« PreviousContinue »
There were three Frenchmen and two French ladies, all pleasant, easy, and conversable people; there was a doctor from Louvain, a shrewd, intelligent man; a Prussian major and his wife, well bred, quiet people, and like all Prussians, polite without inviting acquaintance; an Austrian secretary of legation; a wine merchant from Bourdeaux; and a celebrated pianist completed the party.
I have now put my readers in possession of information which I only obtained after some days myself; for though one or
her of these personages were occasionally absent from talle d'hote, I soon perceived that they were all frequenters of the house and well known there.
If the guests were seated at table wherever chance or accident might place them, I could perceive that a tone of deference was always used to the tall man, who invariably maintained his place at the head, and an air of even greater courtesy assumed towards the lady beside him, who was his wife. He was always addressed as Monsieur le Comte, and her title of countess never forgotten in speaking to her. During dinner, whatever little chit-chat or gossip was the talk of the day was specially offered up to her.
The younger guests occasionally ventured to present a bouquet, and even the rugged minister himself accomplished a more polite bow in accosting her than he could have summoned up for his presentation to royalty. To all these little attentions she returned a smile, or a look, or a word, or a gesture with her white hand, never exciting jealousy by any undue degree of favour, and distributing her honours with the practised equanimity of one accustomed to it.
Dinner over and coffee, a handsome britzka drawn by two splendid dark bay horses would drive up, and Madame la Comtesse, conducted to the carriage by her husband, would receive the homage of the whole party as they stood to let her pass. The count would then linger some twenty minutes or so and take his leave, to wander for an hour about the park, and afterwards to the theatre, where I used to see him in a private box with his wife.
Such was the little party at "the France” when I took up my residence there in the inonth of May, and gradually one dropped off after another as the summer wore on. The Germans went back to sour kraut and kreutzer whist ; the secretary of legation was on leave; the wine merchant was off to St. Petersburgh; the pianist was performing in London ; the ex-minister was made a clerk in the bureau he once directed ; and so on, leaving our party reduced to the count and madame, a stray traveller, a deaf abbé, and myself.
The dog days in a continental city are, as every one knows, stupid and tiresome enough. Every one has taken his departure either to his chateau, if he has one, or to the watering places; the theatre has no attraction, even if the heat permitted one to visit it; the streets are empty, parched, and grass grown; and except the arrival and departure of that incessant locomotive, John Bull, there is no bustle or stir any where.
Hapless indeed is the condition then of the man who is condemned from any accident to toil through this dreary season; to wander about in solitude the places he has seen filled by pleasant company; to behold the park and promenades given up to Flemish bonnes, or Norman nurses, where he was wont to glad his eye with the sight of bright eyes and trim shapes flitting past in all the tasty elegance of Parisian toilette ; to see a lazy frotteur sleeping away his hours at the porte cochere, which a month before thundered with the deep roll of equipage coming and going—all this is very sad, and disposes one to become dull and discontented too.
For what reason I was detained at Brussels it is unnecessary to inquire : some delay in remittances, if I remember aright, had their share in the
Who ever travelled without having cursed his banker, or his agent, or his uncle, or his guardian, or somebody in short, who had a deal of money belonging to him in his hands, and would not send it forward ? In all my long experience of travelling and travellers I don't remember meeting with one person who, if it were not for such mischances, would not have been amply supplied with cash. Some, with a knowing wink, throw the blame on the “governor;” others, more openly indignant, confound Coutts and Drummond; a stray Irishman will now and then damn the “tenantry that haven't paid up the last November;' but none, no matter how much their condition bespeaks that out-o'-elbows habit which a ways-and-means” style of life contracts, will ever confess to the fact that their expectations are as blank as their banker's book, and that the only land they are ever to pretend to, is a post obit right in some six feet by two in a churchyard. And yet the world is full of such people-well-informed, pleasant, good-looking folk who inhabit first-rate hotels-drink, dine, and dress well-frequent theatres and promenadesspend their winters at Paris, Florence, or ne—their summers at Baden, Ems, or Interlachen ; have a strange half intimacy with men in the higher circles; occasionally dine with them; are never heard of in any dubious or unsafe affair ; are reputed safe fellows to talk to; know every one —from the horse-dealer who will give credit, to the Jew who will advance cash; and notwithstanding that they neither gamble, nor bet, nor speculate, yet contrive to live-ay, and well too--without any known resources whatever. If English—and they are for the most part so—they usually are called by some well-known name of aristocratic reputation in England: they are thus, Villiers, or Paget, or Seymour, or Percy, which on the Continent is already a kind of half nobility at once; and the question which seemingly needs no reply-Ah, vous êtes parent de mi lord ! is a receipt in full for rank any where.
