The Adventures of a Young Gentleman in Search of a Religion
by Mr. Benjamins
“And you have never seen him since, mamma?” asked the oldest married daughter, who did not look a day older than her mother.
“Never; he was an orphan shortly after. I have often reproached myself, but it is so difficult to see boys.”
This simple yet first-class conversation existed in the morning-room of Plusham, where the mistress of the palatial mansion sat involved in the sacred privacy of a circle of her married daughters. One dexterously applied golden knitting-needles to the fabrication of a purse of floss silk of the rarest texture, which none who knew the almost fabulous wealth of the Duke would believe was ever destined to hold in its silken meshes a less sum than 1,000,000 pounds; another adorned a slipper exclusively with seed pearls; a third emblazoned a page with rare pigments and the finest quality of gold leaf. Beautiful forms leaned over frames glowing with embroidery, and beautiful frames leaned over forms inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Others, more remote, occasionally burst into melody as they tried the passages of a new and exclusive air given to them in MS. by some titled and devoted friend, for the private use of the aristocracy alone, and absolutely prohibited for publication.
The Duchess, herself the superlative of beauty, wealth, and position, was married to the highest noble in the Three Kingdoms. Those who talked about such matters said that their progeny were exactly like their parents,—a peculiarity of the aristocratic and wealthy. They all looked like brothers and sisters, except their parents, who, such was their purity of blood, the perfection of their manners, and the opulence of their condition, might have been taken for their own children’s elder son and daughter. The daughters, with one exception, were all married to the highest nobles in the land. That exception was the Lady Coriander, who, there being no vacancy above a marquis and a rental of 1,000,000 pounds, waited. Gathered around the refined and sacred circle of their breakfast-table, with their glittering coronets, which, in filial respect to their father’s Tory instincts and their mother’s Ritualistic tastes, they always wore on their regal brows, the effect was dazzling as it was refined. It was this peculiarity and their strong family resemblance which led their brother-in-law, the good-humored St. Addlegourd, to say that, “’Pon my soul, you know, the whole precious mob looked like a ghastly pack of court cards, you know.” St. Addlegourd was a radical. Having a rent-roll of 15,000,000 pounds, and belonging to one of the oldest families in Britain, he could afford to be.
“Mamma, I’ve just dropped a pearl,” said the Lady Coriander, bending over the Persian hearth-rug.
“From your lips, sweet friend?” said Lothaw, who came of age and entered the room at the same moment.
“No, from my work. It was a very valuable pearl, mamma; papa gave Isaacs Sons 50,000 pounds for the two.”
“Ah, indeed,” said the Duchess, languidly rising; “let us go to luncheon.”
“But, your Grace,” interposed Lothaw, who was still quite young, and had dropped on all fours on the carpet in search of the missing gem, “consider the value”—
“Dear friend,” interposed the Duchess with infinite tact, gently lifting him by the tails of his dress coat, “I am waiting for your arm.”
Lothaw was immensely rich. The possessor of seventeen castles, fifteen villas, nine shooting-boxes, and seven town houses, he had other estates of which he had not even heard.
Everybody at Plusham played croquet, and none badly. Next to their purity of blood and great wealth, the family were famous for this accomplishment. Yet Lothaw soon tired of the game, and after seriously damaging his aristocratically large foot in an attempt to “tight croquet” the Lady Aniseed’s ball, he limped away to join the Duchess.
“I’m going to the hennery,” she said.
“Let me go with you; I dearly love fowls—broiled,” he added thoughtfully.
“The Duke gave Lady Montairy some large Cochins the other day,” continued the Duchess, changing the subject with delicate tact.
“Lady Montairy Quite contrairy, How do your Cochins grow?” sang Lothaw gayly.
The Duchess looked shocked. After a prolonged silence Lothaw abruptly and gravely said:—
“If you please, ma’am, when I come into my property I should like to build some improved dwellings for the poor, and marry Lady Coriander.”
“You amaze me, dear friend; and yet both your aspirations are noble and eminently proper,” said the Duchess.
“Coriander is but a child,—and yet,” she added, looking graciously upon her companion, “for the matter of that, so are you.”
Mr. Putney Giles’s was Lothaw’s first grand dinner-party. Yet, by carefully watching the others, he managed to acquit himself creditably, and avoided drinking out of the finger-bowl by first secretly testing its contents with a spoon. The conversation was peculiar and singularly interesting.
“Then you think that monogamy is simply a question of the thermometer?” said Mrs. Putney Giles to her companion.
“I certainly think that polygamy should be limited by isothermal lines,” replied Lothaw.
