Court Royal/Chapter LI

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter LI. The Flying-fish
CHAPTER LI.
THE FLYING-FISH.

Joanna carried her point. She went to the ball. She had set her heart upon it. No dissuasion would turn her from her purpose, no difficulty discourage her. Go she would, and go she did.

The Easter ball was qualified by selectness. If it was nothing else, it was select. On this it prided itself. The most rigid censorship was exercised over the admissions by the committee. No one without blood, or—this was a concession—money was allowed. The committee sat at a table, and the names were passed from one to another. It was like running the gauntlet. Only those that came out unscathed between the lines were allowed to appear. The nobility and the county families patronised and attended it. The Earl and Countess of Mount Batten, Lord and Lady Laira, Sir John and Lady St. Austell, patronised the ball, and gave it the stamp of selectness. The generals and their ladies, the admirals and their parties, all the J.P.s and the J.P. fowl attended, and added their insistence to its selectness. The ball was so select that it hedged itself round with the most exclusive and arbitrary restrictions. It drew a line here, and a line there. It put its foot down at this point, and at that, for no reason possible of explanation to anyone without the bump of selection on his skull. The ball was so select that no lady with the soil of trade on her fingers could hold them out for a ticket. It was so select that, of the Church, only the wives and daughters of rectors might enter; the females whose orbit is in a Peel district and revolve about vicars and curates, were shut out. It was so select that the family of the wine-merchant were as rigidly excluded as the family of the pastry-cook who united with the wine-merchant to furnish the supper.

On the Cornish coast folk say, when the wind wails at the windows, that the ghosts of drowned sailors are without, flattening their spiritual noses against the panes, dabbing their dripping palms against the glass, weeping because excluded in wind and rain from the warmth and light within. Outside the great assembly-room, the spirits of unnumbered women wept and wrung their hands. The ball was too select for them. Let them dance on their own low levels, and not aspire to circle in the system of the social planets.

This Easter ball was quite a different affair from the October and the hunt balls, when the room was occupied by cliques, and the cliques danced together, ignoring the cliques below them, and went to supper and ate in cliques, and talked in cliques, and flirted in cliques, and clacked in cliques. This ball was emphatically a one-clique ball.

Yet, into this most select of balls Joanna thrust herself. This was how it was done.

Mr. Lazarus had lent money to the Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf, and he sent her a note to say that unless the loan were repaid by a certain date, he would County Court her.

Mrs. Yellowleaf came down to his private office in great trepidation. She had not the money; she was in daily expectation of a remittance from an aunt. She entreated Mr. Lazarus to delay. Mr. Lazarus was inexorable. He wanted his money. He had heavy bills to meet by a certain day. Mrs. Yellowleaf had promised repeatedly to repay the loan, and had not done so. His patience was exhausted. He was a poor man, he had put himself to great inconvenience to find her the money; if she could not or would not pay, he must cast her into court, and if that failed, he would put in an execution. Mrs. Yellowleaf turned green at the threat, and nearly fainted.

‘I cannot find the money,’ she said—‘I simply cannot. My husband, as you know, is with the China squadron. My remittances have not arrived. My aunt is very kind, but she is out of humour with me just now, and I dare not press for more.’

When he had reduced her to a condition of abject despair, then only did he offer relief. Relief could be bought—but on hard terms. She must take under her protection to the ball a young lady who particularly desired to attend.

The Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf was aghast. This was a sheer impossibility. She could not, she would not run such a risk. The tears came into her eyes. She knew nothing of the ‘person,’ neither her name, nor character, nor antecedents. The ball was most select. She might get into serious social trouble by taking there an individual unqualified to associate with good society. There were so many denied admission whose claims were urgent.

‘Very well,’ said Lazarus, rising. ‘Then prepare to see your name in the West of England papers. You shall have your summons to-morrow.’

‘Who is she?’ asked Mrs. Yellowleaf, after a pause for consideration.

Lazarus explained that she was a Miss Rosevere, an heiress, an orphan, of irreproachable character. ‘No relations in Plymouth, none that I know of in Devon or Cornwall.’

‘What is she like?’ asked Mrs. Yellowleaf, doubtfully.

‘Like!—there won’t be one in the room will surpass her in looks, I can assure you.’

‘She is not—not an Israelite.’ She thought ‘Jewess’ might sound rude, so she said ‘Israelite.’

‘You need not fear. Not a bit. Cornish—comes from the dark lot down the coast by Veryan and Goran; dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. She’ll be the belle of the ball and the richest girl there too.’

The Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf drew a sigh of relief.

