MoboReader> Literature > Fallen Fortunes

   Chapter 5 A HIGH-BORN DAME.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 21961

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Westward from Whitehall, just after one had left behind the streets and lanes of the fashionable westerly portion of London town, and emerged into a fair region of smiling meadows, blossoming fruit-trees, orchards, and woodlands, were in those days to be found many pleasant and stately houses, varying in size and splendour according to the condition of the owner, but fair mansions for the most part, and inhabited by persons of quality, many of whom held posts at Court, and found this proximity to Whitehall a matter of no small convenience.

Some of the fairest and seemliest of these mansions were those which lay along the river banks, with gardens terraced to the water's edge, where light wherries could deposit gay gallants at the foot of the steps leading to the wide gravelled walks, and where a gay panorama of shipping could be seen by those who paced the shady walks, or sat in the little temples and bowers which made a feature of so many of these gardens.

There was one house in particular that in these days had a notoriety of its own. It had been an old manor house in the time when London had not extended so far to the west, and it lay embosomed in a quaint old garden, where fair and tall trees made a pleasant shade through the hot summer days, where the turf was emerald green and soft to the foot, and roses flourished in wild abundance. Now there was a formal Dutch garden set in the midst of the old-time wilderness, where clipped box edges divided the parterres of brilliant-hued blossoms sent from Holland, and where nymphs disported themselves around marble fountains, and heathen divinities on pedestals kept watch and ward over the long terraces which lined the margin of the river. But in spite of these innovations of modern taste, the silvan charm of the old garden had by no means been destroyed, and there were many who declared that not even Hampton Court itself could hold a candle to Lord Romaine's riverside garden for beauty and brightness and the nameless fascination which defies analysis. Lord Romaine was accounted a rising man. The friend of Marlborough and Godolphin, a moderate Whig in politics, a courtier above all else, and loyal to the backbone, he had been regarded with favour by the late King, who had given him some appointment about the Court, which had been confirmed by the Queen on her accession. And although Queen Anne was herself of such strong Tory leanings, she was beginning to find that the moderate Whigs were the men most useful and most to be depended upon; and the shrewd Duchess Sarah-her dear "Mrs. Freeman"-herself a convert from high Tory principles to those of their moderate opponents, was using her influence steadily and strongly to bring the Queen round to the same state of mind.

So Lord Romaine's star was likely to rise with the rising tide of Whig supremacy; and as he was a man of very large private means, and kept open house in a lavish fashion, it was likely enough that he would make his mark in the world. It would be certainly no fault of his wife if he did not.

Truth to tell, Lady Romaine's head had been somewhat turned when, three years before, her husband succeeded to his father's title and estates, and from being Viscount Latimer, with moderate means and only a measure of Court favour to depend upon, became an earl with a very large rent-roll, and a great fortune in ready money, which his father, who lived a secluded existence in the country, had amassed during the later years of his life. As Lord and Lady Latimer this couple had lived at the riverside house they still occupied when in town; but it had not then worn the aspect that it did to-day, albeit the garden had been something of a hobby to its owner for many years.

The lady cared little for the garden, save for the admiration it aroused in others; but she longed with a mighty longing to furbish up the old house after her own design, and as soon as the funds for this were in their hands, not a moment was lost in the carrying out of her cherished plans and projects. With a rapidity that astonished the town, a great new front was added to the old building, converting it into a quadrangle, in the centre of which a great fountain threw its waters high into the air. All the new rooms were large, stately, and imposing, and furnished according to the latest mode. Inlaid cabinets from the far East, crammed with curios of which my lady knew not even the names; crooked-legged chairs and sofas of French make; furniture in the new mahogany wood, just beginning to attract attention and admiration; rich carpets and hangings from India, Persia, or China; embroideries from all quarters of the globe; Italian pottery, Spanish inlaid armour, silver trinkets from Mexico, feather work from the isles of the west-all these things, jostled and jumbled together in rich confusion, made Lady Romaine's new house the talk of the town; and her tall powdered lackeys and turbaned negro pages were more numerous and more sumptuously attired than those of any other fashionable dame of her acquaintance.

My lady was at her toilet upon this brilliant June morning; and as custom permitted the attendance of gentlemen at this function, in the case of married ladies, the hall and staircase leading up to her suite of private apartments were already thronged by a motley crew.

