The Twin Wives

I

(BEING portions of letters from the Lady Emilia Boscawen in London to my Lady Armour in Scotland in the year 1788 and onward. The Walpole letters are authentic.)

Lord, child, you are as greedy for the news as if I had no business in life but to supply you! But let me tell you, you are very far in the wrong, for a woman of fashion in London, even if she be on the dark side of forty, has but little time for her pen. Were it the tongue now, and were you here, the little machine would vibrate at the rate of a thousand to the minute, but my hand was never so lively as my tongue. And why would you betake yourself to the savagery of Scotland if you must needs know the latest rattle of London? Or rather, if you must needs employ a newsmonger, why would you not engage the services of Mr Horry Walpole? There is the model of epistolary fidelity! When last your idle aunt spoke with him, says he, ‘Mine has been a life of letter-writing.’ ‘T is his pride and recreation and my Lady Ossory tells me credibly that when he has rummaged up a choice scandal — and God knows we can’t complain of their scarcity — he will not come near her, though but in the next street, that he may have the felicity to give it some exquisite quirk with his pen and so stuff out a budget of letters. Says I to him lately, ‘You will go down to posterity, Mr Walpole, as the Polite Letter Writer of all time.’

‘Lord, Madam, no,’ says he. ‘That estate is already freehold to my Lord Chesterfield. Mine are but an idle tissue of news and laughter and — yes, let me own it since I am pilloried for it — a touch of cynicism. But a touch — sufficient of cayenne to give the broiled bones a zest.’

‘The bones, I fear, of many of your friends and you, the ogre, crunching them! Suppose these letters published fifty years hence — Lord, what a twitter will all the world be in for their grandmothers’ reputations! Fortunate indeed are you that live in a Gothic castle and not a glass house, for the fusillade from Strawberry will certainly be returned with interest.’

‘My life is open to the wor!d, Madam,’ says he with his fine smile, ‘and has been for the last century, for I am now seventy-one. What took place in my cradle must be charged on my excellent father, Sir Robert Walpole (to call him by the name I love best). Since then I have been a circumspect bachelor. But I believe I was a bachelor in my cradle itself. I have always adored your charming sex, but at so safe a distance that I need not dread the answering volley of which your Ladyship speaks.’

’T is seldom indeed a man knows himself so well as this. A born old bachelor, full of cranks and little nicket-nackets, unlike any other man I ever knew. No, there I lie. He is as like his father as two peas from the same pod.

‘Lord,’ says you, ‘is my venerable aunt gone mad? Horace Walpole like the coarse, swearing, drinking, debauched Sir Robert?’ No, my Caroline, betwixt Horry and Sir Robert is not as much likeness as between your Italian greyhound and a great baboon, could such be supposed with a brain. No sensible person could credit that he sprang from such a stock unless they believed all women’s virtue impregnable. But I knew his father.

‘Mercy, Madam!’ says you, ‘sure you dote!'

Irreverent chit! don’t you remember how my Lady Mary Wortley Montagu once divided the world into men, women, and Herveys? That lady knew her world and was, like Caesar’s wife, all things to all men. And she knew Carr, Lord Hervey, and so did I. Let me draw his picture.

Quick-witted, fastidious, delicate in speech and person, despite the prevailing grossness, nice in his women as in eating and drinking, a past master in court diplomacy, though affecting to despise it. Nimble in retort, with the clean thrust of a rapier, faithful to a few friends, yet holding them ever under the enlarging glass of a wit that sees their weaknesses with the half contempt and half tolerance of the true cynic. Of whom is this the portrait, Caroline? Of Horry. And of Carr. No, he is neither man nor woman. My Lady Sharp-Tongue was perfectly in the right. He is Hervey.

Do I ever see him enter a room, hat under his arm, lavender suit, waistcoat worked sparingly but elegantly with silver, partridge-silk stockings, lean, almost diaphanous, mincing along as though walking in wet grass, but I see his father. Well, what’s the odds? He is much the better man for the admixture.

‘But,’ says you, ‘Aunt Emilia, what’s all this the prelude to? Is there a new Walpole scandal afoot?’ No, child, but a miracle. Horry is fallen in love. At the age of seventy-one. Lord preserve us! Who is safe? As to marriage — but yourself shall judge, and if you will put your money on the hazard with my Lord and Lady Ossory you may have your new birthday-suit for nothing. I have most of the story from her and from my dear Lady Charlotte Lindsay.

’T was at my Lady Herries’s house he met the charmers. Note the plural, my Caroline. No money, passable good looks, mere nobodies from nowhere, but my Lord Herries’s banking business makes him civil to all the oddcome-shorts that we don’t hear of otherwise. A father and two daughters, name Berry. My Lady says the girls looked well enough on the occasion; the elder, Mary, in a plain rose-color silk fastened down the front with bows in the French taste, and paste clasps, ruffles, and good arms. A pleasing young madam enough, but no more. Agnes, the younger, in lilac satin. The rooms crowded, for our Walpole Duchess, her Royal Highness of Gloucester, was to be present, attended by her uncle, Mr Walpole. The Duke is nowhere seen with her now, all his attentions being given to her lady-in-waiting, my Lady Almeria Carpenter. My Lady says she looked uncommon well in a dress of deep damask brocade, her bosom, and even her fan, a-glitter with diamonds. If beauty could hold a man — but when did it ever? Novelty is the only wear with them and ‘t is her infrequent coquetries with earthly lovers and the certainty of rivals that gives Madam Venus her reputation.

