LOVE ROMANCES OF THE ARISTOCRACY
THORNTON HALL, F.S.A.
AUTHOR OF "LOVE INTRIGUES OF ROYAL COURTS," ETC. ETC.
T. WERNER LAURIE
MRS TOM HESKETH
L'amitie est l'amour sans ailes
My object in writing this book has been to present as many phases as possible of the strangely romantic story of the British Peerage, so that those who have not the time or facilities for exploring the library of books over which these stories are scattered, may be able, within the compass of a single volume, to review the panorama of our aristocracy, with its tragedy and comedy, its romance and pathos, its foibles and its follies, in a few hours of what I sincerely hope will prove agreeable reading. If my book gives to any reader a fraction of the pleasure I have derived from its writing, I shall be more than rewarded for a labour which has been to me a delight.
As love plays a prominent part in at least twenty of these stones, and is only really absent from one or two of them, I venture to hope that my good friends, the reviewers, who have been so kind to my previous books, will not find fault with my title, which, more accurately than any other I can think of, describes the nature and scope of my book.
CHAP. PAGE I. A PRINCESS OF PRUDES 1 II. THE NIGHTINGALE OF BATH 21 III. THE ROMANCE OF THE VILLIERS 36 IV. THE STAIN ON THE SHIRLEY 'SCUTCHEON 51 V. A GHOSTLY VISITANT 62 VI. A MESSALINA OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY 74 VII. A PROFLIGATE PRINCE 87 VIII. THE GORGEOUS COUNTESS 96 IX. A QUEEN OF COQUETTES 110 X. THE ADVENTURES OF A VISCOUNT'S DAUGHTER 127 XI. A SIXTEENTH CENTURY ELOPEMENT 136 XII. TRAGEDIES OF THE TURF 148 XIII. THE WICKED BARON 165 XIV. A FAIR INTRIGANTE 177 XV. THE MERRY DUCHESS 195 XVI. THE KING AND THE PRETTY HAYMAKER 207 XVII. THE COUNTESS WHO MARRIED HER GROOM 222 XVIII. A NOBLE VAGABOND 231 XIX. FOOTLIGHTS AND CORONETS 243 XX. A PEASANT COUNTESS 256 XXI. THE FAVOURITE OF A QUEEN 266 XXII. TWO IRISH BEAUTIES 282 XXIII. THE MYSTERIOUS TWINS 298 XXIV. THE MAYPOLE DUCHESS 316 XXV. THE ROMANCE OF FAMILY TREES 326
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
ELIZABETH, DUCHESS OF HAMILTON Frontispiece FRANCES, DUCHESS OF RICHMOND to face page 18 MARGUERITE, COUNTESS OF BLESSINGTON 98 SARAH, DUCHESS OF MARLBOROUGH 110 LOUISE, DUCHESS OF PORTSMOUTH 184 HARRIET, DUCHESS OF ST ALBANS 252 ROBERT DUDLEY, EARL OF LEICESTER 266 MARIA, COUNTESS OF COVENTRY 288
LOVE ROMANCES OF THE ARISTOCRACY.
A PRINCESS OF PRUDES
Among the many fair and frail women who fed the flames of the "Merrie Monarch's" passion from the first day of his restoration to that last day, but one short week before his death, when Evelyn saw him "sitting and toying with his concubines," there was, it is said, only one of them all who really captured his royal and wayward heart, that loveliest, simplest, and most designing of prudes, La belle Stuart.
When Barbara Villiers was enslaving Charles by her opulent charms, the queen of his many mistresses, Frances Stuart was growing to beautiful girlhood, an exile at the French Court, with no dream or care of her future conquest of a king. Her father, a son of Lord Blantyre, had carried his death-dealing sword through many a fight for the first Charles, a distant kinsman of his own; and, when the Stuart sun set in blood, had made good his escape to the friendly shores of France, where he had found a fresh field for his valour.
Meanwhile his daughter was happy in the charge of the widowed Queen Henrietta Maria, who although, as Cardinal de Retz tells us, she frequently "lacked a faggot to leave her bed in the Louvre," and even a crust to stay the pangs of hunger, proved a tender foster-mother to brave Walter Stuart's child, and watched her growth to beauty with a mother's pride.
Even before she emerged from short frocks, Frances Stuart had established herself as the pet par excellence of the Court of France. With Anne of Austria the little Scottish maiden was a prime favourite; every gallant, from "Monsieur" to the rakish Comte de Guise, loved to romp with her, and to join in her peals of childish laughter; and the King himself, Louis XIV., stole many a kiss, and was proud to be called her "big sweetheart." So devoted was His Majesty to La belle Ecossaise that, when her mother talked of taking her away to England, he begged that she would not remove so fair an ornament from his Court, and vowed that he would provide the child with a splendid dower and a noble husband if she would but allow her to remain.
But Madame Stuart had other designs for her pretty daughter; and when Henrietta Maria took boat to England to shine again at the Court of Whitehall, under her son's reign, Frances Stuart joined her retinue, and found herself transported from the schoolroom to the most brilliant and dangerous court in Europe. When this transformation came in her life Walter Stuart's daughter was just blossoming into as sweet and fragrant a flower as ever bloomed in woman's guise. Fair and graceful as a lily, with luxuriant brown hair, eyes of violet, and a proud, dainty little head, she had a figure which, although yet not fully formed, was faultless in its modelling and its exquisite grace. And these physical charms were allied to an unspoiled freshness, which combined the artless fascinations of the child with the allurements of the woman.
Such was Frances Stuart when she made her appearance at the Court of Charles II. as maid-of-honour, to his Queen, Catherine; and one can scarcely wonder that, even among the most beautiful women in England, the French "Mademoiselle," as she was called, was hailed as a new revelation of female fascination, especially as she brought with her the bubbling gaiety and passionate zest of life of the land of her exile.
To the "Merrie Monarch's" senses, sated with riper beauties and more stolid charms, this unspoiled child of nature was as a wild rose compared with exotic hot-house flowers. She was, he vowed, so "dainty, so fresh, so fragrant," that none but the sourest of anchorites could resist her—and he was no anchorite, as the world knew well. Almost at sight of her he fell madly in love with her, and brought to bear on her the battery of all his fascinations. Was ever maid placed, on the threshold of life, in so dangerous a predicament? For the King, who was her first lover, was also one of the most captivating men in England, a past-master in the conquest of woman. But, in response to all his advances, his honeyed words and oglings, the Stuart maid only laughed a merry childish laugh. She would romp with him, as she had done with the gallants at the French Court; to her he was only another "big playfellow" to tease and play with. She knew nothing of love, and did not wish to know more. He might kiss her—vraiment—why not? and that Charles made abundant use of this concession, we know, for we are told that "he would kiss her for half an hour at a time," caring little who looked on.
And all her other Whitehall lovers—a legion of them, from the Duke of Buckingham to the youngest page at Court, she treated in precisely the same way. Was it innocence or artfulness, this assumption of childish prudery? "She was a child," says Count Hamilton, "in all respects save playing with dolls"—a child who refused to grow into a woman, and yet, one shrewdly suspects that behind her childishness was a motive deeper than is usually associated with so much simplicity.
She infected the whole Court with her exuberant youthfulness. Basset-tables and boudoir intrigues were alike deserted to enjoy the new era of nursery games which she inaugurated. Jaded gallants and sedate Ladies of the Bedchamber mingled their shrieks of laughter in blind-man's buff and hunt-the-slipper with the Stuart maid as Lady of Misrule and arch-spirit of jollity. Pepys was shocked—or affected to be—one day by seeing all the great and fair ones of the Court squatting on the floor in the Whitehall gallery playing at "I love my love with an A because he is Amorous"; "I hate him with a B because he is Boring," and so on; and no doubt rocking with glee at some sally of wit, for, Pepys says, "some of them were very witty."
The little madcap even carried her games and toys into the sacred environment of the Audience Chamber. Seated on the floor, innocently exposing the prettiest pair of ankles in England, and surrounded by her big playfellows, she would challenge them to a competition in castle-building with cards; and when her carefully-reared edifice toppled to the ground she would break into a silvery peal of laughter, and clap her hands for the King to come and help her to rebuild it, for no less distinguished assistant would she allow to touch her cards. And Charles never failed to respond to the summons, though he were hobnobbing with chancellor or archbishop, and would be sent away happy, with a kiss for his pains. No wonder poor Pepys was horrified at such unseemly goings-on.
And equally small wonder that the King's mistresses and the great ladies of the Court cast many a jealous and vindictive glance on the child, who had power to lure away their slaves to her nursery shrine. The Duke of Buckingham, himself, was prouder to be her favourite playfellow than of all his conquests in the field of love. He wrote songs, and sang them for her pleasure; he kept her in a ripple of laughter for hours together by his stories and clever mimicry, and rushed to her side whenever she summoned him to build card-castles or to join in a romp—until what was "play to the child" began to prove a serious matter to the man of the world. He found that, while he was building castles or chasing the elusive fairy blindfolded, she had stolen his heart away; but when he ventured to tell his love to her she boxed his ears, and told him to run away and not be so naughty again.
Was there ever so tantalising and inscrutable a maid? And as she had treated the King and his chief favourite, she treated all her other playfellows. The Earl of Arlington, a grave, dignified Lord of the Bedchamber, so far unbended as to make love to the little witch, who stood so well in the favour of his Sovereign; and never did man exert himself more to win the favour of a maid.
"Having provided himself," says Hamilton, "with a great number of maxims and some historical anecdotes, he obtained an audience of Miss Stuart, in order to display them; at the same time offering her his most humble services in the situation to which it had pleased God and her virtue to raise her. But he was only in the preface of his speech, when he reminded her so ludicrously of Buckingham's mimicry of him that she burst into a peal of laughter in his very face, and rushed stifling from the room. Thus ignominiously was sounded the death-knell of Arlington's hopes!"
