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   Chapter 4 No.4

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 15186

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In the tiny cornfields the reapers rose from their work to watch the carriage. Mr. Barton commented on the disturbed state of the country. Olive asked if Mr. Parnell was good-looking. A railway-bridge was passed and a pine-wood aglow with the sunset, and a footman stepped down from the box to open a swinging iron gate.

This was Brookfield. Sheep grazed on the lawn, at the end of which, beneath some chestnut-trees, was the house. It had been built by the late Mr. Barton out of a farmhouse, but the present man, having travelled in Italy and been attracted by the picturesque, had built a verandah; and for the same reason had insisted on calling his daughter Olive.

'Oh there, mamma!' cried Olive, looking out of the carriage window; and the two girls watched their mother, a pretty woman of forty, coming across the greensward to meet them.

She moved over the greensward in a skirt that seemed a little too long-a black silk skirt trimmed with jet. As she came forward her daughters noticed that their mother dyed her hair in places where it might be suspected of turning grey. It was parted in the middle and she wore it drawn back over her ears and slightly puffed on either side in accordance with the fashion that had come in with the Empress Eugenie. Even in a photograph she was like a last-century beauty sketched by Romney in pastel-brown, languid, almond-shaped eyes, a thin figure a little bent. Even in youth it had probably resembled Alice's rather than Olive's, but neither had inherited her mother's hands-the most beautiful hands ever seen-and while they trifled with the newly bought foulards a warbling voice inquired if Olive was sure she was not tired.

'Five hours in the train! And you, Alice? You must be starving, my dear, and I'm afraid the saffron buns are cold. Milord brought us over such a large packet to-day. We must have some heated up. They won't be a minute.'

'Oh, mamma, I assure you I am not in the least hungry!' cried Olive.

'La beauté n'a jamais faim, elle se nourrit d'elle même,' replied Lord Dungory, who had just returned from the pleasure-ground whither he had gone for a little walk with Arthur.

'You will find Milord the same as ever-toujours galant; always thinking of la beauté, et les femmes.'

Lord Dungory was the kind of man that is often seen with the Mrs. Barton type of woman. An elderly beau verging on the sixties, who, like Mrs. Barton, suggested a period. His period was very early Victorian, but he no longer wore a silk hat in the country. A high silk hat in Galway would have called attention to his age, so the difficulty of costume was ingeniously compromised by a tall felt, a cross between a pot and a chimney-pot. For collars, a balance had been struck between the jaw-scrapers of old time and the nearest modern equivalent; and in the tying of the large cravat there was a reminiscence, but nothing more, of the past generation.

He had modelled himself, consciously or unconsciously, on Lord Palmerston, and in the course of conversation one gathered that he was on terms of intimacy with the chiefs of the Liberal party, such as Lord Granville and Lord Hartington, and if the listener was credited with any erudition, allusion was made to the most celebrated artists and authors, and to their works. There was a celebrated Boucher in Dungory Castle, which Milord, it was hinted, had bought for some very small sum many years ago on the Continent; there was also a cabinet by Buhl and a statue supposed to be a Jean Gougon, and the proofs of their authenticity were sometimes spoken of after a set dinner-party. His speech was urbane, and, on all questions of taste, Lord Dungory's opinion was eagerly sought for. He gave a tone to the ideas put forward in the surrounding country houses, and it was through him that Mr. Barton held the title of a genius born out of due time. If Arthur, he said, had lived two centuries ago, when the gift of imagination was considered indispensable in the artist, he would have achieved high distinction. His subjects-The Bridal of Triermain and Julius C?sar overturning the Altars of the Druids-would have been envied, perhaps stolen, by the Venetian painters. And this tribute to Arthur's genius, so generously expressed, enabled him to maintain the amenities of his life at Brookfield. He never forgot to knock at Arthur's studio-door, and the moment his eyes fell on a new composition, he spoke of it with respect; and he never failed to allude to it at lunch. He lunched at Brookfield every day. At half-past one his carriage was at the door. In the afternoons he went out to drive with Mrs. Barton or sat in the drawing-room with her. Four times in the week he remained to dinner, and did not return home until close on midnight.

Whether he ever made any return to Mrs. Barton for her hospitalities, and, if so, in what form he repaid his obligations to her, was, when friends drew together, a favourite topic of conversation in the county of Galway. It had been remarked that the Bartons never dined at Dungory Castle except on state occasions; and it was well-known that the Ladies Cullen hated Mrs. Barton with a hatred as venomous as the poison hid in the fangs of adders.