Following our Duchess-niece comes Horry, with his cool glance which comprehends the whole party in a general indifference. The Berrys were in the window, all eyes for the Duchess, and says my Lady Herries, ‘ Pray, Mr Walpole, may n’t I have the pleasure to present you to the Miss Berrys?’

‘Miss Berrys, Madam? Who are they?’

‘Two young ladies, considered agreeable. The father, Lord knows who. Their uncle, Mr. Ferguson of Scotland, vastly rich but not on terms with them. The young women have attainments which have drawn some notice on them.’

‘And what are their attainments?’ asks he, delicately stifling a yawn.

‘Travelers, I believe. I know no more. Will your Royal Highness sit?’

‘Are they the two young persons in the window?’ asks the Duchess, willing to be polite from royal heights. ‘Pleasant faces, but surely not beauties.’

‘O Madam, your Royal Highness judges exactly. Pleasant. Easy and well-mannered. The father — nothing.’

‘Why, Madam, I won’t trespass on your good nature,’ says Mr Walpole. ‘I grow too old for new acquaintance. — Madam, shall I fetch your Royal Highness a chair?’

’T is my Lady Herries’s belief that Miss Berry overheard this byplay and took her measures accordingly, for the next time they met Mr Walpole’t was at my Lady Aylesbury’s. The Duchess was at the end of the informally arranged chairs and settees, and Mr Walpole at hand, and the Miss Berrys placed themselves behind, modestly enough, but strategically, as Harry Conway describes it.

Horry looked up from his talk with my Lady Aylesbury and caught the eye of Miss Mary. His own glittered youthfully amid his wrinkles, and my dear Lady Charlotte Lindsay, who makes herself a sponsor for these young women, made the introduction, thus putting it out of his power to refuse. ‘T was at that moment I myself entered and made my reverence. He bowed and resumed his talk with my Lady. It was of Italy, which he had honored with his youthful presence, and he spoke of Venice but could not for the life of him recall the name of some Byzantine church which he described as monstrous ugly and far inferior to the French Gothic.

‘Pooh, pooh!’ says he, ‘my memory ‘s going. Forgive an old relique, Madam, for I’m as Gothic and antique as the cathedrals themselves.’

‘Could it be Torcello you refer to, sir?’ says Miss Mary, putting in her modest word. ‘We were there when in Venice.’

‘Madam, I thank you vastly. Torcello it is. And I trust your taste was never misled into admiration of its cold rigidity.’

The lady was all warmth.

‘O, sir, what person could admire? We, in particular, who have had the advantage to see Chartres and Amiens, could but view it with distaste.’

He made a remark in Italian, complimenting her discernment. You know, Caroline, how he prides himself on his faded old Italian; and the seductress responded, all smiles. He turned his chair about and regarded her quizzically.

‘You are a very accomplished young woman, Madam. I might have spoken thus to every lady in the room and had but a blush in answer.’

‘Sir, it can be no credit to me. My father took us to that lovely country and we must have been deaf and dumb had we not acquired the language. But I own a gentleman addressed me in it the other night, and I failed to understand him — his accent!’

‘And mine? Sure I have forgot it all.’

‘Yours, sir, time cannot change. ‘T is the purest Florentine.’

She then made as though she would have delicately withdrawn from the conversation, but Horry was in full sail by now. He discovered that they had met his old friend, Sir Horace Mann, in Florence. He drew me into the talk, he sparkled, he quoted Metastasio — whom I never could abide! — he related fusty old stories of bygone Italian celebrities, and Mary, who now introduced Agnes into the conversation, listened charmingly. Indeed, ‘t is no penance to listen to Mr Walpole. He has the happy turn, the light phrase, the apt quotation. I would not call his talk witty or laughable, but ‘t is of the highest breeding and sparkles like the foam on champagne which crisps a moment and is gone. He loves success also, and though he is forever alluding to his age, triumphs in making others forget it. ‘T was as good as a play to watch the scene, which indeed resembled a duel between two skillful fencers, Miss Mary playing him off to perfection. He next adventured himself into French and there indeed he was at home, delighted with himself and his anecdotes of the delightful and wicked persons who had been his intimates in Paris. The two young women listened and, when my Lord Northam would have engaged their attention, repulsed him with a grace and decision which fanned Mr Walpole’s flame to the highest.

‘Mesdames, you flatter me beyond what human nature can bear unspoilt. For the moment I forget that I am six months older than Methuselah and consider myself the successful rival of an elegant like my Lord Northam,’says he, bowing to kill. Before the evening was over I heard the sisters invited to visit the beauties of Strawberry with their father, and Mr Walpole went so far as to hope the residence Mr Berry was seeking might be found in the neighborhood of Twickenham. ‘T was then I admired Miss Berry’s discretion.

