IT was half-past eight, and the party were fast assembling in the twilight drawing-room. Leslie was lounging in one of the windows, by a large stand of flowers and broad-leaved plants, and was studying the company with considerable interest. His first impression was of little more than of a number of men’s dark coats and white shirt-fronts, tables, couches, and gilded chairs, and the pleasant many-coloured glimmerings of female apparel. But before long he had observed more minutely. There were men who he instinctively felt were celebrities, discoursing to groups of ladies; there were ladies who he at once saw were attractive, being discoursed to by groups of men. He very soon detected Lady Ambrose, a fine handsome woman of perhaps thirty, with the large grey eyes of which Laurence had spoken, and a very clear complexion. Leslie was much prepossessed by her frank manner, and by her charming voice, as she was talking with some animation to a tall distinguished-looking young man, whose fine features, keen earnest glance, and thoughtful expression prepossessed him still more. Forming a third in this group, dropping in a word or two at intervals, he recognised the celebrated Dr. Jenkinson—still full of vigour, though his hair was silver—the sharp and restless sparkle of whose eyes, strangely joined with the most benevolent of smiles, Leslie remembered to have noticed at Baron Isaacs’ festival. He had just identified Lady Ambrose and the Doctor, when Laurence came up to him in the window, and began to tell him who was who.
‘Dr. Jenkinson is the only one I know,’ said Leslie, ‘and, naturally enough, he forgets me.’
‘Well,’ said Laurence, ‘that man by himself, turning over the books on the table—the man with the black whiskers, spectacles, and bushy eyebrows—is Mr. Storks of the Royal Society, who is great on the physical basis of life and the imaginative basis of God. The man with long locks in the window, explaining a microscope in so eager a way to that dark-haired girl, is Professor Stockton—of the Royal Society also; and member and president of many Societies more. The girl—child, rather, I ought to call her—that he is talking to, is Lady Violet Gresham—my second cousin. You see my aunt, the old lady with grey curls, on the ottoman near the fire-place? Well—the supercilious-looking man, talking rather loudly and rather slowly to her about the dust in London, is Mr. Luke, the great critic and apostle of culture. That, too, is another critic close by him—the pale creature, with large moustache, looking out of the window at the sunset. He is Mr. Rose, the pre-Raphaelite. He always speaks in an undertone, and his two topics are self-indulgence and art. The young man there with Lady Ambrose and Dr. Jenkinson, is Lord Allen. He is only two- or three-and-twenty; still, had you been in England lately, you would often have heard his name. He has come early into an immense property, and he yet is conscious that he has duties in life. But,’ said Laurence, sighing, ‘he too feels, as I do, that he has fallen on evil days, in which there can be no peace for us—little but doubt and confusion, and what seems to me a losing battle against the spiritual darkness of this world. However—that redheaded youth thinks very differently. He is Mr. Saunders from Oxford, supposed to be very clever and advanced. Next him is Donald Gordon, who has deserted deer-stalking and the Kirk, for literature and German metaphysics.’
‘And who is that,’ said Leslie,’ the young lady with those large and rather sad-looking eyes, and the delicate, proud mouth?’
‘Which?’ said Laurence.
‘The one on the sofa,’ said Leslie, ‘who looks so like a Reynolds portrait—like a duchess of the last century—the lady in the pale blue dress, talking to that man with such a curiously attractive smile and the worn melancholy look?’
‘That,’ said Laurence, ‘is Miss Merton. I am glad you admire her. And don’t you know who it is she is talking to? He is almost the only man of these days for whom I feel a real reverence—almost the only one of our teachers who seems to me to speak with the least breath of inspiration. But he is too impressionable, perhaps—too much like me, in that way. And now, as the years come, it seems that hope is more and more leaving him, and things look darker to him than ever. That is Herbert.’
‘Herbert!’ exclaimed Leslie, ‘so it is. I thought I recollected the face. I have heard him lecture several times at the Royal Institution; and that singular voice of his, which would often hold all the theatre breathless, haunts me still, sometimes. There was something strange and aërial in its exquisite modulations, that seemed as if it came from a disconsolate spirit, hovering over the waters of Babylon, and remembering Sion. I can’t tell exactly why it was that—but, ah!—my dear Laurence—who is this, that is coming into the room now—this lovely creature, with a dress like a red azalea? What speaking eyes! And what hair, too—deep dead black, with those white starry blossoms in it. I don’t think I ever saw anyone move so gracefully; and how proudly and piquantly she poises
On her neck the small head buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed!’
‘That,’ said Laurence, when Leslie had done, ‘is Mrs. Sinclair, who has published a volume of poems, and is a sort of fashionable London Sappho. But come,—we shall be going into dinner directly. You shall have Lady Ambrose on one side of you, and shall take in Miss Merton.’