By Edward Bulwer Lytton
PREFACE TO THE EDITION OF 1853.
"Lucretia; or, The Children of Night," was begun simultaneously with "The Caxtons: a Family Picture." The two fictions were intended as pendants; both serving, amongst other collateral aims and objects, to show the influence of home education, of early circumstance and example, upon after character and conduct. "Lucretia" was completed and published before "The Caxtons." The moral design of the first was misunderstood and assailed; that of the last was generally acknowledged and approved: the moral design in both was nevertheless precisely the same. But in one it was sought through the darker side of human nature; in the other through the more sunny and cheerful: one shows the evil, the other the salutary influences, of early circumstance and training. Necessarily, therefore, the first resorts to the tragic elements of awe and distress,—the second to the comic elements of humour and agreeable emotion. These differences serve to explain the different reception that awaited the two, and may teach us how little the real conception of an author is known, and how little it is cared for; we judge, not by the purpose he conceives, but according as the impressions he effects are pleasurable or painful. But while I cannot acquiesce in much of the hostile criticism this fiction produced at its first appearance, I readily allow that as a mere question of art the story might have been improved in itself, and rendered more acceptable to the reader, by diminishing the gloom of the catastrophe. In this edition I have endeavoured to do so; and the victim whose fate in the former cast of the work most revolted the reader, as a violation of the trite but amiable law of Poetical Justice, is saved from the hands of the Children of Night. Perhaps, whatever the faults of this work, it equals most of its companions in the sustainment of interest, and in that coincidence between the gradual development of motive or passion, and the sequences of external events constituting plot, which mainly distinguish the physical awe of tragedy from the coarse horrors of melodrama. I trust at least that I shall now find few readers who will not readily acknowledge that the delineation of crime has only been employed for the grave and impressive purpose which brings it within the due province of the poet,—as an element of terror and a warning to the heart.
LONDON, December 7.
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
It is somewhere about four years since I appeared before the public as the writer of a fiction, which I then intimated would probably be my last; but bad habits are stronger than good intentions. When Fabricio, in his hospital, resolved upon abjuring the vocation of the Poet, he was, in truth, recommencing his desperate career by a Farewell to the Muses,—I need not apply the allusion.
I must own, however, that there had long been a desire in my mind to trace, in some work or other, the strange and secret ways through which that Arch-ruler of Civilization, familiarly called "Money," insinuates itself into our thoughts and motives, our hearts and actions; affecting those who undervalue as those who overestimate its importance; ruining virtues in the spendthrift no less than engendering vices in the miser. But when I half implied my farewell to the character of a novelist, I had imagined that this conception might be best worked out upon the stage. After some unpublished and imperfect attempts towards so realizing my design, I found either that the subject was too wide for the limits of the Drama, or that I wanted that faculty of concentration which alone enables the dramatist to compress multiform varieties into a very limited compass. With this design, I desired to unite some exhibition of what seems to me a principal vice in the hot and emulous chase for happiness or fame, fortune or knowledge, which is almost synonymous with the cant phrase of "the March of Intellect," in that crisis of society to which we have arrived. The vice I allude to is Impatience. That eager desire to press forward, not so much to conquer obstacles as to elude them; that gambling with the solemn destinies of life, seeking ever to set success upon the chance of a die; that hastening from the wish conceived to the end accomplished; that thirst after quick returns to ingenious toil, and breathless spurrings along short cuts to the goal, which we see everywhere around us, from the Mechanics' Institute to the Stock Market,—beginning in education with the primers of infancy, deluging us with "Philosophies for the Million" and "Sciences made Easy;" characterizing the books of our writers, the speeches of our statesmen, no less than the dealings of our speculators,—seem, I confess, to me to constitute a very diseased and very general symptom of the times. I hold that the greatest friend to man is labour; that knowledge without toil, if possible, were worthless; that toil in pursuit of knowledge is the best knowledge we can attain; that the continuous effort for fame is nobler than fame itself; that it is not wealth suddenly acquired which is deserving of homage, but the virtues which a man exercises in the slow pursuit of wealth,—the abilities so called forth, the self-denials so imposed; in a word, that Labour and Patience are the true schoolmasters on earth. While occupied with these ideas and this belief, whether right or wrong, and slowly convinced that it was only in that species of composition with which I was most familiar that I could work out some portion of the plan that I began to contemplate, I became acquainted with the histories of two criminals existing in our own age,—so remarkable, whether from the extent and darkness of the guilt committed, whether from the glittering accomplishments and lively temper of the one, the profound knowledge and intellectual capacities of the other, that the examination and analysis of characters so perverted became a study full of intense, if gloomy, interest.
In these persons there appear to have been as few redeemable points as can be found in Human Nature, so far as such points may be traced in the kindly instincts and generous passions which do sometimes accompany the perpetration of great crimes, and, without excusing the individual, vindicate the species. Yet, on the other hand, their sanguinary wickedness was not the dull ferocity of brutes; it was accompanied with instruction and culture,—nay, it seemed to me, on studying their lives and pondering over their own letters, that through their cultivation itself we could arrive at the secret of the ruthless and atrocious pre-eminence in evil these Children of Night had attained; that here the monster vanished into the mortal, and the phenomena that seemed aberrations from Nature were explained.
I could not resist the temptation of reducing to a tale the materials which had so engrossed my interest and tasked my inquiries. And in this attempt, various incidental opportunities have occurred, if not of completely carrying out, still of incidentally illustrating, my earlier design,—of showing the influence of Mammon upon our most secret selves, of reproving the impatience which is engendered by a civilization that, with much of the good, brings all the evils of competition, and of tracing throughout, all the influences of early household life upon our subsequent conduct and career. In such incidental bearings the moral may doubtless be more obvious than in the delineation of the darker and rarer crime which forms the staple of my narrative. For in extraordinary guilt we are slow to recognize ordinary warnings,—we say to the peaceful conscience, "This concerns thee not!" whereas at each instance of familiar fault and commonplace error we own a direct and sensible admonition. Yet in the portraiture of gigantic crime, poets have rightly found their sphere and fulfilled their destiny of teachers. Those terrible truths which appall us in the guilt of Macbeth or the villany of Iago, have their moral uses not less than the popular infirmities of Tom Jones, or the every-day hypocrisy of Blifil. Incredible as it may seem, the crimes herein related took place within the last seventeen years. There has been no exaggeration as to their extent, no great departure from their details; the means employed, even that which seems most far-fetched,—the instrument of the poisoned ring,—have their foundation in literal facts. Nor have I much altered the social position of the criminals, nor in the least overrated their attainments and intelligence. In those more salient essentials which will most, perhaps, provoke the Reader's incredulous wonder, I narrate a history, not invent a fiction [These criminals were not, however, in actual life, as in the novel, intimates and accomplices. Their crimes were of similar character, effected by similar agencies, and committed at dates which embrace their several careers of guilt within the same period; but I have no authority to suppose that the one was known to the other.]. All that Romance which our own time affords is not more the romance than the philosophy of the time. Tragedy never quits the world,—it surrounds us everywhere. We have but to look, wakeful and vigilant, abroad, and from the age of Pelops to that of Borgia, the same crimes, though under different garbs, will stalk on our paths. Each age comprehends in itself specimens of every virtue and every vice which has ever inspired our love or mowed our horror.
LONDON, November 1, 1846.
PART THE FIRST
PROLOGUE TO PART THE FIRST
CHAPTER I A Family Group II Lucretia III Conferences IV Guy's Oak V Household Treason VI The Will VII The Engagement VIII The Discovery IX A Soul without Hope X The Reconciliation between Father and Son
EPILOGUE TO PART THE FIRST
PART THE SECOND
PROLOGUE TO PART THE SECOND
I The Coronation II Love at First Sight III Early Training for an Upright Gentleman IV John Ardworth V The Weavers and the Woof VI The Lawyer and the Body-snatcher VII The Rape of the Mattress VIII Percival visits Lucretia IX The Rose beneath the Upas X The Rattle of the Snake XI Love and Innocence XII Sudden Celebrity and Patient Hope XIII The Loss of the Crossing XIV News from Grabman XV Varieties XVI The Invitation to Laughton XVII The Waking of the Serpent XVIII Retrospect XIX Mr. Grabman's Adventures XX More of Mrs. Joplin XXI Beck's Discovery XXII The Tapestry Chamber XXIII The Shades on the Dial XXIV Murder, towards his Design, moves like a Ghost XXV The Messenger speeds XXVI The Spy flies XXVII Lucretia regains her Son XXVIII The Lots vanish within the Urn
EPILOGUE TO PART THE SECOND
PART THE FIRST.
