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   Chapter 6 No.6

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 24689

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Arthur, who rarely dined out, handed the ladies into the carriage.

Mrs. Barton was beautifully dressed in black satin; Olive was lost in a mass of tulle; Alice wore a black silk trimmed with passementerie and red ribbons. Behind the Clare mountains the pale transitory colours of the hour faded, and the women, their bodies and their thoughts swayed together by the motion of the vehicle, listened to the irritating barking of the cottage-dog. Surlily a peasant, returning from his work, his frieze coat swung over one shoulder, stepped aside. A bare-legged woman, surrounded by her half-naked children, leaving the potato she was peeling in front of her door, gazed, like her husband, after the rolling vision of elegance that went by her, and her obtuse brain probably summed up the implacable decrees of Destiny in the phrase:

'Shure there misht be a gathering at the big house this evening.'

'But tell me, mamma,' said Olive, after a long silence, 'how much champagne ought I to drink at dinner? You know, it is a long time since I have tasted it. Indeed, I don't remember that I ever did taste it.'

Mrs. Barton laughed softly:

'Well, my dear, I don't think that two glasses could do you any harm; but I would not advise you to drink any more.'

'And what shall I say to the man who takes me down to dinner? Shall I have to begin the conversation, or will he?'

'He will be sure to say something; you need not trouble yourself about that. I think we shall meet some nice men to-night. Captain Hibbert will be there. He is very handsome and well-connected. I hope he will take you down. Then there will be the Honourable Mr. Burke. He is a nice little man, but there's not much in him, and he hasn't a penny. His brother is Lord Kilcarney, a confirmed bachelor. Then there will be Mr. Adair; he is very well off. He has at least four thousand a year in the country; but it would seem that he doesn't care for women. He is very clever; he writes pamphlets. He used to sympathize with the Land League, but the outrages went against his conscience. You never know what he really does think. He admires Gladstone, and Gladstone says he can't do without him.'

They had now passed the lodge-gates, and were driving through the park. Herds of fallow deer moved away, but the broad bluff forms of the red deer gazed steadfastly as lions from the crest of a hill.

'Did you ever meet Lady Dungory, mamma?' asked Alice. 'Is she dead?'

'No, dear, she is not dead; but it would be better, perhaps, if she were. She behaved very badly. Lord Dungory had to get a separation. No one ever speaks of her now. Mind, you are warned!'

At this moment the carriage stopped before a modern house, built between two massive Irish towers entirely covered with huge ivy.

'I am afraid we are a little late,' said Mrs. Barton to the servant, as he relieved them of their sorties de bal.

'Eight o'clock has just struck, ma'am.'

'The two old things will make faces at us, I know,' murmured Mrs.

Barton, as she ascended the steps.

On either side there were cases of stuffed birds; a fox lay in wait for a pheasant on the right; an otter devoured a trout on the left. These attested the sporting tastes of a former generation. The white marble statues of nymphs sleeping in the shadows of the different landings and the Oriental draperies with which each cabinet was hung suggested the dilettantism of the present owner.

Mrs. Barton walked on in front; the girls drew together like birds. They were amazed at the stateliness of the library, and they marvelled at the richness of the chandeliers and the curiously assorted pictures. The company was assembled in a small room at the end of the suite.

Two tall, bony, high-nosed women advanced and shook hands menacingly with Mrs. Barton. They were dressed alike in beautiful gowns of gold-brown plush.

With a cutting stare and a few cold conventional words, they welcomed Olive and Alice home to the country again. Lord Dungory whispered something to Mrs. Barton. Olive passed across the room; the black coats gave way, and, as a white rose in a blood-coloured glass, her shoulders rose out of the red tulle. Captain Hibbert twisted his brown-gold moustache, and, with the critical gaze of the connoisseur, examined the undulating lines of the arms, the delicate waist, and the sloping hips: her skirts seemed to fall before his looks.