‘Very well, Mr. Lazarus, if you will not press for payment, I will take the young lady. I trust she dresses well.’

‘Dress!—she’ll dress as well as the best, I promise you.’

So it was settled. Mrs. Yellowleaf was uneasy about her undertaking, but unable to evade it.

On the evening of the ball Joanna was seen into a cab by Mr. Lazarus. ‘Ah, lack-a-day!’ said he, as he shut the door on her, ‘I can’t go with you, but it ain’t possible. The sight of me in the assembly-room would be too much for the nerves of some folk there.’

The Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf’s carriage led the way, followed by Joanna’s cab. The lady had just seen her in the hall. She was sorry that she had no place in her own carriage to offer Miss Rosevere, as her daughters and son went with her; if Miss Rosevere would follow in her fly, she would await her in the entrance or disrobing room.

Accordingly she saw Joanna when she put off her cloak and shawl. She looked scrutinisingly at her, and was struck by her beauty. She turned sharply round, with motherly apprehension, and caught an admiring expression in her son’s face. ‘I wonder whether she be really an heiress!’ thought Mrs. Yellowleaf. ‘Possibly enough that, being a stranger, she may not have known anyone to whom to apply.’

She thereupon softened towards the girl, and spoke to her amiably. Joanna had much less dialect than one of her status might be supposed to be infected with, for she had not associated with other girls at the Barbican. She had grown up alone, talking only to Lazarus, who had no provincial brogue. His English was passable. Joanna’s was also passable, though not the language of perfect culture. Mrs. Yellowleaf knew, the moment she opened her mouth, that she had not the bringing up of a lady. A very few words sufficed. ‘Ah!’ she thought, ‘some mining captain’s daughter, who made a fortune in tin, and left it to her. She has money, but not breed. Still, she has money. After all, nowadays, money is everything.’ That was to be her explanation, if asked about Joanna. ‘My dear, an acquaintance whom I could not refuse asked me to be civil to the young lady. People are very inconsiderate. They ask you to carry parcels for them, and stand chaperon to all sorts and conditions of girls. It ought not to be done. As for this Miss Rosevere, I know nothing about her, except that elle est une bonne partie, worth, I am told, but I do not know, three thousand a year.’ That is what she would say. What she thought was, ‘Three thousand will obscure bad intonation and grammatical slips.’

As she went upstairs she wondered whether it would be well to allow John-Conolly, her son, to take a fancy to the girl. ‘Not,’ she considered, ‘till I know exactly her value. Her father’s will can be seen in the Probate Court for a shilling.’

She touched one of her daughters. ‘My dear Lettice,’ she whispered, ‘if Mr. Charles Cheek should ask you to dance, be civil. It is true that his antecedents leave much to be desired, but he has, and will have, money.’

Mr. Cheek was there, much disappointed at not being able to appear in company with Lady Grace and the Marquess. Still, though debarred their companionship, Charles was not disposed to forego the gratification. He was becoming very tired of the uniformity of life in the country, and depressed by the cloud of troubles which hung over Court Royal. At first he did not observe Joanna. But on going up to speak to the Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf, and engage Miss Lettice for a dance, his eye met that of Joanna. A look of incredulity, then of blank amazement, then of amused delight, swept across his face. ‘Halloo!’—he checked himself when ‘Joe’ was on his lips, and substituted ‘Miss Rosevere.’

‘You know Miss Rosevere?’ asked Mrs. Yellowleaf in trepidation. She had noticed the change of expression in his face.

‘Oh yes! old acquaintances,’ answered Charles, with his eyes still on Joanna, full of wonder and question.

‘Where have you met?’ asked Mrs. Yellowleaf.

‘At—at—the Duke of Kingsbridge’s—Court Royal,’ answered Charles, dashing at the first name that occurred to him.

‘How is the Duke?’ asked Joanna, with composure. ‘And dear old Lord Ronald? So grieved to see that the Archdeacon is dead. The blow must have been severe to his Grace. The brothers were so attached.’

‘Oh, well—that is, not very well. I am just come from Court Royal.’

‘Indeed,’ said Joanna. ‘And sweet Lady Grace, and Lucy Worthivale?’

‘They are well,’ answered Charles, puzzled beyond description. How did the girl know anything about the Eveleighs?

‘You were not at the Christmas ball,’ said Joanna, ‘when the Rigsbys were staying at the Court, and everyone supposed Dulcina would become Marchioness. Yonder she is—with her coffee-coloured father. How tastelessly she does dress! I must go over and speak to her. Come with me, Mr. Cheek.’

‘Joe!’ he whispered, as he escorted her across the room, ‘of all wonders this is the most wonderful!’

