TSW Chapter 3.4


A Debut at the President’s “Drawing Room”

Excerpt from “Ishmael” 1864

By E.D.E.N. Southworth

 

     Claudia went deeper into her preparations for her first appearance in society at the President’s first drawing room of the season.

     The night of nights for the heiress came. After dinner Claudia indulged herself in a long nap, so that she might be quite fresh in the evening. When she woke up she took a cup of tea, and immediately retired to her chamber to dress.

     Mrs. Middleton superintended her toilet.

     Claudia wore a rich point-lace dress over a white satin skirt. The wreath that crowned her head, the necklace that reposed upon her bosom, the bracelets that clasped her arms, the girdle that enclosed her waist, and the bunches of flowers that festooned her upper lace dress, were all of the same rich pattern -- lilies of the valley, whose blossoms were formed of pearl, whose leaves were of emeralds, and whose dew was of diamonds. Snowy gloves and snowy shoes completed this toilet, the effect of which was rich, chaste, and elegant beyond description. Mrs. Middleton wore a superb dress of ruby-colored velvet.

     When they were both quite ready, they went down into the drawing room, where Judge Merlin, Mr. Middleton, and Ishmael were awaiting them, and where Claudia’s splendid presence suddenly dazzled them. Mr. Middleton and Judge Merlin gazed upon the radiant beauty with undisguised admiration. And Ishmael looked on with a deep unuttered groan. How dared he love this stately, resplendent queen? How dare he hope she would ever deign to notice him? But the next instant he reproached himself for the groan and the doubt -- how could he have been so fooled by a mere shimmer of satin and glitter of jewels?

     Judge Merlin and Mr. Middleton were in the conventional evening dress of gentlemen, and were quite ready to attend the ladies. They had nothing to do, therefore, but to hand them to the carriage, which they accordingly did. The party of four, Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, Judge Merlin, and Claudia, drove off.

     Ishmael and Beatrice remained at home. Ishmael to study his law books, Beatrice to give the boys their supper and see that the nurses took proper care of the children.

     The carriage rolled along Pennsylvania Avenue. The weather had changed since sunset, and the evening was misty with a light, drizzling rain. Yet still the scene was a gay, busy, and enlivening one, the gas lamps that lighted the avenue gleaned brightly through the rain drops like smiles through tears, the sidewalks were filled with pedestrians, and the middle of the street with vehicles, all going in one direction, to the President’s palace.

     A decorously slow drive of fifteen minutes brought our party through this gay scene to a gayer one at the north gates of the President’s park, where a great crowd of carriages were drawn up, waiting their turn to drive in.

     The gates were open and lighted by four tall lamps placed upon the posts, which illuminated the whole scene.

     Judge Merlin’s carriage drew up on the outskirts of this crowd of vehicles, to wait his turn to enter, but he soon found himself enclosed in the center of the assemblage by other carriages that had come after his own. He had to wait full fifteen minutes before he could fall into the procession that was slowly making its way through the right hand gate, and along the lighted circular avenue that led up to the front entrance of the palace. Even on this misty night the grounds were gayly illuminated and well filled. But crowded as the scene was, the utmost order prevailed. The carriages that came up the right-hand avenue, full of visitors, discharged them at the entrance hall and rolled away empty down the left-hand avenue, so that there was a continuous procession of full carriages coming up one way and empty carriages going down the other.

     At length Judge Merlin’s carriage, coming slowly along the line, drew up in its turn before the front of the mansion. The whole facade of the White House was splendidly illuminated, as if to express in radiant light a smiling welcome. The halls were occupied by attentive officers, who received the visitors and ushered them into cloakrooms. Within the house also, great as the crowd of visitors was, the most perfect order prevailed.

     Judge Merlin and his party were received by a civil, respectable official, who directed them to a cloakroom, and they soon found themselves in a close, orderly crowd moving thitherward. When the gentlemen had succeeded in conveying their ladies safely to this bourne and seen them well over its threshold, they retired to the receptacle where they were to leave their hats and overcoats before coming back to take their parties into the saloon.

     In the ladies’ cloakroom Claudia and her chaperone found themselves in a brilliant, impracticable crowd. There were about half-a-dozen tall dressing glasses in the place, and about half-a-hundred young ladies were trying to smooth braids and ringlets and adjust wreaths and coronets by their aid. And there were about half-a-hundred more in the center of the room, some taking off opera cloaks, shaking out flounces, and waiting their turns to go to the mirrors, some, quite ready and waiting the appearance of their escort at the door to take them into the saloon, and besides these some were coming in and some were passing out-continually, and through the open doors the crowds of those newly arriving and the crowds of those passing on to the reception rooms were always visible.

