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Chapter 1. — Characters.
Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company. She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own. One niece still remained unmarried — Belinda Portman, of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition. Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavoured to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object — the establishing herself in the world:
“For this, hands, lips, and eyes were put to school,
And each instructed feature had its rule.”
Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading, and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity. Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstances.
Mrs. Stanhope lived at Bath, where she had opportunities of showing her niece off, as she thought, to advantage; but as her health began to decline, she could not go out with her as much as she wished. After manoeuvring with more than her usual art, she succeeded in fastening Belinda upon the fashionable Lady Delacour for the season. Her ladyship was so much pleased by Miss Portman’s accomplishments and vivacity, as to invite her to spend the winter with her in London. Soon after her arrival in town, Belinda received the following letter from her aunt Stanhope.
“After searching every place I could think of, Anne found your bracelet in your dressing-table, amongst a heap of odd things, which you left behind you to be thrown away: I have sent it to you by a young gentleman, who came to Bath (unluckily) the very day you left me — Mr. Clarence Hervey — an acquaintance, and great admirer of my Lady Delacour. He is really an uncommonly pleasant young man, is highly connected, and has a fine independent fortune. Besides, he is a man of wit and gallantry, quite a connoisseur in female grace and beauty — just the man to bring a new face into fashion: so, my dear Belinda, I make it a point — look well when he is introduced to you, and remember, what I have so often told you, that nobody can look well without taking some pains to please.
“I see — or at least when I went out more than my health will at present permit — I used to see multitudes of silly girls, seemingly all cut out upon the same pattern, who frequented public places day after day, and year after year, without any idea farther than that of diverting themselves, or of obtaining transient admiration. How I have pitied and despised the giddy creatures, whilst I have observed them playing off their unmeaning airs, vying with one another in the most obvious, and consequently the most ridiculous manner, so as to expose themselves before the very men they would attract: chattering, tittering, and flirting; full of the present moment, never reflecting upon the future; quite satisfied if they got a partner at a ball, without ever thinking of a partner for life! I have often asked myself, what is to become of such girls when they grow old or ugly, or when the public eye grows tired of them? If they have large fortunes, it is all very well; they can afford to divert themselves for a season or two, without doubt; they are sure to be sought after and followed, not by mere danglers, but by men of suitable views and pretensions: but nothing to my mind can be more miserable than the situation of a poor girl, who, after spending not only the interest, but the solid capital of her small fortune in dress, and frivolous extravagance, fails in her matrimonial expectations (as many do merely from not beginning to speculate in time). She finds herself at five or six-and-thirty a burden to her friends, destitute of the means of rendering herself independent (for the girls I speak of never think of learning to play cards), de trop in society, yet obliged to hang upon all her acquaintance, who wish her in heaven, because she is unqualified to make the expected return for civilities, having no home, I mean no establishment, no house, &c. fit for the reception of company of a certain rank. — My dearest Belinda, may this never be your case! — You have every possible advantage, my love: no pains have been spared in your education, and (which is the essential point) I have taken care that this should be known — so that you have the name of being perfectly accomplished. You will also have the name of being very fashionable, if you go much into public, as doubtless you will with Lady Delacour. — Your own good sense must make you aware, my dear, that from her ladyship’s situation and knowledge of the world, it will always be proper, upon all subjects of conversation, for her to lead and you to follow: it would be very unfit for a young girl like you to suffer yourself to stand in competition with Lady Delacour, whose high pretensions to wit and beauty are indisputable. I need say no more to you upon this subject, my dear. Even with your limited experience, you must have observed how foolish young people offend those who are the most necessary to their interests, by an imprudent indulgence of their vanity.
“Lady Delacour has an incomparable taste in dress: consult her, my dear, and do not, by an ill-judged economy, counteract my views — apropos, I have no objection to your being presented at court. You will, of course, have credit with all her ladyship’s tradespeople, if you manage properly. To know how and when to lay out money is highly commendable, for in some situations, people judge of what one can afford by what one actually spends. — I know of no law which compels a young lady to tell what her age or her fortune may be. You have no occasion for caution yet on one of these points.
“I have covered my old carpet with a handsome green baize, and every stranger who comes to see me, I observe, takes it for granted that I have a rich carpet under it. Say every thing that is proper, in your best manner, for me to Lady Delacour.
“Adieu, my dear Belinda,
“Yours, very sincerely,
It is sometimes fortunate, that the means which are taken to produce certain effects upon the mind have a tendency directly opposite to what is expected. Mrs. Stanhope’s perpetual anxiety about her niece’s appearance, manners, and establishment, had completely worn out Belinda’s patience; she had become more insensible to the praises of her personal charms and accomplishments than young women of her age usually are, because she had been so much flattered and shown off, as it is called, by her match-making aunt. — Yet Belinda was fond of amusement, and had imbibed some of Mrs. Stanhope’s prejudices in favour of rank and fashion. Her taste for literature declined in proportion to her intercourse with the fashionable world, as she did not in this society perceive the least use in the knowledge that she had acquired. Her mind had never been roused to much reflection; she had in general acted but as a puppet in the hands of others. To her aunt Stanhope she had hitherto paid unlimited, habitual, blind obedience; but she was more undesigning, and more free from affectation and coquetry, than could have been expected, after the course of documenting which she had gone through. She was charmed with the idea of a visit to Lady Delacour, whom she thought the most agreeable — no, that is too feeble an expression — the most fascinating person she had ever beheld. Such was the light in which her ladyship appeared, not only to Belinda, but to all the world — that is to say, all the world of fashion, and she knew of no other. — The newspapers were full of Lady Delacour’s parties, and Lady Delacour’s dresses, and Lady Delacour’s bon mots: every thing that her ladyship said was repeated as witty; every thing that her ladyship wore was imitated as fashionable. Female wit sometimes depends on the beauty of its possessor for its reputation; and the reign of beauty is proverbially short, and fashion often capriciously deserts her favourites, even before nature withers their charms. Lady Delacour seemed to be a fortunate exception to these general rules: long after she had lost the bloom of youth, she continued to be admired as a fashionable bel esprit; and long after she had ceased to be a novelty in society, her company was courted by all the gay, the witty, and the gallant. To be seen in public with Lady Delacour, to be a visitor at her house, were privileges of which numbers were vehemently ambitious; and Belinda Portman was congratulated and envied by all her acquaintance, for being admitted as an inmate. How could she avoid thinking herself singularly fortunate?
