About this time a firm of merchants having dealings with the East put on the market little paper flowers which opened on touching water. As it was the custom also to use finger-bowls at the end of dinner, the new discovery was found of excellent service. In these sheltered lakes the little coloured flowers swam and slid; surmounted smooth slippery waves, and sometimes foundered and lay like pebbles on the glass floor. Their fortunes were watched by eyes intent and lovely. It is surely a great discovery that leads to the union of hearts and foundation of homes. The paper flowers did no less.
It must not be thought, though, that they ousted the flowers of nature. Roses, lilies, carnations in particular, looked over the rims of vases and surveyed the bright lives and swift dooms of their artificial relations. Mr. Stuart Ormond made this very observation; and charming it was thought; and Kitty Craster married him on the strength of it six months later. But real flowers can never be dispensed with. If they could, human life would be a different affair altogether. For flowers fade; chrysanthemums are the worst; perfect over night; yellow and jaded next morning—not fit to be seen. On the whole, though the price is sinful, carnations pay best;—it's a question, however, whether it's wise to have them wired. Some shops advise it. Certainly it's the only way to keep them at a dance; but whether it is necessary at dinner parties, unless the rooms are very hot, remains in dispute. Old Mrs. Temple used to recommend an ivy leaf—just one—dropped into the bowl. She said it kept the water pure for days and days. But there is some reason to think that old Mrs. Temple was mistaken.
The little cards, however, with names engraved on them, are a more serious problem than the flowers. More horses' legs have been worn out, more coachmen's lives consumed, more hours of sound afternoon time vainly lavished than served to win us the battle of Waterloo, and pay for it into the bargain. The little demons are the source of as many reprieves, calamities, and anxieties as the battle itself. Sometimes Mrs. Bonham has just gone out; at others she is at home. But, even if the cards should be superseded, which seems unlikely, there are unruly powers blowing life into storms, disordering sedulous mornings, and uprooting the stability of the afternoon—dressmakers, that is to say, and confectioners' shops. Six yards of silk will cover one body; but if you have to devise six hundred shapes for it, and twice as many colours?—in the middle of which there is the urgent question of the pudding with tufts of green cream and battlements of almond paste. It has not arrived.
The flamingo hours fluttered softly through the sky. But regularly they dipped their wings in pitch black; Notting Hill, for instance, or the purlieus of Clerkenwell. No wonder that Italian remained a hidden art, and the piano always played the same sonata. In order to buy one pair of elastic stockings for Mrs. Page, widow, aged sixty-three, in receipt of five shillings out-door relief, and help from her only son employed in Messrs. Mackie's dye-works, suffering in winter with his chest, letters must be written, columns filled up in the same round, simple hand that wrote in Mr. Letts's diary how the weather was fine, the children demons, and Jacob Flanders unworldly. Clara Durrant procured the stockings, played the sonata, filled the vases, fetched the pudding, left the cards, and when the great invention of paper flowers to swim in finger-bowls was discovered, was one of those who most marvelled at their brief lives.
Nor were there wanting poets to celebrate the theme. Edwin Mallett, for example, wrote his verses ending:
/* And read their doom in Chloe's eyes, */
which caused Clara to blush at the first reading, and to laugh at the second, saying that it was just like him to call her Chloe when her name was Clara. Ridiculous young man! But when, between ten and eleven on a rainy morning, Edwin Mallett laid his life at her feet she ran out of the room and hid herself in her bedroom, and Timothy below could not get on with his work all that morning on account of her sobs.
"Which is the result of enjoying yourself," said Mrs. Durrant severely, surveying the dance programme all scored with the same initials, or rather they were different ones this time—R.B. instead of E.M.; Richard Bonamy it was now, the young man with the Wellington nose.
"But I could never marry a man with a nose like that," said Clara.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Durrant.
"But I am too severe," she thought to herself. For Clara, losing all vivacity, tore up her dance programme and threw it in the fender.
Such were the very serious consequences of the invention of paper flowers to swim in bowls.
"Please," said Julia Eliot, taking up her position by the curtain almost opposite the door, "don't introduce me. I like to look on. The amusing thing," she went on, addressing Mr. Salvin, who, owing to his lameness, was accommodated with a chair, "the amusing thing about a party is to watch the people—coming and going, coming and going."
"Last time we met," said Mr. Salvin, "was at the Farquhars. Poor lady! She has much to put up with."
"Doesn't she look charming?" exclaimed Miss Eliot, as Clara Durrant passed them.
"And which of them…?" asked Mr. Salvin, dropping his voice and speaking in quizzical tones.
"There are so many …" Miss Eliot replied. Three young men stood at the doorway looking about for their hostess.
"You don't remember Elizabeth as I do," said Mr. Salvin, "dancing Highland reels at Banchorie. Clara lacks her mother's spirit. Clara is a little pale."
"What different people one sees here!" said Miss Eliot.
"Happily we are not governed by the evening papers," said Mr. Salvin.
"I never read them," said Miss Eliot. "I know nothing about politics," she added.
"The piano is in tune," said Clara, passing them, "but we may have to ask some one to move it for us."
