposed they are caused by this marriage. I beg you would not deny it (for I would have spoken)—it is too palpable that this is believed. Yet you are wrong—completely wrong. Those who have ceased to give us pleasure very soon lose the power to give us pain; and I view his marriage with an indifference that wishes him neither well nor ill. My heart was never engaged. I will not deny that he risked it and all my peace with it, but he succeeded not. I do not form one wish to be in her place whom we have just seen. They will have what happiness they deserve and, if I am not mistaken, I think it will be little indeed."
She turned and gazed after them with an expression of bitterness the most concentrated. Never again did I doubt that it was not wounded love but wounded pride which was driving her from Court into the retirement of her home. Let others more capable than myself judge which is the severer pang! She had never regarded him further than as he had flattered her vanity as woman and genius, and a burning resentment at the public slight was all that needed commiseration.
She added composedly:—
"Your kindness deserved this explanation and will accept it. There is no man on earth so indifferent to me as Colonel Digby, and later events will prove to you that I speak the truth."
I said I could but rejoice to hear it, and we returned from these agitations to her room.
All this confirmed the opinion I held that she was naturally a person of agreeable disposition but spoiled by her literary success. I never doubted that her acceptance of Court office was with a view to a brilliant establishment such as she had given her own "Evelina." She was as much her own heroine and hoped for as romantic advancement, very sensibly preferring a social triumph, could it be secured, to a mere literary one, which she always took a little doubtfully as somewhat that might be disparaged. Disappointed, and openly disappointed, in this hope by the heartless behaviour of Colonel Digby, she felt retreat to be inevitable and also the only hope for a future settlement. Yet had she been wiser to remain! I have ever been convinced that her taste for the pen was gone by and that only the narrowness of her means drove her to it again. At Court she would have been valuable from a natural caution which received a fresh lesson in this foiled love-affair. When I add that Mrs Schwellenberg offered her the reversion of her own place when ill health should cause her retirement and that I know this would have been confirmed, it will be seen what she most imprudently sacrificed to sentiment.
It will be objected that marriage was her object. If so, there were opportunities at Court she could not have elsewhere, and among the grave clergy who attended, a suitable settlement might have been found. Miss Burney, as the lady of a Bishop, dispensing a serious hospitality and amending his Charges to his clergy, would have been in her right place. I am told that her later manner of writing was far more suited to Episcopality than to fiction, and can answer that when reading her "Memoirs" of her father I was unable to trace the sense through the verbiage, which appears to confirm this view. But it was not to be, though I believe from the eagerness with which she ever visited the Royals and took every opportunity to keep her name in sight, that she regretted her folly and would have repaired it. But how was it possible for Their Majesties to assist a needy Frenchman and Roman Catholic?
In her final parting with her Mistress she received much kind notice, including permission to retain half her emolument as a pension—and this after but five years' service!
The sweet Princesses successively pressed her hand at the parting scene and she quitted the room with her handkerchief at her eyes and a profound final curtsey. The Princess Royal whispered aside to me:—
"Poor soul, she might have made others happier but for the cruel wound her heart has received. I cannot—cannot forgive Colonel Digby!"
The gay and pretty Princess Elizabeth, much livelier in disposition, leaned on her sister's shoulder, whispering also:—
"I think, sister, that Miss Burney will not always be inconsolable, for at the trial of Mr Warren Hastings the Duchess of Ancaster observed that Mr Wyndham was very particular in his attentions to Miss Burney and that she did by no means froisser them. And have you not thought that she will certainly meet him much oftener in town than here?"
I could but smile at the young discerner whose thoughts agreed so fully with my own. For some time after she would ask me merrily what news of Mr Wyndham, and I certainly expected it. However that was not to be, and my expectations were verified next year by Miss Burney's marriage—a truly amazing one—even to M. D'Arblay, a refugee Frenchman and Roman Catholic!
Would that I could have heard Mrs Thrale-Piozzi's views on this circumstance!
Here I end. I design these notes as a strong corrective of what might place the Queen and others of less moment in an unamiable light. Let it be remembered that Miss Burney was the spoiled child of genius, who would still be first and who throbbingly aspired to a social eminence denied her. She received all attentions from the Royal Family as her due, and knew not how to draw the distinction between what was due to her own merit and what was given by these personages as due to their own high standard of courtesy and compassion. This is a distinction seldom drawn by those unused to high circles and a mere literary society cannot teach it.