‘I fear, sir,’ says she, very seriously, ‘that rumor, which is generally malicious, has forborne on this occasion to inform you what very small persons we are in the world. A large fortune which was justly my father’s has gone to another branch of the family and we have nothing but gratitude to offer those who distinguish us.’ Was’t not clever, Caroline? He was amazingly eager in his reply.

‘My dear young lady, innocence and charm do not need to pay their way with diamonds, which indeed are no brighter than your eyes, or clearer than the music which falls from your tongue. I prefer such gems to the quarried species. You overpay by your intellect and charm those who have the happiness to meet you.’

Lord, was ever such a thing known! Horry, to a chit in her twenties! She’s no ordinary woman for certain. She made a most agreeable curtsy, her dark eyes sparkling, and Mr Walpole, going up to her Royal Highness, spoke with her in a low voice, and returning, took Miss Berry by the hand and presented her, and afterward Miss Agnes, both being well received and a polite remark addressed to either.

Since the Duchess, whose royal marriage has produced more rank than riches, does not smile on any attractive acquaintances of her uncle, they had the more reason to be gratified, if it were not that she did not overhear the talk and could but judge them very ordinary young persons.

Lord, my dear! — he was caught, and in a very pretty net. But the post stays for me and I must withhold my pen. Of Horry, all I say is, il n’a pas perdu l’ancienne habitude d’être jeune. But does any of that sex where ours is concerned? The man’s desire is always for the woman, but ours for the desire of the man, which means in this case — what does it mean, Caroline? A prospective coronet, Strawberry, a comfortable jointure on the Orford estates, the best-bred man in Europe, and much more. Farewell. I have written the outside of enough, but you shall hear all. My compliments to your Lord.

II

Later.
The plot thickens, my Caroline. Were you here you would find the town a-tiptoe. I have been of a visit to my Lady Ossory at Farming Woods, and here you have the gleanings. Horry had been dumb for longer than usual, and in comes this letter as we sat together.

STRAWBERRY HILL, October 1788
Well, Madam, if I have picked up no recent anecdotes I have made a much more precious acquisition. It is the acquaintance of two young ladies of the name of Berry who have accidentally taken a house here with their father for the season. Mr Berry has carried his daughters to France and Italy and they are returned the bestinformed and most perfect creatures I have ever seen at their age. Nothing is so easy and agreeable as their conversation. The eldest understands Latin and is a perfect French-woman. The younger draws charmingly. They are of pleasing figures; Mary, the eldest, sweet, with fine dark eyes that are very lively when she speaks, with a symmetry of face that is the more interesting from being pale. Agnes, the younger, has an agreeable, sensible countenance, hardly to be called handsome, but almost. She is less animated than Mary and seems, out of deference to her sister, to speak seldomer, for they dote on each other and Mary is always praising her sister’s talents. I must even tell you they dress within the bounds of fashion, but without the excrescences and balconies with which modern hoydens overwhelm their persons. In short, good sense, information, simplicity, and ease characterize the Berrys. The first night I met them I would n’t be acquainted with them. The second time, in a very small company I sat next to Mary and found her an angel both inside and out. This delightful family comes to me every Sunday evening, as our region is too proclamatory to play at cards on the seventh day. If your Ladyship insists on hearing the humors of my district you must for once indulge me with sending you two pearls I have found in my path.

‘Heavens!’ says Lady Ossory, receiving this letter where we sat in the library. ‘Pearls! Angels! My word! This is pretty well for Mr Walpole whose company has not been seraphic hitherto. My Lord, do you hear this?’

Lord Ossory listened while it was read out and received it with all the astonishment his lady desired. Presently he philosophized, ‘If a man is a cynic all his days and keeps the sentimentalities at arm’s length, so much the greater is his fall in his later years. And Horry inherits romance from his father.’

‘Not from the red-faced foul-mouthed Sir Robert,’ interrupts her Ladyship.

‘He inherits but his name from him, my Lady, as you know well. You ‘ll see now! I wager you fifty guineas that the old worldling puts his coronet, that’s coming, at the angel’s feet within a year. Are you agreeable?’

‘He had sooner face the Day of Judgment!’ says I. He twinkled.

'’T is the Day of No Judgment I dread for the gentleman,’ says he.

’It overtakes most of us at seventy, whatever the other may do.’

‘Well, I ‘ll take your wager,’ cries my Lady, ‘though, if I know women, especially the sort that travels with an accommodating father that’s seen and not heard, and knows the world from Venice to London via Paris, that house at Twickenham’s no accident nor Horry’s sitting by her neither. But I have faith in his wits and think he ‘ll enjoy the company and escape the noose, as he has done all his life. I ‘ll risk fifty guineas on Horry.’

‘Done!’ My Lord rattled the guineas in his pocket. ‘You rally him on his conquest of the twin beauties, my Lady. Tell him ‘t is most unbecoming his years to make a double attack, and then we shall hear all. Don’t tease him immoderately, however.’

