George Moore.

Muslin online

. (page 12 of 23)
Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 12 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


oblique glances in the direction of ankle-concealing skirts, went up to
the billiardroom. And the skirts, what an importance they took in the
great sitting-room full of easy-chairs and Swiss scenery: châlets,
lakes, cascades, and chamois, painted on the light-coloured walls. The
big ottoman was swollen with bustled skirts; the little low seats around
the fire disappeared under skirts; skirts were tucked away to hide the
slippered feet, skirts were laid out along the sofas to show the
elegance of the cut. Then woolwork and circulating novels were produced,
and the conversation turned on marriage. Bertha being the only Dublin
girl present, all were anxious to hear her speak; after a few
introductory remarks, she began:

'Oh! so you have all come up to the Castle and are going to be
presented. Well, you'll find the rooms very grand, and the suppers very
good, and if you know a lot of people - particularly the officers
quartered here - you will find the Castle balls very amusing. The best
way is to come to town a month before the Drawing-Room, and give a ball;
and in that way you get to know all the men. If you haven't done that, I
am afraid you won't get many partners. Even if you do get introduced,
they'll only ask you to dance, and you'll never see them again. Dublin
is like a racecourse, men come and speak to you and pass on. 'Tis
pleasant enough if you know people, but as for marriages, there aren't
any. I assure you I know lots of girls - and very pretty girls, too - who
have been going out these six or seven seasons, and who have not been
able to pull it off.'

'And the worst of it is,' said a girl, 'every year we are growing more
and more numerous, and the men seem to be getting fewer. Nowadays a man
won't look at you unless you have at least two thousand a year.'

Mrs. Barton, who did not wish her daughters to be discouraged from the
first, settled her skirts with a movement of disdain. Mrs. Gould
pathetically declared she did not believe love to be dead in the world
yet, and maintained her opinion that a nice girl could always marry. But
Bertha was not easily silenced, and, being perfectly conversant with her
subject, she disposed of Dublin's claims as a marriage-mart, and she
continued to comment on the disappointments of girls until the
appearance of Lord Dungory and Mr. Harding brought the conversation to a
sudden close.

'_Une causerie de femme! que dites-vous? - je le suis - l'amour
n'existe plus, et l'âme de l'homme est plus près des sens que l'âme de
la femme_,' said Milord. Everyone laughed; and, with a charming movement
of her skirts, Mrs. Barton made room for him to sit beside her.

Harding withdrew to the other end of the room to resume his reading, and
Alice did not dare to hope that he would lay aside his book and come to
talk to her. If he did, her mother would ask her to introduce him to
her, and she would have to enter into explanations that he and she had
merely exchanged a few words before dinner.

She withstood the conversation of the charmed circle as long as she
could, and then boldly crossed the room for a newspaper. Harding rose to
help her to find one, and they talked together till Milord took him away
to the billiard-room.

May, who had been vainly expecting Fred the whole evening, said:

'Well, Alice, I hope you have had a nice flirtation?'

'And did you notice, May, how she left us to look for a newspaper. Our
Alice is fond of reading, but it was not of reading she was thinking
this evening. She kept him all to herself at the other end of the room.'
Mrs. Barton laughed merrily, and Alice began to understand that her
mother was approving her flirtation. That is the name that her mother
would give her talk with Mr. Harding.




XVI


During the Dublin Season it is found convenient to give teas: the young
ladies have to be introduced to the men they will meet after at the
Castle. These gatherings take place at five o'clock in the afternoon;
and as Mrs. Barton started from the Shelbourne Hotel for Lady Georgina
Stapleton's, she fell to thinking that a woman is never really
vulnerable until she is bringing out her daughters. Till then the usual
shafts directed against her virtue fall harmlessly on either side, but
now they glance from the marriage buckler and strike the daughter in
full heart. In the ball-room, as in the forest, the female is most
easily assailed when guarding her young, and nowhere in the whole animal
kingdom is this fact so well exemplified as in Dublin Castle.

Lady Georgina lived in Harcourt Street, and it was on her way thither
that something like a regret rose up in Mrs. Barton that she had (she
was forced to confess it) aroused the enmity of women, and persistently.

