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[-96-]

CHAPTER CLXXII.

THE MYSTERIES OF HOLMESFORD HOUSE.

THE Marquis and Mr. Greenwood alighted at the door of Holmesford House — one of the most splendid palaces of the aristocracy at the West End.
    The Marquis conducted his visitor into a large ante-room at the right hand of the spacious hall.
    The table in the middle of the apartment was covered with the most luxurious fruits, nosegays of flowers preserves, sweetmeats, and delicious wines.
    From this room three doors afforded communication elsewhere. One opened into the hall, and had afforded them ingress: the other, on the opposite side, belonged to a corridor, with which were connected the baths; and the third, at the bottom communicated with a vast saloon, of which we shall have more to say very shortly. [-97-]


    The Marquis said to the servant who conducted him and Mr. Greenwood to the ante-room, "You may retire; and let them ring the bell when all is ready."
    The domestic withdrew.
    The Marquis motioned Greenwood to seat himself at the table; and, filling two coloured glasses with real Johannisberg, he said, "We must endeavour to while away half an hour; and then I can promise you a pleasing entertainment."
    The nobleman and the member of Parliament; quaffed the delicious wine, and indulged in discourse upon the most voluptuous subjects.
    "For my part," said the Marquis, "I study how to enjoy life. I possess an immense fortune, and do not scruple to spend it upon all the pleasures I can fancy, or which suggest themselves to me. I am not such an idiot as to imagine that I possess the vigour or natural warmth which characterised my youth; and therefore I have become an Epicurean in my recreations. I invent and devise the means of inflaming my passions; and then — then I am young once more. You will presently behold something truly oriental in the refinements on voluptuousness which I have conceived to produce an artificial effect on the temperament when nature is languid and weak."
    "Your lordship is right to fan the flame that burns dimly," observed Greenwood, who, unprincipled as he was, could not, however, avoid a feeling of disgust when he heard that old voluptuary, with one foot in the grave, thus shamelessly express himself.
    "Wine and women, my dear Greenwood," continued the Marquis, "are the only earthly enjoyments worth living for. I hope to die, with my head pillowed on the naked — heaving bosom of beauty, and with a glass of sparkling champagne in my hand."
    "Your lordship would then even defy the pangs of the grim monster who spares no one," said Greenwood.
    "I have lived a joyous life, my dear friend; and when death comes, I can say that no mortal man — not even Solomon, with his thousand wives and concubines — nor any eastern Sultan, who had congregated the fairest flowers of Georgia, Circassia and [-98-] Armenia in his harem, — had more deeply drunk than I of the pleasures of love."
    Just as the aged voluptuary uttered these words, a sliver bell that hung in the apartment was agitated gently by a wire which communicated with the adjoining saloon.
    "Now all is in readiness!" exclaimed the Marquis: "follow me."
    The nobleman opened the door leading into the saloon, which he entered, accompanied by Greenwood.
    He then closed the door behind him.
    The saloon was involved in total obscurity; the blackest darkness reigned there, unbroken by a ray.
    "Give me your hand," said the Marquis.
    Greenwood complied; and the nobleman led him to a sofa at a short distance from the door by which they had entered.
    They both seated themselves on the voluptuous cushions.
    For some moments a solemn silence prevailed.
    At length that almost painful stillness was broken by the soft notes of a delicious melody, which, coming from the farther end of the apartment, stole, with a species of enchanting influence, upon the ear.
    Gentle and low was that sweet music when it began; but by degrees it grew louder — though still soft and ravishing in the extreme.
    Then a chorus of charming female voices suddenly burst forth; and the union of that vocal and instrumental perfection produced an effect thrilling — intoxicating — joyous, beyond description.
    The melody created in the mind of Greenwood an anxious desire to behold those unseen choristers, whose voices were so harmonious, so delightful.
    The dulcet, metallic sounds agitated the senses with feelings of pleasure, and made the heart beat on with vague hopes and expectations.
    For nearly twenty minutes did that delicious concert last. Love was the subject of the song, — Love, not considered as an infant boy, nor as a merciless tyrant, — but Love depicted as the personification of every thing voluptuous, blissful, and enchanting, — Love, the representative of all the joys which earth in reality possesses, or which the warmest imagination could possibly conceive, — Love apart from the refinements of sentiment, and contemplated only as the paradise of sensualities.
