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Chapter XIII. A Feminine Diplomatist
|Chapter XIV. The Coningsbys→|
A Feminine Diplomatist
THERE is nothing so remarkable as feminine influence. Although the character of Tancred was not completely formed—for that result depends, in some degree, upon the effect of circumstances at a certain time of life, as well as on the impulse of a natural bent—still the temper of his being was profound and steadfast. He had arrived, in solitude and by the working of his own thought, at a certain resolution, which had assumed to his strong and fervent imagination a sacred character, and which he was determined to accomplish at all costs. He had brought himself to the point that he would not conceive an obstacle that should baulk him. He had acceded to the conditions which had been made by his parents, for he was by nature dutiful, and wished to fulfil his-purpose, if possible, with their sanction.
Yet he had entered society with repugnance, and found nothing in its general tone with which his spirit harmonised. He was alone in the crowd; silent, observing, and not charmed. There seemed to him generally a want of simplicity and repose; too much flutter, not a little affectation. People met in the thronged chambers, and interchanged brief words, as if they were always in a hurry. 'Have you been here long? Where are you going next?' These were the questions which seemed to form the staple of the small talk of a fashionable multitude. Why, too, was there a smile on every countenance, which often also assumed the character of a grin? No error so common or so grievous as to suppose that a smile is a necessary ingredient of the pleasing. There are few faces that can afford to smile. A smile is sometimes bewitching, in general vapid, often a contortion. But the bewitching smile usually beams from the grave face. It is then irresistible. Tancred, though he was unaware of it, was gifted with this rare spell. He had inherited it from his mother; a woman naturally earnest and serious, and of a singular simplicity, but whose heart when pleased spoke in the dimpling sunshine of her cheek with exquisite beauty. The smiles of the Duchess of Bellamont, however, were like her diamonds, brilliant, but rarely worn.
Tancred had not mounted the staircase of Deloraine House with any anticipation of pleasure. His thoughts were far away amid cities of the desert, and by the palmy banks of ancient rivers. He often took refuge in these exciting and ennobling visions, to maintain himself when he underwent the ceremony of entering a great house. He was so shy in little things, that to hear his name sounded from servant to servant, echoing from landing-place to landing-place, was almost overwhelming. Nothing but his pride, which was just equal to his reserve, prevented him from often turning back on the stairs and precipitately retreating. And yet he had not been ten minutes in Deloraine House, before he had absolutely requested to be introduced to a lady. It was the first time he had ever made such a request.
He returned home, softly musing. A tone lingered in his ear; he recalled the countenance of one absent. In his dressing-room he lingered before he retired, with his arm on the mantel-piece, and gazing with abstraction on the fire.
When his servant called him, late in the morning, he delivered to him a card from Mrs. Guy Flouncey, inviting him on that day to Craven Cottage, at three o'clock: 'déjeûner at four o'clock precisely.' Tancred took the card, looked at it, and the letters seemed to cluster together and form the countenance of Lady Constance. 'It will be a good thing to go,' he said, 'because I want to know Lord Fitz-Heron; he will be of great use to me about my yacht.' So he ordered his carriage at three o'clock.
The reader must not for a moment suppose that Mrs. Guy Flouncey, though she was quite as well dressed, and almost as pretty, as she was when at Coningsby Castle in 1837, was by any means the same lady who then strove to amuse and struggled to be noticed. By no means. In 1837, Mrs. Guy Flouncey was nobody; in 1845, Mrs. Guy Flouncey was somebody, and somebody of very great importance. Mrs. Guy Flouncey had invaded society, and had conquered it, gradually, but completely, like the English in India. Social invasions are not rare, but they are seldom fortunate, or success, if achieved, is partial, and then only sustained at immense cost, like the French in Algiers.
The Guy Flounceys were not people of great fortune. They had a good fortune; seven or eight thousand a year. But then, with an air of great expenditure, even profusion, there was a basis of good management. And a good fortune with good management, and without that equivocal luxury, a great country-house, is almost equal to the great fortune of a peer. But they not only had no country-house, they had no children. And a good fortune, with good management, no country-house, and no children, is Aladdin's lamp.
Mr. Guy Flouncey was a sporting character. His wife had impressed upon him that it was the only way in which he could become fashionable and acquainted with 'the best men.' He knew just enough of the affair not to be ridiculous; and, for the rest, with a great deal of rattle and apparent heedlessness of speech and deed, he was really an extremely selfish and sufficiently shrewd person, who never compromised himself. It is astonishing with what dexterity Guy Flouncey could extricate himself from the jaws of a friend, who, captivated by his thoughtless candour and ostentatiously good heart, might be induced to request Mr. Flouncey to lend him a few hundreds, only for a few months, or, more diplomatically, might beg his friend to become his security for a few thousands, for a few years.