George Hamilton, one of the most handsome and fascinating men in England, fared better, but retired from the pursuit of so seductive and tantalising a maid. Still Hamilton was the most congenial playfellow of them all. He was a madcap like herself, always ripe for fun and frolic; and for a time she revelled in his comradeship. He first won her heart in the following fashion. One day old Lord Carlingford was delighting and convulsing her by placing a lighted candle in his mouth, and hobbling to and fro thus illuminated. "I can do better than that," exclaimed the irrepressible Hamilton. "Give me two candles." The candles were produced. Hamilton lit them, and thrust the pair into his capacious mouth, and minced three times round the room before they were extinguished, while La belle Stuart paraded after him, clapping her hands and laughing in her glee.
Such a feat was an efficient passport to her favour. Rollicking George was at once installed as playmate-in-chief to the spoiled child, and was privileged with a greater intimacy than any of her other favourites had ever enjoyed.
"Since the Court has been in the country," he confessed, "I have had a hundred opportunities of seeing her. You know that the deshabille of the bath is a great convenience for those ladies who, strictly adhering to their rules of decorum, are yet desirous to display all their charms and attractions. Miss Stuart is so fully acquainted with the advantages she possesses over all other women, that it is hardly possible to praise any lady at Court for a well-turned arm and a fine leg, but she is ever ready to dispute the point by demonstration. After all, a man must be very insensible to remain unconcerned and unmoved on such happy occasions."
It is conceivable that Hamilton, stimulated by such, no doubt, artless encouragement as he seems to have enjoyed, might have made a conquest where so many had failed, had not his future brother-in-law, Gramont, taken him seriously to task and warned him of the grave danger of flirting with the lady on whom the King had set eyes of love, and persuaded him at the eleventh hour to beat a dignified retreat.
Pepys draws a pretty picture of Miss Stuart at this time, as he saw her riding, among the Ladies of Honour, with the Queen in the Park.
"I followed them," he says, "up into Whitehall, and into the Queen's presence, where all the ladies walked, talking and fiddling with their hats and feathers, and changing and trying one another's by one another's heads and laughing. But, above all, Mrs Stuart in this dresse, with her hat cocked and a red plume, with her sweet eyes, little Roman nose, and excellent taille, is now the greatest beauty I ever saw, I think, in my life; and, if ever woman can, do exceed my Lady Castlemaine, at least in this dress. Nor do I wonder if the King changes, which I verily believe is the reason of his coldness to my Lady Castlemaine."
How many hearts Frances Stuart toyed with and broke in these days of her girlish beauty and irresponsibility will never be known; but we know that at least one hopeless wooer committed suicide, and another, Francis Digby, Lord Bristol's handsome son, after years of unrequited idolatry, in his despair rushed away to seek and find death in the Dutch war.
And it was not only over men that Frances Stuart cast the spell of her witchery. One of her earliest and most ardent admirers was none other than my Lady Castlemaine herself, who alone claimed to hold her Sovereign's heart. So secure she thought herself of her supremacy that she not only took the French beauty into favour, but actually encouraged Charles in his pursuit of her, probably little realising how dangerous a rival she was taking to her bosom. It is said that this was but an artifice to divert Charles's attention from an intrigue that she was carrying on with that rakish beau, Henry Jermyn; but, whatever the cause, there is no doubt that for a time she lost no opportunity of throwing her Royal lover and the fair Stuart together. She even looked on smilingly at a mock marriage, at one of her own entertainments, between the pair—"with ring and all other ceremonies of church service and ribands, and a sack-posset in bed, and flinging the stocking, evincing neither anger nor jealousy, but entering into the diversion with great spirit."
And not only did she thus trifle with fire; for some months she rarely saw the King but in Miss Stuart's presence.
"The King," to quote Hamilton again, "who seldom neglected to visit the Countess before she rose, seldom failed likewise to find Miss Stuart with her. The most indifferent objects have charms in a new attachment; however, the Countess was not jealous of this rival's appearing with her in such a situation, being confident that whenever she thought fit, she could triumph over all the advantages which these opportunities could afford Miss Stuart."
As a matter of fact Charles's maitresse en titre regarded the "Mademoiselle" as nothing more dangerous than a pretty, winsome child. "She is a lovely little thing," she once said patronisingly, "but she is only a spoiled child, fonder of her toys and games than of the finest lover in the world." But she was not long left in this unsuspicious Paradise. There was soon no doubt that the "child" had made a conquest of the King, and that she, the mother of his children, no longer held the throne of his heart.
Her first rude disillusionment came when Charles was presented by Gramont with "the most elegant and magnificent carriage (called a 'calash') that had ever been seen." The Queen herself and Lady Castlemaine each decided that she and no other should be the first to take an airing in Hyde Park in this georgeous vehicle, which was sure to create an unparalleled sensation; and each exerted her utmost arts and eloquence to secure this concession from the King.
"Miss Stuart, however, had the same wish and requested to have the calash on the same occasion. The Queen retired in disdain from such a contest, while the King was driven to distraction between the cajoling and threats of the two rival beauties."
It was Miss Stuart, however, who won the day, to Lady Castlemaine's unrestrained rage and disgust. The child had scored the first point in the duel, the prize of which was the King's favour.
According to Hamilton, this victory was believed to have cost the "prude" her virtue; but Miss Stuart had proved again and again that she was no such compliant maid. The only passport to her favours, though a King sought them, was a wedding-ring; and amid all the temptations of a dissolute Court, where virtue was as hard to seek as a needle in a a bundle of hay, she adhered to this high resolve. Probably no maid ever found her way with such a sure step through the iniquitous mazes of Charles II.'s Court to an honourable marriage as La belle Stuart; though at one time she so despaired of realising her ambition "to be a Duchess" that she declared she was "ready to marry any gentleman of fifteen hundred a year that would have her in honour."
And never, perhaps, have the designs of a dissolute King been so cleverly and consistently baffled. Charles made no concealment of his passion for the beautiful maid-of-honour, and the more coldly she treated his advances, the more marked and ardent was his pursuit.
"Mr Pierce tells me," Pepys writes, "that my Lady Castlemaine is not at all set by by the King, but that he do doat upon Mrs Stuart only, and that to the leaving of all business in the world, and to the open slighting of the Queen. That he values not who sees him, or stands by while he dallies with her openly; and then privately in her chamber below, while the very sentrys observe him going in and out; and that so commonly that the Duke, or any of the Nobles, when they would ask where the King is, they will ordinarily say, 'Is the King above or below?' meaning with Mrs Stuart; that the King do not openly disown my Lady Castlemaine, but that she comes to Court."
Such was the spell which this enchantress cast over the King. Nor were her conquests by any means confined to the circle of the Court in which she moved a splendid, but unassailable Queen, for every man who came within the magic of her presence seems to have lost both head and heart. One of the most infatuated of all her victims was Phillipe Rotier, the youngest brother of the famous medallists whom Charles had invited to England, and whose first commission was to design a medal in celebration of the Peace of Breda. For the purposes of this medal Miss Stuart was asked by the King to pose as Britannia; and so captivated was Phillipe Rotier, to whom she gave sittings, by the exquisite perfection and grace of her figure, and so entranced by her beauty, that he fell madly in love with her, and narrowly escaped the loss of reason as well as of his heart. Since that day the figure of Britannia has appeared on millions of coins and medals to perpetuate through the centuries the faultless form of the woman who drove artist as well as King to the verge of despair by her beauty and her inaccessible prudery.
It was destined, however, that a prize which had so long eluded the handsomest gallants in England should fall at last to one of the most insignificant of all Charles's courtiers, a man who had neither good looks, intellect, nor character to commend him to a lady's favour. Such a gilded nonentity was Charles Stuart, Duke of Richmond and of Lennox, who, having buried two wives, now began to cast envious eyes on the maid-of-honour whom his Sovereign could not win.
Small in stature, deformed in figure—a caricature of a man, His Grace of Richmond was the last degenerate scion of the Stuarts of Richmond-d'Aubigny, a man of depraved tastes and besotted brain, the butt and the clown of Charles's Court. That this middle-aged buffoon should aspire to the hand of the loveliest and most elusive woman in England was only less amazing than that she should smile on his suit. The Court was struck with consternation—and convulsed with laughter. Nothing so utterly astonishing and so ludicrous had come within its experience. But there could be no doubt about it. La belle Stuart, who had so long resisted the King, and given the cold shoulder to such gallants as the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Arlington, was not only smiling on her ill-favoured suitor, she was actually giving him midnight assignations in her own apartments, and risking for a clown the reputation a King had been powerless to sully.
Here, at last, was a fine weapon placed in the hands of the outraged and vindictive Castlemaine. Here was a splendid opportunity of paying off old scores, of showing to her Royal lover the kind of woman for whom he had supplanted her, and of reinstating herself in his good graces. One night, as he returned in an evil temper from a fruitless visit to Miss Stuart's apartments, from which he had been sent away on some frivolous pretext, he was accosted by my Lady Castlemaine, who, with ill-concealed triumph, told him that at the moment La belle Stuart turned him away from her door, she was actually dallying with his new and contemptible rival, the Duke of Richmond, at the other side of it.
Charles was incredulous, furious at the suggestion. "Come with me," Lady Castlemaine answered, "and I will prove that I am telling you the simple truth;" and taking his hand she led him exultantly down the gallery from his apartments to the threshold of Miss Stuart's door, where, with a sweeping curtsy and an invitation to enter, she left him. On throwing open the door, to quote Hamilton, the King
"found Miss Stuart in bed, but far from being asleep. The Duke of Richmond was seated at her pillow, and in all probability was less inclined to sleep than herself. The King, who of all men was usually one of the most mild and gentle, testified his resentment to the Duke of Richmond in such terms as he had never used before. The Duke was speechless and almost petrified; he saw his master and King justly irritated. The first transports which rage inspires on such occasions are dangerous. Miss Stuart's window was very convenient for a sudden revenge, the Thames flowing close beneath it. He cast his eyes upon it, and seeing those of the King more incensed and fired with indignation than he thought his nature capable of, he made a profound bow, and retired without replying a single word to the vast torrent of threats and menaces that were poured on him."