PROLOGUE TO PART THE FIRST.
In an apartment at Paris, one morning during the Reign of Terror, a man, whose age might be somewhat under thirty, sat before a table covered with papers, arranged and labelled with the methodical precision of a mind fond of order and habituated to business. Behind him rose a tall bookcase surmounted with a bust of Robespierre, and the shelves were filled chiefly with works of a scientific character, amongst which the greater number were on chemistry and medicine. There were to be seen also many rare books on alchemy, the great Italian historians, some English philosophical treatises, and a few manuscripts in Arabic. The absence from this collection of the stormy literature of the day seemed to denote that the owner was a quiet student, living apart from the strife and passions of the Revolution. This supposition was, however, disproved by certain papers on the table, which were formally and laconically labelled "Reports on Lyons," and by packets of letters in the handwritings of Robespierre and Couthon. At one of the windows a young boy was earnestly engaged in some occupation which appeared to excite the curiosity of the person just described; for this last, after examining the child's movements for a few moments with a silent scrutiny that betrayed but little of the half-complacent, half-melancholy affection with which busy man is apt to regard childhood, rose noiselessly from his seat, approached the boy, and looked over his shoulder unobserved. In a crevice of the wood by the window, a huge black spider had formed his web; the child had just discovered another spider, and placed it in the meshes: he was watching the result of his operations. The intrusive spider stood motionless in the midst of the web, as if fascinated. The rightful possessor was also quiescent; but a very fine ear might have caught a low, humming sound, which probably augured no hospitable intentions to the invader. Anon, the stranger insect seemed suddenly to awake from its amaze; it evinced alarm, and turned to fly; the huge spider darted forward; the boy uttered a chuckle of delight. The man's pale lip curled into a sinister sneer, and he glided back to his seat. There, leaning his face on his hand, he continued to contemplate the child. That child might have furnished to an artist a fitting subject for fair and blooming infancy. His light hair, tinged deeply, it is true, with red, hung in sleek and glittering abundance down his neck and shoulders. His features, seen in profile, were delicately and almost femininely proportioned; health glowed on his cheek, and his form, slight though it was, gave promise of singular activity and vigour. His dress was fantastic, and betrayed the taste of some fondly foolish mother; but the fine linen, trimmed with lace, was rumpled and stained, the velvet jacket unbrushed, the shoes soiled with dust,—slight tokens these of neglect, but serving to show that the foolish fondness which had invented the dress had not of late presided over the toilet.
"Child," said the man, first in French; and observing that the boy heeded him not,—"child," he repeated in English, which he spoke well, though with a foreign accent, "child!"
The boy turned quickly.
"Has the great spider devoured the small one?"
"No, sir," said the boy, colouring; "the small one has had the best of it."
The tone and heightened complexion of the child seemed to give meaning to his words,—at least, so the man thought, for a slight frown passed over his high, thoughtful brow.
"Spiders, then," he said, after a short pause, "are different from men; with us, the small do not get the better of the great. Hum! do you still miss your mother?"
"Oh, yes!" and the boy advanced eagerly to the table.
"Well, you will see her once again."
The man looked towards a clock on the mantelpiece,—"Before that clock strikes. Now, go back to your spiders." The child looked irresolute and disinclined to obey; but a stern and terrible expression gathered slowly over the man's face, and the boy, growing pale as he remarked it, crept back to the window.
The father—for such was the relation the owner of the room bore to the child—drew paper and ink towards him, and wrote for some minutes rapidly. Then starting up, he glanced at the clock, took his hat and cloak, which lay on a chair beside, drew up the collar of the mantle till it almost concealed his countenance, and said, "Now, boy, come with me; I have promised to show you an execution: I am going to keep my promise. Come!"
The boy clapped his hands with joy; and you might see then, child as he was, that those fair features were capable of a cruel and ferocious expression. The character of the whole face changed. He caught up his gay cap and plume, and followed his father into the streets.
Silently the two took their way towards the Barriere du Trone. At a distance they saw the crowd growing thick and dense as throng after throng hurried past them, and the dreadful guillotine rose high in the light blue air. As they came into the skirts of the mob, the father, for the first time, took his child's hand. "I must get you a good place for the show," he said, with a quiet smile.
There was something in the grave, staid, courteous, yet haughty bearing of the man that made the crowd give way as he passed. They got near the dismal scene, and obtained entrance into a wagon already crowded with eager spectators.
And now they heard at a distance the harsh and lumbering roll of the tumbril that bore the victims, and the tramp of the horses which guarded the procession of death. The boy's whole attention was absorbed in expectation of the spectacle, and his ear was perhaps less accustomed to French, though born and reared in France, than to the language of his mother's lips,—and she was English; thus he did not hear or heed certain observations of the bystanders, which made his father's pale cheek grow paler.
"What is the batch to-day?" quoth a butcher in the wagon. "Scarce worth the baking,—only two; but one, they say, is an aristocrat,—a ci-devant marquis," answered a carpenter. "Ah, a marquis! Bon! And the other?"
"Only a dancer, but a pretty one, it is true; I could pity her, but she is English." And as he pronounced the last word, with a tone of inexpressible contempt, the butcher spat, as if in nausea.
"Mort diable! a spy of Pitt's, no doubt. What did they discover?"
A man, better dressed than the rest, turned round with a smile, and answered: "Nothing worse than a lover, I believe; but that lover was a proscrit. The ci-devant marquis was caught disguised in her apartment. She betrayed for him a good, easy friend of the people who had long loved her, and revenge is sweet."
The man whom we have accompanied, nervously twitched up the collar of his cloak, and his compressed lips told that he felt the anguish of the laugh that circled round him.
"They are coming! There they are!" cried the boy, in ecstatic excitement.
"That's the way to bring up citizens," said the butcher, patting the child's shoulder, and opening a still better view for him at the edge of the wagon.
The crowd now abruptly gave way. The tumbril was in sight. A man, young and handsome, standing erect and with folded arms in the fatal vehicle, looked along the mob with an eye of careless scorn. Though he wore the dress of a workman, the most unpractised glance could detect, in his mien and bearing, one of the hated noblesse, whose characteristics came out even more forcibly at the hour of death. On the lip was that smile of gay and insolent levity, on the brow that gallant if reckless contempt of physical danger, which had signalized the hero-coxcombs of the old regime. Even the rude dress was worn with a certain air of foppery, and the bright hair was carefully adjusted, as if for the holiday of the headsman. As the eyes of the young noble wandered over the fierce faces of that horrible assembly, while a roar of hideous triumph answered the look, in which for the last time the gentilhomme spoke his scorn of the canaille, the child's father lowered the collar of his cloak, and slowly raised his hat from his brow. The eye of the marquis rested upon the countenance thus abruptly shown to him, and which suddenly became individualized amongst the crowd,—that eye instantly lost its calm contempt. A shudder passed visibly over his frame, and his cheek grew blanched with terror. The mob saw the change, but not the cause, and loud and louder rose their triumphant yell. The sound recalled the pride of the young noble; he started, lifted his crest erect, and sought again to meet the look which had appalled him. But he could no longer single it out among the crowd. Hat and cloak once more hid the face of the foe, and crowds of eager heads intercepted the view. The young marquis's lips muttered; he bent down, and then the crowd caught sight of his companion, who was being lifted up from the bottom of the tumbril, where she had flung herself in horror and despair. The crowd grew still in a moment as the pale face of one, familiar to most of them, turned wildly from place to place in the dreadful scene, vainly and madly through its silence imploring life and pity. How often had the sight of that face, not then pale and haggard, but wreathed with rosy smiles, sufficed to draw down the applause of the crowded theatre; how, then, had those breasts, now fevered by the thirst of blood, held hearts spellbound by the airy movements of that exquisite form writhing now in no stage-mime agony! Plaything of the city, minion to the light amusement of the hour, frail child of Cytherea and the Graces, what relentless fate has conducted thee to the shambles? Butterfly of the summer, why should a nation rise to break thee upon the wheel? A sense of the mockery of such an execution, of the horrible burlesque that would sacrifice to the necessities of a mighty people so slight an offering, made itself felt among the crowd. There was a low murmur of shame and indignation. The dangerous sympathy of the mob was perceived by the officer in attendance. Hastily he made the sign to the headsman, and as he did so, a child's cry was heard in the English tongue,—"Mother! Mother!" The father's hand grasped the child's arm with an iron pressure; the crowd swam before the boy's eyes; the air seemed to stifle him, and become blood-red; only through the hum and the tramp and the roll of the drums he heard a low voice hiss in his ear "Learn how they perish who betray me!"