There were dandies, fresh from their own elaborate toilets, reeking of the perfume in which they had bathed themselves, displaying in their own persons all the hues of the rainbow, and all the extravagant fripperies of the day, laughing and jesting together as they mounted the softly-carpeted stairs, their cocked hats under their arms, or descended again after having paid their devoirs to my lady, often cackling with mirth over some bon mot they had heard or uttered. There were chattering French milliners or French hair-dressers, with boxes or bundles of laces, silks, perfumes, or trinkets, wherewith to tempt the fancy of their patroness. There were gaily-dressed pages running to and fro with scented notes; turbaned negro boys carrying a lap-dog or monkey or parrot to the doting mistress, who had suddenly sent for one of her pets. Tire-women pushed themselves through the throng, intent on the business of the toilet, which was such an all-absorbing matter; and the whole house seemed to ring with the loud or shrill laughter and the ceaseless chatter of this motley throng, bent on killing time in the most approved fashion.

Some of the dandies about to depart, who were sipping chocolate from cups of priceless Sèvres china, and talking in their free, loose fashion with each other, kept looking about them as though in hope or expectation, and more than once the name of "Lady Geraldine" was bandied about between them. One young blood asked point blank why she was never to be seen at her mother's toilet. A laugh broke from his companions.

"If it's Lady Geraldine you come to see, you can save yourself the trouble of the visit. They say she was brought up by a Puritan grandmother, who died last year, and left her all her fortune. However that may be, the Lady Geraldine never appears when she can escape doing so. My lady gives way to her. They say she does not care to have a grown-up daughter at her heels, she who might pass for four-and-twenty herself any day, but for that damning evidence. But they say the father is beginning to declare that his daughter is no longer to be kept in the background. I suppose the next thing will be that they will marry her to some young nobleman. Gadzooks! with that face and that fortune-if the fortune be not a clever myth-they ought not to find it a difficult task!"

"I heard it said at the club that Sandford was the favoured suitor for the hand of Lady Geraldine," said one young exquisite, speaking with a lisp and taking snuff.

There was a laugh from the group of men standing by.

"Oh, Sandford is my lady's favourite! They say he is a kinsman; and he amuses her vastly, and gives her all the homage her heart desires. But Lord Romaine may have something to say to that. Sandford is going the pace that kills, and is playing old Harry with his fortune and estate. And as for my Lady Geraldine-well, 'tis said the pretty little Puritan will look at none of us. Split me! but it will be a pretty comedy to watch! The awakening of Aphrodite; isn't that the thing to call it? But Aphrodite is not generally credited with much coyness-ha, ha, ha! Perhaps it is but a pose on the part of the pretty maid. The sweet creatures are so artful in these days, one can never be too cautious." And a roar of laughter answered this sally, caution being about the last quality ever cultivated by the speaker.

Whilst all this was going on within doors, the object of these latter remarks was enjoying a silvan solitude in the most secluded portion of the beautiful old garden.

Far away from the house, far out of earshot of all the fashionable clamour resounding there, set in the midst of a dense shrubbery of ilex and yew, was an arbour-itself cut out of a giant yew-tree-commanding a view of a portion of the river, slipping by its alder-crowned banks, and overlooking a small, square lawn, sunk between high turf walls, in the centre of which stood an ancient moss-grown sundial, whose quaintly-lettered face was a source of unending interest to the fair girl, who had made of this remote and sheltered place a harbour of refuge for herself.

She was seated now just within the arbour, an open book of poetry upon her knee; but she was not reading, for her chin rested in the palm of her hand, as she leaned forward in an unstudied attitude of grace, her elbow on her knee, her wonderful dark eyes fixed full upon the shining river, a dreamy smile of haunting sweetness playing round her lips. At her feet a great hound lay extended, his nose upon his paws, his eyes often lifted to the face of his mistress, his ears pricked at the smallest sound, even at the snapping of a twig. Nobody could surprise the Lady Geraldine when she had this faithful henchman at her side.

The girl was dressed with extreme simplicity for the times she lived in, when hoops were coming in, stiff brocades, laces and lappets, high-heeled coloured shoes, and every extravagance in finery all the rage. True, the texture of her white silk gown was of the richest, and it was laced with silver, and fastened with pearl clasps that must have cost a great sum; but it was fashioned with a simplicity that suggested the rustic maiden rather than the high-born dame. Yet the simple elegance of the graceful, girlish figure was displayed to such advantage that even the modish mother had been able to find no fault with the fashion in which her daughter instructed that her gowns should be cut; and surmises and bets were freely exchanged by the gallants crowding Lord Romaine's house as to whether it were a deep form of coquetry or real simplicity of taste which made the Lady

Geraldine differ so much from the matrons and maids about her.

