Esmè Stuart.

A woman of forty : a monograph online

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LADY MARY MILTON had a passion, she wished
to make her parties as rec/ierc/te and as famous as were
the salons of the ancien regime. She had taken as
much pains to attain this object as other women do
to attain literary or scholastic fame. She believed
that she would have as much pleasure when success
crowned her efforts and her invitation cards were
looked upon as real treasures, as a Girton girl does
when she can put M.D. or D.S. after her name, or when
she is hailed as senior wrangler or first classic. Let
us, however, pass over all the period of effort, for
at this moment Lady Mary Milton had reached the
desired pinnacle. She was at the height of her
triumph ; she did not even regret all she had gone
through to reach her coveted position. It is super-
fluous to say she was a very clever, original woman.
She was not, however, as clever as many of the
women who were invited to her house, nor as original
as several original London ladies we could name ;
but she had the exact proportion of originality, clever-



ness, good and bad temper, power and weakness,
necessary to win her cause and she had won it.

Her husband, Frank Milton, Esq., R.A., was a
fashionable portrait painter. He was not a great
artist, and a thousand years hence he would not be an
old master ; his pictures would be forgotten as well as
his sitters, or only brought out of dark corners as bad
examples of a bad period. Nevertheless, he and his
generation were firm friends. He painted portraits
that were always pleasing; he put neither too great
originality in his faces or his technique, but he held
the balance equally between the modern impressionist,
the modern un-impressionist, and the pre-Raphaelite.
He easily imbibed ideas, and he knew human nature
by instinct, so he suited his picture to his sitter and
what more was required of him ? The public had
taken a fancy to him ; the public did not know why,
neither did he, but it was a fact. The other artists
laughed, at him behind his back, they scorned his
popularity, and he knew it. Charles Seymour the
great impressionist, who painted people as if seen
through a London fog, and landscapes as if it were
always evening, and sunshine disgraceful could not
mention Frank Milton's name without a muttered
anathema. Lighthill, who was favoured by provincial
lord mayors and gave equivalent paint for their
guineas, said that Milton's manner was execrable,
that his paint would not stand the test of time, that he
knew nothing of the first principles of art, and that


the rage for him was a disgrace to society ; but the
fact remained unquestioned Milton was popular. In
spite of everybody, society people would be painted by
Milton. They insisted upon it ; they showered their
guineas on him ; they were immortalised in order of
application ; they demeaned themselves to beg that
their special pictures might be one of his exhibited
portraits ; they pressed their gifts upon him, which
gifts were delicately hidden bribes ; and, above all,
they praised his wife and allowed her to be a queen of

Frank Milton himself was a thoroughly good, hard-
working fellow. There was no humbug about him and
no pretence, but he could not help knowing that he was
popular and that he was rich. He was sorry the ar-
tistic brotherhood thought so little of his pictures, but
he forgave them, for in his inmost soul he was not very
appreciative of his own work, still his style was liked
by fashionable lar^es, and he was not going to quarrel
with them for that, not even for the sake of all the
other artists in England. The truth was, he thought
more of a word of praise from Lady Mary's lips than
of all the fine sentences of the dukes and duchesses in
the world. If Mary said his picture was pretty, he
knew she meant it; usually she told him his portraits
were made to order, and on these occasions he con-
tented himself with smiling or asking her what would
be the cost of the new show she was preparing for her
next triumph.


The two were a devoted couple devoted in the
best sense of this much-abused word. They were so
sure of each other's affection that, had some one come
and told Milton his wife had eloped with the Duke of
Blackwater, he would have taken the announcement
quietly and answered that she would soon come back.
Lady Mary had so many men friends that Frank did
not know them all, but what did it matter ? Mary
might laugh and talk, and flutter here and there she
was true to the core, and Frank knew it. On his side,
though he painted all the beauties of the season, he
never imagined one of them "came up to Mary," and
Mary never imagined that he would think so.

