The autumn of 18-- was as uncomfortable and _triste_ a season as I haveever known; commerce and crops alike looked down--respectable prophetsof Tory tendencies shook their heads with redoubled vigor and gloomybut intense satisfaction at the near approach of that total ruinthey had so often foretold; and the unfortunate devils of starvingmechanics, unable to solve the problem of depression, were raisingshindies by way of relieving their minds. Under these circumstances,it pleased the Horse Guards, in the plenitude of their power andinhumanity, to banish Her Majesty's -- Regiment of Light Dragoons toan infernal region of smoke and "sansculottism" situated in the westof England, and known to mortals as the wealthy and busy town ofCarrington.
Here then were we hurried at the very beginning of grouse shooting,from first-rate quarters in North Britain.
Terrible was the change which came o'er all our spirits; every thingwas against us; I do not believe I ever saw such rain. Byron talksabout "nature's tear drops,"--she gave us a shower bath! The effectof all this may be imagined. I am certain it was that fatal quarterconfirmed our Major in the deep rooted love for "Kingston's old port,"which finally cut him off at 65, while pretty little Mrs. Pemberton,the paymaster's wife, no longer guided in the way she should go, byfashion and the aristocracy, fell from the right path into a meetinghouse, and eloped with the preacher! But our rulers care little for ourmorals.
_Au commencement_, the rich manufacturers were very civil, and gaveus some most enormous dinners. Their daughters, pretty girls enough,we found tolerable, as women must always be, even under the mostdistressing circumstances; but we had nothing to talk of to them. Itwas so confounding to try conversation with girls who had not a singlesubject in common with you; who looked on sporting as loss of time, andto whom all one's allusions, illustrations, and even good stories werean unknown tongue. Their brothers were "very awful," as Sammy Spectresays; and, when we asked the fellows to mess, they got so brutallydrunk, and talked such stupid slang, we were thoroughly disgusted; sowhen the first terror of burnt mills and broken windows was passed,and the respectable cotton spinners, taking time to breathe, collectedtheir scattered faculties, and remembered their dislike to themilitary, we were most ready to dispense with their society, and ourcommunications were soon almost totally cut off.
Such was our position towards the beginning of September, when onemorning, as I was forgetting my misfortunes in Alison's Account of theVendean War, which in all probability I should have never read butfor our unlucky change of quarters, Tom Ashley broke into my room,exclaiming, "Keep your books for a _dernier ressort_ my dear fellow!Come along and get your tickets."
"For what," said I peevishly, for I am capable of acknowledging anauthor's magic sometimes.
"No humbug! You do not mean to say you have not read the placardsannouncing the Festival in the New Music Hall? Grisi, Mario, and allthe rest of them. A grand mass in G, and something still grander in Z?"
"No! I know nothing about it."
"Well, know it now! There are to be three days' hard work. Sacred andscientific in the morning; profane and light in the evening; to wind upwith a fancy and full dress ball on Thursday."
"Well, it is something to do, so I am _à vos ordres, mon cher_," saidI, taking my hat.
We found the town full of fresh looking country faces, and, after somedelay and crowding, secured our tickets. The oratorio was very like allother oratorios; the concert like all other concerts. There were airsin both that made one think some other world must exist besides thisone of duns and devilry, and art and army agents. But a glance at thesingers, one thought of their characters was quite enough to dispelany heavenly illusions. I have since tasted the exquisite enjoyment ofhearing the lovely tones and words "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"thrill from pure lips, and then I knew what music meant; but at thetime of which I write I felt that any better feeling roused in me wasfalse, both in cause and effect.
All our fellows liked music, or were used to it; but I think they wereglad enough to kick their heels at the ball. I found myself thereabout eleven o'clock, listening to a very inspiriting quadrille,and gazing at the pretty little plebs and their snobbish partners,wondering if they really could be satisfied to waste their sweetnesson such specimens of humanity
for there is a natural refinementabout women
; and the brutes were so pre-occupied with self, sodivested of that profound attention I always thought every womanexpected, otherwise there was little to distinguish the gatheringfrom a ball at Lady Y----s or Lady L----s; the lights, music, andrefreshments, were first rate, the dresses handsome, many in goodtaste; the thing wanting was the spirit of easy enjoyment which onlypeople sufficiently well bred to be natural dare venture on. Occupiedin these philosophic reflections, I stood among a group of my brotherofficers, who were mingling their critiques of the morning's concertwith strictures on the mob round us, when my eye was caught by a pairof fair graceful shoulders to the right in front of me; there wassomething indescribable in the proud deer-like carriage of the head,with its simple classic knot of chestnut brown hair, which made mealmost involuntarily exclaim "That is a gentlewoman whoever she is;"and nervously anxious to see if a _nez retroussé_ or _un nez noble_adorned the countenance which was hidden from me, I edged my way intoa commanding but unremarkable position. It was neither, but one thatharmonised well with her broad smooth forehead and short tremulousupper lip; the general expression of the face was a sort of proudyet gentle sadness, perhaps thoughtfulness is the best word. Abovemiddle height, her easy rounded figure moved slightly and apparentlyunconsciously to the music, while her dress
and this I alwaysconsider a most important characteristic
was very gauzy and white,and perfectly without ornament except, indeed, a bouquet of brilliantflowers which seemed to fasten the folds over the bosom. How littledoes this miserable description convey the impression of grace andharmony this fair girl's countenance and figure stamped upon my mind!but I know were I to write for ever I should still be dissatisfied.
