’T WAS the evening of the Birthnight ball when George Anne arrived, in a hackney coach, attended by her dresser, and scarce visible for mantua boxes. The three children were put away — their usual fate — in the beds within, and though not able to sleep for excitement, were mute as mice, lest they be punished by the closing of the door upon the ravishing glimpses they had of the parlour.
’T is not for a mere scribbler to intrude upon the chaste mysteries of the toilet. Suffice it, therefore, to say that, when all was completed, George Anne and Mrs March, the dresser, stood back, breathless, to contemplate the work of their hands.
Mrs Gunning, her fine brown hair piled on her head into an edifice twisted with gauze and feathers that granted her five inches more of height, looked a Roman empress — her fine bust displayed to advantage and sustaining a necklace of stage emeralds set in pinchbeck, which could not be told from the veritable jewels, so closely were they copied for George Anne from her Grace the Duchess of Bridgewater’s. Her hoop was very wide, and over it a green satin brocade flowered with gold, wherein George Anne had played Lady Modish but twenty times, and so rich that ’t would serve her great-granddaughter. ’T was ruffled at neck and elbow with Mechlin, and the girls gazed in awe at their splendid mama. ’T was a changed woman. She expanded, she glided, she moved, as a swan floating through her native element differs from the same lurching along the bank.
But Elizabeth —O beautiful! Sure ’t was joy to see her! Her hair, a-gleam with gold, was rolled back and carried in massive braids that crowned and bound her head in the Grecian taste, confined by a bandeau of pearls that crossed her brow. Her Grecian robe (indeed the fair Miss Lebeau had played Calista in it) was a white satin with a fall of lace, and round her slender throat a chain of seed pearl. Mrs Bellamy knew her business. ’T was simple, but simplicity becomes a goddess, and frills and flounces can but distract the eye from loveliness that seems native to heaven. Her mother surveyed her in a kind of amaze and then turned to Maria.
’T was peculiar to these two fair sisters that they adorned each other, each appearing more beautiful when both were in company. Indeed ’t was said later that this contributed much to their triumphs. Maria now appeared in a fine India muslin embroidered in gold wheat-ears, a robe which, ’t is to be feared, Mr Sidney of the East India Company, the rich nabob of Jubblepore, had laid at the feet of George Anne in pursuance of a suit not wholly disdained. No matter! On Maria it shone like the raiment of the youngest of the angels, draping yet expressing her fair limbs with a seductive reserve that, was art embellishing nature. She had a row of seed pearl like her sister, and one rose of faintest pink nestled in her virgin bosom. Her hair of burning gold was dressed in curls à la mouton, as Mrs March expressed it, and a string of pearls wove through the rich tresses.
But ’t is useless to describe beauty. As well dry a rose in a book and look for bloom and dew. It depends on bright eye and smiling lip and wordless sweetness and the fall of exquisite lashes and the tone of music and — and this poor scribbler lays down his pen and attempts no more to paint where the great artists later owned themselves vanquished.
‘And all is prepared,’cries George Anne, exulting. ‘For my mother’s job coach is at hand to take my three beauties; and distress not yourself, my dearest Madam, for I engage to remain with your little family and will return in the coach when it deposits you here. And now, children, peep and whisper no longer, but come see your lovely mama and sisters before they go to conquer the world.'
’T was the kindest heart! She clapped her hands, and in rushed the three children like Bedlam let loose, careering round and about the three, shouting, laughing, and begging to be took also. Raisins and oranges from George Anne’s reticule alone restored them to their beds in peace.
‘“The Golden Vanity” has sent forth two incomparable beauties,’says she at the door as they stepped into the coach. ‘May it bring them the luck of its heroine and more.'
St Patrick’s Hall was all of a blaze with wax candles and flambeaux, and shining mirrors set in with gilt Cupids, and twinkling of fairy lights in the great glass lustres and their glittering chains of drops and pendants. Garlands of green, with roses interspersed, were in swags and loops about the splendid walls, where hung the pictures of bygone viceroys in ribbon and star, in frames to match the mirrors that multiplied the scene a hundredfold.
And, more than all, the handsomest women in Ireland were decked out in silks and satins and all the family jewels, and they sparkling like the lustres above their heads; and all the gentlemen, in uniforms and silk stockings showing off their fine calves, and they strutting with their swords and squiring the ladies and bowing. And above it all the Throne, with the velvet canopy and the Royal Arms, and my Lord Harrington, his Excellency, sitting like a picture of himself, with his stars and orders and his coat of sky-blue velvet laced and embroidered with gold; and as each pretty lady came up to him and swept her curtsey he lifted her by the hand and kissed her cheek; for the Viceroy has that privilege, and many a man envied him a few of the kisses, if they did not envy them all.
And now at the great doors appeared three ladies, quietly, like persons used to assemblies, though to be honest their knees ware trembling under them and their little hearts quaking. So they were passed on from one golden image to another, until they arrived before his Excellency, the company politely making way, and a whisper that rose to a buzz running with them. ‘Lord! who are they?’ — ‘Who can they be?’ — ‘Look at the girls! ’ — ‘ Exquisite! ’ — ‘Beautiful!’ — ‘For my part I see nothing in them. Vilely dressed. Very far from modish.’ —‘Too tall.’ — ‘Too short’ — in fact, every expression of approval and disfavour. But every lady stood on the tips of her satin shoes to see, and every gentleman took the fullest advantage of his height; and had poor Harry been there, he had died of jealousy. Alas! even his fond letters were not in Elizabeth’s gentle bosom, but tossed forgot on the bed in Britain Street, with George Anne casting the eye of sensibility on them.