Perhaps it was this perfect domestic atmosphere
that had made Lady Mary able to attain her object.
The best people were asked and came to her recep-
tions, but also the best people had to be in some way
distinguished, for the fashionable artist's wife was
very dainty in her choice. The queer foreigners with
doubtful titles were never found in her rooms. The
Bohemian element was there certainly, but it was not
fragile Bohemian glass which she displayed, but the
glass which, though it may look fragile, is advertised
as unbreakable.

We will not go so far as to say that all the guests
who received the coveted invitation to No. i Ross
Square were arrayed in spotless robes, but at all events
none of them had been openly talked about if they
were erring mortals their errors were not notorious.


As to her person, Lady Mary Milton was decidedly
pretty and piquante, but everything around her com-
bined to increase her charms. Her dresses were de-
signed by Frank, her hair was golden and her eyes
were deep violet. Her manners were perfect, and
were inherited as well as acquired, for she had known
good society from the time she first opened her eyes
on the wicked world; above all, these- same good
manners were not variable but ingrained, and there-
fore never found wanting.

All those charms in the natural order of events
would only have raised her up enemies had she not
possessed yet one more virtue she adored her own
sex, she was a woman's woman quite as much as a
man's woman, and she had a heart. If she had not
been born with the passion for good society, she
would merely have been a pleasant English matron,
but as it was she reigned as the favourite of society
and gave herself airs in plenty, and to crown all it
was her privilege to have these airs respected.

The Miltons lived at the corner house of Ross
Square. Just then it was a very fashionable square,
the houses were difficult to get hold of, and though
comparatively small they were run after. The studio
was in the garden, and considering the aristocratic
sitters who came there it was very simple ; but it
suited the fashionable portrait painter, who was like-
wise very simple in his tastes.

Lady Mary's parties were never overcrowded.


She was resolute about this important item. Her re-
ceptions were not to be like the game of chairs, in
which there are always less chairs than persons, and
she never allowed a man to crowd up the doorway
vainly seeking a new position for his legs and arms.
The men and women who came to her house were
asked there to talk to each other, to amuse each other,
and to keep up the character of her unique parties ;
if they failed on second trial she was merciful the
first time and made allowances for English shyness
they never received, in spite of broad hints, another
invitation. Lady Mary could do this though no one
else could do it. It is certainly wonderful how much
can be done by a man or a woman, if he or she
has the necessary courage of their firm opinions,
and if they allow the world to hear "a bit of their

" Half the world wastes its brain power in saying
what it does not mean," she would remark; "my ad-
vice is, 'say what you mean and do it.' "

But Lady Mary's maxims though good were not
good enough for universal acceptance, because it is
not only honesty of speech which succeeds, it requires
also a mixture of luck. Mrs. Bellew, the mother of
pretty Miss Bellew, had tried to imitate all Lady
Mary's ways, and had failed utterly. Everybody was
offended with her and cut her that was all she got
for her pains. It is best and kindest to mention this
fact at once for fear of further imitation and further


failure, for to imitate this fashionable lady without
her special talents is to court disappointment.

Lady Mary introduced her guests when she did
so at all in the prettiest way imaginable; with a few
words she could make people feel quite at ease with
each other, but that again was her special gift which
we have tried in vain to imitate.

The season was getting aged. The decorous
squabbles of the artists had subsided after an unusual
flood of adverse criticism by each other upon each
other's work, and the society parties were abating.
The fashionable world had only about two engage-
ments for the same evening instead of three or four,
and it was getting a little <%w/and weary, but wearied
as it might be it could still find enough spirit to attend
Lady Mary's last reception. People could go there
before going off to Mrs. Montresor's ball, a ball
famous for its strange medley of guests, but to which
"every one went." Those who came early to Lady
Mary Milton's reception took care not to mention they
were on their way to " Mrs. Montresor's mixture."
The real enjoyment was to say at the ball to certain
people, whom you knew could never cross her thresh-
old, that you had "just come from Lady Mary Mil-
ton's reception." That was a real triumph, the
triumph of, to speak plainly, morality over immorality,
good over evil, and therefore it must be owned a very
rare triumph, and one which has no written promise
of immediate success to rest upon.


Lady Mary had triumphed over the world, would
the world some day make her surfer for it ? This
question remained to be answered.