She wore no patches upon her face, though the dazzling purity of her complexion would thereby have been enhanced. And in days when the hair was dressed into tower-like erections, and adorned with powder, laces, ribbons, and all manner of strange fripperies, this girl wore her beautiful waving golden tresses floating round her face in the fashion of the ladies of Charles the Second's reign, or coiled them with careless grace about her head in a natural coronet. With powder or pomatum, wires or artificial additions, she would have nothing to do. She had been brought up in the country by her grandmother, a lady of very simple tastes, who would in no wise conform to the extravagant fashions which had crept in, and were corrupting all the old-time grace and simplicity of female attire.

"Leave those fripperies to the gallants," had been the old lady's pungent remark; "what do we want with powder and periwigs, patches and pomatum?"

She remembered the simple elegance of the court-dresses of the ladies in the Stuart times, and had no patience with the artificial trappings that followed. Moreover, albeit not a Puritan in any strict sense of the word-being a loyal advocate of the Stuart cause-she was a woman of great piety and devotion, and studied her Bible diligently; so that she took small pleasure in the adornment of the person in gaudy clothing, and the broidering of the hair, and in fine array. She taught her granddaughter to think more of the virtue of the meek and quiet spirit, and to seek rather to cultivate her mind, and store it with information and with lofty aspirations, than to give her time and thoughts to the round of folly and dissipation which made up the life of the lady of fashion.

Geraldine was so happy in the care of her grandmother, and felt so little at home with her fashionable mother, that her visits had been few and far between hitherto, until the sudden death of Mrs. Adair six months previously had obliged her to return permanently to her father's roof.

Here she found a state of things which amazed and troubled her not a little, and greatly did she marvel how her mother could be the daughter of the guardian of her childhood. True, Lady Romaine had married very young, and early escaped from the watchful care of her judicious mother; but it seemed marvellous that so close a tie could have existed between them, and the girl would look on with amaze and pain at her mother's freaks and follies, wondering how any woman could find entertainment in the idle, foolish, and often profane vapourings of the beaux who fluttered about her, and how any sane persons could endure such a life of trivial amusement and ceaseless meaningless dissipation.

Pleading with her father her grief at her grandmother's death, she had obtained a six months' respite from attendance at the gay functions which made up life to Lady Romaine. Those six months had been spent, for the most part, in the privacy of her own apartments, which she had furnished with the dim and time-honoured treasures of her grandmother's house, all of which were now her own, and which made her quarters in the old part of the house like an oasis of taste, and harmony, and true beauty in an ocean of confused and almost tawdry profusion. The old garden was another favourite haunt of hers, for there were portions of it which were seldom invaded by the gay butterflies who often hovered about the newer terraces and the formal Dutch garden, and the hound always gave her ample warning of any approaching footstep, so that she could fly and hide herself before any one could molest her.

So here she prosecuted her studies, read her favourite authors, and when the house was quiet-her mother having flown off to some gay rout or card-party or ball-she would practise her skill on the lute, virginal, spinet, or harp, and her fresh young voice would resound through the house, drawing the servants to the open windows to hear the sweet strains.

Lady Romaine would have humoured the girl's fancy for seclusion indefinitely. She felt almost humiliated by the presence of a daughter so stately and so mature. Geraldine was nineteen, but might have passed for more, with her grave, refined beauty, and her lack of all the kittenish freakishness which made many matrons seem almost like girls, even when their charms began to fade, and nature had to be replaced by art. Lady Romaine fondly believed that her admirers took her for four-and-twenty; and now to have to pose as the mother of a grown-up daughter was a bitter mortification, and one which disposed her to make as speedy a marriage for Geraldine as could well be achieved. Lord Romaine had at last insisted that his daughter should appear in the world of fashion, and she had been once or twice to Court in her parents' train, where her striking beauty and unwonted appearance had made some sensation. Geraldine had little fault to find with what she saw and heard there. Good Queen Anne permitted nothing reprehensible in her neighbourhood, and her Court was grave to the verge of dullness. She was a loving and a model wife; and the Duchess was devoted to her husband, though often making his life a burden by her imperious temper. Anything like conjugal infidelity was not tolerated therefore by either of these ladies, and decorum ruled wherever the Queen was to be found.