And now the officer who performed the introduction took Mrs Gunning’s gloved hand, very stately, and led her before the Throne.
‘The Honourable Mrs Gunning, your Excellency.'
Down she flowed in a magnificent curtsey, her hands supporting her brocade on either side, her head bent majestic— Beauty adoring Power. Sudenly my Lord steps nimbly forward on the dais.
‘What?’ he cries. ‘Do my eyes deceive me? Impossible! But sure I have the happiness to see the daughter of my old friend, and I am honoured beyond expression to welcome her beneath my roof. Where have you been retired? And what are these two lovely nymphs? Your daughters? No, sure it can’t be and you all youth and beauty yourself. Present them.’
And while mama blushed and bridled, the magic words were spoke, and the two dropped the gentlest curtseys, and rising, received a salute more than usual warm from his Excellency on either fair blushing cheek. ’T was observed he lingered an instant on Maria’s. Viceroys, too, are human.
’T was an instantaneous conquest — how could it be otherwise? A moment later they were the centre of a competing crowd of gentlemen, and glances of coldness and aversion raining on them from ladies only a little less fair and now deserted. That his Excellency was the first victim, none could doubt, for when he was not in company with the beauties, he was discoursing of them to others. True it is that he conducted the Dowager Rathconnel to the suppertable, but equally true, that he left the lady seated before such dainties as ensure an old age of gout, disengaging himself with a nimble wit that should have appeased her, and sought out the mother of the Graces, devoting himself to memories of old times, while Maria and Elizabeth danced and smiled on their adorers, blooming and beautiful.
‘ My dear Madam,’ says his Lordship, ‘how is it possible that you have lived so retired for fifteen years? ’T was not justice to your admirers — of whom I was ever one. How came it about?’
‘Why, your Excellency,’ says the lady very serious, ‘’t was not with my good-will. You know well that my late father’s good heart was his chief possession ; and my husband — alas!'
Sure a pause and downcast eyes are more expressive than any words. His Excellency shook his majestic peruke, and echoed the lady.
‘Alas! Cards, horses, the bottle — how many a wife and mother hath had cause to curse that fatal trinity! And ’t is even so, Madam?’
She applied George Anne’s laced handkerchief to her eye, then smiled faintly and seeing opportunity, seized it.
‘I would not cloud this festive scene, your Excellency, yet why should I reserve from a tried friend that I and my poor daughters — ’
‘Yes, yes!’ cries his Lordship, very impatient.
‘— Are here this night in borrowed dress,’ continues Mrs G. solemnly, ‘and are indebted even for the shoes upon our feet to the kindness of an actress, Mrs Bellamy.’
‘Good God!’ says Lord Harrington, genuinely shocked, and the more so that he had himself known Mrs Bellamy some years since. ‘Snre it can’t be! I won’t believe it. Indeed, we must discourse further of this. Come hither!’
Profoundly interested, he led her to a withdrawing-room and there they fell into so deep discussion that never had he been such a negligent host. And when Mrs Gunning left the withdrawing-room, it was with an imperial head held high, and a flush in her cheek which became her so well that the most prying female eye would not give her a day over thirty.
His Excellency led out Maria to a minuet. Twice he took Elizabeth down the country-dances. The generous wine had warmed his heart, the glow of beauty kindled it to flame, and it was plain to be seen that his eyes were only for the fair Gunnings. The world followed his example — when does it otherwise? — and a petal from Maria’s rose, a look from the violet, dark-lashed eyes of Elizabeth, were the prizes of the night.
A party of noblemen escorted them to the doors on leaving, and ’t was with the utmost difficulty Mrs Gunning persuaded them it was unnecessary to ride in cavalcade about the coach to Britain Street. When the ladies were gone, they returned into the Banqueting Hall to toast ‘The Irish Beauties,’and break their glasses in their honour until the floor was strewn with broken crystal, and the celebrants were most of them borne speechless to their beds. Indeed, a challenge passed between my Lords Cappoquin and Tuam upon a dispute as to which lady was the greater Venus.
Never was such a triumph! And Mrs Gunning, falling into George Anne’s arms in Britain Street, declared with tears of joy: —
‘You were right, entirely right, my dearest Madam. I am promised a handsome pension on the Irish Establishment, and his Excellency counsels me to transport my girls to London, where, he considers, they may pretend to the highest matches, and promises introductions worthy of them. And, O Madam, playing at faro in the cardroom, I won a milleleva — no less! — Fifty guineas! — Lord! was ever anyone so happy!’
Tears of sensibility stood in George Anne’s eyes. She was one who shared to the full the griefs or triumphs of her friends. She wrung Mrs G.’s hand and embraced the fair conquerors, scorning to mention the rent in Maria’s muslin gown, and the stain of wine on Elizabeth’s satin. It was a generous heart, and had earned more gratitude than she afterwards received from two, at least, of the ladies.