She was charming on this particular evening.
Frank Milton had designed her " frock," as his wife
called what he styled her " triumph of arts and
manufactures." Her thirty-five years did not make
themselves conspicuous, for she only allowed twenty-
five out of the whole number to appear before the
guests. Her hair, arranged artificially, was adorned
with the smallest and most delicate wreath of real ivy.
Her dress was of a pale sea-green, and was adorned
also with natural ivy, causing her several times to be
likened to a woodland nymph. As to her stature, she
was short but well-proportioned ; moreover, she had by
inheritance beautiful hands and feet. To-night she
was extremely lively, but she seldom failed in this re-
spect for you never found Lady Mary running to
several parties on one and the same evening. She
gave as an excuse for her many refusals that she only
knew how to be brilliant once a day. She accepted
very few invitations, and certainly her popularity was
not due to the frequency of her appearance in society,
but rather, comet-like, to the uncertainty of her ap-
pearances, and to the agreeable surprise created when
her presence was notified.

This evening the two drawing-rooms in Ross
Square were thrown open, and looked like fairy-land.
Flowers and ferns were mingled together, simplicity


and severe art, with just a touch besides of Eastern
gorgeousness. Everything was perfect, neither vul-
gar nor mean.

The special entertainment provided by her lady-
ship was a child-violinist. He was to play two pieces
and then to disappear. Lady Mary had a tender
heart, she did not like show-children ; but this infant
prodigy was the rage, so she contrived as usual to use
the world and not to abuse it. These two pieces she
knew would have more success than if the child
wearied himself and his audience with an hour's un-
ceasing work.

The boy, Hector Prowton, was accompanied by his
sister, a tall girl of twenty, dressed in black silk,
whose sad face looked out of keeping with a lively
party. After the first solo was finished she retired
with Hector into a corner, in order to avoid as much
as possible the notice of the guests.

As for Lady Mary, she moved about the room and
kept the ball of amusing conversation gently rolling.
The company was too well chosen for this ball to
need much propelling power, indeed, only a gentle
touch was now and then necessary to keep it in mo-

Mr. Milton had not his wife's talent for society
talk, but he enjoyed a chat with anybody and every-
body ; he did not put on the airs of genius, and was
happily able to be himself, that is, simple and straight-


We shall not pretend to reproduce the clever talk
which made the success of the party at No. i Ross
Square. You cannot paint a woman's kiss, nor the
quick blush on a lovely cheek, nor a thousand things
in real life, for art fails when she steps out of her
province. This evening there was a network of
sparkling repartee, a very Turkey carpet of rich
thoughts woven with single threads ; but there was
only one guest, besides the Wunderkind's sister, who
here seemed out of place a thread, as it were, from
another texture. He was sitting not far from the
musician, and he had half a mind to address the
silent sister, as he too knew no one in that gay society
except Lady Mary herself; but before he could do
this the latter had come across the room bringing
with her, of course without apparent purpose, an
elderly man who was, by her orders, to talk to the
lonely guest, and to whom she said

" May I introduce Mr. Leslie to you, Colonel
Moore? He has just come back from Australia or
New Zealand which is it, Mr. Leslie ? and he is a
distant cousin of mine. He knows nothing of Eng-
lish society, so I told him to come and see it this
evening, but you will agree with me he is too late
now for anything but the fag-end of our beau monde."

"But he will begin with the best first," said the
Colonel, with a courtly bow to his hostess ; being
fully aware that dainty compliments help much to
sweeten daily life.


" I only landed from New Zealand last night," said
Brice Leslie, trying to rouse himself.

" He will give you his opinion of us, after the man-
ner of the future New Zealander when found standing
on the ruins of London," said Lady Mary.

" I was born an Englishman," said Leslie, smiling,
"and it is only about ten years since I last trod Eng-
lish soil ; I am not altogether a foreigner."

" Ten years, and you have never been back ? " said
the Colonel ; it seemed to him a very long exile.

