Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company. She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own. One niece still remained unmarried—Belinda Portman, of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition. Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavoured to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object—the establishing herself in the world:
“For this, hands, lips, and eyes were put to school, And each instructed feature had its rule.”
Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading, and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity. Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstances.
Mrs. Stanhope lived at Bath, where she had opportunities of showing her niece off, as she thought, to advantage; but as her health began to decline, she could not go out with her as much as she wished. After manoeuvring with more than her usual art, she succeeded in fastening Belinda upon the fashionable Lady Delacour for the season. Her ladyship was so much pleased by Miss Portman’s accomplishments and vivacity, as to invite her to spend the winter with her in London. Soon after her arrival in town, Belinda received the following letter from her aunt Stanhope.
“After searching every place I could think of, Anne found your bracelet in your dressing-table, amongst a heap of odd things, which you left behind you to be thrown away: I have sent it to you by a young gentleman, who came to Bath (unluckily) the very day you left me—Mr. Clarence Hervey—an acquaintance, and great admirer of my Lady Delacour. He is really an uncommonly pleasant young man, is highly connected, and has a fine independent fortune. Besides, he is a man of wit and gallantry, quite a connoisseur in female grace and beauty—just the man to bring a new face into fashion: so, my dear Belinda, I make it a point—look well when he is introduced to you, and remember, what I have so often told you, that nobody can look well without taking some pains to please.
“I see—or at least when I went out more than my health will at present permit—I used to see multitudes of silly girls, seemingly all cut out upon the same pattern, who frequented public places day after day, and year after year, without any idea farther than that of diverting themselves, or of obtaining transient admiration. How I have pitied and despised the giddy creatures, whilst I have observed them playing off their unmeaning airs, vying with one another in the most obvious, and consequently the most ridiculous manner, so as to expose themselves before the very men they would attract: chattering, tittering, and flirting; full of the present moment, never reflecting upon the future; quite satisfied if they got a partner at a ball, without ever thinking of a partner for life! I have often asked myself, what is to become of such girls when they grow old or ugly, or when the public eye grows tired of them? If they have large fortunes, it is all very well; they can afford to divert themselves for a season or two, without doubt; they are sure to be sought after and followed, not by mere danglers, but by men of suitable views and pretensions: but nothing to my mind can be more miserable than the situation of a poor girl, who, after spending not only the interest, but the solid capital of her small fortune in dress, and frivolous extravagance, fails in her matrimonial expectations (as many do merely from not beginning to speculate in time). She finds herself at five or six-and-thirty a burden to her friends, destitute of the means of rendering herself independent (for the girls I speak of never think of learning to play cards), de trop in society, yet obliged to hang upon all her acquaintance, who wish her in heaven, because she is unqualified to make the expected return for civilities, having no home, I mean no establishment, no house, &c. fit for the reception of company of a certain rank.—My dearest Belinda, may this never be your case!—You have every possible advantage, my love: no pains have been spared in your education, and (which is the essential point) I have taken care that this should be known—so that you have the name of being perfectly accomplished. You will also have the name of being very fashionable, if you go much into public, as doubtless you will with Lady Delacour.—Your own good sense must make you aware, my dear, that from her ladyship’s situation and knowledge of the world, it will always be proper, upon all subjects of conversation, for her to lead and you to follow: it would be very unfit for a young girl like you to suffer yourself to stand in competition with Lady Delacour, whose high pretensions to wit and beauty are indisputable. I need say no more to you upon this subject, my dear. Even with your limited experience, you must have observed how foolish young people offend those who are the most necessary to their interests, by an imprudent indulgence of their vanity.
“Lady Delacour has an incomparable taste in dress: consult her, my dear, and do not, by an ill-judged economy, counteract my views—apropos, I have no objection to your being presented at court. You will, of course, have credit with all her ladyship’s tradespeople, if you manage properly. To know how and when to lay out money is highly commendable, for in some situations, people judge of what one can afford by what one actually spends.—I know of no law which compels a young lady to tell what her age or her fortune may be. You have no occasion for caution yet on one of these points.
“I have covered my old carpet with a handsome green baize, and every stranger who comes to see me, I observe, takes it for granted that I have a rich carpet under it. Say every thing that is proper, in your best manner, for me to Lady Delacour.
