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Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 22048

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

"The sun shines once again," quoth Lord Sandford, as he raised the extended hand of Lady Romaine to his lips, and dropped a light kiss upon her scented glove. "The sun shines in the sky; but let him beware and look to his laurels, for there are stars abroad of such dazzling lustre that Phoebus must have a care lest the brightness of his shafts be quenched in a more refulgent glow." And the young man gazed into the lady's eyes with a bold laughing stare that pointed the meaning of the compliment.

"La! but you talk the greatest nonsense!" cried Lady Romaine, highly delighted, as she tapped him smartly with her fan. "Come, tell me where you have been these many days. Some said you had been a-wooing in the country, and others that your dolts of tradesmen were dunning you to distraction, and others that you had fought a duel and had need to fly; but, pardieu! if one believed all the gossip of the town, one would have enough to do. I know there has been a duel, and I am aching to hear all about it. I'll warrant you know all the story, since he was your friend. Come, get into the coach, and tell me all about it. Were you there? What was it all about? And what sort of an end did he make?"

Lady Romaine's face expressed the eager pleasure and curiosity of a child talking over some trivial pleasure; she flirted her fan, cast languishing glances, and played off upon the young Earl all those countless little airs and graces which characterized the fine lady of the period.

But Geraldine drew back in her corner, her face growing cold and pale. She had scarcely acknowledged Lord Sandford's presence, only just bending her head in response to his bow. He had not addressed her as yet, and he appeared engrossed by the mother; but he flashed one quick glance upon her now, and possibly read something of the pain and disgust which possessed her, for he answered,-

"Nay, madam, let us not talk of what is past and done. How can thought of gloom and death dwell in so radiant a presence? In sooth, all dark thoughts take to themselves wings in this company, and will not be caught or caged. I forget that we are not in the bowers of Arcadia; for, in sooth, I am transported thither so soon as these poor eyes be dazzled by the light of those twin stars of love and beauty!"

Again Lady Romaine tapped him with her fan. She loved a compliment, however fulsome; but she wanted at this moment to be entertained by the account of the duel, which had made a little stir in the town, from the fact of one of the combatants having been the boon companion and friend of Lord Sandford.

"You dear, tormenting devil! But I will have the story yet! And we are all dying to know how you will get on without your Fidus Achates. By my troth, you do not look as though you had wasted away in fruitless longing. Perchance you have found already another to fill his place?"

"Perhaps I have, madam," was the negligent reply. "I had not known the town had so much thought to spare for worthless me. I' faith, I am a bigger man than I thought for. But I must not keep your coach standing in this blaze of sunshine. Whither are you bound, fair ladies? To some Arcadian bowers of Paphos, I doubt not, where Orpheus will charm you with his lyre, and nymphs will cluster round in envy, marvelling at those charms which not even Aphrodite herself can rival."

"Oh fie! you are a sad flatterer!" cried Lady Romaine, sinking back upon her cushions and waving her hand. "We are bound to Lady Saltire's hazard table for an hour's play. Shall we meet you there, my lord? Afterwards, we take supper at our favourite India house, and then to the play-Wynstanly's water theatre. He has a new piece-monstrous fine, those who have seen it vow. They have nymphs, and mermaids, and tritons, and I know not what beside; and they ask a pretty price for the boxes, I can tell you. But la! one must go and see what all the world is talking of. Mind you come to our box if you be there. We shall expect you, and shall welcome you and any friend you like to bring."

"Even the new Fidus Achates, of whom you spoke just now?" asked Lord Sandford, with a slightly ironical bow.

"Oh gracious, yes!" cried Lady Romaine, excited by the very idea; "bring him at once and present him to us. I hope he is a pretty fellow, and can turn a merry quip and tell a story. You should have heard Beau Sidney last night! Sakes! I thought I should have split my sides!"

At this juncture the horses became so fidgety with standing in the glare of the sun that Lord Sandford stepped back, and the coach rolled upon its way. Lady Romaine waved her scented kerchief, and then routed her scent-bottle out of her reticule, and turning sharply upon her daughter, said,-

"Why sit you ever like a stuffed owl, without so much as a word or a smile? I die for shame every time I take you out. What have I done to be punished with such a daughter? One would think you to be a changeling child, if you did not so favour the Adairs. How think you you will ever get wed, sitting gaping there like a farm-house wench, who is afraid to open her lips lest she should betray herself by her speech. You put me to shame, child; I could cry with mortification. What will the world say, save that I have an idiot for a daughter?"

