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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 1
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the
hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are
circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not--some people of
course never do,--the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in
beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent
pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of
an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a
splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was
left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not
arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had
grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They
lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still
to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at
such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity;
but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure.
The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not
of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I
have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular;
they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low
table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and
fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was
an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted
in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding
it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His
companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they
smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as
he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of
observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house
that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was
the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to
sketch.
It stood upon a low hill, above the river--the river being the Thames at some forty
miles from London. A long gabled front of red brick, with the complexion of which
time and the weather had played all sorts of pictorial tricks, only, however, to
improve and refine it, presented to the lawn its patches of ivy, its clustered
chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers. The house had a name and a
history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you
these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night's
hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon
a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal
honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced
in Cromwell's wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much
enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled and disfigured in the
 
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