It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies, — who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two, — that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her. She was the only child of old Admiral Greystock, who in the latter years of his life was much perplexed by the possession of a daughter. The admiral was a man who liked whist, wine, — and wickedness in general we may perhaps say, and whose ambition it was to live every day of his life up to the end of it. People say that he succeeded, and that the whist, wine, and wickedness were there, at the side even of his dying bed. He had no particular fortune, and yet his daughter, when she was little more than a child, went about everywhere with jewels on her fingers, and red gems hanging round her neck, and yellow gems pendent from her ears, and white gems shining in her black hair. She was hardly nineteen when her father died and she was taken home by that dreadful old termagant, her aunt, Lady Linlithgow. Lizzie would have sooner gone to any other friend or relative, had there been any other friend or relative to take her possessed of a house in town. Her uncle, Dean Greystock, of Bobsborough, would have had her, and a more good-natured old soul than the dean’s wife did not exist, — and there were three pleasant, good-tempered girls in the deanery, who had made various little efforts at friendship with their cousin Lizzie; but Lizzie had higher ideas for herself than life in the deanery at Bobsborough. She hated Lady Linlithgow. During her father’s lifetime, when she hoped to be able to settle herself before his death, she was not in the habit of concealing her hatred for Lady Linlithgow. Lady Linlithgow was not indeed amiable or easily managed. But when the admiral died, Lizzie did not hesitate for a moment in going to the old “vulturess,” as she was in the habit of calling the countess in her occasional correspondence with the girls at Bobsborough.
The admiral died greatly in debt; — so much so that it was a marvel how tradesmen had trusted him. There was literally nothing left for anybody, — and Messrs. Harter and Benjamin of Old Bond Street condescended to call at Lady Linlithgow’s house in Brook Street, and to beg that the jewels supplied during the last twelve months might be returned. Lizzie protested that there were no jewels, — nothing to signify, nothing worth restoring. Lady Linlithgow had seen the diamonds, and demanded an explanation. They had been “parted with,” by the admiral’s orders, — so said Lizzie, — for the payment of other debts. Of this Lady Linlithgow did not believe a word, but she could not get at any exact truth. At that moment the jewels were in very truth pawned for money which had been necessary for Lizzie’s needs. Certain things must be paid for, — one’s own maid for instance; and one must have some money in one’s pocket for railway-trains and little knick-knacks which cannot be had on credit. Lizzie when she was nineteen knew how to do without money as well as most girls; but there were calls which she could not withstand, debts which even she must pay.
She did not, however, drop her acquaintance with Messrs. Harter and Benjamin. Before her father had been dead eight months, she was closeted with Mr. Benjamin, transacting a little business with him. She had come to him, she told him, the moment she was of age, and was willing to make herself responsible for the debt, signing any bill, note, or document which the firm might demand from her, to that effect. Of course she had nothing of her own, and never would have anything. That Mr. Benjamin knew. As for payment of the debt by Lady Linlithgow, who for a countess was as poor as Job, Mr. Benjamin, she was quite sure, did not expect anything of the kind. But — Then Lizzie paused, and Mr. Benjamin, with the sweetest and wittiest of smiles, suggested that perhaps Miss Greystock was going to be married. Lizzie, with a pretty maiden blush, admitted that such a catastrophe was probable. She had been asked in marriage by Sir Florian Eustace. Now Mr. Benjamin knew, as all the world knew, that Sir Florian Eustace was a very rich man indeed; a man in no degree embarrassed, and who could pay any amount of jewellers’ bills for which claim might be made upon him. Well; what did Miss Greystock want? Mr. Benjamin did not suppose that Miss Greystock was actuated simply by a desire to have her old bills paid by her future husband. Miss Greystock wanted a loan sufficient to take the jewels out of pawn. She would then make herself responsible for the full amount due. Mr. Benjamin said that he would make a few inquiries. “But you won’t betray me,” said Lizzie, “for the match might be off.” Mr. Benjamin promised to be more than cautious.
There was not so much of falsehood as might have been expected in the statement which Lizzie Greystock made to the jeweller. It was not true that she was of age, and therefore no future husband would be legally liable for any debt which she might then contract. And it was not true that Sir Florian Eustace had asked her in marriage. Those two little blemishes in her statement must be admitted. But it was true that Sir Florian was at her feet, and that by a proper use of her various charms, — the pawned jewels included, — she might bring him to an offer. Mr. Benjamin made his inquiries, and acceded to the proposal. He did not tell Miss Greystock that she had lied to him in that matter of her age, though he had discovered the lie. Sir Florian would no doubt pay the bill for his wife without any arguments as to the legality of the claim. From such information as Mr. Benjamin could acquire he thought that there would be a marriage, and that the speculation was on the whole in his favour. Lizzie recovered her jewels and Mr. Benjamin was in possession of a promissory note purporting to have been executed by a person who was no longer a minor. The jeweller was ultimately successful in his views, — and so was the lady.