Immediately after, the roaring of a gong was heard, and the form of the stately butler was seen approaching. Lord Dungory and Lady Jane exchanged looks. The former offered his arm to Mrs. Gould; the latter, her finger on her lips, in a movement expressive of profound meditation, said:

'Mr. Ryan, will you take down Mrs. Barton; Mr. Scully, will you take Miss Olive Barton; Mr. Adair, will you take Miss Gould; Mr. Lynch, will you take Miss Alice Barton; Mr. Burke, will you take my sister?' Then, smiling at the thought that she had checkmated her father, who had ordered that Olive Barton should go down with Captain Hibbert, she took Captain Hibbert's arm, and followed the dinner-party. About the marble statues and stuffed birds on the staircase flowed a murmur of amiability, and, during a pause, skirts were settled amid the chairs, which the powdered footmen drew back ceremoniously to make way for the guests to pass.

A copy of Murillo's Madonna presenting the Divine Child to St. Joseph hung over the fireplace; between the windows another Madonna stood on a half-moon, and when Lord Dungory said, 'For what we are going to receive, the Lord make us truly thankful,' these pictures helped the company to realize a suitable, although momentary emotion.

Turtle soup was handed round. The soft steaming fragrance mixed with the fresh perfume of the roses that bloomed in a silver vase beneath the light of the red-shaded wax candles. A tree covered with azaleas spread notes of delicate colour over the gold screen that hid the door by which the servants came and went.

'Oh, Lady Sarah,' exclaimed Mrs. Gould, 'I do not know how you have such beautiful flowers-and in this wretched climate!'

'Yes, it is very trying; but then we have a great deal of glass.'

'Which do you prefer, roses or azaleas?' asked Mrs. Barton.

'Les roses sont les fleurs en corsage, mais les azalées sont les fleurs en peignoir.'

Lady Sarah and Lady Jane, who had both overheard the remark, levelled indignant glances at their father, scornful looks at Mrs. Barton, and, to avoid further amatory allusions, Lady Sarah said:

'I do not think we shall soon have bread, much less flowers, to place on our tables, if the Government do not step in and put down the revolution that is going on in this country.'

Everyone, except the young girls, looked questioningly at each other, and the mutuality of their interests on this point became at once apparent.

'Ah, Lord Dungory! do you think we shall be able to collect our rents this year? What reduction do you intend to give?'

Lord Dungory, who had no intention of showing his hand, said:

'The Land League has, I believe, advised the people to pay no more than Griffith's valuation. I do not know if your lands are let very much above it?'

'If you have not seen the Evening Mail you have probably not heard of the last terrible outrage,' said Captain Hibbert; and, amid a profound silence, he continued: 'I do not know if anybody here is acquainted with a Mr. Macnamara; he lives in Meath.'

'Oh! you don't say anything has happened to him? I knew his cousin,' exclaimed Mrs. Gould.

Captain Hibbert looked round with his bland, good-looking stare, and, as no nearer relative appeared to be present, he resumed his story:

'He was, it seems, sitting smoking after dinner, when suddenly two shots were fired through the windows.'

At this moment a champagne-cork slipped through the butler's fingers and went off with a bang.

'Oh, goodness me! what's that?' exclaimed Mrs. Gould; and, to pass off their own fears, everyone was glad to laugh at the old lady. It was not until Captain Hibbert told that Mr. Macnamara had been so severely wounded that his life was despaired of, that the chewing faces became grave again.

'And I hear that Macnamara had the foinest harses in Mathe,' said Mr.

Ryan; 'I very nearly sold him one last year at the harse show.'

Mr. Ryan was the laughing-stock of the country, and a list of the grotesque sayings he was supposed, on different occasions, to have been guilty of, was constantly in progress of development. He lived with his cousin, Mr. Lynch, and, in conjunction, they farmed large tracts of land. Mr. Ryan was short and thick; Mr. Lynch was taller and larger, and a pair of mutton-chop whiskers made his bloated face look bigger still. On either side of the white tablecloth their dirty hands fumbled at their shirt-studs, that constantly threatened to fall through the worn buttonholes. They were, nevertheless, received everywhere, and Pathre, as Mr. Ryan was called by his friends, was permitted the licences that are usually granted to the buffoon.

'Arrah!' he said, 'I wouldn't moind the lague being hard on them who lives out of the counthry, spendin' their cash on liquor and theatres in London; but what can they have agin us who stops at home, mindin' our properties and riding our harses?'

