EDWARD BULWER LYTTON
NIGHT AND MORNING
"O that sweet gleam of sunshine on the lake!" WILSON'S City of the Plague
If, reader, you have ever looked through a solar microscope at the monsters in a drop of water, perhaps you have wondered to yourself how things so terrible have been hitherto unknown to you—you have felt a loathing at the limpid element you hitherto deemed so pure—you have half fancied that you would cease to be a water-drinker; yet, the next day you have forgotten the grim life that started before you, with its countless shapes, in that teeming globule; and, if so tempted by your thirst, you have not shrunk from the lying crystal, although myriads of the horrible Unseen are mangling, devouring, gorging each other in the liquid you so tranquilly imbibe; so is it with that ancestral and master element called Life. Lapped in your sleek comforts, and lolling on the sofa of your patent conscience—when, perhaps for the first time, you look through the glass of science upon one ghastly globule in the waters that heave around, that fill up, with their succulence, the pores of earth, that moisten every atom subject to your eyes or handled by your touch—you are startled and dismayed; you say, mentally, "Can such things be? I never dreamed of this before! I thought what was invisible to me was non- existent in itself—I will remember this dread experiment." The next day the experiment is forgotten.—The Chemist may purify the Globule—can Science make pure the World?
Turn we now to the pleasant surface, seen in the whole, broad and fair to the common eye. Who would judge well of God's great designs, if he could look on no drop pendent from the rose-tree, or sparkling in the sun, without the help of his solar microscope?
It is ten years after the night on which William Gawtrey perished:—I transport you, reader, to the fairest scenes in England,—scenes consecrated by the only true pastoral poetry we have known to Contemplation and Repose.
Autumn had begun to tinge the foliage on the banks of Winandermere. It had been a summer of unusual warmth and beauty; and if that year you had visited the English lakes, you might, from time to time, amidst the groups of happy idlers you encountered, have singled out two persons for interest, or, perhaps, for envy. Two who might have seemed to you in peculiar harmony with those serene and soft retreats, both young—both beautiful. Lovers you would have guessed them to be; but such lovers as Fletcher might have placed under the care of his "Holy Shepherdess"— forms that might have reclined by
"The virtuous well, about whose flowery banks The nimble-footed fairies dance their rounds By the pale moonshine."
For in the love of those persons there seemed a purity and innocence that suited well their youth and the character of their beauty. Perhaps, indeed, on the girl's side, love sprung rather from those affections which the spring of life throws upward to the surface, as the spring of earth does its flowers, than from that concentrated and deep absorption of self in self, which alone promises endurance and devotion, and of which first love, or rather the first fancy, is often less susceptible than that which grows out of the more thoughtful fondness of maturer years. Yet he, the lover, was of so rare and singular a beauty, that he might well seem calculated to awake, to the utmost, the love which wins the heart through the eyes.
But to begin at the beginning. A lady of fashion had, in the autumn previous to the year in which our narrative re-opens, taken, with her daughter, a girl then of about eighteen, the tour of the English lakes. Charmed by the beauty of Winandermere, and finding one of the most commodious villas on its banks to be let, they had remained there all the winter. In the early spring a severe illness had seized the elder lady, and finding herself, as she slowly recovered, unfit for the gaieties of a London season, nor unwilling, perhaps,—for she had been a beauty in her day—to postpone for another year the debut of her daughter, she had continued her sojourn, with short intervals of absence, for a whole year. Her husband, a busy man of the world, with occupation in London, and fine estates in the country, joined them only occasionally, glad to escape the still beauty of landscapes which brought him no rental, and therefore afforded no charm to his eye.
In the first month of their arrival at Winandermere, the mother and daughter had made an eventful acquaintance in the following manner.
One evening, as they were walking on their lawn, which sloped to the lake, they heard the sound of a flute, played with a skill so exquisite as to draw them, surprised and spellbound, to the banks. The musician was a young man, in a boat, which he had moored beneath the trees of their demesne. He was alone, or, rather, he had one companion, in a large Newfoundland dog, that sat watchful at the helm of the boat, and appeared to enjoy the music as much as his master. As the ladies approached the spot, the dog growled, and the young man ceased, though without seeing the fair causes of his companion's displeasure. The sun, then setting, shone full on his countenance as he looked round; and that countenance was one that might have haunted the nymphs of Delos; the face of Apollo, not as the hero, but the shepherd—not of the bow, but of the lute—not the Python-slayer, but the young dreamer by shady places—he whom the sculptor has portrayed leaning idly against the tree—the boy- god whose home is yet on earth, and to whom the Oracle and the Spheres are still unknown.
At that moment the dog leaped from the boat, and the elder lady uttered a faint cry of alarm, which, directing the attention of the musician, brought him also ashore. He called off his dog, and apologised, with a not ungraceful mixture of diffidence and ease, for his intrusion. He was not aware the place was inhabited—it was a favourite haunt of his—he lived near. The elder lady was pleased with his address, and struck with his appearance. There was, indeed, in his manner that indefinable charm, which is more attractive than mere personal appearance, and which can never be imitated or acquired. They parted, however, without establishing any formal acquaintance. A few days after, they met at dinner at a neighbouring house, and were introduced by name. That of the young man seemed strange to the ladies; not so theirs to him. He turned pale when he heard it, and remained silent and aloof the rest of the evening. They met again and often; and for some weeks—nay, even for months—he appeared to avoid, as much as possible, the acquaintance so auspiciously begun; but, by little and little, the beauty of the younger lady seemed to gain ground on his diffidence or repugnance. Excursions among the neighbouring mountains threw them together, and at last he fairly surrendered himself to the charm he had at first determined to resist.
This young man lived on the opposite side of the lake, in a quiet household, of which he was the idol. His life had been one of almost monastic purity and repose; his tastes were accomplished, his character seemed soft and gentle; but beneath that calm exterior, flashes of passion—the nature of the poet, ardent and sensitive—would break forth at times. He had scarcely ever, since his earliest childhood, quitted those retreats; he knew nothing of the world, except in books—books of poetry and romance. Those with whom he lived—his relations, an old bachelor, and the cold bachelor's sisters, old maids—seemed equally innocent and inexperienced. It was a family whom the rich respected and the poor loved—inoffensive, charitable, and well off. To whatever their easy fortune might be, he appeared the heir. The name of this young man was Charles Spencer; the ladies were Mrs. Beaufort, and Camilla her daughter.
Mrs. Beaufort, though a shrewd woman, did not at first perceive any danger in the growing intimacy between Camilla and the younger Spencer. Her daughter was not her favourite—not the object of her one thought or ambition. Her whole heart and soul were wrapped in her son Arthur, who lived principally abroad. Clever enough to be considered capable, when he pleased, of achieving distinction, good-looking enough to be thought handsome by all who were on the qui vive for an advantageous match, good-natured enough to be popular with the society in which he lived, scattering to and fro money without limit,—Arthur Beaufort, at the age of thirty, had established one of those brilliant and evanescent reputations, which, for a few years, reward the ambition of the fine gentleman. It was precisely the reputation that the mother could appreciate, and which even the more saving father secretly admired, while, ever respectable in phrase, Mr. Robert Beaufort seemed openly to regret it. This son was, I say, everything to them; they cared little, in comparison, for their daughter. How could a daughter keep up the proud name of Beaufort? However well she might marry, it was another house, not theirs, which her graces and beauty would adorn. Moreover, the better she might marry the greater her dowry would naturally be,—the dowry, to go out of the family! And Arthur, poor fellow! was so extravagant, that really he would want every sixpence. Such was the reasoning of the father. The mother reasoned less upon the matter. Mrs. Beaufort, faded and meagre, in blonde and cashmere, was jealous of the charms of her daughter; and she herself, growing sentimental and lachrymose as she advanced in life, as silly women often do, had convinced herself that Camilla was a girl of no feeling.