She rallied Mr Walpole. She penned the following verses with my help — sufficiently bad for two Muses of quality!

When Mr Walpole deigns to praise
And serenade a casement,
Then we who know his loveless days
Are smit with deep amazement.
For if his icy heart grows warm,
The nymphs to whom’t is given
Must surely take the world by storm
And later, conquer heaven.

He received this with the delight of a cat whose ears are tickled, and it produced the following — more cautious, observe!

It stands upon me, Madam, to hurry my answer when I have to thank you for your very pretty and flattering verses. Little did I think my two Straw Berries would prove Muses at Farming Woods. I sent your Ladyship an account of them from absolute dearth of subjects, and when I had done so I repented and thought you would laugh at me in your mind’s mouth for troubling you with an idle description of two girls with whom I happened to get acquainted.

My wager’s as good as won!' cried my Lord Ossory. ‘Horry is frightened at himself. See the elegant reserve we now display! Madam, you shall dance at his wedding directly the coronet is on his brow, and you know the present Lord Orford weakens daily.’

I confess that “idle description of two girls alarms me,’ Madam replies, unfolding the letter once more. ‘There’s something to hide. I wish I could spy into Miss Mary’s heart, however. She’s the one. The other’s but a little decoy duck for us all. ‘T is the Elderberry I dread.’

They wanted me to join in the wager, but I knew better. I confess ‘t is my aim to behold the comedy from the wings and I knew how this could be done, though I did not tell my Lady, who is one of the most charming gossips who ever gathered and swelled the town talk. When I returned to town I went off to my Lady Charlotte Lindsay, who is a friend of the Berry bosom and of my own, and there expanded in praise of these charming young women.

‘ The town says they pursue Mr Walpole,’ says I, virtuously indignant, ‘but it little knows either Mr Walpole or the Miss Berrys. There is a something much beyond the common in them. I was sensible of it from the first.’

‘Lord, Madam, who values the town talk!’ says she, tossing her head. ‘Pursue— indeed! Mr Walpole can’t exist without their society. Strawberry Hill is their second home, so frequent are his invitations. Their coming is a favor most eagerly sought, and the days when they decline are struck out of his calendar.’

’But which is the attraction?’ I asked gently. ‘They are both such pretty-behaved young women.’

’Lord, my dear, who’s to tell? “How happy could I be with either,” but in his case ‘t is both. Miss Berry sent me yesterday a letter of his. See if you can decipher anything from it. I declare, I could wish to know.’

She laid it in my hand. Here is a part, Caroline. What think you?

I am afraid of protesting how much I delight in your society, lest I should seem to affect being gallant. But if two negatives make an affirmative, why may not two ridicules compose one piece of sense? And therefore, as I am in love with you both, I trust it is a proof of the good sense of your devoted H. WALPOLE.

‘The Grand Bashaw to perfection,’ says I. She shook her head.

‘I verily believe he is in love with them both. ‘T is astonishing how foolish old men may be. Look at this other letter. I declare I know not how to advise Miss Berry. ‘T would be a most desirable settlement for either. I love them excessively and hope with all my heart it may be so.’

The second ran in part as follows: —

I have received most kind letters from you both — too kind, for you talk of gratitude. Mercy on me! Which is the obliged and which is the gainer? Two charming beings whom everyone likes and approves, and who yet can be pleased with the conversation and old stories of a Methuselah, or I, who at the end of my days have fallen into more agreeable society than ever I knew at any period of my life? It is the extreme quality of my friendship for you both that makes me jealous if I do not receive equal tokens of friendship from both. Either of you shall write when she pleases, while my letters are inseparably meant for both.

Her Ladyship regarded me with an anxious eye while I read, trying my best for gravity.

‘The word “both” occurs very often,’ says I. ‘If one could imagine that it were a precaution — ‘ I saw immediately this would not do with so ardent a partisan, and hastily added, ‘But no, he is bewildered like the donkey between the bundles of hay, if your Ladyship will pardon a homely illustration. What think you of a little salutary absence, to give him time to consider?’

She jumped at this.

’Bless me, Lady Emilia — no one knows the world like you, and my dear Berrys are such innocents that they think of nothing. I ‘ll write without loss of time. Pray speak of this to no one. A breath would be fatal.’

She could not include Scotland in this prohibition, so I won’t disappoint my Caroline. For my part, I think Mr Walpole shows as consummate cleverness as in his youngest days, for he finessed from the cradle. ‘T will be a game worth watching. He shelters himself behind each when the other believes she has fixed him, and flirts from petticoat to petticoat with a most surprising agility, enjoying their company in perfect safety. Congreve never wrote a more brilliant comedy. You ask if he will not resent the gossip? Lord, child, when did Mr Walpole ever mind the world’s opinion? He were no Hervey if that troubled him.

But I must betake me to my beauty sleep. You young things can afford to burn eyelight for nothing, but a Helen of fifty has to consider the feelings of her elderly Paris. The older they grow, the more critical! Why do women trouble about them? I know not, unless it be that they find no room for their qualities in an easy life. Good night.