But Lord Dungory knew how to charm his tame snakes. For fortune they had but five thousand pounds each, and, although freedom and a London lodging were often dreamed of, the flesh-pots of Dungory Castle continued to be purchased at the price of smiles and civil words exchanged with Mrs. Barton. Besides, as they grew old and ugly, the Ladies Cullen had developed an inordinate passion for the conversion of souls. They had started a school of their own in opposition to the National school, which was under the direction of the priest, and to persuade the peasants to read the Bible and to eat bacon on Friday, were good works that could not be undertaken without funds; and these were obtained, it was said, by the visits of the Ladies Cullen to Brookfield.

Mrs. Gould declared she could estimate to a fraction the prosperity of

Protestantism in the parish by the bows these ladies exchanged with Mrs.

Barton when their carriages crossed on the roads.

'Here are the saffron buns at last, my dear children;' and Mrs. Barton pressed them upon her girls, saying that Milord had brought them from Dungory Castle especially for them. 'Take a bottom piece, Olive, and Alice, you really must. . . Well, if you won't eat, tell Milord about your play of King Cophetua and the beggar-maid. Arthur, tell me, how did you like the play, and how did the nuns like it? To think of my daughter, so prim and demure, writing a play, and on such a subject.'

'But, mamma, what is there odd in the subject? We all know the old ballad.'

'Yes, we all know the ballad,' Arthur answered; 'I sing stanzas of it to the guitar myself.' He began to chant to himself, and Mrs. Barton listened, her face slanted in the pose of the picture of Lady Hamilton; and Milord rejoiced in the interlude, for it gave him opportunity to meditate. Anna (Mrs. Barton) seemed to him more charming and attractive than he had ever seen her, as she sat in the quiet shadow of the verandah: beyond the verandah, behind her, the autumn sunshine fell across the shelving meadows. A quiet harmony reigned over Brookfield. The rooks came flapping home through the sunlight, and when Arthur had ceased humming Mrs. Barton said:

'And now, my dear children, if you have finished your tea, come, and I will show you your room.'

She did not leave the verandah, however, without paying a pretty compliment

to Milord, one that set him thinking how miserable his life would have been with his three disagreeable daughters if he had not fallen in with this enchantment. He remembered that it had lasted for nearly twenty years, and it was as potent as ever. In what did it consist, he asked himself. He sometimes thought her laughter too abundant, sometimes it verged on merriment. He did not like to think of Anna as a merry woman; he preferred to think that wherever she went she brought happiness with her. He had known her sad, but never melancholy, for she was never without a smile even when she was melancholy.

Awakening from his reverie he drew his chair closer to Arthur's, and, with a certain parade of interest, asked him if he had been to the Academy.

'Did you see anything, Arthur, that in design approached your picture of Julius C?sar Overturning the Altars of the Druids?'

'There were some beautiful bits of painting there,' replied Arthur, whose modesty forbade him to answer the question directly. 'I saw some lovely landscapes, and there were some babies' frocks,' he added satirically. 'In one of these pictures I saw a rattle painted to perfection.'

'Ah, yes, yes! You don't like the pettiness of family feeling dragged into art; but if you only condescend to take a little more notice of the craft-the craft is, after all-'

'I am carried along too rapidly by my feelings. I feel that I must get my idea on canvas. But when I was in London I saw such a lovely woman-one of the most exquisite creatures possible to imagine! Oh, so sweet, and so feminine! I have it all in my head. I shall do something like her to-morrow.'

Here he began to sketch with his stick in the dust, and from his face it might be judged he was satisfied with the invisible result. At last he said:

'You needn't say anything about it, but she sent me some songs, with accompaniments written for the guitar. You shall hear some of the songs to-night. . . . Ah, there is the dinner-bell!'

Olive was placed next to Milord, and the compliments paid to her by the old courtier delighted her. She pretended to understand when he said: 'La femme est comme une ombre: si vous la suives, elle vous fuit; si vous fuyez, elle vous poursuit.' A little later the champagne she had drunk set her laughing hysterically, and she begged him to translate (he had just whispered to her mother, 'L'amour est la conscience du plaisir donné et re?u, la certitude de donner et de recevoir'); and he would have complied with her request, but Mrs. Barton forbade him. Alice, who had understood, found herself obliged to say that she had not understood, which little fib begot a little annoyance in her against her mother; and Milord, as if he thought that he had been guilty of a slight indiscretion, said, addressing himself to both girls: 'Gardez bien vos illusions, mon enfant, car les illusions sont le miroir de l'amour.'