" Never ; and even now I am enjoying the novel
sensation of having landed in England unexpected by
anyone even by my own people. Strangely enough
I was coming by the next boat, but having finished
some surveying I was engaged in sooner than I ex-
pected I took the ship that was on the point of start-

" He never even telegraphed," added Lady Mary,
" so he is experiencing a new sensation. Is he not to
be envied ? How I wish I could do something to
astonish Frank, but he is like the man who could
never shiver nothing I do surprises him. To punish
the returned prodigal (all Colonials are prodigals of
course) I invited him here. It is strange but true that
I recognised a' family likeness in the wanderer's
face, when we were both in the same shop this morn-
ing; quite a theatrical scene it was, ' Surely you are
Brice Leslie/ 'And are you Lady Mary Milton, my
long-lost cousin ? ' Now, Colonel Moore, you can see


it all, I may drop the curtain. Will you act the part
of Telemachus and tell him about everyone, point out
what he is to admire and what to detest ; I must go
and talk to my Wunderkind's sister. Ah, by the way,
Mr. Leslie, what do you think of that girl in pink on
the other side of the room ? If I remember rightly,
ten years ago you were an ardent admirer of beauty."

" Ten years cures many foibles," said Brice Leslie
earnestly. In spite of his having been ten years in
New Zealand there was nothing colonial in his manner
unless we except its gravity. He was tall, broad-
shouldered, with a fair complexion tanned by sun and
air. Now and then there flitted across his face a look
of keen perception, which it was a pleasure to note. It
had pleased Lady Mary, or, cousin though he was, he
would not have been at her reception. His thought-
ful expression was occasionally dispersed by a sudden
gleam of amusement, which showed hidden forces at
work, and which proved him to be a man not easily
passed over when once you had looked at him.

" Yes ; and ten years also gives time to contract
new faults," replied the hostess.

" Have pity on my grey hairs," interposed the

" But really one of you must give me an opinion
on my pretty Miss Betham a true Greek face I call
it, so pure and simple."

" Were the Greeks pure and simple, Lady Mary ?
I am merely asking for information," said the Colonel.


" She is very pretty," said Brice Leslie, but no
gleam of admiration came into his eyes.

" Very pretty ? You men are past my comprehen-
sion. I gather together the most unique, the most
charming maidens of nineteen for you, and you say
' very pretty.' "

" We say far more when the girl of nineteen
mentions Lady Mary," said the Colonel ; and Leslie
admired the aplomb of the grey-haired soldier and

Lady Mary laughed, she liked compliments be-
cause she knew exactly what they were worth, she
could beat even the Colonel in that line when she

" You are a born courtier, Colonel Moore. By the
way, do you know that Miss Cuthbert is to be here
this evening ? She is late, so 1 expect she has been
elsewhere. I fight against that habit and never give
in to it."

" Is Miss Cuthbert another pink beauty of nine-
teen ? " asked Brice Leslie quietly ; that unconscious
irony of his was a great charm in women's eyes.

" Oh no ; a woman of a certain age say of my age."

" Let us call it the usual age, then," said the

" What claim has she on your notice and regard,
Lady Mary ? " said Leslie, for he had quickly found
out that his cousin was a woman who expected some-
thing from each of her guests.


" Well, she is no, I will not tell you, you will see
for yourself. .- . . The Wunderkind must wait till she
comes, for she adores music."

Lady Mary passed on, and the two men were left
alone in a crowd.

The Colonel knew everyone, and the newly-re-
turned Englishman knew no one, but the Colonel was
a good-natured man and he admired the calm way in
which the New Zealander took his good fortune, so
he began

" I suppose you know that Lady Mary Milton is
the most popular hostess in town ? " Then he sud-
denly broke off. " Look," he added, " there is Miss
Cuthbert coming in. The deuce ! " this exclamation
was uttered sotto voce " Isn't she handsome ? "


MAGDALEN CUTHBERT entered the room accompa-
nied by her aunt, as Mrs. Stewart was called, though
she was really only a chaperon, a useful person for
appearances, a mere nobody who did not count for
much. Mrs. Stewart had all the virtues said to belong
to a faithful dog ; she was quite content to be nobody,
and she was nobody when Miss Cuthbert was by.