     Claudia looked upon this seething multitude with a shudder.

     “What a scene!” she exclaimed.

     “Yes, but with it all, what order! There has never been such order and system in these crowded receptions as now under the management of Mrs----.” said Mrs. Middleton, naming the accomplished lady who, that season, ruled the domestic affairs of the White House.

     As Mrs. Middleton and Claudia had finished their toilets, to the sticking of the very last pin, before leaving their dressing rooms at home, they had now nothing to do but to give their opera cloaks to a woman in attendance, and then stand near the door to watch for the appearance of Judge Merlin and Mr. Middleton. They had but a few minutes to wait. The gentlemen soon came and gave their arms to their ladies and led them to join the throng that were slowly making its way through the crowded halls and anterooms towards the audience chamber, where the President received his visitors. It was a severe ordeal, the passage of those halls. Our party, like all their companions were pressed forward in the crowd until they were fairly pushed into the presence chamber, known as the small crimson drawing room, in which the President and his family waited to receive their visitors.

     Yes, there he stood, the majestic old men, with his kingly gray head bared, and his stately form clothed in the republican citizen’s dress of simple black. There he stood, fresh from the victories of a score of well-fought fields, receiving the meed of honor won by his years, his patriotism, and his courage. A crowd of admirers perpetually passed before him by the orderly arrangement of the ushers they came up on the right-hand side, bowed or courtesied before him, received a cordial shake of the hand, a smile, and a few kind words, and then passed on to the left towards the greet saloon commonly known as the East Room. Perhaps never has any President since Washington made himself so much beloved by the people as did General---- during his short administration. Great love-compelling power had that dignified and benignant old man! Fit to be the chief magistrate of a great, free people he was! At least so thought Judge Merlin’s daughter, as she courtesied before him, received the cordial shake of his hand, heard the kind tones of his voice say, “I am very glad to see you, my dear.” and passed on with the throng who were proceeding toward the East Room.

     Once arrived in that magnificent room, they found space enough even for that vast crowd to move about in. This room is too well known to the public to need any labored description. For the information of those who have never seen it, it is sufficient to say that its dimensions are magnificent, its decorations superb, its furniture luxurious, and its illuminations splendid. Three enormous chandeliers, like constellations, flooded the scene with light, and a fine brass band, somewhere out of sight, filled the air with music. A brilliant company enlivened, but did not crowd, the room. There were assembled beautiful girls, handsome women, and gorgeous old ladies. There were officers of the army and of the navy in their full-dress uniforms, there were diplomatic corps of all foreign nations in the costumes of their several ranks and countries, there were grave senators and wise judges and holy divines, there were Indian chiefs in their beads and blankets, there were adventurous Poles from Warsaw, exiled Bourbons from Paris, and Comanche braves from the Cordilleras! There was, in fact, such a curious assemblage as can be met nowhere on the face of the earth but in the east drawing room of our President’s palace on a great reception evening!

     Into this motley but splendid assemblage Judge Merlin led his beautiful daughter. At first their entrance attracted no attention but when one, and then another, noticed the dazzling new star of beauty that had so suddenly risen above their horizon, a whisper arose that soon grew into a general buzz of admiration, that attended Claudia in her progress through the room and heralded her approach to those at the upper end. And --

     “Who is she?” “Who can she be?” were the low-toned questions that reached her ear as her father led her to a sofa and rested her upon it. But these questions came only from those who were strangers in Washington. Of course all others knew the person of Judge Merlin, and surmised the young lady on his arm to be his daughter.

     Soon after the Judge and his party were seated, his friends began to come forward to pay their respects to him, and to be presented to his beautiful daughter.

     Claudia received all these with a self-possession, grace, and fascination peculiarly her own.

     There was no doubt about it -- Miss Merlin’s first entrance into society had been a great success, she had made a sensation.

     Among those presented to Miss Merlin on that occasion was the Honorable---- ----, the British Minister. He was young, handsome, accomplished, and a bachelor. Consequently he was a target for all the shafts of Cupid that ladies’ eyes could send.

     He offered his arm to Miss Merlin for a promenade through the room. She accepted it, and became as much the envy of every unmarried lady present as if the offer made and accepted had been for a promenade through life.