A short time after her arrival at Lady Delacour’s, Belinda began to see through the thin veil with which politeness covers domestic misery. — Abroad, and at home, Lady Delacour was two different persons. Abroad she appeared all life, spirit, and good humour — at home, listless, fretful, and melancholy; she seemed like a spoiled actress off the stage, over-stimulated by applause, and exhausted by the exertions of supporting a fictitious character. — When her house was filled with well-dressed crowds, when it blazed with lights, and resounded with music and dancing, Lady Delacour, in the character of Mistress of the Revels, shone the soul and spirit of pleasure and frolic: but the moment the company retired, when the music ceased, and the lights were extinguishing, the spell was dissolved.
She would sometimes walk up and down the empty magnificent saloon, absorbed in thoughts seemingly of the most painful nature.
For some days after Belinda’s arrival in town she heard nothing of Lord Delacour; his lady never mentioned his name, except once accidentally, as she was showing Miss Portman the house, she said, “Don’t open that door — those are only Lord Delacour’s apartments.”— The first time Belinda ever saw his lordship, he was dead drunk in the arms of two footmen, who were carrying him up stairs to his bedchamber: his lady, who was just returned from Ranelagh, passed by him on the landing-place with a look of sovereign contempt.
“What is the matter? — Who is this?” said Belinda.
“Only the body of my Lord Delacour,” said her ladyship: “his bearers have brought it up the wrong staircase. Take it down again, my good friends: let his lordship go his own way. Don’t look so shocked and amazed, Belinda — don’t look so new, child: this funeral of my lord’s intellects is to me a nightly, or,” added her ladyship, looking at her watch and yawning, “I believe I should say a daily ceremony — six o’clock, I protest!”
The next morning, as her ladyship and Miss Portman were sitting at the breakfast-table, after a very late breakfast, Lord Delacour entered the room.
“Lord Delacour, sober, my dear,”— said her ladyship to Miss Portman, by way of introducing him. Prejudiced by her ladyship, Belinda was inclined to think that Lord Delacour sober would not be more agreeable or more rational than Lord Delacour drunk. “How old do you take my lord to be?” whispered her ladyship, as she saw Belinda’s eye fixed upon the trembling hand which carried his teacup to his lips: “I’ll lay you a wager,” continued she aloud —“I’ll lay your birth-night dress, gold fringe, and laurel wreaths into the bargain, that you don’t guess right.”
“I hope you don’t think of going to this birth-night, lady Delacour?” said his lordship.
“I’ll give you six guesses, and I’ll bet you don’t come within sixteen years,” pursued her ladyship, still looking at Belinda.
“You cannot have the new carriage you have bespoken,” said his lordship. “Will you do me the honour to attend to me, Lady Delacour?”
“Then you won’t venture to guess, Belinda,” said her ladyship (without honouring her lord with the smallest portion of her attention)—“Well, I believe you are right — for certainly you would guess him to be six-and-sixty, instead of six-and-thirty; but then he can drink more than any two-legged animal in his majesty’s dominions, and you know that is an advantage which is well worth twenty or thirty years of a man’s life — especially to persons who have no other chance of distinguishing themselves.”
“If some people had distinguished themselves a little less in the world,” retorted his lordship, “it would have been as well!”
“As well! — how flat!”
“Flatly then I have to inform you, Lady Delacour, that I will neither be contradicted nor laughed at — you understand me — it would be as well, flat or not flat, my Lady Delacour, if your ladyship would attend more to your own conduct, and less to others!”
“To that of others — his lordship means, if he means any thing. Apropos, Belinda, did not you tell me Clarence Hervey is coming to town? — You have never seen him. — Well, I’ll describe him to you by negatives. He is not a man who ever says any thing flat — he is not a man who must be wound up with half a dozen bottles of champaign before he can go— he is not a man who, when he does go, goes wrong, and won’t be set right — he is not a man, whose whole consequence, if he were married, would depend on his wife — he is not a man, who, if he were married, would be so desperately afraid of being governed by his wife, that he would turn gambler, jockey, or sot, merely to show that he could govern himself.”
“Go on, Lady Delacour,” said his lordship, who had been in vain attempting to balance a spoon on the edge of his teacup during the whole of this speech, which was delivered with the most animated desire to provoke —“Go on, Lady Delacour — all I desire is, that you should go on; Clarence Hervey will be much obliged to you, and I am sure so shall I. Go on, my Lady Delacour — go on, and you’ll oblige me.”
“I never will oblige you, my lord, that you may depend upon,” cried her ladyship, with a look of indignant contempt.
His lordship whistled, rang for his horses, and looked at his nails with a smile. Belinda, shocked and in a great confusion, rose to leave the room, dreading the gross continuance of this matrimonial dialogue.
“Mr. Hervey, my lady,” said a footman, opening the door; and he was scarcely announced, when her ladyship went forward to receive him with an air of easy familiarity. —“Where have you buried yourself, Hervey, this age past?” cried she, shaking hands with him: “there’s absolutely no living in this most stupid of all worlds without you. — Mr. Hervey — Miss Portman — but don’t look as if you were half asleep, man — What are you dreaming of, Clarence? Why looks your grace so heavily to-day?”
“Oh! I have passed a miserable night,” replied Clarence, throwing himself into an actor’s attitude, and speaking in a fine tone of stage declamation.
“What was your dream, my lord? I pray you, tell me,”
said her ladyship in a similar tone. — Clarence went on —
“O Lord, methought what pain it was to dance!
What dreadful noise of fiddles in my ears!
What sights of ugly belles within my eyes!
—— Then came wandering by,
A shadow like a devil, with red hair,
‘Dizen’d with flowers; and she bawl’d out aloud,
Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence!”
