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The Absentee(1)

2006-08-28 15:13

    Chapter I

    'Are you to be at Lady Clonbrony's gala next week?' said Lady Langdale to Mrs. Dareville, whilst they were waiting for their carriages in the crush-room of the opera house.

    'Oh yes! everybody's to be there, I hear,' replied Mrs. Dareville. 'Your ladyship, of course?'

    'Why, I don't know——if I possibly can. Lady Clonbrony makes it such a point with me, that I believe I must look in upon her for a few minutes. They are going to a prodigious expense on this occasion. Soho tells me the reception rooms are all to be new furnished, and in the most magnificent style.'

    'At what a famous rate those Clonbronies are dashing on,' said Colonel Heathcock. 'Up to anything,'

    'Who are they?——these Clonbronies, that one hears of so much of late' said her Grace of Torcaster. 'Irish absentees I know. But how do they support all this enormous expense?'

    'The son will have a prodigiously fine estate when some Mr. Quin dies,' said Mrs. Dareville.

    'Yes, everybody who comes from Ireland will have a fine estate when somebody dies,' said her grace. 'But what have they at present?'

    'Twenty thousand a year, they say,' replied Mrs. Dareville.

    'Ten thousand, I believe,' cried Lady Langdale. 'Make it a rule, you know, to believe only half the world says.'

    'Ten thousand, have they?——possibly,' said her grace. 'I know nothing about them——have no acquaintance among the Irish. Torcaster knows something of Lady Clonbrony; she has fastened herself, by some means, upon him: but I charge him not to commit me. Positively, I could not for anybody—— and much less for that sort of person——extend the circle of my acquaintance.'

    'Now that is so cruel of your grace,' said Mrs. Dareville, laughing, 'when poor Lady Clonbrony works so hard, and pays so high, to get into certain circles.'

    'If you knew all she endures, to look, speak, move, breathe like an Englishwoman, you would pity her,' said Lady Langdale.

    'Yes, and you cawnt conceive the peens she teekes to talk of the teebles and cheers, and to thank Q, and, with so much teeste, to speak pure English,' said Mrs. Dareville.

    'Pure cockney, you mean,' said Lady Langdale.

    'But why does Lady Clonbrony want to pass for English?' said the duchess.

    'Oh! because she is not quite Irish. Bred and born——only bred, not born,' said Mrs. Dareville. 'And she could not be five minutes in your grace's company before she would tell you, that she was Henglish, born in Hoxfordshire.'

    'She must be a vastly amusing personage. I should like to meet her, if one could see and hear her incog.,' said the duchess. 'And Lord Clonbrony, what is he?'

    'Nothing, nobody,' said Mrs. Dareville; 'one never even hears of him.'

    'A tribe of daughters, too, I suppose?'

    'No, no,' said Lady Langdale, 'daughters would be past all endurance.'

    'There's a cousin, though, a Grace Nugent,' said Mrs. Dareville, 'that Lady Clonbrony has with her.'

    'Best part of her, too,' said Colonel Heathcock; 'd-d fine girl! ——never saw her look better than at the opera to-night!'

    'Fine complexion! as Lady Clonbrony says, when she means a high colour,' said Lady Langdale.

    'Grace Nugent is not a lady's beauty,' said Mrs. Dareville. 'Has she any fortune, colonel?'

    ''Pon honour, don't know,' said the colonel.

    'There's a son, somewhere, is not there?' said Lady Langdale.

    'Don't know, 'pon honour,' replied the colonel.

    'Yes——at Cambridge——not of age yet,' said Mrs. Dareville. 'Bless me! here is Lady Clonbrony come back. I thought she was gone half an hour ago!'

    'Mamma,' whispered one of Lady Langdale's daughters, leaning between her mother and Mrs. Dareville, 'who is that gentleman that passed us just now?'

    'Which way?'

    'Towards the door. There now, mamma, you can see him. He is speaking to Lady Clonbrony——to Miss Nugent. Now Lady Clonbrony is introducing him to Miss Broadhurst.'

    'I see him now,' said Lady Langdale, examining him through her glass; 'a very gentlemanlike-looking young man, indeed.'