There was a _fierté_ so thorough bred and yet so soft in her air, thatI could have imagined her at home in the most splendid court, andwhat rendered this perhaps more striking, was the remarkable contrastpresented by her companions.
She was leaning one arm on the back of a seat occupied by a little thinwoman like a respectable housekeeper, with a fierce contrivance oflace and flowers on her head; beside her, and also behind the chair,was a plump comfortable looking man, past middle age, whose round rosyface was adorned with two little restless laughing twinkling blackeyes; a large bunch of seals to a black ribbon appeared below hiswaistcoat in bygone style, held up in a sort of relief by the goodlyprotuberance below. As I glanced at these details, this last individualsaid something to his beautiful companion with a sort of gravity overall his face except the eyes; she bent her head gently to hear, andthen her lips parted with such a smile, that I wondered I could havethought her countenance expressed pride, thought, anything, but happymerriment: such a smile must come from the heart.
"And where it most sparkled, no glance could discoverIn eyes, lip, or cheek, for she brightened all over."
That finished me, "I must know her, I must dance with her," I exclaimed.
"Yes, but how," said Burton, who had been watching me, "I was trying tofind out who she is before you came in, and no one knows them."
"How very odd," said Ashley.
"She is so strangely unlike the people with her, and all the others,"said I.
"Ah! Egerton has received a death blow."
"Command yourself my dear fellow."
"She must be Cinderella under the chaperonage of the cook and butler."
"I am determined," said I, "to know her, and _selon les régles_; forthat is no young lady to treat with scant ceremony."
So saying, I took Burton's arm and moved off to try and catch oneof the Stewards; we succeeded, but the savage would do nothing;"didn't like" and "could not say." So we left him; and Burton waslaughingly pouring forth consolations, when I exclaimed, "I haveit! I will pretend to recognise her as some acquaintance;--profounddeference--many apologies &c. Eh? get up a little conversation, itrequires nerve, but you know I am half Irish!"
"It requires great tact and impudence; I wish you well thro' it," saidBurton gravely.
This little conversation took place near a pillar, of which there was arow, two and two, across both ends of the room, dividing it into threecompartments; the centre and largest of which formed the ball room. Onre-entering it we missed the group of which we were in search, and fora moment I thought that my inexorable ill-luck had sent them home;but no! I soon discovered the unmistakeable profile close to the verypillar at the other side of which we had held our consultation. "Done!by all that's unfortunate," I exclaimed. "No, no," said Burton, "it isimpossible they could have overheard us, besides, they may have onlyjust got there."
"Well, _coute qui coute_, I will venture."
"And I will watch."
The next moment I was bowing profoundly with all the grace I couldmuster. "I fear I am too presumptuous in hoping that you do not quiteforget me."
She gazed on me at first with such a puzzled but full and steady glancefrom her dark clear grey eyes, that I felt ashamed of myself; thenagain sparkling all over with a smile and look of recognition, she heldout her hand, saying quietly--"I am very stupid not to know you atonce, but the moustache alters you, and it is a long time since I sawyou; how is your brother?"
I was electrified--the most cutting declaration that my flimsy artificewas seen thro', could not have perplexed me more. A momentary glanceshowed me Burton, standing transfixed, with mouth and eyes wide open;then rallying my scattered ideas I hastened to avail myself of thishappy mistake, and answered that my brother was quite well, and wouldbe delighted to hear I had met her. She bowed. But I had a brother,could she really know him? Her next words solved the problem: "How didhe like your leaving the regiment? It was so pleasant to be alwaystogether," murmuring something of submission to necessity. I beggedher to join the quadrille then forming, to which, after some slighthesitation, she assented, saying to her friends, "Shall I find youhere?" "Yes," said "he of the seals," as G. P. R. James would call him,"I am glad you are going to dance;" the little woman gave her a smileand a nod, and we joined the quadrille. Longing to draw her from herreminiscences which kept me in a frightful state of mind lest I shouldmake a false step, not daring to start almost any topic lest it shouldbetray me, I feel convinced I presented an illustration of the acme ofboobyism. At length I ventured to remark that I was surprised not tohave seen her at any of the oratorios; this was true at all events. "Weonly came over for yesterday's performances," she said, "and arrivingvery early we got up near the orchestra. How superb that double choruswas. I should like to have heard it in some huge dim cathedral; thetheatric decorations of that concert room seemed to jar upon the eye."
