A LITTLE DINNER

There was a very pleasant party that evening at Brownlows–the sort of
thing of which people say, that it is not a party at all, you know, only
ourselves and the Hardcastles, or whoever else it may happen to be.
There was the clergyman of the parish, of course–who is always, if he
happens to be at all agreeable, the very man for such little friendly
dinners; and there was his daughter; for he was a widower, like Mr.
Brownlow–and his Fanny was half as much to him, to say the least, as
Sara was to her admiring father. And there was just one guest
besides–young Keppel, to wit, the son of old Keppel of Ridley, and
brother of the present Mr. Keppel–a young fellow who was not just
precisely what is called _eligible_, so far as the young ladies were
concerned, but who did very well for all secondary purposes, and was a
barrister with hopes of briefs, and a flying connection with literature,
which helped him to keep his affairs in order, and was rather of service
to him than otherwise in society, as it sometimes is to a perfectly
well-connected young man. Thus there were two girls and two young men,
and two seniors to keep each other company; and there was a great deal
of talk and very pleasant intercourse, enough to justify the rector in
his enthusiastic utterance of his favorite sentiment, that this was true
society, and that he did not know what people meant by giving dinners at
which there were more than six. Mr. Hardcastle occasionally, it is true,
expressed under other circumstances opinions which might be supposed a
little at variance with this one; but then a man can not always be in
the same mind, and no doubt he was quite sincere in what he said. He was
a sort of man that exists, but is not produced now-a-days. He was
neither High Church nor Low Church, so to speak. If you had offered to
confess your sins to him he would have regarded you with as much terror
and alarm as if you had presented a pistol at his head; and if you had
attempted to confess your virtues under the form of spiritual
experience, he would have turned from you with disgust. Neither was he
in the least freethinking, but a most correct orthodox clergyman, a kind
of man, as I have said, not much produced in these times. Besides this
indefinite clerical character he had a character of his own, which was
not at all indefinite. He was a little red-faced, and sometimes almost
jovial in his gayety, and at the same time he was in possession of a
large stock of personal griefs and losses, which had cost him many true
tears and heartaches, poor man, but which were very useful to him in the
way of his profession. And he had an easy way of turning from the one
phase of life to the other, which had a curious effect sometimes upon
impartial spectators. But all the same it was perfectly true and
genuine. He made himself very agreeable that night at Brownlows, and was
full of jest and frolic; but if he had been called to see somebody in
trouble as he went home, he would have gone in and drawn forth from his
own private stores of past pain, and manifested plainly to the present
sufferer that he himself had suffered more bitterly still. He had “come
through” all the pangs that a man can suffer in this world. He had lost
his wife and his children, till nothing was left to him but this one
little Fanny–and he loved to open his closed-up chambers to your eyes,
and to meet your pitiful looks and faltering attempt at consolation; and
yet at the same time you would find him very jolly in the evening at Mr.
Brownlow’s, which hurt the feelings of some sensitive people. His
daughter, little Fanny, was pretty and nice, and nothing particular,
which suited her position and prospects perfectly well. These were the
two principal guests, young Keppel being only a man, as ladies who are
in the habit of giving dinners are wont to describe such floating
members of the community. And they all talked and made themselves
pleasant, and it was as pretty and as lively a little party as you could
well have seen. Quantities of flowers and lights, two very pretty girls,
and two good-looking young men, were enough to guarantee its being a
very pretty scene; and nobody was afraid of any body, and every body
could talk, and did so, which answered for the latter part of the
description. Such little parties were very frequent at Brownlows.

After dinner the two girls had a little talk by themselves. They came
floating into the great drawing-room with those heaps of white drapery
about them which make up for any thing that may be intrinsically
unamiable[A] in crinoline. Before they went up stairs, making it ready
for them, a noble fire, all red, clear, and glowing, was in the room,
and made it glorious; and the pretty things which glittered and reddened
and softened in the bright warm atmosphere were countless.

[A] If there _is_ anything; most of us think there is not. If the
unthinking male creatures who abuse it only knew the comfort of it!
and what a weariness it saves us! and as for the people who are burnt,
it is not because of their crinolines, but because of losing their
heads–a calamity to which in all kinds of dresses we are constantly
liable.

There was a bouquet of violets on the table, which was Mr. Pitt the
gardener’s daily quit-rent to Sara for all the honors and emoluments of
his situation, so that every kind of ethereal sense was satisfied. Fanny
Hardcastle dropped into a very low chair at one side of the fire, where
she sat like a swan with her head and throat rising out of the white
billowy waves which covered yards of space round about her. Sara, who
was at home, drew a stool in front of the fire, and sat down there,
heaping up in her turn snow-wreaths upon the rosy hearth. A sudden spark
might have swallowed them both in fiery destruction. But the spark
happily did not come; and they had their talk in great comfort and
content. They touched upon a great many topics, skimming over them, and
paying very little heed to logical sequences. And at last they stumbled
into metaphysics, and had a curious little dive into the subject of love
and love-making, as was not unnatural. It is to be regretted, however,
that neither of these young women had very exalted ideas on this point.
They were both girls of their period, who recognized the necessity of
marriage, and that it was something likely to befall both of them, but
had no exaggerated notions of its importance; and, indeed, so far from
being utterly absorbed in the anticipation of it, were both far from
clear whether they believed in such a thing as love.

