"Your lordship's dinner is served," announced the groom of the chambers to Lord de Mowbray; and the noble lord led out Lady Marney. The rest followed. Egremont found himself seated next to Lady Maud Fitz-Warene, the younger daughter of the earl. Nearly opposite to him was Lady Joan.
The ladies Fitz-Warene were sandy girls, somewhat tall, with rather good figures and a grand air; the eldest very ugly, the second rather pretty; and yet both very much alike. They had both great conversational powers, though in different ways. Lady Joan was doctrinal; Lady Maud inquisitive: the first often imparted information which you did not previously possess; the other suggested ideas which were often before in your own mind, but lay tranquil and unobserved, till called into life and notice by her fanciful and vivacious tongue. Both of them were endowed with a very remarkable self-possession; but Lady Joan wanted softness, and Lady Maud repose.
This was the result of the rapid observation of Egremont, who was however experienced in the world and quick in his detection of manner and of character.
The dinner was stately, as becomes the high nobility. There were many guests, yet the table seemed only a gorgeous spot in the capacious chamber. The side tables were laden with silver vases and golden shields arranged on shelves of crimson velvet. The walls were covered with Fitz-Warenes, De Mowbrays, and De Veres. The attendants glided about without noise, and with the precision of military discipline. They watched your wants, they anticipated your wishes, and they supplied all you desired with a lofty air of pompous devotion.
"You came by the railroad?" enquired Lord de Mowbray mournfully, of Lady Marney.
"From Marham; about ten miles from us," replied her ladyship.
"A great revolution!"
"I fear it has a very dangerous tendency to equality," said his lordship shaking his head; "I suppose Lord Marney gives them all the opposition in his power."
"There is nobody so violent against railroads as George," said Lady Marney; "I cannot tell you what he does not do! He organized the whole of our division against the Marham line!"
"I rather counted on him," said Lord de Mowbray, "to assist me in resisting this joint branch here; but I was surprised to learn he had consented."
"Not until the compensation was settled," innocently remarked Lady Marney; "George never opposes them after that. He gave up all opposition to the Marham line when they agreed to his terms."
"And yet," said Lord de Mowbray, "I think if Lord Marney would take a different view of the case and look to the moral consequences, he would hesitate. Equality, Lady Marney, equality is not our metier. If we nobles do not make a stand against the levelling spirit of the age, I am at a loss to know who will fight the battle. You many depend upon it that these railroads are very dangerous things."
"I have no doubt of it. I suppose you have heard of Lady Vanilla's trip from Birmingham? Have you not, indeed! She came up with Lady Laura, and two of the most gentlemanlike men sitting opposite her; never met, she says, two more intelligent men. She begged one of them at Wolverhampton to change seats with her, and he was most politely willing to comply with her wishes, only it was necessary that his companion should move at the same time, for they were chained together! Two of the swell mob, sent to town for picking a pocket at Shrewsbury races."
"A countess and a felon! So much for public conveyances," said Lord Mowbray. "But Lady Vanilla is one of those who will talk with everybody."
"She is very amusing though," said Lady Marney.
"I dare say she is," said Lord de Mowbray; "but believe me, my dear Lady Marney, in these times especially, a countess has something else to do than be amusing."
"You think as property has its duties as well as its rights, rank has its bores as well as its pleasures."
Lord Mowbray mused.
"How do you do, Mr Jermyn?" said a lively little lady with sparkling beady black eyes, and a very yellow complexion, though with good features; "when did you arrive in the North? I have been fighting your battles finely since I saw you," she added shaking her head, rather with an expression of admonition than of sympathy.
"You are always fighting one's battles Lady Firebrace; it is very kind of you. If it were not for you, we should none of us know how much we are all abused," replied Mr Jermyn, a young M.P.
"They say you gave the most radical pledges," said Lady Firebrace eagerly, and not without malice. "I heard Lord Muddlebrains say that if he had had the least idea of your principles, you would not have had his influence."
"Muddlebrains can't command a single vote," said Mr Jermyn. "He is a political humbug, the greatest of all humbugs; a man who swaggers about London clubs and consults solemnly about his influence, and in the country is a nonentity."
"Well, that can't be said of Lord Clarinel," rejoined Lady Firebrace.
"And have you been defending me against Lord Clarinel's attacks?" inquired Mr Jermyn.
"No; but I am going to Wemsbury, and then I have no doubt I shall have the opportunity."
"I am going to Wemsbury myself," said Mr Jermyn.