But if the Duke proved thus a poltroon, Miss Stuart showed a very different metal. She was furious at the indignity of the King's intrusion on her privacy, and proceeded to read him such a lecture as his Royal ears had never listened to. She was no slave, she said, with flashing eyes, to be treated in such a manner, not to be allowed to receive visits from a man of the Duke of Richmond's rank, who came with honourable intentions. She was perfectly free to dispose of her hand as she thought proper; and if she could not do it in England, there was no power on earth that could hinder her from going over to France, and throwing herself into a convent to enjoy that tranquillity that was denied her in his Court! And the enraged beauty wound up her lecture by pointing imperiously to the door and bidding the King begone, "to leave her in repose, at least for the remainder of the night."
Charles went away baffled and cowed, but with a fierce rage in his heart. He had been defied, browbeaten, insulted by the woman for whom he would almost have bartered his crown; and he vowed that he would be revenged. On the following morning Miss Stuart, her anger now cooled, and awake to the enormity of her offence against Charles, sought an audience with Queen Catherine, to whom she told the whole story, begging her to appease the King, and to induce him to allow her to retire to a convent. So affecting was this interview that, we are told, the Queen and the maid-of-honour mingled their tears together, and Catherine promised to do her utmost to bring about a reconciliation.
One final attempt Charles made to capture the prize before it was lost to him for ever. He offered to dismiss all his mistresses, from the Castlemaine herself to saucy Nell Gwynn, and to dower her with large revenues and splendid titles if she would but consent to be his maitresse en titre; but to all his seductions and bribes the inflexible maid-of-honour turned a blind eye. No future, however dazzling, could compensate her for the loss of her dearest possession. "I hope," said the King at last, "I may live to see you old and willing," as he walked away in high dudgeon. To the proposed match with the Duke he point-blank refused his consent, and vowed that if his sovereign will were defied, the punishment would be in proportion to the offence.
But the fair Stuart had finally made up her mind. It had long been her ambition—from childhood, it is said—to be a Duchess, and she was not going to let the opportunity slip for all the kings in the world. What might come after was another matter. A Duchess's coronet and a wedding-ring were her immediate goal. Thus it came to pass that one dark night she stole away from the Palace of Whitehall, and was rowed to London Bridge, where the Duke awaited her in his coach. Through the night the runaway pair were driven to Cobham Hall, in Kent, where, long before morning dawned, an obliging parson had made them man and wife. Frances Stuart was a Duchess at last; and Charles's long intrigue had ended (or so it seemed) in final discomfiture.
On hearing the news the King was beside himself with anger. He forbade the runaways ever to show their faces near his Court—he even dismissed his Chancellor Clarendon, whom he suspected of having a hand in the plot.
But all his wrath fell impotently on the new Duchess, who returned his presents and settled smilingly down to enjoy her new dignities and her honeymoon. Within a year—so powerless is anger against love—Charles summoned the truants back to favour, and the Duchess, as Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen, was installed once more at Whitehall, more splendid and pre-eminent than ever. During her brief exile, she had held a rival court of her own as near Whitehall as Somerset House, where, says Pepys,
"she was visited for her beauty's sake by people, as the Queen is at nights. And they say also she is likely to go to Court again, and there put my Lady Castlemaine's nose out of joint. God knows that would make a great turn."
How far the Duke's bride succeeded in putting Lady Castlemaine's "nose out of joint" must remain a matter of speculation. There seems little doubt that as a wife she proved more complaisant to Charles than as a maid. She had carried her virtue unstained to the altar and a Duchess's coronet, and this seems to have been the main concern of the beautiful prude. That Charles was more infatuated even with the wife than with the maid-of-honour is incontestable. He not only made open love to her at Court, but, especially after he had packed off her husband, the Duke, as Ambassador to Denmark, his pursuit took a clandestine and more dangerous shape. Pepys throws a light on what looks like a secret amour, when he tells us, on the authority of Mr Pierce, that Charles once "did take a pair of oars or a sculler, and all alone, or but one with him, go to Somerset House (from Whitehall), and there, the garden-door not open, himself clamber over the wall to make a visit to the Duchess, which is a horrid shame."
But the Duchess's new reign of conquest was destined to be brief. To the consternation of her Royal lover she was struck down with small-pox,
"by which," to quote Pepys again, "all do conclude she will be wholly spoiled, which is the greatest instance of the uncertainty of beauty that could be in this age; but then she hath had the benefit of it to be first married, and to have kept it so long, under the greatest temptations in the world from a King, and yet without the least imputation."
That Pepys's fears were realised we know from Ruvigny's letters to Louis XIV., in which he says that "her matchless beauty was impaired beyond recognition, one of her brilliant eyes being nearly quenched for ever." During this tragic illness Charles, who was consumed with anxiety, visited her more than once, thus proving, at a terrible risk, the sincerity of his devotion. And it is even said that his admiration of her was not diminished by the loss of her beauty.
With this loss of her beauty, however, the Duchess's reign may be said to have come to an end. King Charles's eyes were soon to be dazzled by the fresher charms of Louise de Querouaille, whom the "Sun-King" had sent from France to turn his head and influence his foreign policy in Louis's favour; and La belle Stuart was not slow to realise that at last her sun had set. During the remainder of her long life, at least until the Orange King came to the Throne, she retained her office of Lady of the Bedchamber to two Queens; but her appearances at Court, the scene of so many triumphs, were as few as she could make them.
For the rest her days were spent in retirement, among her beloved books and pictures and cats; until, after thirty years of widowhood, full of years and wearied of life's vanities, she was laid to rest in her ducal robes in Westminster Abbey. The bulk of her enormous fortune went to her nephew, Lord Blantyre, with a direction that he should purchase with part of it an estate, to be known as "Lennox's Love to Blantyre"; and to this day "Lennox-Love" perpetuates, like the Britannia of our coins, the memory of one of the most beautiful and tantalising women who have ever driven men to distraction by their beauty.
THE NIGHTINGALE OF BATH
A century and a half ago Bath had reached the zenith of her fame and allurement, not only as "Queen of the West," but as Empress of all the haunts of pleasure in England. She drew, as by an irresistible magnet, rank and beauty and wealth to her shrine. In her famous Assembly Rooms, statesmen rubbed shoulders with card-sharpers, Marquises with swell mobsmen, and Countesses with courtesans, all in eager quest of pleasure or conquest or gain. The Bath season was England's carnival, when cares and ceremonial alike were thrown to the winds, when the pleasure of the moment was the only ambition worth pursuing, and when even the prudish found a fearful joy in playing hide-and-seek with vice.
But although the fairest women in the land flocked to Bath, by common consent not one of them all was so beautiful and bewitching as Elizabeth Ann Linley, the girl-nightingale, whose voice entranced the ear daily at the Assembly Rooms concerts as her loveliness feasted the eye. She was, as all the world knew, only the daughter of Thomas Linley, singing-master and organiser of the concerts, a man who had plied chisel and saw at the carpenter's bench before he found the music that was in him; but, obscure as was her birth, she reigned supreme by virtue of a loveliness and a gift of song which none of her sex could rival.
It is thus little wonder that Elizabeth Linley's fame had travelled far beyond the West Country town in which she was cradled. George III. had summoned her to sing to him in his London palace, and had been so overcome by her gifts of beauty and melody that, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he had stroked her hair and caressed her hands, and declared to the blushing girl that he had never seen any one so beautiful or heard a voice so divinely sweet.
Charles Dibdin tried to enshrine her in fitting verse, but abandoned the effort in despair, vowing that she was indeed of that company described by Milton:
"Who, as they sang, would take the prisoned soul And lap it in Elysium."
The Bishop of Meath, in his unepiscopal enthusiasm, declared that she was "the link between an angel and a woman"; while Dr Charles Burney, supreme musician and father of the more famous Madame d'Arblay, wrote more soberly of her:
"The tone of her voice and expression were as enchanting as her countenance and conversation. With a mellifluous-toned voice, a perfect shake and intonation, she was possessed of the double power of delighting an audience equally in pathetic strains and songs of brilliant execution, which is allowed to very few singers."
To her Horace Walpole also paid this curious tribute:
"Miss Linley's beauty is in the superlative degree. The king admires and ogles her as much as he dares to do in so holy a place as oratorio."
Such are a few of the tributes, of which contemporary records are full, paid to the fair "Nightingale of Bath," whom Gainsborough and Reynolds immortalised in two of their inspired canvases—the latter as Cecilia—her face almost superhuman in its beauty and the divine rapture of its expression—seated at a harpsichord and pouring out her soul in song.
It was inevitable that a girl of such charms and gifts—"superior to all the handsome things I have heard of her," John Wilkes wrote, "and withal the most modest, pleasing and delicate flower I have seen"—should have lovers by the score. Every gallant who came to Bath, sought to woo, if not to win, her. But Elizabeth Linley was no coquette; nor was she a foolish girl whose head could be turned by a handsome face or pretty compliments, or whose eyes could be dazzled by the glitter of wealth and rank. She was wedded to her music, and no lover, she vowed, should wean her from her allegiance. It was thus a shock to the world of pleasure-seekers at Bath to learn that the beauty, who had turned a cold shoulder to so many high-placed gallants, had promised her hand to an elderly, unattractive wooer called Long, a man almost old enough to be her grandfather.
That her heart had not gone with her hand we may be sure. We know that it was only under the strong compulsion of her father that she had given her consent; for Mr Long had a purse as elongated as his name, and to the eyes of the poor singing-master his gold-bags were irresistible. Her elderly wooer loaded his bride-to-be with costly presents; he showered jewels on her, bought her a trousseau fit for a Queen; and was on the eve of marrying her, when—without a word of warning, it was announced that the wedding, to which all Bath had been excitedly looking forward, would not take place!