I have often desired that I could have had the honour to be admitted to Her Majesty's private thoughts on Miss Burney, and should not be wholly surprised if they favoured my own.
No doubt allowance may be made for the vagaries of genius, but none the less do I rejoice that this, my first meeting with uncommon talent, was also the last. It is entirely out of place in courts, and certainly a happy mediocrity is the soil in which flourish the domestic virtues.
Though I defend not Colonel Digby it is possible he showed his judgment if not his delicacy in his retreat, it being very difficult for him or any man to preserve in Miss Burney's company that sense of superiority which is so essential to matrimonial peace. There was that in her eye which, if suddenly surprised, indicated satire; there was that in her demeanour which hinted depths which might or might not be soothing. To be candid, what we do not understand is feared rather than loved. And it is to the author of "Evelina" I owe this conviction.
Peace be with her manes when what I have so doubtfully written shall be read!
Elizabeth Bennet Mrs. Darcy
"I must confess," observed Jane Austen, when Elizabeth Bennet, who had been created in 1796, was at last introduced to the world of readers in 1812, "I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know."
Miss Austen had the whimsical habit of diverting herself, when visiting portrait galleries, by looking for faces that resembled those of her heroines. She was continually on the watch for Elizabeth, but never came upon her. She found Mrs. Bingley, "in a white gown with green ornaments," but not Mrs. Darcy herself. "I daresay Mrs. D. will be in yellow."
The exhibition in Spring Gardens promised well, but no Elizabeth appeared. "We have been both to the exhibition and to Sir Joshua Reynolds's, and I am disappointed, for there was nothing like Mrs. D. at either. I can only imagine that Mr. D. prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. I can imagine he would have that sort of feeling—that mixture of love, pride, and delicacy."
We could wish that Miss Austen had found the portrait; but since she never did, there is none of Mrs. Darcy in this book.
The Darcys of Rosings
[A reintroduction to some of the characters of Miss Austen's novels.]
Whitethorn Manor, HUNSDON, KENT.
4th May, 1814.
You will be interested to learn, my dear Sophia, that we are arrived at our new home a se'nnight since, having posted from London with every comfort. Already I feel sure we shall not regret fixing here. Now that the Admiral has retired from the naval service, a rural retreat was his object, and we had a strong recommendation to Hunsdon from Mrs Colonel Brandon, the Marianne Dashwood of your early days and mine. She spoke of the little domain named as above, and investigation soon convinced my dear Admiral that this was what he had hoped to secure. My approbation followed as a matter of course, and I hope an early visit will convince me of Sophia's. If a fair dawn promises a cloudless day, we may look forward with the highest degree of confidence permissible in human affairs.
The journey from London to the village of Hunsdon is agreeable, and through an affluence of English scenery which must surely compare favourably with any in the world: swelling hills embowered in green; placid rivers enlivened by a delightful concert of feathered songsters; villages clustered about the churchyards, where sleep their rude forefathers; though it were to be desired that a judicious restoration could obliterate the savage Norman and Gothic architecture too often found in the churches, and that they could be restored in harmony with the more elegant taste of the present day. I could never agree with Mr Walpole's love of the Gothic! Still, I am not to deny that the perspective is sometimes pleasing, and the intention of a ruder age merits respect.
The Admiral, who is not an amateur of scenery, slumbered most of the way. We alighted from the post-chaise at Sundale for a night's rest, and ordered a light repast, with tea for me, and that heady ale which I could wish my Admiral would renounce, both on account of his increasing weight and his tendency to inflammatory gout. But you are not now to learn that it is vain to remonstrate with gentlemen where the pleasures of the table are concerned. Our rooms being unprepared, we sat downstairs, though the inn was full in anticipation of some horse races tomorrow, and some of the gentlemen decidedly in liquor. My attention was early engaged by a lady of prettyish appearance at a table near by, whose bonnet and spencer bespoke a florid taste hardly in keeping with her uncurled ringlets and—dare I add it—unwashed hands. She was accompanied by a good-looking man in regimentals, of handsome but, as I thought, somewhat dissolute presence (so different from the solid worth of my Admiral!), who was evidently an officer from Chatham, not far distant. I judged them to be husband and wife from their pawning inattention to each other's remarks. Finally, the gentleman, rousing himself, said in a low clear tone:—
"It signifies not, Mrs Wickham, what your opinion may be, for the thing must be done. Money we must have, and your sister's influence with Mr Darcy is our only prospect of relief. Your father will do no more. Mr Darcy's prejudice against me is fixed, and therefore your journey to Hunsdon, now they are staying at Rosings, will be necessary. Argue no more. My mind is made up."