    'Not an Irishman, I am sure, by his manner,' said her grace.

    'Heathcock!' said Lady Langdale, 'who is Miss Broadhurst talking to?'

    'Eh! now really——'pon honour——don't know,' replied Heathcock.

    'And yet he certainly looks like somebody one certainly should know,' pursued Lady Langdale, 'though I don't recollect seeing him anywhere before.'

    'Really now!' was all the satisfaction she could gain from the insensible, immovable colonel. However, her ladyship, after sending a whisper along the line, gained the desired information, that the young gentleman was Lord Colambre, son, only son, of Lord and Lady Clonbrony——that he was just come from Cambridge ——that he was not yet of age——that he would be of age within a year——that he would then, after the death of somebody, come into possession of a fine estate, by the mother's side 'and therefore, Cat'rine, my dear,' said she, turning round to the daughter, who had first pointed him out, 'you understand, we should never talk about other people's affairs.'

    'No, mamma, never. I hope to goodness, mamma, Lord Colambre did not hear what you and Mrs. Dareville were saying!'

    'How could he, child? He was quite at the other end of the world.'

    'I beg your pardon, ma'am, he was at my elbow, close behind us; but I never thought about him till I heard somebody say, "My lord——"'

    'Good heavens! I hope he didn't hear.'

    'But, for my part, I said nothing,' cried Lady Langdale.

    'And for my part, I said nothing but what everybody knows!' cried Mrs. Dareville.

    'And for my part, I am guilty only of hearing,' said the duchess. 'Do, pray, Colonel Heathcock, have the goodness to see what my people are about, and what chance we have of getting away to- night.'

    'The Duchess of Torcaster's carriage stops the way!'——a joyful sound to Colonel Heathcock and to her grace, and not less agreeable, at this instant, to Lady Langdale, who, the moment she was disembarrassed of the duchess, pressed through the crowd to Lady Clonbrony, and, addressing her with smiles and complacency, was 'charmed to have a little moment to speak to her——could not sooner get through the crowd——would certainly do herself the honour to be at her ladyship's gala on Wednesday.' While Lady Langdale spoke, she never seemed to see or think of anybody but Lady Clonbrony, though, all the time, she was intent upon every motion of Lord Colambre, and, whilst she was obliged to listen with a face of sympathy to a long complaint of Lady Clonbrony's, about Mr. Soho's want of taste in ottomans, she was vexed to perceive that his lordship showed no desire to be introduced to her, or to her daughters; but, on the contrary, was standing talking to Miss Nugent. His mother, at the end of her speech, looked round for Colambre called him twice before he heard ——introduced him to Lady Langdale, and to Lady Cat'rine, and Lady Anne——, and to Mrs. Dareville; to all of whom he bowed with an air of proud coldness, which gave them reason to regret that their remarks upon his mother and his family had not been made sotto voce.