Lady Linlithgow saw the jewels come back, one by one, ring added to ring on the little taper fingers, the rubies for the neck, and the pendent yellow earrings. Though Lizzie was in mourning for her father, still these things were allowed to be visible. The countess was not the woman to see them without inquiry, and she inquired vigorously. She threatened, stormed, and protested. She attempted even a raid upon the young lady’s jewel-box. But she was not successful. Lizzie snapped and snarled and held her own, — for at that time the match with Sir Florian was near its accomplishment, and the countess understood too well the value of such a disposition of her niece to risk it at the moment by any open rupture. The little house in Brook Street, — for the house was very small and very comfortless, — a house that had been squeezed in, as it were, between two others without any fitting space for it, — did not contain a happy family. One bedroom, and that the biggest, was appropriated to the Earl of Linlithgow, the son of the countess, a young man who passed perhaps five nights in town during the year. Other inmate there was none besides the aunt and the niece and the four servants, — of whom one was Lizzie’s own maid. Why should such a countess have troubled herself with the custody of such a niece? Simply because the countess regarded it as a duty. Lady Linlithgow was worldly, stingy, ill-tempered, selfish, and mean. Lady Linlithgow would cheat a butcher out of a mutton-chop, or a cook out of a month’s wages, if she could do so with some slant of legal wind in her favour. She would tell any number of lies to carry a point in what she believed to be social success. It was said of her that she cheated at cards. In back-biting, no venomous old woman between Bond Street and Park Lane could beat her, — or, more wonderful still, no venomous old man at the clubs. But nevertheless she recognised certain duties, — and performed them, though she hated them. She went to church, not merely that people might see her there, — as to which in truth she cared nothing, — but because she thought it was right. And she took in Lizzie Greystock, whom she hated almost as much as she did sermons, because the admiral’s wife had been her sister, and she recognised a duty. But, having thus bound herself to Lizzie, — who was a beauty, — of course it became the first object of her life to get rid of Lizzie by a marriage. And, though she would have liked to think that Lizzie would be tormented all her days, though she thoroughly believed that Lizzie deserved to be tormented, she set her heart upon a splendid match. She would at any rate be able to throw it daily in her niece’s teeth that the splendour was of her doing. Now a marriage with Sir Florian Eustace would be very splendid, and therefore she was unable to go into the matter of the jewels with that rigour which in other circumstances she would certainly have displayed.
The match with Sir Florian Eustace, — for a match it came to be, — was certainly very splendid. Sir Florian was a young man about eight-and-twenty, very handsome, of immense wealth, quite unencumbered, moving in the best circles, popular, so far prudent that he never risked his fortune on the turf or in gambling-houses, with the reputation of a gallant soldier, and a most devoted lover. There were two facts concerning him which might, or might not, be taken as objections. He was vicious, and — he was dying. When a friend, intending to be kind, hinted the latter circumstance to Lady Linlithgow, the countess blinked and winked and nodded, and then swore that she had procured medical advice on the subject. Medical advice declared that Sir Florian was not more likely to die than another man, — if only he would get married; all of which statement on her ladyship’s part was a lie. When the same friend hinted the same thing to Lizzie herself, Lizzie resolved that she would have her revenge upon that friend. At any rate the courtship went on.
We have said that Sir Florian was vicious; — but he was not altogether a bad man, nor was he vicious in the common sense of the word. He was one who denied himself no pleasure, let the cost be what it might in health, pocket, or morals. Of sin or wickedness he had probably no distinct idea. In virtue, as an attribute of the world around him, he had no belief. Of honour he thought very much, and had conceived a somewhat noble idea that because much had been given to him much was demanded of him. He was haughty, polite, — and very generous. There was almost a nobility even about his vices. And he had a special gallantry of which it is hard to say whether it is or is not to be admired. They told him that he was like to die, — very like to die, if he did not change his manner of living. Would he go to Algiers for a period? Certainly not. He would do no such thing. If he died, there was his brother John left to succeed him. And the fear of death never cast a cloud over that grandly beautiful brow. They had all been short-lived, — the Eustaces. Consumption had swept a hecatomb of victims from the family. But still they were grand people, and never were afraid of death.
And then Sir Florian fell in love. Discussing this matter with his brother, who was perhaps his only intimate friend, he declared that if the girl he loved would give herself to him, he would make what atonement he could to her for his own early death by a princely settlement. John Eustace, who was somewhat nearly concerned in the matter, raised no objection to this proposal. There was ever something grand about these Eustaces. Sir Florian was a grand gentleman; but surely he must have been dull of intellect, slow of discernment, blear-eyed in his ways about the town, when he took Lizzie Greystock, — of all the women whom he could find in the world, — to be the purest, the truest, and the noblest. It has been said of Sir Florian that he did not believe in virtue. He freely expressed disbelief in the virtue of women around him, — in the virtue of women of all ranks. But he believed in his mother and sisters as though they were heaven-born; and he was one who could believe in his wife as though she were the queen of heaven. He did believe in Lizzie Greystock, thinking that intellect, purity, truth, and beauty, each perfect in its degree, were combined in her. The intellect and beauty were there; — but, for the purity and truth — ; how could it have been that such a one as Sir Florian Eustace should have been so blind!