She pouted angrily.
"I am quite as sensible as you are, Wickham, of our need of money; but you know how I hate travelling alone, with all the men ogling me and the servants looking for vails that I have it not to give. Come with me, and all will be well." Her tone was cajoling.
"Oblige me with the letter you received from Mrs Darcy a week since," was his only reply.
She pulled out a dog's-eared letter from her reticule, and he read aloud:—
"'I regret, my dear Lydia, to be obliged to speak plainly and say that the less Mr Darcy meets Mr Wickham the more likely is his benevolence to continue.' Now, Mrs Wickham, in view of that statement, where is the sense in urging me to accompany you to Rosings?"
He threw it back to her, and leaned in his chair, staring at his boots with a very discontented expression. I am no eavesdropper, Sophia, but the Admiral was still engaged with his plate, and I could not withdraw; and though I looked pointedly at the lady, she took no notice.
"It would show more consideration for me, Wickham, if you was to come. You know how poor my nerves are, and the flutterations I suffer from at the thought of seeing Darcy. Such a stiff, starched man—I don't know how Elizabeth endures him. And the last time I stayed at Pemberley, the airs of her maid sunk my spirits altogether. I have not a gown equal to her black silk. The miseries our marriage has brought upon me—Good God! what a fool I was!"
"It was certainly not forced upon you, Madam, whatever it might be on me."
"A pleasant allusion, I must say," said Mrs Wickham, tossing her ringlets; then, beginning to giggle: "But you was always a quiz, Wickham, and don't mean the half you say. You know how I hate travelling alone, whereas you and me could pick up some friends on the way, and have a hand at cards. Don't drink no more now. You will want your head clear for the races. Did you ever see such a scare as that bonnet yonder?"
There wag no mistaking who she meant, my dear Sophia; and though it is true I had on my beaver bonnet and blue veil, a little disordered by the wind, still there was no excuse for her unladylike freedom. I felt my complexion heighten indignantly. Mr Wickham took no notice.
"I wish to heaven," he said gloomily, "that I could perform if it were the most trifling service to Darcy, to lessen this load of obligation. There are times—" But his lady was giggling, and waving her hand to a lady at some distance, and, rising, he strode away.
But what was I to think? For I had been informed by Marianne Brandon that Mr and Mrs Darcy are the chief residents at Hunsdon, where he inherited the noble estate of Rosings from his aunt, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose daughter and heiress died. Mrs Darcy was formerly a Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and this sister, Mrs Wickham, had been of by no means irreproachable conduct. And this was she! Such impropriety of demeanour! Such a vulgar insipidity! If Mrs Darcy in any way resembled her, I feared our hope of pleasant society was destined to disappointment. Such connections!
I broke the matter with my dear Sir Charles; but he pooh-poohed my anxieties in his sailorly fashion, saying:—
"There's many a bad egg from a good nest, my Lady, and Mrs Darcy may be a valuable woman, for all her sister looks such a slut. And I would have you by no means be cackling about this meeting all over the neighbourhood."
Cackling! But you, my dear Sophia, know the energy with which the Admiral expresses himself. It was his mode of recommending discretion.
Next morning we started, and saw them no more; but I understood from the remark of one waiter to another that Mr Wickham was a well-known figure in the betting ring, and the races would engage their stay.
As our chaise and four rolled into Hunsdon, my spirits were elevated by the beauty of the prospect, where a flourishing peasantry dwells in prosperity under the protection of the worthy Darcy. The cottages, with their rose-decked gardens and beehives, the rich pastures, with grazing cattle and dotted with sheep, all expressed the idea of pastoral plenty; and the handsome carriages and curricles passing gave us a high opinion of the consequence of the neighbourhood. I roused the Admiral to partake my pleasure, as we passed a beautiful little church with a handsome portico in the Italian taste. We next drove by the Parsonage, standing in a green lane and faced by the park palings of Rosings; and as we passed I observed a sensible-looking lady at the window, whom I judged to be Mrs Collins. The Rector, a tall heavy-featured man, tying up his carnations, hastened at once to the gate, and by low bows, repeated until we were out of sight, gave us our first welcome to Hunsdon. I would have prevailed on the Admiral to stop in response to so much civility; but he refused, and putting his head out of the window, desired John to drive on. I could only hope Mr Collins did not hear him.