Mr Linley was furious, and threatened the terrors of the law; but the bridegroom that failed was adamant. It was said that, in cancelling the engagement, Mr Long was acting a chivalrous part, in response to Miss Linley's pleading that he would withdraw his suit, since her heart could never be his, and by withdrawing shield her from her father's anger. However this may have been, Mr Long steadily declined to go to the altar, and ultimately appeased the singing-master by settling L3,000 on his daughter, and allowing her to keep the valuable jewels and other presents he had given her.
It was at this crisis in the Nightingale's life, when all Bath was ringing with the fiasco of her engagement, and she herself was overcome by humiliation, that another and more dangerous lover made his appearance at Bath—a youth (for such he was) whose life was destined to be dramatically linked with hers. This newcomer into the arena of love was none other than Richard Brinsley Sheridan, grandson of Dean Swift's bosom friend, Dr Thomas Sheridan, one of the two sons of another Thomas, who, after a roaming and profitless life, had come to Bath to earn a livelihood by teaching elocution.
This younger Thomas Sheridan seems to have inherited none of the wit and cleverness of his father, Swift's boon companion. Dr Johnson considered him "dull, naturally dull. Such an excess of stupidity," he added, "is not in nature." But, in spite of his dulness, "Sherry"—as he was commonly called—had been clever enough to coax a pension of L200 a year out of the Government, and was able to send his two boys to Harrow and Oxford.
The Sheridan boys had been but a few days in Bath when they both fell head over heels in love with Elizabeth Linley, with whom their sister had been equally quick to strike up a friendship. But from the first, Charles, the elder son, was hopelessly outmatched.
"On our first acquaintance," Miss Linley wrote in later years, "both professed to love me—but yet I preferred the youngest, as by far the most agreeable in person, beloved by every one."
Indeed, from a boy, Richard Sheridan seemed born to win hearts. His sister has confessed:
"I admired—I almost adored him. He was handsome. His cheeks had the glow of health; his eyes—the finest in the world—the brilliancy of genius, and were soft as a tender and affectionate heart could render them. The same playful fancy, the same sterling and innoxious wit that was shown afterwards in his writings, cheered and delighted the family circle."
Such was Richard Brinsley Sheridan, when, in the year 1769, he first set eyes on the girl, who, after many dramatic vicissitudes, was to bear his name and share his glories. From the first sight of her he was hopelessly in love, although none but his sister knew it. He was little more than a school-boy, and was content to "bide his time," worshipping mutely at the shrine of the girl whom some day he meant to make his own.
He gave no sign of jealousy when his elder brother made love to her before his eyes—only to retire quickly, chilled by a coldness which he realised he could never thaw; or even when his Oxford chum, Halhed, his dearest friend and the colleague of his youthful pen, fell a victim to Elizabeth's charms, and, in his innocence, begged Sheridan to plead his suit with her. Halhed, too, had to retire from the hopeless suit; and Richard Sheridan, still silent, save, perhaps, for the eloquence of tell-tale eyes, held the field alone.
It was at this stage of our story that a grave element of danger entered Elizabeth Linley's life, with the arrival at Bath of a Major Matthews, a handsome roue, with a large rent-roll from Welsh acres, and a dangerous reputation won in the lists of love. At sight of the fair Nightingale in the Assembly Rooms this hero of many conquests was himself laid low. He was frantically in love, and before many days had passed vowed that he would shoot himself if his charmer refused to smile on him. Her coldness only fanned his ardour; and his persecution reached such a pitch that in her alarm she appealed to young Sheridan for help.
Nothing could have been more fortunate for the young lover than such an appeal and the necessity for it. It was a tribute to her esteem, and to his budding manliness, which delighted him. Moreover, it gave him many opportunities of meeting her, and talking over the situation with her. At any cost this persecution must end; and the result of the conferences was that an excellent plan was evolved. Richard was to worm himself into the confidence of the Major, and, in the character of friend and well-wisher, was to advise him, as a matter of diplomacy, to cease his attentions to Miss Linley for a time. Meanwhile arrangements were to be made for the Nightingale's escape to France, where she proposed to enter a convent until she was of age—thus finding a refuge from the persecution to which her beauty constantly subjected her, and also from the scandal which the Long fiasco had given rise to, and which was still a great source of unhappiness to her.
The plot was cunningly planned and worked smoothly. The Major was induced by subtle pleading to leave Miss Linley in peace for a time; and, to quote Miss Sheridan:
"At length they fixed on an evening when Mr Linley, his eldest son and Miss Mary Linley were engaged at the concert (Miss Linley being excused on the plea of illness) to set out on their journey. Sheridan brought a sedan-chair to Mr Linley's house in the Crescent, in which he had Miss Linley conveyed to a post-chaise that was waiting for them on the London road. A woman was in the chaise who had been hired to accompany them on this extraordinary elopement."
For elopement it really was, although ostensibly Sheridan was merely playing the part of a friendly escort to a distressed lady, whatever deeper scheme, unknown to her, may have been in his mind. After a brief stay in London a boat was taken to Dunkirk, and the journey resumed towards Lille.
It was during this last stage of the journey that Sheridan disclosed his hand. With consummate, if questionable, cleverness he explained that he could not, in honour, leave her in a convent except as his wife; that he had loved her since first he met her more than anything else in life, and that he could not bear the thought of her fair name being sullied by the scandal that would surely follow this journey taken in his company.
To such plausible arguments, pleaded by one who confessed that he loved her, and to whom she was (as she now realised) far from indifferent, Miss Linley could not remain deaf. And before the coach had travelled many miles from Calais the runaways found an accommodating priest to make them one. The would-be nun thus dramatically ended her journey to the convent at the altar.
"It was not," she wrote to him later, "your person that gained my affection. No, it was that delicacy, that tender interest which you seemed to take in my welfare, that were the motives which induced me to love you."
The honeymoon that followed these strange nuptials was of short duration; for, a few days later, Mr Linley arrived, in a high state of anger, to reclaim and carry off his runaway daughter; and Sheridan was left to follow ignominiously in their wake. When he reached Bath it was to find his hands full. During his absence the irate Major, quick to discover his perfidy, had published the following notice in the local Chronicle:—
"Mr Richard S., having attempted, in a letter left behind him for that purpose, to account for his scandalous method of running away from this place, by insinuations derogating from my character and that of a young lady, innocent as far as relates to me or my knowledge, since which he has neither taken notice of my letters, nor even informed his own family of the place where he has hid himself, I cannot longer think he deserves the treatment of a gentleman, than in this public manner to post him as a Liar and a treacherous Scoundrel.—THOMAS MATTHEWS."
Such a public insult could, of course, only have one issue. Sheridan promptly challenged Matthews to a duel, the result of which was that the Major was compelled to make an apology, as public as his insult. But, so far was he from penitence, that within a few weeks he demanded a second meeting—and this proved a much more serious matter for Sheridan.
The rivals met the following morning on Claverton Down; and after a few furious exchanges both swords were broken, and the opponents were struggling together on the ground. Matthews, however, being much the stronger, was able to pin Sheridan down, and with a piece of the broken sword stabbed him repeatedly in the face. "Beg your life, and I will spare it," he demanded of the prostrate and defenceless man. "I will neither beg it, nor receive it from such a villain," was the unflinching answer.
"Matthews then renewed the attack, and, having picked up the point of one of the swords, ran it through the side of the throat and pinned him to the ground with it, exclaiming, 'I have done for him.' He then left the field, accompanied by his second, and, getting into a carriage with four horses which had been waiting for him, drove off."
Sheridan, unconscious and apparently dying, was driven from the Downs to a neighbouring inn, "The White Hart," where for a time he hung betwixt life and death. On hearing of his condition Miss Linley (who at the time was singing at Cambridge) travelled post-haste to his bedside; and, tenderly nursed by his wife and his sister, the wounded man slowly fought his way back to strength.
One would have thought that, after such a tragic experience and observing the mutual devotion of the young couple, their parents would have relented and given their approval of the union, however improvident and inexcusable it might appear to them. But, on both sides, they were obdurate; and Mr Sheridan carried his opposition to the extent of extracting from his son a promise that he would not even see his wife.
But love laughs at parents' frowns and usually triumphs in the end. When Elizabeth Linley went away to London to sing in oratorio, her husband followed her; and, in the role of hackney coachman, had the pleasure of driving not only his wife but her father, home nightly from the concert-room, without either of them suspecting his identity. When at last he revealed himself to his wife, her delight was so great as to leave no doubt of the sincere love she bore him. Many a secret meeting followed; a final joint appeal ultimately broke down the obduracy of the parents; and once again Sheridan led his bride to the altar, to make her finally and securely his own.
For a time Richard Sheridan and his Nightingale found a haven in a remote, rose-covered cottage at East Burnham. These were days of unclouded happiness, when, the "world forgetting and by the world forgot," they lived only for love, caring nothing of the future. They were days of simple delights; for their entire income was the interest of Mr Long's L3000, which proved ample for their needs. Mrs Sheridan, now at the zenith of her fame, might have won thousands by her voice—she actually refused offers of nearly L4000 for one short season—but her husband wished to keep the Nightingale's voice for his own exclusive delight; and she was only too happy in thus turning her back on fame and fortune.
But such halcyon days could not last long. Even Paradise might pall on such a restless temperament as that of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He began to sigh for the outer world in which he felt that it was his destiny to shine, for an arena in which he could do justice to the gifts which were clamouring for scope and exercise. And thus, to Mrs Sheridan's lasting regret, cottage and roses and simple delights of the country were left behind, and she found herself installed in a Portman Square house, in the heart of the world of fashion.