“O, Mrs. Luttridge to the life!” cried Lady Delacour: “I know where you have been now, and I pity you — but sit down,” said she, making room for him between Belinda and herself upon the sofa, “sit down here, and tell me what could take you to that odious Mrs. Luttridge’s.”
Mr. Hervey threw himself on the sofa; Lord Delacour whistled as before, and left the room without uttering a syllable.
“But my dream has made me forget myself strangely,” said Mr. Hervey, turning to Belinda, and producing her bracelet: “Mrs. Stanhope promised me that if I delivered it safely, I should be rewarded with the honour of putting it on the owner’s fair arm.” A conversation now took place on the nature of ladies’ promises — on fashionable bracelets — on the size of the arm of the Venus de Medici — on Lady Delacour’s and Miss Portman’s — on the thick legs of ancient statues — and on the various defects and absurdities of Mrs. Luttridge and her wig. On all these topics Mr. Hervey displayed much wit, gallantry, and satire, with so happy an effect, that Belinda, when he took leave, was precisely of her aunt’s opinion, that he was a most uncommonly pleasant young man.
Clarence Hervey might have been more than a pleasant young man, if he had not been smitten with the desire of being thought superior in every thing, and of being the most admired person in all companies. He had been early flattered with the idea that he was a man of genius; and he imagined that, as such, he was entitled to be imprudent, wild, and eccentric. He affected singularity, in order to establish his claims to genius. He had considerable literary talents, by which he was distinguished at Oxford; but he was so dreadfully afraid of passing for a pedant, that when he came into the company of the idle and the ignorant, he pretended to disdain every species of knowledge. His chameleon character seemed to vary in different lights, and according to the different situations in which he happened to be placed. He could be all things to all men — and to all women. He was supposed to be a favourite with the fair sex; and of all his various excellencies and defects, there was none on which he valued himself so much as on his gallantry. He was not profligate; he had a strong sense of honour, and quick feelings of humanity; but he was so easily led, or rather so easily excited by his companions, and his companions were now of such a sort, that it was probable he would soon become vicious. As to his connexion with Lady Delacour, he would have started with horror at the idea of disturbing the peace of a family; but in her family, he said, there was no peace to disturb; he was vain of having it seen by the world that he was distinguished by a lady of her wit and fashion, and he did not think it incumbent on him to be more scrupulous or more attentive to appearances than her ladyship. By Lord Delacour’s jealousy he was sometimes provoked, sometimes amused, and sometimes flattered. He was constantly of all her ladyship’s parties in public and private; consequently he saw Belinda almost every day, and every day he saw her with increasing admiration of her beauty, and with increasing dread of being taken in to marry a niece of “the catch-match-maker,” the name by which Mrs. Stanhope was known amongst the men of his acquaintance. Young ladies who have the misfortune to be conducted by these artful dames, are always supposed to be partners in all the speculations, though their names may not appear in the firm. If he had not been prejudiced by the character of her aunt, Mr. Hervey would have thought Belinda an undesigning, unaffected girl; but now he suspected her of artifice in every word, look, and motion; and even when he felt himself most charmed by her powers of pleasing, he was most inclined to despise her, for what he thought such premature proficiency in scientific coquetry. He had not sufficient resolution to keep beyond the sphere of her attraction; but, frequently, when he found himself within it, he cursed his folly, and drew back with sudden terror. His manner towards her was so variable and inconsistent, that she knew not how to interpret its language. Sometimes she fancied, that with all the eloquence of eyes he said, ”I adore you, Belinda;” at other times she imagined that his guarded silence meant to warn her that he was so entangled by Lady Delacour, that he could not extricate himself from her snares. Whenever this last idea struck her, it excited, in the most edifying manner, her indignation against coquetry in general, and against her ladyship’s in particular: she became wonderfully clear-sighted to all the improprieties of her ladyship’s conduct. Belinda’s newly acquired moral sense was so much shocked, that she actually wrote a full statement of her observations and her scruples to her aunt Stanhope; concluding by a request, that she might not remain under the protection of a lady, of whose character she could not approve, and whose intimacy might perhaps be injurious to her reputation, if not to her principles.
Mrs. Stanhope answered Belinda’s letter in a very guarded style; she rebuked her niece severely for her imprudence in mentioning names in such a manner, in a letter sent by the common post; assured her that her reputation was in no danger; that she hoped no niece of hers would set up for a prude — a character more suspected by men of the world than even that of a coquette; that the person alluded to was a perfectly fit chaperon for any young lady to appear with in public, as long as she was visited by the first people in town; that as to any thing in the private conduct of that person, and as to any private brouillieries between her and her lord, Belinda should observe on these dangerous topics a profound silence, both in her letters and her conversation; that as long as the lady continued under the protection of her husband, the world might whisper, but would not speak out; that as to Belinda’s own principles, she would be utterly inexcusable if, after the education she had received, they could be hurt by any bad examples; that she could not be too cautious in her management of a man of ——‘s character; that she could have no serious cause for jealousy in the quarter she apprehended, as marriage there could not be the object; and there was such a difference of age, that no permanent influence could probably be obtained by the lady; that the most certain method for Miss Portman to expose herself to the ridicule of one of the parties, and to the total neglect of the other, would be to betray anxiety or jealousy; that, in short, if she were fool enough to lose her own heart, there would be little chance of her being wise enough to win that of —— — who was evidently a man of gallantry rather than of sentiment, and who was known to play his cards well, and to have good luck whenever hearts were trumps.