"And what does Lord Clarinel think of your pledge about the pension list?" said Lady Firebrace daunted but malignant.
"He never told me," said Mr Jermyn.
"I believe you did not pledge yourself to the ballot?" inquired Lady Firebrace with an affected air of inquisitiveness.
"It is a subject that requires some reflection," said Mr Jermyn. "I must consult some profound politician like Lady Firebrace. By the bye, you told my mother that the conservatives would have a majority of fifteen. Do you think they will have as much?" said Mr Jermyn with an innocent air, it now being notorious that the whig administration had a majority of double that amount.
"I said Mr Tadpole gave us a majority of fifteen," said Lady Firebrace. "I knew he was in error; because I had happened to see Lord Melbourne's own list, made up to the last hour; and which gave the government a majority of sixty. It was only shown to three members of the cabinet," she added in a tone of triumphant mystery.
Lady Firebrace, a great stateswoman among the tories, was proud of an admirer who was a member of the whig cabinet. She was rather an agreeable guest in a country-house, with her extensive correspondence, and her bulletins from both sides. Tadpole flattered by her notice, and charmed with female society that talked his own slang, and entered with affected enthusiasm into all his dirty plots and barren machinations, was vigilant in his communications; while her whig cavalier, an easy individual who always made love by talking or writing politics, abandoned himself without reserve, and instructed Lady Firebrace regularly after every council. Taper looked grave at this connection between Tadpole and Lady Firebrace; and whenever an election was lost, or a division stuck in the mud, he gave the cue with a nod and a monosyllable, and the conservative pack that infests clubs, chattering on subjects of which it is impossible they can know anything, instantly began barking and yelping, denouncing traitors, and wondering how the leaders could be so led by the nose, and not see that which was flagrant to the whole world. If, on the other hand, the advantage seemed to go with the Canton Club, or the opposition benches, then it was the whig and liberal hounds who howled and moaned, explaining everything by the indiscretion, infatuation, treason, of Lord Viscount Masque, and appealing to the initiated world of idiots around them, whether any party could ever succeed, hampered by such men, and influenced by such means.
The best of the joke was, that all this time Lord Masque and Tadpole were two old foxes, neither of whom conveyed to Lady Firebrace a single circumstance but with the wish, intention, and malice aforethought, that it should be communicated to his rival.
"I must get you to interest Lord de Mowbray in our cause," said Sir Vavasour Firebrace, in an insinuating voice to his neighbour, Lady Joan; "I have sent him a large packet of documents. You know, he is one of us; still one of us. Once a baronet, always a baronet. The dignity merges, but does not cease; and happy as I am to see one covered with high honours, who is in every way so worthy of them, still I confess to you it is not so much as Earl de Mowbray that your worthy father interests me, as in his undoubted character and capacity of Sir Altamont Fitz-Warene, baronet."
"You have the data on which you move I suppose well digested," said Lady Joan, attentive but not interested.
"The case is clear; as far as equity is concerned, irresistible; indeed the late king pledged himself to a certain point. But if you would do me the favour of reading our memorial."
"The proposition is not one adapted to our present civilisation," said Lady Joan. "A baronetcy has become the distinction of the middle class; a physician, our physician for example, is a baronet; and I dare say some of our tradesmen; brewers, of people of that class. An attempt to elevate them into an order of nobility, however inferior, would partake in some degree of the ridiculous."
"And has the duke escaped his gout this year?" enquired Lord Marney of Lady de Mowbray.
"A very slight touch; I never knew my father so well. I expect you will meet him here. We look for him daily."
"I shall be delighted; I hope he will come to Marney in October. I keep the blue ribbon cover for him."
"What you suggest is very just," said Egremont to Lady Maud. "If we only in our own spheres made the exertion, the general effect would be great. Marney Abbey, for instance, I believe one of the finest of our monastic remains,—that indeed is not disputed—diminished yearly to repair barns; the cattle browsing in the nave; all this might be prevented, If my brother would not consent to preserve or to restore, still any member of the family, even I, without expense, only with a little zeal as you say, might prevent mischief, might stop at least demolition."
"If this movement in the church had only revived a taste for Christian architecture," said Lady Maud, "it would not have been barren, and it has done so much more! But I am surprised that old families can be so dead to our national art; so full of our ancestors, their exploits, their mind. Indeed you and I have no excuse for such indifference Mr Egremont."