Lady Georgina Stapleton was Lord Dungory's eldest sister. She, too,
hated Mrs. Barton; but, being poor (Milord used to call himself the
milch-cow), she found herself, like the Ladies Cullen, occasionally
obliged to smile upon and extend a welcoming hand to the family enemy;
and when Mrs. Barton came to Dublin for the Castle Season, a little
pressure was put upon Lady Georgina to obtain invitations from the
Chamberlain; the ladies exchanged visits, and there the matter ended, as
Mrs. Barton and her daughter passed through Stephen's Green, and she
remembered that she had never taken the trouble to conceal her dislike
of the house in Harcourt Street, and some of the hard things she had
said when standing on the box-seat of a drag at Punchestown Races had
travelled back and had found a lasting resting-place in Lady Georgina's
wrathful memory.

'This is considered to be the most artistic house in Dublin,' said Mrs.
Barton, as the servant showed them upstairs.

'How lovely the camellias look,' said Olive.

'And now, Alice, mind, none of your Liberalism in this house, or you
will ruin your sister's chances.'

Lady Georgina wore a wig, or her hair was arranged so as to look like
one. Fifty years had rubbed away much of her youthful ugliness; and, in
the delicate twilight of her rooms, her aristocratic bearing might be
mistaken for good looks.

Lady Georgina was a celebrated needlewoman, and she was now begging Lord
Kilcarney to assist her at a charity bazaar. Few people had yet arrived;
and when Harding was announced, Mrs. Barton whispered:

'Here's your friend, Alice; don't miss your chance.'

Then every moment bevies of girls came in and were accommodated with
seats, and if possible with young men. Teacups were sent down to be
washed, and the young men were passed from group to group. The young
ladies smiled and looked delightful, and spoke of dancing and tennis
until, replying to an imperative glance from their chaperons, from time
to time they rose to leave; but, obeying a look of supplication from
their hostess, the young men remained.

Lord Kilcarney had been hunted desperately around screens and over every
ottoman in the room; and Lady Georgina had proved her goodwill in
proportion to the amount of assistance she had lent to her friends in
the chase. Long ago he had been forced away from Olive. Mrs. Barton
endured with stoical indifference the scowls of her hostess; but at
length, compelled to recognize that none of the accidents attendant on
the handing of teacups or the moving of chairs would bring him back, she
rose to take her leave. The little Marquis was on his feet in a moment,
and, shaking hands with her effusively, he promised to call to see them
at the Shelbourne. A glance went round; and of Mrs. Barton's triumph
there could be no doubt.

'But to-day's success is often a prelude to to-morrow's defeat,' was Lady
Georgina's comment, and Mrs. Barton and her daughters were discussed as
they walked across the green to their hotel. Nor was Lady Georgina
altogether a false prophet, for next day Mrs. Barton found the Marquis's
cards on her table. 'I'm sorry we missed him,' she said, 'but we haven't
a minute;' and, calling on her daughters to follow, she dashed again
into the whirl of a day that would not end for many hours, though it had
begun twelve hours ago - a day of haste and anticipation it had been,
filled with cries of 'Mamma,' telegrams, letters, and injunctions not to
forget this and that - a day whose skirts trailed in sneers and
criticisms, a hypocritical and deceitful day, a day of intrigue, a day
in which the post-box was the chief factor - a great day withal.

But above this day, and above all other days, was the day that took them
spellbound to the foot of a narrow staircase, a humble flight seemingly,
but leading to a temple of tightly-stretched floorcloth, tall wardrobes,
and groups and lines of lay figures in eternally ladylike attitudes.

'Oh! how do you do, Mrs. Barton? We have been expecting you for the last
two or three days. I will run upstairs and tell Mrs. Symond that you are
here; she will be so glad to see you.'

'That is Miss Cooper!' explained Mrs. Barton. 'Everyone knows her; she
has been with Mrs. Symond many years. And, as for dear Mrs. Symond,
there is no one like her. She knows the truth about everybody. Here she
comes,' and Mrs. Barton rushed forward and embraced a thin woman with
long features.

'And how do you do, dear Mrs. Barton, and how well you are looking, and
the young ladies? I see Miss Olive has improved since she was in
Dublin.' (In an audible whisper.) 'Everyone is talking about her. There
is no doubt but that she'll be the belle of the season.' (In a still
audible, but lower tone of voice.) 'But tell me, is it true that - '

'Now, now, now!' said Mrs. Barton, drowning her words in cascades of
silvery laughter, 'I know nothing of what you're saying; ha! ha! ha! no,
no - I assure you. I will not - '

Then, as soon as the ladies had recovered their composure, a few
questions were asked about her Excellency, the prospects of the Castle
season, and the fashions of the year.

'And now tell me,' said Mrs. Barton, 'what pretty things have you that
would make up nicely for trains?'

