Vanity Fair By William Makepeace Thackeray Chapters 64-67

It happened at Rome once that Mrs. de Rawdon's half-year's salary had just been paid into the principal banker's there, and, as everybody who had a balance of above five hundred scudi was invited to the balls which this prince of merchants gave during the winter, Becky had the honour of a card, and appeared at one of the Prince and Princess Polonia's splendid evening entertainments. The Princess was of the family of Pompili, lineally descended from the second king of Rome, and Egeria of the house of Olympus, while the Prince's grandfather, Alessandro Polonia, sold wash-balls, essences, tobacco, and pocket-handkerchiefs, ran errands for gentlemen, and lent money in a small way. All the great company in Rome thronged to his saloons — Princes, Dukes, Ambassadors, artists, fiddlers, monsignori, young bears with their leaders — every rank and condition of man. His halls blazed with light and magnificence; were resplendent with gilt frames (containing pictures), and dubious antiques; and the enormous gilt crown and arms of the princely owner, a gold mushroom on a crimson field (the colour of the pocket-handkerchiefs which he sold), and the silver fountain of the Pompili family shone all over the roof, doors, and panels of the house, and over the grand velvet baldaquins prepared to receive Popes and Emperors.

So Becky, who had arrived in the diligence from Florence, and was lodged at an inn in a very modest way, got a card for Prince Polonia's entertainment, and her maid dressed her with unusual care, and she went to this fine ball leaning on the arm of Major Loder, with whom she happened to be travelling at the time — (the same man who shot Prince Ravoli at Naples the next year, and was caned by Sir John Buckskin for carrying four kings in his hat besides those which he used in playing at ecarte ) — and this pair went into the rooms together, and Becky saw a number of old faces which she remembered in happier days, when she was not innocent, but not found out. Major Loder knew a great number of foreigners, keen-looking whiskered men with dirty striped ribbons in their buttonholes, and a very small display of linen; but his own countrymen, it might be remarked, eschewed the Major. Becky, too, knew some ladies here and there — French widows, dubious Italian countesses, whose husbands had treated them ill — faugh — what shall we say, we who have moved among some of the finest company of Vanity Fair, of this refuse and sediment of rascals? If we play, let it be with clean cards, and not with this dirty pack. But every man who has formed one of the innumerable army of travellers has seen these marauding irregulars hanging on, like Nym and Pistol, to the main force, wearing the king's colours and boasting of his commission, but pillaging for themselves, and occasionally gibbeted by the roadside.

Well, she was hanging on the arm of Major Loder, and they went through the rooms together, and drank a great quantity of champagne at the buffet, where the people, and especially the Major's irregular corps, struggled furiously for refreshments, of which when the pair had had enough, they pushed on until they reached the Duchess's own pink velvet saloon, at the end of the suite of apartments (where the statue of the Venus is, and the great Venice looking-glasses, framed in silver), and where the princely family were entertaining their most distinguished guests at a round table at supper. It was just such a little select banquet as that of which Becky recollected that she had partaken at Lord Steyne's — and there he sat at Polonia's table, and she saw him. The scar cut by the diamond on his white, bald, shining forehead made a burning red mark; his red whiskers were dyed of a purple hue, which made his pale face look still paler. He wore his collar and orders, his blue ribbon and garter. He was a greater Prince than any there, though there was a reigning Duke and a Royal Highness, with their princesses, and near his Lordship was seated the beautiful Countess of Belladonna, nee de Glandier, whose husband (the Count Paolo della Belladonna), so well known for his brilliant entomological collections, had been long absent on a mission to the Emperor of Morocco.