    'Lady Langdale's carriage stops the way!' Lord Colambre made no offer of his services, notwithstanding a look from his mother. Incapable of the meanness of voluntarily listening to a conversation not intended for him to hear, he had, however, been compelled, by the pressure of the crowd, to remain a few minutes stationary, where he could not avoid hearing the remarks of the fashionable friends. Disdaining dissimulation, he made no attempt to conceal his displeasure. Perhaps his vexation was increased by his consciousness that there was some mixture of truth in their sarcasms. He was sensible that his mother, in some points——her manners, for instance——was obvious to ridicule and satire. In Lady Clonbrony's address there was a mixture of constraint, affectation, and indecision, unusual in a person of her birth, rank, and knowledge of the world. A natural and unnatural manner seemed struggling in all her gestures, and in every syllable that she articulated——a naturally free, familiar, good-natured, precipitate, Irish manner, had been schooled, and schooled late in life, into a sober, cold, still, stiff deportment, which she mistook for English. A strong, Hibernian accent, she had, with infinite difficulty, changed into an English tone. Mistaking reverse of wrong for right, she caricatured the English pronunciation; and the extraordinary precision of her London phraseology betrayed her not to be a Londoner, as the man, who strove to pass for an Athenian, was detected by his Attic dialect. Not aware of her real danger, Lady Clonbrony was, on the opposite side, in continual apprehension, every time she opened her lips, lest some treacherous A or E, some strong R, some puzzling aspirate, or non-aspirate, some unguarded note, interrogative or expostulatory, should betray her to be an Irishwoman. Mrs. Dareville had, in her mimickry, perhaps a little exaggerated as to the teebles and cheers, but still the general likeness of the representation of Lady Clonbrony was strong enough to strike and vex her son. He had now, for the first time, an opportunity of judging of the estimation in which his mother and his family were held by certain leaders of the ton, of whom, in her letters, she had spoken so much, and into whose society, or rather into whose parties, she had been admitted. He saw that the renegade cowardice, with which she denied, abjured, and reviled her own country, gained nothing but ridicule and contempt. He loved his mother; and, whilst he endeavoured to conceal her faults and foibles as much as possible from his own heart, he could not endure those who dragged them to light and ridicule. The next morning the first thing that occurred to Lord Colambre's remembrance when he awoke was the sound of the contemptuous emphasis which had been laid on the words Irish absentees! This led to recollections of his native country, to comparisons of past and present scenes, to future plans of life. Young and careless as he seemed, Lord Colambre was capable of serious reflection. Of naturally quick and strong capacity, ardent affections, impetuous temper, the early years of his childhood passed at his father's castle in Ireland, where, from the lowest servant to the well-dressed dependant of the family, everybody had conspired to wait upon, to fondle, to flatter, to worship, this darling of their lord. Yet he was not spoiled——not rendered selfish. For, in the midst of this flattery and servility, some strokes of genuine generous affection had gone home to his little heart; and, though unqualified submission had increased the natural impetuosity of his temper, and though visions of his future grandeur had touched his infant thought, yet, fortunately, before he acquired any fixed habits of insolence or tyranny, he was carried far away from all that were bound or willing to submit to his commands, far away from all signs of hereditary grandeur——plunged into one of our great public schools——into a new world. Forced to struggle, mind and body, with his equals, his rivals, the little lord became a spirited schoolboy, and, in time, a man. Fortunately for him, science and literature happened to be the fashion among a set of clever young men with whom he was at Cambridge. His ambition for intellectual superiority was raised, his views were enlarged, his tastes and his manners formed. The sobriety of English good sense mixed most advantageously with Irish vivacity; English prudence governed, but did not extinguish his Irish enthusiasm. But, in fact, English and Irish had not been invidiously contrasted in his mind: he had been so long resident in England, and so intimately connected with Englishmen, that he was not obvious to any of the commonplace ridicule thrown upon Hibernians; and he had lived with men who were too well informed and liberal to misjudge or depreciate a sister country. He had found, from experience, that, however reserved the English may be in manner, they are warm at heart; that, however averse they may be from forming new acquaintance, their esteem and confidence once gained, they make the most solid friends. He had formed friendships in England; he was fully sensible of the superior comforts, refinement, and information, of English society; but his own country was endeared to him by early association, and a sense of duty and patriotism attached him to Ireland. And shall I too be an absentee? was a question which resulted from these reflections——a question which he was not yet prepared to answer decidedly. In the meantime, the first business of the morning was to execute a commission for a Cambridge friend. Mr. Berryl had bought from Mr. Mordicai, a famous London coachmaker, a curricle, warranted sound, for which he had paid a sound price, upon express condition that Mr. Mordicai, barring accidents, should be answerable for all repairs of the curricle for six months. In three, both the carriage and body were found to be good for nothing——the curricle had been returned to Mr. Mordicai ——nothing had since been heard of it, or from him——and Lord Colambre had undertaken to pay him and it a visit, and to make all proper inquiries. Accordingly, he went to the coachmaker's, and, obtaining no satisfaction from the underlings, desired to see the head of the house. He was answered, that Mr. Mordicai was not at home. His lordship had never seen Mr. Mordicai; but, just then, he saw, walking across the yard, a man, who looked something like a Bond Street coxcomb, but not the least like a gentleman, who called, in the tone of a master, for 'Mr. Mordicai's barouche!' It appeared; and he was stepping into it when Lord Colambre took the liberty of stopping him; and, pointing to the wreck of Mr. Berryl's curricle, now standing in the yard, began a statement of his friend's grievances, and an appeal to common justice and conscience, which he, unknowing the nature of the man with whom he had to deal, imagined must be irresistible. Mr. Mordicai stood without moving a muscle of his dark wooden face. Indeed, in his face there appeared to be no muscles, or none which could move; so that, though he had what are generally called handsome features, there was, all together, something unnatural and shocking in his countenance. When, at last, his eyes turned, and his lips opened, this seemed to be done by machinery, and not by the will of a living creature, or from the impulse of a rational soul. Lord Colambre was so much struck with this strange physiognomy, that he actually forgot much he had to say of springs and wheels. But it was no matter. Whatever he had said, it would have come to the same thing; and Mordicai would have answered as he now did——