This criticism of justice, as administered by the league, did not, however, seem to meet with the entire approval of those present. Mr. Adair looked grave; he evidently thought it was based on a superficial notion of political economy. Mr. Burke, a very young man with a tiny red moustache and a curious habit of wriggling his long weak neck, feeling his amusements were being unfairly attacked, broke the silence he had till then preserved, and said:

'I haven't an acre of land in the world, but if my brother chooses to live in London, I don't see why he should be deprived of his rents. For my part, I like the Gaiety Theatre, and so does my brother. Have you seen the Forty Thieves, Lady Jane? Capital piece-I saw it twenty times.'

'I think what Pathre, me cousin, means to say,' said Mr. Lynch, declining the venison the servant offered him, 'is that there are many in the country who don't deserve much consideration. I am alluding to those who acquired their property in the land courts, and the Cromwellians, and the-I mean the rack-renters.'

The sudden remembrance that Lord Dungory dated from the time of James so upset Mr. Lynch that he called back the servant and accepted the venison, which he failed, however, to eat.

'I do not see,' said Lord Dungory, with the air of a man whose words are conclusive, 'why we should go back to the time of Cromwell to discuss the rights of property rather than to that of the early Kings of Ireland. If there is to be a returning, why not at once put in a claim on the part of the Irish Elk? No! there must be some finality in human affairs.' And on this phrase the conversation came to a pause.

But if the opinions of those present were not in accord concerning the rights of property, their tastes in conversation certainly differed as widely. Olive's white face twitched from time to time with nervous annoyance. Alice looked up in a sort of mild despair as she strove to answer Mr. Lynch's questions; May had fallen into a state of morose lassitude. If Mr. Adair would only cease to explain to her how successfully he had employed concrete in the construction of his farm-buildings! She felt that if he started again on the saw-mill she must faint, and Olive's senses, too, were swimming, but just as she thought she was going off Captain Hibbert looked so admiringly at her that she recovered herself; and at the same time Mr. Scully succeeded in making May understand that he would infinitely prefer to be near her than Lady Sarah. In return for this expression of feeling the young lady determined to risk a remark across the table; but she was cut short by Mrs. Gould, who pithily summed up the political situation in the words:

'The way I look at it is like this: Will the Government help us to get our rents, or will it not? Mr. Forster's Act does not seem to be able to do that. There's May there who has been talking all the morning of Castle seasons, and London seasons, and I don't know what; really I don't see how it

is to be done if the Land League-'

'And Mr. Parnell's a gentleman, too. I wonder how he can ally himself with such blackguards,' gently insinuated Mrs. Barton, who saw a husband lost in the politician.

But the difficulty the Government find themselves in is that the Land League is apparently a legal organization,' said Lord Dungory in the midst of a profound silence.

'A society legal, that exists and holds its power through an organized system of outrage! Mind you, as I have always said, the landlords have brought all their misfortunes upon themselves; they have often behaved disgracefully-but I would, nevertheless, put down the outrages; yes, I would put down the outrages, and at any cost.'

'And what would yer do?' asked Mr. Ryan. 'De yer know that the herds are being coerced now? we'd get on well enough were it not for that.'

'In the beginning of this year Mr. Forster asked Parliament for special powers. How has he used those powers? Without trial, five hundred people have been thrown into prison, and each fresh arrest is answered by a fresh outrage; and when the warrant is issued, and I suppose it will be issued sooner or later, for the arrest of Mr. Parnell, I should not be surprised to hear of a general strike being made against rent. The consequences of such an event will be terrific; but let these consequences, I say, rest on Mr. Forster's head. I shall have no word of pity for him. His government is a disgrace to Liberalism, and I fear he has done much to prejudice our ideal in the eyes of the world.'

Lord Dungory and Lady Jane exchanged smiles; and poor crotchety Mr. Adair leaned forward his large, bald brow, obscured by many obscure ideals. After a pause he continued:

'But I was speaking of Flanders. From the time of Charles the Fifth the most severe laws were enacted to put down the outrages, but there was an undercurrent of sympathy with the outrage-monger which kept the system alive until 1840. Then the Government took the matter in hand, and treated outrage-mongering as what it is-an act of war; and quartered troops on the inhabitants and stamped the disease out in a few years. Of course I could not, and would not, advocate the employment of such drastic measures in Ireland; but I would put down the outrages with a firm hand, and I would render them impossible in the future by the creation of peasant-proprietors.'