'Trains, Mrs. Barton? We have some sweet things that would make up
beautifully for trains. Miss Cooper, will you kindly fetch over that
case of silks that we had over yesterday from Paris?'

'The young ladies must be, of course, in white; for Miss Olive I should
like, I think, snowdrops; for you, Mrs. Barton, I am uncertain which of
two designs I shall recommend. Now, this is a perfectly regal material.'

With words of compliment and solicitation, the black-dressed assistant
displayed the armouries of Venus - armouries filled with the deep blue of
midnight, with the faint tints of dawn, with strange flowers and birds,
with moths, and moons, and stars. Lengths of white silk clear as the
notes of violins playing in a minor key; white poplin falling into folds
statuesque as the bass of a fugue by Bach; yards of ruby velvet, rich as
an air from Verdi played on the piano; tender green velvet, pastoral as
hautboys heard beneath trees in a fair Arcadian vale; blue turquoise
faille fanciful as the tinkling of a guitar twanged by a Watteau
shepherd; gold brocade, sumptuous as organ tones swelling through the
jewelled twilight of a nave; scarves and trains of midnight-blue
profound as the harmonic snoring of a bassoon; golden daffodils violent
as the sound of a cornet; bouquets of pink roses and daisies, charmful
and pure as the notes of a flute; white faille, soft draperies of tulle,
garlands of white lilac, sprays of white heather, delicate and resonant
as the treble voices of children singing carols in dewy English woods;
berthas, flounces, plumes, stomachers, lappets, veils, frivolous as the
strains of a German waltz played on Liddell's band.

An hour passed, but the difficulty of deciding if Olive's dress should
be composed of silk or Irish poplin was very great, for, determined that
all should be humiliated, Mrs. Barton laid her plans amid designs for
night and morning; birds fluttering through leafy trees, birds drowsing
on bending boughs, and butterflies folding their wings. At a critical
moment, however, an assistant announced that Mrs. Scully was waiting.
The ladies started; desperate effort was made; rosy clouds and veils of
silver tissue were spoken of; but nothing could be settled, and on the
staircase the ladies had to squeeze into a corner to allow Violet and
Mrs. Scully to pass.

'How do you do, Olive? How do you do, Alice? and you, Mrs. Barton, how
do you do? And what are you going to wear? Have you decided on your
dress?'

'Oh! That is a secret that could be told to no one; oh, not for worlds!'
said Mrs. Barton.

'I'm sure it will be very beautiful,' replied Mrs. Scully, with just a
reminiscence of the politeness of the Galway grocery business in her
voice.

'I hear you have taken a house in Fitzwilliam Square for the season?'
said Mrs. Barton.

'Yes, we are very comfortable; you must come and see us. You are at the
Shelbourne, I believe?'

'Come to tea with us,' cried Violet. 'We are always at home about five.'

'We shall be delighted,' returned Mrs. Barton.

Mrs. Scully's acquaintance with Mrs. Symond was of the slightest; but,
knowing that claims to fashion in Dublin are judged by the intimacy you
affect with the dressmaker, she shook her warmly by the hand, and
addressed her as dear Mrs. Symond. To the Christian name of Helen none
less than a Countess dare to aspire.

'And how well you are looking, dear Mrs. Symond; and when are you going
to take your daughters to the Castle?'

'Oh, not for some time yet; my eldest is only sixteen.'

Mrs. Symonds had three daughters to bring out, and she hoped when her
feet were set on the redoubtable ways of Cork Hill, her fashionable
customers would extend to her a cordial helping hand. Mrs. Symonds' was
one of the myriad little schemes with which Dublin is honeycombed, and
although she received Mrs. Scully's familiarities somewhat coldly, she
kept her eyes fixed upon Violet. The insidious thinness of the girl's
figure, and her gay, winsome look interested her, and, as if speaking to
herself, she said:

'You will want something very sweet; something quite pure and lovely for
Miss Scully?'

Mother and daughter were instantly all attention, and Mrs. Symond
continued:

'Let me see, I have some Surat silk that would make up sweetly. Miss
Cooper, will you have the kindness to fetch those rolls of Surat silk we
received yesterday from Paris?'