“I should say it was a matter of latitude,” observed a loud, talkative man opposite. He was an Oxford professor with a taste for satire, and had made himself very obnoxious to the company, during dinner, by speaking disparagingly of a former well-known chancellor of the exchequer,—a great statesman and brilliant novelist,—whom he feared and hated.
Suddenly there was a sensation in the room; among the females it absolutely amounted to a nervous thrill. His Eminence, the Cardinal, was announced. He entered with great suavity of manner, and after shaking hands with everybody, asking after their relatives, and chucking the more delicate females under the chin with a high-bred grace peculiar to his profession, he sat down, saying, “And how do we all find ourselves this evening, my dears?” in several different languages, which he spoke fluently.
Lothaw’s heart was touched. His deeply religious convictions were impressed. He instantly went up to this gifted being, confessed, and received absolution. “Tomorrow,” he said to himself, “I will partake of the communion, and endow the Church with my vast estates. For the present I’ll let the improved cottages go.”
As Lothaw turned to leave the Cardinal, he was struck by a beautiful face. It was that of a matron, slim but shapely as an Ionic column. Her face was Grecian, with Corinthian temples; Hellenic eyes that looked from jutting eyebrows, like dormer-windows in an Attic forehead, completed her perfect Athenian outline. She wore a black frock-coat tightly buttoned over her bloomer trousers, and a standing collar.
“Your lordship is struck by that face?” said a social parasite.
“I am; who is she?”
“Her name is Mary Ann. She is married to an American, and has lately invented a new religion.”
“Ah!” said Lothaw eagerly, with difficulty restraining himself from rushing toward her.
“Yes; shall I introduce you?”
Lothaw thought of Lady Coriander’s High Church proclivities, of the Cardinal, and hesitated: “No, I thank you, not now.”
Lothaw was maturing. He had attended two womens’ rights conventions, three Fenian meetings, had dined at White’s, and had danced vis-a-vis to a prince of the blood, and eaten off gold plates at Crecy House.
His stables were near Oxford, and occupied more ground than the University. He was driving over there one day, when he perceived some rustics and menials endeavoring to stop a pair of runaway horses attached to a carriage in which a lady and gentleman were seated. Calmly awaiting the termination of the accident, with high-bred courtesy Lothaw forbore to interfere until the carriage was overturned, the occupants thrown out, and the runaways secured by the servants, when he advanced and offered the lady the exclusive use of his Oxford stables.
Turning upon him a face whose perfect Hellenic details he remembered, she slowly dragged a gentleman from under the wheels into the light, and presented him with ladylike dignity as her husband, Major-General Camperdown, an American.
“Ah,” said Lothaw carelessly, “I believe I have some land there. If I mistake not, my agent, Mr. Putney Giles, lately purchased the State of—Illinois—I think you call it.”
“Exactly. As a former resident of the city of Chicago, let me introduce myself as your tenant.”
Lothaw bowed graciously to the gentleman, who, except that he seemed better dressed than most Englishmen, showed no other signs of inferiority and plebeian extraction.
“We have met before,” said Lothaw to the lady as she leaned on his arm, while they visited his stables, the University, and other places of interest in Oxford, “Pray tell me, what is this new religion of yours?”
“It is Woman Suffrage, Free Love, Mutual Affinity, and Communism. Embrace it and me.”
Lothaw did not know exactly what to do. She, however, soothed and sustained his agitated frame, and sealed with an embrace his speechless form. The General approached and coughed slightly with gentlemanly tact.
“My husband will be too happy to talk with you further on this subject,” she said with quiet dignity, as she regained the General’s side. “Come with us to Oneida. Brook Farm is a thing of the past.”
As Lothaw drove toward his country-seat, The Mural Inclosure, he observed a crowd, apparently of the working-class, gathered around a singular-looking man in the picturesque garb of an Ethiopian serenader. “What does he say?” inquired Lothaw of his driver.
The man touched his hat respectfully, and said, “My Mary Ann.”
“‘My Mary Ann!’” Lothaw’s heart beat rapidly. Who was this mysterious foreigner? He had heard from Lady Coriander of a certain Popish plot; but could he connect Mr. Camperdown with it?
The spectacle of two hundred men at arms, who advanced to meet him at the gates of The Mural Inclosure, drove all else from the still youthful and impressible mind of Lothaw. Immediately behind them, on the steps of the baronial halls, were ranged his retainers, led by the chief cook and bottle-washer and head crumb-remover. On either side were two companies of laundry-maids, preceded by the chief crimper and fluter, supporting a long Ancestral Line, on which depended the family linen, and under which the youthful lord of the manor passed into the halls of his fathers. Twenty-four scullions carried the massive gold and silver plate of the family on their shoulders, and deposited it at the feet of their master. The spoons were then solemnly counted by the steward, and the perfect ceremony ended.