Then, amid the juicy odours of cut pineapple, and the tepid flavours of Burgundy, Mr. Adair warmed to his subject, and proceeded to explain that absolute property did not exist in land in Ireland before 1600, and, illustrating his arguments with quotations from Arthur Young, he spoke of the plantation of Ulster, the leases of the eighteenth century, the Protestants in the North, the employment of labour; until, at last, inebriated with theory, he asked the company what was the end of government?

This was too much, and, seeing the weary faces about him, Lord Dungory determined to change the subject of conversation:

'The end of government?' he said; 'I am afraid that you would get many different answers to that question. Ask these young ladies; they will tell you, probably, that it is to have des beaux amants et des joyeuses amours, and I am not sure that they are not right.'

Mrs. Barton's coaxing laugh was heard, and then reference was made to the detachment of the Connaught Rangers stationed at Galway, and the possibility of their giving a dance was eagerly discussed. Mr. Ryan had a word to say anent the hunting prospect, and, when May Gould declared she was going to ride straight and not miss a meet, she completed the conquest of Mr. Scully, and encouraging glances were exchanged between them until Lady Sarah looked inquiringly round the table-then she pushed back her chair. All rose, and a moment after, through the twilight of the drawing-room, colour and nudity were scattered in picturesque confusion.

Every mind was occupied by one thought-how the pleasure of the dinner-party had been spoiled by that horrible Land League discussion. All wondered who had introduced the subject, and the blame was fixed upon Mr. Adair. Mrs. Gould, in her homely way, came to the point at once:

'People say he is so clever, but I am sure I can't see it. He has spent a fortune in building farmyards in concrete, and his saw-mill, I hear, costs him twenty pounds a month dead loss, and he is always writing letters to the papers. I never can think much of a man who writes to the papers.'

'A most superior man,' said Lady Sarah, who, notwithstanding her thirty-five years, had not entirely given up hope. 'He took honours at Trinity.'

Then Mr. Burke and Lord Kilcarney were spoken of, and some new anecdotes were told of Mr. Ryan. The famous one-how he had asked a lady to show him her docket at the Galway ball, when she told him that she was engaged for all the dances-excited, as it never failed to do, a good deal of laughter. Mrs. Barton did not, however, join in the conversation. She knew, if she did, that the Ladies Cullen would be as rude as the absence of Milord, and the fact that she was a guest in their house would allow them to be. Mrs. Barton's mind was now occupied with one thought, and, leaning back in her chair, she yielded herself entirely to it. Although the dinner-party had been spoiled by Mr. Adair's uncontrollable desire to impart information, she had, nevertheless, noticed that Captain Hibbert had been very much struck with Olive's beauty. She was aware that her daughter was a beautiful girl, but whether men would want to marry her Mrs. Barton did not know. Captain Hibbert's conduct would help her to arrive at a decision. She certainly dreamed of a title for Olive. Lord Kilcarney was, alas! not to be thought of. Ah! if Mr. Burke were only Lord Kilcarney! But he was not. However, Captain Hibbert would be a fairly good match. He was of excellent family, had two thousand a year, and a place in the country and in England too. But why snatch up the very first fish that came by? There was no saying whom they would meet at the Castle. Still, to encourage a flirtation could be no harm. If they met anything better, it could be broken off; if they did not, it would be a very nice match indeed. Besides, there was no denying that Olive was a little too na?ve in her manner. Captain Hibbert's society would brush that off, and Olive would go up to the Castle with the reputation of having made a conquest.

Such were Mrs. Barton's thoughts as she sat, her hands laid like china ornaments on her lap; her feet were tucked under the black-pleated skirt, and she sometimes raised her Greuze-like eyes and looked at her daughter.

The girls were grouped around a small table, on which stood a feather-shaded lamp. In clear voices and clear laughs they were talking of each other's dresses. May had just stood up to show off her skirt. She was a superb specimen of a fat girl, and in a glow of orange ribbons and red hair she commanded admiration.

'And to think she is going to waste her time with that dissipated young man, Mr. Scully!' thought Mrs. Barton. Then Olive stood up. She was all rose, and when, laughing, with a delicious movement of the arms, she hitched back her bustle, she lost her original air, and looked as might have done the Fornarina when not sitting in immortality. It was the battle of blonde tints: Olive with primroses and corn, May with a cadmium yellow and red gold.