Lady Mary knew what she was about when she
asked Miss Cuthbert to her receptions. She knew the
handsome woman was talked about, but she also knew
that the talk was not such as could close the doors of
No. i Ross Square against her. Further, Lady Mary
did not even hide it from herself or from Frank that in
her secret heart she was one of Miss Cuthbert's many
admirers, or rather one of her few women admirers,
for the men were too many to count. When Lady
Mary had told Brice Leslie that the expected guest
was of the same age as herself, she had been lenient
to Magdalen Cuthbert. In reality she was a woman
just touching forty, but a woman is no older than she
looks, and Magdalen did not often look her age. At
times you could not guess it at all, having too great a


personality for the number of her years to be of much
consequence. The young girls, pink-and-white creat-
ures of eighteen to twenty, did not much appreciate
the entrance of Miss Cuthbert into a drawing-room.
She seemed to fill the place, and her influence appeared
to permeate everywhere. She was so handsome that
mere beauty of youth or mere prettiness of feature
faded away in her presence and was as nothing in
comparison, for besides being naturally handsome
Miss Cuthbert knew how to dress well; indeed, she
dressed extremely well, neither in too old nor too
young a style, being endowed with an artist's eye as
to what personally suited her.

Brice Leslie, looking across the room, was suddenly
transformed from the phlegmatic New Zealander to a
human being with a new gleam of interest in the life
around him, an interest previously conspicuous by its
absence. As he watched Miss Cuthbert closely he
found it difficult to describe her verbally to himself.
He saw she was tall, well made, full in figure, but so
exquisitely proportioned that the word stout could not
be applied to her ; there was, however, something more
than mere beauty which constituted her special attrac-
tion, and this something refused to be defined.

If a man happened to have a predilection for a tiny
woman, it was no use enumerating Miss Cuthbert's
charms to him, for no amount of art could make her
look small. She was the type of fully-developed
womanhood. Her pose, her walk, all her movements


were so graceful, that one realised without further
analysis that she was exactly what she should be.
Unless you are an artist or a sculptor or a doctor or
an anatomist, you do not dissect a woman's stature,
you simply comply with the natural desire to acknowl-
edge perfection wherever and in whatever form you
find it. Arrayed in her low cut evening dress, Miss
Cuthbert's chief beauty was seen to perfection. Her
head was perfectly poised on her rounded throat. It
was not like a girl's slender neck with that serpent-
like twist so much admired by a certain school, but
the rounded, finely-proportioned throat of a Hebe,
starting from its base in one splendid curve that one
could mentally trace as it swept round the outline of
her exquisitely-shaped head.

Her hair had, as it seemed, conspired to repeat the
undulating lines of the head, for its meshes resembled
dark waves in the act of turning to break upon the
shore. Her eyes were of a pure pale blue, but shaded
by deep brown eyelashes that matched the colour of
her hair. This effect of blue eyes with rich brown
fringes was very charming ; moreover, the rich healthy
complexion, with its dash of red colouring, was pecul-
iarly striking. Her nose was straight, her mouth the
despair of artists ; Miss Cuthbert's lips had once been
described by a society paper as " a cupid's bow dipped
in carmine, which when bent to send forth its winged
arrows was sure to conquer." The description was
" fine " but not true. Her lips were in reality rather


thin, red certainly, but when at rest there was a sad,
severe expression about the mouth which did not alto-
gether belong to a perfect type of beauty. When,
however, she suddenly smiled or spoke of some sub-
ject which pleased her, the transformation produced
perfection. That smile was extremely dangerous, it
seemed to lift the beholder of it into another world, it
expressed a thousand things in one and one in a thou-
sand ; for the whole face felt the smile, especially the
eyes, which sometimes shared the sadness and severity
of the mouth. No circumstance could ever make Miss
Cuthbert's eyes anything but beautiful, but even they
changed their expression when " Cupid's bow " was
really parted by smiles.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Miss Cuthbert

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Online LibraryEsmè StuartA woman of forty : a monograph → online text (page 1 of 19)