Miss Beaufort was, indeed, of a character singularly calm and placid; it was the character that charms men in proportion, perhaps, to their own strength and passion. She had been rigidly brought up—her affections had been very early chilled and subdued; they moved, therefore, now, with ease, in the serene path of her duties. She held her parents, especially her father, in reverential fear, and never dreamed of the possibility of resisting one of their wishes, much less their commands. Pious, kind, gentle, of a fine and never-ruffled temper, Camilla, an admirable daughter, was likely to make no less admirable a wife; you might depend on her principles, if ever you could doubt her affection. Few girls were more calculated to inspire love. You would scarcely wonder at any folly, any madness, which even a wise man might commit for her sake. This did not depend on her beauty alone, though she was extremely lovely rather than handsome, and of that style of loveliness which is universally fascinating: the figure, especially as to the arms, throat, and bust, was exquisite; the mouth dimpled; the teeth dazzling; the eyes of that velvet softness which to look on is to love. But her charm was in a certain prettiness of manner, an exceeding innocence, mixed with the most captivating, because unconscious, coquetry. With all this, there was a freshness, a joy, a virgin and bewitching candour in her voice, her laugh—you might almost say in her very movements. Such was Camilla Beaufort at that age. Such she seemed to others. To her parents she was only a great girl rather in the way. To Mrs. Beaufort a rival, to Mr. Beaufort an encumbrance on the property.
* * * "The moon Saddening the solemn night, yet with that sadness Mingling the breath of undisturbed Peace." WILSON: City of the Plague
* * * "Tell me his fate. Say that he lives, or say that he is dead But tell me—tell me! * * * * * * I see him not—some cloud envelopes him."—Ibid.
One day (nearly a year after their first introduction) as with a party of friends Camilla and Charles Spencer were riding through those wild and romantic scenes which lie between the sunny Winandermere and the dark and sullen Wastwater, their conversation fell on topics more personal than it had hitherto done, for as yet, if they felt love, they had never spoken of it.
The narrowness of the path allowed only two to ride abreast, and the two to whom I confine my description were the last of the little band.
"How I wish Arthur were here!" said Camilla; "I am sure you would like him."
"Are you? He lives much in the world—the world of which I know nothing. Are we then characters to suit each other?"
"He is the kindest—the best of human beings!" said Camilla, rather evasively, but with more warmth than usually dwelt in her soft and low voice.
"Is he so kind?" returned Spencer, musingly. "Well, it may be so. And who would not be kind to you? Ah! it is a beautiful connexion that of brother and sister—I never had a sister!"
"Have you then a brother?" asked Camilla, in some surprise, and turning her ingenuous eyes full on her companion.
Spencer's colour rose—rose to his temples: his voice trembled as he answered, "No;—no brother!" then, speaking in a rapid and hurried tone, he continued, "My life has been a strange and lonely one. I am an orphan. I have mixed with few of my own age: my boyhood and youth have been spent in these scenes; my education such as Nature and books could bestow, with scarcely any guide or tutor save my guardian—the dear old man! Thus the world, the stir of cities, ambition, enterprise,—all seem to me as things belonging to a distant land to which I shall never wander. Yet I have had my dreams, Miss Beaufort; dreams of which these solitudes still form a part—but solitudes not unshared. And lately I have thought that those dreams might be prophetic. And you—do you love the world?"
"I, like you, have scarcely tried it," said Camilla, with a sweet laugh. "but I love the country better,—oh! far better than what little I have seen of towns. But for you," she continued with a charming hesitation, "a man is so different from us,—for you to shrink from the world—you, so young and with talents too—nay, it is true!—it seems to me strange."
"It may be so, but I cannot tell you what feelings of dread—what vague forebodings of terror seize me if I carry my thoughts beyond these retreats. Perhaps my good guardian—"
"Your uncle?" interrupted Camilla.
"Ay, my uncle—may have contributed to engender feelings, as you say, strange at my age; but still—"
"My earlier childhood," continued Spencer, breathing hard and turning pale, "was not spent in the happy home I have now; it was passed in a premature ordeal of suffering and pain. Its recollections have left a dark shadow on my mind, and under that shadow lies every thought that points towards the troublous and labouring career of other men. But," he resumed after a pause, and in a deep, earnest, almost solemn voice,—" but after all, is this cowardice or wisdom? I find no monotony—no tedium in this quiet life. Is there not a certain morality—a certain religion in the spirit of a secluded and country existence? In it we do not know the evil passions which ambition and strife are said to arouse. I never feel jealous or envious of other men; I never know what it is to hate; my boat, my horse, our garden, music, books, and, if I may dare to say so, the solemn gladness that comes from the hopes of another life,— these fill up every hour with thoughts and pursuits, peaceful, happy, and without a cloud, till of late, when—when—"
"When what?" said Camilla, innocently.
"When I have longed, but did not dare to ask another, if to share such a lot would content her!"
He bent, as he spoke, his soft blue eyes full upon the blushing face of her whom he addressed, and Camilla half smiled and half sighed:
"Our companions are far before us," said she, turning away her face, "and see, the road is now smooth." She quickened her horse's pace as she said this; and Spencer, too new to women to interpret favourably her evasion of his words and looks, fell into a profound silence which lasted during the rest of their excursion.
As towards the decline of day he bent his solitary way home, emotions and passions to which his life had hitherto been a stranger, and which, alas! he had vainly imagined a life so tranquil would everlastingly restrain, swelled his heart.
"She does not love me," he muttered, half aloud; "she will leave me, and what then will all the beauty of the landscape seem in my eyes? And how dare I look up to her? Even if her cold, vain mother—her father, the man, they say, of forms and scruples, were to consent, would they not question closely of my true birth and origin? And if the one blot were overlooked, is there no other? His early habits and vices, his?—a brother's—his unknown career terminating at any day, perhaps, in shame, in crime, in exposure, in the gibbet,—will they overlook this?" As he spoke, he groaned aloud, and, as if impatient to escape himself, spurred on his horse and rested not till he reached the belt of trim and sober evergreens that surrounded his hitherto happy home.
Leaving his horse to find its way to the stables, the young man passed through rooms, which he found deserted, to the lawn on the other side, which sloped to the smooth waters of the lake.
Here, seated under the one large tree that formed the pride of the lawn, over which it cast its shadow broad and far, he perceived his guardian poring idly over an oft-read book, one of those books of which literary dreamers are apt to grow fanatically fond—books by the old English writers, full of phrases and conceits half quaint and half sublime, interspersed with praises of the country, imbued with a poetical rather than orthodox religion, and adorned with a strange mixture of monastic learning and aphorisms collected from the weary experience of actual life.
To the left, by a greenhouse, built between the house and the lake, might be seen the white dress and lean form of the eldest spinster sister, to whom the care of the flowers—for she had been early crossed in love—was consigned; at a little distance from her, the other two were seated at work, and conversing in whispers, not to disturb their studious brother, no doubt upon the nephew, who was their all in all. It was the calmest hour of eve, and the quiet of the several forms, their simple and harmless occupations—if occupations they might be called—the breathless foliage rich in the depth of summer; behind, the old-fashioned house, unpretending, not mean, its open doors and windows giving glimpses of the comfortable repose within; before, the lake, without a ripple and catching the gleam of the sunset clouds,—all made a picture of that complete tranquillity and stillness, which sometimes soothes and sometimes saddens us, according as we are in the temper to woo CONTENT.