'And now, Alice, get up and let's see you!' she cried, catching hold of her sister's arm.

Still resisting, Alice rose to her feet, and May, who was full of good nature, made some judicious observations.

'And how different we all look from what we did at the convent! Do you remember our white frocks?'

Alice's face lit up with a sudden remembrance, and she said:

'But why, Lady Sarah, haven't we seen Cecilia? I've been thinking of her during dinner. I hope she is not ill?'

'Oh, dear me, no! But poor Cecilia does not care to come down when there is company.'

'But can I not see her?'

'Oh, certainly! You will find her in her room. But you do not know the way; I will ring for my maid, she will show you.'

At this moment men's voices were heard on the staircase. The ladies all looked up, the light defining the corner of a forehead, the outline of a nose and chin, bathing a neck in warm shadow, modelling a shoulder with grey tints, sending a thousand rays flashing through the diamonds on the bosom, touching the finger-rings, and lastly dying away amid the folds of the dresses that trailed on the soft carpet. Mr. Ryan, walking with his habitual roll and his hands in his pockets, entered. His tie was under his left ear. Mr. Lynch, haunted by the idea that he had not made himself agreeable to Alice during dinner, sat down beside her. Mr. Scully made a rush for May. Tall, handsome Captain Hibbert, with his air of conventional high style, quitted Lord Dungory, and asked Olive what they had been saying since they left the dining-room. Mr. Burke tried to join in the conversation, but Mr. Ryan, thinking it would be as well not to let the occasion slip of speaking of a certain 'bay harse who'd jump anythin',' took him confidentially by the sleeve.

'Now, look here, will yer,' he began. The rest of his remarks were lost in the hum of the conversation, and by well-bred transitions observations were made on the dancing and hunting prospects of the season. Mr. Adair took no interest in such subjects, and to everyone's relief he remained silent. May and Fred Scully had withdrawn to a corner of the room where they could talk more at their ease; Captain Hibbert was conscious of nothing but Olive and her laughter, which rippled and tinkled through an odour of coffee.

Little by little she was gaining the attention of the room. Mr. Adair ceased to listen to Lord Dungory, who was explaining why Leonardo da Vinci was a greater painter than Titian. Mr. Lynch left off talking to Alice; the little blonde honourable looked sillier and sillier as his admiration grew upon him. Mrs. Barton, to hide her emotion, engaged in an ardent discussion concerning the rearing of calves with Mrs. Gould. Lady Sarah bit her lip, and, unable to endure her enemy's triumph any longer, she said in her most mellifluous tone:

'Won't you sing us something, Captain Hibbert?'

'Well, really, Lady Sarah, I should be very glad, but I don't think, you know-I am not sure I could manage without my music.'

'I shall be very glad to accompany you. I think I know In the

Gloaming, and I have heard you sing that.'

Olive, at a sign from her mother, entreated, and when the gallant Captain rolled from under the brown-gold moustache the phrase, 'Oh, my darling!' all strove not to look at her, and when he dropped his voice to a whisper, and sang of his aching heart, a feeling prevailed that all were guilty of an indiscretion in listening to such an intimate avowal. Then he sang two songs more, equally filled with reference to tears, blighted love, and the possibility of meeting in other years, and Olive hung down her head, overcome by the fine sentiments which she felt were addressed to her.

Meanwhile Alice became aware that her sister was the object of all eyes and thoughts; that she was gaining the triumph that men are agreed may be desired by women without impropriety. Alice was a healthy-bodied girl; her blood flowed as warm as in her sister. The men about her did not correspond with her ideal, but this scarcely rendered the fact that they neglected her less bitter. She asked Lady Sarah again if she might go upstairs and see Cecilia.

She found the little cripple leaning over the banisters listening to the sound of voices.

'Oh, my dear! Is it you? I expected you to come to see me when you left the gentlemen in the dining-room.'

'I couldn't come before, dear,' said Alice, kissing her friend. 'Just as

I was asking Lady Sarah the way to your room, we heard them coming.'

'And how did you like the party? Which of the men did you think the nicest?'

'I did not care for any of them; and oh, that odious Mr. Lynch!'

Cecilia's eyes flashed with a momentary gleam of satisfaction, and spoke of a little excursion-a walk to the Brennans, who lived two miles distant-that she had been planning for the last few days.

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