’T was amazing to Mrs Gunning and Maria now, that ever they had contemplated the stage — so very far below their pretensions; and it took but a week to open the former lady’s eyes to the little cracks in George Anne’s reputation. She saw plainly that such a friendship could be no aid to their soaring aspirations; and indeed her ambition had now spread its wings to some purpose. The Earl of Harrington having advanced the first installment of her pension, she immediately moved their lodging to the genteeler Mount Street, and Britain Street was forgot, along with George Anne. Sure a mother must be prudent! Elizabeth only forsook not her friend, going to wait upon her and carrying with her many of the posies left in daily homage to her sister and herself. She had little in her power, for money was still none too plenty; but kindness and gratitude smell sweeter even than roses, and these she carried in handfuls straight from a grateful heart to George Anne.
It smoothed not her own path in Mount Street, for Mrs Gunning’s pride grew with what fed it, and though admiration was plenty, offers were few. It might be that the enmity of the Dublin ladies stood in their way, for certain it is that Mrs G. was never a favourite. Where she judged well to flatter, she flattered too openly; where she disliked and saw no gain, she insulted; and many gentlemen would have retired from her acquaintance, but for Maria’s frolicsome gaiety and the sweetness of Elizabeth. It gained ground about the city that there was much scheming in Mount Street with a view to rich husbands, and it smirched the girls as well as their mama, and put thorns in their way. It made the men bolder than they should be, and the women cold.
Maria was the hardier and took it as a necessity of their situation; but the milder Elizabeth wept often on George Anne’s kind bosom over the insults (as she took it) which Mrs Gunning received with rapture, as hopeful signs of love. And, whatever the actress’s own case might be, ’t is certain she showed more delicacy in dealing with the girl than did her lady mother.
Nor had she much comfort from Mr Harry’s letters. His father remained adamant; and though he writ, ’t was more carelessly, and a rumour reached Dublin that coupled his name with the great fortune, Miss Hooker, and was generally took for truth. Mrs Gunning greeted it with pleasure, regarding Mr Harry as a gone-by and much below her hopes; but though Elizabeth’s heart was not wounded, her pride was pierced to the quick. It seemed that all the world conspired to humiliate her, and she asked herself what was the use of beauty, if it meant this and no more. She sighed and left his last letter unanswered.
Miss Maria too had her troubles. My Lord Errington pursued her with ardour, and his handsome rakish face and gallant impudence drew the pretty moth towards the heat and flame of a dangerous candle. Folly, no more; but his lady took her vengeance in scandals that spread about the town, and a duel was fought that did Maria no good and kept off worthier pretenders to her hand; and indeed it was not a day too soon when the family packed up their belongings and changed the air to London. The girls outshone all others — true! but ’t was thought more in beauty than discretion, for Elizabeth must needs sink with her family. The world draws not nice distinctions.
But to say they ware courted in London is to say little. They broke triumphant upon the town, supported by letters from his Excellency, and the town received them with frenzy, as it might the great Italian singer or the new lions at the Tower, or what not. Amongst the greatest, the Duke of Hamilton put himself at their disposal, urged thereto by a particular letter from my Lord Harrington and his own love of beauty. He dangled about them daily, and it must be owned that, from the first moment of meeting, Mrs Gunning fixed the eye of cupidity on his Grace. For of all of the matches of the Kingdom, James Hamilton was the greatest available. Duke of Brandon in England, of Châtelherault in France, of Hamilton in Scotland, of vast possessions, of suitable age and gallant presence, a princess need not have disdained his hand. A great prince, indeed, and knowing it possibly too well, ’t was he to dazzle a girl’s eye and carry her heart by storm! As for hearts, it was never supposed his Grace possessed one; at least, he wore it not on his sleeve, but was ever cold and haughty, though it was well known he liked a pretty woman as well as any — short of the wedding ring. He hung about the new beauties as a gentleman will, until wagers began to be laid at White’s as to which had caught his favour, and where would fall the handkerchief of the Grand Bashaw.
Meanwhile, his attentions made them more than ever the mode, and the town gallants swarmed about them like bees at the Assemblies where they figured, attended by my Lord Duke in ribbon and star. As the days went by, however, the anxious mother observed that his preference was for Elizabeth, and that he had no thought to interfere with my Lord Coventry, who could not keep his eyes off Maria, though he committed himself no further than the Duke. Indeed, stories were now freely circulated concerning Britain Street and the poverty and shifts of the family, and wagers were laid that neither the one nobleman nor the other looked for more than a few months’ amusement with the two loveliest girls in England. Mrs Gunning was openly called the Adventuress, and it was a favourite sport with some ladies to imitate her Irish accent and carnying ways with those she would please; and doubtless Maria angled a little too openly for her lord. They were, in short, easy game for the mockers, and Elizabeth shrunk daily more into the shade. It appeared as if it would be the Dublin story over again.
Mr Harry came at once to their lodging on his return from Yorkshire, and, to be sure, had not a word to say of Miss Hooker. He would have saluted Elizabeth, but she drew back with a curtsey, her manner sweet and cold as an autumn dawn with a touch of winter in the air. He found her changed, and no wonder, and said as much with some anger.