Belinda’s fears of Lady Delacour, as a dangerous rival, were much quieted by the artful insinuations of Mrs. Stanhope, with respect to her age, &c.; and in proportion as her fears subsided, she blamed herself for having written too harshly of her ladyship’s conduct. The idea that whilst she appeared as Lady Delacour’s friend she ought not to propagate any stories to her disadvantage, operated powerfully upon Belinda’s mind, and she reproached herself for having told even her aunt what she had seen in private. She thought that she had been guilty of treachery, and she wrote again immediately to Mrs. Stanhope, to conjure her to burn her last letter; to forget, if possible, its contents; and to believe that not a syllable of a similar nature should ever more be heard from her: she was just concluding with the words —“I hope my dear aunt will consider all this as an error of my judgment, and not of my heart,” when Lady Delacour burst into the room, exclaiming, in a tone of gaiety, “Tragedy or comedy, Belinda? The masquerade dresses are come. But how’s this?” added she, looking full in Belinda’s face —“tears in the eyes! blushes in the cheeks! tremors in the joints! and letters shuffling away! But, you novice of novices, how awkwardly shuffled! — A niece of Mrs. Stanhope’s, and so unpractised a shuffler! — And is it credible she should tremble in this ridiculous way about a love-letter or two?”
“No love-letters, indeed, Lady Delacour,” said Belinda, holding the paper fast, as her ladyship, half in play, half in earnest, attempted to snatch it from her.
“No love-letters! then it must be treason; and see it I must, by all that’s good, or by all that’s bad — I see the name of Delacour!”— and her ladyship absolutely seized the letters by force, in spite of all Belinda’s struggles and entreaties.
“I beg, I request, I conjure you not to read it!” cried Miss Portman, clasping her hands. “Read mine, read mine, if you must, but don’t read my aunt Stanhope’s — Oh! I beg, I entreat, I conjure you!” and she threw herself upon her knees.
“You beg! you entreat! you conjure! Why, this is like the Duchess de Brinvilliers, who wrote on her paper of poisons, ‘Whoever finds this, I entreat, I conjure them, in the name of more saints than I can remember, not to open the paper any farther.’— What a simpleton, to know so little of the nature of curiosity!”
As she spoke, Lady Delacour opened Mrs. Stanhope’s letter, read it from beginning to end, folded it up coolly when she had finished it, and simply said, “The person alluded to is almost as bad as her name at full length: does Mrs. Stanhope think no one can make out an inuendo in a libel, or fill up a blank, but an attorney-general?” pointing to a blank in Mrs. Stanhope’s letter, left for the name of Clarence Hervey.
Belinda was in too much confusion either to speak or think.
“You were right to swear they were not love-letters,” pursued her ladyship, laying down the papers. “I protest I snatched them by way of frolic — I beg pardon. All I can do now is not to read the rest.”
“Nay — I beg — I wish — I insist upon your reading mine,” said Belinda.
When Lady Delacour had read it, her countenance suddenly changed —“Worth a hundred of your aunt’s, I declare,” said she, patting Belinda’s cheek. “What a treasure to meet with any thing like a new heart! — all hearts, now-a-days, are second-hand, at best.”
Lady Delacour spoke with a tone of feeling which Belinda had never heard from her before, and which at this moment touched her so much, that she took her ladyship’s hand and kissed it.
“Where were we when all this began?” cried Lady Delacour, forcing herself to resume an air of gaiety — “O, masquerade was the order of the day —— tragedy or comedy? which suits your genius best, my dear?”
“Whichever suits your ladyship’s taste least.”
“Why, my woman, Marriott, says I ought to be tragedy; and, upon the notion that people always succeed best when they take characters diametrically opposite to their own — Clarence Hervey’s principle — perhaps you don’t think that he has any principles; but there you are wrong; I do assure you, he has sound principles — of taste.”
“Of that,” said Belinda, with a constrained smile, “he gives the most convincing proof, by his admiring your ladyship so much.”
“And by his admiring Miss Portman so much more. But whilst we are making speeches to one another, poor Marriott is standing in distress, like Garrick, between tragedy and comedy.”
Lady Delacour opened her dressing-room door, and pointed to her as she stood with the dress of the comic muse on one arm, and the tragic muse on the other.
“I am afraid I have not spirits enough to undertake the comic muse,” said Miss Portman.
Marriott, who was a personage of prodigious consequence, and the judge in the last resort at her mistress’s toilette, looked extremely out of humour at having been kept waiting so long; and yet more so at the idea that her appellant jurisdiction could be disputed.
“Your ladyship’s taller than Miss Portman by half ahead,” said Marriott, “and to be sure will best become tragedy with this long train; besides, I had settled all the rest of your ladyship’s dress. Tragedy, they say, is always tall; and, no offence, your ladyship’s taller than Miss Portman by half a head.”
“For head read inch,” said Lady Delacour, “if you please.”
“When things are settled, one can’t bear to have them unsettled — but your ladyship must have your own way, to be sure — I’ll say no more,” cried she, throwing down the dresses.
“Stay, Marriott,” said Lady Delacour, and she placed herself between the angry waiting-maid and the door.
“Why will you, who are the best creature in the world, put yourself into these furies about nothing? Have patience with us, and you shall be satisfied.”
“That’s another affair,” said Marriott.
“Miss Portman,” continued her ladyship, “don’t talk of not having spirits, you that are all life! — What say you, Belinda? — O yes, you must be the comic muse; and I, it seems, must be tragedy, because Marriott has a passion for seeing me ‘come sweeping by.’ And because Marriott must have her own way in every thing — she rules me with a rod of iron, my dear, so tragedy I needs must be. —Marriott knows her power.”