Geraldine knew not what to answer. As she listened to the fatuous and stilted talk which was fashionable in her mother's world, with its senseless mythological allusions and high-flown extravagances, it often seemed to her that these gay dandies and dames were all playing at madmen together. Her tongue had never learned the trick of such talk. It perplexed and disgusted her, seeming trivial and childish when it was not improper or profane. She saw other young girls who listened eagerly, and as eagerly reproduced the flowery nonsense amongst themselves and their admirers; but it seemed impossible to her to do the like, and she listened in humble silence to her mother's tirades, wondering whether there were something radically wrong about herself, or whether the absurdity and folly were in others.

"But, madam," she said gently at the last, "why should I get me a husband so soon? My grandmother was against very early marriages, and as she lay dying she often warned me to make very careful choice ere I gave my hand in troth-plight. She said I must needs be certain of mine own heart, for that no more wretched life could exist for woman than when she was tied to a man she could not love or respect."

"Tush, child! Your grandmother was a good woman. I speak no hurt of her. But she knew less of life than many a girl of eighteen does nowadays, and her ideas were all topsy-turvy. A woman wants a fine establishment, her powdered footmen, her negro boys, her dresses, her jewels, and all the world doing her homage. That is what makes the pleasure of life. A good husband who can give you all that is what you want; and what can you ask better than the addresses of Lord Sandford? I tell you there are half the girls in town would give their ears for his smiles. He has been extravagant, 'tis true; but the estate can stand a heavy drain, and he is lucky at cards. He soon finds himself on his legs again. When he marries he will open his great house in the Strand, of which he uses but one wing now. With your fortune and his estates and his luck in gaming, you might be the gayest couple in town. Look to it, girl, that you show him no airs. I am ashamed to have such a mannerless wench for a daughter. If you are not more careful, you will drive all the beaux away; and then, when it is too late, you will be sorry."

Geraldine had her own ideas on that point. It was her one desire just now to keep at arm's length all those gay popinjays that fluttered about her mother. Lord Sandford, it is true, was somewhat removed from the crowd by a handsomer person, a more distinguished air, and by a greater force of character. On more than one occasion, when he had put himself about to gain her ear, she had found that he could drop his mask of gay affectations, and be both shrewd and entertaining. Some of his criticisms had even interested and aroused her; but she was very far from being captivated. She did not know whether it would be possible to give to such a man either love or reverence, and without either one or other Geraldine had resolved not to marry, though she knew that it was a hard task for a daughter to set at naught the wishes of her parents in these matters. She saw that both father and mother, though for different reasons, desired her to make a speedy choice, and take up her position in the fashionable world as a lady of title and importance.

However, she was spared further strictures by the arrival of the carriage at Lady Saltire's fine house: and shortly she found herself standing behind her mother's chair at the hazard table, half stunned by the clatter and clamour of voices, watching with grave, pained eyes the eager faces of the players, their excited gestures as they reached for their winnings, their rage and disappointment when the luck went against them, the greed she saw in all faces-that lust after gold which is of all vices one of the most hateful and degrading.

Old men and young girls, matrons and aged dames, all crowded round the tables, their hoops crushing together, their tall powdered heads sometimes meeting in sharp collision. There were scented dandies, who regarded this "ladies' play" as the merest bagatelle, and lost or won their gold pieces with careless grace, thinking of the more serious play which awaited them later at the club, or at the lodgings of some member of their own set.

Amongst this motley crowd, gaily apparelled servants moved to and fro, handing coffee, chocolate, and delicate confectionery, or offering scented waters for the refreshment of the ladies. The gentlemen preferred stronger potations, and congregated together, laughing and jesting. But not infrequently they would be joined by some giddy young matron, who called them all by their Christian names, passed jests with them that would not bear repetition in these days, and even toasted some "pretty fellow," laughing gaily and giddily the while.

There were a few graver spirits congregated together in one small room, and Geraldine could catch fleeting glimpses of them through an open door. She knew some of the faces, and that they were politicians and men of letters; and she thought they were discussing some literary point, for one held a paper in his hand, and he seemed to be reading from it to the others.

"I'll warrant they have got a new ode to my Lord of Marlborough yonder," spoke a voice at Geraldine's elbow; and turning she saw an elderly man whose face was known to her from his having been a guest at her father's house. "They had a great trouble after the victory of Blenheim to find a poet able to hymn the triumph in periods sufficiently fine; but I think it was Lord Halifax who discovered Mr. Addison, whose noble lines set the city

wondering. Belike he has broken forth into lyric or epic praise over the battle of Ramillies, and the marvellous effects it has had abroad. Shall we go and listen to his periods?"