Mr. Guy Flouncey never refused these applications; they were exactly those to which it delighted his heart to respond, because nothing pleased him more than serving a friend. But then he always had to write a preliminary letter of preparation to his banker, or his steward, or his confidential solicitor; and, by some contrivance or other, without offending any one, rather with the appearance of conferring an obligation, it ended always by Mr. Guy Flouncey neither advancing the hundreds, nor guaranteeing the thousands. He had, indeed, managed, like many others, to get the reputation of being what is called 'a good fellow;' though it would have puzzled his panegyrists to allege a single act of his that evinced a good heart. This sort of pseudo reputation, whether for good or for evil, is not uncommon in the world. Man is mimetic; judges of character are rare; we repeat without thought the opinions of some third person, who has adopted them without inquiry; and thus it often happens that a proud, generous man obtains in time the reputation of being 'a screw,' because he has refused to lend money to some impudent spendthrift, who from that moment abuses him; and a cold-hearted, civil-spoken personage, profuse in costless services, with a spice of the parasite in him, or perhaps hospitable out of vanity, is invested with all the thoughtless sympathies of society, and passes current as that most popular of characters, 'a good fellow.'
Guy Flouncey's dinners began to be talked of among men: it became a sort of fashion, especially among sporting men, to dine with Mr. Guy Flouncey, and there they met Mrs. Guy Flouncey. Not an opening ever escaped her. If a man had a wife, and that wife was a personage, sooner or later, much as she might toss her head at first, she was sure to visit Mrs. Guy Flouncey, and, when she knew her, she was sure to like her. The Guy Flounceys never lost a moment; the instant the season was over, they were at Cowes, then at a German bath, then at Paris, then at an English country-house, then in London.
Seven years, to such people, was half a century of social experience. They had half a dozen seasons in every year. Still, it was hard work, and not rapid. At a certain point they stuck, as all do. Most people, then, give it up; but patience, Buffon tells us, is genius, and Mrs. Guy Flouncey was, in her way, a woman of genius. Their dinners were, in a certain sense, established: these in return brought them to a certain degree into the dinner world; but balls, at least balls of a high calibre, were few, and as for giving a ball herself, Mrs. Guy Flouncey could no more presume to think of that than of attempting to prorogue Parliament. The house, however, got really celebrated for 'the best men.' Mrs. Guy Flouncey invited all the young dancing lords to dinner. Mothers will bring their daughters where there are young lords. Mrs. Guy Flouncey had an opera-box in the best tier, which she took only to lend to her friends; and a box at the French play, which she took only to bribe her foes. They were both at everybody's service, like Mr. Guy Flouncey's yacht, provided the persons who required them were members of that great world in which Mrs. Guy Flouncey had resolved to plant herself.
Mrs. Guy Flouncey was pretty; she was a flirt on principle; thus she had caught the Marquess of Beaumanoir, who, if they chanced to meet, always spoke to her, which gave Mrs. Guy Flouncey fashion. But Mrs. Guy Flouncey was nothing more than a flirt. She never made a mistake; she was born with strong social instincts. She knew that the fine ladies among whom, from the first, she had determined to place herself, were moral martinets with respect to any one not born among themselves. That which is not observed, or, if noticed, playfully alluded to in the conduct of a patrician dame, is visited with scorn and contumely if committed by some 'shocking woman,' who has deprived perhaps a countess of the affections of a husband who has not spoken to her for years. But if the countess is to lose her husband, she ought to lose him to a viscountess, at least. In this way the earl is not lost to 'society.'
A great nobleman met Mrs. Guy Flouncey at a country-house, and was fairly captivated by her. Her pretty looks, her coquettish manner, her vivacity, her charming costume, above all, perhaps, her imperturbable good temper, pierced him to the heart. The great nobleman's wife had the weakness to be annoyed. Mrs. Guy Flouncey saw her opportunity. She threw over the earl, and became the friend of the countess, who could never sufficiently evince her gratitude to the woman who would not make love to her husband. This friendship was the incident for which Mrs. Guy Flouncey had been cruising for years. Men she had vanquished; they had given her a sort of ton which she had prudently managed. She had not destroyed herself by any fatal preference. Still, her fashion among men necessarily made her unfashionable among women, who, if they did not absolutely hate her, which they would have done had she had a noble lover, were determined not to help her up the social ladder. Now she had a great friend, and one of the greatest of ladies. The moment she had pondered over for years had arrived. Mrs. Guy Flouncey determined at once to test her position. Mrs. Guy Flouncey resolved on giving a ball.
But some of our friends in the country will say, 'Is that all? Surely it required no very great resolution, no very protracted pondering, to determine on giving a ball! Where is the difficulty? The lady has but to light up her house, hire the fiddlers, line her staircase with American plants, perhaps enclose her balcony, order Mr. Gunter to provide plenty of the best refreshments, and at one o'clock a superb supper, and, with the company of your friends, you have as good a ball as can be desired by the young, or endured by the old.'