'Ah! mais il ne faut pas couvrir trop l'ab?me avec des fleurs,' said Mrs. Barton, as a sailor from his point of vantage might cry, 'Rocks ahead!'

Arthur only joined occasionally in the conversation; he gazed long and ardently on his daughter, and then sketched with his thumb-nail on the cloth, and when they arose from the table, Mrs. Barton said:

'Now, now, I am not going to allow you gentlemen to spend any more time over your wine. This is our first evening together; come into the drawing-room with us, and we shall have some music.'

Like most men of an unevenly balanced mind, Arthur loved an eccentric costume, and soon after he appeared in a long-tasselled cap and a strangely coloured smoking jacket; he wore a pair of high-heeled brocaded slippers, and, twanging a guitar, hummed to himself plaintively. Then, when he thought he had been sufficiently admired, he sang A che la morte, Il Balen, and several other Italian airs, in which frequent allusion was made to the inconstancy of woman's and the truth of man's affection. At every pause in the music these sentiments were laughingly contested by Mrs. Barton. She appealed to Milord. He never had had anything to complain of. Was it not well known that the poor woman had been only too true to him? Finally, it was arranged there should be a little dancing.

As Mrs. Barton said, it was of great importance to know if Olive knew the right step, and who could put her up to all the latest fashions as well as Milord? The old gentleman replied in French, and settled his waistcoat, fearing the garment was doing him an injustice.

'But who is to play?' asked the poetical-looking Arthur, who, on the highest point of the sofa, hummed and tuned his guitar after true troubadour fashion.

'Alice will play us a waltz,' said Mrs. Barton winningly.

'Oh yes, Alice dear, play us a waltz,' cried Olive.

'You know how stupid I am; I can't play a note without my music, and it is all locked up in my trunk upstairs.'

'It won't take you a minute to get it out,' said Mrs. Barton; and moving, as if she were on wheels, towards her daughter, she whispered: 'Do as I tell you-run upstairs at once and get your music.'

She looked questioningly at her mother and hesitated. But Mrs. Barton had a way of compelling obedience, and the girl went upstairs, to return soon after with a roll of music. At the best of times she had little love of the art, but now, sick with disappointment, and weary from a long railway journey, to spell through the rhythm of the My Queen Waltz and the jangle of L'Esprit Fran?ais was to her an odious and, when the object of it was considered, an abominable duty to perform. She had to keep her whole attention fixed on the page before her, but when she raised her eyes the picture she saw engraved itself on her mind. It was a long time before she could forget Olive's blond, cameo-like profile seen leaning over the old beau's fat shoulder. Mrs. Barton laughed and laughed again, declaring the while that it was la grace et la beauté réunies. Mr. Barton shouted and twanged in measure, the excitement gaining on him until he rushed at his wife, and, seizing her round the waist, whirled her and whirled her, holding his guitar above her head. At last they bumped against Milord, and shot the old man and his burden on to the nearest sofa. Then Alice, who thought her mission at the piano was over, rose to go, but Mrs. Barton ordered her to resume her seat, and the dancing was continued till the carriage came up the gravel sweep to fetch Milord away. This was generally about half-past eleven, and as he muffled himself up in overcoats, the girls were told to cram his pockets with cigarettes and bon-bons.

'Bedad, I think it is revolvers and policemen you ought to be givin' me, not swatemates,' he said, affecting a brogue.

'Oh yes, is it not dreadful?' exclaimed Mrs. Barton. 'I don't know what we shall do if the Government don't put down the Land League; we shall all be shot in our beds some night. Did you hear of that murder the other day?'

'And it is said there will be no rents collected this year,' said Mr.

Barton, as he tightened one of the strings of his guitar.

'Oh, do cease that noise!' said Mrs. Barton. 'And tell me, Lord Dungory, will the Government refuse us soldiers and police to put the people out?'

'If we go to the Castle, we shall want more money to buy dresses,' said

Olive.

'La mer a toujours son écume pour habiller ses déesses,' replied Milord; and he got into his carriage amid pearly peals of laughter from Mrs. Barton, intermingled with a few high notes from Olive, who had already taken to mimicking her mother.

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