“Adieu, my dear Belinda,
“Yours, very sincerely,
It is sometimes fortunate, that the means which are taken to produce certain effects upon the mind have a tendency directly opposite to what is expected. Mrs. Stanhope’s perpetual anxiety about her niece’s appearance, manners, and establishment, had completely worn out Belinda’s patience; she had become more insensible to the praises of her personal charms and accomplishments than young women of her age usually are, because she had been so much flattered and shown off, as it is called, by her match-making aunt.—Yet Belinda was fond of amusement, and had imbibed some of Mrs. Stanhope’s prejudices in favour of rank and fashion. Her taste for literature declined in proportion to her intercourse with the fashionable world, as she did not in this society perceive the least use in the knowledge that she had acquired. Her mind had never been roused to much reflection; she had in general acted but as a puppet in the hands of others. To her aunt Stanhope she had hitherto paid unlimited, habitual, blind obedience; but she was more undesigning, and more free from affectation and coquetry, than could have been expected, after the course of documenting which she had gone through. She was charmed with the idea of a visit to Lady Delacour, whom she thought the most agreeable—no, that is too feeble an expression—the most fascinating person she had ever beheld. Such was the light in which her ladyship appeared, not only to Belinda, but to all the world—that is to say, all the world of fashion, and she knew of no other.—The newspapers were full of Lady Delacour’s parties, and Lady Delacour’s dresses, and Lady Delacour’s bon mots: every thing that her ladyship said was repeated as witty; every thing that her ladyship wore was imitated as fashionable. Female wit sometimes depends on the beauty of its possessor for its reputation; and the reign of beauty is proverbially short, and fashion often capriciously deserts her favourites, even before nature withers their charms. Lady Delacour seemed to be a fortunate exception to these general rules: long after she had lost the bloom of youth, she continued to be admired as a fashionable bel esprit; and long after she had ceased to be a novelty in society, her company was courted by all the gay, the witty, and the gallant. To be seen in public with Lady Delacour, to be a visitor at her house, were privileges of which numbers were vehemently ambitious; and Belinda Portman was congratulated and envied by all her acquaintance, for being admitted as an inmate. How could she avoid thinking herself singularly fortunate?
A short time after her arrival at Lady Delacour’s, Belinda began to see through the thin veil with which politeness covers domestic misery.—Abroad, and at home, Lady Delacour was two different persons. Abroad she appeared all life, spirit, and good humour—at home, listless, fretful, and melancholy; she seemed like a spoiled actress off the stage, over-stimulated by applause, and exhausted by the exertions of supporting a fictitious character.—When her house was filled with well-dressed crowds, when it blazed with lights, and resounded with music and dancing, Lady Delacour, in the character of Mistress of the Revels, shone the soul and spirit of pleasure and frolic: but the moment the company retired, when the music ceased, and the lights were extinguishing, the spell was dissolved.
She would sometimes walk up and down the empty magnificent saloon, absorbed in thoughts seemingly of the most painful nature.
For some days after Belinda’s arrival in town she heard nothing of Lord Delacour; his lady never mentioned his name, except once accidentally, as she was showing Miss Portman the house, she said, “Don’t open that door—those are only Lord Delacour’s apartments.”—The first time Belinda ever saw his lordship, he was dead drunk in the arms of two footmen, who were carrying him up stairs to his bedchamber: his lady, who was just returned from Ranelagh, passed by him on the landing-place with a look of sovereign contempt.
“What is the matter?—Who is this?” said Belinda.
“Only the body of my Lord Delacour,” said her ladyship: “his bearers have brought it up the wrong staircase. Take it down again, my good friends: let his lordship go his own way. Don’t look so shocked and amazed, Belinda—don’t look so new, child: this funeral of my lord’s intellects is to me a nightly, or,” added her ladyship, looking at her watch and yawning, “I believe I should say a daily ceremony—six o’clock, I protest!”
The next morning, as her ladyship and Miss Portman were sitting at the breakfast-table, after a very late breakfast, Lord Delacour entered the room.