The young man glided to his guardian and touched his shoulder,—"Sir, may I speak to you?—Hush! they need not see us now! it is only you I would speak with."
The elder Spencer rose; and, with his book still in his hand, moved side by side with his nephew under the shadow of the tree and towards a walk to the right, which led for a short distance along the margin of the lake, backed by the interlaced boughs of a thick copse.
"Sir!" said the young man, speaking first, and with a visible effort, "your cautions have been in vain! I love this girl—this daughter of the haughty Beauforts! I love her—better than life I love her!"
"My poor boy," said the uncle tenderly, and with a simple fondness passing his arm over the speaker's shoulder, "do not think I can chide you—I know what it is to love in vain!"
"In vain!—but why in vain?" exclaimed the younger Spencer, with a vehemence that had in it something of both agony and fierceness. "She may love me—she shall love me!" and almost for the first time in his life, the proud consciousness of his rare gifts of person spoke in his kindled eye and dilated stature. "Do they not say that Nature has been favourable to me?—What rival have I here?—Is she not young?—And (sinking his voice till it almost breathed like music) is not love contagious?"
"I do not doubt that she may love you—who would not?—but—but—the parents, will they ever consent?" "Nay!" answered the lover, as with that inconsistency common to passion, he now argued stubbornly against those fears in another to which he had just before yielded in himself,— "Nay!—after all, am I not of their own blood?—Do I not come from the elder branch?—Was I not reared in equal luxury and with higher hopes?— And my mother—my poor mother—did she not to the last maintain our birthright—her own honour?—Has not accident or law unjustly stripped us of our true station?—Is it not for us to forgive spoliation?—Am I not, in fact, the person who descends, who forgets the wrongs of the dead—the heritage of the living?"
The young man had never yet assumed this tone—had never yet shown that he looked back to the history connected with his birth with the feelings of resentment and the remembrance of wrong. It was a tone contrary to his habitual calm and contentment—it struck forcibly on his listener— and the elder Spencer was silent for some moments before he replied, "If you feel thus (and it is natural), you have yet stronger reason to struggle against this unhappy affection."
"I have been conscious of that, sir," replied the young man, mournfully. "I have struggled!—and I say again it is in vain! I turn, then, to face the obstacles! My birth—let us suppose that the Beauforts overlook it. Did you not tell me that Mr. Beaufort wrote to inform you of the abrupt and intemperate visit of my brother—of his determination never to forgive it? I think I remember something of this years ago."
"It is true!" said the guardian; "and the conduct of that brother is, in fact, the true cause why you never ought to reassume your proper name!— never to divulge it, even to the family with whom you connect yourself by marriage; but, above all, to the Beauforts, who for that cause, if that cause alone, would reject your suit."
The young man groaned—placed one hand before his eyes, and with the other grasped his guardian's arm convulsively, as if to check him from proceeding farther; but the good man, not divining his meaning, and absorbed in his subject, went on, irritating the wound he had touched.
"Reflect!—your brother in boyhood—in the dying hours of his mother, scarcely saved from the crime of a thief, flying from a friendly pursuit with a notorious reprobate; afterwards implicated in some discreditable transaction about a horse, rejecting all—every hand that could save him, clinging by choice to the lowest companions and the meanest-habits, disappearing from the country, and last seen, ten years ago—the beard not yet on his chin—with that same reprobate of whom I have spoken, in Paris; a day or so only before his companion, a coiner—a murderer—fell by the hands of the police! You remember that when, in your seventeenth year, you evinced some desire to retake your name—nay, even to re-find that guilty brother—I placed before you, as a, sad, and terrible duty, the newspaper that contained the particulars of the death and the former adventures of that wretched accomplice, the notorious Gawtrey. And,— telling you that Mr. Beaufort had long since written to inform me that his own son and Lord Lilburne had seen your brother in company with the miscreant just before his fate—nay, was, in all probability, the very youth described in the account as found in his chamber and escaping the pursuit—I asked you if you would now venture to leave that disguise— that shelter under which you would for ever be safe from the opprobrium of the world—from the shame that, sooner or later, your brother must bring upon your name!"
"It is true—it is true!" said the pretended nephew, in a tone of great anguish, and with trembling lips which the blood had forsaken. "Horrible to look either to his past or his future! But—but—we have heard of him no more—no one ever has learned his fate. Perhaps—perhaps" (and he seemed to breathe more freely)—"my brother is no more!"
And poor Catherine—and poor Philip—-had it come to this? Did the one brother feel a sentiment of release, of joy, in conjecturing the death— perhaps the death of violence and shame—of his fellow-orphan? Mr. Spencer shook his head doubtingly, but made no reply. The young man sighed heavily, and strode on for several paces in advance of his protector, then, turning back, he laid his hand on his shoulder.
"Sir," he said in a low voice and with downcast eyes, you are right: this disguise—this false name—must be for ever borne! Why need the Beauforts, then, ever know who and what I am? Why not as your nephew— nephew to one so respected and exemplary—proffer my claims and plead my cause?"
"They are proud—so it is said—and worldly;—you know my family was in trade—still—but—" and here Mr. Spencer broke off from a tone of doubt into that of despondency, "but, recollect, though Mrs. Beaufort may not remember the circumstance, both her husband and her son have seen me— have known my name. Will they not suspect, when once introduced to you, the stratagem that has been adopted?—Nay, has it not been from that very fear that you have wished me to shun the acquaintance of the family? Both Mr. Beaufort and Arthur saw you in childhood, and their suspicion once aroused, they may recognise you at once; your features are developed, but not altogether changed. Come, come!—my adopted, my dear son, shake off this fantasy betimes: let us change the scene: I will travel with you—read with you—go where—"
"Sir—sir!" exclaimed the lover, smiting his breast, "you are ever kind, compassionate, generous; but do not—do not rob me of hope. I have never—thanks to you—felt, save in a momentary dejection, the curse of my birth. Now how heavily it falls! Where shall I look for comfort?"
As he spoke, the sound of a bell broke over the translucent air and the slumbering lake: it was the bell that every eve and morn summoned that innocent and pious family to prayer. The old man's face changed as he heard it—changed from its customary indolent, absent, listless aspect, into an expression of dignity, even of animation.
"Hark!" he said, pointing upwards; "Hark! it chides you. Who shall say, 'Where shall I look for comfort' while God is in the heavens?"
The young man, habituated to the faith and observance of religion, till they had pervaded his whole nature, bowed his head in rebuke; a few tears stole from his eyes.
"You are right, father—," he said tenderly, giving emphasis to the deserved and endearing name. "I am comforted already!"
So, side by side, silently and noiselessly, the young and the old man glided back to the house. When they gained the quiet room in which the family usually assembled, the sisters and servants were already gathered round the table. They knelt as the loiterers entered. It was the wonted duty of the younger Spencer to read the prayers; and, as he now did so, his graceful countenance more hushed, his sweet voice more earnest than usual, in its accents: who that heard could have deemed the heart within convulsed by such stormy passions? Or was it not in that hour—that solemn commune—soothed from its woe? O beneficent Creator! thou who inspirest all the tribes of earth with the desire to pray, hast Thou not, in that divinest instinct, bestowed on us the happiest of Thy gifts?
"Bertram. I mean the business is not ended, as fearing to hear of it hereafter.
"1st Soldier. Do you know this Captain Dumain?" All's Well that Ends Well.
One evening, some weeks after the date of the last chapter, Mr. Robert Beaufort sat alone in his house in Berkeley Square. He had arrived that morning from Beaufort Court, on his way to Winandermere, to which he was summoned by a letter from his wife. That year was an agitated and eventful epoch in England; and Mr. Beaufort had recently gone through the bustle of an election—not, indeed, contested; for his popularity and his property defied all rivalry in his own county.