‘ Am I out of my element—the flying-fish among gulls?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘How do you do, Miss Rigsby?’ said Joanna, extending her hand. ‘I am afraid you do not recollect me; but we met at Court Royal during the winter.’

Dulcina looked at her uncertainly. She could not remember the face; but was that wonderful? She had met so many strangers at the Court. She was glad, however, to be recognised, and to have someone to speak to, as she knew few ladies in Plymouth.

The Hon. Mrs. Yellowleaf nudged her son. ‘John-Conolly,’ she said, ‘you see the plain-faced, gorgeously-dressed girl that Miss Rosevere is speaking to. She is an undoubted heiress. Go and secure her hand for as many dances as you can. Be very civil to her, and bear in mind that you must either work or marry money.’

‘Mother, I’d a thousand times rather dance with that charming girl you brought here.’

‘Dance with both. Try to be struck with both, and let them perceive it; but be cautious with the Rosevere. Il me faut prendre des renseignements.’

‘Who is that very striking young lady yonder?’ asked Mrs. Fothergill, wife of a country squire.

‘That,’ answered Mrs. Yellowleaf, ‘is a Cornish heiress. Between me, you, and the post—money made in mines. However, the Kingsbridge family have taken her up, and put the cachet on her. Lady Grace Eveleigh and the Marquess are unable to be here, owing to the death of their uncle, the Archdeacon. As they could not come with a party, I was asked to bring Miss Rosevere. Very rich and handsome, though somewhat wanting in polish.’

‘Joey,’ said Charles Cheek, when no one was by to hear, ‘this is roaring fun. You are the most audacious little rogue I ever came across. You thrust yourself in here—anywhere that you have a mind. And then—you extort a hundred pounds from my father! Oh, Joe, I have never thanked you for that. It was good of you. But conceive how staggered I was when my father ran up alongside without showing signals, and poured a broadside into me because I had got myself entangled with a little pawn. Put me down for a score of dances, Joe. I had rather dance with you than with any other girl, and talk of something different from the weather and the primroses.’

But this might not be. Joanna had no lack of partners. The rumour spread that she was a Cornish heiress—taken up by the Kingsbridge family. There was no question as to her beauty, or to her ease of manner and movement. Ease of manner was given by complete self-assurance. Ease of movement by the fact that she had lived all her life in slippers.

‘Cheek,’ said an officer, ‘surely that is the girl I saw in the stage-box the night of that frightful accident. You went up and talked to her. We asked you then who she was.’

‘Yes, and I told you.’

‘You told us she was an heiress, and were disinclined to introduce us. It is mean of a man like you, with such prospects, to keep the heiresses to yourself.’

‘You are too dangerous a rival,’ answered Charles, laughing. ‘But it is not true; I leave the field clear about Miss Rigsby.’

‘What an uncommonly good-looking girl that is,’ said one mother, against the wall, to another standard medlar. ‘Not quite happy about her extraction, I understand.’

‘Rather odd in speech, I hear,’ answered the latter. ‘But the Kingsbridge people have taken her up on account of her money, and there is a rumour of the Marquess of Saltcombe becoming engaged to her, now he is off with Miss Rigsby. They could not come because they are in mourning, so they asked Mrs. Yellowleaf to be responsible for her.’

‘Dear me! I had no idea Mrs. Yellowleaf was intimate with the Eveleighs. I hear queer reports about the Kingsbridge family—very shaky, I understand.’

‘Ah, bah! Every planet has its occultations, and comes out of the shadow as bright as before. You never have known what it is to be in financial eclipse, I suppose.’

Joanna was dancing with Charles Cheek.

‘You do not know how you are perplexing the old ladies,’ he said. ‘As for the men, they are infatuated. Take care, Joe, that you leave no joint in your armour open for an arrow to enter. Some of the markswomen will be spanning their bows at you before the night wears to day.’

‘What a pity you were not at the Christmas ball at Court Royal,’ said Joanna, without noticing his warning. ‘I mean, of course, the first ball: the second was only for the tenants and servants. The room—the grand ball-room, you know it—was superb with its painted groups in panel, of the time of Louis XIV. It belonged to the older house, and was incorporated in the new mansion built by the late Duke. And the crystal lustres twinkling with rainbow-tinted light! And the drawing-room—do you know the pictures there? The Gainsborough, and the Murillo; the Sèvres vases given by Charles X.’

‘Joe!’ exclaimed Charles, ‘you will drive me mad. Are you a witch? Have you the gift of second sight? How come you to know anything about the rooms and people at Court Royal?’