When Becky beheld that familiar and illustrious face, how vulgar all of a sudden did Major Loder appear to her, and how that odious Captain Rook did smell of tobacco! In one instant she reassumed her fine-ladyship and tried to look and feel as if she were in May Fair once more. "That woman looks stupid and ill-humoured," she thought; "I am sure she can't amuse him. No, he must be bored by her — he never was by me." A hundred such touching hopes, fears, and memories palpitated in her little heart, as she looked with her brightest eyes (the rouge which she wore up to her eyelids made them twinkle) towards the great nobleman. Of a Star and Garter night Lord Steyne used also to put on his grandest manner and to look and speak like a great prince, as he was. Becky admired him smiling sumptuously, easy, lofty, and stately. Ah, bon Dieu, what a pleasant companion he was, what a brilliant wit, what a rich fund of talk, what a grand manner! — and she had exchanged this for Major Loder, reeking of cigars and brandy-and-water, and Captain Rook with his horsejockey jokes and prize-ring slang, and their like. "I wonder whether he will know me," she thought. Lord Steyne was talking and laughing with a great and illustrious lady at his side, when he looked up and saw Becky.

She was all over in a flutter as their eyes met, and she put on the very best smile she could muster, and dropped him a little, timid, imploring curtsey. He stared aghast at her for a minute, as Macbeth might on beholding Banquo's sudden appearance at his ball-supper, and remained looking at her with open mouth, when that horrid Major Loder pulled her away.

"Come away into the supper-room, Mrs. R.," was that gentleman's remark: "seeing these nobs grubbing away has made me peckish too. Let's go and try the old governor's champagne." Becky thought the Major had had a great deal too much already.

The day after she went to walk on the Pincian Hill — the Hyde Park of the Roman idlers — possibly in hopes to have another sight of Lord Steyne. But she met another acquaintance there: it was Mr. Fiche, his lordship's confidential man, who came up nodding to her rather familiarly and putting a finger to his hat. "I knew that Madame was here," he said; "I followed her from her hotel. I have some advice to give Madame."

"From the Marquis of Steyne?" Becky asked, resuming as much of her dignity as she could muster, and not a little agitated by hope and expectation.

"No," said the valet; "it is from me. Rome is very unwholesome."

"Not at this season, Monsieur Fiche — not till after Easter."

"I tell Madame it is unwholesome now. There is always malaria for some people. That cursed marsh wind kills many at all seasons. Look, Madame Crawley, you were always bon enfant, and I have an interest in you, parole d'honneur. Be warned. Go away from Rome, I tell you — or you will be ill and die."

Becky laughed, though in rage and fury. "What! assassinate poor little me?" she said. "How romantic! Does my lord carry bravos for couriers, and stilettos in the fourgons? Bah! I will stay, if but to plague him. I have those who will defend me whilst I am here."

It was Monsieur Fiche's turn to laugh now. "Defend you," he said, "and who? The Major, the Captain, any one of those gambling men whom Madame sees would take her life for a hundred louis. We know things about Major Loder (he is no more a Major than I am my Lord the Marquis) which would send him to the galleys or worse. We know everything and have friends everywhere. We know whom you saw at Paris, and what relations you found there. Yes, Madame may stare, but we do. How was it that no minister on the Continent would receive Madame? She has offended somebody: who never forgives — whose rage redoubled when he saw you. He was like a madman last night when he came home. Madame de Belladonna made him a scene about you and fired off in one of her furies."

"Oh, it was Madame de Belladonna, was it?" Becky said, relieved a little, for the information she had just got had scared her.

"No — she does not matter — she is always jealous. I tell you it was Monseigneur. You did wrong to show yourself to him. And if you stay here you will repent it. Mark my words. Go. Here is my lord's carriage" — and seizing Becky's arm, he rushed down an alley of the garden as Lord Steyne's barouche, blazing with heraldic devices, came whirling along the avenue, borne by the almost priceless horses, and bearing Madame de Belladonna lolling on the cushions, dark, sulky, and blooming, a King Charles in her lap, a white parasol swaying over her head, and old Steyne stretched at her side with a livid face and ghastly eyes. Hate, or anger, or desire caused them to brighten now and then still, but ordinarily, they gave no light, and seemed tired of looking out on a world of which almost all the pleasure and all the best beauty had palled upon the worn-out wicked old man.

"Monseigneur has never recovered the shock of that night, never," Monsieur Fiche whispered to Mrs. Crawley as the carriage flashed by, and she peeped out at it from behind the shrubs that hid her. "That was a consolation at any rate," Becky thought.

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