The rich man had just dined, and was seated in lazy enjoyment by the side of the fire, which he had had lighted, less for the warmth—though it was then September—than for the companionship;—engaged in finishing his madeira, and, with half-closed eyes, munching his devilled biscuits. "I am sure," he soliloquised while thus employed, "I don't know exactly what to do,—my wife ought to decide matters where the girl is concerned; a son is another affair—that's the use of a wife. Humph!"
"Sir," said a fat servant, opening the door, "a gentleman wishes to see you upon very particular business."
"Business at this hour! Tell him to go to Mr. Blackwell."
"Stay! perhaps he is a constituent, Simmons. Ask him if he belongs to the county."
"A great estate is a great plague," muttered Mr. Beaufort; "so is a great constituency. It is pleasanter, after all, to be in the House of Lords. I suppose I could if I wished; but then one must rat—that's a bore. I will consult Lilburne. Humph!"
The servant re-appeared. "Sir, he says he does belong to the county."
"Show him in!—What sort of a person?"
"A sort of gentleman, sir; that is," continued the butler, mindful of five shillings just slipped within his palm by the stranger, "quite the gentleman."
"More wine, then-stir up the fire."
In a few moments the visitor was ushered into the apartment. He was a man between fifty and sixty, but still aiming at the appearance of youth. His dress evinced military pretensions; consisting of a blue coat, buttoned up to the chin, a black stock, loose trousers of the fashion called Cossacks, and brass spurs. He wore a wig, of great luxuriance in curl and rich auburn in hue; with large whiskers of the same colour slightly tinged with grey at the roots. By the imperfect light of the room it was not perceptible that the clothes were somewhat threadbare, and that the boots, cracked at the side, admitted glimpses of no very white hosiery within. Mr. Beaufort, reluctantly rising from his repose and gladly sinking back to it, motioned to a chair, and put on a doleful and doubtful semi-smile of welcome. The servant placed the wine and glasses before the stranger;—the host and visitor were alone.
"So, sir," said Mr. Beaufort, languidly, "you are from ———shire; I suppose about the canal,—may I offer you a glass of wine?"
"Most hauppy, sir—your health!" and the stranger, with evident satisfaction, tossed off a bumper to so complimentary a toast.
"About the canal?" repeated Mr. Beaufort.
"No, sir, no! You parliament gentlemen must hauve a vaust deal of trouble on your haunds—very foine property I understaund yours is, sir. Sir, allow me to drink the health of your good lady!"
"I thank you, Mr.—, Mr.—, what did you say your name was?—I beg you a thousand pardons."
"No offaunce in the least, sir; no ceremony with me—this is perticler good madeira!"
"May I ask how I can serve you?" said Mr. Beaufort, struggling between the sense of annoyance and the fear to be uncivil. "And pray, had I the honour of your vote in the last election!"
"No, sir, no! It's mauny years since I have been in your part of the world, though I was born there."
"Then I don't exactly see—" began Mr. Beaufort, and stopped with dignity.
"Why I call on you," put in the stranger, tapping his boots with his cane; and then recognising the rents, he thrust both feet under the table.
"I don't say that; but at this hour I am seldom at leisure—not but what I am always at the service of a constituent, that is, a voter! Mr.—, I beg your pardon, I did not catch your name."
"Sir," said the stranger, helping himself to a third glass of wine; "here's a health to your young folk! And now to business." Here the visitor, drawing his chair nearer to his host, assuming a more grave aspect, and dropping something of his stilted pronunciation, continued, "You had a brother?"
"Well, sir," said Mr. Beaufort, with a very changed countenance.
"And that brother had a wife!"
Had a cannon gone off in the ear of Mr. Robert Beaufort, it could not have shocked or stunned him more than that simple word with which his companion closed his sentence. He fell back in his chair—his lips apart, his eyes fixed on the stranger. He sought to speak, but his tongue clove to his mouth.
"That wife had two sons, born in wedlock!"
"It is false!" cried Mr. Beaufort, finding a voice at length, and springing to his feet. "And who are you, sir? and what do you mean by—"
"Hush!" said the stranger, perfectly unconcerned, and regaining the dignity of his haw-haw enunciation, "better not let the servants hear aunything. For my pawt, I think servants hauve the longest pair of ears of auny persons, not excepting jauckasses; their ears stretch from the pauntry to the parlour. Hush, sir!—perticler good madeira, this!"
"Sir!" said Mr. Beaufort, struggling to preserve, or rather recover, his temper, "your conduct is exceedingly strange; but allow me to say that you are wholly misinformed. My brother never did marry; and if you have anything to say on behalf of those young men—his natural sons—I refer you to my solicitor, Mr. Blackwell, of Lincoln's Inn. I wish you a good evening."
"Sir!—the same to you—I won't trouble you auny farther; it was only out of koindness I called—I am not used to be treated so—sir, I am in his maujesty's service—sir, you will foind that the witness of the marriage is forthcoming; you will think of me then, and, perhaps, be sorry. But I've done, 'Your most obedient humble, sir!'" And the stranger, with a flourish of his hand, turned to the door. At the sight of this determination on the part of his strange guest, a cold, uneasy, vague presentiment seized Mr. Beaufort. There, not flashed, but rather froze, across him the recollection of his brother's emphatic but disbelieved assurances—of Catherine's obstinate assertion of her son's alleged rights—rights which her lawsuit, undertaken on her own behalf, had not compromised;—a fresh lawsuit might be instituted by the son, and the evidence which had been wanting in the former suit might be found at last. With this remembrance and these reflections came a horrible train of shadowy fears,—witnesses, verdict, surrender, spoliation—arrears— ruin!
The man, who had gained the door, turned back and looked at him with a complacent, half-triumphant leer upon his impudent, reckless face.
"Sir," then said Mr. Beaufort, mildly, "I repeat that you had better see Mr. Blackwell."
The tempter saw his triumph. "I have a secret to communicate which it is best for you to keep snug. How mauny people do you wish me to see about it? Come, sir, there is no need of a lawyer; or, if you think so, tell him yourself. Now or never, Mr. Beaufort."
"I can have no objection to hear anything you have to say, sir," said the rich man, yet more mildly than before; and then added, with a forced smile, "though my rights are already too confirmed to admit of a doubt."
Without heeding the last assertion, the stranger coolly walked back, resumed his seat, and, placing both arms on the table and looking Mr. Beaufort full in the face, thus proceeded,—
"Sir, of the marriage between Philip Beaufort and Catherine Morton there were two witnesses: the one is dead, the other went abroad—the last is alive still!"
"If so," said Mr. Beaufort, who, not naturally deficient in cunning and sense, felt every faculty now prodigiously sharpened, and was resolved to know the precise grounds for alarm,—"if so, why did not the man—it was a servant, sir, a man-servant, whom Mrs. Morton pretended to rely on— appear on the trial?"
"Because, I say, he was abroad and could not be found; or, the search after him miscaurried, from clumsy management and a lack of the rhino."
"Hum!" said Mr. Beaufort—"one witness—one witness, observe, there is only one!—does not alarm me much. It is not what a man deposes, it is what a jury believe, sir! Moreover, what has become of the young men? They have never been heard of for years. They are probably dead; if so, I am heir-at-law!"
"I know where one of them is to be found at all events."
"The elder?—Philip?" asked Mr. Beaufort anxiously, and with a fearful remembrance of the energetic and vehement character prematurely exhibited by his nephew.
"Pawdon me! I need not aunswer that question."
"Sir! a lawsuit of this nature, against one in possession, is very doubtful, and," added the rich man, drawing himself up—"and, perhaps very expensive!"