‘It should not surprise you, Harry,’ says she serenely. ‘ I am now eighteen, and have seen the world, as you have also. Our betrothal was a child’s game. I like you too well to be your ruin. Marry Miss Hooker, of whom I hear. ’T is your best way, and obedience to parents a plain duty.’
‘You were not so wise in Dublin,’ replies Mr Lepel, casting a jealous eye on the fair monitress. If her looks had changed it was to a more radiant sweetness, and there was that in the way her long silken lashes lay on her fair cheek that dwarfed Miss Hooker’s fortune. He had better have kept his distance from the siren, he thought with bitterness. But sure a little pleasant dallying could hurt neither Miss Hooker nor his father — a summer pastime and no more; and if the tales flying about town were but the half of them true, he might hope for this, especially with the past pleading for him in Elizabeth’s tender heart. Sure there was a softening in her glance. He pushed his chair somewhat nearer and took her hand. She withdrew it, and removed her seat farther away.
‘Is my Elizabeth angry with her Harry?’ crieshe witha fine dramatic air. ‘Does she forget those happy days when we were all to one another? What is Miss Hooker or Miss Any-person to come between us? What —’
‘ Your future wife, as I understand,’ says Elizabeth, perfectly calm. ‘No, Mr Lepel — I know the world now, better than I could wish’ (she sighed), ‘and I desire not your attentions. I —'
But Mr Lepel broke in, pale and furious.
‘And is it thus you speak, you heartless jade? Clothes, jewels, balls, ’t is these you value. Is there a woman alive that will not sell her soul for the like? O God, why are fair faces made to madden us? Now I have seen you once more, how can I return to that flatfaced — ’
She rose, with a wave of her hand that dismissed him; but he ranted on in a towering passion of wrath and grief. It had all burst up anew in his heart, in and for a moment. He believed himself hardly used indeed.
‘ Could I bury my father and inherit his land, you would not use me thus. It is all a cursed thirst for gold, and you are for sale like an Eastern slave. Who is the highest bidder? But I know well. What am I to compare with —’
‘His Grace the Duke of Hamilton!’ announces Mrs Abigail, very demure in her pinners at the door; and in walks his Grace, magnificent in manners and dress, and Mr Lepel’s fury stopped on a breath, though he could not regain countenance as readily as Elizabeth. She rose to meet the visitor — a rose in June; and he might take the blush of anger which was due to Mr Lepel for a welcome to himself.
What could Mr Harry do but draw back, stammering and looking foolish under the cold glance Duke Hamilton bestowed on him. Prudence counselled, ‘Withdraw. What do you here?’ Angry Love retorted, ‘ Here I stay. What! Shall I leave the field to a rival?’ And so, he flung himself in a chair glaring defiance, Elizabeth palpitating between the two. ’T was not surprising that she drew nearer to the Duke, as if for protection; that there was an imploring softness in her face as she looked up to him; that she saw him greater, handsomer, stronger than ever, beside this idle and futile young man who had reviled her. The carelessness of his glance at Mr Lepel seemed to fling his pretensions in the mud — his haughty coolness to degrade the young man; and to such thoughts women are responsive. If her heart was touched before, the dart went deeper now. She held her head higher, deerlike, and wasted no words on the unwelcome guest.
The two gentlemen, seeing neither could outstay the other, departed presently together, Mr Lepel saying with assumed lightness as he bowed, hat in hand, at the door: ‘We had not the pleasure to see madame la mère your Grace, and no doubt but she is slipped away on some hunting errand. I wonder what new fox is broke cover. Half the world bets on my Lord Coventry still!’
The duke returned not his salute, and Lepel could not tell whether or no his arrow had gone home through the armour of chilly pride and silence. He himself strode angry and ashamed down the street.
That same evening a council of three was held in the lodging: Mrs Gunning with her mask of smiles laid by, Maria fretful, Elizabeth grave and retired in her own thoughts. The ladies had but the one bedroom, with a little closet for the youngest adjoining.
‘Girls,’ says Mrs Gunning, '’T is time I spoke plain. This six weeks in town hath reduced my purse till I am frighted to look in it; and what have we to show? Young women with not half your looks are married and settled since we came hither. We have had a vast deal of froth and flutter, but nothing solid. Were it possible to live on sweetmeats and dress in posies, we have a fine prospect, but not else. I see naught before us but Britain Street — or worse.'
Maria shrugged her white shoulders.
‘ What more can we do, mama ? Sir James Ramsden has offered marriage, and Captain Golightly; and Mr Lennox has asked Elizabeth, and Mr Lepel —'
‘What signifies all that?’ cries Mrs Gunning. ‘Don’t let them slip. They ’ll serve for the future perhaps, if all fails. Elizabeth, I command you on your duty that you please Mr Lepel, though not more than sufficient to content him. If we can’t better him — But Maria, what said my Lord Coventry to you at Lady Lowther’s ball? I saw him very earnest.’
‘Nothing that might n’t be in the news-prints, mama. His breed of black shorthorns filled his thought and tongue. I protest I loathed the man’s folly. ’T is an insipid creature when all’s said.’
‘ No man with a coronet is insipid. He is grave and reserved, and I would he had been Elizabeth’s admirer rather than yours, for they could have sat silent in a corner together. But what of the Duke, child? My hopes are sadly sunk,’
Elizabeth flamed in a blush, less beautiful than painful. A sore heart was behind it. She replied not. Mrs Gunning frowned.