Innocent friends in the country! You might have all these things. Your house might be decorated like a Russian palace, blazing with the most brilliant lights and breathing the richest odours; you might have Jullien presiding over your orchestra, and a banquet worthy of the Romans. As for your friends, they might dance until daybreak, and agree that there never was an entertainment more tasteful, more sumptuous, and, what would seem of the first importance, more merry. But, having all these things, suppose you have not a list? You have given a ball, you have not a list. The reason is obvious: you are ashamed of your guests. You are not in 'society.'
But even a list is not sufficient for success. You must also get a day: the most difficult thing in the world. After inquiring among your friends, and studying the columns of the Morning Post, you discover that, five weeks hence, a day is disengaged. You send out your cards; your house is dismantled; your lights are arranged; the American plants have arrived; the band, perhaps two bands, are engaged. Mr. Gunter has half dressed your supper, and made all your ice, when suddenly, within eight-and-forty hours of the festival which you have been five weeks preparing, the Marchioness of Deloraine sends out cards for a ball in honour of some European sovereign who has just alighted on our isle, and means to stay only a week, and at whose court, twenty years ago, Lord Deloraine was ambassador. Instead of receiving your list, you are obliged to send messengers in all directions to announce that your ball is postponed, although you are perfectly aware that not a single individual would have been present whom you would have cared to welcome.
The ball is postponed; and next day the Morning Post informs us it is postponed to that day week; and the day after you have circulated this interesting intelligence, you yourself, perhaps, have the gratification of receiving an invitation, for the same day, to Lady St. Julians': with 'dancing' neatly engraved in the corner. You yield in despair; and there are some ladies who, with every qualification for an excellent ball-guests, Gunter, American plants, pretty daughters have been watching and waiting for years for an opportunity of giving it; and at last, quite hopeless, at the end of the season, expend their funds in a series of Greenwich banquets, which sometimes fortunately produce the results expected from the more imposing festivity.
You see, therefore, that giving a ball is not that matter-of-course affair you imagined; and that for Mrs. Guy Flouncey to give a ball and succeed, completely, triumphantly to succeed, was a feat worthy of that fine social general. Yet she did it. The means, like everything that is great, were simple. She induced her noble friend to ask her guests. Her noble friend canvassed for her as if it were a county election of the good old days, when the representation of a shire was the certain avenue to a peerage, instead of being, as it is now, the high road to a poor-law commissionership.
Many were very glad to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Guy Flouncey; many only wanted an excuse to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Guy Flouncey; they went to her party because they were asked by their dear friend, Lady Kingcastle. As for the potentates, there is no disguise on these subjects among them. They went to Mrs. Guy Flouncey's ball because one who was their equal, not only in rank, but in social influence, had requested it as a personal favour, she herself, when the occasion offered, being equally ready to advance their wishes. The fact was, that affairs were ripe for the recognition of Mrs. Guy Flouncey as a member of the social body. Circumstances had been long maturing. The Guy Flounceys, who, in the course of their preparatory career, had hopped from Park Crescent to Portman Square, had now perched upon their 'splendid mansion' in Belgrave Square. Their dinners were renowned. Mrs. Guy Flouncey was seen at all the 'best balls,' and was always surrounded by the 'best men.' Though a flirt and a pretty woman, she was a discreet parvenue, who did not entrap the affections of noble husbands. Above all, she was the friend of Lady Kingcastle, who called her and her husband 'those good Guy Flounceys.'
The ball was given; you could not pass through Belgrave Square that night. The list was published; it formed two columns of the Morning Post. Lady Kingcastle was honoured by the friendship of a royal duchess. She put the friendship to the proof, and her royal highness was seen at Mrs. Guy Flouncey's ball. Imagine the reception, the canopy, the scarlet cloth, the 'God save the King' from the band of the first guards, bivouacked in the hall, Mrs. Guy Flouncey herself performing her part as if she had received princesses of the blood all her life; so reverent and yet so dignified, so very calm and yet with a sort of winning, sunny innocence. Her royal highness was quite charmed with her hostess, praised her much to Lady Kingcastle, told her that she was glad that she had come, and even stayed half an hour longer than Mrs. Guy Flouncey had dared to hope. As for the other guests, the peerage was gutted. The Dictator himself was there, and, the moment her royal highness had retired, Mrs. Guy Flouncey devoted herself to the hero. All the great ladies, all the ambassadors, all the beauties, a full chapter of the Garter, a chorus among the 'best men' that it was without doubt the 'best ball' of the year, happy Mrs. Guy Flouncey! She threw a glance at her swing-glass while Mr. Guy Flouncey, who 'had not had time to get anything the whole evening,' was eating some supper on a tray in her dressing-room at five o'clock in the morning, and said, 'We have done it at last, my love!'
She was right; and from that moment Mrs. Guy Flouncey was asked to all the great houses, and became a lady of the most unexceptionable ton.
But all this time we are forgetting her déjeûner, and that Tancred is winding his way through the garden lanes of Fulham to reach Craven Cottage.