As the father said these words, again his face was bare, and the woman, whose ear amidst the dull insanity of fear had caught the cry of her child's voice, saw that face, and fell back insensible in the arms of the headsman.
CHAPTER I. A FAMILY GROUP.
One July evening, at the commencement of the present century, several persons were somewhat picturesquely grouped along an old-fashioned terrace which skirted the garden-side of a manor-house that had considerable pretensions to baronial dignity. The architecture was of the most enriched and elaborate style belonging to the reign of James the First: the porch, opening on the terrace, with its mullion window above, was encased with pilasters and reliefs at once ornamental and massive; and the large square tower in which it was placed was surmounted by a stone falcon, whose talons griped fiercely a scutcheon blazoned with the five-pointed stars which heralds recognize as the arms of St. John. On either side this tower extended long wings, the dark brickwork of which was relieved with noble stone casements and carved pediments; the high roof was partially concealed by a balustrade perforated not inelegantly into arabesque designs; and what architects call "the sky line" was broken with imposing effect by tall chimney-shafts of various form and fashion. These wings terminated in angular towers similar to the centre, though kept duly subordinate to it both in size and decoration, and crowned with stone cupolas. A low balustrade, of later date than that which adorned the roof, relieved by vases and statues, bordered the terrace, from which a double flight of steps descended to a smooth lawn, intersected by broad gravel-walks, shadowed by vast and stately cedars, and gently and gradually mingling with the wilder scenery of the park, from which it was only divided by a ha-ha.
Upon the terrace, and under cover of a temporary awning, sat the owner, Sir Miles St. John of Laughton, a comely old man, dressed with faithful precision to the costume which he had been taught to consider appropriate to his rank of gentleman, and which was not yet wholly obsolete and eccentric. His hair, still thick and luxuriant, was carefully powdered, and collected into a club behind; his nether man attired in gray breeches and pearl-coloured silk stockings; his vest of silk, opening wide at the breast, and showing a profusion of frill, slightly sprinkled with the pulvilio of his favourite Martinique; his three-cornered hat, placed on a stool at his side, with a gold-headed crutch-cane (hat made rather to be carried in the hand than worn on the head), the diamond in his shirt-breast, the diamond on his finger, the ruffles at his wrist,—all bespoke the gallant who had chatted with Lord Chesterfield and supped with Mrs. Clive. On a table before him were placed two or three decanters of wine, the fruits of the season, an enamelled snuff-box in which was set the portrait of a female (perhaps the Chloe or Phyllis of his early love-ditties), a lighted taper, a small china jar containing tobacco, and three or four pipes of homely clay,—for cherry-sticks and meerschaums were not then in fashion, and Sir Miles St. John, once a gay and sparkling beau, now a popular country gentleman, great at county meetings and sheep-shearing festivals, had taken to smoking, as in harmony with his bucolic transformation. An old setter lay dozing at his feet; a small spaniel—old, too—was sauntering lazily in the immediate neighbourhood, looking gravely out for such stray bits of biscuit as had been thrown forth to provoke him to exercise, and which hitherto had escaped his attention. Half seated, half reclined on the balustrade, apart from the baronet, but within reach of his conversation, lolled a man in the prime of life, with an air of unmistakable and sovereign elegance and distinction. Mr. Vernon was a guest from London; and the London man,—the man of clubs and dinners and routs, of noon loungings through Bond Street, and nights spent with the Prince of Wales,—seemed stamped not more upon the careful carelessness of his dress, and upon the worn expression of his delicate features, than upon the listless ennui, which, characterizing both his face and attitude, appeared to take pity on himself for having been entrapped into the country.
Yet we should convey an erroneous impression of Mr. Vernon if we designed, by the words "listless ennui," to depict the slumberous insipidity of more modern affectation; it was not the ennui of a man to whom ennui is habitual, it was rather the indolent prostration that fills up the intervals of excitement. At that day the word blast was unknown; men had not enough sentiment for satiety. There was a kind of Bacchanalian fury in the life led by those leaders of fashion, among whom Mr. Vernon was not the least distinguished; it was a day of deep drinking, of high play, of jovial, reckless dissipation, of strong appetite for fun and riot, of four-in-hand coachmanship, of prize-fighting, of a strange sort of barbarous manliness that strained every nerve of the constitution,—a race of life in which three fourths of the competitors died half-way in the hippodrome. What is now the Dandy was then the Buck; and something of the Buck, though subdued by a chaster taste than fell to the ordinary members of his class, was apparent in Mr. Vernon's costume as well as air. Intricate folds of muslin, arranged in prodigious bows and ends, formed the cravat, which Brummell had not yet arisen to reform; his hat, of a very peculiar shape, low at the crown and broad at the brim, was worn with an air of devil-me-care defiance; his watch-chain, garnished with a profusion of rings and seals, hung low from his white waistcoat; and the adaptation of his nankeen inexpressibles to his well-shaped limbs was a masterpiece of art. His whole dress and air was not what could properly be called foppish, it was rather what at that time was called "rakish." Few could so closely approach vulgarity without being vulgar: of that privileged few, Mr. Vernon was one of the elect.
Farther on, and near the steps descending into the garden, stood a man in an attitude of profound abstraction, his arms folded, his eyes bent on the ground, his brows slightly contracted; his dress was a plain black surtout, and pantaloons of the same colour. Something both in the fashion of the dress, and still more in the face of the man, bespoke the foreigner.
Sir Miles St. John was an accomplished person for that time of day. He had made the grand tour; he had bought pictures and statues; he spoke and wrote well in the modern languages; and being rich, hospitable, social, and not averse from the reputation of a patron, he had opened his house freely to the host of emigrants whom the French Revolution had driven to our coasts. Olivier Dalibard, a man of considerable learning and rare scientific attainments, had been tutor in the house of the Marquis de G——, a French nobleman known many years before to the old baronet. The marquis and his family had been among the first emigres at the outbreak of the Revolution. The tutor had remained behind; for at that time no danger appeared to threaten those who pretended to no other aristocracy than that of letters. Contrary, as he said, with repentant modesty, to his own inclinations, he had been compelled, not only for his own safety, but for that of his friends, to take some part in the subsequent events of the Revolution,—a part far from sincere, though so well had he simulated the patriot that he had won the personal favour and protection of Robespierre; nor till the fall of that virtuous exterminator had he withdrawn from the game of politics and effected in disguise his escape to England. As, whether from kindly or other motives, he had employed the power of his position in the esteem of Robespierre to save certain noble heads from the guillotine,—amongst others, the two brothers of the Marquis de G——, he was received with grateful welcome by his former patrons, who readily pardoned his career of Jacobinism from their belief in his excuses and their obligations to the services which that very career had enabled him to render to their kindred. Olivier Dalibard had accompanied the marquis and his family in one of the frequent visits they paid to Laughton; and when the marquis finally quitted England, and fixed his refuge at Vienna, with some connections of his wife's, he felt a lively satisfaction at the thought of leaving his friend honourably, if unambitiously, provided for as secretary and librarian to Sir Miles St. John. In fact, the scholar, who possessed considerable powers of fascination, had won no less favour with the English baronet than he had with the French dictator. He played well both at chess and backgammon; he was an extraordinary accountant; he had a variety of information upon all points that rendered him more convenient than any cyclopaedia in Sir Miles's library; and as he spoke both English and Italian with a correctness and fluency extremely rare in a Frenchman, he was of considerable service in teaching languages to, as well as directing the general literary education of, Sir Miles's favourite niece, whom we shall take an early opportunity to describe at length.