III

Later.
Mr. Walpole’s passion grows apace. He has christened the ladies his Twin Wives, and calls himself ‘Fondlewife’ from the husband in the old comedy. Indeed, plenty of others call him the same, and he knows it. My Lady Ossory permits me to transcribe this passage for my Caroline from his last effusion to her, received when I visited Farming Woods last week.

As to my wives; Miss Agnes has a finesse in her eyes and countenance which does not propose itself to you but is very engaging on observation, and has often made herself preferred to her sister, who has the most exactly fine features and only wants color to make her face as perfect as her graceful person. In short, they are extraordinary beings and I am proud of my partiality for them, and since the ridicule can only fall on me, I care not a straw for its being said I am in love with them — people shall choose which; it is as much with both as either, and I am infinitely too old to regard the qu’en dit on.

‘All very fine,’ says I, ‘but Mr Walpole knows perfectly well that the Strawberries are ridiculed and wagered on at all the clubs and colleges of scandal. Yet I forgive him for his skill, which is little short of dazzling.’

‘For the first time I am alarmed for my wager,’ says my Lord Ossory. ‘O, the old Iniquity! See how he shelters himself behind a brace of petticoats. One had ruined him. Two are an impregnable defense.’

‘Lord, don’t I know Mr Walpole?’ responds my Lady, beautiful in her negligee and floating blue ribbons. (She wears excellently well, Caroline.) ‘He’s as safe as a Lord Abbot. The town is talking like the clapper of a bell, and I am told the Duchess of Gloucester is frantic at the siege laid to her uncle’s heart and purse. You know her impetuosity.’

‘Well, it must be allowed annoying for the family, who have never entertained a fear of losing their interest, to have the Hermit of Strawberry kicking up his heels after this fashion in his seventies. But I don’t give up my wager, my Lady. Rat me, if I do.’

Poor man, ‘t is as good as lost! I saw Lady Charlotte a few days later, and a letter in her hand that I declare should be handed down to posterity for an example of how to look a difficulty boldly in the face — and pass on! Here is a passage: —

I passed so many evenings of last fortnight with you that I almost preferred it to our two honeymoons. If you both felt as I do, we might surpass any event in the annals of Dunmow. O, what a prodigy it would be if a husband and two wives should present themselves and demand the flitch of bacon, on swearing that not one of the three in a year and a day wished to be unmarried! Were there but one of you, I should be ashamed of being so strongly attached at my age; being in love with you both, I glory in my passion and think it a proof of my sense.

Bless my heart, did ever a man so claim the privileges of dotage with the astuteness of Machiavelli? ‘Both.’ Sure that word should for the future be written in letters of gold in every lover’s maxims. Is it possible, my Caroline, for our sex to use it also? I ponder this question daily and find no answer.

No one is better aware than Miss Berry that the town is watching breathless — so I hear from Lady Charlotte. No doubt she feels some strong measure is necessary. For my part, were it me, I would flee to the ends of the earth and let the gentleman wear the willow. Sure neither Mr Walpole’s dotage nor anecdotage can repay the Elderberry for the annoyance. I would take nothing short of the coronet in satisfaction, and that on his knees!

IV

Later.
I hear from my Lady Charlotte that Mr Berry, the silent, the invaluable, has been informed that his daughters’ health requires another trip to Italy the beautiful. In vain did he plead his love of Twickenham, his happy jaunts to London. In vain did he point to the distracted state of the Continent, due to the frightful excesses committing in France in the name of Liberty. He could get no hearing. The Elderberry was calmly resolute, and Agnes seconded her, and then Mr Berry did as always — he surrendered.

I hear that Mr Walpole, happily engaged in writing his Memoirs for the instruction of his wives, laid down his pen, forgot the delicious scandals he was reviving, and plunged into frenzy. Had they indeed been his wives, he could not feel himself more cruelly deserted. The sweet caressing intercourse which still convinced him of his power to please — all over! Lady Charlotte declares that he wrote with passion, yet a prudent passion, still on its guard, which shed its rays over both ladies, and naturally could not move them to mercy. He saw them depart, and then indeed his anger broke loose and he wrote thus (I could not copy all, but this will suffice you as a specimen): —

I am forced for my own peace of mind to beseech you not to continue a manoeuvre that only tantalizes and wounds me. In your last you put together many friendly words to give me hope of your return, but can I be so blind as not to see that they are vague words? Did you mean to return in the autumn, would you not say so? Would the most artful arrangement of words be so kind as those few simple ones? In fact, I have for some time seen how little you mean it and for your sakes I cease to desire it. My dearest Madam, I allow all my folly and unreasonableness and give them up totally. I have most impertinently and absurdly tried for my own sake to exact from two young ladies, above forty years younger than myself, a promise of sacrificing their rooted inclinations to my whims and satisfactions. I have no right to inquire into your plans, views, or designs and never will question you more about them. But my eyes are opened, my reason is restored. I condemn myself. I implore you not to try to help me to delude myself any more. I am too weak to stand disappointment now. I cannot be disappointed. Derange none of your plans for me. Two posts ago I hinted that I was weaning myself from the anxiety of an attachment to two persons that must have been so uneasy to them and has ended so sorrowfully to myself.

