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   Chapter 16 No.16

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 13273

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


During the Dublin Season it is found convenient to give teas: the young ladies have to be introduced to the men they will meet after at the Castle. These gatherings take place at five o'clock in the afternoon; and as Mrs. Barton started from the Shelbourne Hotel for Lady Georgina Stapleton's, she fell to thinking that a woman is never really vulnerable until she is bringing out her daughters. Till then the usual shafts directed against her virtue fall harmlessly on either side, but now they glance from the marriage buckler and strike the daughter in full heart. In the ball-room, as in the forest, the female is most easily assailed when guarding her young, and nowhere in the whole animal kingdom is this fact so well exemplified as in Dublin Castle.

Lady Georgina lived in Harcourt Street, and it was on her way thither that something like a regret rose up in Mrs. Barton that she had (she was forced to confess it) aroused the enmity of women, and persistently.

Lady Georgina Stapleton was Lord Dungory's eldest sister. She, too, hated Mrs. Barton; but, being poor (Milord used to call himself the milch-cow), she found herself, like the Ladies Cullen, occasionally obliged to smile upon and extend a welcoming hand to the family enemy; and when Mrs. Barton came to Dublin for the Castle Season, a little pressure was put upon Lady Georgina to obtain invitations from the Chamberlain; the ladies exchanged visits, and there the matter ended, as Mrs. Barton and her daughter passed through Stephen's Green, and she remembered that she had never taken the trouble to conceal her dislike of the house in Harcourt Street, and some of the hard things she had said when standing on the box-seat of a drag at Punchestown Races had travelled back and had found a lasting resting-place in Lady Georgina's wrathful memory.

'This is considered to be the most artistic house in Dublin,' said Mrs.

Barton, as the servant showed them upstairs.

'How lovely the camellias look,' said Olive.

'And now, Alice, mind, none of your Liberalism in this house, or you will ruin your sister's chances.'

Lady Georgina wore a wig, or her hair was arranged so as to look like one. Fifty years had rubbed away much of her youthful ugliness; and, in the delicate twilight of her rooms, her aristocratic bearing might be mistaken for good looks.

Lady Georgina was a celebrated needlewoman, and she was now begging Lord Kilcarney to assist her at a charity bazaar. Few people had yet arrived; and when Harding was announced, Mrs. Barton whispered:

'Here's your friend, Alice; don't miss your chance.'

Then every moment bevies of girls came in and were accommodated with seats, and if possible with young men. Teacups were sent down to be washed, and the young men were passed from group to group. The young ladies smiled and looked delightful, and spoke of dancing and tennis until, replying to an imperative glance from their chaperons, from time to time they rose to leave; but, obeying a look of supplication from their hostess, the young men remained.

Lord Kilcarney had been hunted desperately around screens and over every ottoman in the room; and Lady Georgina had proved her goodwill in proportion to the amount of assistance she had lent to her friends in the chase. Long ago he had been forced away from Olive. Mrs. Barton endured with stoical indifference the scowls of her hostess; but at length, compelled to recognize that none of the accidents attendant on the handing of teacups or the moving of chairs would bring him back, she rose to take her leave. The little Marquis was on his feet in a moment, and, shaking hands with her effusively, he promised to call to see them at the Shelbourne. A glance went round; and of Mrs. Barton's triumph there could be no doubt.

'But to-day's success is often a prelude to to-morrow's defeat,' was Lady Georgina's comment, and Mrs. Barton and her daughters were discussed as they walked across the green to their hotel. Nor was Lady Georgina altogether a false prophet, for next day Mrs. Barton found the Marquis's cards on her table. 'I'm sorry we missed him,' she said, 'but we haven't a minute;' and, calling on her daughters to follow, she dashed again into the whirl of a day that would not end for many hours, though it had begun twelve hours ago-a day of haste and anticipation it had been, filled with cries of 'Mamma,' telegrams, letters, and injunctions not to forget this and that-a day whose skirts trailed in sneers and criticisms, a hypocritical and deceitful day, a day of intrigue, a day in which the post-box was the chief factor-a great day withal.

