Charles James Lever.

The Knight Of Gwynne, Vol. I (of II) online

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Forester lay awake half the night, the singular circumstances in which
he found himself occupied his thoughts, while at intervals came
the swelling sounds of some loud cheers from the party below, whose
boisterous gayety seemed to continue without interruption.




CHAPTER IV. THE DINNER-PARTY

It was late on the following day when Forester awoke, nor was it for
some time that he could satisfy himself how far he had been an actor, or
a mere spectator in the scene he had witnessed the preceding night.
The room and the guests were vividly impressed upon his memory, and the
excitement of the party, so different in its character from anything he
had seen in his own country, convinced him that the sea, narrow as it
was, separated two races very unlike in temperament.

What success should he have in this, his first, mission? was the
question ever rising to his mind; how should he acquit himself among
persons to whose habits of life, thought, and expression he felt himself
an utter stranger? Little as he had seen of the party, that little
showed him that the anti-Union feeling was in the ascendant, and that,
if a stray convert to the Ministerial doctrines was here and there to
be found, he was rather ashamed of his new convictions than resolute to
uphold and defend them. From these thoughts he wandered on to others,
about the characters of the party, and principally of the host himself,
who in every respect was unlike his anticipations. He opened his friend
Lionel's letter, and was surprised to find how filial affection had
blinded his judgment, - keen enough when exercised without the trammels
of prejudice. "If this," thought he, "be a fair specimen of Lionel's
portrait-painting, I must take care to form no high-flown expectations
of his mother and sister; and as he calls one somewhat haughty and
reserved in manner, and the other a blending of maternal pride with a
dash of his father's wilful but happy temperament, I take it for granted
that Lady Eleanor is a cold, disagreeable old lady, and her daughter
Helen a union of petted vanity and capriciousness, pretty much what my
good friend Lionel himself was when he joined us, but what he had the
good sense to cease to be very soon after."

Having satisfied himself that he fairly estimated the ladies of the
house, he set himself, with all the ingenuity of true speculation, to
account for the traits of character he had so good-naturedly conferred
on them. "Living in a remote, half-civilized neighborhood," thought he,
"without any intercourse save with some country squires and their wives
and daughters, they have learned, naturally enough, to feel their own
superiority to those about them; and possessing a place with such claims
to respect from association, as well as from its actual condition, they,
like all people who have few equals and no superiors, give themselves
a license to think and act independent of the world's prescription,
and become, consequently, very intolerable to every one unaccustomed
to acknowledge their sovereignty. I heartily wish Lionel had left these
worthy people to my own unassisted appreciation of them; his flourish
of trumpets has sadly spoiled the effect of the scene for me;" and with
this not over gracious reflection he proceeded to dress for the day.

"The squire has been twice at the door this morning, sir," said Lin
wood, as he arranged the dressing apparatus on the table; "he would
not let me awake you, however, and at last said, 'Present my cordial
respects to Mr. Forester, and say, that if he should like to ride with
the hounds, he'll find a horse ready for him, and a servant who will
show him the way.'"

"And are they out already?" said Forester.

"Yes, sir, gone two hours ago; they breakfasted at eight, and I heard a
whipper-in say they 'd twelve miles to go to the first cover."

"Why, it appeared to me that they were up all night."

"They broke up at four, sir, and except two gentlemen that are gone over
to Westport on business, but to be back for dinner, they're all mounted
to-day."

"And what is the dinner-hour, Linwood?"

"Six, sir, to the minute."

"And it's now only eleven," said Forester to himself, with a wearied
sigh; "how am I to get through the rest of the day? Are the ladies in
the drawing-room, Linwood?"

"Ladies! no, sir; there are no ladies in the house as I hear of."

"So much the better, then," thought his master; "passive endurance
is better any day than active boredom, and with all respect for Lady
Eleanor and her daughter, I 'd rather believe them such as Lionel paints
them, than have the less flattering impression nearer acquaintance would
as certainly leave behind it."

"The old butler wishes to know if you will breakfast in the library,
sir?" asked Linwood.