Lord, Caroline, do we ever drop our toys from the cradle to the grave? Here’s an ado about what he might have for the taking, would he but pay the price, but he haggles as he might over a picture by Canaletto to add to his museum. Let me versify: —

He that wants and will not pay,
When he will he should have nay.

But I think not here, for I am told a merciful answer followed upon this outbreak, Mr Berry, the silent, giving it as his opinion that Mr Walpole was seriously annoyed and that unless they returned in the autumn they might save themselves the trouble of returning at all.

‘But don’t consult me in the matter. Don’t consider me,’ he added. ‘I was torn away from the Cocoa-tree and am as well here as anywhere. Please yourselves.’

You have heard of course, child, that Lord Orford is dead, and much better so, and that Horry is now Earl in his stead. Also much better so, and it fastens the attention of the town still more on the drama. That he, the victor of a thousand battles, should, at seventy-odd, have fallen under the spell of two young women of no pretensions. He, who has coquetted with princesses and ladies of a wit more glittering than diamonds, whose epigrams are quoted over the civilized world, who has — but why enumerate?

The prodigal wives are returning, and the town is preparing with ardor to see my Lord Orford slay the fatted calf in their honor. The only question now is, which nymph will receive the cold shoulder. My Lady Ossory sent to bid me come to her to discuss the situation.

‘The twin wives are on the return,’ says she. ‘Just as a chef flavors his sauce to the point of perfection, so the Miss Berrys whet the appetite by withdrawing and, when Horry can bear no more without a fatal resentment, relent. The Elderberry deserves to be a Countess. She has all the finesse to make a distinguished figure at court.’

‘My dear, are you not a little malicious?’ says my Lord. ‘It appears to me that all the pursuit is on Horry’s side. He has fretted himself near into the grave since he lost his two ribs, as he calls them.’

My Lady surveyed him with pity and a gentle disdain.

‘Lord bless the man! — he will still be talking. Don’t I know how the Elderberry’s mind worked? Thinks she: “He’s like a man balancing on a pole. He can’t himself tell which side he ‘ll fall. Now, separation, a few letters, and he ‘ll soon know which handwriting makes his heart flutter. And when ‘t is known is the time for reunion.”’

‘Why, my Lady, to hear you one would say not only the Elderberry but all womankind was artifice and nothing else.’

‘Not by any manner of means,’ I put in my word. ‘The Elderberry may be and no doubt is a good enough young woman. Why should n’t any woman like Horry, and what is it against her if she likes a coronet too and a jointure? Is a woman brought up on beef not to like venison, or to be wicked because she sees on which side her bread is buttered?’

‘Very true,’ says my Lady, completing the petal of a rose in her embroidery and laughing to herself. ‘Little Tommy Tucker sang for his supper, and so must every portionless young woman. But these two have met their match. He ‘ll marry neither.’

‘He will, I swear,’ Lord Ossory cried with heat. ‘Look at him arranging Little Strawberry Hill, or Cliveden, or whatever he calls it, for their residence, that he may have them by him when they return! ‘

‘Now I ‘ll tell you exactly what he will do,’ says my Lady. ‘He ‘ll enjoy their company to the last moment, and he ‘ll leave them that house for a recompense. I own I shall be very much ashamed of my Lord Orford if he leaves them not also a few thousands in his will, though I wager it won’t be many. Even that will set the Duchess of Gloucester fuming. She has marked every shilling for her own chickens by her first marriage.’

My Lord was too angry to answer. He tossed out of the room, leaving us laughing.

Sure the town should allow poor Horry a little peace now, that has played for it so cleverly!

V

Later.
Indeed, my Caroline, I fully share your view of the matter. If Horry wishes to make a zany of himself, what is it to any one else? But, my dear, give me leave to say that, just as you entreat me in every letter to omit no detail of the comedy, so it is with all here.

No one means any harm, but all wish to know, and not to know is to be out of the fashion. ‘T is my usual luck when a scandal is afoot to hear from the fountainhead, and what with my Lady Charlotte and my Lady Ossory, I am well informed and will inform you, expecting in return the particulars of Miss Colquhoun’s elopement with her brother’s groom, which is much spoke of here though no one has authentic news as yet.

Well, my dear. The Twin Wives returned. Little Strawberry was prepared for them with anxious care, and all was well, when — the simmering talk boiled over into the newspaper, and some unknown scribbler permitted himself to comment on the arrangement. Miss Berry was indignant, and, as I think, justly. Lord Orford is a man of fashion, and what is to become of society if our doings are to be at the mercy of these miserable hirelings? ‘T is an outrage to be punished with the pillory. He was all but distracted with annoyance at her indignation, and replied thus: —

I see you are too proud to be obliged to me, though you see that my greatest and the only pleasure I have left is to make you and your sister a little happier if I can, and now, when it is a little more in my power, you cross me in trifles even. Will you punish me because a low anonymous scribbler takes a liberty with your name? I cannot help repeating that you have hurt me.