Nevertheless, there had been one serious obstacle to Dalibard's acceptance of the appointment offered to him by Sir Miles. Dalibard had under his charge a young orphan boy of some ten or twelve years old,—a boy whom Sir Miles was not long in suspecting to be the scholar's son. This child had come from France with Dalibard, and while the marquis's family were in London, remained under the eye and care of his guardian or father, whichever was the true connection between the two. But this superintendence became impossible if Dalibard settled in Hampshire with Sir Miles St. John, and the boy remained in London; nor, though the generous old gentleman offered to pay for the child's schooling, would Dalibard consent to part with him. At last the matter was arranged: the boy was invited to Laughton on a visit, and was so lively, yet so well mannered, that he became a favourite, and was now fairly quartered in the house with his reputed father; and not to make an unnecessary mystery of this connection, such was in truth the relationship between Olivier Dalibard and Honore Gabriel Varney,—a name significant of the double and illegitimate origin: a French father, an English mother. Dropping, however, the purely French appellation of Honore, he went familiarly by that of Gabriel. Half-way down the steps stood the lad, pencil and tablet in hand, sketching. Let us look over his shoulder: it is his father's likeness,—a countenance in itself not very remarkable at the first glance, for the features were small; but when examined, it was one that most persons, women especially, would have pronounced handsome, and to which none could deny the higher praise of thought and intellect. A native of Provence, with some Italian blood in his veins,—for his grandfather, a merchant of Marseilles, had married into a Florentine family settled at Leghorn,—the dark complexion common with those in the South had been subdued, probably by the habits of the student, into a bronze and steadfast paleness which seemed almost fair by the contrast of the dark hair which he wore unpowdered, and the still darker brows which hung thick and prominent over clear gray eyes. Compared with the features, the skull was disproportionally large, both behind and before; and a physiognomist would have drawn conclusions more favourable to the power than the tenderness of the Provencal's character from the compact closeness of the lips and the breadth and massiveness of the iron jaw. But the son's sketch exaggerated every feature, and gave to the expression a malignant and terrible irony not now, at least, apparent in the quiet and meditative aspect. Gabriel himself, as he stood, would have been a more tempting study to many an artist. It is true that he was small for his years; but his frame had a vigour in its light proportions which came from a premature and almost adolescent symmetry of shape and muscular development. The countenance, however, had much of effeminate beauty: the long hair reached the shoulders, but did not curl,—straight, fine, and glossy as a girl's, and in colour of the pale auburn, tinged with red, which rarely alters in hue as childhood matures to man; the complexion was dazzlingly clear and fair. Nevertheless, there was something so hard in the lip, so bold, though not open, in the brow, that the girlishness of complexion, and even of outline, could not leave, on the whole, an impression of effeminacy. All the hereditary keenness and intelligence were stamped upon his face at that moment; but the expression had also a large share of the very irony and malice which he had conveyed to his caricature. The drawing itself was wonderfully vigorous and distinct; showing great artistic promise, and done with the rapidity and ease which betrayed practice. Suddenly his father turned, and with as sudden a quickness the boy concealed his tablet in his vest; and the sinister expression of his face smoothed into a timorous smile as his eye encountered Dalibard's. The father beckoned to the boy, who approached with alacrity. "Gabriel," whispered the Frenchman, in his own tongue, "where are they at this moment?"
The boy pointed silently towards one of the cedars. Dalibard mused an instant, and then, slowly descending the steps, took his noiseless way over the smooth turf towards the tree. Its boughs drooped low and spread wide; and not till he was within a few paces of the spot could his eye perceive two forms seated on a bench under the dark green canopy. He then paused and contemplated them.
The one was a young man whose simple dress and subdued air strongly contrasted the artificial graces and the modish languor of Mr. Vernon; but though wholly without that nameless distinction which sometimes characterizes those conscious of pure race and habituated to the atmosphere of courts, he had at least Nature's stamp of aristocracy in a form eminently noble, and features of manly, but surpassing beauty, which were not rendered less engaging by an expression of modest timidity. He seemed to be listening with thoughtful respect to his companion, a young female by his side, who was speaking to him with an earnestness visible in her gestures and her animated countenance. And though there was much to notice in the various persons scattered over the scene, not one, perhaps,—not the graceful Vernon, not the thoughtful scholar, nor his fair-haired, hard-lipped son, not even the handsome listener she addressed,—no, not one there would so have arrested the eye, whether of a physiognomist or a casual observer, as that young girl, Sir Miles St. John's favourite niece and presumptive heiress.
But as at that moment the expression of her face differed from that habitual to it, we defer its description.
"Do not," such were her words to her companion,—"do not alarm yourself by exaggerating the difficulties; do not even contemplate them: those be my care. Mainwaring, when I loved you; when, seeing that your diffidence or your pride forbade you to be the first to speak, I overstepped the modesty or the dissimulation of my sex; when I said, 'Forget that I am the reputed heiress of Laughton, see in me but the faults and merits of the human being, of the wild unregulated girl, see in me but Lucretia Clavering'" (here her cheeks blushed, and her voice sank into a lower and more tremulous whisper) "'and love her if you can!'—when I went thus far, do not think I had not measured all the difficulties in the way of our union, and felt that I could surmount them."
"But," answered Mainwaring, hesitatingly, "can you conceive it possible that your uncle ever will consent? Is not pride—the pride of family—almost the leading attribute of his character? Did he not discard your mother—his own sister—from his house and heart for no other offence but a second marriage which he deemed beneath her? Has he ever even consented to see, much less to receive, your half-sister, the child of that marriage? Is not his very affection for you interwoven with his pride in you, with his belief in your ambition? Has he not summoned your cousin, Mr. Vernon, for the obvious purpose of favouring a suit which he considers worthy of you, and which, if successful, will unite the two branches of his ancient house? How is it possible that he can ever hear without a scorn and indignation which would be fatal to your fortunes that your heart has presumed to choose, in William Mainwaring, a man without ancestry or career?"
"Not without career," interrupted Lucretia, proudly. "Do you think if you were master of Laughton that your career would not be more brilliant than that of yon indolent, luxurious coxcomb? Do you think that I could have been poor-hearted enough to love you if I had not recognized in you energies and talents that correspond with my own ambition? For I am ambitious, as you know, and therefore my mind, as well as my heart, went with my love for you."
"Ah, Lucretia, but can Sir Miles St. John see my future rise in my present obscurity?"
"I do not say that he can, or will; but if you love me, we can wait. Do not fear the rivalry of Mr. Vernon. I shall know how to free myself from so tame a peril. We can wait,—my uncle is old; his habits preclude the chance of a much longer life; he has already had severe attacks. We are young, dear Mainwaring: what is a year or two to those who hope?" Mainwaring's face fell, and a displeasing chill passed through his veins. Could this young creature, her uncle's petted and trusted darling, she who should be the soother of his infirmities, the prop of his age, the sincerest mourner at his grave, weigh coldly thus the chances of his death, and point at once to the altar and the tomb?
He was saved from the embarrassment of reply by Dalibard's approach.
"More than half an hour absent," said the scholar, in his own language, with a smile; and drawing out his watch, he placed it before their eyes. "Do you not think that all will miss you? Do you suppose, Miss Clavering, that your uncle has not ere this asked for his fair niece? Come, and forestall him." He offered his arm to Lucretia as he spoke. She hesitated a moment, and then, turning to Mainwaring, held out her hand. He pressed it, though scarcely with a lover's warmth; and as she walked back to the terrace with Dalibard, the young man struck slowly into the opposite direction, and passing by a gate over a foot-bridge that led from the ha-ha into the park, bent his way towards a lake which gleamed below at some distance, half-concealed by groves of venerable trees rich with the prodigal boughs of summer. Meanwhile, as they passed towards the house, Dalibard, still using his native tongue, thus accosted his pupil:—
"You must pardon me if I think more of your interests than you do; and pardon me no less if I encroach on your secrets and alarm your pride. This young man,—can you be guilty of the folly of more than a passing caprice for his society, of more than the amusement of playing with his vanity? Even if that be all, beware of entangling yourself in your own meshes."
"You do in truth offend me," said Lucretia, with calm haughtiness, "and you have not the right thus to speak to me."
"Not the right," repeated the Provencal, mournfully, "not the right! Then, indeed, I am mistaken in my pupil. Do you consider that I would have lowered my pride to remain here as a dependent; that, conscious of attainments, and perhaps of abilities, that should win their way, even in exile, to distinction, I would have frittered away my life in these rustic shades,—if I had not formed in you a deep and absorbing interest? In that interest I ground my right to warn and counsel you. I saw, or fancied I saw, in you a mind congenial to my own; a mind above the frivolities of your sex,—a mind, in short, with the grasp and energy of a man's. You were then but a child, you are scarcely yet a woman; yet have I not given to your intellect the strong food on which the statesmen of Florence fed their pupil-princes, or the noble Jesuits the noble men who were destined to extend the secret empire of the imperishable Loyola?"
"You gave me the taste for a knowledge rare in my sex, I own," answered Lucretia, with a slight tone of regret in her voice: "and in the knowledge you have communicated I felt a charm that at times seems to me to be only fatal. You have confounded in my mind evil and good, or rather, you have left both good and evil as dead ashes, as the dust and cinder of a crucible. You have made intellect the only conscience. Of late, I wish that my tutor had been a village priest!"