Then, beautiful as a flower harvesting, the hues and harmonies of earth,
ocean, and sky fell before the ravished eyes. The white Surat silk,
chaste, beautiful, delicious as that presentiment of shared happiness
which fills a young girl's mind when her fancy awakens in the soft
spring sunlight; the white faille with tulle and garlands of white
lilac, delicate and only as sensuous as the first meetings of
sweethearts, when the may is white in the air and the lilac is in bloom
on the lawn; trains of blue sapphire broché looped with blue ostrich
feathers, seductive and artificial as a boudoir plunged in a dream of
Ess. bouquet; dove-coloured velvet trains adorned with tulips and tied
with bows of brown and pink - temperate as the love that endures when the
fiery day of passion has gone down; bodices and trains of daffodil silk,
embroidered with shaded maple-leaves, impure as lamp-lit and
patchouli-scented couches; trains of white velouture festooned with
tulle; trails of snowdrops, icy as lips that have been bought, and cold
as a life that lives in a name.

The beautiful silks hissed as they came through the hands of the
assistants, cat-like the velvet footfalls of the velvet fell; it was a
witches' Sabbath, and out of this terrible caldron each was to draw her
share of the world's gifts. Smiling and genial, Mrs. Symond stirred the
ingredients with a yard measure; the girls came trembling, doubting,
hesitating; and the anxious mothers saw what remained of their
jeopardized fortunes sliding in a thin golden stream into the flaming
furnace that the demon of Cork Hill blew with unintermittent breath.

Secrets, what secrets were held on the subject of the presentation
dresses! The obscure Hill was bound with a white frill of anticipation.
Olive's fame had gone forth. She was admitted to be the new Venus, and
Lord Kilcarney was spoken of as likely to yield to her the coveted
coronet. Would he marry her without so much as looking at another girl?
was the question on every lip, and in the jealousy thus created the
appraisers of Violet's beauty grew bolder. Her thinness was condoned,
and her refinement insisted upon. Nor were May Gould and her chances
overlooked by the gossips of Merrion Square. Her flirtation with Fred
Scully was already a topic of conversation.

Alice knew she was spoken of pityingly, but she hungered little after
the praise of the Dubliners, and preferred to stay at home and talk to
Harding in the ladies' drawing-room rather than follow her mother and
sister in their wild hunt after Lord Kilcarney. Through the afternoon
teas of Merrion Square and Stephen's Green the chase went merrily.




XVII


On the night of the Drawing-Room, February 20, 1882, the rain rushed
along the streets; wind, too, had risen, and, threatening to tear every
window from its sash, it careered in great gusts. Sky there was none,
nor sight of anything save when the lightning revealed the outline of
the housetops. The rattling and the crashing of the thunder was
fearsome, and often, behind their closely drawn curtains, the girls
trembled, and, covering their faces with their hands, forgot the article
of clothing they were in search of. In their rooms all was warm and
snug, and gay with firelight and silk; the chaperons had whispered that
warm baths were advisable, and along the passages the ladies'-maids
passed hurriedly, carrying cans of hot water, sponges, and
drying-sheets.

Alice and Olive slept in two rooms on the third floor, on either side of
their mother; May and Mrs. Gould were on the fourth, and next to May was
Fred Scully, who, under the pretext of the impossibility of his agreeing
with his mother concerning the use of a latch-key, had lately moved into
the hotel. May was deeply concerned in Fred's grievance, and, discussing
it, or the new Shelbourne scandal - the loves of the large lady and the
little man at the other end of the corridor - they lingered about each
other's bedroom-doors. Alice could now hear them talking as they
descended the staircase together; then a burst of smothered laughter,
and May came in to see her.

'Oh, how nice you look!'

'If you don't "mash" Mr. Harding to-night, he'll be a tough one indeed.
Did I tell you I was talking to him yesterday in the ladies'
drawing-room? He is very enticing, but I can't quite make him out: I
think he despises us all; all but you; about you he said all kinds of
nice things - that you were so clever, and nice, and amusing. And tell
me, dear,' said May, in her warm, affectionate way, 'do you really like
him - you know what I mean?'

May's eyes and voice were so full of significance that to pretend to
misunderstand was impossible.

'I like Mr. Harding well enough. It is very pleasant to have him to talk
to. I am sure I don't want to run down my own sex - there are plenty
only too anxious to do that - but I am afraid that there is not a girl in
Dublin who thinks of anything except how she is to get married.'

'I don't know about that,' said May, a little offended. 'I suppose if
you think of a man at all, you think of how he likes you.'

The defiant tone in which these words were spoken was surprising; and,
for a moment, Alice stood staring blankly at this superb cream-fleshed
girl, superb in her dress of cream faille, her sensual beauty poetized
by the long veils which hung like gossamer-webs from the coils of her
copper-gleaming hair.