“Lord Delacour, sober, my dear,”—said her ladyship to Miss Portman, by way of introducing him. Prejudiced by her ladyship, Belinda was inclined to think that Lord Delacour sober would not be more agreeable or more rational than Lord Delacour drunk. “How old do you take my lord to be?” whispered her ladyship, as she saw Belinda’s eye fixed upon the trembling hand which carried his teacup to his lips: “I’ll lay you a wager,” continued she aloud—“I’ll lay your birth-night dress, gold fringe, and laurel wreaths into the bargain, that you don’t guess right.”
“I hope you don’t think of going to this birth-night, lady Delacour?” said his lordship.
“I’ll give you six guesses, and I’ll bet you don’t come within sixteen years,” pursued her ladyship, still looking at Belinda.
“You cannot have the new carriage you have bespoken,” said his lordship. “Will you do me the honour to attend to me, Lady Delacour?”
“Then you won’t venture to guess, Belinda,” said her ladyship (without honouring her lord with the smallest portion of her attention)—“Well, I believe you are right—for certainly you would guess him to be six-and-sixty, instead of six-and-thirty; but then he can drink more than any two-legged animal in his majesty’s dominions, and you know that is an advantage which is well worth twenty or thirty years of a man’s life—especially to persons who have no other chance of distinguishing themselves.”
“If some people had distinguished themselves a little less in the world,” retorted his lordship, “it would have been as well!”
“As well!—how flat!”
“Flatly then I have to inform you, Lady Delacour, that I will neither be contradicted nor laughed at—you understand me,—it would be as well, flat or not flat, my Lady Delacour, if your ladyship would attend more to your own conduct, and less to others!”
“To that of others—his lordship means, if he means any thing. Apropos, Belinda, did not you tell me Clarence Hervey is coming to town?—You have never seen him.—Well, I’ll describe him to you by negatives. He is not a man who ever says any thing flat—he is nota man who must be wound up with half a dozen bottles of champaign before he can go—he is not a man who, when he does go, goes wrong, and won’t be set right—he is not a man, whose whole consequence, if he were married, would depend on his wife—he is not a man, who, if he were married, would be so desperately afraid of being governed by his wife, that he would turn gambler, jockey, or sot, merely to show that he could govern himself.”
“Go on, Lady Delacour,” said his lordship, who had been in vain attempting to balance a spoon on the edge of his teacup during the whole of this speech, which was delivered with the most animated desire to provoke—“Go on, Lady Delacour—all I desire is, that you should go on; Clarence Hervey will be much obliged to you, and I am sure so shall I. Go on, my Lady Delacour—go on, and you’ll oblige me.”
“I never will oblige you, my lord, that you may depend upon,” cried her ladyship, with a look of indignant contempt.
His lordship whistled, rang for his horses, and looked at his nails with a smile. Belinda, shocked and in a great confusion, rose to leave the room, dreading the gross continuance of this matrimonial dialogue.
“Mr. Hervey, my lady,” said a footman, opening the door; and he was scarcely announced, when her ladyship went forward to receive him with an air of easy familiarity.—“Where have you buried yourself, Hervey, this age past?” cried she, shaking hands with him: “there’s absolutely no living in this most stupid of all worlds without you.—Mr. Hervey—Miss Portman—but don’t look as if you were half asleep, man—What are you dreaming of, Clarence? Why looks your grace so heavily to-day?”
“Oh! I have passed a miserable night,” replied Clarence, throwing himself into an actor’s attitude, and speaking in a fine tone of stage declamation.
“What was your dream, my lord? I pray you, tell me,”
said her ladyship in a similar tone.—Clarence went on—
“O Lord, methought what pain it was to dance!
What dreadful noise of fiddles in my ears!
What sights of ugly belles within my eyes!
——Then came wandering by,
A shadow like a devil, with red hair,
‘Dizen’d with flowers; and she bawl’d out aloud,
Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence!”
“O, Mrs. Luttridge to the life!” cried Lady Delacour: “I know where you have been now, and I pity you—but sit down,” said she, making room for him between Belinda and herself upon the sofa, “sit down here, and tell me what could take you to that odious Mrs. Luttridge’s.”
Mr. Hervey threw himself on the sofa; Lord Delacour whistled as before, and left the room without uttering a syllable.