‘Well, girls, you ’re easy enough, but so am not I. Now therefore listen while I speak my mind.’
’T is needless to be particular in recording the lady’s speech, which was much to the point in dealing with their needs and stratagems. She spoke for many minutes and at the end tears of shame and anger were in Maria’s lovely eyes. If Elizabeth wept, ’t was behind a sheltering hand.
‘What signifies grumbling?’ finishes Mrs Gunning. '’T is as plain as the nose on your face. Elizabeth’s is the best chance, and if she makes her match, my Lord Coventry will kiss your slipper, Maria. The Duchess’s sister can marry where she will.’
’T was vain to interrupt. Mrs Gunning sailed on, maternal, imperative, and took no heed. It would be impertinence to intrude on the talk that followed, and the plan laid for the entrapping of his Grace, of whom it may be said that he could protect himself against even the assaults of beauty better than Mrs Gunning supposed. But Elizabeth, borne down by two to her one, fought a losing game.
‘I hate the man,’ she cried with spirit, and knew’t was false as she said it. ‘ I’d sooner sweep a crossing — ’
Mrs Gunning smiled contemptuous.
‘Not you! You came pretty near it in Britain Street, and ’t is known how you relished it. Beggars, my dear, can’t be choosers. The Duchess of Hamilton may have as much delicacy as she pleases. Miss Elizabeth Gunning can’t afford it. There ’s no more to be said.’
Yet Elizabeth said it furiously, and in vain.
A subdued light of wax candles — the most flattering light in the world — made the parlour enchantment when his Grace sauntered in one evening, later. Posies were in the bowpots, and a delicate scent of violets in the air. On a table by the window lay a magnificent chicken-skin fan sent by my Lord Coventry for Maria’s birthday: it was covered with rosy figures of Cupids swinging garlands in blue air, the mother-of-pearl sticks latticed with gold. It lay beside a lace handkerchief, as if a fair hand had flung it careless down. A decanter of purple Burgundy with two glasses was hard by, and a small painting of the lovely sisters from the hand of Neroni, who had asked the favour to depict them as wood-nymphs. They advanced, smiling and bearing a garland between them down a forest glade, while two Cupids concealed behind a tree aimed a dart at each fair breast.
The Duke contemplated this work of art, smiling at his own thoughts, and not pleasantly. Presently the door opened and Mrs Gunning and Maria entered, in hats and capes, followed by Elizabeth, dead pale and in a negligee with blue ribbons, her hair falling in long tresses to the knee, confined only with a fillet of ribbon. She looked not even her eighteen years in this dress, and had a most touching beauty. His Grace kissed Mrs Gunning’s hand, yet with the half-contemptuous air of the great man. Some might resent such a kiss as an insult, but the lady’s armour was defensive as well as offensive. Says she, curtseying: —
‘I beg a thousand pardons, your Grace, but we are disturbed with an unexpected call. ’T is what we never imagined, but can’t refuse. Good Mrs Acton, a friend of our Dublin days, is took ill and hath sent for us to Harbour Street. She is unattended in London, and I know your Grace’s sensibility will excuse us.’
‘Why, Madam, friendship is so rare a virtue that ’t is worth proclaiming at the Exchange. I will give myself the pleasure to wait on you another evening.'
His hat was beneath his arm; he picked up his clouded cane.
‘ I thank your Grace.’ Mrs Gunning’s voice was stately. It changed as she turned to Elizabeth. ‘And now, my flower, my dove, repose yourself on the couch, and Mrs Abigail will bring you the lavender drops, and let me find my treasure well and smiling on my return.’
‘What? Does not Miss Elizabeth accompany her mama?' The tone was alert.
‘By no means, your Grace. She has ailed all day with her head, and is not fit for a sick chamber. Farewell, child. I wait your Grace.’
He took Mrs Gunning’s hand to conduct her to the coach; ’t was as pretty a comedy as ever George Anne Bellamy played. He laughed inwardly leading her to the door, and on the stairs discoursed charmingly on the last masquerade at Vauxhall. Without the hall door he paused.
‘Is Miss Elizabeth Gunning too ailing, Madam, to receive a friend for a few moments? Permit me to assist you.’
And before the lady could reply, he bundled the two into the coach, and was halfway up the steps ere Mrs Gunning could cry: ‘I know not, your Grace. A moment perhaps—’
He bowed from the door.
‘Be easy, Madam. I will myself administer the lavender drops if needful.’
It was impossible for the Duke to hasten himself, for this he had never done within the memory of man; but ’t was scarce a minute since he had left the room when he reëntered, half fearing to find his pretty bird flown. Not so, however. She leaned against the shutter, her eyes fixed on the evening sky. It seemed she had forgot his Grace, for her expression was sorrowful and quiet, unlike the female trifling he expected, and he heard a faint sigh. She turned, startled.
‘Forgive me, my Lord Duke. I think I can’t stay. My head —’
She would have glided to the door. ’T was provocative, however meant, and he put himself in her way. She tried the other side of the table. He blocked that also, and was before her again. Finally she ceased the attempt and stood with eyes cast down.
‘Child, don’t hasten. Give me a few minutes. I see you alone for the first time and never so lovely as now. Is it your long hair, or what is it? Sure the angels have locks like this.’