"Of late, since you have listened to the pastorals of that meek Corydon!"
"Dare you despise him? And for what? That he is good and honest?"
"I despise him, not because he is good and honest, but because he is of the common herd of men, without aim or character. And it is for this youth that you will sacrifice your fortunes, your ambition, the station you were born to fill and have been reared to improve,—this youth in whom there is nothing but the lap-dog's merit, sleekness and beauty! Ay, frown,—the frown betrays you; you love him!"
"And if I do?" said Lucretia, raising her tall form to its utmost height, and haughtily facing her inquisitor,—"and, if I do, what then? Is he unworthy of me? Converse with him, and you will find that the noble form conceals as high a spirit. He wants but wealth: I can give it to him. If his temper is gentle, I can prompt and guide it to fame and power. He at least has education and eloquence and mind. What has Mr. Vernon?"
"Mr. Vernon? I did not speak of him!"
Lucretia gazed hard upon the Provencal's countenance,—gazed with that unpitying air of triumph with which a woman who detects a power over the heart she does not desire to conquer exults in defeating the reasons that heart appears to her to prompt. "No," she said in a calm voice, to which the venom of secret irony gave stinging significance,—"no, you spoke not of Mr. Vernon; you thought that if I looked round, if I looked nearer, I might have a fairer choice."
"You are cruel, you are unjust," said Dalibard, falteringly. "If I once presumed for a moment, have I repeated my offence? But," he added hurriedly, "in me,—much as you appear to despise me,—in me, at least, you would have risked none of the dangers that beset you if you seriously set your heart on Mainwaring."
"You think my uncle would be proud to give my hand to M. Olivier Dalibard?"
"I think and I know," answered the Provencal, gravely, and disregarding the taunt, "that if you had deigned to render me—poor exile that I am!—the most enviable of men, you had still been the heiress of Laughton."
"So you have said and urged," said Lucretia, with evident curiosity in her voice; "yet how, and by what art,—wise and subtle as you are,—could you have won my uncle's consent?"
"That is my secret," returned Dalibard, gloomily; "and since the madness I indulged is forever over; since I have so schooled my heart that nothing, despite your sarcasm, save an affectionate interest which I may call paternal rests there,—let us pass from this painful subject. Oh, my dear pupil, be warned in time; know love for what it really is, in the dark and complicated history of actual life,—a brief enchantment, not to be disdained, but not to be considered the all-in all. Look round the world; contemplate all those who have married from passion: ten years afterwards, whither has the passion flown? With a few, indeed, where there is community of object and character, new excitements, new aims and hopes, spring up; and having first taken root in passion, the passion continues to shoot out in their fresh stems and fibres. But deceive yourself not; there is no such community between you and Mainwaring. What you call his goodness, you will learn hereafter to despise as feeble; and what in reality is your mental power he soon, too soon, will shudder at as unwomanly and hateful."
"Hold!" cried Lucretia, tremulously. "Hold! and if he does, I shall owe his hate to you,—to your lessons; to your deadly influence!"
"Lucretia, no; the seeds were in you. Can cultivation force from the soil that which it is against the nature of the soil to bear?"
"I will pluck out the weeds! I will transform myself!"
"Child, I defy you!" said the scholar, with a smile that gave to his face the expression his son had conveyed to it. "I have warned you, and my task is done." With that he bowed, and leaving her, was soon by the side of Sir Miles St. John; and the baronet and his librarian, a few moments after, entered the house and sat down to chess.
But during the dialogues we have sketched, we must not suppose that Sir Miles himself had been so wholly absorbed in the sensual gratification bestowed upon Europe by the immortal Raleigh as to neglect his guest and kinsman.
"And so, Charley Vernon, it is not the fashion to smoke in Lunnon." Thus Sir Miles pronounced the word, according to the Euphuism of his youth, and which, even at that day, still lingered in courtly jargon.
"No, sir. However, to console us, we have most other vices in full force."
"I don't doubt it; they say the prince's set exhaust life pretty quickly."
"It certainly requires the fortune of an earl and the constitution of a prize-fighter to live with him."
"Yet methinks, Master Charley, you have neither the one nor the other."
"And therefore I see before me, and at no very great distance, the Bench and—a consumption!" answered Vernon, suppressing a slight yawn.
"'T is a pity, for you had a fine estate, properly managed; and in spite of your faults, you have the heart of a true gentleman. Come, come!" and the old man spoke with tenderness, "you are young enough yet to reform. A prudent marriage and a good wife will save both your health and your acres."
"If you think so highly of marriage, my dear Sir Miles, it is a wonder you did not add to your precepts the value of your example."
"Jackanapes! I had not your infirmities: I never was a spendthrift, and I have a constitution of iron!" There was a pause. "Charles," continued Sir Miles, musingly, "there is many an earl with a less fortune than the conjoined estates of Vernon Grange and Laughton Hall. You must already have understood me: it is my intention to leave my estates to Lucretia; it is my wish, nevertheless, to think you will not be the worse for my will. Frankly, if you can like my niece, win her; settle here while I live, put the Grange to nurse, and recruit yourself by fresh air and field-sports. Zounds, Charles, I love you, and that's the truth! Give me your hand!"
"And a grateful heart with it, sir," said Vernon, warmly, evidently affected, as he started from his indolent position and took the hand extended to him. "Believe me, I do not covet your wealth, nor do I envy my cousin anything so much as the first place in your regard."
"Prettily said, my boy, and I don't suspect you of insincerity. What think you, then, of my plan?"
Mr. Vernon seemed embarrassed; but recovering himself with his usual ease, he replied archly: "Perhaps, sir, it will be of little use to know what I think of your plan; my fair cousin may have upset it already."
"Ha, sir! let me look at you. So, so! you are not jesting. What the deuce do you mean? 'Gad, man, speak out!"
"Do you not think that Mr. Monderling—Mandolin—what's his name, eh?—do you not think that he is a very handsome young fellow?" said Mr. Vernon, drawing out his snuffbox and offering it to his kinsman.
"Damn your snuff," quoth Sir Miles, in great choler, as he rejected the proffered courtesy with a vehemence that sent half the contents of the box upon the joint eyes and noses of the two canine favourites dozing at his feet. The setter started up in an agony; the spaniel wheezed and sniffled and ran off, stopping every moment to take his head between his paws. The old gentleman continued without heeding the sufferings of his dumb friends,—a symptom of rare discomposure on his part.
"Do you mean to insinuate, Mr. Vernon, that my niece—my elder niece, Lucretia Clavering—condescends to notice the looks, good or bad, of Mr. Mainwaring? 'Sdeath, sir, he is the son of a land-agent! Sir, he is intended for trade! Sir, his highest ambition is to be partner in some fifth-rate mercantile house!"
"My dear Sir Miles," replied Mr. Vernon, as he continued to brush away, with his scented handkerchief, such portions of the prince's mixture as his nankeen inexpressibles had diverted from the sensual organs of Dash and Ponto—"my dear Sir Miles, ca n'empeche pas le sentiment!"
"Empeche the fiddlestick! You don't know Lucretia. There are many girls, indeed, who might not be trusted near any handsome flute-playing spark, with black eyes and white teeth; but Lucretia is not one of those; she has spirit and ambition that would never stoop to a mesalliance; she has the mind and will of a queen,—old Queen Bess, I believe."
"That is saying much for her talent, sir; but if so, Heaven help her intended! I am duly grateful for the blessings you propose me!"
Despite his anger, the old gentleman could not help smiling.
"Why, to confess the truth, she is hard to manage; but we men of the world know how to govern women, I hope,—much more how to break in a girl scarce out of her teens. As for this fancy of yours, it is sheer folly: Lucretia knows my mind. She has seen her mother's fate; she has seen her sister an exile from my house. Why? For no fault of hers, poor thing, but because she is the child of disgrace, and the mother's sin is visited on her daughter's head. I am a good-natured man, I fancy, as men go; but I am old-fashioned enough to care for my race. If Lucretia demeaned herself to love, to encourage, that lad, why, I would strike her from my will, and put your name where I have placed hers."