"The young man I speak of does not want friends, who will not grudge the money."
"Sir!" said Mr. Beaufort, rising and placing his back to the fire—"sir! what is your object in this communication? Do you come, on the part of the young man, to propose a compromise? If so, be plain!"
"I come on my own pawt. It rests with you to say if the young men shall never know it!"
"And what do you want?"
"Five hundred a year as long as the secret is kept."
"And how can you prove that there is a secret, after all?"
"By producing the witness if you wish."
"Will he go halves in the L500. a year?" asked Mr. Beaufort artfully.
"That is moy affair, sir," replied the stranger.
"What you say," resumed Mr. Beaufort, "is so extraordinary—so unexpected, and still, to me, seems so improbable, that I must have time to consider. If you will call on me in a week, and produce your facts, I will give you my answer. I am not the man, sir, to wish to keep any one out of his true rights, but I will not yield, on the other hand, to imposture."
"If you don't want to keep them out of their rights, I'd best go and tell my young gentlemen," said the stranger, with cool impudence.
"I tell you I must have time," repeated Beaufort, disconcerted. "Besides, I have not myself alone to look to, sir," he added, with dignified emphasis—"I am a father!"
"This day week I will call on you again. Good evening, Mr. Beaufort!"
And the man stretched out his hand with an air of amicable condescension. The respectable Mr. Beaufort changed colour, hesitated, and finally suffered two fingers to be enticed into the grasp of the visitor, whom he ardently wished at that bourne whence no visitor returns.
The stranger smiled, stalked to the door, laid his finger on his lip, winked knowingly, and vanished, leaving Mr. Beaufort a prey to such feelings of uneasiness, dread, and terror, as may be experienced by a man whom, on some inch or two of slippery rock, the tides have suddenly surrounded.
He remained perfectly still for some moments, and then glancing round the dim and spacious room, his eyes took in all the evidences of luxury and wealth which it betrayed. Above the huge sideboard, that on festive days groaned beneath the hoarded weight of the silver heirlooms of the Beauforts, hung, in its gilded frame, a large picture of the family seat, with the stately porticoes—the noble park—the groups of deer; and around the wall, interspersed here and there with ancestral portraits of knight and dame, long since gathered to their rest, were placed masterpieces of the Italian and Flemish art, which generation after generation had slowly accumulated, till the Beaufort Collection had become the theme of connoisseurs and the study of young genius.
The still room, the dumb pictures—even the heavy sideboard seemed to gain voice, and speak to him audibly. He thrust his hand into the folds of his waistcoat, and griped his own flesh convulsively; then, striding to and fro the apartment, he endeavoured to re-collect his thoughts.
"I dare not consult Mrs. Beaufort," he muttered; "no—no,—she is a fool! Besides, she's not in the way. No time to lose—I will go to Lilburne."
Scarce had that thought crossed him than he hastened to put it into execution. He rang for his hat and gloves and sallied out on foot to Lord Lilburne's house in Park Lane,—the distance was short, and impatience has long strides.
He knew Lord Lilburne was in town, for that personage loved London for its own sake; and even in September he would have said with the old Duke of Queensberry, when some one observed that London was very empty—"Yes; but it is fuller than the country."
Mr. Beaufort found Lord Lilburne reclined on a sofa, by the open window of his drawing-room, beyond which the early stars shone upon the glimmering trees and silver turf of the deserted park. Unlike the simple dessert of his respectable brother-in-law, the costliest fruits, the richest wines of France, graced the small table placed beside his sofa; and as the starch man of forms and method entered the room at one door, a rustling silk, that vanished through the aperture of another, seemed to betray tokens of a tete-a-tete, probably more agreeable to Lilburne than the one with which only our narrative is concerned.
It would have been a curious study for such men as love to gaze upon the dark and wily features of human character, to have watched the contrast between the reciter and the listener, as Beaufort, with much circumlocution, much affected disdain and real anxiety, narrated the singular and ominous conversation between himself and his visitor.
The servant, in introducing Mr. Beaufort, had added to the light of the room; and the candles shone full on the face and form of Mr. Beaufort. All about that gentleman was so completely in unison with the world's forms and seemings, that there was something moral in the very sight of him! Since his accession of fortune he had grown less pale and less thin; the angles in his figure were filled up. On his brow there was no trace of younger passion. No able vice had ever sharpened the expression—no exhausting vice ever deepened the lines. He was the beau- ideal of a county member,—so sleek, so staid, so business-like; yet so clean, so neat, so much the gentleman. And now there was a kind of pathos in his grey hairs, his nervous smile, his agitated hands, his quick and uneasy transition of posture, the tremble of his voice. He would have appeared to those who saw, but heard not, The Good Man in trouble. Cold, motionless, speechless, seemingly apathetic, but in truth observant, still reclined on the sofa, his head thrown back, but one eye fixed on his companion, his hands clasped before him, Lord Lilburne listened; and in that repose, about his face, even about his person, might be read the history of how different a life and character! What native acuteness in the stealthy eye! What hardened resolve in the full nostril and firm lips! What sardonic contempt for all things in the intricate lines about the mouth. What animal enjoyment of all things so despised in that delicate nervous system, which, combined with original vigour of constitution, yet betrayed itself in the veins on the hands and temples, the occasional quiver of the upper lip! His was the frame above all others the most alive to pleasure—deep-chested, compact, sinewy, but thin to leanness—delicate in its texture and extremities, almost to effeminacy. The indifference of the posture, the very habit of the dress —not slovenly, indeed, but easy, loose, careless—seemed to speak of the man's manner of thought and life—his profound disdain of externals.
Not till Beaufort had concluded did Lord Lilburne change his position or open his lips; and then, turning to his brother-in-law his calm face, he said drily,—
"I always thought your brother had married that woman; he was the sort of man to do it. Besides, why should she have gone to law without a vestige of proof, unless she was convinced of her rights? Imposture never proceeds without some evidence. Innocence, like a fool as it is, fancies it has only to speak to be believed. But there is no cause for alarm."
"No cause!—And yet you think there was a marriage."
"It is quite clear," continued Lilburne, without heeding this interruption; "that the man, whatever his evidence, has not got sufficient proofs. If he had, he would go to the young men rather than you: it is evident that they would promise infinitely larger rewards than he could expect from yourself. Men are always more generous with what they expect than with what they have. All rogues know this. 'Tis the way Jews and usurers thrive upon heirs rather than possessors; 'tis the philosophy of post-obits. I dare say the man has found out the real witness of the marriage, but ascertained, also, that the testimony of that witness would not suffice to dispossess you. He might be discredited—rich men have a way sometimes of discrediting poor witnesses. Mind, he says nothing of the lost copy of the register— whatever may be the value of that document, which I am not lawyer enough to say—of any letters of your brother avowing the marriage. Consider, the register itself is destroyed—the clergyman dead. Pooh! make yourself easy."
"True," said Mr. Beaufort, much comforted; "what a memory you have!"
"Naturally. Your wife is my sister—I hate poor relations—and I was therefore much interested in your accession and your lawsuit. No—you may feel—at rest on this matter, so far as a successful lawsuit is concerned. The next question is, Will you have a lawsuit at all? and is it worth while buying this fellow? That I can't say unless I see him myself."
"I wish to Heaven you would!"
"Very willingly: 'tis a sort of thing I like—I'm fond of dealing with rogues—it amuses me. This day week? I'll be at your house—your proxy; I shall do better than Black well. And since you say you are wanted at the Lakes, go down, and leave all to me."
"A thousand thanks. I can't say how grateful I am. You certainly are the kindest and cleverest person in the world."
