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A Night Among the Ton
No. 64 Sloane Street, London
Monday, 22 April 1811
CONCEIVE, IF YOU WILL, OF THE THEATRE ROYAL, COVENT Garden, on an evening such as this: the celebrated Mrs. Siddons being rumoured to appear, after too many months' absence from the stage; the play Macbeth, with all the hideous power of Shakespeare's verse and Sarah Siddons's art; and the Polite World of London brawling in the midst of Bow Street, in an effort to reach its place in the box before the curtain should rise.
Such a welter of chairmen, link boys, fashionable carriages, street sweeps, porters, and coachmen! Such oaths, blasted into the ears of delicately-nurtured females, carried hurriedly to the paving lest their satin slippers should be soiled in the horses' dung! Such an array of silks and muslins, turbans and feathers, embroidered shawls and jewelled flounces! The scent of a thousand flowers on the air, the odour of tobacco and ripe oranges and fish from the markets in Covent Garden, the great theatre's windows thrown open against the warmth of the spring night and the heat of too many bodies filling the vast hall! The flickering of wax candles, a fortune's worth thrown up into the gleaming chandeliers; the rising pitch of conversation, the high screech of a woman's laughter, the impropriety of a chance remark, the hand of a gentleman resting where it should not, on the person of his lady—all this, like a prodigal feast spread out for my delectation.
The vague shadow, too, of a Bow Street Runner lounging in the doorway of the magistrate's offices opposite—which I chanced to glimpse as brother Henry swept me to the theatre door; lounging like an accusation as he surveyed the Fashionable Great, whose sins and peccadilloes only he may be privileged to know.
It is a scene hardly out of the ordinary way for the majority of the ton, that select company of wealthy and wellborn who rule what is commonly called Society; but for a lady in the midst of her thirty-fifth year, denied a proper come-out or a breathless schoolgirl's first Season, a shabby-genteel lady long since on the shelf and at her last prayers—it must be deemed a high treat. Add that I am a hardened enthusiast of the great Sarah Siddons, and have been disappointed before in my hopes of seeing her tread the boards—and you will apprehend with what pleasurable anticipation I met the curtain's rise.1
"Jane," Eliza murmured behind her fan as the Theatre Royal fell silent, "there is Lord Moira, Henry's particular friend and an intimate of the Prince Regent. Next his box you will recognise Lord Castlereagh, I am sure—was there ever anything so elegant as his lady's dress? It is as nothing, however, to the costume of the creature seated to our left—the extraordinarily handsome woman with the flashing dark eyes and the black curls. That is the great Harriette Wilson, my dear—the most celebrated Impure in London, with her sisters and intimate friends; do not observe her openly, I beg! Such gentlemen as have had her in keeping! I am sure our Harriette might bring down the Government, were she merely to speak too freely among her intimates. They do say that even Wellington—"
The pressure of Henry's hand upon his wife's arm silenced Eliza, and I was allowed to disregard the men of government equally with the demimondaine in her rubies and paint, and sit in breathless apprehension as a cabal of witches plotted their ageless doom.
I am come to London in the spring of this year 1811—the year of Regency and the poor old King's decline into madness, the year of Buonaparte's expected rout in the Peninsula, of straitened circumstances and immense want among the poor—to watch like an anxious parent over the printing of my first novel. Yes, my novel; or say rather the child of my heart, which is to be sent into the Great World without even the acknowledgement of its mother, being to be published by Mr. Thomas Egerton only as By a Lady.
And what is the title and purport of this improving work, so ideally suited to the fancy of ladies both young and old?
I have been used to call it Elinor & Marianne, after the fashion of the great Madame d'Arblay, whose exemplary tales Camilla, Evelina, Cecilia, etc., have set the fashion in literature for ladies. Mr. Egerton, however, is of the opinion that such a title is no longer the mode, the style being for qualities akin to Mrs. Brunton's Self-Controul. I have debated the merits of Worthiness and Self-Worth, or An Excellent Understanding. Eliza, on the other hand, would hew to the sensational.
"How do you like The Bodice Rip'd from Side to Side, Jane? Or perhaps—I think now only of Marianne—The Maid Forsworn and All Forlorn?"
"But what of Willoughby?" brother Henry objected. "Should he not be given pride of place? Call it then The Seducer, and have done."