There was an air of extreme vexation in Lady Delacour’s countenance as she pronounced these last words, in which evidently more was meant than met the ear. Upon many occasions Miss Portman had observed, that Marriott exercised despotic authority over her mistress; and she had seen, with surprise, that a lady, who would not yield an iota of power to her husband, submitted herself to every caprice of the most insolent of waiting-women. For some time, Belinda imagined that this submission was merely an air, as she had seen some other fine ladies proud of appearing to be governed by a favourite maid; but she was soon convinced that Marriott was no favourite with Lady Delacour; that her ladyship’s was not proud humility, but fear. It seemed certain that a woman, extravagantly fond of her own will, would never have given it up without some very substantial reason. It seemed as if Marriott was in possession of some secret, which should for ever remain unknown. This idea had occurred to Miss Portman more than once, but never so forcibly as upon the present occasion. There had always been some mystery about her ladyship’s toilette: at certain hours doors were bolted, and it was impossible for any body but Marriott to obtain admission. Miss Portman at first imagined that Lady Delacour dreaded the discovery of her cosmetic secrets, but her ladyship’s rouge was so glaring, and her pearl powder was so obvious, that Belinda was convinced there must be some other cause for this toilette secrecy. There was a little cabinet beyond her bedchamber, which Lady Delacour called her boudoir, to which there was an entrance by a back staircase; but no one ever entered there but Marriott. One night, Lady Delacour, after dancing with great spirit at a ball, at her own house, fainted suddenly: Miss Portman attended her to her bedchamber, but Marriott begged that her lady might be left alone with her, and she would by no means suffer Belinda to follow her into the boudoir. All these things Belinda recollected in the space of a few seconds, as she stood contemplating Marriott and the dresses. The hurry of getting ready for the masquerade, however, dispelled these thoughts, and by the time she was dressed, the idea of what Clarence Hervey would think of her appearance was uppermost in her mind. She was anxious to know whether he would discover her in the character of the comic muse. Lady Delacour was discontented with her tragic attire, and she grew still more out of humour with herself, when she saw Belinda.
“I protest Marriott has made a perfect fright of me,” said her ladyship, as she got into her carriage, “and I’m positive my dress would become you a million of times better than your own.”
Miss Portman regretted that it was too late to change.
“Not at all too late, my dear,” said Lady Delacour; “never too late for women to change their minds, their dress, or their lovers. Seriously, you know, we are to call at my friend Lady Singleton’s — she sees masks to-night: I’m quite intimate there; I’ll make her let me step up to her own room, where no soul can interrupt us, and there we can change our dresses, and Marriott will know nothing of the matter. Marriott’s a faithful creature, and very fond of me; fond of power too — but who is not? — we must all have our faults: one would not quarrel with such a good creature as Marriott for a trifle.” Then suddenly changing her tone, she said, “Not a human being will find us out at the masquerade; for no one but Mrs. Freke knows that we are the two muses. Clarence Hervey swears he should know me in any disguise — but I defy him — I shall take special delight in puzzling him. Harriot Freke has told him, in confidence, that I’m to be the widow Brady, in man’s clothes: now that’s to be Harriot’s own character; so Hervey will make fine confusion.”
As soon as they got to Lady Singleton’s, Lady Delacour and Miss Portman immediately went up stairs to exchange dresses. Poor Belinda, now that she felt herself in spirits to undertake the comic muse, was rather vexed to be obliged to give up her becoming character; but there was no resisting the polite energy of Lady Delacour’s vanity. Her ladyship ran as quick as lightning into a closet within the dressing-room, saying to Lady Singleton’s woman, who attempted to follow with —“Can I do any thing for your ladyship?”—“No, no, no — nothing, nothing — thank ye, thank ye — I want no assistance — I never let any body do any thing for me but Marriott;” and she bolted herself in the closet. In a few minutes she half opened the door, threw out her tragic robes, and cried, “Here, Miss Portman, give me yours — quick — and let’s see whether comedy or tragedy will be ready first.”
“Lord bless and forgive me,” said Lady Singleton’s woman, when Lady Delacour at last threw open the door, when she was completely dressed —“but if your la’ship has not been dressing all this time in that den, without any thing in the shape of a looking-glass, and not to let me help! I that should have been so proud.”
Lady Delacour put half a guinea into the waiting-maid’s hand, laughed affectedly at her own whimsicalities, and declared that she could always dress herself better without a glass than with one. All this went off admirably well with every body but Miss Portman; she could not help thinking it extraordinary that a person who was obviously fond of being waited upon would never suffer any person to assist her at her toilet except Marriott, a woman of whom she was evidently afraid. Lady Delacour’s quick eye saw curiosity painted in Belinda’s countenance, and for a moment she was embarrassed; but she soon recovered herself, and endeavoured to turn the course of Miss Portman’s thoughts by whispering to her some nonsense about Clarence Hervey — a cabalistical name, which she knew had the power, when pronounced in a certain tone, of throwing Belinda into confusion.
The first person they saw, when they went into the drawing-room at Lady Singleton’s, was this very Clarence Hervey, who was not in a masquerade dress. He had laid a wager with one of his acquaintance, that he could perform the part of the serpent, such as he is seen in Fuseli’s well-known picture. For this purpose he had exerted much ingenuity in the invention and execution of a length of coiled skin, which he manoeuvred with great dexterity, by means of internal wires; his grand difficulty had been to manufacture the rays that were to come from his eyes. He had contrived a set of phosphoric rays, which he was certain would charm all the fair daughters of Eve. He forgot, it seems, that phosphorus could not well be seen by candlelight. When he was just equipped as a serpent, his rays set fire to part of his envelope, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he was extricated. He escaped unhurt, but his serpent’s skin was utterly consumed; nothing remained but the melancholy spectacle of its skeleton. He was obliged to give up the hopes of shining at the masquerade, but he resolved to be at Lady Singleton’s that he might meet Lady Delacour and Miss Portman. The moment that the tragic and comic muse appeared, he invoked them with much humour and mock pathos, declaring that he knew not which of them could best sing his adventure. After a recital of his misfortune had entertained the company, and after the muses had performed their parts to the satisfaction of the audience and their own, the conversation ceased to be supported in masquerade character; muses and harlequins, gipsies and Cleopatras, began to talk of their private affairs, and of the news and the scandal of the day.
A group of gentlemen, amongst whom was Clarence Hervey, gathered round the tragic muse; as Mr. Hervey had hinted that he knew she was a person of distinction, though he would not tell her name. After he had exercised his wit for some time, without obtaining from the tragic muse one single syllable, he whispered, “Lady Delacour, why this unnatural reserve? Do you imagine that, through this tragical disguise, I have not found you out?”
The tragic muse, apparently absorbed in meditation, vouchsafed no reply.
“The devil a word can you get for your pains, Hervey,” said a gentleman of his acquaintance, who joined the party at this instant. “Why didn’t you stick to t’other muse, who, to do her justice, is as arrant a flirt as your heart could wish for?”