"Yes! I quite agree with you; I am certain had I heard it under thosecircumstances I should have been ready to shave my head, tie a cordround my waist, and join the Franciscans _sur l'instant_!"
I felt more at ease--"If I can avoid my brother and the old regiment Iam tolerably safe." I thought--"if I could get the smallest glimpse ofwho I am I should go ahead famously."
A few more sentences, broken by the movements of the dance, when mypartner, returning to me, again threw me off my centre, by suddenlyraising her eyes to mine with a sort of demure merriment sparkling inthem, saying, "You have not enquired for any of your old friends! But,military memories are proverbially short, and yours is no exceptionI fear." Passing over the dangerous commencement of this speech, Ilaunched into a glowing defence of military memories in general, andmy own in particular, and wound up by entreating her to give me thefullest intelligence of all my old friends. She shook her head, "Ah!those generalities speak but badly of the kindliness of recollection Ilike." Good Heavens! I was getting deeper in the mire; the rich softtones that could not be uttered by any one not possessed both of heartand intellect, seemed to sink into mine! So, hastily stammering thatshe did me great injustice, I reiterated my request for all the newsshe could impart. "I suppose you know all about the--"
"I cannot remember the numbers of regiments," said she, looking to mefor the word.
"Oh! of course," said I hastily, "a copious correspondence places mepretty well _au fond_."
"Yes! but my cousin, I know you will be glad to hear though you havenot the grace to ask, is still abroad, and, I hear, as beautiful asever, and refusing all that princes and peers can offer to induce heragain to try the lottery of marriage."
"Ah! the loved are not always soon forgotten," said I, trying to chimein with the tone of subdued feeling which seemed to pervade all myfair companion said. She looked at me with an air of disapprobationand replied gravely, "Notwithstanding their great disparity of years,my cousin did truly and deeply feel her husband's loss." I had bettertake care! could I but draw her off from her confounded cousin! Atthat moment she dropped her fan; I looked at it for a moment beforerestoring it to her; it was antique, with gold sticks, and of greatvalue, the only part of her toilet that bespoke wealth. "You rememberthat fan and Lady Desmond's grand ball?" said she smiling. "Indeed Ido," I exclaimed, enraptured to have learned at one _coup_ that Dublinwas the scene of our acquaintance and that Lady Desmond was a mutualfriend. Here, however, the quadrille ended, and accepting my arm, myunknown belle turned her steps and mine, _malgré moi_, in the directionof the oft mentioned pillars, near which we had left her chaperons;but those deserving individuals had, with praiseworthy carelessness,disappeared, and my companion after looking round in vain, said, in asomewhat anxious tone, "they are certainly not here, I shall never findthem again." I suggested the probability of nature requiring support,and that the refreshment room would be the most likely place in whichto recover her lost guardians.
Assenting to this, and to my proposal of an ice, we were soon moving_en masse_ with the other dancers towards the tea rooms, and now, freed_pro. tem._ from the incubus of cousins and brothers, whom my partnerappeared to forget in her keen appreciation of the many ridiculouspoints in the mob around her, I felt my spirits rise to concert pitch,the embargo on my tongue removed, and, fancying myself most agreeable,the passage to the refreshment table seemed to me to be performed withmiraculous rapidity.--Here, after a short inspection, we discoveredthe missing individuals, and hastening towards them with speed Ithought rather ungracious, this puzzling, but fascinating girl, withan inclination of the head and a smile in which much suppressed mirthseemed struggling, dropped my arm and took her station beside herincongruous companions. But I was not to be so easily sent adrift; Ihad not served a twelve or thirteen years' apprenticeship to ball roomsto be thus dismissed if I choose to stay; so with a deferential bow, "Ishall bring your ice here," said I; and rapidly securing one, I hadthe satisfaction of hearing her say, as I approached with it, as if incontinuation of something, "knew him slightly in Dublin, a long timeago;" which, in some measure, placed me _au dessous des cartes_; for ifonly a slight acquaintance, I could not be expected to have very manysubjects or reminiscences in common with her; so resolutely determinedto stand my ground, have another dance, learn who she really was, and,if possible, lay the foundation of a future acquaintance, I took upa position beside the beautiful incognita, and ventured to discussIreland in a guarded and general manner, observing, with perfect truth,that two of the pleasantest years of my life had been spent there. Icould perceive a decided increase of cordiality in Miss ----
what wouldI not have given to know the name
as I pronounced this eulogy on hernative country--for I had soon guessed, by the indescribable spiritof frankness, arch, yet tempered with a certain dignity in its gay_abandon_, which pervaded her manner, that she was Irish--and just asshe had turned laughingly to answer some playful charge against itscharacteristics, spoken apparently through a medium of mashed potatoesin his throat, by the man with the seals, Burton touched my arm,"Egerton, don't keep all your luck to yourself, introduce me."