"It shall be Sense and Sensibility," I replied firmly, "for I am partial to sibilants; and besides, Cassandra approves the division: Elinor a creature of Reason, and Marianne entirely of Feeling. You must know I am in the habit of being guided by my sister. —Insofar as my inclination allies with hers, of course."
Henry and his wife cried out against this, abusing Cassandra for the excessive starch of her notions, and the quiet propriety which must always characterise my sister's views. I ought possibly to have paid more heed to their opinions—it is Henry, after all, who has franked me in the publishing world, having paid Mr. Egerton to print my little book—but I am tired of toying with titles. All my anxiety is for the pace of the printing, which is excessively slow. I am resident in London a full month, and yet we have arrived only at Chapter Nine, and Willoughby's first appearance. At this rate, the year will have turned before the novel is bound, tho' it was faithfully promised for May—a set of three volumes in blue boards, with gilt letters.
"Jane," Eliza prompted as the curtain fell on Act I of Macbeth, "you are hardly attending. Here is the Comtesse d'Entraigues come to pay us a call. How delightful!"
I roused myself quick enough to observe that lady's entrance into our box, with a headdress of feathers nearly sweeping the ceiling—a quizzing-glass held to her eye—an expanse of bony shoulder and excess of décolleté—and schooled my countenance to amiability. There are many words I might chuse to apostrophise the French Countess—one of Eliza's acquaintances from her previous marriage to a nobleman of Louis's reign—but delightful is not one of them. The Comtesse d'Entraigues was used to be known as Anne de St.-Huberti, when she set up as an opera singer in the days of the Revolution; but by either name she is repugnant to me, being full of acid and spite. Eliza hints that her friend was the Comte's mistress before he was constrained to marry her—and at full five-and-fifty, Anne de St.-Huberti must be grateful for the protection of d'Entraigues's name. She paints her pitted cheeks in the mode of thirty years since; is given to the excessive use of scent; affects a blond wig; and should undoubtedly be termed a Fright by the ruthless bucks of Town.
"Eliza, mignon," she crooned as she presented one powdered cheek in all the appearance of affection; "how hagged you look this evening, to be sure! The years, they have never sat lightly upon you, bien sur! You have been fatigued, sans doute, by your visit to Surrey last evening—it was a great deal too good of you to solace my exile!"
We had indeed ventured into Surrey last night, despite all my doubts regarding Sunday travel, to enjoy an evening of music at the d'Entraigues abode. The old Count spoke nothing but French, and I understood but a fraction of the communication, tho' Henry admirably held up his end, and declared the gentleman to be a man of parts and considerable information. The son, young Count Julien, who appears everything an Exquisite of the Ton should be, with his excellent tailoring, his disordered locks, his shining boots, and his quantity of fobs and seals, delighted us with his superior performance upon the pianoforte.
The Comtesse had deigned to sing.
Taken all together, I should rather endure a full two hours of her ladyship's airs in the Italian than a few moments of her conversation; and as she and Eliza put their heads together, I considered instead how the Theatre Royal might serve in a novel: the comings and goings of great personages, a lady's chance encounter with an Unknown; or the appearance of a Rogue, for example, who might interpret the slight nothings and subtle displays of the ton with an understanding far more penetrating than my own . . .
It was impossible to be in London at the height of the Season without reverting in thought to Lord Harold Trowbridge. That late denizen of Brooks's Club, that consummate sportsman and intimate of princes, should certainly have graced one of these lofty boxes, and been in close converse even now with Lord Castlereagh, perhaps, however little he liked that Tory gentleman's conduct of war. He should have profited by the play's interval in dallying with a lady, or shown himself one of Harriette Wilson's favorites, his sleek frame displayed to advantage against the marble columns of the tier. But would he, in truth, have noticed Jane?
The question arose with a pang. At five-and-thirty I cannot pretend to any beauty now. My evening dress of blue, the beaded band encircling my forehead, the flower tucked into my hair—arranged with all the genius Eliza's French maid could command—is yet nothing to draw the eye. One must be possessed of extraordinary looks or a great deal of money to figure in London. Had his lordship lived, he might have called at No. 64 Sloane Street, as he condescended to do in Bath and Southampton—and left his card as my Willoughby does for Marianne—but in the Greater World Lord Harold's notice may have been denied to me.
I like to think, however, that he would have approved of my book. It was always an object with Lord Harold that I should write.