"Sir," said Vernon, gravely, and throwing aside all affectation of manner, "this becomes serious; and I have no right even to whisper a doubt by which it now seems I might benefit. I think it imprudent, if you wish Miss Clavering to regard me impartially as a suitor to her hand, to throw her, at her age, in the way of a man far superior to myself, and to most men, in personal advantages,—a man more of her own years, well educated, well mannered, with no evidence of his inferior birth in his appearance or his breeding. I have not the least ground for supposing that he has made the slightest impression on Miss Clavering, and if he has, it would be, perhaps, but a girl's innocent and thoughtless fancy, easily shaken off by time and worldly reflection; but pardon me if I say bluntly that should that be so, you would be wholly unjustified in punishing, even in blaming, her,—it is yourself you must blame for your own carelessness and that forgetful blindness to human nature and youthful emotions which, I must say, is the less pardonable in one who has known the world so intimately."
"Charles Vernon," said the old baronet, "give me your hand again! I was right, at least, when I said you had the heart of a true gentleman. Drop this subject for the present. Who has just left Lucretia yonder?"
"Your protege, the Frenchman."
"Ah, he, at least, is not blind; go and join Lucretia!"
Vernon bowed, emptied the remains of the Madeira into a tumbler, drank the contents at a draught, and sauntered towards Lucretia; but she, perceiving his approach, crossed abruptly into one of the alleys that led to the other side of the house, and he was either too indifferent or too well-bred to force upon her the companionship which she so evidently shunned. He threw himself at length upon one of the benches on the lawn, and leaning his head upon his hand, fell into reflections which, had he spoken, would have shaped themselves somewhat thus into words:—
"If I must take that girl as the price of this fair heritage, shall I gain or lose? I grant that she has the finest neck and shoulders I ever saw out of marble; but far from being in love with her, she gives me a feeling like fear and aversion. Add to this that she has evidently no kinder sentiment for me than I for her; and if she once had a heart, that young gentleman has long since coaxed it away. Pleasant auspices, these, for matrimony to a poor invalid who wishes at least to decline and to die in peace! Moreover, if I were rich enough to marry as I pleased; if I were what, perhaps, I ought to be, heir to Laughton,—why, there is a certain sweet Mary in the world, whose eyes are softer than Lucretia Clavering's. But that is a dream! On the other hand, if I do not win this girl, and my poor kinsman give her all, or nearly all, his possessions, Vernon Grange goes to the usurers, and the king will find a lodging for myself. What does it matter? I cannot live above two or three years at the most, and can only hope, therefore, that dear stout old Sir Miles may outlive me. At thirty-three I have worn out fortune and life; little pleasure could Laughton give me,—brief pain the Bench. 'Fore Gad, the philosophy of the thing is on the whole against sour looks and the noose!" Thus deciding in the progress of his revery, he smiled, and changed his position. The sun had set, the twilight was over, the moon rose in splendour from amidst a thick copse of mingled beech and oak; the beams fell full on the face of the muser, and the face seemed yet paler and the exhaustion of premature decay yet more evident, by that still and melancholy light: all ruins gain dignity by the moon. This was a ruin nobler than that which painters place on their canvas,—the ruin, not of stone and brick, but of humanity and spirit; the wreck of man prematurely old, not stricken by great sorrow, not bowed by great toil, but fretted and mined away by small pleasures and poor excitements,—small and poor, but daily, hourly, momently at their gnome-like work. Something of the gravity and the true lesson of the hour and scene, perhaps, forced itself upon a mind little given to sentiment, for Vernon rose languidly and muttered,—
"My poor mother hoped better things from me. It is well, after all, that it is broken off with Mary. Why should there be any one to weep for me? I can the better die smiling, as I have lived."
Meanwhile, as it is necessary we should follow each of the principal characters we have introduced through the course of an evening more or less eventful in the destiny of all, we return to Mainwaring and accompany him to the lake at the bottom of the park, which he reached as its smooth surface glistened in the last beams of the sun. He saw, as he neared the water, the fish sporting in the pellucid tide; the dragonfly darted and hovered in the air; the tedded grass beneath his feet gave forth the fragrance of crushed thyme and clover; the swan paused, as if slumbering on the wave; the linnet and finch sang still from the neighbouring copses; and the heavy bees were winging their way home with a drowsy murmur. All around were images of that unspeakable peace which Nature whispers to those attuned to her music; all fitted to lull, but not to deject, the spirit,—images dear to the holiday of the world-worn man, to the contemplation of serene and retired age, to the boyhood of poets, to the youth of lovers. But Mainwaring's step was heavy, and his brow clouded, and Nature that evening was dumb to him. At the margin of the lake stood a solitary angler who now, his evening's task done, was employed in leisurely disjointing his rod and whistling with much sweetness an air from one of Izaak Walton's songs. Mainwaring reached the angler and laid his hand on his shoulder.
"What sport, Ardworth?"
"A few large roach with the fly, and one pike with a gudgeon,—a noble fellow! Look at him! He was lying under the reeds yonder; I saw his green back, and teased him into biting. A heavenly evening! I wonder you did not follow my example, and escape from a set where neither you nor I can feel very much at home, to this green banquet of Nature, in which at least no man sits below the salt-cellar. The birds are an older family than the St. Johns, but they don't throw their pedigree in our teeth, Mainwaring."
"Nay, nay, my good friend, you wrong old Sir Miles; proud he is, no doubt, but neither you nor I have had to complain of his insolence."
"Of his insolence, certainly not; of his condescension, yes! Hang it, William, it is his very politeness that galls me. Don't you observe that with Vernon, or Lord A——, or Lord B——, or Mr. C——, he is easy and off-hand; calls them by their names, pats them on the shoulder, rates them, and swears at them if they vex him. But with you and me and his French parasite, it is all stately decorum and punctilious courtesy: 'Mr. Mainwaring, I am delighted to see you;' 'Mr. Ardworth, as you are so near, dare I ask you to ring the bell?' 'Monsieur Dalibard, with the utmost deference, I venture to disagree with you.' However, don't let my foolish susceptibility ruffle your pride. And you, too, have a worthy object in view, which might well detain you from roach and jack-fish. Have you stolen your interview with the superb Lucretia?"
"Yes, stolen, as you say; and, like all thieves not thoroughly hardened, I am ashamed of my gains."
"Sit down, my boy,—this is a bank in ten thousand; there, that old root to lean your elbow on, this soft moss for your cushion: sit down and confess. You have something on your mind that preys on you; we are old college friends,—out with it!"
"There is no resisting you, Ardworth," said Mainwaring, smiling, and drawn from his reserve and his gloom by the frank good-humour of his companion. "I should like, I own, to make a clean breast of it; and perhaps I may profit by your advice. You know, in the first place, that after I left college, my father, seeing me indisposed for the Church, to which he had always destined me in his own heart, and for which, indeed, he had gone out of his way to maintain me at the University, gave me the choice of his own business as a surveyor and land-agent, or of entering into the mercantile profession. I chose the latter, and went to Southampton, where we have a relation in business, to be initiated into the elementary mysteries. There I became acquainted with a good clergyman and his wife, and in that house I passed a great part of my time."
"With the hope, I trust, on better consideration, of gratifying your father's ambition and learning how to starve with gentility on a cure."
"Not much of that, I fear."
"Then the clergyman had a daughter?"
"You are nearer the mark now," said Mainwaring, colouring,—"though it was not his daughter. A young lady lived in his family, not even related to him; she was placed there with a certain allowance by a rich relation. In a word, I admired, perhaps I loved, this young person; but she was without an independence, and I not yet provided even with the substitute of money,—a profession. I fancied (do not laugh at my vanity) that my feelings might be returned. I was in alarm for her as well as myself; I sounded the clergyman as to the chance of obtaining the consent of her rich relation, and was informed that he thought it hopeless. I felt I had no right to invite her to poverty and ruin, and still less to entangle further (if I had chanced to touch at all) her affection. I made an excuse to my father to leave the town, and returned home."
"Prudent and honourable enough, so far; unlike me,—I should have run off with the girl, if she loved me, and old Plutus, the rascal, might have done his worst against Cupid. But I interrupt you."
"I came back when the county was greatly agitated,—public meetings, speeches, mobs; a sharp election going on. My father had always taken keen interest in politics; he was of the same party as Sir Miles, who, you know, is red-hot upon politics. I was easily led—partly by ambition, partly by the effect of example, partly by the hope to give a new turn to my thoughts—to make an appearance in public."
"And a devilish creditable one too! Why, man, your speeches have been quoted with rapture by the London papers. Horribly aristocratic and Pittish, it is true,—I think differently; but every man to his taste. Well—"
"My attempts, such as they were, procured me the favour of Sir Miles. He had long been acquainted with my father, who had helped him in his own elections years ago. He seemed cordially delighted to patronize the son; he invited me to visit him at Laughton, and hinted to my father that I was formed for something better than a counting-house: my poor father was intoxicated. In a word, here I am; here, often for days, almost weeks, together, have I been a guest, always welcomed."