‘Never mind. I will not tell you.’

‘I am cross with you for one thing, Joe. You might have been sure I would have been here to-night, and it would have been graceful to wear the Roman pearls I gave you. They were only Roman pearls, true, but the chain was pretty.’

‘I could not. I had given it away.’

‘Oh, Joe! how could you do that?’

‘I gave it to the best of women.’

‘Who can that be? I know one whom I think that.’

‘It is the same. She has it—Lady Grace Eveleigh.’

Charles Cheek stood still in the midst of the dance. ‘You gave my necklace to her!—Impossible.’

‘Ask her next time you meet. She will tell you it is true, Now tell me something. How come you to know Court Royal?’

‘That is easily answered. Mr. Worthivale, the steward, is my cousin. I have been staying with him, in exile—because of you. My father has sent me there into banishment.’

‘That is why I have not seen you in Plymouth?’

‘Yes—and—, I will confide something more to you that affects me greatly. You will hear it talked about shortly. I am going to marry Lady Grace Eveleigh.’

Joanna stood still, and stared at him. ‘Impossible!’ she said.

‘It is true—I assure you it is true.’

‘I will dance no more,’ said Joanna abruptly. ‘Take me to a chair.’

‘Remember you owe me the next waltz.’

‘I will not dance with you again.’

She remained seated during several dances; the gentlemen came round her, entreating her to honour them, but she refused all. She said she was tired.

At first Joanna was occupied with her own thoughts, and paid no attention to what passed about her, but she presently woke to the sense that she had seated herself in a wasp’s nest. The ladies around her were faded beauties or mothers, and resented the arrival of a stranger on their preserves who carried off the beaux from themselves or from their daughters.

By slow degrees she was roused to give attention to the conversation that went on about her, and to become aware that words were flying around barbed and poisoned.

‘Who is that child in pink yonder?’ asked a handsome lady on the verge of thirty, who must at one time have been a queen of beauty. ‘Can you tell me, Mrs. Delany? It is cruel to send children who cannot be over seventeen, and ought to be in bed and sleeping.’

The lady addressed sat on the other side of Joanna. Joanna looked sharply round; she was curious to see Mrs. Delany, in whose service she was supposed to have been so many years. That lady shrugged her shoulders contemptuously, and, returning Joanna’s stare, answered the faded beauty.

‘My dear, how can I tell? The ball has ceased to be select. What the committee can be about is more than I can answer, admitting persons of whom one knows nothing.’

‘Is that worse,’ asked Joanna innocently, ‘than giving characters to servants you have never seen? There was much talk of a lady having done this when I was at Court Royal.’

Mrs. Delany turned crimson, and sat back.

‘I have known quite nameless, unknown persons give themselves out as friends of people of rank,’ said a lady on the other side of Mrs. Delany, ‘who turned out on inquiry to have been governesses or companions in the family.’

‘I have heard,’ said Joanna, ‘of gentlemen so absolutely nameless nothings that they have had to borrow their wives’ names and get knighted in them.’

The lady put up her fan instantly.

‘What bad form it is, Lady Hawkins,’ said the ex-queen, ‘in unmarried girls wearing jewelry!’ and her eyes rested on a necklet round Joanna’s throat.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Joanna. ‘Is Mrs. Gathercole addressing me? I ask because I see you wearing a brooch I coveted the other day, but I was too late—it was sold to Captain Gathercole.’

She felt—she did not see—a shiver of suppressed laughter about her. The fading beauty turned deadly white, rose and left the place.

‘What a pity it is,’ said the lady who took the vacated chair, addressing Mrs. Delany across Joanna, ‘that the possession of money should be deemed a sufficient qualification for admission! There are persons in this room who have no other right to be here.’

‘But there are persons admitted who have not even money qualifications,’ said Joanna. ‘Persons glad to get a guinea from the Jews for a gown of old gold and black lace.’

The lady sprang up as if she had been stung, and Mrs. Delany burst out laughing; the old gold with black lace was well known.

‘As for Cornish mines in which some people have their money,’ remarked another, who had not spoken before, ‘I am well assured that such property is as unsatisfactory as castles in Spain.’

‘Or,’ observed Joanna, speaking aloud but addressing no one, ‘or as husbands at sea, always at sea, but never seen, like the Flying Dutchman.’

In the midst of the silence that ensued, Charles Cheek came up and offered her his arm. She rose and took it. Her colour was heightened and her eyes sparkled.

‘Good heavens, Joe! What have you been doing? You have set all the women against you!’

‘The flying-fish can snap as well as the gulls,’ she replied.