How shall I describe, my dear Sophia, the gratification with which I beheld our new home! It is a long, low, white house, covered with roses and clematis, with pleasant windows opening to smooth green lawns, and an air of purity and order within which is peculiar to English homes. Having travelled to Boulogne, I may be allowed to be a judge. The rows of curtseying servants, headed by good Mrs Williams, the housekeeper, and the Admiral's faithful butler, Sampson, gave us a rude but honest welcome, and were ordered a couple of bottles of port to drink our healths.
Next day Mr and Mrs Collins waited upon us. She strikes me as a woman of judgment, much inclined to reserve, and with a demure and settled manner; but this, in her position, may be very necessary. The Rector—what shall I say? This was his greeting:—
"It is with profound pleasure I have the honour to welcome Sir Charles Sefton and your Ladyship to your magnificent abode in our humble village of Hunsdon. We are indeed honoured by the choice of newcomers so distinguished, to whom the highest circles of London or the amenities of the world are alike open. But the refined and elegant society of this neighbourhood will be found worthy of even such a mark of approbation. Mrs Collins shares my sense of the distinction thus conferred upon us, and I speak for her as well as myself."
She looked somewhat uncomfortable at this exuberance, accompanied with a formal bow for every comma, but is probably used to it, for she quietly made me a sensible little speech of welcome, to which I responded in kind.
"I thank you, Sir," replied my Admiral bluntly; "and you will find us regular attendants at Divine Service, where we hope to benefit by your discourses, which I hope excel in quality rather than quantity. Ha, ha!"
"My discourses, Sir Charles, never exceed half an hour, that being the length preferred by the Right Honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who presented me to this parish; and though she is now elevated to a sphere higher even than that which she adorned on earth, I still observe her wishes, and the rather that I have not had any intimation to the contrary from Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, her nephew, or his amiable lady, to whom I have the honour to be related."
"Indeed?" I said; "I was not aware. Do Mr and Mrs Darcy always reside here?"
"They divide the year between Rosings and Pemberley in Derbyshire, your Ladyship. But their daughters, the Misses Darcy, prefer Rosings, so they are oftener here. And I am frequently in the habit of saying to Mrs Darcy that when these fair flowers are transplanted to Pemberley, the gardens of Rosings droop and wither. Elegant females are very susceptible to these little attentions, as you are aware, and I never hesitate to offer them."
"Flummery and females!" interjected the Admiral. "I hope, Sir, it is not your intention to spoil my Lady Sefton's digestion with this sort of whipped cream!"
Mr Collins bowed and sidled, and Mrs C. observed:—
"The Misses Darcy are two extremely handsome young women—sixteen and fifteen respectively. Miss Darcy is most prepossessing. I feel sure your Ladyship will agree with me."
"Don't omit the Admiral, Mrs Collins!" said Sir Charles. "I like a pretty face as well as anyone, as you may judge by my Lady."
The dear man! He expresses himself with bluntness occasionally, but the heart is gold!
"Are you as good a judge of pigs as of ladies, Mr Collins?" he added; "for if so, pray accompany me on my first visit to my pigsties, and we will leave the ladies to their gossip."
Mr Collins went, with a rueful glance at his boots, but bowing and smiling all the way. I learnt much of the neighbourhood from Mrs Collins, but with the warm colouring she judged amiable. I must except, however, the poor of the parish. There she spoke, with a censure no doubt deserved, of thriftlessness and ingratitude. These indeed are tokens of a spirit of discontent which we cannot view with composure, especially in the light of late events in the unhappy country of France—the prey of impiety and revolution.
The visit was, on the whole, pleasant, though Mr Collins's courtesy is overstrained, and the Admiral, throwing himself into his chair when they departed, made use of language which, however suitable for gentlemen, the female pen declines to record, adding:—
"When Mr Collins's foot slipped, and he fell prone in the muck, he got up and apologised until I fairly ran for it."
Next day Mr and Mrs Darcy waited upon us, having thoughtfully sent a mounted messenger to enquire if we felt equal to receiving company after our journey. On our agreeing, they presented themselves in the most unostentatious way, having walked through their park and down the lane, though the weather was showery. All forebodings were instantly banished.