"You pause. This is the primordium,—now comes the confession, eh?"
"Why, one half the confession is over. It was my most unmerited fortune to attract the notice of Miss Clavering. Do not fancy me so self-conceited as to imagine that I should ever have presumed so high, but for—"
"But for encouragement,—I understand! Well, she is a magnificent creature, in her way, and I do not wonder that she drove the poor little girl at Southampton out of your thoughts."
"Ah! but there is the sore,—I am not sure that she has done so. Ardworth, I may trust you?"
"With everything but half-a-guinea. I would not promise to be rock against so great a temptation!" and Ardworth turned his empty pockets inside out.
"Tush! be serious, or I go."
"Serious! With pockets like these, the devil's in it if I am not serious. Perge, precor."
"Ardworth, then," said Mainwaring, with great emotion, "I confide to you the secret trouble of my heart. This girl at Southampton is Lucretia's sister,—her half-sister; the rich relation on whose allowance she lives is Sir Miles St. John."
"Whew! my own poor dear little cousin, by the father's side! Mainwaring, I trust you have not deceived me; you have not amused yourself with breaking Susan's heart? For a heart, and an honest, simple, English girl's heart she has."
"Heaven forbid! I tell you I have never even declared my love; and if love it were, I trust it is over. But when Sir Miles was first kind to me, first invited me, I own I had the hope to win his esteem; and since he had always made so strong and cruel a distinction between Lucretia and Susan, I thought it not impossible that he might consent at last to my union with the niece he had refused to receive and acknowledge. But even while the hope was in me, I was drawn on, I was entangled, I was spell-bound, I know not how or why; but, to close my confidence, while still doubtful whether my own heart is free from the remembrance of the one sister, I am pledged to the other."
Ardworth looked down gravely and remained silent. He was a joyous, careless, reckless youth, with unsteady character and pursuits, and with something of vague poetry, much of unaccommodating pride about his nature,—one of those youths little likely to do what is called well in the world; not persevering enough for an independent career, too blunt and honest for a servile one. But it was in the very disposition of such a person to judge somewhat harshly of Mainwaring's disclosure, and not easily to comprehend what, after all, was very natural,—how a young man, new to life, timid by character, and of an extreme susceptibility to the fear of giving pain, had, in the surprise, the gratitude, the emotion, of an avowed attachment from a girl far above him in worldly position, been forced, by receiving, to seem, at least, to return her affection. And, indeed, though not wholly insensible to the brilliant prospects opened to him in such a connection, yet, to do him justice, Mainwaring would have been equally entangled by a similar avowal from a girl more his equal in the world. It was rather from an amiability bordering upon weakness, than from any more degrading moral imperfections, that he had been betrayed into a position which neither contented his heart nor satisfied his conscience.
With far less ability than his friend, Ardworth had more force and steadiness in his nature, and was wholly free from that morbid delicacy of temperament to which susceptible and shy persons owe much of their errors and misfortunes. He said, therefore, after a long pause: "My good fellow, to be plain with you, I cannot say that your confession has improved you in my estimation; but that is perhaps because of the bluntness of my understanding. I could quite comprehend your forgetting Susan (and, after all, I am left in doubt as to the extent of her conquest over you) for the very different charms of her sister. On the other hand, I could still better understand that, having once fancied Susan, you could not be commanded into love for Lucretia. But I do not comprehend your feeling love for one, and making love to the other,—which is the long and short of the business."
"That is not exactly the true statement," answered Mainwaring, with a powerful effort at composure. "There are moments when, listening to Lucretia, when, charmed by that softness which, contrasting the rest of her character, she exhibits to none but me, struck by her great mental powers, proud of an unsought triumph over such a being, I feel as if I could love none but her; then suddenly her mood changes,—she utters sentiments that chill and revolt me; the very beauty seems vanished from her face. I recall with a sigh the simple sweetness of Susan, and I feel as if I deceived both my mistress and myself. Perhaps, however, all the circumstances of this connection tend to increase my doubts. It is humiliating to me to know that I woo clandestinely and upon sufferance; that I am stealing, as it were, into a fortune; that I am eating Sir Miles's bread, and yet counting upon his death; and this shame in myself may make me unconsciously unjust to Lucretia. But it is useless to reprove me for what is past; and though I at first imagined you could advise me for the future, I now see, too clearly, that no advice could avail."
"I grant that too; for all you require is to make up your mind to be fairly off with the old love, or fairly on with the new. However, now you have stated your case thus frankly, if you permit me, I will take advantage of the strange chance of finding myself here, and watch, ponder, and counsel, if I can. This Lucretia, I own it, puzzles and perplexes me; but though no Oedipus, I will not take fright at the sphinx. I suppose now it is time to return. They expect some of the neighbours to drink tea, and I must doff my fishing-jacket. Come!"
As they strolled towards the house, Ardworth broke a silence which had lasted for some moments.
"And how is that dear good Fielden? I ought to have guessed him at once, when you spoke of your clergyman and his young charge; but I did not know he was at Southampton."
"He has exchanged his living for a year, on account of his wife's health, and rather, I think also, with the wish to bring poor Susan nearer to Laughton, in the chance of her uncle seeing her. But you are, then, acquainted with Fielden?"
"Acquainted!—my best friend. He was my tutor, and prepared me for Caius College. I owe him, not only the little learning I have, but the little good that is left in me. I owe to him apparently, also, whatever chance of bettering my prospects may arise from my visit to Laughton."
"Notwithstanding our intimacy, we have, like most young men not related, spoken so little of our family matters that I do not now understand how you are cousin to Susan, nor what, to my surprise and delight, brought you hither three days ago."
"Faith, my story is easier to explain than your own, William. Here goes!"
But as Ardworth's recital partially involves references to family matters not yet sufficiently known to the reader, we must be pardoned if we assume to ourselves his task of narrator, and necessarily enlarge on his details.
The branch of the illustrious family of St. John represented by Sir Miles, diverged from the parent stem of the Lords of Bletshoe. With them it placed at the summit of its pedigree the name of William de St. John, the Conqueror's favourite and trusted warrior, and Oliva de Filgiers. With them it blazoned the latter alliance, which gave to Sir Oliver St. John the lands of Bletshoe by the hand of Margaret Beauchamp (by her second marriage with the Duke of Somerset), grandmother to Henry VII. In the following generation, the younger son of a younger son had founded, partly by offices of state, partly by marriage with a wealthy heiress, a house of his own; and in the reign of James the First, the St. Johns of Laughton ranked amongst the chief gentlemen of Hampshire. From that time till the accession of George III the family, though it remained untitled, had added to its consequence by intermarriages of considerable dignity,—chosen, indeed, with a disregard for money uncommon amongst the English aristocracy; so that the estate was but little enlarged since the reign of James, though profiting, of course, by improved cultivation and the different value of money. On the other hand, perhaps there were scarcely ten families in the country who could boast of a similar directness of descent on all sides from the proudest and noblest aristocracy of the soil; and Sir Miles St. John, by blood, was, almost at the distance of eight centuries, as pure a Norman as his ancestral William. His grandfather, nevertheless, had deviated from the usual disinterested practice of the family, and had married an heiress who brought the quarterings of Vernon to the crowded escutcheon, and with these quarterings an estate of some 4,000 pounds a year popularly known by the name of Vernon Grange. This rare occurrence did not add to the domestic happiness of the contracting parties, nor did it lead to the ultimate increase of the Laughton possessions. Two sons were born. To the elder was destined the father's inheritance,—to the younger the maternal property. One house is not large enough for two heirs. Nothing could exceed the pride of the father as a St. John, except the pride of the mother as a Vernon. Jealousies between the two sons began early and rankled deep; nor was there peace at Laughton till the younger had carried away from its rental the lands of Vernon Grange; and the elder remained just where his predecessors stood in point of possessions,—sole lord of Laughton sole. The elder son, Sir Miles's father, had been, indeed, so chafed by the rivalry with his brother that in disgust he had run away and thrown himself, at the age of fourteen, into the navy. By accident or by merit he rose high in that profession, acquired name and fame, and lost an eye and an arm,—for which he was gazetted, at the same time, an admiral and a baronet.