"Are they going to dance?" asked Mr. Salvin.
"Nobody shall disturb you," said Mrs. Durrant peremptorily as she passed.
"Julia Eliot. It IS Julia Eliot!" said old Lady Hibbert, holding out both her hands. "And Mr. Salvin. What is going to happen to us, Mr. Salvin? With all my experience of English politics—My dear, I was thinking of your father last night—one of my oldest friends, Mr. Salvin. Never tell me that girls often are incapable of love! I had all Shakespeare by heart before I was in my teens, Mr. Salvin!"
"You don't say so," said Mr. Salvin.
"But I do," said Lady Hibbert.
"Oh, Mr. Salvin, I'm so sorry…."
"I will remove myself if you'll kindly lend me a hand," said Mr. Salvin.
"You shall sit by my mother," said Clara. "Everybody seems to come in here…. Mr. Calthorp, let me introduce you to Miss Edwards."
"Are you going away for Christmas?" said Mr. Calthorp.
"If my brother gets his leave," said Miss Edwards.
"What regiment is he in?" said Mr. Calthorp.
"The Twentieth Hussars," said Miss Edwards.
"Perhaps he knows my brother?" said Mr. Calthorp.
"I am afraid I did not catch your name," said Miss Edwards.
"Calthorp," said Mr. Calthorp.
"But what proof was there that the marriage service was actually performed?" said Mr. Crosby.
"There is no reason to doubt that Charles James Fox …" Mr. Burley began; but here Mrs. Stretton told him that she knew his sister well; had stayed with her not six weeks ago; and thought the house charming, but bleak in winter.
"Going about as girls do nowadays—" said Mrs. Forster.
Mr. Bowley looked round him, and catching sight of Rose Shaw moved towards her, threw out his hands, and exclaimed: "Well!"
"Nothing!" she replied. "Nothing at all—though I left them alone the entire afternoon on purpose."
"Dear me, dear me," said Mr. Bowley. "I will ask Jimmy to breakfast."
"But who could resist her?" cried Rose Shaw. "Dearest Clara—I know we mustn't try to stop you…"
"You and Mr. Bowley are talking dreadful gossip, I know," said Clara.
"Life is wicked—life is detestable!" cried Rose Shaw.
"There's not much to be said for this sort of thing, is there?" said Timothy Durrant to Jacob.
"Women like it."
"Like what?" said Charlotte Wilding, coming up to them.
"Where have you come from?" said Timothy. "Dining somewhere, I suppose."
"I don't see why not," said Charlotte.
"People must go downstairs," said Clara, passing. "Take Charlotte, Timothy. How d'you do, Mr. Flanders."
"How d'you do, Mr. Flanders," said Julia Eliot, holding out her hand. "What's been happening to you?"
/* "Who is Silvia? what is she? That all our swains commend her?" */
sang Elsbeth Siddons.
Every one stood where they were, or sat down if a chair was empty.
"Ah," sighed Clara, who stood beside Jacob, half-way through.
/* "Then to Silvia let us sing, That Silvia is excelling; She excels each mortal thing Upon the dull earth dwelling. To her let us garlands bring," */
sang Elsbeth Siddons.
"Ah!" Clara exclaimed out loud, and clapped her gloved hands; and Jacob clapped his bare ones; and then she moved forward and directed people to come in from the doorway.
"You are living in London?" asked Miss Julia Eliot.
"Yes," said Jacob.
"There is Mr. Clutterbuck. You always see Mr. Clutterbuck here. He is not very happy at home, I am afraid. They say that Mrs. Clutterbuck …" she dropped her voice. "That's why he stays with the Durrants. Were you there when they acted Mr. Wortley's play? Oh, no, of course not—at the last moment, did you hear—you had to go to join your mother, I remember, at Harrogate—At the last moment, as I was saying, just as everything was ready, the clothes finished and everything—Now Elsbeth is going to sing again. Clara is playing her accompaniment or turning over for Mr. Carter, I think. No, Mr. Carter is playing by himself—This is BACH," she whispered, as Mr. Carter played the first bars.
"Are you fond of music?" said Mr. Durrant.
"Yes. I like hearing it," said Jacob. "I know nothing about it."
"Very few people do that," said Mrs. Durrant. "I daresay you were never taught. Why is that, Sir Jasper?—Sir Jasper Bigham—Mr. Flanders. Why is nobody taught anything that they ought to know, Sir Jasper?" She left them standing against the wall.
Neither of the gentlemen said anything for three minutes, though Jacob shifted perhaps five inches to the left, and then as many to the right. Then Jacob grunted, and suddenly crossed the room.
"Will you come and have something to eat?" he said to Clara Durrant.
"Yes, an ice. Quickly. Now," she said.
Downstairs they went.
But half-way down they met Mr. and Mrs. Gresham, Herbert Turner, Sylvia Rashleigh, and a friend, whom they had dared to bring, from America, "knowing that Mrs. Durrant—wishing to show Mr. Pilcher.—Mr. Pilcher from New York—This is Miss Durrant."
"Whom I have heard so much of," said Mr. Pilcher, bowing low.
So Clara left him.