"You can't think worse of the world's cleverness and kindness than I do," was Lilburne's rather ambiguous answer to the compliment. "But why does my sister want to see you?"
"Oh, I forgot!—here is her letter. I was going to ask your advice in this too."
Lord Lilburne took the letter, and glanced over it with the rapid eye of a man accustomed to seize in everything the main gist and pith.
"An offer to my pretty niece—Mr. Spencer—requires no fortune—his uncle will settle all his own—(poor silly old man!) All! Why that's only L1000. a year. You don't think much of this, eh? How my sister can even ask you about it puzzles me."
"Why, you see, Lilburne," said Mr. Beaufort, rather embarrassed, "there is no question of fortune—nothing to go out of the family; and, really, Arthur is so expensive, and, if she were to marry well, I could not give her less than fifteen or twenty thousand pounds."
"Aha!—I see—every man to his taste: here a daughter—there a dowry. You are devilish fond of money, Beaufort. Any pleasure in avarice,—eh?"
Mr. Beaufort coloured very much at the remark and the question, and, forcing a smile, said,—
"You are severe. But you don't know what it is to be father to a young man."
"Then a great many young women have told me sad fibs! But you are right in your sense of the phrase. No, I never had an heir apparent, thank Heaven! No children imposed upon me by law—natural enemies, to count the years between the bells that ring for their majority, and those that will toll for my decease. It is enough for me that I have a brother and a sister—that my brother's son will inherit my estates—and that, in the meantime, he grudges me every tick in that clock. What then? If he had been my uncle, I had done the same. Meanwhile, I see as little of him as good breeding will permit. On the face of a rich man's heir is written the rich man's memento mori! But revenons a nos moutons. Yes, if you give your daughter no fortune, your death will be so much the more profitable to Arthur!"
"Really, you take such a very odd view of the matter," said Mr. Beaufort, exceedingly shocked. "But I see you don't like the marriage; perhaps you are right."
"Indeed, I have no choice in the matter; I never interfere between father and children. If I had children myself, I will, however, tell you, for your comfort, that they might marry exactly as they pleased—I would never thwart them. I should be too happy to get them out of my way. If they married well, one would have all the credit; if ill, one would have an excuse to disown them. As I said before, I dislike poor relations. Though if Camilla lives at the Lakes when she is married, it is but a letter now and then; and that's your wife's trouble, not yours. But, Spencer—what Spencer!—what family? Was there not a Mr. Spencer who lived at Winandermere—who——"
"Who went with us in search of these boys, to be sure. Very likely the same—nay, he must be so. I thought so at the first."
"Go down to the Lakes to-morrow. You may hear something about your nephews;" at that word Mr. Beaufort winced.
"'Tis well to be forearmed."
"Many thanks for all your counsel," said Beaufort, rising, and glad to escape; for though both he and his wife held the advice of Lord Lilburne in the highest reverence, they always smarted beneath the quiet and careless stings which accompanied the honey. Lord Lilburne was singular in this,—he would give to any one who asked it, but especially a relation, the best advice in his power; and none gave better, that is, more worldly advice. Thus, without the least benevolence, he was often of the greatest service; but he could not help mixing up the draught with as much aloes and bitter-apple as possible. His intellect delighted in exhibiting itself even gratuitously. His heart equally delighted in that only cruelty which polished life leaves to its tyrants towards their equals,—thrusting pins into the feelings and breaking self-love upon the wheel. But just as Mr. Beaufort had drawn on his gloves and gained the doorway, a thought seemed to strike Lord Lilburne:
"By the by," he said, "you understand that when I promised I would try and settle the matter for you, I only meant that I would learn the exact causes you have for alarm on the one hand, or for a compromise with this fellow on the other. If the last be advisable you are aware that I cannot interfere. I might get into a scrape; and Beaufort Court is not my property."
"I don't quite understand you."
"I am plain enough, too. If there is money to be given it is given in order to defeat what is called justice—to keep these nephews of yours out of their inheritance. Now, should this ever come to light, it would have an ugly appearance. They who risk the blame must be the persons who possess the estate."
"If you think it dishonourable or dishonest—" said Beaufort, irresolutely.
"I! I never can advise as to the feelings; I can only advise as to the policy. If you don't think there ever was a marriage, it may, still, be honest in you to prevent the bore of a lawsuit."
"But if he can prove to me that they were married?"
"Pooh!" said Lilburne, raising his eyebrows with a slight expression of contemptuous impatience; "it rests on yourself whether or not he prove it to YOUR satisfaction! For my part, as a third person, I am persuaded the marriage did take place. But if I had Beaufort Court, my convictions would be all the other way. You understand. I am too happy to serve you. But no man can be expected to jeopardise his character, or coquet with the law, unless it be for his own individual interest. Then, of course, he must judge for himself. Adieu! I expect some friends foreigners—Carlists—to whist. You won't join them?"
"I never play, you know. You will write to me at Winandermere: and, at all events, you will keep off the man till I return?"
Beaufort, whom the latter part of the conversation had comforted far less than the former, hesitated, and turned the door-handle three or four times; but, glancing towards his brother-in-law, he saw in that cold face so little sympathy in the struggle between interest and conscience, that he judged it best to withdraw at once.
As soon as he was gone, Lilburne summoned his valet, who had lived with him many years, and who was his confidant in all the adventurous gallantries with which he still enlivened the autumn of his life.
"Dykeman," said he, "you have let out that lady?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I am not at home if she calls again. She is stupid; she cannot get the girl to come to her again. I shall trust you with an adventure, Dykeman —an adventure that will remind you of our young days, man. This charming creature—I tell you she is irresistible—her very oddities bewitch me. You must—well, you look uneasy. What would you say?"
"My lord, I have found out more about her—and—and——"
The valet drew near and whispered something in his master's ear.
"They are idiots who say it, then," answered Lilburne. "And," faltered the man, with the shame of humanity on his face, "she is not worthy your lordship's notice—a poor—"
"Yes, I know she is poor; and, for that reason, there can be no difficulty, if the thing is properly managed. You never, perhaps, heard of a certain Philip, king of Macedon; but I will tell you what he once said, as well as I can remember it: 'Lead an ass with a pannier of gold; send the ass through the gates of a city, and all the sentinels will run away.' Poor!—where there is love, there is charity also, Dykeman. Besides—"
Here Lilburne's countenance assumed a sudden aspect of dark and angry passion,—he broke off abruptly, rose, and paced the room, muttering to himself. Suddenly he stopped, and put his hand to his hip, as an expression of pain again altered the character of his face.
"The limb pains me still! Dykeman—I was scarce twenty-one—when I became a cripple for life." He paused, drew a long breath, smiled, rubbed his hands gently, and added: "Never fear—you shall be the ass; and thus Philip of Macedon begins to fill the pannier." And he tossed his purse into the hands of the valet, whose face seemed to lose its anxious embarrassment at the touch of the gold. Lilburne glanced at him with a quiet sneer: "Go!—I will give you my orders when I undress."
"Yes!" he repeated to himself, "the limb pains me still. But he died!— shot as a man would shoot a jay or a polecat!
"I have the newspaper still in that drawer. He died an outcast—a felon— a murderer! And I blasted his name—and I seduced his mistress—and I— am John Lord Lilburne!"
About ten o'clock, some half-a-dozen of those gay lovers of London, who, like Lilburne, remain faithful to its charms when more vulgar worshippers desert its sunburnt streets—mostly single men—mostly men of middle age —dropped in. And soon after came three or four high-born foreigners, who had followed into England the exile of the unfortunate Charles X. Their looks, at once proud and sad—their moustaches curled downward— their beards permitted to grow—made at first a strong contrast with the smooth gay Englishmen. But Lilburne, who was fond of French society, and who, when he pleased, could be courteous and agreeable, soon placed the exiles at their ease; and, in the excitement of high play, all differences of mood and humour speedily vanished. Morning was in the skies before they sat down to supper.