     No such thought, however, was in the young English minister’s mind, for after making the circuit of the room two or three times, he brought his companion back, and, with a smile and a bow, left her in the care of her father.

     But if people were inclined to feed their envy, they found plenty of food for that appetite. A few minutes after Miss Merlin had resumed her seat a general buzz of voices announced some new event of interest. It turned out to be the entrance of the President and his family into the East Room.

     For some good reason or other, known only to his own friendly heart, the President, sauntering leisurely, dispensing bows, smiles, and kind words as he passed, Went straight up to the sofa whereon his old friend, Judge Merlin, sat, took a seat beside him, and entered into conversation.

     Ah! Their talk was not about State affairs, foreign or domestic policy, duties, imports, War, peace -- no! Their talk was of their boyhood’s days, spent together, of the holidays they had had, of the orchards they had robbed, of the well-merited thrashings they had got, of the good old schoolmaster, long since dust and ashes, who had lectured and flogged them!

     Claudia listened, and loved the old man more, that he could turn from the memory of his bloody victories, the presence of his political cares, and the prospects of a divided cabinet, to refresh himself with the green reminiscences of his boyhood’s days. It was impossible for the young girl to feel so much sympathy without betraying it and attracting the attention of the old man. He looked at her, he had shaken hands with her, and said he was glad to see her, when she was presented to him in his presence chamber, but he had not really seen her, she had been only one of the passing crowd of courtesiers for whom he felt a wholesale kindness and expressed a wholesale good-will, now, however, he looked at her -- now he saw her.

     Sixty-five years had whitened the hair of General----, but he was not insensible to the charms of beauty nor unconscious of his own power of conferring honor upon beauty.

     Rising, therefore, with all the stately courtesy of the old school gentleman, he offered his arm to Miss Merlin for s promenade through the rooms.

     With a sweet smile, Claudia arose, and once more became the cynosure of all eyes and the envy of all hearts. A few turns through the rooms, and the President brought the beauty back, seated her, and took his own seat beside her on the sofa.

     But the cup of bitterness for the envious was not yet full. Another hum and buzz went around the room, announcing some new event of great interest, which seemed to be a late arrival of much importance.

     Presently the British minister and another gentleman were seen approaching the sofa where set the President, Judge Merlin, Miss Merlin and Mr. and Mrs. Middleton. They paused immediately before the President, when the minister said:

     “Your Excellency, permit me to present to you the Viscount Vincent, late from London.”

     The President arose and heartily shook hands with the young foreigner, cordially saying:

     “I am happy to see you, my lord, happy to welcome you to Washington.”

     The viscount bowed low before the gray-haired old hero, saying, in a low tone:

     “I am glad to see the President of the United States, but I am proud to shake the hand of the conqueror of--of--.

     The viscount paused, his memory suddenly failed him, for the life and soul of him he could not remember the names of the bloody fields where the General had won his laurels.

     The President gravely covered the hesitation of the Viscount and evaded the compliment at the same time by turning to the ladies of his party and presenting his guest, saying:

     “Mrs. Middleton, Lord Vincent. Miss Merlin, Lord Vincent.”

     The viscount bowed low to these ladies, who courtesied in turn and resumed their seats.

     “My old friend, Judge Merlin, Lord Vincent.” then said the plain, matter-of-fact old President.

     The Judge and the Viscount simultaneously bowed, and then, these formalities being over, seats were found for the two strangers, and the whole group fell into an easy chat -- subject of discussion the old question sure to be argued whenever the old world and the new meet -- the rival merits of monarchies and republics, the discussion grew warm, though the disputants remained courteous. .The Viscount grew bored, and gradually dropped out of the argument, leaving the subject in the hands of the President and the minister, who, of course, had taken opposite sides, the minister representing the advantages of a monarchial form of government, and the President contending for a republican one. The viscount noticed that a large portion of the company were promenading in a precession round and round the room to the music of one of Beethoven’s grand marches. It was monotonous enough, but it was better than sitting there and listening to the vexed question whether the “peoples” were capable of governing themselves. So he turned to Miss Merlin with a bow and smile, saying:

     “Shall we join the promenade? Will you so far honor me?”

     “With pleasure, my lord.” replied Miss. Merlin.