Mr Darcy is a tall well-formed man, in early middle life, distinguished in bearing and manners, a little haughty, but not more so than is becoming in his position. Mrs Darcy, some years younger, is veritably charming. You know, my dear Sophia, that I am not rash and do not use such words unguardedly. She smiled, disclosing beautiful teeth, and, as I observed, has the peculiar grace of one whose eyes smile in harmony with her lips. Nothing could be more obliging than her manners, and I could scarce think it possible that the tawdry, noisy Mrs Wickham could be her sister. Her eyes are dark and animated, with long eyelashes which soften their somewhat alarming brilliance. She is extremely conversible.
"I am glad you were pleased with the village, Lady Sefton. What did you think of the church? The old one was a venerable structure, dating from the Plantagenet kings, and I personally should have preferred that; but Sir Lewis de Bourgh, who had made the grand tour with Mr Horace Walpole and other notable amateurs, had acquired a passion for Italy, and when restoring the church, Italianised it. Had he also presented us with Naples, where the original stands, the gift would have been complete; but to my mind it stands as ill in little Hunsdon as would the dress of an Italian Signora on good Mrs Collins."
She smiled so archly that I laughed, and the Admiral joined in.
"Quite right, my dear Madam," he exclaimed. "There can be no greater folly than sticking the buildings of one country in the surroundings of another. What the English builders built is good enough for English men and women, and more suitable than any Greek and Roman temples and such idle gazebos. They will be having Divine Worship in a Belvedere next!"
I blushed for my dear Admiral's taste, but was unable to check his loud voice. Mrs Darcy applauded with her gloved hands, and sparkling eyes.
"I make a point of applauding any judgment which agrees with my own," she said playfully; "and I congratulate you, my dear Sir, on an excellent taste, and vigour in expressing it. I foresee we shall be always applauding one another. Am I not fortunate in our new neighbours, my dear Darcy?"
He agreed, with the utmost kindliness and a graceful touch of formality, and requested permission to examine the exquisite set of ivory chessmen presented to the Admiral at Bombay. They are a superb work of art, all the pieces being mounted on elephants, camels, and horses, elegantly carved. Having bestowed his meed of admiration, he added:—
"Since you are acquainted with India, Sir Charles, it will give me the utmost pleasure if you and her Ladyship will do me the honour to inspect those which Mr Lorenzo Darcy, my uncle, brought from that wonderful country. The Ivory Shrine is considered a masterpiece, and some have recommended that it should be in some public collection. But family associations—"
"Public collections!" interrupted the Admiral (I could wish, Sophia, that the dear man would not interrupt when persons of consideration are speaking). "They are an encroachment by the lower orders, on all accounts to be resisted. What? Are private treasures to be exhibited to their pawings and ignorance? No, Mr Darcy! Preserve the Ivory Shrine as an heirloom, and let those who would engage the votes of the vulgar be—"
I will not record the end of the sentence. Mrs Darcy apologised for her daughters not waiting upon me by mentioning that they had a prior engagement with Mrs Collins, relative to a treat for the village school in honour of Mr Darcy's natal day.
"I bespeak your kindness for them, my dear Madam," she was pleased to say. "My elder, Charlotte, has a strong taste for sketching and music, in both of which I am aware you excel. Rumour, as you see, has preceded you with her trumpet! Caroline is more studious. We hope, when your son is here on leave, that many little pleasure parties and balls may be made up. My young people and all those of the neighbourhood are excessively fond of dancing."
I protested this was a taste my Henry shared, and was very sensible of her attention. Indeed, Sophia, I trust you will not set me down as a Mrs Busybody (a character I detest) if I say that certain possibilities flashed across my mind at the moment. No young man can be more attractive nor stronger in moral principle than Henry, and if these young women—But I need say no more! Miss Darcy is so great an heiress as to be an object to many.
"You have met Mr Collins as well as his wife, I conclude?" she added smiling.
"We have had that distinction!" I said, and could not forbear smiling also.
"A worthy man! But there are peculiarities of manner. His discourses are always adapted to the occasion, and his allusions—He will, no doubt, tomorrow refer to your arrival in his sermon."
"My dear Mrs Darcy," said I, much alarmed, "have you any real reason to suppose this? I have never been the object of public comment. And the Admiral! I trust you are mistaken."
"I may be," she replied archly; "but can only say that the Sunday after we settled at Rosings, Mr Collins preached from the text, 'Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah,' and made it very clear that Mr Darcy was that individual."
I could only gaze at her in dismay, but was obliged to check my impulse of consulting the Admiral, lest he should take some compromising step as regards Mr Collins, who might be entirely innocent of such an intention.