Here Sheridan, always the most improvident of men, launched out into extravagances more suited to an income of L5000 a year than the paltry L150 which was all he could command. He entertained on a lavish scale; and his wit and charm, supplemented by his wife's beauty and gift of song, soon surrounded them with a fashionable crowd eager to eat his dinners and to attend his wife's soirees. Sheridan was in his element in this environment of luxury and prodigality; but the Bath Nightingale would gladly have changed it all for "a little quiet home that I can enjoy in comfort," as she told her husband—above all, for the Burnham cottage where she had been so idyllically happy.
Perhaps if Sheridan had never left the cottage and the roses, his name would never have been known to fame. His ambition needed some such stimulus as this spasm of extravagance to wake it to activity. He must now make money or be submerged by debts; and under this impulse of necessity it was that he wooed fortune with The Rivals, and awoke to find himself famous and potentially rich. Other comedies followed swiftly from his eager and inspired pen—The School for Scandal, The Duenna, and The Critic—each greeted with enthusiasm by a world to which such dramatic triumphs were a revelation and a delight. Sheridan was not only the "talk of the town"; he was hailed universally as the brightest dramatic star of the age.
It is needless to say that Sheridan's fame was a delight to his wife.
"Not long ago," she wrote to a friend, "he was known as 'Mrs Sheridan's husband.' Now the tables are turned, and, henceforth, I expect I shall be just Mr Sheridan's wife. Nor could I wish any more exalted title. I am proud and thankful to be the wife of the cleverest man in England, and the best husband in the world!"
That Mrs Sheridan adored her husband is evident from every letter she wrote to him. She addresses him as "my dearest Love" and "my darling Dick," and vows that she cannot be happy apart from him. "I cannot love you," she declares, "and be perfectly satisfied at such a distance from you. I depended upon your coming to-night, and shall not recover my spirits till we meet." But through her letters runs the same hankering after the old simple, peaceful days—the days of love in a cottage. "I could draw," she writes, "such a picture of happiness that it would almost make me wish the overthrow of all our present schemes of future affluence and grandeur."
But greatly as he loved his wife, Sheridan was now too much wedded to his ambition to listen to such tempting. He had conquered fame with his pen; now he aspired to subdue it with his tongue. In 1780, while he was still in the twenties, he was sent to Parliament by Stafford suffrages; and from his first appearance at Westminster captivated his fellow law-makers by the magic of his eloquence. A new star had arisen in the oratorical firmament, and soon began to pale all other luminaries. Within two years he was a Minister of the Crown; and in another year he had electrified the world by the most brilliant oratory that had ever been heard in our tongue—notably by his historic speech in the trial of Warren Hastings, to the preparation of which his wife had devoted herself body and soul.
Fresh from listening to this latest sensational triumph of her husband in Westminster Hall, she wrote:—
"It is impossible to convey to you the delight, the astonishment, the admiration he has excited in the breasts of every class of people. Every party prejudice has been overcome by this display of genius, eloquence and goodness.... What my feelings must be, you can only imagine. To tell you the truth, it is with some difficulty that I can 'let down my mind,' as Mr Burke said afterwards, to talk or think on any other subject. But pleasure too exquisite becomes pain; and I am at this moment suffering from the delightful anxieties of last week."
But Mrs Sheridan's day of happiness and triumph was soon to draw near to its close. She saw her husband climb to the dizziest pinnacle of fame, and she watched with pain his brilliance dimmed, and his marvellous intellect clouded by excessive drinking, before the fatal seeds of consumption, which had already carried off her dearly-loved sister, began to show themselves in her. Her illness was as swift as it was, happily, painless. She simply drooped and faded and died, tenderly watched over to the last by her husband with a silent anguish that was pitiful to see.
"During her last days," says Mrs Canning, her devoted friend, "she read sometimes to herself, and after dinner sat down to the piano. She taught Betty (her little niece) a little while, and played several slow movements out of her own head, with her usual expression, but with a very trembling hand. It was so like the last efforts of an expiring genius, and brought such a train of tender and melancholy ideas to my imagination, that I thought my poor heart would have burst in the conflict."
And one June day, when the world she had loved so well was flooded with a glory of sunlight, her beautiful spirit sped silently away to join the "choir invisible." Nine days later she was laid to rest in Wells Cathedral, thousands flocking to pay farewell homage to the closest link the world has ever known "between an angel and a woman." As for Sheridan he survived his grief twenty-four years, to end his days in poverty, and to crown his life's drama with a stately funeral in Westminster Abbey.
THE ROMANCE OF THE VILLIERS
The Villiers have had a liberal share of romance, ever since the far-away days, three centuries and more ago, when the fourth son of Sir George opened his eyes at Brookesby, in Leicestershire. From being a "threadbare hanger-on" at Court this son of an obscure knight rose to be the boon companion of two kings and the lover of a Queen of France. Honours and riches were showered on this spoiled child of fortune. He was created, in rapid succession, Viscount and Marquis, and finally Duke of Buckingham; he won for bride an Earl's daughter, the richest heiress in the land; and for some years dazzled the world by his splendours and wealth as he alienated it by his arrogance. And just when his meteoric career had reached its zenith, his life was closed in tragedy by the assassin's knife.
His mantle of romance, however, fell on his son and successor, the second Duke, who was brought up in a Palace nursery, and had for playmates the children of Charles I.; and who, after a career which in its dramatic adventure outstripped fiction, ended his turbulent life, if not, as Pope says,
"In the worst inn's worst room, with mat half-hung,"
at least in extreme poverty and suffering in a Yorkshire inn, at Kirby Moorside. Of all the vast estates he had inherited, his kinsman, Lord Arran, said: "There is not so much as one farthing towards defraying the expense of his funeral."
Nor have the men of Villiers' blood had any monopoly of adventure. Their wives and daughters have seldom been content to lead the unromantic life which happily contents so many of their sex. From Barbara Chaffinch, whose intrigues secured the Earldom of Jersey for her husband in William III.'s reign, to the Lady Adela Villiers who ran away with Captain Ibbetson, a handsome young officer of Hussars, to Gretna Green and the altar, they have played many diverse and sensational roles on the stage of their time.
It was but fitting that George Villiers, fifth Earl of Jersey, should make a Countess of the Lady Sarah Sophia Fane, in whose veins was an adventurous strain as marked as in his own; for she was the fruit of one of the most dramatic unions recorded in the annals of our Peerage. A year before she was cradled her mother was Anne Child, the richest heiress in England—the only daughter of Robert Child, head of the great banking firm at Temple Bar, and a descendant of Francis Child, the industrious London apprentice who married the daughter of his master, William Wheeler, goldsmith, whose riches and business he inherited.
"Old Child," as Anne's father was familiarly known, had many aristocratic clients who used his cheques and overdrew their accounts; but the most prodigal, as also the most ingratiating, of them all was the young Earl of Westmorland, who, not content with making large demands on the banker's exchequer and patience, had the audacity to aspire to all his wealth through his daughter's hand.
Anne was perhaps as naturally flattered by the attentions of a lord as she was fascinated by his handsome face and figure and his courtly manners; but the father had other designs for his heiress than marrying her to a prodigal young nobleman. "Your blood, my lord, is good," he once told him; "but money is better."
Lord Westmorland was not, however, the man to be turned aside from the gilded goal on which he had set his heart. If he could not wed the heiress with her father's blessing, he would dispense with the benediction. That he would marry her he was determined; and Anne was just the girl to assist a bold lover in such an ambition.
One day, so the story is told, Lord Westmorland decided to bring the matter to a crisis. He had been dining with Mr Child, and, after the wine had circulated freely, he said, "Now, sir, that we have discussed business thoroughly, there is another matter on which I should be grateful for your opinion." "What's that?" enquired the banker, beaming benevolently on his guest, as a man who has dined well and is at peace with the world. "Well, sir, suppose you were deeply in love with a girl who returned your love, and that her father refused his consent. What would you do?" "What should I do?" laughed the banker, "why, run away with her, of course, like many a better man has done!"
What more direct encouragement could an ardent lover want? It is possible that the next morning the banker had completely forgotten the conversation, and his vinous approval of runaway matches; but, two days later, he was destined to have a rude awaking. In the middle of the night he was aroused by the watchman to learn that his front door had been found open; and a little later the alarming discovery was made that his daughter had flown. His suspicions fell at once on that "rascally young lord"; and they were confirmed when he found that the Earl, too, had disappeared, and that a chaise, with four galloping horses, had been seen dashing northwards as fast as whip and spur could drive them.
The banker was furious. He raged and stormed as he ordered his servants to procure the fastest horses money could command; and with lavish promises of reward to the postboys he set out in hot pursuit of the fugitives. Luckily they had no long start; and, with better horses, more frequent changes, and a heavier purse, he had little doubt that he would soon overtake them. But the chase was sterner and longer than he had imagined. Cupid lends wings to runaway lovers. Fast as Mr Child's sweating horses raced, they gained but little on the pursued. Through the long night, the next day, and the following night the desperate race continued—through sleeping villages and startled towns, over hill and moor, until the borderland grew near. Then, between Penrith and Carlisle, the quarry was at last sighted.
Mr Child's horses, urged to a final effort by the postboys, slowly but surely reduced the interval; and now inch by inch they draw abreast of the runaway chaise. The moment of triumph has come. Mr Child, with body half protruding from the chaise, calls loudly on the fugitives to halt, shaking his fist at the smiling face of the Earl, who with one hand waves a graceful adieu, with the other presents a pistol at Mr Child's near leader. A flash, a report, and the horse falls dead. A few minutes later the Earl's chaise is a distant dark speck in a cloud of dust, at which the baffled banker impotently shakes his fist.
Before the fallen horse could be removed and the chase resumed the runaways had got so long a start that they could laugh at further pursuit; and by the time Child's chaise rattled impotently through the street of Gretna village, his daughter had been a Countess a good hour.