'I am afraid, May,' she said, 'that you think a great deal too much of
such things. I don't say anything against Mr. Scully, but I think it
right to tell you that he is considered a very dangerous young man; and
I am sure it does a girl no good to be seen with him. It was he who . . .'

'Now I'll not hear you abuse Fred,' cried May. 'We are great friends; I
like you better than any other girl, and if you value our friendship,
you'll not speak to me again like this. I wouldn't put up with it, no,
not from my own mother.'

The girl moved towards the door hastily, but Alice laid her hand on her
arm, saying:

'You mustn't be angry, May; perhaps you're right; I shouldn't meddle in
things that don't concern me; but then we have been so long friends that
I couldn't help - '

'I know, I know,' the girl answered, overcome as it were by an
atmosphere. 'You were speaking only for my good; but if you're friends
with a person, you can't stand by and hear them abused. I know people
speak badly of Fred; but then people are so jealous - and they are all
jealous of Fred.'

The girls examined each other's dresses, and at the end of a long
silence May said:

'What an extraordinary thing this Drawing-Room is when one comes to
think of it. Just fancy going to all this expense to be kissed by the
Lord-Lieutenant - a man one never saw before. Will you feel ashamed when
he kisses you?'

'Well, I don't know that I have thought much about it,' said Alice,
laughing. 'I suppose it doesn't matter, it is only a ceremony, not a
real kiss.'

At this moment Mrs. Barton's voice was heard calling: 'Now, Alice,
Alice, where are you? We are waiting for you! Make haste, for goodness'
sake; we are very late as it is.'

The trail of a sachet-scented petticoat could be detected on this length
of Brussels carpet, the acrid vulgarity of eau de Cologne hung like a
curtain before an open door, a vision of white silk gleamed for a moment
as it fled from room to room: men in a strange garb - black velvet and
steel buttons - hurried away, tripping over their swords, furtively
ashamed of their stockinged calves. On the first landing, about the
winter-garden, a crowd of German waiters, housemaids, billiard-players
with cigars in their teeth and cues in their hands, had collected;
underneath, in the hall, the barmaids, and old ladies, wrapped up in
rugs and shawls to save them from the draughts, were criticizing the
dresses. Olive's name was on every lip, and to see her all were
breathless with expectation; her matrimonial prospects were discussed,
and Lord Kilcarney was openly spoken of. 'Ah! here she is! there she
is!' was whispered. The head-porter, wild with excitement, shouted for
Mrs. Barton's carriage; three under-porters distended huge umbrellas;
the door was opened, an immense wind tore through the hall, sending the
old ladies flying back to their sitting-room, and the Bartons, holding
their hair and their trains, rushed across the wet pavement and took
refuge in the brougham.

'Did one ever see such weather?' said Mrs. Barton. 'I hope your hair
isn't ruffled, Olive?'

'No, mamma, I think it is all right.'

Reassured, Mrs. Barton continued: 'I don't think there ever was a
country so hateful as Ireland. What with rain and Land League. I wonder
why we live here! Did you notice the time, Alice, as we left the hotel?'

'Yes, mamma; it was twenty-five minutes to ten.'

'Oh! we are very late; we shan't be there before ten. The thing to do is
to get there about half-past nine; the Drawing-Room doesn't begin before
eleven; but if you can get into the first lot you can stand at the
entrance of Patrick's Hall. I see, Alice, your friend Harding is going
to the Drawing-Room. Now, if you do what I tell you, you won't miss him;
for it does look so bad to see a girl alone, just as if she was unable
to get a man.'

While Mrs. Barton continued to advise her girls, the carriage rolled
rapidly along Stephen's Green. It had now turned into Grafton Street;
and on the steep, rain-flooded asphalte, they narrowly escaped an
accident. The coachman, however, steadied his horses, and soon the long
colonnades of the Bank of Ireland were seen on the left. From this point
they were no longer alone, and except when a crash of thunder drowned
every other sound, the rattling of wheels was heard behind and in front
of them. Carriages came from every side: the night was alive with
flashing lamps; a glimpse of white fur or silk, the red breast of a
uniform, the gold of an epaulette, were seen, and thinking of the block
that would take place on the quays, the coachmen whipped up their
horses; but soon the ordering voices of the mantled and mounted
policemen were heard, and the carriages came to a full stop.

'We are very late; hundreds will pass before us,' said Mrs. Barton
despairingly, as she watched the lines of silk-laden carriages that
seemed to be passing them by. But it was difficult to make sure of


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 12 of 23)