But above this day, and above all other days, was the day that took them spellbound to the foot of a narrow staircase, a humble flight seemingly, but leading to a temple of tightly-stretched floorcloth, tall wardrobes, and groups and lines of lay figures in eternally ladylike attitudes.

'Oh! how do you do, Mrs. Barton? We have been expecting you for the last two or three days. I will run upstairs and tell Mrs. Symond that you are here; she will be so glad to see you.'

'That is Miss Cooper!' explained Mrs. Barton. 'Everyone knows her; she has been with Mrs. Symond many years. And, as for dear Mrs. Symond, there is no one like her. She knows the truth about everybody. Here she comes,' and Mrs. Barton rushed forward and embraced a thin woman with long features.

'And how do you do, dear Mrs. Barton, and how well you are looking, and the young ladies? I see Miss Olive has improved since she was in Dublin.' (In an audible whisper.) 'Everyone is talking about her. There is no doubt but that she'll be the belle of the season.' (In a still audible, but lower tone of voice.) 'But tell me, is it true that-'

'Now, now, now!' said Mrs. Barton, drowning her words in cascades of silvery laughter, 'I know nothing of what you're saying; ha! ha! ha! no, no-I assure you. I will not-'

Then, as soon as the ladies had recovered their composure, a few questions were asked about her Excellency, the prospects of the Castle season, and the fashions of the year.

'And now tell me,' said Mrs. Barton, 'what pretty things have you that would make up nicely for trains?'

'Trains, Mrs. Barton? We have some sweet things that would make up beautifully for trains. Miss Cooper, will you kindly fetch over that case of silks that we had over yesterday from Paris?'

'The young ladies must be, of course, in white; for Miss Olive I should like, I think, snowdrops; for you, Mrs. Barton, I am uncertain which of two designs I shall recommend. Now, this is a perfectly regal material.'

With words of compliment and solicitation, the black-dressed assistant displayed the armouries of Venus-armouries filled with the deep blue of midnight, with the faint tints of dawn, with strange flowers and birds, with moths, and moons, and stars. Lengths of white silk clear as the notes of violins playing in a minor key; white poplin falling into folds statuesque as the bass of a fugue by Bach; yards of ruby velvet, rich as an air from Verdi played on the piano; tender green velvet, pastoral as hautboys heard beneath trees in a fair Arcadian vale; blue turquoise faille fanciful as the tinkling of a guitar twanged by a Watteau shepherd; gold brocade, sumptuous as organ tones swelling through the jewelled twilight of a nave; scarves and trains of midnight-blue profound as the harmonic snoring of a bassoon; golden daffodils violent as the sound of a cornet; bouquets of pink roses and daisies, charmful and pure as the notes of a flute; white faille, soft draperies of tulle, garlands of white lilac, sprays of white heather, delicate and resonant as the treble voices of children singing carols in dewy English woods; berthas, flounces, plumes, stomachers, lappets, veils, frivolous as the strains of a German waltz played on Liddell's band.

An hour passed, but the difficulty of deciding if Olive's dress should be composed of silk or Irish poplin was very great, for, determined that all should be humiliated, Mrs. Barton laid her plans amid designs for night and morning; birds fluttering through leafy trees, birds drowsing on bending boughs, and butterflies folding their wings. At a critical moment, however, an assistant announced that Mrs. Scully was waiting. The ladies started; desperate effort was made; rosy clouds and veils of silver tissue were spoken of; but nothing could be settled, and on the staircase the ladies had to squeeze into a corner to allow Violet and Mrs. Scully to pass.

'How do you do, Olive? How do you do, Alice? and you, Mrs. Barton, how do you do? And what are you going to wear? Have you decided on your dress?'

'Oh! That is a secret that could be told to no one; oh, not for worlds!' said Mrs. Barton.