"You have been very fortunate to-night, milord," said one of the Frenchmen, with an envious tone of congratulation.
"But, indeed," said another, who, having been several times his host's partner, had won largely, "you are the finest player, milord, I ever encountered."
"Always excepting Monsieur Deschapelles and—," replied Lilburne, indifferently. And, turning the conversation, he asked one of the guests why he had not introduced him to a French officer of merit and distinction; "With whom," said Lord Lilburne, "I understand that you are intimate, and of whom I hear your countrymen very often speak."
"You mean De Vaudemont. Poor fellow!" said a middle-aged Frenchman, of a graver appearance than the rest.
"But why 'poor fellow!' Monsieur de Liancourt?"
"He was rising so high before the revolution. There was not a braver officer in the army. But he is but a soldier of fortune, and his career is closed."
"Till the Bourbons return," said another Carlist, playing with his moustache.
"You will really honour me much by introducing me to him," said Lord Lilburne. "De Vaudemont—it is a good name,—perhaps, too, he plays at whist."
"But," observed one of the Frenchmen, "I am by no means sure that he has the best right in the world to the name. 'Tis a strange story."
"May I hear it?" asked the host.
"Certainly. It is briefly this: There was an old Vicomte de Vaudemont about Paris; of good birth, but extremely poor—a mauvais sujet. He had already had two wives, and run through their fortunes. Being old and ugly, and men who survive two wives having a bad reputation among marriageable ladies at Paris, he found it difficult to get a third. Despairing of the noblesse he went among the bourgeoisie with that hope. His family were kept in perpetual fear of a ridiculous mesalliance. Among these relations was Madame de Merville, whom you may have heard of."
"Madame de Merville! Ah, yes! Handsome, was she not?"
"It is true. Madame de Merville, whose failing was pride, was known more than once to have bought off the matrimonial inclinations of the amorous vicomte. Suddenly there appeared in her circles a very handsome young man. He was presented formally to her friends as the son of the Vicomte de Vaudemont by his second marriage with an English lady, brought up in England, and now for the first time publicly acknowledged. Some scandal was circulated—"
"Sir," interrupted Monsieur de Liancourt, very gravely, "the scandal was such as all honourable men must stigmatise and despise—it was only to be traced to some lying lackey—a scandal that the young man was already the lover of a woman of stainless reputation the very first day that he entered Paris! I answer for the falsity of that report. But that report I own was one that decided not only Madame de Merville, who was a sensitive—too sensitive a person, but my friend young Vaudemont, to a marriage, from the pecuniary advantages of which he was too high-spirited not to shrink."
"Well," said Lord Lilburne, "then this young De Vaudemont married Madame de Merville?"
"No," said Liancourt somewhat sadly, "it was not so decreed; for Vaudemont, with a feeling which belongs to a gentleman, and which I honour, while deeply and gratefully attached to Madame de Merville, desired that he might first win for himself some honourable distinction before he claimed a hand to which men of fortunes so much higher had aspired in vain. I am not ashamed," he added, after a slight pause, "to say that I had been one of the rejected suitors, and that I still revere the memory of Eugenie de Merville. The young man, therefore, was to have entered my regiment. Before, however, he had joined it, and while yet in the full flush of a young man's love for a woman formed to excite the strongest attachment, she—she—-" The Frenchman's voice trembled, and he resumed with affected composure: "Madame de Merville, who had the best and kindest heart that ever beat in a human breast, learned one day that there was a poor widow in the garret of the hotel she inhabited who was dangerously ill—without medicine and without food—having lost her only friend and supporter in her husband some time before. In the impulse of the moment, Madame de Merville herself attended this widow—caught the fever that preyed upon her—was confined to her bed ten days—and died as she bad lived, in serving others and forgetting self.—And so much, sir, for the scandal you spoke of!"
"A warning," observed Lord Lilburne, "against trifling with one's health by that vanity of parading a kind heart, which is called charity. If charity, mon cher, begins at home, it is in the drawing-room, not the garret!"
The Frenchman looked at his host in some disdain, bit his lip, and was silent.
"But still," resumed Lord Lilburne, "still it is so probable that your old vicomte had a son; and I can so perfectly understand why he did not wish to be embarrassed with him as long as he could help it, that I do not understand why there should be any doubt of the younger De Vaudemont's parentage."
"Because," said the Frenchman who had first commenced the narrative,— "because the young man refused to take the legal steps to proclaim his birth and naturalise himself a Frenchman; because, no sooner was Madame de Merville dead than he forsook the father he had so newly discovered— forsook France, and entered with some other officers, under the brave, in the service of one of the native princes of India."
"But perhaps he was poor," observed Lord Lilburne. "A father is a very good thing, and a country is a very good thing, but still a man must have money; and if your father does not do much for you, somehow or other, your country generally follows his example."
"My lord," said Liancourt, "my friend here has forgotten to say that Madame de Merville had by deed of gift; (though unknown to her lover), before her death, made over to young Vaudemont the bulk of her fortune; and that, when he was informed of this donation after her decease, and sufficiently recovered from the stupor of his grief, he summoned her relations round him, declared that her memory was too dear to him for wealth to console him for her loss, and reserving to himself but a, modest and bare sufficiency for the common necessaries of a gentleman, he divided the rest amongst them, and repaired to the East; not only to conquer his sorrow by the novelty and stir of an exciting life, but to carve out with his own hand the reputation of an honourable and brave man. My friend remembered the scandal long buried—he forgot the generous action."
"Your friend, you see, my dear Monsieur de Liancourt," remarked Lilburne, "is more a man of the world than you are!"
"And I was just going to observe," said the friend thus referred to, "that that very action seemed to confirm the rumour that there had been some little manoeuvring as to this unexpected addition to the name of De Vaudemont; for, if himself related to Madame de Merville, why have such scruples to receive her gift?"
"A very shrewd remark," said Lord Lilburne, looking with some respect at the speaker; "and I own that it is a very unaccountable proceeding, and one of which I don't think you or I would ever have been guilty. Well, and the old Vicomte?"
"Did not live long!" said the Frenchman, evidently gratified by his host's compliment, while Liancourt threw himself back in his chair in grave displeasure. "The young man remained some years in India, and when he returned to Paris, our friend here, Monsieur de Liancourt (then in favour with Charles X.), and Madame de Merville's relations took him up. He had already acquired a reputation in this foreign service, and he obtained a place at the court, and a commission in the king's guards. I allow that he would certainly have made a career, had it not been for the Three Days. As it is, you see him in London, like the rest of us, an exile!"
"And I suppose, without a sous."
"No, I believe that he had still saved, and even augmented, in India, the portion he allotted to himself from Madame de Merville's bequest."
"And if he don't play whist, he ought to play it," said Lilburne. "You have roused my curiosity; I hope you will let me make his acquaintance, Monsieur de Liancourt. I am no politician, but allow me to propose this toast, 'Success to those who have the wit to plan, and the strength to execute.' In other words, 'the Right Divine!'"
Soon afterwards the guests retired.
"Ros. Happily, he's the second time come to them."—Hamlet.