    And never did sweeter voices warble the fervid language of passion through the medium of a more enchanting poesy!
    Twenty minutes, we said, passed with wonderful rapidity while that inspiring concert lasted.
    But even then the melody did not cease suddenly. It gradually grew fainter and fainter — dying away, as it were, in expiring sounds of sliver harmony, as if yielding to the voluptuous entrancement of its own magic influence.
    And now, just as the last murmur floated to the ears of the raptured listeners, a bell tinkled at a distance; and in an Instant — as if by magic — the spacious saloon was lighted up with a brilliancy which produced a sensation like an electric shock.
    At the same time, the music struck up in thrilling sounds once more; and a bevy of lovely creatures, whom the glare suddenly revealed upon a stage at the farther end of the apartment, became all life and activity in a voluptuous dance.
    Three chandeliers of transparent crystal had suddenly vomited forth jets of flame; and round the walls the illumination had sprung into existence, with simultaneous suddenness, from innumerable silver sconces.
    A glance around showed Greenwood that he was in a vast and lofty apartment, furnished with luxurious ottomans in the oriental style; and with tables groaning beneath immense vases filled with the choicest flowers.
    The walls were covered with magnificent pictures, representing the most voluptuous scenes of the heathen mythology and of ancient history.
    The figures in those paintings were as large as life; and no prudery had restrained the artist's pencil in the delineation of the luxuriant subjects which he had chosen.
    There was Lucretia, struggling — vainly struggling with the ardent Tarquin, — her drapery torn by his rude hands away from her lovely form, which the brutal violence of his mad passion had rendered weak, supple, and yielding.
    There was Helen, reclining in more than semi-nudity on the couch to which her languishing and wanton looks invited the enamoured Phrygian youth, who was hastily laying aside his armour after a combat with the Greeks.
    There was Messalina — that imperial harlot, whose passions were so insatiable and whose crimes were so enormous, — issuing from a bath to join her lover, who impatiently awaited her beneath a canopy in a recess, and which was surmounted by the Roman diadem.
    Then there were pictures representing the various amours of Jupiter, — Leda, Latona, Semele, and Europa — the mistresses of the god — all drawn in the most exciting attitudes, and endowed with the most luscious beauties.
    But if those creations of art were sufficient to inflame the passions of even that age when the blood seems frozen in the veins, how powerful must have been the effect produced by those living, breathing, moving houris who were now engaged in a rapid and exciting dance to the most ravishing music.
    They were six in number, and all dressed alike, in a drapery so light and gauzy that it was all but transparent, and so scanty that it afforded no scope for the sweet romancing of fancy, and left but little need for guesses.
    But if their attire were thus uniform, their style of beauty was altogether different.
    We must, however, permit the Marquis to describe them to Greenwood — which he did in whispers.
    "That fair girl on the right," he said, "with the brilliant complexion, auburn hair, and red cherry lips, is from the north — a charming specimen of Scotch beauty. Mark how taper is her waist, and yet how ample her bust! She is only nineteen, and has been in my house for the last three years. Her voice is charming; and she sings some of her native airs with exquisite taste. The one next to her, with the brown hair, and who is somewhat stout in form, though, as you perceive, not the less active on that account, is an English girl — a beauty of Lancashire. She is twenty-two, and appeared four years ago on the stage. From thence she passed into the keeping of a bishop, who took lodgings for her in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury. The Right Reverend Prelate one evening invited me to sup there; and three days afterwards she removed to my house." [-99-]
    "Not with the consent of the bishop, I should imagine?" observed Greenwood, laughing.
    "Oh! no — no," returned the Marquis, chuckling and coughing at the same time. "The one who is next to her — the third from the left, I mean — is an Irish girl. Look how beautifully she is made.. What vigorous, strong, and yet elegantly formed; limbs! And what elasticity — what airy lightness in the dance! Did you observe that pirouette? How the drapery spread out from her waist like a circular fan! Is she not a charming creature?"
    "She is, indeed!" exclaimed Greenwood. "Tall, elegant, and graceful."