Lothaw sighed. He sought out the gorgeously gilded “Taj,” or sacred mausoleum erected to his grandfather in the second-story front room, and wept over the man he did not know.
He wandered alone in his magnificent park, and then, throwing himself on a grassy bank, pondered on the Great First Cause and the necessity of religion. “I will send Mary Ann a handsome present,” said Lothaw thoughtfully.
“Each of these pearls, my lord, is worth fifty thousand guineas,” said Mr. Amethyst, the fashionable jeweler, as he lightly lifted a large shovelful from a convenient bin behind his counter.
“Indeed,” said Lothaw carelessly, “I should prefer to see some expensive ones.”
“Some number sixes, I suppose,” said Mr. Amethyst, taking a couple from the apex of a small pyramid that lay piled on the shelf. “These are about the size of the Duchess of Billingsgate’s, but they are in finer condition. The fact is, her Grace permits her two children, the Marquis of Smithfield and the Duke of St. Giles,—two sweet pretty boys, my lord,—to use them as marbles in their games. Pearls require some attention, and I go down there regularly twice a week to clean them. Perhaps your lordship would like some ropes of pearls?”
“About half a cable’s length,” said Lothaw shortly, “and send them to my lodgings.”
Mr. Amethyst became thoughtful. “I am afraid I have not the exact number—that is—excuse me one moment. I will run over to the Tower and borrow a few from the crown jewels.” And before Lothaw could prevent him, he seized his hat and left Lothaw alone.
His position certainly was embarrassing. He could not move without stepping on costly gems which had rolled from the counter; the rarest diamonds lay scattered on the shelves; untold fortunes in priceless emeralds lay within his grasp. Although such was the aristocratic purity of his blood and the strength of his religious convictions that he probably would not have pocketed a single diamond, still he could not help thinking that he might be accused of taking some. “You can search me, if you like,” he said when Mr. Amethyst returned; “but I assure you, upon the honor of a gentleman, that I have taken nothing.”
“Enough, my lord,” said Mr. Amethyst, with a low bow; “we never search the aristocracy.”
As Lothaw left Mr. Amethyst’s, he ran against General Camperdown. “How is Mary Ann?” he asked hurriedly.
“I regret to state that she is dying,” said the General, with a grave voice, as he removed his cigar from his lips, and lifted his hat to Lothaw.
“Dying!” said Lothaw incredulously.
“Alas, too true!” replied the General. “The engagements of a long lecturing season, exposure in traveling by railway during the winter, and the imperfect nourishment afforded by the refreshments along the road, have told on her delicate frame. But she wants to see you before she dies. Here is the key of my lodging. I will finish my cigar out here.”
Lothaw hardly recognized those wasted Hellenic outlines as he entered the dimly lighted room of the dying woman. She was already a classic ruin,—as wrecked and yet as perfect as the Parthenon. He grasped her hand silently.
“Open-air speaking twice a week, and Saleratus bread in the rural districts, have brought me to this,” she said feebly; “but it is well. The cause progresses. The tyrant man succumbs.”
Lothaw could only press her hand.
“Promise me one thing. Don’t—whatever you do—become a Catholic.”
“The Church does not recognize divorce. And now embrace me. I would prefer at this supreme moment to introduce myself to the next world through the medium of the best society in this. Good-by. When I am dead, be good enough to inform my husband of the fact.”
Lothaw spent the next six months on an Aryan island, in an Aryan climate, and with an Aryan race.
“This is an Aryan landscape,” said his host, “and that is a Mary Ann statue.” It was, in fact, a full-length figure in marble of Mrs. General Camperdown.
“If you please, I should like to become a Pagan,” said Lothaw, one day, after listening to an impassioned discourse on Greek art from the lips of his host.
But that night, on consulting a well-known spiritual medium, Lothaw received a message from the late Mrs. General Camperdown, advising him to return to England. Two days later he presented himself at Plusham.
“The young ladies are in the garden,” said the Duchess. “Don’t you want to go and pick a rose?” she added with a gracious smile, and the nearest approach to a wink that was consistent with her patrician bearing and aquiline nose.
Lothaw went and presently returned with the blushing Coriander upon his arm.
“Bless you, my children,” said the Duchess. Then turning to Lothaw, she said: “You have simply fulfilled and accepted your inevitable destiny. It was morally impossible for you to marry out of this family. For the present, the Church of England is safe.”