    'Sir, it was my partner made that bargain, not myself; and I don't hold myself bound by it, for he is the sleeping-partner only, and not empowered to act in the way of business. Had Mr. Berryl bargained with me, I should have told him that he should have looked to these things before his carriage went out of our yard.'

    The indignation of Lord Colambre kindled at these words——but in vain. To all that indignation could by word or look urge against Mordicai, he replied——

    'Maybe so, sir; the law is open to your friend——the law is open to all men who can pay for it.'

    Lord Colambre turned in despair from the callous coach-maker, and listened to one of his more compassionate-looking workmen, who was reviewing the disabled curricle; and, whilst he was waiting to know the sum of his friend's misfortune, a fat, jolly, Falstaff looking personage came into the yard, accosted Mordicai with a degree of familiarity, which, from a gentleman, appeared to Lord Colambre to be almost impossible.

    'How are you, Mordicai, my good fellow?' cried he, speaking with a strong Irish accent.

    'Who is this?' whispered Lord Colambre to the foreman, who was examining the curricle.

    'Sir Terence O'Fay, sir. There must be entire new wheels.'

    'Now tell me, my tight fellow,' continued Sir Terence, holding Mordicai fast, 'when, in the name of all the saints, good or bad, in the calendar, do you reckon to let us sport the suicide?'

    Mordicai forcibly drew his mouth into what he meant for a smile, and answered, 'As soon as possible, Sir Terence.'

    Sir Terence, in a tone of jocose, wheedling expostulation, entreated him to have the carriage finished out of hand. 'Ah, now! Mordy, my precious! let us have it by the birthday, and come and dine with us o' Monday, at the Hibernian Hotel——there's a rare one——will you?'

    Mordicai accepted the invitation, and promised faithfully that the suicide should be finished by the birthday. Sir Terence shook hands upon this promise, and, after telling a good story, which made one of the workmen in the yard——an Irishman——grin with delight, walked off. Mordicai, first waiting till the knight was out of hearing, called aloud——

    'You grinning rascal! mind, at your peril, and don't let that there carriage be touched, d'ye see, till further orders.'

    One of Mr. Mordicai's clerks, with a huge long-feathered pen behind his ear, observed that Mr. Mordicai was right in that caution, for that, to the best of his comprehension, Sir Terence O'Fay and his principal, too, were over head and ears in debt.

    Mordicai coolly answered that he was well aware of that; but that the estate could afford to dip further; that, for his part, he was under no apprehension; he knew how to look sharp, and to bite before he was bit. That he knew Sir Terence and his principal were leagued together to give the creditors the go by, but that, clever as they both were at that work, he trusted he was their match.

    'Will you be so good, sir, to finish making out this estimate for me?' interrupted Lord Colambre.