"Blue-deviled, Jane?" my brother Henry enquired gently as he reappeared in the box. "We have been leading you quite the dance these past few weeks. I daresay you're wishing yourself back in Hampshire!"
"Not at all," I replied, banishing my ghost with effort. "You know me too well for a frivolous character, Henry, to imagine me ungrateful when such divine absurdities are laid at my feet! What writer worthy of the name should prefer the confined and unvarying circle of the country to this?
Only observe Eliza's French count, old d'Entraigues, paying court before Mr. George Canning—and he no longer Foreign Minister, with favours to bestow. Observe Lady Castlereagh endeavouring to ignore the fact that Beau Brummell and the Ponsonbys prefer Harriette Wilson's box to hers! But tell me—who is that woman with the aquiline nose and jewelled tiara, quite alone in the seat opposite? She cannot tear her regard from Lord Castlereagh. I should consider her excessively rude, did I not imagine her to be a princess of the blood royal, and thus beyond all censure."
"A princess indeed," my brother replied with a careless gesture of his quizzing-glass, "but not of the Hanoverian line. You have detected a Russian noblewoman, my dear—the Princess Evgenia Tscholikova. She is resident in London nearly a year, and may be claimed as one of our neighbours—for she has taken a house in Hans Place, hard by Sloane Street."
"A princess, rusticating in the oblivion of Hans Place!" I declared. "I should rather have expected Berkeley Square, or Brook Street at the very least."
"Her means, no doubt, are unequal to her station."
"But why does she gaze at Lord Castlereagh so earnestly? His lady certainly does not notice the Princess; and the gentleman is deep in conversation with another."
"That is like Evgenia," broke in the Comtesse d'Entraigues, with a disparaging glance at me over her bare shoulder. "The Princess will always be playing the tragic actress, non? A man has only to spurn her, to become the most ardent object of her soul."
Eliza rapped her friend's knuckles with a furled fan. "You will shock my sister, Anne. Do not be letting your tongue run away with you, I beg."
"But surely you have seen the papers, Eliza?" The Comtesse's voice was immoderately loud; several heads turned. "It is everywhere in the Morning Post, if one has eyes to see and the mind to understand. The Princess's letters to Castlereagh—most importunate and disgusting, the very abasement of a woman in the throes of love—were sold to the Post but a few days ago. The editors would disguise the principals in the affair, of course—as 'Lord C—,' and 'the Princess T—,' but the truth is known among the ton. Evgenia has disgraced herself and his lordship. Lord Castlereagh has only to conduct himself as usual, to silence the impertinent; but I wonder that she dares to show her face."
The malice behind the words was sharp and pitiless; a worse enemy than the Comtesse d'Entraigues I should not like to encounter, and of a sudden my sympathy went out to the Russian noblewoman, who alone among the Great at the Theatre Royal was lapped in a chilly solitude, no friend to support her. I, too, had read the salacious excerpts in the Morning Post, but lacking all familiarity with the ton, had no ability to put a name or face to the initials. My cheeks flushed with consciousness as I recalled a part of the correspondence. My limbs burn with the desire to lie once more entangled in your own . . . There is nothing I would not sacrifice, would not risk, for the touch of your lips on my bare skin . . . I can hardly write for anguish, I tremble at the slightest glimpse of you in publick, my dear one, desperate to have you alone . . . However abandoned the prose, it was vile to consider of it strewn before the publick eye.
"What I desire to learn," I said indignantly, "is who should undertake to traffick in a lady's intimate correspondence?"
"Her maid, perhaps—if the girl was turned off without a character," suggested Eliza.
"But Castlereagh was the recipient of the letters," Henry objected, "which must point to a culprit in his lordship's household."
"Unless he returned the Princess's correspondence," I offered.
"I will lay odds on it that she sold them herself," the Comtesse d'Entraigues pronounced viciously. "She would enjoy the fame, however black."
"You are acquainted with the lady, I apprehend."
"Twenty years, at least. She has the habit of inserting herself in my affairs; I will not deny that I abhor the very sight of her." The Comtesse rose abruptly, smoothed out her silk gown, and said, "Eliza, I will wait upon you in Sloane Street tomorrow. Do not fail me."
Eliza bowed her head in acknowledgement, and the Comtesse swept away—the curtain being about to rise on the second act, and all further conversation being impossible in the presence of Sarah Siddons, and the blood that stained her hands.