"Hold your tongue--for Heaven's sake, my dear fellow," I exclaimed in arapid aside--"don't breathe my name: at this moment I have not the mostremote idea who I am, and am constantly on the verge of an unpardonablescrape; be silent and begone, I will tell you all afterwards." Silencedand amazed, poor Burton retired, and my unknown friend, turning to meas I stood elate at having conquered difficulties, again showed memy uncertain footing by observing--"But you used to cherish the mostheretical opinions on these points, and offend me not a little by theiropen avowal." What an ill-bred savage she must identify me with! "Rawboys are always odious and irrational; you should not have deigned tolisten to me," said I in despair.
"Oh! you were by no means a raw boy, you looked quite as old as you donow; besides, it is not half a century since we met," she replied, withanother distracting look; and then--with a merry burst of apparentlyirrepressible laughter, in which, though I could not account for it,her friends and myself joined--it was so infectious, added--"Youmust forgive me, but really your reminiscences seem to be in suchinextricable confusion, I cannot help laughing." In an agony lest allshould be discovered--with the respectable couple before-mentioned forumpires, I urged in defence "that my memory was like the backgroundof a picture from which one figure alone stood out clear and welldefined." Then, observing that she was beating time to the sound of amost delicious waltz just begun, "Am I too unreasonable to ask for awaltz as well as a quadrille," I said. She half shook her head, then,smiling to her companions, observed--"It is so long since I had awaltz I cannot resist it; shall I keep you too late, _Caro Maestro_?""No, no," said the lady with the cap, "we will go and watch you." Ina few moments I was whirling my fair incognita round to the inspiringstrains of the Elfin Waltz, then new and unhacknied.
What a delicious waltz that was! My partner seemed endowed with thevery spirit of the dance: her light pliant form seemed to respond toevery tone of the music, and not an unpractised _valseur_ myself, Ifelt that I was, at all events, no encumbrance to her movements. I havenever heard that waltz since--whether ground on the most deplorable ofbarrel organs, or blown in uncertain blasts from the watery instrumentsof a temperance band--without seeing, as in a magic mirror, the wholescene conjured up before my eyes: the intense enjoyment of my partner,which beamed so eloquently from her soft grey eyes, and spoke volumesof the nature it expressed: the childlike simplicity with which, whenat length wearied, she stopped and said, turning to me--"You dancevery well! How I have enjoyed that waltz!"
Many a stray sixpence those reminiscences have cost me! "But," shecontinued, "it must be late, and I cannot keep my friends any longer,let us find them as soon as possible." This was soon done, and, to myinfinite chagrin, my partner declared herself quite ready to depart,pronouncing a glowing eulogium on my dancing. "You must have takenlessons since I had the pleasure of meeting you, for formerly--" Thereshe stopped, for the philanthropic little cavalier she had called _caromaestro_ interrupted her, wrapped a shawl round her, begging she wouldhold it to her mouth and keep that feature closed during her passage tothe carriage, and led the way with his, I supposed, wife, leaving mestill in possession of the little hand which had rested on my shoulderduring the waltz. Now, or never, I thought.
"I fear I have induced you to prolong that waltz beyond your strength,"for I felt her arm still trembling with the exertion, "you must allowme to assure myself to-morrow that you have felt no ill effects?"
"We are not staying here," she said with some hesitation; "we only camein for the festival and leave to-morrow."
Here we reached the passage, and _il caro maestro_ proceeding todiscover their carriage, I felt myself, of course, bound to divide myattentions with the lady of the cap, and, not choosing to prosecute myenquiries within range of her ears, I remained some time in a state ofinternal frying till he returned, and I was again _tête-à-tête_ for amoment with their charge.
"But do you not reside in the neighbourhood?" We were close at thedoor. Smiling with her eyes, she shook her head, pointed to the shawlwhich she held to her mouth in obedience to the injunction she hadreceived, and remained silent; I was distracted. "Forgive me," Iexclaimed, "and pray speak; I must see you again."
"Come, my dear," cried my tormentor, "you'll catch cold, make haste!"
Her foot was on the step;--she was in, her guardian opposite her;--theglass drawn up. "Move on," said the policeman. One glance, as she bowedfull of arch drollery, and I was left on the door step repeating, overand over, "No. 756--756," while my brain was in a whirl of excitement,my beautiful vision gone, and my only clue to discover her the numberof a cab!