“I don’t think one ever could be so silly as they say in books,” said
Fanny Hardcastle, “unless one was a great fool–feeling as if every
thing was changed, you know, as soon as _he_ was out of the room, and
feeling one’s heart beat when he was coming, and all that stuff; I don’t
believe it Sara; do you?”

“I don’t know,” said Sara, making a screen of her pretty laced
handkerchief to protect her face from the firelight; “perhaps it is
because one has never seen the right sort of man. The only man I have
ever seen whom one could really love is papa.”

“Papa!” echoed Fanny, faintly, and with surprise. Perhaps, after all,
she had a lingering faith in ordinary delusions; at all events, there
was nothing heroic connected in her mind with papas in general; and she
could but sit still and gaze and wonder what next the spoiled child
would say.

“I wonder if mamma was very fond of him,” said Sara, meditatively. “She
ought to have been, but I dare say she never knew him half as well as I
do. That is the dreadful thing. You have to marry them before you know.”

“Oh, Sara, don’t you believe in love at first sight?” said Fanny,
forgetting her previously expressed sentiments. “I do.”

Sara threw up her drooping head into the air with a little impatient
motion. “I don’t think I believe any thing about it,” she said.

“And yet there was once somebody that was fond of you,” said little
Fanny breathlessly. “Poor Harry Mansfield, who was so nice–every body
knows about that–and, I do think, Mr. Keppel, if you would not be so
saucy to him–”

“Mr. Keppel!” exclaimed Sara, with some scorn. “But I will tell you
plainly what I mean to do. Mind it is in confidence between us two. You
must never tell it to any body. I have made up my mind to marry whoever
papa wishes me to marry–I don’t mind who it is. I shall do whatever he
says.”

“Oh, Sara!” said her young companion, with open eyes and mouth, “you
will never go so far as that.”

“Oh yes, I will,” said Sara, with calm assurance. “He would not ask me
to have any body very old or very hideous; and if he lets it alone I
shall never leave him at all, but stay still here.”

“That might be all very well for a time,” said the prudent Fanny; “but
you would get old, and you couldn’t stay here forever. That is what I am
afraid of. Things get so dull when one is old.”

“Do you think so?” said Sara. “I don’t think I should be dull–I have so
many things to do.”

“Oh, you are the luckiest girl in the whole world,” said Fanny
Hardcastle, with a little sigh. She, for her own part, would not have
despised the reversion of Mr. Keppel, and would have been charmed with
Jack Brownlow. But such blessings were not for her. She was in no hurry
about it; but still, as even now it was dull occasionally at the
rectory, she could not but feel that when she was old–say,
seven-and-twenty or so–it would be duller still; and if accordingly, in
the mean time, somebody “nice” would turn up–Fanny’s thoughts went no
farther than this. And as for Sara, she has already laid her own views
on the subject before her friends.

It was just then that Jack Brownlow, leaving the dining-room, invited
young Keppel to the great hall door to see what sort of a night it was.
“It looked awfully like frost,” Jack said; and they both went with
serious countenances to look out, for the hounds were to meet next day.

“Smoke! not when we are going back to the ladies,” said Keppel, with a
reluctance which went far to prove the inclination which Fanny
Hardcastle had read in his eyes.

“Put yourself into this overcoat,” said Jack, “and I’ll take you to my
room, and perfume you after. The girls don’t mind.”

“Your sister must mind, I am sure,” said Keppel. “One can’t think of any
coarse sort of gratification like this–I suppose it is a
gratification–in her presence.”

“Hum,” said Jack; “I have her presence every day, you know, and it does
not fill me with awe.”

“It is all very easy for you,” said Keppel, as they went down the steps
into the cold and darkness. Poor fellow! he had been a little thrown off
his balance by the semi-intimacy and close contact of the little dinner.
He had sat by Sara’s side, and he had lost his head. He went along by
Jack’s side rather disconsolate, and not even attempting to light his
cigar. “You don’t know how well off you are,” he said, in touching
tones, “whereas another fellow would give his head–”

“Most fellows I know want their heads for their own affairs,” said the
unfeeling Jack. “Don’t be an ass; you may talk nonsense as much as you
like, but you know you never could be such an idiot as to marry at your
age.”