These menand who that knows any thing of the Continent has not met such every where ?--are the great riddles of our century; and I'd rather give a reward for their secret than all the discoveries about perpetual motion, or longitude, or St. John Longism that ever was heard of; and strange it is too, no one has ever blabbed. Some have emerged from this misty state to inherit large fortunes and live in the best style, yet I have never heard tell of a single man having turned king's evidence on his fellows. And yet what a talent theirs must be. Let any man confess who has waited three posts for a remittance without any tidings of its arrival, think of the hundred and one petty annoyances (and ironies to which he is subject: he fancies that the very waiters know he is “à sec;" that the landlord looks sour and the landlady austere; the very clerk in the post-office appears to say “no letter for you, sir," with a jibing and impertinent tone. From that moment too a dozen expensive tastes that he never dreamed of before enter his head: he wants to purchase a hack, or give a dinner party, or bet at a race course, principally because he has not got a sous in his pocket, and he is afraid it may be guessed by others; such is the fatal tendency to strive or pretend to something which has no other value in our eyes than the effect it may have on our acquaintances, regardless of what sacrifices it may demand the exercise.
Forgive, I pray, this long digression which although, I hope, not without its advantages, should scarcely have been ventured into were it not apropos to myself; and to go back I began to feel excessively uncomfortable at the delay of my money. My first care every morning was to
repair to the post-office; sometimes I arrived before it was open, and had to promenade up and down the gloomy“ Rue de l’Evecque” till the clock struck ; sometimes the mail would be late-a foreign mail is generally late when the weather is peculiarly fine and the roads good—but always the same answer came—“ Rien pour vous, Monsieur O'Leary;" and at last I imagined from the way the fellow spoke that he had set the response to a tune, and sang it.
Beranger has celebrated in one of his very prettiest lyrics “ how happy one is at twenty in a garret.” I have no doubt, for my part, that the vicinity of the slates and the poverty of the apartment would have much contributed to my peace of mind at the time I speak of. The fact of a magnificently furnished salon, a splendid dinner every day, champagne and Seltzer promiscuously, cab fares and theatre tickets innumerable being all scored against me, were sad dampers to my happiness, and from being one of the cheeriest and most light-hearted of fellows, I sank into a state of fidgety and restless impatience, the nearest thing I ever remembered in my life to low spirits.
Such was I one day, when the post, which I had been watching anxiously from mid-day, had not arrived at five o'clock. Leaving word with the commissionaire to wait and report to me at the hotel, I turned back to the table d'hote. By accident, the only guests were the count and madame; there they were, as accurately dressed as ever ; so handsome and so happy looking ; so attached too in their manner towards each other—that nice balance between affection and courtesy which before the world is so captivating. Disturbed as were my thoughts, I could not help feeling struck by their bright and pleasant looks.
“Ah, a family party!" said the count gaily, as I entered, while madame bestowed on me one of her very sweetest smiles.
The restraint of strangers removed, they spoke as if I had been an old friend-chatting away about every thing and every body in a tone of frank and easy confidence perfectly delightful; occasionally deigning to ask if I did not agree with them in their opinions, and seeming to enjoy the little I ventured to say with a pleasure I felt to be most flattering.
The count's quiet and refined manner—the easy flow of his conversation, replete as it was with information and amusement, formed a most happy contrast with the brilliant sparkle of madame's lively sallies; for she seemed rather disposed to indulge a vein of slight satire, but so tempered with good feeling and kindliness withal, that you would not for the world forego the pleasure it afforded. Long-long before the dessert appeared I ceased to think of my letter or my money, and did not remember that such things as bankers, agents, or stockbrokers were in the universe. Apparently they had been great travellers ; had seen every city in Europe, and visited every court; knew all the most distinguished people, and many of the sovereigns intimately; and little stories of Metternich, bon mots of Talleyrand, anecdotes of Goethe and Chateaubriand, seasoned the conversation with an interest which to a young man like myself was all engrossing. Suddenly the door opened, and the commissionaire called out—“No letter for Monsieur O'Leary,” I suddenly became pale and faint; and though the count was too well bred to take any direct notice of what he saw was caused by my disappointment, he contrived adroitly to direct some observation to madame, which relieved me from any burden of the conversation. “What hour did you order the carriage, Duischka ?” said he.
At half-past six. The forest is so cool, that I like to go slowly through it.”
“That will give us ample time for a walk, too,” said he: “and if Monsieur O'Leary will join us, the pleasure will be all the greater."
I hesitated, and stammered out an apology about a head-ache, or something of the sort.
“ The drive will be the best thing in the world for you," said madame; “and the strawberries and cream of Boitsfort will complete the cure.”
“Yes, yes,” said the count, as I shook my head half-sadly—“La comtesse is infallible as a doctor."
* And, like all the faculty, very angry when her skill is called in question,” added she.
“Go then, and find your shawl, madame," said he; " and, meanwhile, monsieur and I will discuss our liqueur, and be ready for you.”
Madame smiled gaily, as if having carried her point, and left the room.