    "And her tongue is just tipped with enough of the Irish accent — I cannot call it brogue in so sweet a being — to render her conversation peculiarly interesting. And now mark her smile! Oh! the coquette — what a roguish look! Has she not wickedness in those sparkling black eyes?"
    " She seems an especial favourite, methinks," whispered Greenwood.
    "Yes — I have a sneaking preference for her, I must admit," answered the Marquis. "But I also like my little French girl, who is dancing next to Kathleen. Mademoiselle Anna is an exquisite creature — and such a wanton! What passion is denoted by her burning glances! How graceful are her movements: survey her now — she beats them all in that soft abandonment of limb which she just displayed. Her mother was a widow, and sold the lovely Anna to a French Field-Marshal, when she was only fifteen. The Field-Marshal, who was also a duke and enormously rich, placed her in a magnificent mansion in the Chaussιe d'Antin, and settled a handsome sum upon her. But, at his death, she ran through it all, became involved in debt, and was glad to accept my offers two years ago."
    "She is very captivating," said Greenwood. "How gracefully she rounds her dazzling white arms!"
    "And how well she throws herself into the most voluptuous attitudes — and all, too, as if unstudied!" returned the Marquis. "The beauty next to her is a Spaniard. The white drapery, in my opinion, sets off her clear, transparent, olive skin, to the utmost advantage. The blood seems to boil in her veins: she is all fire — all passion. How brilliant are her large black eyes! Behold the glossy magnificence of her raven hair! Tail — straight as an arrow — how commanding, and yet how graceful is her form! And when she smiles — now — you can perceive the dazzling whiteness of her teeth. Last of. all I must direct your attention to my Georgian — "
    "A real Georgian!" exclaimed Greenwood.
    "A real Georgian," answered the Marquis; "and, as Byron describes his Katinka, 'white and red.' Her large melting blue eyes are full of voluptuous, lazy, indolent, but not the less impassioned love. Her dark brown hair is braided in a manner to display its luxuriance, and yet leave the entire face; clear for you to admire its beauty. Look at that fine oval countenance: how pure is the red — how delicate the white! Nature has no artificial auxiliaries there! And now when she casts down her eyes, mark how the long, silken black lashes, slightly curling, repose upon the white skin beneath the eyes. Is not that a charming creature? The symmetry of her form is perfect. Her limbs are stout and plump; but how slender are her ankles, and how exquisitely turned her wrists! Then look at her hand. What beautiful, long taper fingers. How sweet are her movements — light, yet languishing at the same time!"
    "What is the name of that beauty?" asked Greenwood.
    "Malkhatoun," replied the Marquis; "which means The Full Moon. That was the name of the wife of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman empire."
    "And how did you procure such a lovely creature?" inquired Greenwood, enraptured with the beauty of the oriental girl.
    "Six mouths ago I visited Constantinople," answered the Marquis of Holmesford; "and in the Slave-Market I beheld that divinity. Christians are not allowed to purchase slaves; but a convenient native merchant was found, who bought her for me. I brought her to England; and she is well contented to be here. Her own apartment is fitted up in an oriental style; she has hen Koran, and worships Alla at her leisure; and when I make love to her, she swears by the Prophet Mahommed that she is happy here. The romance of the thing is quite charming."
    "Of course she cannot speak English?" said Greenwood interrogatively.
    "I beg your pardon," answered the Marquis. "She has an English master, who is well acquainted with Persian, which she speaks admirably; and I can assure you that she is a most willing pupil. But of that you shall judge for yourself presently."
    During this conversation, the dance proceeded.
    Nothing could be more voluptuous than that spectacle of six charming creatures, representing the loveliness of as many different countries, engaged in a pas de six in which each studied how to set off the graces of her form to the utmost advantage.
    The genial warmth of the apartment — the delicious perfume of the flowers — the brilliancy of the light — the exciting nature of the pictures — and the enchantment of that dance in which six beings of the rarest beauty were engaged, — filled the mind of Greenwood with an ecstatic delirium.
    Not the rich and luscious loveliness of Diana Arlington, whom circumstances had made his own, — not the matured and exuberant charms of Eliza Sydney, who had escaped his snares, — not the bewitching beauty of Ellen Monroe, from whose brow he had plucked the diadem of purity, — nor the licentious fascinations of Lady Cecilia Harborough, who sold herself to him for his gold, — not all these had so stirred his heart, so inflamed his ardent imagination, as the spectacle which he now beheld.