"And I do not think I shall ever again be justly accused of it," replied Egremont, "you plead its cause so effectively. But to tell you the truth, I have been thinking of late about these things; monasteries and so on; the influence of the old church system on the happiness and comfort of the People."
"And on the tone of the Nobles—do not you think so?" said Lady Maud. "I know it is the fashion to deride the crusades, but do not you think they had their origin in a great impulse, and in a certain sense, led to great results? Pardon me, if I speak with emphasis, but I never can forget I am a daughter of the first crusaders."
"The tone of society is certainly lower than of yore," said Egremont. "It is easy to say we view the past through a fallacious medium. We have however ample evidence that men feel less deeply than of old and act with less devotion. But how far is this occasioned by the modern position of our church? That is the question."
"You must speak to Mr St Lys about that," said Lady Maud. "Do you know him?" she added in a lowered tone.
"No; is he here?"
"Next to mamma."
And looking in that direction, on the left hand of Lady Mowbray, Egremont beheld a gentleman in the last year of his youth, if youth according to the scale of Hippocrates cease at thirty-five. He was distinguished by that beauty of the noble English blood, of which in these days few types remain; the Norman tempered by the Saxon; the fire of conquest softened by integrity; and a serene, though inflexible habit of mind. The chains of convention, an external life grown out of all proportion with that of the heart and mind, have destroyed this dignified beauty. There is no longer in fact an aristocracy in England, for the superiority of the animal man is an essential quality of aristocracy. But that it once existed, any collection of portraits from the sixteenth century will show.
Aubrey St Lys was a younger son of the most ancient Norman family in England. The Conqueror had given them the moderate estate on which they now lived, and which, in spite of so many civil conflicts and religious changes, they had handed down to each other, from generation to generation, for eight centuries. Aubrey St Lys was the vicar of Mowbray. He had been the college tutor of the late Lord Fitz-Warene, whose mind he had formed, whose bright abilities he had cultivated, who adored him. To that connection he owed the slight preferment which he possessed, but which was all he desired. A bishopric would not have tempted him from his peculiar charge.
In the centre of the town of Mowbray teeming with its toiling thousands, there rose a building which might vie with many of the cathedrals of our land. Beautiful its solemn towers, its sculptured western front; beautiful its columned aisles and lofty nave; its sparkling shrine and delicate chantry; most beautiful the streaming glories of its vast orient light!
This magnificent temple, built by the monks of Mowbray, and once connected with their famous house of which not a trace now remained, had in time become the parish church of an obscure village, whose population could not have filled one of its side chapels. These strange vicissitudes of ecclesiastical buildings are not singular in the north of England.
Mowbray Church remained for centuries the wonder of passing peasants, and the glory of county histories. But there is a magic in beautiful buildings which exercises an irresistible influence over the mind of man. One of the reasons urged for the destruction of the monasteries after the dispersion of their inhabitants, was the pernicious influence of their solemn and stately forms on the memories and imagination of those that beheld them. It was impossible to connect systematic crime with the creators of such divine fabrics. And so it was with Mowbray Church. When manufactures were introduced into this district, which abounded with all the qualities which were necessary for their successful pursuit, Mowbray offering equal though not superior advantages to other positions, was accorded the preference, "because it possessed such a beautiful church." The lingering genius of the monks of Mowbray hovered round the spot which they had adorned, and sanctified, and loved; and thus they had indirectly become the authors of its present greatness and prosperity.
Unhappily for a long season the vicars of Mowbray had been little conscious of their mission. An immense population gathered round the sacred citadel and gradually spread on all sides of it for miles. But the parish church for a long time remained the only one at Mowbray when the population of the town exceeded that of some European capitals. And even in the parish church the frigid spell of Erastian self-complacency fatally prevailed. A scanty congregation gathered together for form, and as much influenced by party as higher sentiments. Going to church was held more genteel than going to meeting. The principal tradesmen of the neighbouring great houses deemed it more "aristocratic;" using a favourite and hackneyed epithet which only expressed their own servility. About the time the Church Commission issued, the congregation of Mowbray was approaching zero. There was an idea afloat for a time of making it the seat of a new bishopric; the cathedral was ready; another instance of the influence of fine art. But there was no residence for the projected prelate, and a jobbing bishop on the commission was afraid that he might have to contribute to building one. So the idea died away; and the living having become vacant at this moment, instead of a bishop, Mowbray received a humble vicar in the shape of Aubrey St Lys, who came among a hundred thousand heathens to preach "the Unknown God."