He lifted a heavy tress as if marveling. She snatched it from him like an aggrieved queen; then, seeming to recollect herself, stood silent again. ’T was but a schoolgirl, with trembling lips and veiling hair. He took her hand like a man accustomed to be obeyed, as indeed he was.
‘Child, your mama hath left you in my care, and you can’t desire I should relinquish the pleasure. Such an opportunity no gentleman could resist. Be seated, Madam, and let us discourse.’
’T was all on one side, for she had not opened her lips. But she obeyed him, and sat in the chair he handed her to, as passive as a marble lady. He seemed at a loss to continue, and stood looking at her where she drooped, then took a chair beside her.
‘You are pleased to be less cordial than I have known you, Madam. Is it whim or anger? I like a woman’s pretty coquetries as well as any man, but this silence — ’
It still continued. She was snow and marble. Not a word. Only the dark lashes like fans on her cheek. Not a gleam rewarded him.
‘A sullen beauty!’ says his Grace languidly, ‘but yet a beauty beyond all others. So here we sit!’ He drew out his jeweled timepiece. ‘I give you a minute, Madam — nay, two. And if by then you have not spoke, I will try if the warmth of a kiss on those sweet lips won’t thaw the ice. I swear it!
He laid the sparkling toy at her elbow on the table, and stared in her face. ’T is certain his Grace had dined. He was not wont to treat any woman thus unless where it was asked for. A minute went by — the tick was audible, but she moved not. And now a slow hot tear scorched its way down her cheek. If this followed mama’s instruction, it bettered it. The time was scarce out when he springs up and cries with triumph: —
‘I was not mistook. Your silence asks a kiss, child, and James Hamilton was never the man to refuse a woman’s challenge. Give me your lips, and more.’
His swashbuckling Border-ancestors were stirring in his veins, and for a moment his face coarsened and his eyes were gross. He caught her by the two arms and bent his mouth upon hers.
In a flash the fair statue was living and dangerous. He was a strong man, she a wisp of a girl; but she flung him off and stood glaring at him.
‘How dare you?’ she panted, and could no more. The eyes were unveiled at last and rained fire on him. Never had any person seen her look thus; she faced him gallantly. He applauded as if it had been the Woffington or any other fair game.
'’T is prettily done — but I see your drift, Madam. If a young lady is left by her friends and her own desire to sit alone with one of the best-known men in town, she takes the consequences. Yet I would not have missed Lucretia — she lacked only the dagger in her hand. But the comedy may end. Give me your lips, child, and coquet no more.’
‘Sir — if you are a gentleman —'
‘ Madam, I am a lover.’
‘Oh, ’t is too much — too much!’ she cries. ‘I have undertook what was beyond me, and I can’t — I can’t carry it through. I would if I could — I cannot!’
The strange words, the despair in her face was no stage-play, The Duke knew sincerity when it cried aloud. Still grasping her hands, he stood at arm’s length, staring in her face.
‘You cannot, Madam? What mean you? Are you in earnest?’
Not withdrawing her hands, fast held and quivering, she kept silence. He could feel the pulses flutter in her wrists, and the fumes of wine cleared slowly out of his brain and carried the brutality with them.
‘Have the condescension to explain yourself. You are safe in my company now. Possibly I was mistook, but I supposed you not unwilling for our tête-a-tête. Accept my apologies if this is not the case. I thrust no attentions on women who dislike them.'
‘Sir, I will explain and go, and never see your face again. I die of shame.'
He could still feel the pitiful flutter in her wrists. He relaxed his grip and handed her to her chair, — a gentleman again, — James, Duke of Hamilton and Brandon. ‘ I see myself gravely in error Madam. I await your words.’
She would not sit, nor he. They stood apart now, and he could scarce hear the silver tremble of her voice.
‘Sir, we are poor. You know this. And last night my mother did ask me whether I supposed your Grace had any feeling for me beyond careless good-willI knew not. What could I say? And she then revealed to me oh, how reveal it now! — that our little means is all but spent, and that gone, we must retire into poverty and misery again. Also that there are debts, and prison for debtors. Also that any match for my sister is impossible to hope for — No — how can I tell it! And she did say that if we could hope — could but know that —'
Her voice died on her lips. She hung her head in agony. He took her up.
‘The task is too hard for you. Let me continue. Your mama said that, if she and your sister withdrew and left you with me, if you put forth your charms (and God knows there were never such!), ’t was possible you might set the sweetest trap for the rich man, and with his aid clamber out of the mud and sit secure beside him. Confirm me if I don’t err. Confess! ’
’I confess.’ The words scarce broke the silence.
‘And love was not in the bargain,’ the cruel voice persisted. ‘Mama did not enquire whether James Hamilton was distasteful to you or the reverse. He was a moneybag — no man. Confess again.’
‘I confess. Sir, we have used you very ill. I ask your pardon. I was a fair mark for insult.'
Her head dropped lower. She could not otherwise hide her face, but the shame overflowed it in waves of crimson.
’To be frank, Madam, I have never found your mother congenial company. ’T was not for her I sought this house. Tell me, was this her plot only? Was it acceptable to you?’