     And he rose and gave her his arm, and they walked away. And for the third time that evening Claudia became the target of all sorts of glances -- glances of admiration, glances of hate, she had been led out by the young English minister, then by the old President, and now she was promenading with the lion of the evening, the only titled person at this republican court, the Viscount Vincent. And she a newcomer, a mere girl, not twenty years old! It was intolerable, thought all the ladies, young and old, married or single.

     But if the beautiful Claudia was the envy of all the women, the handsome Vincent was not less the envy of all the men present. “Puppy”, “Coxcomb”, ”Jackanape“, “Swell”, “Viscount, indeed! More probably some foreign blackleg or barber”, “It is perfectly ridiculous the manner in which American girls throw themselves under the feet of these titled foreign paupers,” were some of the low-breathed blessings bestowed upon young Lord Vincent. And yet these expletives were not intended to be half so malignant as they might have sounded. They were but the impulsive expressions of transient vexation at seeing the very pearl of beauty, on the first evening of her appearance, carried off by an alien.

     In truth, the viscount and the heiress were a very handsome couple and notwithstanding all the envy felt for them, all eyes followed them with secret admiration. The beautiful Claudia was a rare type of the young American girl -- tall, slender, graceful, dark-haired, dark-eyed, with a rich, glowing bloom on cheeks and lips. And her snow white dress of misty lace over shining satin, and her gleaming pearls and sparkling diamonds, set off her beauty well. Vincent was a fine specimen of the young English gentleman -- tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, with a stately head, a fair, roseate complexion, light-brown, curling hair and beard, and clear, blue eyes. And his simple evening dress of speckless black became him well. His manners were graceful, his voice pleasant, and his conversation brilliant, but, alas, for Claudia the greatest charm he possessed for her was -- his title! Claudia knew another, handsomer, more graceful, more brilliant than this Viscount, but that other was unknown, untitled, and unnamed in the world. The Viscount was so engaged with his beautiful companion that it was some time before he observed that the company was dropping off and the room was half empty. He then led Miss Merlin back to her party, took a slight leave of them all, bowed to the President, and departed.

     Judge Merlin, who had only waited for his daughter, now arose to go, his party made their adieus and left the saloon. As so many of the guests had already gone, they found the halls and anterooms comparatively free of crowds, and easily made their way to the gentlemen’s cloakroom and the ladies’ dressing room, and thence to the entrance hall. Mr. Middleton went out to call the carriage, which was near at hand. And the whole party entered and drove homeward. The sky had not cleared, the drizzle still continued, but the lamps gleamed brightly through the raindrops, and the Avenue was as gay at midnight as it had been at midday. As the carriage rolled along, Judge Merlin and Mr. and Mrs. Middleton discussed the reception, the President, the company, and especially the young English viscount.

     “He is the son and heir of the Earl of Hurstmonceux, whose estates lie somewhere in the rich county of Sussex. The title did not come to the present earl in the direct line of descent, the late earl died childless, at a very advanced age, and the title fell to his distant relation, Lord Banff, the father of this young man, whose estates lie away up in the north of Scotland somewhere. Thus the Scottish Lord Banff became Earl of Hurstmonceux and his eldest son, our new acquaintance, took the second title in the family, and became Lord Vincent.” said Judge Merlin.

     “The English minister gave you this information?” inquired Mr. Middleton.

     “Yes, he did, I suppose he thought it but right to put me in possession of all such facts in relation to a young foreigner whom he had been instrumental in introducing to my family. But, by the way, Middleton -- Hurstmonoeux? Was that not the title of the young dowager countess whom Brudenell married, and parted with, years ago?”

     “Yes, and I suppose that she was the widow of that very old man, the late Earl of Hurstmonceux, who died childless, in fact, she must have been.”

     “I wonder whatever became of her.”

     “I do not know, I know nothing whatever about the last Countess of Hurstmonoeux, but I know very well who has a fair prospect of becoming the next Countess of Hurstmonceux, if she pleases!” replied Mr. Middleton, with a merry glance at his niece.

     Claudia, who had been a silent, thoughtful, and attentive listener to their conversation, did not reply, but smothered a sigh and turned to look out or the window. The carriage was just drawing up before their own gate.

     The whole face of the house was closed and darkened except one little light that burned in a small front window at the very top of the house.

     It wax Ishmael’s lamp, and, as plainly an if she had been in the room, Claudia in imagination saw the pale young face bent studiously over the volume lying open before him.

     With another inward sigh Claudia gave her hand to her Uncle, who left the carriage to help her out. And then the whole party entered the house.

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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