When our visitors rose to take leave, and Sir Charles and I attended them to the gate, I felt a friendship was commenced which might have the happiest results for both families. At the gate we were joined by the young ladies, who had walked up the lane from the Parsonage, and the introductions were made. They curtseyed with the prettiest air of good breeding. Charlotte, the elder, is a glowing brunette. Her purity of expression and correct features positively charmed me. The younger, not so unusual in beauty, is still extremely attractive, and has her mother's penetrating and sparkling eyes.
The next day brought us a visit from my old friend, Marianne Brandon, who settled here with her Colonel Brandon after Delaford was sold to Mr Edward Ferrars on his second marriage. Her chief inducement at Delaford being thus removed by the death of her sister, Mrs Edward Ferrars, they decided to fix nearer London.
I need not describe to you, who know her, the warmth of her greeting. Her feelings are always strong and strongly expressed.
"It adds delight to delight itself," she cried, embracing me, "that you should be settled here, my dear Anne. What happy days are in store for us! With our pencils we will seek the beech woods of White-thorn, and transcribe the various moods of nature."
"Beechmast," said the Admiral, "is one of the most fattening things I know for swine, and if you will not object to their presence, Mrs Brandon, I doubt not they will allow of yours. What say you, Colonel Brandon?"
Their old friendship makes this permissible, however unromantic, and he has always rallied her thus. She continued with ardour:—
"I look forward to the most delightful al fresco meals in the green shades. We will make up little parties to recline on the moss—"
"In that case, my dear, I fear I must ask you to leave me out!" said dear Colonel Brandon, smiling mischievously. "You forget my rheumatism and flannel waistcoats!"
She bit her lip. It is a point on which she is sensitive, for she would not have him thought much older than she, though there is twenty years' disparity.
"Let us leave them to their own dullness, my dear Marianne, and tell me all your news," said I.
She drew her chair to mine and talked with all her old animation. Pity they have no children! Her excellent qualities and his deserve repetition. One of her items, I own, surprised me. They are expecting a visit in August from—whom do you think? You cannot guess, nor could I. Young Willoughby, now twenty-one years old, son of her ancient flame, John Willoughby! She speaks of him now without any consciousness, and there is evidently no painful feeling. Spending his wife's large fortune, Mr Willoughby, senior, on her death accepted an appointment at Calcutta, where he has since resided. This is his only son, landed in England after the Cape voyage, and he has written them with a very proper letter of introduction, begging that the young man may present himself and bespeaking the patronage and civility for him of Colonel and Mrs Brandon. Her kindly heart gives her a peculiar pleasure in this opportunity, for you will remember Mr Willoughby, senior, made explanations which removed much of the seeming heartlessness of his treatment of her. I might be mistaken in supposing that Colonel Brandon was less eager for the visit; but such was my impression. He is not impulsive as she. Their visit was in all respects a delightful one.
We attended Divine Service next day, and naturally there was a little curiosity, especially among the white-headed village children, as we approached our pew, a handsome enclosure with armchairs, which I feared but too truly would soon invite Sir Charles to the arms of Morpheus. I think, Sophia, it were to be desired that there should be a certain rigour in the design of church furniture. I myself sometimes—but today my senses were on the alert, especially when Mr Collins ascended the pulpit, and pompously announced his text: "A mighty man of valour."
The beginning was harmless, and my thoughts became a little indistinct, when suddenly I was aware that the allusion was to the Admiral, and to his services in our actions with the French. Special allusion was made to his victory in the Arrogant off Ushant! I sat in such apprehension as cannot be expressed in words. You are as well aware as I that the modesty of a hero will admit of no encomiums, and the prayer formed itself on my lips (I hope without impiety) that his sleep might continue, as I could not be answerable for the consequences. I sat on tenterhooks, and meanwhile the Admiral slumbered placidly, his gentle snores punctuating Mr Collins's discourse, his mouth open, nor dared I push him with my foot as is my custom. Fortunate indeed was I that the height of the pew prevented my catching Mrs Darcy's eye. I cannot but think all this was in deplorable taste. What think you? As we left the sacred building, the Admiral said:—
"An excellent discourse! I know not when I have heard a better. Pointed and instructive. I shall offer a word of commendation to his Reverence."
I could but look at him with an imploring eye as Mr Collins bowed.