“Marry!” said Keppel, a little startled, and then he breathed forth a
profound sigh. “If I had the ghost of a chance,” he said, and stopped
short, as if despair choked farther utterance. As for Jack Brownlow, he
was destitute of sensibility, as indeed was suitable to his trade.

“I shouldn’t say you had in this case,” he said, in his imperturbable
way; “and all the better for you. You’ve got to make your way in the
world like the rest of us, and I don’t think you’re the sort of fellow
to hang on to a girl with money. It’s all very well after a bit, when
you’ve made your way; but no fellow with the least respect for himself
should think of such a thing before, say five-and-thirty; unless, of
course, he is a duke, and has a great family to keep up.”

“I hope you’ll keep to your own standard,” said Keppel, with a little
bitterness, “unless you think an only son and a duke on equal ground.”

“Don’t sneer,” said Jack; “I’m young Brownlow the attorney; you know
that as well as I do. I can’t go visiting all over the country at my
uncle’s place and my cousin’s place, like you. Brownlows is a sort of a
joke to most people, you know. Not that I haven’t as much respect for my
father and my family as if we were all princes; and I mean to stand by
my order. If I ever marry it will be twenty years hence, when I can
afford it; and you can’t afford it any more than I can. A fellow might
love a woman and give up a great deal for her,” Jack added with a little
excitement; “but, by Jove! I don’t think he would be justified in giving
up his life.”

“It depends on what you call life,” said Keppel. “I suppose you mean
society and that sort of thing–a few stupid parties and club gossip,
and worse.”

“I don’t mean any thing of the sort,” said Jack, tossing away his cigar;
“I mean working out your own career, and making your way. When a fellow
goes and marries and settles down, and cuts off all his chances, what
use is his youth and his strength to him? It would be hard upon a poor
girl to be expected to make up for all that.”

“I did not know you were such a philosopher, Jack,” said his companion,
“nor so ambitious; but I suppose you’re right in a cold-blooded sort of
way. Anyhow; if I were that duke–”

“You’d make an ass of yourself,” said young Brownlow; and then the two
congratulated each other that the skies were clouding over, and the
dreaded frost dispersing into drizzle, and went in and took off their
smoking coats, and wasted a flask of eau-de-cologne, and went up stairs;
where there was an end of all philosophy, at least for that night.

And the seniors sat over their wine, drinking little, notwithstanding
Mr. Hardcastle’s ruddy countenance, which was due rather to fresh air,
taken in large and sometimes boisterous drafts, than to any stronger
beverage. But they liked their talk, and they were, in a friendly way,
opposed to each other on a great many questions; the rector, as in duty
bound, being steadily conservative, while the lawyer had crotchets in
political matters. They were discussing the representatives of the
county, and also those of some of the neighboring boroughs, which was
probably the reason why Mr. Hardcastle gave a personal turn to the
conversation as he suddenly did.

“If you will not stand for the borough yourself, you ought to put
forward Jack,” said the rector. “I think he is sounder than you are. The
best sign I know of the country is that all the young fellows are
tories, Brownlow. Ah! you may shake your head, but I have it on the
best authority. Sir Robert would support him, of course; and with your
influence at Masterton–”

“Jack must stick to his business,” said Mr. Brownlow; “neither he nor I
have time for politics. Besides, we are not the sort of people–county
families, you know.”

“Oh, bother county families!” said Mr. Hardcastle. “You know there is
not another place in the county kept up like Brownlows. If you will not
stand yourself, you ought to push forward your boy.”

“It is out of my way,” said Mr. Brownlow, shaking his head, and then a
momentary smile passed over his face. It had occurred to him, by means
of a trick of thought he had got into unawares–if Sara could but do it!
and then he smiled at himself. Even while he did so, the recollection of
his disturbed day returned to him; and though he was a lawyer and a
self-contained man, and not given to confidences, still something moved
in his heart and compelled him, as it were, to speak.

“Besides,” he went on, “we are only here on sufferance. You know all
about my circumstances–every body in Dartfordshire does, I believe; and
Phœbe Thomson may turn up any day and make her claim.”

“Nonsense,” said the rector; but there was something in John Brownlow’s
look which made him feel that it was not altogether nonsense. “But even
if she were to turn up,” he added, after a pause, “I suppose it would
not ruin you to pay her her fifty thousand pounds.”

“No, that is true enough,” said Mr. Brownlow. It was a kind of ease to
him to give this hint that he was still human and fallible, and might
have losses to undergo; but the same instinct which made him speak
closed his lips as to any more disastrous consequences than the loss of
the original legacy. “Sara will have some tea for us up stairs,” he
said, after a pause. And then the two fathers went up to the
drawing-room in their turn, and nothing could be more cheerful than the
rest of the evening, though there were a good many thoughts and
speculations of various kinds going on under this lively flood of talk,
as may be perceived.