“There’s danger in flirting,” said Clarence, “with an arrant flirt of Mrs. Stanhope’s training. There’s a kind of electricity about that girl. I have a sort of cobweb feeling, an imaginary net coming all over me.”
“Fore-warned is fore-armed,” replied his companion: “a man must be a novice indeed that could be taken in at this time of day by a niece of Mrs. Stanhope’s.”
“That Mrs. Stanhope must be a good clever dame, faith,” said a third gentleman: “there’s no less than six of her nieces whom she has got off within these four winters — not one of ’em now that has not made a catch-match. — There’s the eldest of the set, Mrs. Tollemache, what had she, in the devil’s name, to set up with in the world but a pair of good eyes? — her aunt, to be sure, taught her the use of them early enough: they might have rolled to all eternity before they would have rolled me out of my senses; but you see they did Tollemache’s business. However, they are going to part now, I hear: Tollemache was tired of her before the honey-moon was over, as I foretold. Then there’s the musical girl. Joddrell, who has no more ear than a post, went and married her, because he had a mind to set up for a connoisseur in music; and Mrs. Stanhope flattered him that he was one.”
The gentlemen joined in the general laugh: the tragic muse sighed.
“Even were she at the School for Scandal, the tragic muse dare not laugh, except behind her mask,” said Clarence Hervey.
“Far be it from her to laugh at those follies which she must for ever deplore!” said Belinda, in a feigned voice. —“What miseries spring from these ill-suited marriages! The victims are sacrificed before they have sense enough to avoid their fate.”
Clarence Hervey imagined that this speech alluded to Lady Delacour’s own marriage.
“Damn me if I know any woman, young or old, that would avoid being married, if she could, though,” cried Sir Philip Baddely, a gentleman who always supplied “each vacuity of sense” with an oath: “but, Rochfort, didn’t Valleton marry one of these nieces?”
“Yes: she was a mighty fine dancer, and had good legs enough: Mrs. Stanhope got poor Valleton to fight a duel about her place in a country dance, and then he was so pleased with himself for his prowess, that he married the girl.”
Belinda made an effort to change her seat, but she was encompassed so that she could not retreat.
“As to Jenny Mason, the fifth of the nieces,” continued the witty gentleman, “she was as brown as mahogany, and had neither eyes, nose, mouth, nor legs: what Mrs. Stanhope could do with her I often wondered; but she took courage, rouged her up, set her a going as a dasher, and she dashed herself into Tom Levit’s curricle, and Tom couldn’t get her out again till she was the honourable Mrs. Levit: she then took the reins into her own hands, and I hear she’s driving him and herself the road to ruin as fast as they can gallop. As for this Belinda Portman, ’twas a good hit to send her to Lady Delacour’s; but, I take it she hangs upon hand; for last winter, when I was at Bath, she was hawked about every where, and the aunt was puffing her with might and main. You heard of nothing, wherever you went, but of Belinda Portman, and Belinda Portman’s accomplishments: Belinda Portman, and her accomplishments, I’ll swear, were as well advertised as Packwood’s razor strops.”
“Mrs. Stanhope overdid the business, I think,” resumed the gentleman who began the conversation: “girls brought to the hammer this way don’t go off well. It’s true, Christie himself is no match for dame Stanhope. Many of my acquaintance were tempted to go and look at the premises, but not one, you may be sure, had a thought of becoming a tenant for life.”
“That’s an honour reserved for you, Clarence Hervey,” said another, tapping him upon the shoulder. —“Give ye joy, Hervey; give ye joy!”
“Me!” said Clarence, starting.
“I’ll be hanged if he didn’t change colour,” said his facetious companion; and all the young men again joined in a laugh.
“Laugh on, my merry men all!” cried Clarence; “but the devil’s in it if I don’t know my own mind better than any of you. You don’t imagine I go to Lady Delacour’s to look for a wife?— Belinda Portman’s a good pretty girl, but what then? Do you think I’m an idiot? — do you think I could be taken in by one of the Stanhope school? Do you think I don’t see as plainly as any of you that Belinda Portman’s a composition of art and affectation?”
“Hush — not so loud, Clarence; here she comes,” said his companion. “The comic muse, is not she —?”
Lady Delacour, at this moment, came lightly tripping towards them, and addressing herself, in the character of the comic muse, to Hervey, exclaimed,
“Hervey! my Hervey! most favoured of my votaries, why do you forsake me?
‘Why mourns my friend, why weeps his downcast eye?
That eye where mirth and fancy used to shine.’
Though you have lost your serpent’s form, yet you may please any of the fair daughters of Eve in your own.”
Mr. Hervey bowed; all the gentlemen who stood near him smiled; the tragic muse gave an involuntary sigh.
“Could I borrow a sigh, or a tear, from my tragic sister,” pursued Lady Delacour, “however unbecoming to my character, I would, if only sighs or tears can win the heart of Clarence Hervey:— let me practise”— and her ladyship practised sighing with much comic effect.
“Persuasive words and more persuasive sighs,”
said Clarence Hervey.
“A good bold Stanhope cast of the net, faith,” whispered one of his companions. “Melpomene, hast thou forgot thyself to marble?” pursued Lady Delacour. “I am not very well,” whispered Miss Portman to her ladyship: “could we get away?”
“Get away from Clarence Hervey, do you mean?” replied her ladyship, in a whisper: “’tis not easy, but we’ll try what can be done, if it is necessary.”
Belinda had no power to reply to this raillery; indeed, she scarcely heard the words that were said to her; but she put her arm within Lady Delacour’s, who, to her great relief, had the good nature to leave the room with her immediately. Her ladyship, though she would sacrifice the feelings of others, without compunction, to her vanity, whenever the power of her wit was disputed, yet towards those by whom it was acknowledged she showed some mercy.
“What is the matter with the child?” said she, as she went down the staircase.
“Nothing, if I could have air,” said Belinda. There was a crowd of servants in the hall.
“Why does Lady Delacour avoid me so pertinaciously? What crime have I committed, that I was not favoured with one word?” said Clarence Hervey, who had followed them down stairs, and overtook them in the hall.