For three years the banker kept his vow that he would never forgive her and her shameless husband. The Earl, indeed, he never did forgive, but his daughter won her way back into his heart, and to her he left the whole of his colossal fortune, amounting, it is said, to little less than L100,000 a year.
It was from this romantic union that the Lady Sarah Sophia Fane came, who was to unite the 'prentice strain of Francis Child with the blood of the proud Villiers. As a young girl the Lady Sarah needed no such rich dower as was hers to commend her to the eyes of wooers. From the Fanes she inherited a full share of the beauty for which their women were noted, and to it she added many charms of her own. She had a figure, tall, commanding, and of exquisite grace, eyes blue as violets, a luxuriant crown of dark hair, and a complexion pure and beautiful as a lily.
It is little wonder that a young lady so dowered with gold and good looks should attract lovers by the score, all anxious to win so fair a prize. But to one only of them all would she listen, Lord Villiers, heir to the Earldom of Jersey, a man of towering stature and handsome face, aristocrat and courtier to his finger-tips, a fearless and graceful rider, and an expert in manly sports. Such a combination of attractions the daughter of Anne Child could not long, nor was she at all disposed to, resist. And one May day in 1804—almost twenty-two years to the day after her parents' dramatic flight to Gretna Green—the Lady Sarah became Vicountess Villiers. A year later she was Countess of Jersey.
From her first entry into society the child-countess (for she was little more than a child) took the position of a Queen, to which her rank, wealth, and beauty entitled her, and which she held, supreme and unassailable, as long as life lasted. Her salon was a second Royal Court to which flocked all the greatest in the land, proud to pay homage to the "Empress of Fashion." She entertained kings with a regal splendour. Their Majesties of Prussia and Belgium, Holland and Hanover, and the Tsar Nicholas I. were all delighted to do honour to a hostess so captivating and so queenly.
At Middleton Park, her lord's Oxfordshire seat, she dispensed a hospitality which was the despair of her rivals. Her retinue of servants seldom numbered less than a hundred, and many a week her guests, with their attendants, far exceeded a thousand. Money was squandered with a prodigal hand. The very servants, it is said, drank champagne and hock like water; her housemaids had their riding horses, and dressed in silks and satins. Among her thousands of guests were such men as Wellington and Peel, Castlereagh and Canning, all humble worshippers at her shrine; and Lord Byron who, in his gloomy moods, would shut himself in his bedroom for days, living on biscuits and water, and stealing out at dead of night to wander ghost-like through the neighbouring woods. These moods of black despondency he varied by turbulent spirits, when he would be the gayest of the gay, and would challenge his fellow-guests to drinking bouts, in which he always came off the victor.
Lady Jersey had no more ardent admirer than Byron, whose muse was inspired to many a flight in honour of
"The grace of mien, The eye that gladdens and the brow serene; The glossy darkness of that clustering hair, Which shades, yet shows that forehead more than fair."
And among her army of guests the Countess moved like a Queen, who could stoop to frivolity without losing a shred of dignity. Surely never was such superabundant energy enshrined in a form so beautiful and stately.
"Shall I tell you what Lady Jersey is like?" wrote Creevey. "She is like one of her numerous gold and silver dicky-birds that are in all the showrooms of this house. She begins to sing at eleven o'clock, and, with the interval of the hour when she retires to her cage to rest, she sings till twelve at night without a moment's interruption. She changes her feathers for dinner, and her plumage both morning and evening is the most beautiful I ever saw."
She seemed indeed incapable of fatigue. Tongue and body alike never seemed to rest, from rising to going to bed.
"She is really wonderful," says Lady Granville; "and how she can stand the life she leads is still more wonderful. She sees everybody in her own house, and calls on everybody in theirs. She is all over Paris, and at all the campagnes within ten miles, and in all petites soirees. She begins the day with a dancing-master at nine o'clock, and never rests till midnight.... At ten o'clock yesterday morning she called for me, and we never stopped to take breath till eleven o'clock at night, when she set me down here more dead than alive, she going to end the day with the Hollands!"
A life that would have killed nine women out of ten seemed powerless to touch her. When far advanced in the sixties she was acknowledged to be still one of the most beautiful women in England, retaining to an amazing degree the bloom and freshness of youth. And when she appeared at a fancy-dress ball arrayed as a Sultana, in a robe of sky-blue with coral embroideries and a turban of gold and white, she was by universal consent acclaimed as the most beautiful woman there. It may interest my lady readers to learn that she attributed her perpetual youth to the use of gruel as a substitute for soap and water.
Although Lady Jersey had admirers by the hundred among the most fascinating men in Europe, no breath of scandal ever touched her fair fame. Indeed, she carried her virtue to the verge of prudery, and repelled with a freezing coldness the slightest approach to familiarity. So prudish was she that on one occasion she declined to share a carriage alone with Lord John Russell, one of the least physically attractive of men, and begged General Alava to accompany them. "Diable!" laughed the General, "you must be very little sure of yourself if you are afraid to be alone with little Lord John!"
She was merciless to any of her lady friends who lapsed from virtue, or in any way, however slight, offended the proprieties. But the vials of her fiercest anger were reserved for her mother-in-law, the Dowager-Countess, whose shameless intrigue with the Prince Regent scandalised the world in an age of lax morals; and the outraged Princess Caroline had no more valiant champion. She not only declined to have anything to say to her husband's mother, she carried her disapproval to the extent of refusing point blank to appear at Court. So furious was the Regent at this slight that "the dotard with corrupted eye and withered heart," as Byron calls him, had her portrait removed from the Palace Gallery of Beauties, and returned to its owner.
A few days later, however, the Countess had her revenge. At a party in Cavendish Square she was walking along a corridor with Samuel Rogers when she saw the Regent coming towards them. As he approached he drew himself to his full height, and passed with an insolent and disdainful stare, which Lady Jersey returned with a look even more cold and contemptuous. Then, with a toss of her proud head, she turned to Rogers and laughingly said, "I did that well, didn't I?"
It was, perhaps, as Queen and Autocrat of "Almack's" that Lady Jersey won her chief fame—Almack's, that most exclusive and aristocratic club in Berkeley Street, Piccadilly, the membership of which was the supreme hall-mark of the world of fashion. No rank, however exalted, no riches, however great, were a passport to this innermost social circle, over which Lady Jersey reigned like a beautiful despot.
Scores of the smartest officers of the Guards, men of rank and fashion, and pets of West End drawing-rooms, clamoured or cajoled for admission to this jealously-guarded temple, but its doors only opened to receive, at the most, half a dozen of them. Even such social autocrats as Her Grace of Bedford and Lady Harrington were coldly turned away from the doors by the male members of the club; while the ladies shut them in the face of Lord March and Brook Boothby, to the amazed disgust of these men of fashion and conquest—for, by the rules of the club, male members were selected by the ladies, and vice versa. But beyond all doubt the destinies of candidates were in the hands of the half dozen Lady Patronesses who formed the Committee of the club—Princess Esterhazy, Princess von Lieven, Ladies Jersey, Sefton and Cowper, and Mrs Drummond Burrell; and of these my Lady Jersey was the only one who really counted.
"Three-fourths even of the nobility," says a writer in the New Monthly Magazine, "knock in vain for admission. Into this sanctum sanctorum, of course, the sons of commerce never think of intruding; and yet into the very 'blue chamber,' in the absence of the six necromancers, have the votaries of trade contrived to intrude themselves."
"Many diplomatic arts," writes Captain Gronow, "much finesse, and a host of intrigues were set in motion to get an invitation to Almack's. Very often persons whose rank and fortunes entitled them to the entree anywhere, were excluded by the cliqueism of the Lady patronesses; for the female government of Almack's was a despotism, and subject to all the caprice of despotic rule. It is needless to say that, like every other despotism, it was not innocent of abuses."
The fair ladies who ruled supreme over this little dancing and gossiping world issued a solemn proclamation that no gentleman should appear at the assemblies without being dressed in knee-breeches, white cravat, and chapeau bras. On one occasion, the Duke of Wellington was about to ascend the staircase of the ballroom, dressed in black trousers, when the vigilant Mr Willis, the guardian of the establishment, stepped forward and said, "Your Grace cannot be admitted in trousers," whereupon the Duke, who had a great respect for orders and regulations, quietly walked away.
Another inflexible rule of the club was that no one should be admitted after eleven o'clock; and it was a breach of this regulation that once overwhelmed the Duke of Wellington with humiliation. One evening, the Duke, who had promised to meet Lady Mornington at Almack's, presented himself for admission. "Lady Jersey," announced an attendant, "the Duke of Wellington is at the door, and desires to be admitted." "What o'clock is it?" she asked. "Seven minutes after eleven, your Ladyship." She paused for a moment, and then said with emphasis and distinctness, "Give my compliments—Lady Jersey's compliments—to the Duke of Wellington, and say that she is very glad that the first enforcement of the rule of exclusion is such that, hereafter, no one can complain of its application. He cannot be admitted." And the Duke, whom even Napoleon with all his legions had been powerless to turn back, was compelled to retreat before the capricious will of a woman.
Such an autocrat was this "Queen of Almack's."
"While her colleagues were debating," says the author of the "Key to Almack's," "she decided. Hers was the master-spirit that ruled the whole machine; hers the eloquent tongue that could both persuade and command. And she was never idle. Her restless eye pried into everything; she set the world to rights; her influence was resistless, her determination uncontrollable."
"Treat people like fools, and they will worship you," was her favourite maxim. And as Bryon, her intimate friend, once said, "She was the veriest tyrant that ever governed Fashion's fools, and compelled them to shake their cap and bells as she willed."
It was at Almack's, it is interesting to recall, that Lady Jersey first introduced the quadrille from Paris.