Thus mutilated and dignified, Sir George St. John retired from the profession; and finding himself unmarried, and haunted by the apprehension that if he died childless, Laughton would pass to his brother's heirs, he resolved upon consigning his remains to the nuptial couch, previous to the surer peace of the family vault. At the age of fifty-nine, the grim veteran succeeded in finding a young lady of unblemished descent and much marked with the small-pox, who consented to accept the only hand which Sir George had to offer. From this marriage sprang a numerous family; but all died in early childhood, frightened to death, said the neighbours, by their tender parents (considered the ugliest couple in the county), except one boy (the present Sir Miles) and one daughter, many years younger, destined to become Lucretia's mother. Sir Miles came early into his property; and although the softening advance of civilization, with the liberal effects of travel and a long residence in cities, took from him that provincial austerity of pride which is only seen in stanch perfection amongst the lords of a village, he was yet little less susceptible to the duties of maintaining his lineage pure as its representation had descended to him than the most superb of his predecessors. But owing, it was said, to an early disappointment, he led, during youth and manhood, a roving and desultory life, and so put off from year to year the grand experiment matrimonial, until he arrived at old age, with the philosophical determination to select from the other branches of his house the successor to the heritage of St. John. In thus arrogating to himself a right to neglect his proper duties as head of a family, he found his excuse in adopting his niece Lucretia. His sister had chosen for her first husband a friend and neighbour of his own, a younger son, of unexceptionable birth and of very agreeable manners in society. But this gentleman contrived to render her life so miserable that, though he died fifteen months after their marriage, his widow could scarcely be expected to mourn long for him. A year after Mr. Clavering's death, Mrs. Clavering married again, under the mistaken notion that she had the right to choose for herself. She married Dr. Mivers, the provincial physician who had attended her husband in his last illness,—a gentleman by education, manners, and profession, but unhappily the son of a silk-mercer. Sir Miles never forgave this connection. By her first marriage, Sir Miles's sister had one daughter, Lucretia; by her second marriage, another daughter, named Susan. She survived somewhat more than a year the birth of the latter. On her death, Sir Miles formally (through his agent) applied to Dr. Mivers for his eldest niece, Lucretia Clavering, and the physician did not think himself justified in withholding from her the probable advantages of a transfer from his own roof to that of her wealthy uncle. He himself had been no worldly gainer by his connection; his practice had suffered materially from the sympathy which was felt by the county families for the supposed wrongs of Sir Miles St. John, who was personally not only popular, but esteemed, nor less so on account of his pride,—too dignified to refer even to his domestic annoyances, except to his most familiar associates; to them, indeed, Sir Miles had said, briefly, that he considered a physician who abused his entrance into a noble family by stealing into its alliance was a character in whose punishment all society had an interest. The words were repeated; they were thought just. Those who ventured to suggest that Mrs. Clavering, as a widow, was a free agent, were regarded with suspicion. It was the time when French principles were just beginning to be held in horror, especially in the provinces, and when everything that encroached upon the rights and prejudices of the high born was called "a French principle." Dr. Mivers was as much scouted as if he had been a sans-culotte. Obliged to quit the county, he settled at a distance; but he had a career to commence again; his wife's death enfeebled his spirits and damped his exertions. He did little more than earn a bare subsistence, and died at last, when his only daughter was fourteen, poor and embarrassed On his death-bed he wrote a letter to Sir Miles reminding him that, after all, Susan was his sister's child, gently vindicating himself from the unmerited charge of treachery, which had blasted his fortunes and left his orphan penniless, and closing with a touching yet a manly appeal to the sole relative left to befriend her. The clergyman who had attended him in his dying moments took charge of this letter; he brought it in person to Laughton, and delivered it to Sir Miles. Whatever his errors, the old baronet was no common man. He was not vindictive, though he could not be called forgiving. He had considered his conduct to his sister a duty owed to his name and ancestors; she had placed herself and her youngest child out of the pale of his family. He would not receive as his niece the grand-daughter of a silk-mercer. The relationship was extinct, as, in certain countries, nobility is forfeited by a union with an inferior class. But, niece or not, here was a claim to humanity and benevolence, and never yet had appeal been made by suffering to his heart and purse in vain.
He bowed his head over the letter as his eye came to the last line, and remained silent so long that the clergyman at last, moved and hopeful, approached and took his hand. It was the impulse of a good man and a good priest. Sir Miles looked up in surprise; but the calm, pitying face bent on him repelled all return of pride.
"Sir," he said tremulously, and he pressed the hand that grasped his own, "I thank you. I am not fit at this moment to decide what to do; to-morrow you shall know. And the man died poor,—not in want, not in want?"
"Comfort yourself, worthy sir; he had at the last all that sickness and death require, except one assurance, which I ventured to whisper to him,—I trust not too rashly,—that his daughter would not be left unprotected. And I pray you to reflect, my dear sir, that—"
Sir Miles did not wait for the conclusion of the sentence; he rose abruptly, and left the room. Mr. Fielden (so the good priest was named) felt confident of the success of his mission; but to win it the more support, he sought Lucretia. She was then seventeen: it is an age when the heart is peculiarly open to the household ties,—to the memory of a mother, to the sweet name of sister. He sought this girl, he told his tale, and pleaded the sister's cause. Lucretia heard in silence: neither eye nor lip betrayed emotion; but her colour went and came. This was the only sign that she was moved: moved, but how? Fielden's experience in the human heart could not guess. When he had done, she went quietly to her desk (it was in her own room that the conference took place), she unlocked it with a deliberate hand, she took from it a pocketbook and a case of jewels which Sir Miles had given her on her last birthday. "Let my sister have these; while I live she shall not want!"
"My dear young lady, it is not these things that she asks from you,—it is your affection, your sisterly heart, your intercession with her natural protector; these, in her name, I ask for,—'non gemmis, neque purpura venale, nec auro!'"
Lucretia then, still without apparent emotion, raised to the good man's face deep, penetrating, but unrevealing eyes, and said slowly,—
"Is my sister like my mother, who, they say, was handsome?"
Much startled by this question, Fielden answered: "I never saw your mother, my dear; but your sister gives promise of more than common comeliness."
Lucretia's brows grew slightly compressed. "And her education has been, of course, neglected?"
"Certainly, in some points,—mathematics, for instance, and theology; but she knows what ladies generally know,—French and Italian, and such like. Dr. Mivers was not unlearned in the polite letters. Oh, trust me, my dear young lady, she will not disgrace your family; she will justify your uncle's favour. Plead for her!" And the good man clasped his hands.
Lucretia's eyes fell musingly on the ground; but she resumed, after a short pause,—
"What does my uncle himself say?"
"Only that he will decide to-morrow."
"I will see him;" and Lucretia left the room as for that object. But when she had gained the stairs, she paused at the large embayed casement, which formed a niche in the landing-place, and gazed over the broad domains beyond; a stern smile settled, then, upon her lips,—the smile seemed to say, "In this inheritance I will have no rival."
Lucretia's influence with Sir Miles was great, but here it was not needed. Before she saw him he had decided on his course. Her precocious and apparently intuitive knowledge of character detected at a glance the safety with which she might intercede. She did so, and was chid into silence.
The next morning, Sir Miles took the priest's arm and walked with him into the gardens.
"Mr. Fielden," he said, with the air of a man who has chosen his course, and deprecates all attempt to make him swerve from it, "if I followed my own selfish wishes, I should take home this poor child. Stay, sir, and hear me,—I am no hypocrite, and I speak honestly. I like young faces; I have no family of my own. I love Lucretia, and I am proud of her; but a girl brought up in adversity might be a better nurse and a more docile companion,—let that pass. I have reflected, and I feel that I cannot set to Lucretia—set to children unborn—the example of indifference to a name degraded and a race adulterated; you may call this pride or prejudice,—I view it differently. There are duties due from an individual, duties due from a nation, duties due from a family; as my ancestors thought, so think I. They left me the charge of their name, as the fief-rent by which I hold their lands. 'Sdeath, sir!—Pardon me the expletive; I was about to say that if I am now a childless old man, it is because I have myself known temptation and resisted. I loved, and denied myself what I believed my best chance of happiness, because the object of my attachment was not my equal. That was a bitter struggle,—I triumphed, and I rejoice at it, though the result was to leave all thoughts of wedlock elsewhere odious and repugnant. These principles of action have made a part of my creed as gentleman, if not as Christian. Now to the point. I beseech you to find a fitting and reputable home for Miss—Miss Mivers," the lip slightly curled as the name was said; "I shall provide suitably for her maintenance. When she marries, I will dower her, provided only and always that her choice fall upon one who will not still further degrade her lineage on her mother's side,—in a word, if she select a gentleman. Mr. Fielden, on this subject I have no more to say."