    'Immediately, sir. Sixty-nine pound four, and the perch. Let us see——Mr. Mordicai, ask him, ask Paddy, about Sir Terence,' said the foreman, pointing back over his shoulder to the Irish workman, who was at this moment pretending to be wondrous hard at work. However, when Mr. Mordicai defied him to tell him anything he did not know, Paddy, parting with an untasted bit of tobacco, began, and recounted some of Sir Terence O'Fay's exploits in evading duns, replevying cattle, fighting sheriffs, bribing subs, managing cants, tricking custodees, in language so strange, and with a countenance and gestures so full of enjoyment of the jest, that, whilst Mordicai stood for a moment aghast with astonishment, Lord Colambre could not help laughing, partly at, and partly with, his countryman. All the yard were in a roar of laughter, though they did not understand half of what they heard; but their risible muscles were acted upon mechanically, or maliciously, merely by the sound of the Irish brogue.

    Mordicai, waiting till the laugh was over, dryly observed that 'the law is executed in another guess sort of way in England from what it is in Ireland'; therefore, for his part, he desired nothing better than to set his wits fairly against such sharks. That there was a pleasure in doing up a debtor which none but a creditor could know.

    'In a moment, sir; if you'll have a moment's patience, sir, if you please,' said the slow foreman to Lord Colambre; 'I must go down the pounds once more, and then I'll let you have it.'

    'I'll tell you what, Smithfield,' continued Mr. Mordicai, coming close beside his foreman, and speaking very low, but with a voice trembling with anger, for he was piqued by his foreman's doubts of his capacity to cope with Sir Terence O'Fay; 'I'll tell you what, Smithfield, I'll be cursed, if I don't get every inch of them into my power. You know how?'

    'You are the best judge, sir,' replied the foreman; 'but I would not undertake Sir Terence; and the question is, whether the estate will answer the lot of the debts, and whether you know them all for certain?'

    'I do, sir, I tell you. There's Green there's Blancham—— there's Gray——there's Soho——naming several more——and, to my knowledge, Lord Clonbrony——'

    'Stop, sir," cried Lord Colambre in a voice which made Mordicai, and everybody present, start——'I am his son——'

    'The devil!' said Mordicai.

    'God bless every bone in his body, then! he's an Irishman,' cried Paddy; 'and there was the rason my heart warmed to him from the first minute he come into the yard, though I did not know it till now.'

    'What, sir! are you my Lord Colambre?' said Mr. Mordicai, recovering, but not clearly recovering, his intellects. 'I beg pardon, but I did not know you was Lord Colambre. I thought you told me you was the friend of Mr. Berryl.'

    'I do not see the incompatibility of the assertion, sir,' replied Lord Colambre, taking from the bewildered foreman's unresisting hand the account, which he had been so long furnishing.

    'Give me leave, my lord,' said Mordicai. 'I beg your pardon, my lord, perhaps we can compromise that business for your friend Mr. Berryl; since he is your lordship's friend, perhaps we can contrive to compromise and split the difference.'

    To compromise and split the difference, Mordicai thought were favourite phrases, and approved Hibernian modes of doing business, which would conciliate this young Irish nobleman, and dissipate the proud tempest which had gathered and now swelled in his breast.

    'No, sir, no!' cried Lord Colambre, holding firm the paper. 'I want no favour from you. I will accept of none for my friend or for myself,'

    'Favour! No, my lord, I should not presume to offer——But I should wish, if you'll allow me, to do your friend justice.'

    Lord Colambre recollecting that he had no right, in his pride, to ding away his friend's money, let Mr. Mordicai look at the account; and, his impetuous temper in a few moments recovered by good sense, he considered that, as his person was utterly unknown to Mr. Mordicai, no offence could have been intended to him, and that, perhaps, in what had been said of his father's debts and distress, there might be more truth than he was aware of. Prudently, therefore, controlling his feelings, and commanding himself, he suffered Mr. Mordicai to show him into a parlour, to settle his friend's business. In a few minutes the account was reduced to a reasonable form, and, in consideration of the partner's having made the bargain, by which Mr. Mordicai felt himself influenced in honour, though not bound in law, he undertook to have the curricle made better than new again, for Mr. Berryl, for twenty guineas. Then came awkward apologies to Lord Colambre, which he ill endured. 'Between ourselves, my lord,' continued Mordicai——

    But the familiarity of the phrase, 'Between ourselves'——this implication of equality——Lord Colambre could not admit; he moved hastily towards the door and departed.

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