"Yes, that will do admirably; delighted I am to hear there is such a
thing here," muttered he; for already he had suffered the disappointment
the host's appearance had caused him to tinge all his thoughts with
bitterness, and make him regard his visit as an act of purgatorial
endurance.

In a large and well-furnished library, with a projecting window
offering a view over the entire of Clue Bay, Forester found a small
breakfast-table laid beside the fireplace. From the aspect of comfort
in everything around, to the elegance of the little service of Dresden,
with its accompaniment of ancient silver, the most fastidious critic
would not have withheld his praise, and the young Englishman fell into
a puzzled revery how so much of taste for the refinements of daily life
could consort with the strange specimen of society he had witnessed
the preceding evening. The book-shelves, too, in all their later
acquisitions, exhibited judgment in the works selected, and as Forester
ran his eye over the titles, he was more than ever at fault to reconcile
such readings with such habits. On the tables lay scattered the latest
of those political pamphlets which the great contested question of the
day evoked, many of them ably and powerfully written, and abounding
in strong sarcasm; of these, the greater number were attacks on the
meditated Union; some of them, too, bore pencil-marks and annotations,
from which Forester collected that the Knight's party leanings were by
no means to the Government side of the question.

"It will be hard, however," thought he, "but some inducement may be
found to tempt a man whose house and habits evidence such a taste for
enjoyment; he must have ambitions of one kind or other, and if not
for himself, his son, at least, must enter into his calculations. Your
ascetic or your anchorite may be difficult to treat with, but show me
the man with a good cook, a good stable, a good cellar, and the odds are
there is a lurking void somewhere in his heart, to discover which is to
have the mastery over him forever." Such were the conclusions the young
aide-de-camp came to after long and mature thought, nor were they very
unnatural in one whose short experience of life had shown him few, if
any, exceptions to his theory. He deemed it possible, besides, that,
although the Knight's politics should incline to the side of Opposition,
there might be no very determined or decided objection to the plans
of Government, and that, while proof against the temptations of vulgar
bribery, he might be won over by the flatteries and seductions of which
a Ministry can always be the dispensers. To open the negotiation with
this view was then the great object with Forester, to sound the depth of
the prejudices with which he had to deal, to examine their bearings
and importance, to avoid even to ruffle the slightest of national
susceptibilities, and to make it appear that, while Government could
have little doubt of the justice of their own views, they would not
permit a possibility of misconstruction to interfere with the certainty
of securing the adhesion of one so eminent and influential as the Knight
of Gwynne.

The old adage has commemorated the facility of that arithmetic which
consists in reckoning "without one's host," and there are few men of
warm and generous temperament who have not fallen, some time or other,
into the error. Forester was certainly not the exception; and so
thoroughly was he imbued with the spirit of his mission, and so
completely captivated by the force of his own argument, that he
walked up and down the ample apartment, repeating aloud, in broken and
disjointed sentences, some of those irrefutable positions and plausible
inducements by which he speculated on success. It was already the dusk
of the evening, the short hours of a wintry day had hurried to a close,
and, except where the bright glare of the wood fire was reflected on the
polished oaken floor, all was shrouded in shadow within that spacious
library. Now pushing aside some great deep-cushioned chair, now removing
from his path the projecting end of a table, Forester succeeded in
clearing a space in which, as he walked, he occasionally gave vent to
such reflections as these: -

"The necessities of the Empire, growing power and influence of England,
demand a consolidation of her interests and her efforts - this only to
be effected by the Act of Union - an English Parliament, the real seat
of legislation, and, as such, the suitable position for you, Sir Knight,
whose importance will now increase with the sphere in which you exercise
your abilities. I do not venture," said he, aloud, and with a voice
attuned to its most persuasive accents, - "I do not venture to discuss
with you a question in which your opportunities and judgment have given
you every advantage over me; I would merely direct your attention to
those points on which my relative, Lord Castlereagh, founds the hopes of
obtaining your support, and those views by which, in the success of the
measure, a more extended field of utility will open before you. If I do
not speak more fully on the gratitude which the Ministry will feel for
your co-operation, and the pledges they are most ready and willing to
advance, it is because I know - that is, I am certain that you - in fact,
it is the conviction that - in short - "

"In short, it is because bribery is an ugly theme, sir, and, like a bad
picture, only comes out the worse the more varnish you lay on it." These
words, uttered in a low, solemn voice from a corner of the apartment,
actually stunned Forester, who now stood peering through the gloom to
where the indistinct figure of a man was seen seated in the recess of a
large chair.