“But my dream has made me forget myself strangely,” said Mr. Hervey, turning to Belinda, and producing her bracelet: “Mrs. Stanhope promised me that if I delivered it safely, I should be rewarded with the honour of putting it on the owner’s fair arm.” A conversation now took place on the nature of ladies’ promises—on fashionable bracelets—on the size of the arm of the Venus de Medici—on Lady Delacour’s and Miss Portman’s—on the thick legs of ancient statues—and on the various defects and absurdities of Mrs. Luttridge and her wig. On all these topics Mr. Hervey displayed much wit, gallantry, and satire, with so happy an effect, that Belinda, when he took leave, was precisely of her aunt’s opinion, that he was a most uncommonly pleasant young man.
Clarence Hervey might have been more than a pleasant young man, if he had not been smitten with the desire of being thought superior in every thing, and of being the most admired person in all companies. He had been early flattered with the idea that he was a man of genius; and he imagined that, as such, he was entitled to be imprudent, wild, and eccentric. He affected singularity, in order to establish his claims to genius. He had considerable literary talents, by which he was distinguished at Oxford; but he was so dreadfully afraid of passing for a pedant, that when he came into the company of the idle and the ignorant, he pretended to disdain every species of knowledge. His chameleon character seemed to vary in different lights, and according to the different situations in which he happened to be placed. He could be all things to all men—and to all women. He was supposed to be a favourite with the fair sex; and of all his various excellencies and defects, there was none on which he valued himself so much as on his gallantry. He was not profligate; he had a strong sense of honour, and quick feelings of humanity; but he was so easily led, or rather so easily excited by his companions, and his companions were now of such a sort, that it was probable he would soon become vicious. As to his connexion with Lady Delacour, he would have started with horror at the idea of disturbing the peace of a family; but in her family, he said, there was no peace to disturb; he was vain of having it seen by the world that he was distinguished by a lady of her wit and fashion, and he did not think it incumbent on him to be more scrupulous or more attentive to appearances than her ladyship. By Lord Delacour’s jealousy he was sometimes provoked, sometimes amused, and sometimes flattered. He was constantly of all her ladyship’s parties in public and private; consequently he saw Belinda almost every day, and every day he saw her with increasing admiration of her beauty, and with increasing dread of being taken in to marry a niece of “the catch-match-maker,” the name by which Mrs. Stanhope was known amongst the men of his acquaintance. Young ladies who have the misfortune to be conducted by these artful dames, are always supposed to be partners in all the speculations, though their names may not appear in the firm. If he had not been prejudiced by the character of her aunt, Mr. Hervey would have thought Belinda an undesigning, unaffected girl; but now he suspected her of artifice in every word, look, and motion; and even when he felt himself most charmed by her powers of pleasing, he was most inclined to despise her, for what he thought such premature proficiency in scientific coquetry. He had not sufficient resolution to keep beyond the sphere of her attraction; but, frequently, when he found himself within it, he cursed his folly, and drew back with sudden terror. His manner towards her was so variable and inconsistent, that she knew not how to interpret its language. Sometimes she fancied, that with all the eloquence of eyes he said, “I adore you, Belinda;” at other times she imagined that his guarded silence meant to warn her that he was so entangled by Lady Delacour, that he could not extricate himself from her snares. Whenever this last idea struck her, it excited, in the most edifying manner, her indignation against coquetry in general, and against her ladyship’s in particular: she became wonderfully clear-sighted to all the improprieties of her ladyship’s conduct. Belinda’s newly acquired moral sense was so much shocked, that she actually wrote a full statement of her observations and her scruples to her aunt Stanhope; concluding by a request, that she might not remain under the protection of a lady, of whose character she could not approve, and whose intimacy might perhaps be injurious to her reputation, if not to her principles.