But the Wives were even more hurt, and there again I think with some reason, however they used it, for sure he could make all right by marriage, and what signifies it to him whether he dies married or a spinster, for the end must come soon.

I understand the Elderberry wrote, ‘Would to God we had remained abroad, where we might still have enjoyed as much of your friendship as ignorance and impertinence seem likely to allow us here.’

Would you not think, Caroline, that this might have melted even a Herveyhearted Earl? But no. This was a part of the reply. My Lady Charlotte wept over it: —

My dearest Angel, if my most pure affection has brought mortification and grief on you I shall be the most miserable of men. You know I scarce wish to live but to carry you to Cliveden. Is all your felicity to be in the power of a newspaper? For your own sake, for poor injured mine, combat such extravagant delicacy.

How could you say you wish you had not returned?

And so it was settled. Mark how Horry gets his own way in everything, as he ever has done and will. Would that he could bequeath me his methods! I had sooner possess them than ten thousand guineas, and they would be worth the double of it.

Still, even then he was not to enjoy the society of his wives in peace. I have every word of what follows from the fountainhead. Our Royal Duchess announced her Royal Highness’s intention of honoring her uncle with a visit. It may be that he quaked a little in his gouty slippers on hearing this gracious motion, but Lord Orford’s manner was Duchess-proof from the usage of a lifetime, whatever his inner reflections might be.

She arrived and was seated in the drawing-room and he could not augur well from the circumstance that she came entirely alone. The talk at first ranged over the family ill-healths and consumed a considerable time, for the Walpole tree had many branches and twiglets, but when Lord Orford was perfectly informed on these heads the Duchess passed to more immediate topics.

’I think it is your due and my duty, Sir, to inform you that talk is — I can only describe it as raging through the town on the subject of the Miss Berrys and your condescension to them.’

‘Indeed, Madam,’ says Horry, adjusting his frill and flicking a speck of dust from his knee with a faultless handkerchief. ‘I am under many obligations to your Royal Highness and this will not be the least. What is said of my condescensions?’

‘Much that is beneath your notice and mine. I have every wish to do the young persons justice and believe them to be in every respect well-conducted and sensible.’

‘You do them no more than justice, Madam. They are eminently wellconducted.’ The ghost of a smile seventy years old just brushed Lord Orford’s lips.

‘But,’ pursued her Royal Highness with increasing warmth, ‘when such motives are attributed as — I really shrink from pronouncing the word — marriage — what am I to say? For wholly unfit and impossible as such a notion may be, are you not yourself a little unguarded, Sir, in alluding to these ladies as your Twin Wives, and in settling them at Little Strawberry Hill and —’

Again the ghost of a smile. ‘You will at least allowr, Madam, that it is impossible I can harbor the intention of marrying both the ladies. The town is always prone to exaggeration.’

The Duchess’s very feathers shook like the plumes of a war horse.

‘True, Sir. But though all your family rejoices in your extraordinary juvenility of mind —’

For the first time in his life Lord Orford interrupted a royal personage.

‘Your Royal Highness fears that my juvenility extends so far as into second childhood. Alas, Madam, what have I ever done to deserve such a suspicion? What signifies the record of a lifetime if I am to be thus suspected of intended bigamy at the end of it? I, who have been as heedful as Cæsar’s wife — the associate of Mrs Hannah More, the celibate, the —’

The Duchess interrupted in her turn.

‘Sir, you are pleased to be humorous. But I must take leave to say that it would be only a degree less painful if a marriage so far beneath the family pretensions were to take place with either of these ladies. Were they as they may be —’

‘And are!’ interjects his Lordship, subsiding again into silence.

She gathered up the phrase and swept on.

‘And are. Still, a difference of nearly fifty years, a want of fortune, of family, of — of everything, must be felt an objection, and it is but proper you should know, Sir, that this objection is strongly, deeply, painfully felt.’

‘Madam, I flatter myself that my drafts either on the family opinion or its assistance have been of the slightest, and that the creditor’s account stands rather the other way. But may we clear up this matter? Does your Royal Highness now forbid me any intercourse whatever with the Berry family?’

‘Sir, I forbid you nothing,’ says the Duchess, flushed very highly. ‘I believe I know the duty of a niece, even in my situation, better than that. But it is well known to be advisable that persons in extreme age should be kept aware of the world’s opinions on their doings.’

‘And an affectionate supervision extended over their outgoings and incomings,’ says my Lord, delicately accentuating the double meanings. ‘ I am aware how much I owe your Royal Highness and I will bear your counsel in mind. It is indeed time I should bid adieu to all vanities. Fear not, Madam, I will behave as handsomely to the end as I have done during the whole course of my existence.’

The Duchess rose, stiff with anger, and Lord Orford attended her to the door. There she turned, unable to control herself any longer.