But at other places and in other company matters were far different, and already Geraldine began to shrink with a great disgust and distaste from the compliments she received, from the coarse, foolish, affected talk she heard, and from the knowledge of the senseless dissipation which flowed like a stream at her feet, and which seemed to encircle the span of her life in a way that made escape impossible.

But she had been taught obedience as one of the cardinal virtues, and the days of emancipated daughters were not yet. When her father bade her lay aside her mourning and join in the life of the house, she knew she must obey. But she had asked from him the favour of being permitted to design her own dresses, and to follow her own tastes in matters pertaining to her own toilet, and also that she might be excused attendance at her mother's morning levee; for the spectacle of crowds of men flocking in and out of her mother's apartments, and witnessing the triumphs of the coiffeurs and tire-women, was to her degrading and disgusting; and though Lord Romaine laughed-being himself so inured to the custom-and told her she was a little fool, and must get the better of her prudery, he gave way to her in this, and the more readily because she represented to him how that these morning hours were now the only ones she could command for study; and he was proud to find in his daughter an erudition and talent very rare amongst women in those days.

The old garden was another favourite haunt of hers (page 96).

But now an approaching footstep warned the girl that her pleasant morning was over. The dog sprang up, but did not growl. It was Geraldine's own serving-woman approaching with the girl's white-plumed hat and long silver-laced gloves.

"My lady's coach waits, and she desires your presence," was the message that reached her. Geraldine sat down to let the woman fasten the hat upon her head, and with a sigh she put away her books in their basket, and gave it to the charge of the faithful hound. She had found that her treasures were far more carefully safeguarded by him than when left in the care of a giddy maid, who was more bent on having the same kind of amusement with the men-servants that her mistress had with the gallants than of seeking to discharge her duties faithfully and well.

"Hasten, child, hasten!" cried Lady Romaine's shrill voice from the entrance-hall, as Geraldine approached. She was a wonderful object as she stood there in the full light of the June sunshine, her stiff amber brocade sweeping round her in great billows, her waist laced in like that of a wasp, and accentuated by the style of the long-pointed bodice; her high-heeled shoes, ornamented to extravagance, the heels being bright red and the uppers sewed with precious stones; gems glittering in the mass of laces at her throat, and in a number of clasps fastened to the bodice; her hair towering upwards to such a height that she could scarce sit comfortably in her lofty coach, and could wear nothing in the way of head-gear save the laces and ribbons which were worked in with much skill by the French hair-dresser. She was redolent of perfume; gloves, lace handkerchief, dainty muff, every little knickknack, of which she possessed so many, all emitted the same cloying sweetness. Geraldine felt herself heave a sigh of oppression as she followed this grotesque object into the coach. She was growing used to the aspect presented by the dames of fashion, but there were moments when her first disgust came over her in great waves.

"I marvel that you like to make yourself such a figure of fun, child," remarked the mother, as she settled herself in her coach, smirked towards the piece of looking-glass let in opposite, and turned a sidelong glance upon her daughter; "'tis enough to set the gallants laughing to see how you habit yourself. Well, well; you are a lucky girl to have found a suitor so soon. Now take good heed to show him no saucy airs, should he present himself at our box at the play to-day. He has been away these last days, but he can never long absent himself from town. Mind you have a smile for him when he appears, or I shall have somewhat to say to you later, Miss Impertinence." And the lady's ivory fan came down somewhat smartly upon Geraldine's arm.

"Of whom are you speaking, ma'am?" she asked, whilst the colour mounted suddenly in her fair face.

"Oh, come now; so we are already posing as a belle of many beaux! Pray who has ever cast a glance upon you save my good kinsman Sandford? And, mind you, he is a man of taste and fashion, and it is a great compliment that he has singled you out for notice. There be girls would give their ears for a kind glance from his eyes, and there are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it; so mind your manners, miss, and treat him to no tricks. It is high time you were wed, and had a husband to look after you, and that is why I take you about. For, as for pleasure in such company, one might as well play bear-leader to a snow queen!"

"I did not know that Lord Sandford had done me any favour," spoke Geraldine quietly. "I have seen him but seldom, and he has spoke not over much to me. But I will bear your wishes in mind, madam, should he appear to-day."

"Ha! there he is!" suddenly cried my lady, becoming excited, and rapping smartly with her fan on the glass of the window. The next minute the coach had pulled up, and Lord Sandford, attired in the very height of the fashion, was bowing over her hand with his courtliest air.

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