"I am happy, Sir Charles," he rejoined, after the encomium, "to have met with your approbation. Ensamples of heroism may surely as justly be drawn from modern instances as from Alexander and Caesar, and I am not now to be informed that such ensamples are of more interest to the infant mind when the illustrious model is seated among them in all the majesty of success and honour."
The Admiral stared, but Mrs Darcy, joining us, staved off the disclosure.
"I told you so!" she whispered in my ear, her eyes dancing with humour.
I pressed her hand for silence and it blew over, the Admiral later demanding jealously: "What was it all about, my Lady?" when I replied with a show of countenance: "A droll allusion of Mrs Darcy's, my dear." So it ended.
So also must this letter, my dear Sophia; but I do not apologise for its length, knowing your interest in all that touches us. Your truly aff'e sister,
4th September, 1814.
I resume my pen, my dear Sophia, to narrate the most extraordinary series of incidents which can have ever taken place in such surroundings. You may have seen some reports in the public journals, but cannot have heard the details. Let me strive to impart my news in as collected a manner as they merit.
I should premise that my Henry arrived on his leave, and the very day after received cordial invitations from Mr and Mrs Darcy to wait on them and join in all the parties of pleasure consequent on young Willoughby's arrival. A number of friendly gatherings took place, and Captains Gilbert and Ord from the Chatham garrison were visitors at Rosings. Still, I ventured to hope that though thus besieged, the lovely Charlotte did sometimes cast an eye on Henry, though Willoughby was ever at her side. An invitation to inspect the Indian rarities followed later, and we drove in my pony carriage to Rosings, and were received with all Mrs Darcy's obligingness. She was attended by her two daughters, and I observed Charlotte's complexion heighten in the most interesting manner as Henry made his compliments, though young Willoughby was by her side, and very much at his ease. The young man is extremely handsome—very brown-complexioned and with piercing eyes, of a good height and person. His manners I thought a little disposed to be familiar; but from the beginning of the acquaintance, I had set this down to the account of an Indian life and its freedoms. He remained fixed to Miss Darcy's chair, a manoeuvre I could not see with comfort. Elegant refreshments—cold meat, fruit, etc.—were immediately served, the Collinses being present and the Brandons arriving later.
When all had been refreshed, Mr. Darcy led the way to the library, and the curiosities were produced. The Admiral was in his element, and young Willoughby was called on for explanations which he gave well enough. At last the famous Ivory Shrine was removed from its glass case, and set upon a round table where all could view it.
I must now be particular in my description. It was a cabinet of the richest ivory, carved with images of idols whose histories I know not.
"The thinking mind," said Mr Collins, "must lament to see such skill lavished on such a worthless subject, were it not the happy destiny of this cabinet to become an appanage of the great. In the magnificent mansions of our nobles (titled and untitled) such objects afford the instructive contrast of an inferior civilisation with all that is Christian and elegant."
Mr. Darcy slightly bowed. He then threw open the doors of the cabinet, disclosing a surprising object indeed—a seated figure of clumsy proportions with the head of an elephant, supposed by these poor heathen to be a god, of whom the name escapes me. This also was ivory, with a necklace and girdle of small jewels inset. Mr Darcy applied to young Willoughby, by his side, for information of the attributes of this strange being, which he gave with an elegance as much out of the common as his figure, Mr Darcy following with the story of its acquisition by his uncle, Mr Lorenzo Darcy. We all drew near to examine the carvings, the hideousness of the image precluding admiration; and Mrs Brandon was gratified, as she told me, to find her protege distinguish himself by his address.
"We find his company very agreeable," she said aside, to me and Mrs Darcy. "He. is a young man of parts, and his travels have made him very conversible. Our servants find his Indian attendant, Tippoo, an endless source of surprise. He cannot speak a word of English, and to see him roll his black eyes and gesticulate causes laughter which penetrates even to our end of the house."
Mrs Darcy enquired if he were a troublesome inmate on account of caste prejudices; but Marianne assured her that such was not the case. He was perfectly obliging.
Still, Sophia, I felt one should be on one's guard where foreigners are concerned. A young man, though of English parentage, brought up in India and surrounded by wily Orientals, can scarcely be expected to have the solid principles of an English training. I am told that attendance on Divine Service is sadly lax among our wealthy nabobs; that it is even a practice to give entertainments on the Sabbath, when other than sacred music is performed. What must be the result on the young mind?