“Do see if you can find any of my people,” cried Lady Delacour.
“Lady Delacour, the comic muse!” exclaimed Mr. Hervey. “I thought —”
“No matter what you thought,” interrupted her ladyship. “Let my carriage draw up, for here’s a young friend of yours trembling so about nothing, that I am half afraid she will faint; and you know it would not be so pleasant to faint here amongst footmen. Stay! this room is empty. O, I did not mean to tell you to stay,” said she to Hervey, who involuntarily followed her in the utmost consternation.
“I’m perfectly well, now — perfectly well,” said Belinda.
“Perfectly a simpleton, I think,” said Lady Delacour. “Nay, my dear, you must be ruled; your mask must come off: didn’t you tell me you wanted air? — What now! This is not the first time Clarence Hervey has ever seen your face without a mask, is it? It’s the first time indeed he, or anybody else, ever saw it of such a colour, I believe.”
When Lady Delacour pulled off Belinda’s mask, her face was, during the first instant, pale; the next moment, crimsoned over with a burning blush.
“What is the matter with ye both? How he stands!” said Lady Delacour, turning to Mr. Hervey. “Did you never see a woman blush before? — or did you never say or do any thing to make a woman blush before? Will you give Miss Portman a glass of water? — there’s some behind you on that sideboard, man! — but he has neither eyes, ears, nor understanding. — Do go about your business,” said her ladyship, pushing him towards the door —“Do go about your business, for I haven’t common patience with you: on my conscience I believe the man’s in love — and not with me! That’s sal-volatile for you, child, I perceive,” continued she to Belinda. “O, you can walk now — but remember you are on slippery ground: remember Clarence Hervey is not a marrying man, and you are not a married woman.”
“It is perfectly indifferent to me, madam,” Belinda said, with a voice and look of proud indignation.
“Lady Delacour, your carriage has drawn up,” said Clarence Hervey, returning to the door, but without entering.
“Then put this ‘perfectly well’ and ‘perfectly indifferent’ lady into it,” said Lady Delacour.
He obeyed without uttering a syllable.
“Dumb! absolutely dumb! I protest,” said her ladyship, as he handed her in afterwards. “Why, Clarence, the casting of your serpent’s skin seems to have quite changed your nature — nothing but the simplicity of the dove left; and I expect to hear, you cooing presently — don’t you, Miss Portman?” She ordered the coachman to drive to the Pantheon.
“To the Pantheon! I was in hopes your ladyship would have the goodness to set me down at home; for indeed I shall be a burden to you and everybody else at the masquerade.”
“If you have made any appointment for the rest of the evening in Berkley-square, I’ll set you down, certainly, if you insist upon it, my dear — for punctuality is a virtue; but prudence is a virtue too, in a young lady; who, as your aunt Stanhope would say, has to establish herself in the world. Why these tears, Belinda? — or are they tears? for by the light of the lamps I can scarcely tell; though I’ll swear I saw the handkerchief at the eyes. What is the meaning of all this? You’d best trust me — for I know as much of men and manners as your aunt Stanhope at least; and in one word, you have nothing to fear from me, and every thing to hope from yourself, if you will only dry up your tears, keep on your mask, and take my advice; you’ll find it as good as your aunt Stanhope’s.”
“My aunt Stanhope’s! O,” cried Belinda, “never, never more will I take such advice; never more will I expose myself to be insulted as a female adventurer. — Little did I know in what a light I appeared; little did I know what gentlemen thought of my aunt Stanhope, of my cousins, of myself!”
“Gentlemen! I presume Clarence Hervey stands at this instant, in your imagination, as the representative of all the gentlemen in England; and he, instead of Anacharsis Cloots, is now, to be sure, l’orateur du genre humain. Pray let me have a specimen of the eloquence, which, to judge by its effects, must be powerful indeed.”
Miss Portman, not without some reluctance, repeated the conversation which she had heard. —“And is this all?” cried Lady Delacour. “Lord, my dear, you must either give up living in the world, or expect to hear yourself, and your aunts, and your cousins, and your friends, from generation to generation, abused every hour in the day by their friends and your friends; ’tis the common course of things. Now you know what a multitude of obedient humble servants, dear creatures, and very sincere and most affectionate friends, I have in my writing-desk, and on my mantel-piece, not to mention the cards which crowd the common rack from intimate acquaintance, who cannot live without the honour, or favour, or pleasure of seeing Lady Delacour twice a week; — do you think I’m fool enough to imagine that they would care the hundredth part of a straw if I were this minute thrown into the Red or the Black Sea? — No, I have not one real friend in the world except Harriot Freke; yet, you see I am the comic muse, and mean to keep it up — keep it up to the last — on purpose to provoke those who would give their eyes to be able to pity me; — I humbly thank them, no pity for Lady Delacour. Follow my example, Belinda; elbow your way through the crowd: if you stop to be civil and beg pardon, and ’hope I didn’t hurt ye,’ you will be trod under foot. Now you’ll meet those young men continually who took the liberty of laughing at your aunt, and your cousins, and yourself; they are men of fashion. Show them you’ve no feeling, and they’ll acknowledge you for a woman of fashion. You’ll marry better than any of your cousins — Clarence Hervey if you can; and then it will be your turn to laugh about nets and cages. As to love and all that —”
The carriage stopped at the Pantheon just as her ladyship came to the words “love and all that.” Her thoughts took a different turn, and during the remainder of the night she exhibited, in such a manner as to attract universal admiration, all the ease, and grace, and gaiety, of Euphrosyne.
To Belinda the night appeared long and dull: the commonplace wit of chimney-sweepers and gipsies, the antics of harlequins, the graces of flower-girls and Cleopatras, had not power to amuse her; for her thoughts still recurred to that conversation which had given her so much pain — a pain which Lady Delacour’s raillery had failed to obliterate.
“How happy you are, Lady Delacour,” said she, when they got into the carriage to go home; “how happy you are to have such an amazing flow of spirits!”