Sir Florian was not, indeed, a clever man; but he believed himself to be a fool. And believing himself to be a fool, he desired, nay, painfully longed, for some of those results of cleverness which might, he thought, come to him, from contact with a clever woman. Lizzie read poetry well, and she read verses to him, — sitting very near to him, almost in the dark, with a shaded lamp throwing its light on her book. He was astonished to find how sweet a thing was poetry. By himself he could never read a line, but as it came from her lips it seemed to charm him. It was a new pleasure, and one which, though he had ridiculed it, he had so often coveted! And then she told him of such wondrous thoughts, — such wondrous joys in the world which would come from thinking! He was proud, I have said, and haughty; but he was essentially modest and humble in his self-estimation. How divine was this creature, whose voice to him was as that of a goddess!
Then he spoke out to her, with his face a little turned from her. Would she be his wife? But, before she answered him, let her listen to him. They had told him that an early death must probably be his fate. He did not himself feel that it must be so. Sometimes he was ill, — very ill; but often he was well. If she would run the risk with him he would endeavour to make her such recompense as might come from his wealth. The speech he made was somewhat long, and as he made it he hardly looked into her face.
But it was necessary to him that he should be made to know by some signal from her how it was going with her feelings. As he spoke of his danger, there came a gurgling little trill of wailing from her throat, a soft, almost musical sound of woe, which seemed to add an unaccustomed eloquence to his words. When he spoke of his own hope the sound was somewhat changed, but it was still continued. When he alluded to the disposition of his fortune, she was at his feet. “Not that,” she said, “not that!” He lifted her, and with his arm round her waist he tried to tell her what it would be his duty to do for her. She escaped from his arm and would not listen to him. But, — but — ! When he began to talk of love again, she stood with her forehead bowed against his bosom. Of course the engagement was then a thing accomplished.
But still the cup might slip from her lips. Her father was now dead but ten months, and what answer could she make when the common pressing petition for an early marriage was poured into her ear? This was in July, and it would never do that he should be left, unmarried, to the rigour of another winter. She looked into his face and knew that she had cause for fear. Oh, heavens! if all these golden hopes should fall to the ground, and she should come to be known only as the girl who had been engaged to the late Sir Florian! But he himself pressed the marriage on the same ground. “They tell me,” he said, “that I had better get a little south by the beginning of October. I won’t go alone. You know what I mean; — eh, Lizzie?” Of course she married him in September.
They spent a honeymoon of six weeks at a place he had in Scotland, and the first blow came upon him as they passed through London, back from Scotland, on their way to Italy. Messrs. Harter and Benjamin sent in their little bill, which amounted to something over £400, and other little bills were sent in. Sir Florian was a man by whom such bills would certainly be paid, but by whom they would not be paid without his understanding much and conceiving more as to their cause and nature. How much he really did understand she was never quite aware; — but she did know that he detected her in a positive falsehood. She might certainly have managed the matter better than she did; and had she admitted everything there might probably have been but few words about it. She did not, however, understand the nature of the note she had signed, and thought that simply new bills would be presented by the jewellers to her husband. She gave a false account of the transaction, and the lie was detected. I do not know that she cared very much. As she was utterly devoid of true tenderness, so also was she devoid of conscience. They went abroad, however; and by the time the winter was half over in Naples, he knew what his wife was; — and before the end of the spring he was dead.
She had so far played her game well, and had won her stakes. What regrets, what remorse she suffered when she knew that he was going from her, — and then knew that he was gone, who can say? As man is never strong enough to take unmixed delight in good, so may we presume also that he cannot be quite so weak as to find perfect satisfaction in evil. There must have been qualms as she looked at his dying face, soured with the disappointment she had brought upon him, and listened to the harsh querulous voice that was no longer eager in the expressions of love. There must have been some pang when she reflected that the cruel wrong which she had inflicted on him had probably hurried him to his grave. As a widow, in the first solemnity of her widowhood, she was wretched and would see no one. Then she returned to England and shut herself up in a small house at Brighton. Lady Linlithgow offered to go to her, but she begged that she might be left to herself. For a few short months the awe arising from the rapidity with which it had all occurred did afflict her. Twelve months since she had hardly known the man who was to be her husband. Now she was a widow, — a widow very richly endowed, — and she bore beneath her bosom the fruit of her husband’s love.