Geraldine was thankful to get away from the heated atmosphere of the card-room, and to find herself amongst men and women who had other fashions of thought and speech. But she was not allowed much peace in these different surroundings; for she was quickly summoned to her mother's side, taken from house to house, ever seeing and hearing the like vapourings, the like fripperies and follies. It was the same thing at the dinner or supper, where her mother had a whole train of young bloods in her wake. She gave them the best the house afforded, and spent her time quizzing the dresses of the other ladies at the surrounding tables, learning all the gossip about any person whose face or costume struck her, and drinking in flattery and adulation as a bee sips honey from the flowers.

In spite of her efforts to please her mother, Geraldine found it impossible to take any share in this strange sort of gaiety. Her answers were little more than monosyllables. Often she did not even understand the allusions or the far-fetched metaphors of those who addressed her. More often she shrank from their glances and their open compliments, feeling degraded by both, but powerless to repel them. She was thankful when at last she found herself by her mother's side in the box at Wynstanly's; for here she hoped she might find some measure of peace, since the box would not hold any great number of persons, and her mother was never satisfied without the attention of four or five gentlemen at once.

If the play in itself were not very entertaining, the effects of fire and water were rather magnificent, and something new, so that more attention was given to the stage than was usual at such entertainments in those days. The fashionable listeners did not turn their backs upon the players and talk at the top of their voices all the while the play was in progress, as in some houses, and Geraldine was quite wrapped in contemplation of the monsters and mermaids and denizens of the deep, with Father Neptune and his trident at their head, so that she knew nothing of what went on in the box where she sat, till a voice at her elbow spoke insistently.

"They lack but one thing more-snow-white Aphrodite rising in peerless beauty from the foam of the sea; and yet the audience has but to turn its eyes hither, and behold they will see that crowning marvel for themselves!"

The girl started, and looked full into the eyes of Lord Sandford, bent upon her with a significance there was no misunderstanding. He was dressed in a daring costume of scarlet and gold, with quantities of lace and sparkling jewels. Even his well-turned legs were encased in scarlet stockings, and his shoes were of the same flaming hue. His height and breadth of shoulder always made him a notable figure; and the immense wig he wore, which to-night was cunningly powdered so as to look almost like frosted silver, added to the distinction of his appearance. Gilded popinjay Lord Sandford with all his extravagances could never be called. There was something too virile and strong about his whole personality for that.

"I do not like compliments, my lord," she answered, the words escaping her lips almost before she was aware; "I have heard something too much of Venus and Cupid, Pallas and Hymen, since I made my appearance in London routs. I am but a simple country maid, and desire no high-flown compliments. I am foolish enough to regard them rather as honeyed insults. I pray you pardon my freedom of speech."

"I pray you pardon mine," spoke Lord Sandford quickly. "You have spoken, Lady Geraldine, a deeper truth than perchance you know. I, for one, will not offend again. I would that all our sisters, wives, and daughters would look as you and speak as you."

The frank sincerity in face and voice pleased her, and a smile dawned in her eyes. It was the first he had ever seen bent on him, and he was struck afresh with the pure unsullied beauty of this girl's face. Truth to tell, his first attraction towards her had been the rumour of her fortune, for he was more deeply in debt than he wished the world to know; but something in the remoteness and isolation in which she seemed to wrap herself piqued and interested him; for his jaded palate required fresh food when it was to be had, and the vein of manliness and strength which his life had never altogether warped or destroyed responded to the sincerity he read in Lady Geraldine's fair face.

The curtain was down now. For a few minutes he spoke of the play and the water apparatus, worked by a windmill on the roof, which was exciting so much interest in London. Geraldine's eyes meantime travelled round the box. She saw her mother engrossed in gay talk with a small circle of admirers; but one of these edged himself somewhat away from the rest, and finally stood apart, leaning against the wall of the box and surveying the house from that vantage point.