‘At least, I followed it. She is my mother. I am one flesh and blood with her. If she is a plotter, so too am I. I bid your Grace farewell, and pray for so much pity as that you will never come this way again, nor see me, lest I die at your feet.’
‘Madam, do I owe you no apology?’
’I think none, your Grace. You acted as the woman you took me for might, I suppose, expect. Let me go.’
A singular thing happened here. The Duke, the haughtiest and coldest of men, bent his knee and carried her hand to his lips. So on Birthnights he kissed the late Queen’s hand, she standing before the Throne. Then stood very grave. ‘Madam, I entreat your pardon. I have shown you a side of a man’s character very unfitting for your eyes and you but the child you are. Forgive me and, ere we part for ever, answer me one question, in token of your pardon. Had I been but James Hamilton, the lowest of my clan — could you have honoured me with any regard?’
She stammered — trembling before this melancholy gentleness.
’I know not.’
He persisted, gentle but firm: —
‘We have perhaps something to pardon each other. I ask again — would this have been possible?’
Constrained, she sought for breath. Because a cold handsome face softens, and because distrust is melted, shall a woman let her heart fly like a bird to a man’s bosom?
‘ Sir, you ask more than I can answer.'
Still the eyes insisted, and now the strong hand held hers.
‘Sir — I think — I believe — it had not been impossible.’
‘What — not James Hamilton — no more? — with a shealing on the moors, and the heather-cock for food, and a Hamilton plaid to wrap his heart’s darling, and a fire of peats to sit by, and this hand empty but for love and his claymore?—Would the beauty of the world have come to his breast?’
His voice was a strong music — a river in spate. His eyes caught hers and held them.
‘ ’T is not impossible. But oh, how should I prove it — prove it ? There’s not a word I say but rings false now. Leave me — leave me. I have said too much.’
‘You can’t prove it? But you can, and if you prove it, I will distrust God s mercy before I will distrust my girl. All you have told me was known to me — known to all the town. It rings through the streets that the fair Gunnings and their mother are schemers; that they love none and seek only the best price for their charms. Marry me now, this hour, Elizabeth, and face the world that will call you plotter and adventuress. Fur they will so! There’s no club in town but will ring with the story of how the beauty was cunningly left to a half-drunk man’s advances. That’s how Horry Walpole and all the old women of both sexes will have it! All this will be known through your mother’s folly and your Abigail’s chatter, and they will tell how you trapped me, how I would have escaped and could not for the snares about my feet. Marry me and face this, if you will, and I will believe you love me, for you will stand a disgraced woman for all time. Marry me not, and I will make your way easy with gold, and your mother shall tell her own tale, and not a smirch on your name, and fear not but another rich man will give you all I could, and not a spot on it. Choose now once and for all. I have seen and I know how my coronet will sting you with shame — with shame set in it.’
He did not embrace her. ’T was the strangest wooing. The clock pointed to eleven. The house was dead silent. Her eyes widened with pain and fear. She looked piteously at him.
‘They will say you caught me drunk, whom you could not catch sober. They will say you forced the marriage, lest I escape. There is nothing they will not say but the truth — that my sweetheart is the sweetest, the purest, the proudest woman alive. Your delicacy will be trod in the mud, Madam. Will you take your man at that ? Will you crawl through the dirt to his heart?’
His fire kindled hers. Her eyes glittered.
‘ And if they believed me worthless — that is not what I ask. What would your Grace think?’
He smiled with peculiar sweetness.
‘Child, you know. Look at me.’
And still she trembled.
‘Beloved, adored!’ he cried. ‘Think you I knew not ’t was death to you to tell the truth? Shall a man find a pearl in the dirt and not set it over his heart. I have loved you since first I saw your fair face, and now I honour you. Come to me and bless me; and when these fools cackle and gibber, I shall know how to protect my wife.’
His arms went round her.
‘ I will do it,’ she said.
The minutes passed in an exquisite joy, plucked out of shame like a rose from a torrent. He left her and went to the door, and leaning over the balustrade, called down the stair: —
‘ Armitage! ’
A young man, handsomely dressed and something of a fop after his valetfashion, sprang up the stair, his Grace’s gentleman. His master, very tranquil and haughty, was by the door — the fair Miss Gunning erect in her chair.
‘Armitage, proceed at once to my house, and acquaint my chaplain, Mr MacDonald, that this lady and I are to be married immediately. Desirehim to come hither with all that is necessary, and lose not a moment.’
And seeing Armitage hesitate like a man wonderstruck, the duke stamped his foot and set him flying down the way he came, calling after him: —
‘Desire Mrs Abigail to come up this moment.’
They heard the door shut violently, and Mrs Abigail came up, very demure and curtseying to the ground.
‘ Be seated, good woman. Your lady will excuse you. We wait the Reverend Mr MacDonald, with ring and licence, and you and Armitage shall serve for witnesses to the marriage. Now I think of it, call also the woman of the house.’
He carried it masterfully, and Elizabeth, no more than any other woman, could be insensible to that charming tyranny. He stood behind her chair while the woman called for Mrs Mann — who came, mortally afraid of her company.
‘Shall Mrs Abigail braid my hair? — it tumbles all about me,’ says Elizabeth, questioning her master timidly.
‘ ’T is so great a beauty I will not have it hid,’ he cries, standing behind her chair where the long locks lay on the ground.