‘Sir, do you mean to marry Miss Berry, or do you not?’

’O, Madam, how is it possible for a mere man to answer such a question? It is your sex that makes happy or miserable in such cases. That is as Miss Berry pleases.’

If a royal Duchess can flounce out of a room, her Royal Highness did so now. My Lord did not attend her to her carriage, for he was no longer capable of doing so, but he smiled from the window as it moved off in its majesty, and ran over all the incidents in his mind that he might do them justice according to his wont in the letter I had the happiness to see.

But was it as Miss Berry pleased? That is what all the town asks and can get no answer. I am told His Majesty himself said at the last Court, ‘What? My Lord Orford to be married in his seventies? What — what — what?' and so went whatting on until the Queen hushed him down with a touch of her fan. They do not love the Walpole family, and with good reason. The post waits, and I can but add that the details you give of the Colquhoun affair, though full of interest, do not define the mother’s attitude, who is much to blame for her daughter’s behaviour. Pray give us all; omit nothing.

VI

Later.
The wagers are won and lost, my Caroline. No doubt you will have heard as much and yet depend on me for particulars.

Time went by. Lord Orford became weaker, but his humor and resolution apparently strengthened as his body failed.

‘He will be Horry to his last breath,’ says my Lady Ossory to me, ‘and like Queen Bess, will desire his virgin state recorded on his tomb.’

‘There is such a thing as a deathbed marriage,’ cries my Lord, ‘and he is by no means on his deathbed yet.’

'’T is said the Elderberry has herself given up hope and is privately engaged to Colonel O’Hara. A much more suitable match.’

‘The Elderberry is much too sensible a woman to give up just as the weakness of the citadel obliges a surrender. I flatter myself she will yet win me my wager, and what I value more — an admission from your Ladyship that you are not always in the right!’

‘Will you promise to own that I am always in the right, if Horry dies unmarried?‘ says she calmly.

‘Certainly, Madam, certainly, and ‘t is a proof of my belief in the powers of your sex that I engage myself to make such an absurd admission, for I shall certainly write myself down an ass in so doing.’

So they wrangled. None of us could see into Miss Berry’s mind nor guess her feelings. She wore her pallor like a charming mask. Her black eyes flashed scorn on inquisitors. Not even my Lady Charlotte could fathom her. Each day Lord Orford appeared to need them more tenderly, and if the tendrils of inclination wavered one day to Mary, the next ‘t would be to Agnes. A riddle of the Sphinx! Mr Berry grew more and more impatient of what was really a painful restraint upon his ease, for Lord Orford engrossed all his daughters’ cares. And now, his mind declining, his Lordship returned to the flight of his wives to Italy, and, do what they would, they could not convince him that every time they left him, ‘t was not for a return to Florence.

Indeed, the Elderberry had been too severe in the days when ‘t was hard to distinguish whether justice or mercy best became her, and now the victim could no longer comprehend that mercy was intended.

Finally a rumor rushed round the town that a deathbed marriage had taken place between the Elderberry and my Lord. It would be disclosed when the will was read.

Lord Ossory was confident but was obliged to defer his triumph until after the second of March, on which date my Lord Orford died.

The will was read. No marriage. Nothing to decide the question of preference. Four thousand pounds to Mary, the same to Agnes. Little Strawberry Hill to them jointly for their lives. To both, his unpublished manuscripts and his copyrights. Not a doit more to one than the other. Not a word.

Lord save us, what a man!

My Lady Ossory, triumphing, received her fifty guineas, and the admission that she was invariably in the right.

‘But he intended marriage always, and failed too rapidly at the end to carry out his intention. You were wrong all the time, though chance has most abominably favored you,’ says my Lord obstinately.

‘My opinion of Horry’s intelligence is greater than ever,’ says she demurely. ‘I knew how to value it. You did not.’

’T was not long before she met Miss Berry. I was present, and most deep and grave were her Ladyship’s condolences.

‘For indeed, ‘t is known, Madam, that my Lord Orford averred that the only value he could place on his coronet was to lay it at your feet. To think that death should so cruelly intervene!’

If the Elderberry’s pale cheek colored, her voice was as cool as marble. ‘I thank your Ladyship. It is true my Lord said this, but rather, as I thought, to alarm certain interested persons. He knew that, as the willing offering of a grateful heart, my time was at his service, but also knew that as a duty I should have found it irksome, and should have instantly declined such a notion.’

We retired with an excellent gravity. Well, he has left them more than the few thousand pounds, Caroline. They are effectually launched in society. They may yet shine. Can women ask more?

(It is known that the Miss Berrys certainly shone. They moved, with Lady Charlotte Lindsay, to the little house in Curzon Street, which in their hands became one of the most famous salons in London. It was a privilege to be asked there. To be intimate was distinction. My Lord Orford was no doubt a judge of character and capability. Certainly the Twin Wives justified his preference.

The secret of that strange friendship none can wholly decipher. He did not intend they should. I have presented the view of the gossips of the day. There was almost certainly another. What did he himself think? What were his intentions? We may guess, but never know.)