Geraldine's eyes were riveted with some interest upon this newcomer, whom she was certain she had never seen before. In some indefinable way he was different from the men she had been used to meet at such places. For one thing, he wore his own hair; and the floating brown curls, like Cavalier love-locks, seemed to her infinitely more becoming than the mass of false hair which was so much in vogue in all ranks save the lowest. His dress, too, though far more simple than that of the beaux fluttering round her mother, seemed to her far more graceful and distinguished. His stockings, breeches, and vest were all of white, with a little silver frosting. His coat was of pale blue, with silver buttons; and his lace cravat, though small and unostentatious, was rich in quality, and fastened by a beautiful pearl. He carried neither muff nor snuff-box, cane nor toothpick. He did not simper nor ogle, nor look as though he desired to attract the eyes of the house upon himself. But he was, notwithstanding, a rather notable figure as he stood looking gravely and thoughtfully downwards; there was something very graceful in his attitude, and in the carriage of his head, and his features were so remarkably handsome that Lady Romaine turned her eyes upon him many times, and exerted all her artifices to draw him back to her immediate neighbourhood. But he was perfectly unconscious of this, not hearing the chatter which went on about him, lost in some reverie of his own, which brought a peculiar dreamy softness into his eyes.

Lord Sandford, following the direction of Geraldine's glance, looked at this motionless figure, then back at the girl, and laughed.

"Lady Geraldine, pray permit me to present to you my newly-made friend and comrade, Sir Grey Dumaresq, who, I doubt not, is dying to make his bow to so fair a lady."

She flashed him a glance half merry, half reproachful, and he suddenly laid his hand upon his lips, a laugh rolling from them hearty and full.

"I' faith I had forgot! How shall I teach my rebel tongue a new language? But Sir Grey will atone for all my defects.-Here is a lady, if you will believe it, O friend, who loves not the sugared and honeyed phrase of adulation, but seeks in all things truth, virtue, and I know not what else beside. It is whispered to me that she is a mistress of all the belles lettres, and perchance a poetess herself."

"Nay, my lord," answered Geraldine, with a blush and a smile-"only one who loves the poesy of those who have lived before, and left their treasures for us who come after, and would fain drink in all the beauty of their thoughts and of their lives."

Lord Sandford good-naturedly yielded his seat to Grey, whose sensitive face had lighted at the girl's words.

"Methought I had come to a world where naught was dreamed of save fashion and frippery, false adulation and falser scorn. I am well-nigh stunned by the clamour of tongues, the strife of parties, the bustle of this gay life of fashion."

"Oh, and I too-I too!" breathed the girl softly: and he flashed at her a quick, keen glance of sympathy and interest.

"I was bred in the country; my grandam brought me up. I lived with my books, amid silvan solitudes, the songs of birds, the scent of flowers. This great glittering world of folly and fashion is like a fiery wheel going round in my head. Ofttimes I could cry aloud for mercy, the pain and bewilderment are so great. I know there must be noble men and good in this strange Pandemonium; but I know not where to find them, and my heart grows sick. Would that I could go back to my books and my dreams! But alas! a maiden may not choose for herself."

"Still there is life here," spoke Grey quickly, "and it behoves us to know men as well as books. I have studied both. I will study them again. I would fain learn all that life has to teach, whether for weal or woe. No hermit-monk was ever truly a man. Yet there be times when one shrinks in amaze from all one sees and hears."

The chord of sympathy was struck. They passed from one thing to another. She found one at last who knew and loved the poets of her childhood's dreams-who could talk of Spenser and Sidney, of Watson, Greville, and Drayton, quoting their verses, and often lighting upon her favourite passages. Here was a man who knew Milton and Clarendon, Hobbes, Herbert, Lovelace and Suckling, Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Izaak Walton. He had read eagerly, like herself, poetry and prose, drama and epic, lyric and sonnet. He could speak of Poetry as one who had loved and courted her as a mistress. The girl longed to ask him if he had written himself, but maiden shyness withheld her. Yet her eyes brightened as she talked, and the peach-like colour rose and deepened in her cheeks; and Lord Sandford, turning back once again from the mother to look at the daughter, was struck dumb with admiration and delight.

"There is a rose worth winning and wearing, though the stem may not be free from a sharp thorn," he said to himself; and Lady Romaine, who chanced to catch sight of Geraldine during a shifting of the admirers who surrounded her, gave something very like a start, and felt a curious thrill run through her in which pride and envy were blended.

"Gracious! I did not know I had so handsome a daughter! I must wed her as fast as may be, else shall I find my beaux going from me to her," was her unspoken thought; and aloud she said, tapping Lord Sandford with her fan, "Pray tell my daughter that I am about to depart. We have had enough of the naiads and dryads, and I am tired and hungry. Who will come home with me to supper-to take pot-luck with us?"

There was an eager clamour in response; but when the supper-party assembled round Lady Romaine's chocolate tables in her favourite private parlour, she noted that Geraldine had disappeared to bed, and that Sir Grey Dumaresq had not availed himself of her open invitation.

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