“Amazing you might well say, if you knew all,” said Lady Delacour; and she heaved a deep sigh, threw herself back in the carriage, let fall her mask, and was silent. It was broad daylight, and Belinda had a full view of her countenance, which was the picture of despair. She uttered not one syllable more, nor had Miss Portman the courage to interrupt her meditations till they came within sight, of Lady Singleton’s, when Belinda ventured to remind her that she had resolved to stop there and change dresses before Marriott saw them.
“No, it’s no matter,” said Lady Delacour; “Marriott will leave me at the last, like all the rest —’tis no matter.” Her ladyship sunk back into her former attitude; but after she had remained silent for some minutes, she started up and exclaimed —
“If I had served myself with half the zeal that I have served the world, I should not now be thus forsaken! I have sacrificed reputation, happiness, every thing to the love of frolic:— all frolic will soon be at an end with me — I am dying — and I shall die unlamented by any human being. If I were to live my life over again, what a different life it should be! — What a different person I would be!1— But it is all over now — I am dying.”
Belinda’s astonishment at these words, and at the solemn manner in which they were pronounced, was inexpressible; she gazed at Lady Delacour, and then repeated the word — ‘dying!’—“Yes, dying!” said Lady Delacour.
“But you seem to me, and to all the world, in perfect health; and but half an hour ago in perfect spirits,” said Belinda.
“I seem to you and to all the world, what I am not — I tell you I am dying,” said her ladyship in an emphatic tone.
Not a word more passed till they got home. Lady Delacour hurried up stairs, bidding Belinda follow her to her dressing-room. Marriott was lighting the six wax candles on the dressing-table. —“As I live, they have changed dresses after all,” said Marriott to herself, as she fixed her eyes upon Lady Delacour and Miss Portman. “I’ll be burnt, if I don’t make my lady remember this.”
“Marriott, you need not wait; I’ll ring when I want you,” said Lady Delacour; and taking one of the candles from the table, she passed on hastily with Miss Portman through her dressing-room, through her bedchamber, and to the door of the mysterious cabinet.
“Marriott, the key of this door,” cried she impatiently, after she had in vain attempted to open it.
“Heavenly graciousness!” cried Marriott; “is my lady out of her senses?”
“The key — the key — quick, the key,” repeated Lady Delacour, in a peremptory tone. She seized it as soon as Marriott drew it from her pocket, and unlocked the door.
“Had not I best put the things to rights, my lady?” said Marriott, catching fast hold of the opening door.
“I’ll ring when you are wanted, Marriott,” said Lady Delacour; and pushing open the door with violence she rushed forward to the middle of the room, and turning back, she beckoned to Belinda to follow her —“Come in; what is it you are afraid of?” said she. Belinda went on, and the moment she was in the room, Lady Delacour shut and locked the door. The room was rather dark, as there was no light in it except what came from the candle which Lady Delacour held in her hand, and which burned but dimly. Belinda, as she looked round, saw nothing but a confusion of linen rags; vials, some empty, some full, and she perceived that there was a strong smell of medicines.
Lady Delacour, whose motions were all precipitate, like those of a person whose mind is in great agitation, looked from side to side of the room, without seeming to know what she was in search of. She then, with a species of fury, wiped the paint from her face, and returning to Belinda, held the candle so as to throw the light full upon her livid features. Her eyes were sunk, her cheeks hollow; no trace of youth or beauty remained on her death-like countenance, which formed a horrid contrast with her gay fantastic dress.
“You are shocked, Belinda,” said she; “but as yet you have seen nothing — look here,”— and baring one half of her bosom, she revealed a hideous spectacle.
Belinda sunk back into a chair; Lady Delacour flung herself on her knees before her.
“Am I humbled, am I wretched enough?” cried she, her voice trembling with agony. “Yes, pity me for what you have seen, and a thousand times more for that which you cannot see:— my mind is eaten away like my body by incurable disease — inveterate remorse — remorse for a life of folly — of folly which has brought on me all the punishments of guilt.”
“My husband,” continued she, and her voice suddenly altered from the tone of grief to that of anger —“my husband hates me — no matter — I despise him. His relations hate me — no matter — I despise them. My own relations hate me — no matter, I never wish to see them more — never shall they see my sorrow — never shall they hear a complaint, a sigh from me. There is no torture which I could not more easily endure than their insulting pity. I will die, as I have lived, the envy and admiration of the world. When I am gone, let them find out their mistake; and moralize, if they will, over my grave.” She paused. Belinda had no power to speak.
“Promise, swear to me,” resumed Lady Delacour vehemently, seizing Belinda’s hand, “that you will never reveal to any mortal what you have seen and heard this night. No living creature suspects that Lady Delacour is dying by inches, except Marriott and that woman whom but a few hours ago I thought my real friend, to whom I trusted every secret of my life, every thought of my heart. Fool! idiot! dupe that I was to trust to the friendship of a woman whom I knew to be without principle: but I thought she had honour; I thought she could never betray me — O Harriot! Harriot! you to desert me! — Any thing else I could have borne — but you, who I thought would have supported me in the tortures of mind and body which I am to go through — you that I thought would receive my last breath — you to desert me! — Now I am alone in the world — left to the mercy of an insolent waiting-woman.”
Lady Delacour hid her face in Belinda’s lap, and almost stifled by the violence of contending emotions, she at last gave vent to them, and sobbed aloud.
“Trust to one,” said Belinda, pressing her hand, with all the tenderness which humanity could dictate, “who will never leave you at the mercy of an insolent waiting-woman — trust to me.”
“Trust to you!” said Lady Delacour, looking up eagerly in Belinda’s face; “yes — I think — I may trust to you; for though a niece of Mrs. Stanhope’s, I have seen this day, and have seen with surprise, symptoms of artless feeling about you. This was what tempted me to open my mind to you when I found that I had lost the only friend — but I will think no more of that — if you have a heart, you must feel for me. — Leave me now — tomorrow you shall hear my whole history — now I am quite exhausted — ring for Marriott.” Marriott appeared with a face of constrained civility and latent rage. “Put me to bed, Marriott,” said Lady Delacour, with a subdued voice; “but first light Miss Portman to her room — she need not — yet — see the horrid business of my toilette.”