"Excuse me, Captain Forester," said he, rising, and coming forward with
his hand out; "but it has so seldom been my fortune to hear any argument
in defence of this measure that I could not bring myself to interrupt
you before. Let me, however, perform a more pleasing task, in bidding
you welcome to Gwynne Abbey. You slept well, I trust, for I left you in
a happy unconsciousness of this world and its cares." It required all
Forester's tact to subdue the uncomfortable sensations his surprise
excited, and receive the proffered welcome with becoming cordiality. But
in this he soon succeeded, not less from his own efforts than from the
easy and familiar tone of the speaker. "I have to thank you for a very
pleasant note you were kind enough to bring me," continued he, as he
seated himself beside the fire. "And how have you left Dublin? Is
the popular excitement as great as some weeks ago? or are the people
beginning to see that they have nothing to say to a measure which, like
venison and turtle, is a luxury only to be discussed by their betters?"

"I should say that there is more of moderation in the tone of all
parties of late," said Forester, diffidently, for he felt all the
awkwardness of alluding to a topic in which his own game had been so
palpably discovered.

"In that case, your friends have gained the victory. Patriotism, as we
call it in Ireland, requires to be fed by mob adulation; and when
the 'canaille' get hoarse, their idols walk over to the Treasury
benches. - But there 's the bell to dress; and I may as well tell you
that we are the models of punctuality in this house, and you have only
fifteen minutes for your toilet." With these words the old gentleman
arose and strode out of the room, while Forester hastened, on his side,
to prepare for the dinner-hour.

When the aide-de-camp had accomplished his dressing, he found the party
at table, where a vacant place was left for himself at the right hand of
the host.

"We gave you three minutes' grace, Captain Forester. I knew a candidate
lose his election in the county by very little more," - and here he
dropped his voice to a whisper, only audible to Forester, - "and I'd
rather contract to keep the peace in a menagerie full of tigers than
hold in check the passions of twenty hungry fox-hunters while waiting
for dinner."

Forester cast his eyes over the table, and thought he perceived that his
delay had not prepossessed the company in his favor. The glances which
met his own round the board bore an expression of very unmistakable
dissatisfaction, and although the conversation was free and
unrestrained, he felt all the awkwardness of his position.

There was at the time we speak of - has it quite disappeared even yet? - a
very prevalent notion in most Irish circles that Englishmen in general,
and English officials in particular, assumed airs of superiority over
the natives of the country, treating them as very subordinate persons
in all the relations in which good-breeding and social intercourse are
concerned; and this impression, whether well or ill founded, induced
many to suspect intentional insult in those chance occurrences which
arise out of thoughtlessness and want of memory.

If the party now assembled manifested any portion of this feeling, it
was not sufficient to interrupt the flow of conversation, which took its
course in channels the most various and dissimilar. The individuals were
intimate, or, at least, familiar with each other, and, through all the
topics of hunting, farming, politics, and horse-racing, ran a tone of
free and easy raillery that kept a laugh moving up and down the table,
or occasionally occupying it entirely. The little chill which marked
Forester's first entrance into the room wore off soon, and ere the
dinner was over he had drunk wine with nearly every man of the party,
and accepted invitations to hunt, course, and shoot in at least a dozen
different quarters. Lionel Darcy's friend, as he was soon known to be,
was speedily made the object of every attention and civility among
the younger members of the company, while even the older and less
susceptible reserved their judgments on one they had at first received
with some distrust.