"I recollect," says Captain Gronow, "the persons who formed the first quadrille that was ever danced there. They were Lady Jersey, Lady Harriet Buller, Lady Susan Ryder, and Miss Montgomery; the men being the Count St Aldegonde, Mr Montgomery, and Charles Standisti."
It was at Almack's, too, that she introduced the waltz, which so shocked the proprieties even in that easy-going age.
"What scenes," writes Mr T. Raikes, "have we witnessed in these days at Almack's! What fear and trembling in the debutantes at the commencement of a waltz, what giddiness and confusion at the end! It was, perhaps, owing to the latter circumstance that so violent an opposition soon arose to the new recreation on the score of morality. The anti-waltzing party took the alarm, and cried it down; mothers forbade it, and every ballroom became a scene of feud and contention."
But through it all Lady Jersey circled round and round the ballroom divinely, with Prince Paul Esterhazy, Baron Tripp, St Aldegonde, and many another graceful exponent of the new dance, for partners; and her victory was complete when the world of fashion saw the arm of the Emperor Alexander, his uniform ablaze with decorations, round her waist, twirling ecstatically, if ungracefully, round in the intoxication of the waltz.
For fifty years, Lord Jersey's Countess reigned supreme in the social world, carrying her autocracy and her charms into old age. As was inevitable to such a dominant personality she made enemies, who resented her airs and scoffed at her graces. Lady Granville called her "a tiresome, quarrelsome woman"; the Duke of Wellington, one of her most abject slaves, once exclaimed, "What —— nonsense Lady Jersey talks!" and Granville declared that she had "neither wit, nor imagination, nor humour." But to the last day of her long life she retained the homage and admiration of hundreds, over whom she cast the spell of her beauty and personal charm.
The evening of her life was clouded by a succession of tragedies, each sufficient to break the spirit of a less indomitable woman. One by one, her children, the pride of her life, were taken from her; but she hid her breaking heart from the world, and in the intervals between her bereavements she showed as brave and bright a face as in the days of her unclouded youth. The death in 1858 of her daughter, Clementina, the darling of her old age, was a terrible blow; but still the hand of the slayer of her hopes was not stayed. Her husband, whose devotion had so long sustained her, followed soon after; three weeks later her eldest son, the new Earl, died tragically in the zenith of his life; and the crowning blow fell when, in 1862, her last surviving child was taken from her.
For five more years she survived her triumphs and sorrows, until, one January day in 1867, she passed suddenly and painlessly away, and the world was the poorer by the loss of one of the noblest women who have ever worn the crown of beauty or held the sceptre of power.
THE STAIN ON THE SHIRLEY 'SCUTCHEON
The Shirleys have been men of high honour and fair repute ever since the far-away days when the conqueror found their ancestor, Sewallis, firmly seated on his broad Warwickshire lands at Eatington; but their proud 'scutcheon, otherwise unsullied, bears one black, or rather red, stain, and it was Laurence Shirley, fourth earl of his line, who put it there.
Horace Walpole calls this degenerate Shirley "a low wretch, a mad assassin, and a wild beast." He was, as my story will show, all this. He was indeed an incarnate fiend. But was he to blame? He was possessed by devils; but they were devils of insanity. The taint of madness was in his blood before he uttered his first cry in the cradle. His uncle, whose coronet he was to wear, was an incurable madman. His aunt, the Lady Barbara Shirley, spent years of her life shut up in an asylum. And this hereditary taint shadowed Laurence Shirley's life from his infancy, and ended it in tragedy.
As a boy, he was subject to violent attacks of rage, when it was not safe to approach him; and his madness grew with his years. Strange tales are told of him as a young man. We are told that he would spend hours pacing like a wild animal up and down his room, gnashing his teeth, clenching his fists, grinning diabolically, and uttering strange incoherent cries. He would stand before a mirror, making horrible grimaces at his reflection, and spitting upon it; he walked about armed with pistols and dagger, ready at a moment to use both on any one who annoyed or opposed him; and in his disordered brain he nursed suspicion and hatred of all around him.
When he was little more than thirty, and some years after he had come into his earldom, he wooed and won the pretty daughter of Sir William Meredith; but before the honeymoon was ended he had begun to treat her with such gross brutality that, before she had long been a wife, she petitioned Parliament for a divorce, which set her free. And as he was obviously quite unfit to administer his estates, it became necessary to appoint some one to receive his rents and control his revenue.
Such was the pitiful plight to which insanity had reduced Laurence, Earl Ferrers, while still little over the threshold of manhood; and these calamities only, and perhaps naturally, accentuated his madness. He became more and more the terror of the neighbourhood in which he lived, and few had the courage to meet him when he took his solitary walks.
"I still retain," writes a Mr Cradock in his "Memoirs," "a strong impression of the unfortunate Earl Ferrers, who, with the Ladies Shirley, his sisters, frequented Leicester races, and visited at my father's house. During the early part of the day his lordship preserved the character of a polite scholar and a courteous nobleman, but in the evening he became the terror of the inhabitants; and I distinctly remember running upstairs to hide myself when an alarm was given that Lord Ferrers was coming armed, with a great mob after him. He had behaved well at the ordinary; the races were then in the afternoon, and the ladies regularly attended the balls. My father's house was situated midway between Lord Ferrers's lodgings and the Town Hall, where the race assemblies were then held. He had, as was supposed, obtained liquor privately, and then became outrageous; for, from our house he suddenly escaped and proceeded to the Town Hall, and, after many violent acts, threw a silver tankard of scalding negus among the ladies. He was then secured for that evening. This was the last time of his appearing at Leicester, till brought from Ashby-de-la-Zouche to prison there.
"It has been much regretted by his friends that, as Lady Ferrers and some of his property had been taken from him, no greater precaution had been used with respect to his own safety as well as that of all around him. Whilst sober, my father, who had a real regard for him, always urged that he was quite manageable; and when his sisters ventured to come with him to the races, they had an absolute reliance on his good intentions and promises."
Once he disappeared for a time, and made his way to London, where he lodged obscurely in the neighbourhood of Muswell Hill. Here he surrounded himself with grooms and ostlers, and other low company of both sexes, abandoning himself to orgies of debauchery. Among his milder eccentricities he would, we are told, mix mud with his beer, and drain tankard after tankard of the nauseating mixture. He drank his coffee from the spout of the coffee-pot, and wandered about, a grotesque figure, with one side of his face clean-shaven.
But even then he had sane moments, when the raving madman of yesterday became the courteous, polite, shrewd man of to-day, charming all by his wit and high-bred geniality. It was, of course, inevitable that a career such as this, marked by a madness which grew daily, should lead sooner or later to tragedy. And tragedy was coming swiftly. It came early in the year 1760, before Lord Ferrers had reached his fortieth birthday. And this is how it came.
The Court of Chancery had ordered that his lordship's rents should be received and accounted for by a receiver, who, by way of concession to his feelings, was to be appointed by himself. The Earl, who rarely lacked shrewdness, looked round for the most suitable person to fill this delicate post—for a man who should be as clay in his hands; and such a "tool" he thought he had found in his steward, Mr John Johnson, who had known him since boyhood, and who had never thwarted him even in his maddest caprices. Mr Johnson was duly appointed receiver; but the Earl's self-congratulation was short-lived. The steward proved that he was possessed of a conscience, and that neither cajolery nor threats could make him swerve from the straight path of honesty.
In vain the Earl coaxed and blustered and bullied. The receiver was adamant. He had a duty to perform, and at any cost he would discharge it. His lordship's rage at such unlooked-for recalcitrancy was unbounded. He began to hate the too honest steward with a murderous hatred; behind his back he loaded him with abuse, and vowed that, of all his enemies, the steward was the most virulent and implicable. But while the Earl was nursing this diabolical hatred, he showed little sign of it to Johnson, who was so unsuspectingly walking to meet tragedy.
One January day, in 1760, Lord Ferrers sent a polite message to his steward to come to Staunton Harold on an urgent matter of business. It was on a Friday; and punctually at two o'clock, the hour appointed, Mr Johnson made his appearance, and was ushered into his Lordship's study. Unknown to him, Lord Ferrers had sent away his housekeeper and his menservants on various pretexts; and, apart from the Earl and the steward (the spider and the fly), there was no one in all the great house but three maidservants, whose chief anxiety was to keep as far away as possible from their mad master.
With a courteous greeting Lord Ferrers invited Mr Johnson to take a seat; and then, placing before him a document, which proved to be a confession of fraud and dishonesty in his office of receiver, he commanded his steward to sign his name to it.
On reading the confession which he was ordered to sign, Mr Johnson indignantly refused to comply with such an outrageous demand. "You refuse to sign?" asked the Earl with ominous calmness. "I do," was the emphatic reply. "Then," continued his lordship, producing a pistol, "I command you to kneel." Mr Johnson, now alarmed and awake to his danger, looked first at the stern, cold eyes bent on him, and then at the pistol pointed at his heart, and sank on one knee. "Both knees!" insisted the Earl. Mr Johnson subsided on the other knee, looking calmly at his would-be murderer, though beads of perspiration were standing on his forehead. A moment later a shot rang out in the silent room, and the steward fell to the floor mortally wounded. Laying down the smoking weapon, Lord Ferrers opened the door and called loudly for assistance. The horrified servants, who had heard the report, came, huddled and fearful, at his bidding. One he despatched for a doctor, and, with the assistance of the other two, he carried the fast-dying man to a bedroom. When the doctor arrived he found the Earl standing by the bedside, trying to stop the flow of blood which was ebbing from the steward's chest; but the victim was beyond all human aid. He had but a few hours at the most to live. An hour later Lord Ferrers was lying dead drunk on the floor of his bedroom, while Mr Johnson's life was ebbing out in agony at his house, a mile away.