The afternoon ended, as I feared, in Mr Darcy giving Willoughby an invitation to spend a week at Rosings, that he might assist him to classify his Indian collection, a proposal to which the young man instantly agreed. That I thought it imprudent, I must not deny, unless indeed there were a settled intention as regards Miss Darcy, since it would throw them so much together, and already they were more easy than my judgment could approve. I observed Henry's spirits, like my own, a little sunk at such a distinction, though to him also the manners of both Miss Darcy's parents were conciliatory in the extreme. Both have a generosity of disposition which will suspect no evil. Yet, Sophia, we hear on the highest authority that the wisdom of the serpent is equally desirable with that of the dove.
Willoughby now became a guest at Rosings, and the parties of pleasure were fewer, the young officers from Chatham having left. The week passed, and the invitation was extended by a few days, the lists of Indian rarities still being unfinished.
I was seated in the late afternoon at my embroidery frame, when Mrs Collins was ushered in, so pale, so trembling and overcome, that I cried without any ceremony, "Good God! what is it?" and fell back in terror. She sunk into a chair and endeavoured to collect her spirits, the Admiral hurrying in from the lawn. At length she spoke, but with difficulty.
"Miss Darcy is fled with Willoughby!" and could utter no more.
The Admiral hastily fetched a glass of Constantia, and on partaking, she resumed with more composure. O Sophia, how express our feelings!
It now appeared that, when Willoughby was summoned to a cold collation, prepared in view of an afternoon excursion, he could nowhere be found. Tippoo was called, that he might seek his master, but to the consternation of all, his scanty possessions were removed and the room entirely empty; and the servants, hastening to his master's chamber, found a dressing-case known to stand on his table disappeared.
Theft was the first suspicion, and Willoughby's presence doubly desirable. Again they sought, and in vain. Miss Caroline was seated with her mother, and hearing all this, she rose with a countenance pale as ashes and trembling in every limb, and cried:—
"O Mama, where is Charlotte? I saw her last after breakfast in the shrubbery with Willoughby. The lake—O God, can it be possible!"
These fears at once communicated themselves to her parents and, hastily summoning help, Mr Darcy ran to the lake. The boat was loose and floating on the water, with an oar beside it, and a coat of Willoughby's on the bank; instantly the worst was feared and Tippoo forgotten. The lodge-keeper and his men were summoned with drags, poor Mrs Darcy on the bank wringing her hands in speechless affliction.
"Thus," pursued Mrs Collins, "were two valuable hours lost in dragging the lake, and more might have been the case, owing to the success of this vile scheming, but that the gamekeeper—Ward, you know, Ma'am—came running up in hot haste. One of his underlings had seen, hours before, a post-chaise standing in the road before the north gate, as if awaiting a party, but took no particular notice at the time. Returning later to the east gate, he observed the same post-chaise dashing along at full speed, and will be positive he saw Miss Darcy's face at the window and Willoughby with her. Such was the speed, that he could say no more than that the driver was a dark handsome young man in a triple cape. Thinking it was merely one of the parties of pleasure which had been so common, he loitered along, resumed his work, and only by a chance mentioned it to the gamekeeper, who with more presence of mind ran at once to his master.
"O my dear Lady Sefton," continued Mrs Collins, "What a scene of horror was here! An elopement! And with a man virtually unknown, and of whose parent Marianne Dashwood's experience was dreadful! Pursuit was immediately ordered, and Mr Darcy mounted his horse, though none can be sure what way they will have taken at the crossroads. Who—who could have supposed this of a young lady so virtuously brought up as Miss Darcy?"
"A sly little jade!" said the Admiral; and actually smiled! Such are even the best of men!
Scarcely able to articulate for horror, I was able to say:—
"True, dear Ma'am. Yet must we not own there was imprudence in permitting a young girl of Miss Darcy's beauty and expectations to be so unguardedly in the company of Willoughby? Forcibly indeed has that thought struck me more than once. Poor unfortunate parents! Let us hasten to condole with them."
Mrs Collins was too overcome to attend us, and the Admiral giving me his arm, we set off through the Park, he speaking his mind with the bluffness of a sailor on Miss Darcy's behaviour. Well did she know, he said, that her parents would never consent to a match so far below her pretensions, and therefore—But I dare not emulate his frankness.
We found Mrs Darcy pale but composed, a mounted messenger having returned from Mr Darcy with the news that he had heard of a post-chaise going at full galloping speed on the road to Merton, and was following it up. He begged Mrs Darcy to sustain her spirits, and call on the Admiral for aid if occasion should arise in his absence.