'I'm sure it will be very beautiful,' replied Mrs. Scully, with just a reminiscence of the politeness of the Galway grocery business in her voice.

'I hear you have taken a house in Fitzwilliam Square for the season?' said Mrs. Barton.

'Yes, we are very comfortable; you must come and see us. You are at the

Shelbourne, I believe?'

'Come to tea with us,' cried Violet. 'We are always at home about five.'

'We shall be delighted,' returned Mrs. Barton.

Mrs. Scully's acquaintance with Mrs. Symond was of the slightest; but, knowing that claims to fashion in Dublin are judged by the intimacy you affect with the dressmaker, she shook her warmly by the hand, and addressed her as dear Mrs. Symond. To the Christian name of Helen none less than a Countess dare to aspire.

'And how well you are looking, dear Mrs. Symond; and when are you going to take your daughters to the Castle?'

'Oh, not for some time yet; my eldest is only sixteen.'

Mrs. Symonds had three daughters to bring out, and she hoped when her feet were set on the redoubtable ways of Cork Hill, her fashionable customers would extend to her a cordial helping hand. Mrs. Symonds' was one of the myriad little schemes with which Dublin is honeycombed, and although she received Mrs. Scully's familiarities somewhat coldly, she kept her eyes fixed upon Violet. The insidious thinness of the girl's figure, and her gay, winsome look interested her, and, as if speaking to herself, she said:

'You will want something very sweet; something quite pure and lovely for

Miss Scully?'

Mother and daughter were instantly all attention, and Mrs. Symond continued:

'Let me see, I have some Surat silk that would make up sweetly. Miss Cooper, will you have the kindness to fetch those rolls of Surat silk we received yesterday from Paris?'

Then, beautiful as a flower harvesting, the hues and harmonies of earth, ocean, and sky fell before the ravished eyes. The white Surat silk, chaste, beautiful, delicious as that presentiment of shared happiness which fills a young girl's mind when her fancy awakens in the soft spring sunlight; the white faille with tulle and garlands of white lilac, delicate and only as sensuous as the first meetings of sweethearts, when the may is white in the air and the lilac is in bloom on the lawn; trains of blue sapphire broché looped with blue ostrich feathers, seductive and artificial as a boudoir plunged in a dream of Ess. bouquet; dove-coloured velvet trains adorned with tulips and tied with bows of brown and pink-temperate as the love that endures when the fiery day of passion has gone down; bodices and trains of daffodil silk, embroidered with shaded maple-leaves, impure as lamp-lit and patchouli-scented couches; trains of white velouture festooned with tulle; trails of snowdrops, icy as lips that have been bought, and cold as a life that lives in a name.

The beautiful silks hissed as they came through the hands of the assistants, cat-like the velvet footfalls of the velvet fell; it was a witches' Sabbath, and out of this terrible caldron each was to draw her share of the world's gifts. Smiling and genial, Mrs. Symond stirred the ingredients with a yard measure; the girls came trembling, doubting, hesitating; and the anxious mothers saw what remained of their jeopardized fortunes sliding in a thin golden stream into the flaming furnace that the demon of Cork Hill blew with unintermittent breath.

Secrets, what secrets were held on the subject of the presentation dresses! The obscure Hill was bound with a white frill of anticipation. Olive's fame had gone forth. She was admitted to be the new Venus, and Lord Kilcarney was spoken of as likely to yield to her the coveted coronet. Would he marry her without so much as looking at another girl? was the question on every lip, and in the jealousy thus created the appraisers of Violet's beauty grew bolder. Her thinness was condoned, and her refinement insisted upon. Nor were May Gould and her chances overlooked by the gossips of Merrion Square. Her flirtation with Fred Scully was already a topic of conversation.

Alice knew she was spoken of pityingly, but she hungered little after the praise of the Dubliners, and preferred to stay at home and talk to Harding in the ladies' drawing-room rather than follow her mother and sister in their wild hunt after Lord Kilcarney. Through the afternoon teas of Merrion Square and Stephen's Green the chase went merrily.

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