From Algernon Dexter, writer of Vers de Societe, London, to Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
My dear prince,–Our correspondence has dwindled of late. Indeed, I do not remember to have heard from you since I wrote to acknowledge your kindness in standing godfather to my boy Jack (now rising two), and the receipt of the beautiful scimitar which, as a christening present, accompanied your consent. Still I do not forget the promise you exacted from “Q.” and myself after lunch at the Mitre, on the day when we took our bachelors’ degrees together–that if in our paths through life we happened upon any circumstance that seemed to throw fresh light on the dark, complex workings of the human heart, or at least likely to prove of interest to a student of his fellow men, we would write it down and despatch it to you, under cover of The Negus. During the months of my engagement to Violet these communications of mine (you will allow) were frequent enough: since our marriage they have grown shamefully fewer. Possibly I lose alertness while I put on flesh: it is the natural hebetudus of happiness. “Q.”–who is never seen now upon London stones–no doubt sends you a plenty of what passes for news in that parish which it is his humour to prefer to the Imperial City. But, believe me, the very finest romance is still to be had in London: and to prove this I am going to tell you a story that, upon my soul, Prince, will make you sit up.
Until last night the Seely-Hardwickes were a force in this capital. They were three,–Seely-Hardwicke himself, who owned a million or more, and to my knowledge drank Hollands and smoked threepenny Returns in his Louis Quinze library; Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke, as beautiful as the moon and clever to sinfulness; and Billy, their child, aged seven-and-a-half. To-day their whereabouts would be as difficult to find as that of the boy in Mrs. Hemans’s ballad. You jump to the guess that they have lost their money. You are wrong.
It was amassed in the canned-fruit trade, which, I understand, does not fluctuate severely, though doubtless in the last instance dependent on the crops. Seely-Hardwicke and his wife were ready to lose any amount of it at cards, which accounts for a measure of their success. It had been found (with Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke) somewhere on the Pacific Slope, by a destitute Yorkshireman who had tired of driving rivets on the Clyde and betaken himself across the Atlantic, for a change, in front of a furnace some thirty-odd feet below decks. Of his adventures in the Great Republic nothing is known but this, that he drove into the silence of its central plain at the tail of a traction engine and emerged on its western shore, three years later, with a wife, a child and a growing pile. With this pile there grew a desire to spend it in his own country; and the family landed at Liverpool on Billy’s sixth birthday. I think their double-barrelled name must have been invented by Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke on the voyage.
I first made Billy’s acquaintance in the Row, where a capable groom was teaching him to ride a very small skewbald pony. This happened in the week after our Jack was born, when I was perforce companionless: but as soon as Violet could ride again, she too fell a victim to the red curls and seraphic face of this urchin. And so, when Billy’s mother began, later in the season, to appear in the Row, Billy (now promoted to a larger pony) introduced us in his own fashion and we quickly made friends. By this time she had been “presented,” and was fairly on her feet in London: and henceforward her career resembled not so much a conquest as the progress of a Roman Emperor. I am not referring to the vulgar achievements of mere wealth. Wherever these people went, to be sure, they left outposts–a Mediterranean villa, a deer forest behind the Grampians, small Saturday-to-Monday establishments beside the Thames and the North Sea, and furnished abodes on short leases near Newmarket and Ascot Heaths; not to mention nomadic trifles such as houseboats and yachts. Any one with money can purchase these, and any one having a cook can fill them with people of a sort. The quality of Mrs. Seely-Hardwicke’s success was seen in this, that from the first she knew none but the right people: and though, as her circle widened, it included names of higher and yet higher lustre, yet (if I may press a somewhat confused metaphor) its rings were concentric and hardly distinct. She never, I believe, was forced to drop an old acquaintance because she had found a new one. The just estimate of our Western manners which you, my dear Prince, formed at Balliol, will enable you to grasp the singularity of such a triumph. Its rapidity, I must admit, perplexes me still. But in those old days we studied Arnold Toynbee overmuch and neglected the civilising influences of the card-table. By the time the Seely-Hardwickes took their house near Hyde Park Corner, philanthropy was beginning to stale and our leaders to perceive that the rejuvenation of society must be effected (if at all) not by bestowing money on the poor, but by losing it to the rich. Seely-Hardwicke himself was understood to spend most of his time in the City, looking after the interests of canned fruits and making small fortunes out of his redundant cash.