Forester had seen in the capital some specimens of those hard-drinking
habits which characterized the period, but was still unprepared for the
determined and resolute devotion to the bottle which at once succeeded
to the dinner. The claret-jugs coursed round the table with a rapidity
that seemed sleight of hand, and few refrained from filling a bumper
every time. With all his determination to preserve a cool head and a
calm judgment, Forester felt that, what between the noisy tumult of the
scene, the fumes of wine, and the still more intoxicating excitement of
this exaggerated conviviality, he could listen to tales of miraculous
performances in the hunting-field, or feats of strength and activity
more than mortal, with a degree of belief, or, at least, sufferance, he
could scarcely have summoned a few hours earlier.

If wine expands the heart, it has a similar influence on the credulity;
and belief, when divested of the trammels of cool judgment, takes a
flight which even imagination might envy. It was in a frame of mind
reduced to something like this, amid the loud voices of some, the louder
laughter of others, strange and absurd bets as eagerly accepted as
proffered, that he became suddenly mindful of his own wager made with
the stranger at Kilbeggan, and the result of which he had pledged
himself to test at the very first opportunity.

No sooner had he mentioned the fact than the interests of the company,
directed before into so many different channels, became centred upon the
circumstance, and questions and inquiries were rapidly poured in
upon him to explain the exact nature of the wager, which in the then
hallucination of the party was not an over-easy task.

"You are to describe the stranger, Captain Forester, and we are to
guess his name: that I take it is the substance of the bet," said a
thin-faced, dark-eyed man, with a soft silkiness of accent very unlike
the others. This was Mr. Hickman O'Reilly, member for the county, and
colleague of "the Knight" himself.

"Yes, that is exactly what I mean. If my portrait be recognized, I 've
won my bet."

"May I ask another question?" said Mr. O'Reilly. "Are we to pronounce
only from the evidence before us, or are we at liberty to guess the
party from other circumstances known to ourselves?"

"Of course, from the evidence only," interrupted a red-faced man of
about five-and-thirty, with an air and manner which boded no small
reliance on his own opinion; then, mimicking the solemnity of a judge,
he addressed the assembled party thus: "The gentlemen of the jury will
dismiss from their minds everything they may hear touching the case
outside this court, and base their verdict solely on the testimony
they shall now hear." These few words were delivered in a pompous and
snuffling tone, and, it was easy to see, from the laughter they excited,
were an accurate imitation of some one well known to the company.

Mr. Alexander MacDonough was, however, a tolerably successful mimic, and
had practised as an attorney until the death of an uncle enabled him
to exercise his abilities in the not less crafty calling of a squireen
gentleman; he was admitted by a kind of special favor into the best
county society, for no other reason, as it seemed, than that it never
occurred to any one to exclude him. He was a capital horseman, never
turned from a fence in his life, and a noted shot with the pistol,
in which his prowess had been more than once tried on "the ground."
Probably, however, these qualities would scarcely have procured him
acceptance where he now sat, if it were not that he was looked upon as
the necessary accompaniment of Mr. Hickman O'Reilly and his son Beecham,
not indeed to illustrate their virtues and display their good gifts, but
as a species of moral blister, irritating and maddening them eternally.

They had both more money and ambition than MacDonough, had taken higher
and wider views of life, and were strenuously working up from the slough
of a plebeian origin to the high and dry soil of patrician security. To
them, MacDonough was a perfect curse; he was what sailors call "a point
of departure," everlastingly reminding them of the spot from which they
had sailed, and tauntingly hinting how, with all their canvas spread,
they had scarcely gained blue water.

Of the O'Reillys a few words are necessary. Three generations were
still living, each depicting most strikingly the gradations by which
successful thrift and industry transmute the man of humble position into
the influential grade of an estated gentleman: the grandfather was an
apothecary of Loughrea; the son, an agent, a money-lender, and an M. P.;
and the grandson, an Etonian and a fellow-commoner of Balliol, emerging
into life with the prospect of a great estate, unencumbered with debt,
considerable county influence, and, not least of all, the _ricochet_ of
that favor with which the Government regarded his pliant parent.