Silence again, and the time passing.
At last, a sound as if Armitage propelled somewhat before him up the stair, and into the room walks his Grace’s gentleman, and before him a stout personage in bands and cassock, so breathless from haste as to be incapable of any speech.
‘Hath he the licence?’
‘He hath, your Grace, but he declares that the occasion being so great, and the incumbent of Mayfair Chapel, Dr Keith, being at home and the chapel open, for the greater solemnity ’t were well to have the marriage solemnised there. ’T is but ten minutes, and I have brought the chariot, if it please your Grace.’
And now, puffing sore, the clergyman put in his plea, not for delay, — the Duke’s face forbade that, — but that all be done with ceremony.
‘ If a word more be said, I send for the Archbishop!’ swears his Grace, flushed and handsome. ‘My chariot’s at the door. Bundle in all who can. Madam, allow me.’
He drew the bride’s hand to his, and preceded them down the stair, holding it high as in a minuet. The women followed without a word. Elizabeth went in a dream, half enchantment, half nightmare.
The chapel was dark and musty — no time to light the lamps; but Mr Armitage, the facile, the adroit, a perfect Mercury and old in experience, called in four linkmen waiting by their ladies’ empty chairs in the street outside. These grimy fellows stood upon the altar steps, two at a side, lighting the book the parson opened, his voice resounding through the silent place with startling loudness. Behind the bridal pair huddled the women.
‘Dearly Beloved, we are met together — ’ and so to the close. But his voice was muffled beside the clear ring of James Hamilton’s. His ‘I will’ fell like a sword on the air. He was never a man to show his heart but to the one in whose hand it lay, and his tone disdained all but the woman who stood by him. He put his signet ring on her finger, and they turned from the altar man and wife.
‘Give each of these men five guineas, and bid them light her Grace to her chariot, Armitage. Take you the women back to Mrs Gunning’s lodging, where we follow. I thank you, Mr Keith, for the best service man ever did me. It shall not go unrewarded.’
He handed her into the chariot with the utmost ceremony; and when the door was closed, flung himself on his knees before her, clasping her waist.
‘My dear — my girl, how shall I thank you? Think you I don’t know what it hath cost you — and the proof you have given me that your heart is mine. My wife — my sweetheart!’
’T was half after twelve when Mrs Gunning returned with Maria, being a prudent woman, and resolved that, if the criminal did not hang himself, it should not be for want of rope.
‘The chariot’s at the door and the light still in the parlour! ’ she whispered; ‘sure, he can’t be there still? Heaven send he be not drunk and asleep. ’T was mere folly to leave the wane!'
Not a sound. They approached as it were on tiptoe up the stair, and softly opened the door.
My Lord Duke, attended by Armitage, stood before them, splendid in his dark red velvet laced with silver, the blue ribbon crossing his breast. He held Elizabeth by the hand, she pale as ashes but perfectly composed.
Mrs Gunning gave a fine dramatic start, Maria advancing behind her, devoured with curiosity.
‘What — what can this mean? Little did I expect to find your Grace here at this hour. Elizabeth, I fear you have been vastly imprudent. Your good name — ’
She might have said more, but the Duke came forward, very magnificent.
‘Madam, permit me to introduce a stranger,' says he, with emphasis on the word, ‘Her Grace the Duchess of Hamilton.’
‘ Lord! Then ’t is to be! ’ cries Mrs Gunning, all radiant, and mistaking his meaning. ‘O my sweet child, my Elizabeth — how have you took me by surprise! When shall it be, your Grace?’
‘Madam, it is done. Miss Gunning became my bride in the Mayfair Chapel — was it twenty minutes since, Armitage ?'
‘Fifteen, your Grace.'
'’T was all in order — a clergyman? — ’t was legal?’ pants Mrs Gunning, her hand to her heart.
‘Assuage your maternal fears, Madam.'
His lip was disdainful; he set her a world away.
‘All was as you could have wished. Permit the Duchess and myself to wish you farewell and good night — or rather good morning.’
He led Elizabeth to the door, which Armitage held open. It closed behind them, and their steps were heard descending. The Duchess had not said a word.
There was silence until the chariot had rumbled away, when Mrs Gunning found her voice.
‘I did not credit her with such skill. She hath played her cards well indeed. I would give the world to know what passed.’
‘That we shall never know,’ says Maria. ‘He’s not the man to tell his secrets, nor she neither. Sure, they ’re a pair.’
‘Well, Heaven send you show the like skill with my Lord Coventry. You can’t do better. Lord, how my heart beats for joy! ’
‘I shall not need, Madam,’ says Miss Maria coolly, ‘She has ensured my match with her own. The Duchess of Hamilton’s sister won’t go begging for a husband. ’T is now but to choose my wedding silk. Come, let us to bed. These late hours hurt my bloom. Let us however drink a toast in this wine to old Mother Corrigan and the Golden Vanity. ’T is the least we can do. Blow out the candles.’
(Elizabeth, later Duchess of Argyll, bore her honours with dignity and became a very great lady. Maria, Countess of Coventry, died aged twenty-seven, not untouched by scandal, and a victim to her own frivolity. Mrs Gunning received a valuable appointment as Housekeeper at one of the royal palaces. ‘ The Luck of the Gunnings ’ became a proverb.)