    At length the dance terminated.
    The Marquis then advanced towards the stage, accompanied by Greenwood, and said, "Many thanks, young ladies, for this entertainment. Allow me to present an intimate friend of mine — a gentleman whom I am anxious to initiate in the mysteries of Holmesford House."
    Greenwood bowed; the six beauties returned his salutation; and the Marquis then proposed to adjourn to the ante-room, where supper was served up.
    The ladies descended from the platform by a flight of steps on one side.
    "I shall give my arm to Kathleen," said the Marquis. "Do you escort whomever you fancy. There are no jealousies here." [-100-]
    Without hesitation, Greenwood advanced towards the charming main Malkhatoun, who took the arm which he presented to her with a sweet smile — as if of gratitude for the preference.
    As Greenwood thus stepped forward to meet her, he now for the first time observed the orchestra, which was situated in a large recess on the right of the stage, and had consequently been unseen by him from the place which he had originally occupied at a the other end of the saloon.
    The party now proceeded to the ante-room before mentioned.
    There a magnificent repast was served up.
    They all seated themselves at table, Kathleen next to the Marquis, and Malkhatoun by the side of Greenwood.
    At first the conversation languished somewhat, the ladies being abashed and reserved in the presence of a stranger; but as they grew warmed by degrees with the generous wine, their tongues were unlocked; and in half an hour they rattled and chatted away as if they had never known restraint.
    They laughed and displayed their beautiful teeth: their eyes flashed fire, or became voluptuously melting: and their cheeks were animated with the hues of the rose.
    Even the fair Mohammedan did not refuse the sparkling champagne which effervesced so deliciously over the brim of the crystal glass.
    The Scotch and Irish girls warbled the sweetest snatches of song which Greenwood had ever heard; and then the French damsel rose and gave admirable imitations of Taglioni's, Ellsler's, and Duvernay's respective styles of dancing — throwing, however, into her movements and attitudes a wantonness which even the most exciting efforts of those artistes never displayed.
    It was now nearly two in the morning; and Greenwood intimated to the Marquis his wish to retire.
    "Just as you please," replied the old voluptuary, who had drawn Kathleen upon his knee, and was toying with her as if they were unobserved: "but if you like to accept of a bed here, there is one at your service — and," he added, in a whisper, "you need not be separated from Malkhatoun."
    "Is your lordship in earnest?" asked Greenwood also in a low tone, while joy flashed from his eyes.
    "Certainly I am," replied the Marquis. "Do you think that I brought you hither merely to tantalize you?"
    Greenwood smiled, and then redoubled his attentions towards the charming Georgian, who returned his smiles, and seemed to consider herself honoured by his caresses.
    On a signal from the Marquis, the Scotch, English, French, and Spanish girls withdrew.
    "One glass of wine in honour of those houris who have just left us!" cried the nobleman, who was already heated with frequent potations, and inflamed by the contiguity of his Hibernian mistress.
    "With pleasure," responded Greenwood. The toast was drunk; and then the Marquis whispered something to Greenwood, pointing at the same time to the door which opened into the bathing rooms.
    The member of Parliament nodded an enraptured assent.
    "There is a constant supply of hot water, kept ready for use," observed the nobleman. "Each room is provided with a marble bath; and vases of eau-de-cologne afford the means of cooling the water and imparting to it a delicious perfume at the same time. You will also find wines, fruits, and all species of delicate refreshments there; and adjoining each bath-room is a bed-chamber. With Malkhatoun as your companion, you may imagine yourself a Sultan in the privacy of his harem; and, remember, that no soul will intrude upon you in that joyous retreat"
    Greenwood presented his hand to Malkhatoun, and led her away in obedience to the nobleman's suggestion.
    The door by which they left the ante-room admitted them into a passage dimly lighted with a single lamp, and where several doors opened into the bathing apartments.
    Into one of those rooms Greenwood and the beautiful Georgian passed.
    Shortly afterwards the Marquis and Kathleen entered another.
    Here we most pause: we dare not penetrate farther into the mysteries of Holmesford House.    

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