To all of these, MacDonough was insupportable, nor was there any visible
escape from the insolent familiarity of his manner. Flattery had been
tried in vain; all their blandishments could do nothing with one who
well knew that his own acceptance into society depended on his powers of
annoying; if not performing the part of torturer, he had no share in
the piece; a quarrel with him was equally out of the question, for even
supposing such an appeal safe, - which it was very far from being, - it
would have reflected most disadvantageously on the O'Reillys to have
been mixed up in altercation with a man so much beneath themselves as
Alexander MacDonough of "The Tenement;" for such, in slang phrase, did
he designate his country residence.

Let us now return from this long but indispensable digression to the
subject which suggested it.

So many questions were put, explanations demanded, doubts suggested,
and advices thrown out to Forester that it was not until after a
considerable lapse of time he was enabled to commence his description of
the unknown traveller, nor even then was he suffered to proceed
without interruption, a demand being made by MacDonough that the absent
individual was entitled to counsel, who should look after his interests,
and, if necessary, cross-examine the evidence. All this was done in that
style of comic seriousness to which Forester was so little accustomed
that, what with the effect of wine, heat, and noise, combined with the
well-assumed gravity of the party, he really forgot the absurdity of the
whole affair, and became as eager and attentive as though the event were
one of deep importance.

It was at last decided that MacDonough should act as counsel for the
unknown, and the company should vote separately, each writing down on a
slip of paper their impression of the individual designated, the result
being tested by the majority in favor of any one person.

"Gentlemen of the jury," said the host, in a voice of deep solemnity,
"you will hear and well weigh the evidence before you touching this
case, and decide with truth and conscience on its merits; so fill a
bumper and let us begin. Make your statement, Captain Forester."

The sudden silence succeeding to the tumultuous uproar, the directed
gaze of so many eager faces, and the evident attention with which his
statement was awaited, conspired to make Forester nervous and uneasy;
nor was it without something of an effort that he began the recital
of his adventure at Kilbeggan. Warming as he proceeded, he told of
the accident by which his acquaintance with the unknown traveller was
opened, and at length, having given so much of preliminary, entered upon
the description of the individual.

Whatever Forester's own impression of the stranger, he soon felt how
very difficult a task portrait-painting was, and how very unlike was his
representation of the individual in question. The sure way to fail in
any untried career is to suspect a failure; this he soon discovered, and
cut short a most imperfect description by abruptly saying, "If you
guess him now, gentlemen, I acknowledge the merit is far more in _your_
perspicuity than in _my_ powers of description."

"Only a few questions before you leave the table, sir," said MacDonough,
addressing him with the mock sternness of a cross-examining barrister.
"You said the unknown was gifted with a most courteous and prepossessing
manner: pray what is the exact meaning of your phrase? for we uncouth
inhabitants of a remote region have very imperfect notions on such
subjects. My friend Dan Mahon here would call any man agreeable who
could drink fourteen tumblers, and not forget the whiskey in mixing the
fifteenth; Tom Callaghan, on the other hand, would test his breeding
by what he knew of a wether or a 'short-horn;' Giles, my neighbor here,
would ask, Did he lend you any money? and Mr. Hickman O'Reilly would
whisper a hope that he came of an old family."

The leer by which these words were accompanied gave them an impertinence
even greater than their simple signification; but however coarse the
sarcasm, it suited well the excited tone of the party, who laughed loud
and vociferously as he uttered it.

Strange as he was to the party, Forester saw that the allusion had a
personal application, and was very far from relishing a pleasantry
whose whole merit was its coarseness; he therefore answered in a tone of
rather haughty import, "The person I met, sir, was a gentleman; and the
word, so far as I know, has an easy signification, at least to all who
have had opportunities to learn it."

"I have no doubt of that, Captain Forester," replied MacDonough; "but
if we divided the house on it here, some of us might differ about the
definition. Your neighbor there, Mr. Beecham O'Reilly, thinks his own
countrymen very far down in the scale."

"A low fellow, - nobody pays attention to him," muttered young O'Reilly
in Forester's ear, as, with a cheek pale as death, he affected to seem
totally indifferent to the continued insolence of his tormentor.



Online LibraryCharles James LeverThe Knight Of Gwynne, Vol. I (of II) → online text (page 4 of 34)