Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.
In this scene, which takes place in the Upper Rooms in Bath, a young gentleman and his mother are seated at tea, watching the dancers flying past them in high spirits. The gentleman seems affectedly indifferent, and his haughty and restless mother reminds one of a peacock – in appearance.
"It is a sensible ball after all," Sir Arthur Leigh said distractedly, turning out his pockets in search of his handkerchief. His mother, the dowager Lady Eleanor Leigh, scoffed, exclaiming, "You young men never know where to find your handkerchiefs. It is most annoying!"
Sir Arthur was a placid man with a fine countenance, a good understanding, easy manner, and a very high opinion of himself, whose behaviour was not calculated to entertain others but to amuse himself. He regarded her with a frown, replying impatiently: "In the first place, I don't need it. You needn't fret over the matter so much." The twitchy dowager's attention was no longer fixed on her son, and her unsettled gaze presently followed a tall and graceful girl of about eight and ten years being led onto the dance floor by a gentleman whom she found intolerable – not for want of manners but for want of fortune.
"Arty," she hissed into her son's ear, eyeing them warily. "That self-loving Edgar Walpole is dancing a quadrille with our Isabella."
"What of that?" he replied indifferently, raising his brows as he adjusted his silk neckerchief. His mother looked bewildered.
"How can you be so little disposed to be involved in your sister's affairs?" she cried, at a loss with her son. He regarded her coolly, amusing himself with his mother's over-dramatized anxiety.
"I wish to goodness you didn't speak so ill of him. Edgar Walpole is a fine gentleman with a bequest of fifteen thousand pounds and a substantial estate in Derbyshire. I should think you've no reason for thinking him so insignificant."
"Ah me!" she fidgeted, impatient to scold her liberal-minded son. "How tolerant you are. However, Mr. Walpole is your friend, and I daresay you'd not breathe a word in opposition to him."
"I will tell you what," he replied with a delighted grin. "If you prove to me why Edgar Walpole does not merit gaining your leave to marry Bella, then I might begin to doubt the sincerity of his motives, but until you do, I shall venture to more or less like him."
"Such audacity!" cried his nervous mother, fanning herself vigorously. "Well I never! Edgar Walpole is not at all a proper match for Isabella. – They should not suit."
"My dear lady-mother," he bowed, "you persist in speaking ill of this man, yet you offer no grounds in support of your claims. I am of a mind to consider you ignorant."
"My dear boy!" she struggled to suppress a shriek, a nervous spasm crossing her mouth instead. "Behold them, how they dance! Nay – what they dance. The man has chosen the quadrille, of all dances, merely to be with her."
"I am rather fond of a quadrille."
"Oh, shocking!" she swayed, a red glow over-spreading her face. "How indifferent you do seem. The quadrille, my boy, is a conversational dance: he must mean to know her. Well, Arty, what do you think?"
"I am sure, mother," he cried with an arch look, "that Edgar schemes to sully our name."
"Arthur!" she yelped, hitting him with her fan. "You wicked, offensive boy! How can you be so? And to your dear old mother! Fie, Arthur, for shame! You must tell me in earnest what you think of the unwholesome gentleman in question."
"Ah then, you will listen?" he grinned at her significantly, leaning on his armrest to be the closer to his mother.
"Perchance, son," she shrugged, glaring at Edgar Walpole as he joined hands with her daughter.
"Edgar Walpole, by Jove, is a decent fellow: I wouldn't say capital, but I'll spare him the decency. All the same, I shan't raise your expectations too high. He is a good-natured, sensible, lively sort of fellow with the most steadfast heart. His situation is not contemptible, you know, and he is entitled to be loved by a girl of Bella's warm disposition and spontaneous sweetness, qualities any man with sense would wish for in a wife. I own he is excessively polished, but I think you'll come to like him, mother, in due course: 'we all know what time does', hey!"
Lady Eleanor could not conjure up an instant rejoinder – however, after a short minute of deliberation she declared, with stately indignation, that her Isabella could do far better than fifteen thousand pounds. Sir Arthur bowed, dismissing the matter under discussion.
He went on to observing the happy pair, who looked quite content, and never seemed to be lacking subjects for conversation. Though his friend was peculiarly polished and his humour seldom varied, he was predetermined to like him, for there was something in his smiling face that made one believe he well understood the art of pleasing. At length, the set ended, and Edgar Walpole escorted Isabella Leigh off the dance floor, doubtless to engage her in a drink. He followed them with his eyes until the crowd had consumed them, and Sir Arthur had nothing else with which to divert his wandering eye.
At the close of the ball, two hours later, Sir Arthur moves unenthusiastically towards the vestibule, and, slipping his arms into his greatcoat and his hands into his kid gloves with an air of importance, he saunters through the door and leaps into his buggy, which had been waiting for him at the entrance. He manoeuvres it to his apartments in Milsom-street.
The following morning at ten o'clock, when he goes down to the breakfast-room, his valet enters with a salver carrying a note. It is addressed from his brother. His eyes are seen devouring the contents anxiously.
"Shall I go, sir?" asked the greasy-haired valet, slightly inclined towards him.
"That will do, Lock," he returned absently, with a hand draped over his tightened lips. The servant withdrew soundlessly, and the only audible noise was the distant racket of his mother's cries of distress. It was all true, then, however difficult he found his brother's words to accept; 'Isabella has eloped with that wretched friend of yours.' Sir Arthur was shocked upon hearing this, having firmly believed to know this friend of his. A man could not feel more deceived by an initial conviction – the impertinence of feigned friendship at that instant fully weighed upon him. It was now undeniable that Edgar Walpole had formed an acquaintance with him merely to be in closer proximity to Isabella: Sir Arthur could not make allowances for their reckless and shockingly selfish conduct. He was in no doubt of there being affection on both sides, but he scarcely knew whether to trust its permanence: there was a possible chance it was juvenile blindness. Sir Arthur could not swallow the humiliation: who would want to correlate with their family after such a serious social scandal? He was sure to suffer the loss of half his acquaintance and witness in agony the significant plunge of his elevated standing in Society: he would no longer belong to the first circles, and the thought made him shudder in dread of the future. Indeed, his pride had been greatly smothered by this disagreeable affair, which he rather hoped to patch up as promptly as circumstance would allow him.
After having digested this news and turned his thoughts over several times, he abruptly sprung from his chair and touched the bell. His valet appeared instantly, as if he had been positioned directly on the other side of the doors.
"Lock, fetch me my greatcoat and cane. The ebony with the gold knob," he instructed absently. He had his mind set on having a conference with the family solicitor, a man of advanced years who filled the role of grandfather for the two Leigh siblings, who had neither of them been born soon enough to know their own. The valet reappeared with a greatcoat in one hand and a lacquered walking stick in the other. With faltering movements, he slipped his arms into his greatcoat and enveloped his perspiring hand round the gold doorknob. He turned it, and stepped into the carpeted corridor with a light though calculated step. It was high time to patch up the disagreeable affair.