"As soon as it became known," to quote the account given by an eye-witness in the Gentleman's Magazine, "that Mr Johnson was really dead, the neighbours set about seizing the murderer. A few persons, armed, set out for Staunton, and as they entered the hall-yard they saw the Earl going towards the stable, as they imagined, to take horse. He appeared to be just out of bed, his stockings being down and his garters in his hand, having probably taken the alarm immediately on coming out of his room, and finding that Johnson had been removed. One Springthorpe, advancing towards his lordship, presented a pistol, and required him to surrender; but his lordship putting his hand to his pocket, Springthrope imagined he was feeling for a pistol, and stopped short, being probably intimidated. He thus suffered the Earl to escape back into the house, where he fastened the doors and stood on his defence.
"The crowd of people who had come to apprehend him beset the house, and their number increased very fast. In about two hours Lord Ferrers appeared at the garret window, and called out: 'How is Johnson?' Springthorpe answered: 'He is dead,' upon which his lordship insulted him, and called him a liar, and swore he would not believe anybody but the surgeon, Kirkland. Upon being again assured that he was dead, he desired that the people might be dispersed, saying that he would surrender; yet, almost in the same breath, he desired that the people might be let in, and have some victuals and drink; but the issue was that he went away again from the window, swearing that he would not be taken.
"The people, however, still continued near the house, and two hours later he was seen on the bowling-green by one, Curtis, a collier. 'My lord' was then armed with a blunderbuss and a dagger and two or three pistols; but Curtis, so far from being intimidated, marched boldly up to him, and his lordship was so struck with the determinate resolution shown by this brave fellow, that he suffered him to seize him without making any resistance. Yet the moment that he was in custody he declared that he had killed a villain, and that he gloried in the deed."
The tragedy is now hastening to its close. The assassin was kept in custody at Ashby until a coroner's jury brought in a verdict of "Wilful Murder" against him, when he was transferred to Leicester, and a fortnight later to London, making the journey in his own splendid equipage with six horses, and "dressed like a jockey, in a close riding-frock, jockey boots and cap, and a plain shirt." He was lodged in the Round Tower of the Tower of London, where, with a couple of warders at his elbow night and day, with sentries posted outside his door, and another on the drawbridge, he passed the last weeks of his doomed life.
In mid-April he was duly tried by his Peers at the Bar of the House of Lords; and, although he tried with marvellous skill and ingenuity to prove that he was insane when he committed the murder, he was, without a dissentient voice, pronounced "Guilty," and sentenced to be "hanged by the neck until he was dead," when his body should be handed over to the surgeons for dissection. One concession he claimed—pitiful salve to his pride—that he should be hanged by a cord of silk, the privilege due to his rank as a Peer of the realm; and this was granted as a matter of course.
One day in early May the scaffold was reared at Tyburn, where so many other malefactors had looked their last on the world; and at nine o'clock in the morning Lord Ferrers started on his last journey—the most splendid and most tragic of his chequered life. He was allowed, as a last favour, to travel to his death, not in the common hangman's cart as an ordinary criminal, but in his own landau, drawn by 'six beautiful horses; and thus he made his stately progress to Tyburn.
Probably no man ever journeyed to the scaffold under such circumstances of pomp and splendour. It might well, indeed, have been the bridal procession of a great nobleman that the black avenues of curious spectators in London's streets had come to see, and not the last grim journey of a malefactor to the hangman's rope. His very dress was that of a bridegroom, consisting, as it did, to quote again from the Gentleman's Magazine,
"of a suit of light-coloured clothes, embroidered with silver, said to have been his wedding-suit; and soon after the Sheriff entered the landau, he said, 'You may, perhaps, sir, think it strange to see me in this dress, but I have my particular reasons for it.' The procession then began in the following order: A very large body of constables of the county of Middlesex, preceded by one of the high constables; a party of horse grenadiers, and a party of foot; Mr Sheriff Errington, in his chariot, accompanied by his under-Sheriff, Mr Jackson; the landau escorted by two other parties of horse grenadiers and foot; Mr Sheriff Vaillant's chariot, in which was Under-Sheriff Mr Nichols; a mourning-coach and six, with some of his lordship's friends; and, lastly, a hearse and six, provided for the conveyance of his lordship's corpse from the place of execution to Surgeons' Hall.
"The procession moved so slowly that Lord Ferrers was two hours and three-quarters in his landau but during the whole time he appeared perfectly easy and composed, though he often expressed his desire to have it over, saying that the apparatus of death and the passing through such crowds of people was ten times worse than death itself. He told the Sheriff that he had written to the King, begging that he might suffer where his ancestor, the Earl of Essex, had suffered—namely, on Tower Hill; that 'he had been in the greater hope of obtaining this favour as he had the honour of quartering part of the same arms and of being allied to his Majesty; and that he thought it hard that he should have to die at the place appointed for the execution of common felons.' As to his crime, he declared that he did it 'under particular circumstances, having met with so many crosses and vexations that he scarcely knew what he did."
At the top of Drury Lane he paused to drink his last glass of wine, handing a guinea to the man who presented it. On the scaffold not a muscle moved as he surveyed the black crowd of onlookers with a calm and amused eye. To the chaplain he confessed his belief in God; and he exchanged a few pleasant words with the executioner as he placed a gold coin in his hand.
Thus, cold, calm, without rancour or regret, perished Laurence, Earl Ferrers, not even a struggle marking the moment when life left him. After hanging for an hour, his body was taken down and removed to Surgeons' Hall, where it was dissected; and, thus mutilated, it was exposed to public derision and malediction before it found a final resting-place, fourteen feet deep under the belfry of old St Pancras Church.
Such is the stain which burns red on the Shirley shield, and such was the man who placed it there. But, as we have seen, Laurence Shirley was mad beyond all doubt, and "knew not what he did"; and in the eyes of all charitable and right-thinking men the 'scutcheon of the Ferrers Earldom remains as virtually unsullied to-day as when it was virginally fresh two centuries ago.
A GHOSTLY VISITANT
There is scarcely a chapter in the story of the British Peerage more tragic and mysterious than that which chronicles the closing days of Thomas, second Lord Lyttelton, whose dissolute life had its fitting climax of horror at the exact moment foretold to him by a ghostly visitor. Various and somewhat conflicting accounts are given of this singular tragedy; but in them all the chief incidents stand out so clear and unassailable that even such a hard-headed sceptic as Dr Johnson declared, "I am so glad to have evidence of the spiritual world that I am willing to believe it."
Thomas, second Lord Lyttelton, son of the first Baron, the distinguished poet and historian, was the degenerate descendant of five centuries of Lyttelton ancestors, who had held their heads among the highest in the county of Worcester since the days of the third Henry. Unlike his clean-living forefathers, he was famous as a debauchee in a dissolute age.
"Of his morals," Sir Bernard Burke says, "we may judge by the fact of his having died the victim of the coarsest debauchery, and leaving behind him a diary more disgustingly licentious than the pages of Aratine himself."
William Coombe, who had been at Eton with Lyttelton, is said to have had his old schoolfellow in mind when he dedicated his Diaboliad "to the worst man in His Majesty's Dominions," and when he penned those terrible lines:—
"Have I not tasted every villain's part? Have I not broke a noble parent's heart? Do I not daily boast how I betrayed The tender widow and the virtuous maid?"
From the days when he wore his Eton jacket the life of this perverse lord seems to have been one long record of profligacy; at least, until that day, but six years before its end, when, to quote his own words, "I awoke, and behold I was a lord!"
"From the time when," Mr Stanley Makower writes, "although no more than a youth of nineteen, his engagement to General Warburton's daughter had been broken off on the discovery of the vicious life he had led in his travels in France and Italy, he had been a source of shame and trouble to his family.... To measure the depths of Lyttelton's vices, it is necessary to read his own letters, in which the literary style is as perfect as the fearless admission of fault is bewildering."
Indeed, even more remarkable than the viciousness of his life, was the brazen openness with which he flaunted it in the face of the world.
With this depravity were oddly allied gifts of mind and graces of person, which, but for the handicap of vice, should have made Lord Lyttelton one of the most eminent and useful men of his time. When he was at Eton Dr Barnard, the headmaster, predicted a great future for the boy, whose talents he declared were superior to those of young Fox. In literature and art his natural endowment was such that he might easily have won a leading place in either profession; while his gifts of statemanship and his eloquent tongue might with equal ease have won fame and high position in the arena of politics.
Shortly after he succeeded to his Barony he married the widow of Joseph Peach, Governor of Calcutta, and for a time seems to have made an effort to reform his ways; but the vice in his blood was quick to reassert itself; he abandoned his wife under the spell of a barmaid's eyes, and plunged again into the morass of depravity, in which alone he could find the pleasure he loved.
Such was Lord Lyttelton at the time this story opens, when, although still a young man (he was but thirty-five when he died), he was a nervous and physical wreck, draining the last dregs of the cup of pleasure.
And yet, how little he seems to have realised that he was near the end of his tether the following story proves. One day in the last month of his life a cousin and boon companion, Mr Fortescue, called on him at his London home.
"He found," to quote the words of his lordship's stepmother, "Lord Lyttelton in bed, though not ill; and on his rallying him for it, Lord Lyttelton said: 'Well, cousin, if you will wait in the next room a little while, I will get up and go out with you.' He did so, and the two young men walked out into the streets. In the course of their walk they crossed the churchyard of St James's, Piccadilly. Lord Lyttelton, pointing to the gravestones, said: 'Now, look at these vulgar fellows; they die in their youth at five-and-thirty. But you and I, who are gentlemen, shall live to a good old age!'"
How little could he have anticipated that within a few days he, too, would be lying among the "vulgar fellows" who die in their youth at five-and-thirty!
And, indeed, there seemed little evidence of such a tragic possibility; for the very next day he was charming the House of Lords with a speech of singular eloquence and statesmanlike grasp—the speech of a man in the prime of his powers. Such efforts as this, however, were but as the spasmodic flickerings of a candle that is burning to its end, and were followed by deeper plunges into the dissipations that were surely killing him.