Mrs. Stanhope answered Belinda’s letter in a very guarded style; she rebuked her niece severely for her imprudence in mentioning names in such a manner, in a letter sent by the common post; assured her that her reputation was in no danger; that she hoped no niece of hers would set up for a prude—a character more suspected by men of the world than even that of a coquette; that the person alluded to was a perfectly fit chaperon for any young lady to appear with in public, as long as she was visited by the first people in town; that as to any thing in the private conduct of that person, and as to any private brouillieries between her and her lord, Belinda should observe on these dangerous topics a profound silence, both in her letters and her conversation; that as long as the lady continued under the protection of her husband, the world might whisper, but would not speak out; that as to Belinda’s own principles, she would be utterly inexcusable if, after the education she had received, they could be hurt by any bad examples; that she could not be too cautious in her management of a man of ——‘s character; that she could have no serious cause for jealousy in the quarter she apprehended, as marriage there could not be the object; and there was such a difference of age, that no permanent influence could probably be obtained by the lady; that the most certain method for Miss Portman to expose herself to the ridicule of one of the parties, and to the total neglect of the other, would be to betray anxiety or jealousy; that, in short, if she were fool enough to lose her own heart, there would be little chance of her being wise enough to win that of———, who was evidently a man of gallantry rather than of sentiment, and who was known to play his cards well, and to have good luck whenever hearts were trumps.
Belinda’s fears of Lady Delacour, as a dangerous rival, were much quieted by the artful insinuations of Mrs. Stanhope, with respect to her age, &c.; and in proportion as her fears subsided, she blamed herself for having written too harshly of her ladyship’s conduct. The idea that whilst she appeared as Lady Delacour’s friend she ought not to propagate any stories to her disadvantage, operated powerfully upon Belinda’s mind, and she reproached herself for having told even her aunt what she had seen in private. She thought that she had been guilty of treachery, and she wrote again immediately to Mrs. Stanhope, to conjure her to burn her last letter; to forget, if possible, its contents; and to believe that not a syllable of a similar nature should ever more be heard from her: she was just concluding with the words—“I hope my dear aunt will consider all this as an error of my judgment, and not of my heart,” when Lady Delacour burst into the room, exclaiming, in a tone of gaiety, “Tragedy or comedy, Belinda? The masquerade dresses are come. But how’s this?” added she, looking full in Belinda’s face—“tears in the eyes! blushes in the cheeks! tremors in the joints! and letters shuffling away! But, you novice of novices, how awkwardly shuffled!—A niece of Mrs. Stanhope’s, and so unpractised a shuffler!—And is it credible she should tremble in this ridiculous way about a love-letter or two?”
“No love-letters, indeed, Lady Delacour,” said Belinda, holding the paper fast, as her ladyship, half in play, half in earnest, attempted to snatch it from her.
“No love-letters! then it must be treason; and see it I must, by all that’s good, or by all that’s bad—I see the name of Delacour!”—and her ladyship absolutely seized the letters by force, in spite of all Belinda’s struggles and entreaties.
“I beg, I request, I conjure you not to read it!” cried Miss Portman, clasping her hands. “Read mine, read mine, if you must, but don’t read my aunt Stanhope’s—Oh! I beg, I entreat, I conjure you!” and she threw herself upon her knees.
“You beg! you entreat! you conjure! Why, this is like the Duchess de Brinvilliers, who wrote on her paper of poisons, ‘Whoever finds this, I entreat, I conjure them, in the name of more saints than I can remember, not to open the paper any farther.’—What a simpleton, to know so little of the nature of curiosity!”
As she spoke, Lady Delacour opened Mrs. Stanhope’s letter, read it from beginning to end, folded it up coolly when she had finished it, and simply said, “The person alluded to is almost as bad as her name at full length: does Mrs. Stanhope think no one can make out an inuendo in a libel, or fill up a blank, but an attorney-general?” pointing to a blank in Mrs. Stanhope’s letter, left for the name of Clarence Hervey.
Belinda was in too much confusion either to speak or think.
“You were right to swear they were not love-letters,” pursued her ladyship, laying down the papers. “I protest I snatched them by way of frolic—I beg pardon. All I can do now is not to read the rest.”
“Nay—I beg—I wish—I insist upon your reading mine,” said Belinda.
When Lady Delacour had read it, her countenance suddenly changed—“Worth a hundred of your aunt’s, I declare,” said she, patting Belinda’s cheek. “What a treasure to meet with any thing like a new heart!—all hearts, now-a-days, are second-hand, at best.”
Lady Delacour spoke with a tone of feeling which Belinda had never heard from her before, and which at this moment touched her so much, that she took her ladyship’s hand and kissed it.
Image by: Sanches1980