The door was scarcely closed, when the count drew his chair closer to mine, and, with a look of kindliness and good nature I cannot convey, said:
“I am going, Monsieur O'Leary, to take a liberty-a very great liberty indeed with you, and perhaps you may not forgive it.” He paused for a minute or two, as if awaiting some intimation on my part. I merely muttered something intended to express my willingness to accept of what he hinted, and he resumed. “You are a very young man; I not a very old, but a very experienced one. There are occasions in life, in which such knowledge as I possess of the world and its ways may be of great service. Now, without for an instant obtruding myself on your confidence, or inquiring into affairs which are strictly your own, I wish to say, that my advice and counsel, if you need either, are completely at your service. Now a few minutes ago I perceived that you were distressed at hearing there was no letter for you
“I know not how to thank you,” said I, “ for such kindness as this ; and the best proof of my sincerity is, to tell you the position in which I am placed.”
“ One word first," added he, laying his hand gently on my arm—"one word. Do you promise to accept of my advice and assistance when you have revealed the circumstance you allude to? If not, I beg I may not hear it.”
“ Your advice I am most anxious for,” said I hastily.
“ The other was an awkward word, and I see that your delicacy has taken the alarm. But come, it is spoken now, and can't be recalled. I must have my way: so go on.”
I seized his hand with enthusiasm, and shook it heartily. “Yes," said 1, "you shall have your way. I have neither shame nor concealment before you." And then, in as few words as I could explain such tangled and knotted webs as envelope all matters where legacies, and lawyers, and settlements, and securities, and mortgages enter, I put him in possession of the fact, that I had come abroad with the assurance from my man of business of a handsome yearly income, to be increased, after a time, to something very considerable ; that I was now two months in expectation of remittances which certain forms in Chancery delayed and deferred; and that I watched the post each day with an anxious heart for means to relieve me from certain trifling debts I had incurred, and enable me to proceed on my journey.
The count listened with the most patient attention to my story, only interfering once or twice, when some difficulty demanded explanation, and then suffering me to proceed to the end : when, leisurely withdrawing a pocket-book from the breast of his frock, he opened it slowly. “My dear young friend,” said he, in a measured and almost solemn tone, every
hour that a man is in debt is a year spent in slavery. Your creditor is your master: it matters not whether a kind or a severe one, the sense of obligation you incur saps the feeling of manly independence which is the first charm of youth ; and, believe me, it is always through the rents in moral feeling that our happiness oozes out quickest. Here are five thousand francs; take as much more as you want. With a friend and I insist upon your believing me to be such—these things have no character of obligation : you accommodate me to-day ; I do the same for you tomorrow. And now, put these notes in your pocket. I see madame is waiting for us."
For a second or two I felt so overpowered I could not speak : the generous confidence and friendly interest of one so thoroughly a stranger, were far too much for my astonished and gratified mind. At last í recovered myself enough to reply, and assuring my worthy friend that when I spoke of my debts they were in reality merely trifling ones; that I had still ample funds in my banker's hands for all necessary outlay ; and that by the next post perhaps my long-wished-for letter might arrive.
“ And if it should not ?' interposed he, smiling. “Why then the next day
“ And if not then ?" continued he, with a half-quizzing look at my embarrassment.
“ Then your five thousand francs shall tremble for it."
“ That's a hearty fellow !” cried he, grasping my hand in both of his. “ And now I feel I was not deceived in you. My first meeting with Metternich was very like this. I was at Presburg, in the year 1804, just before the campaign of Austerlitz opened—”
“ You are indeed most gallant, messieurs,” said the comtesse, opening the door, and peeping in. “ Am I to suppose that cigars and maraschino are better company than mine ?”
We rose at once to make our excuses ; and thus I lost the story of Prince Metternich, in whom I already felt an uncommon interest, from the similarity of the adventure to my own, though whether I was to represent the prince or the count I could not even guess.
I was soon seated beside the comtesse in the luxurious britzka ; the count took his place on the box; and away we rattled over the pavé, through the Porte de Namur, and along the pretty suburbs of Etterbech, where we left the high road, and entered the Bois de Cambre by that long and beautiful allée which runs on for miles, like some vast ajsle in a Gothic cathedral—the branches above bending into an arched roof, and the tall beech stems standing like the pillars.
The pleasant odour of the forest, the tempered light, the noiseless roll of the carriage, giving a sense of luxury to the drive, I can remember vividly to this very hour. Not that my enjoyment of such was my only one; far from it. The pretty countess talked away about every thing that came uppermost, in that strain of spirited and lively chit-chat that needs not the sweetest voice and the most fascinating look to make it most captivating. I felt like one in a dream ; the whole thing was fairy land; and whether I looked into the depths of the leafy wood, where some horsemen might now and then be seen to pass at a gallop, or my eyes fell upon that small and faultless foot that rested on the velvet cushion in the carriage, I could not trust the reality of the scene, and could only mutter to myself—“ What hast thou ever done, Arthur O'Leary, or thy father before thee, to deserve happiness like this ?”
Dear and kind reader, it may be your fortune to visit Brussels ; and although not exactly under such circumstances as I have mentioned here,