It was the evening after that in which the conversations recorded in our last chapter were held;—evening in the quiet suburb of H———. The desertion and silence of the metropolis in September had extended to its neighbouring hamlets;—a village in the heart of the country could scarcely have seemed more still; the lamps were lighted, many of the shops already closed, a few of the sober couples and retired spinsters of the place might, here and there, be seen slowly wandering homeward after their evening walk: two or three dogs, in spite of the prohibitions of the magistrates placarded on the walls,—(manifestoes which threatened with death the dogs, and predicted more than ordinary madness to the public,)—were playing in the main road, disturbed from time to time as the slow coach, plying between the city and the suburb, crawled along the thoroughfare, or as the brisk mails whirled rapidly by, announced by the cloudy dust and the guard's lively horn. Gradually even these evidences of life ceased—the saunterers disappeared, the mails had passed, the dogs gave place to the later and more stealthy perambulations of their feline successors "who love the moon." At unfrequent intervals, the more important shops—the linen-drapers', the chemists', and the gin-palace— still poured out across the shadowy road their streams of light from windows yet unclosed: but with these exceptions, the business of the place stood still.
At this time there emerged from a milliner's house (shop, to outward appearance, it was not, evincing its gentility and its degree above the Capelocracy, to use a certain classical neologism, by a brass plate on an oak door, whereon was graven, "Miss Semper, Milliner and Dressmaker, from Madame Devy,")—at this time, I say, and from this house there emerged the light and graceful form of a young female. She held in her left hand a little basket, of the contents of which (for it was empty) she had apparently just disposed; and, as she stepped across the road, the lamplight fell on a face in the first bloom of youth, and characterised by an expression of childlike innocence and candour. It was a face regularly and exquisitely lovely, yet something there was in the aspect that saddened you; you knew not why, for it was not sad itself; on the contrary, the lips smiled and the eyes sparkled. As she now glided along the shadowy street with a light, quick step, a man, who had hitherto been concealed by the portico of an attorney's house, advanced stealthily, and followed her at a little distance. Unconscious that she was dogged, and seemingly fearless of all danger, the girl went lightly on, swinging her basket playfully to and fro, and chaunting, in a low but musical tone, some verses that seemed rather to belong to the nursery than to that age which the fair singer had attained.
As she came to an angle which the main street formed with a lane, narrow and partially lighted, a policeman, stationed there, looked hard at her, and then touched his hat with an air of respect, in which there seemed also a little of compassion.
"Good night to you," said the girl, passing him, and with a frank, gay tone.
"Shall I attend you home, Miss?" said the man.
"What for? I am very well!" answered the young woman, with an accent and look of innocent surprise.
Just at this time the man, who had hitherto followed her, gained the spot, and turned down the lane.
"Yes," replied the policeman; "but it is getting dark, Miss."
"So it is every night when I walk home, unless there's a moon.—Good- bye.—The moon," she repeated to herself, as she walked on, "I used to be afraid of the moon when I was a little child;" and then, after a pause, she murmured, in a low chaunt:
"'The moon she is a wandering ghost, That walks in penance nightly; How sad she is, that wandering moon, For all she shines so brightly!
"'I watched her eyes when I was young, Until they turned my brain, And now I often weep to think 'Twill ne'er be right again.'"
As the murmur of these words died at a distance down the lane in which the girl had disappeared, the policeman, who had paused to listen, shook his head mournfully, and said, while he moved on,—
"Poor thing! they should not let her always go about by herself; and yet, who would harm her?"
Meanwhile the girl proceeded along the lane, which was skirted by small, but not mean houses, till it terminated in a cross-stile that admitted into a church yard. Here hung the last lamp in the path, and a few dint stars broke palely over the long grass, and scattered gravestones, without piercing the deep shadow which the church threw over a large portion of the sacred ground. Just as she passed the stile, the man, whom we have before noticed, and who had been leaning, as if waiting for some one, against the pales, approached, and said gently,—
"Ah, Miss! it is a lone place for one so beautiful as you are to be alone. You ought never to be on foot."
The girl stopped, and looked full, but without any alarm in her eyes, into the man's face.
"Go away!" she said, with a half-peevish, half-kindly tone of command. "I don't know you."
"But I have been sent to speak to you by one who does know you, Miss—one who loves you to distraction—he has seen you before at Mrs. West's. He is so grieved to think you should walk—you ought, he says, to have every luxury—that he has sent his carriage for you. It is on the other side of the yard. Do come now;" and he laid his hand, though very lightly, on her arm.
"At Mrs. West's!" she said; and, for the first time, her voice and look showed fear. "Go away directly! How dare you touch me!"
"But, my dear Miss, you have no idea how my employer loves you, and how rich he is. See, he has sent you all this money; it is gold—real gold. You may have what you like, if you will but come. Now, don't be silly, Miss." The girl made no answer, but, with a sudden spring, passed the man, and ran lightly and rapidly along the path, in an opposite direction from that to which the tempter had pointed, when inviting her to the carriage. The man, surprised, but not baffled, reached her in an instant, and caught hold of her dress.
"Stay! you must come—you must!" he said, threateningly; and, loosening his grasp on her shawl, he threw his arm round her waist.
"Don't!" cried the girl, pleadingly, and apparently subdued, turning her fair, soft face upon her pursuer, and clasping her hands. "Be quiet! Fanny is silly! No one is ever rude to poor Fanny!"
"And no one will be rude to you, Miss," said the man, apparently touched; "but I dare not go without you. You don't know what you refuse. Come;" and he attempted gently to draw her back.
"No, no!" said the girl, changing from supplication to anger, and raising her voice into a loud shriek, "No! I will—"
"Nay, then," interrupted the man, looking round anxiously, and, with a quick and dexterous movement he threw a large handkerchief over her face, and, as he held it fast to her lips with one hand, he lifted her from the ground. Still violently struggling, the girl contrived to remove the handkerchief, and once more her shriek of terror rang through the violated sanctuary.
At that instant a loud deep voice was heard, "Who calls?" And a tall figure seemed to rise, as from the grave itself, and emerge from the shadow of the church. A moment more, and a strong gripe was laid on the shoulder of the ravisher. "What is this? On God's ground, too! Release her, wretch!"
The man, trembling, half with superstitious, half with bodily fear, let go his captive, who fell at once at the knees of her deliverer. "Don't you hurt me too," she said, as the tears rolled down her eyes. "I am a good girl-and my grandfather's blind."
The stranger bent down and raised her; then looking round for the assailant with an eye whose dark fire shone through the gloom, he perceived the coward stealing off. He disdained to pursue.
"My poor child," said he, with that voice which the strong assume to the weak—the man to some wounded infant—the voice of tender superiority and compassion, "there is no cause for fear now. Be soothed. Do you live near? Shall I see you home?"
"Thank you! That's kind. Pray do!" And, with an infantine confidence she took his hand, as a child does that of a grown-up person;—so they walked on together.
"And," said the stranger, "do you know that man? Has he insulted you before?"
"No—don't talk of him: ce me fait mal!" And she put her hand to her forehead.
The French was spoken with so French an accent, that, in some curiosity, the stranger cast his eye over her plain dress.
"You speak French well."
"Do I? I wish I knew more words—I only recollect a few. When I am very happy or very sad they come into my head. But I am happy now. I like your voice—I like you—Oh! I have dropped my basket!"
"Shall I go back for it, or shall I buy you another?"
"Another!—Oh, no! come back for it. How kind you are!—Ah! I see it!" and she broke away and ran forward to pick it up.
When she had recovered it, she laughed-she spoke to it—she kissed it.
Her companion smiled as he said: "Some sweetheart has given you that basket—it seems but a common basket too."
"I have had it—oh, ever since—since—I don't know how long! It came with me from France—it was full of little toys. They are gone—I am so sorry!"
"How old are you?"
"I don't know."
"My pretty one," said the stranger, with deep pity in his rich voice, "your mother should not let you go out alone at this hour."
"Mother!—mother!" repeated the girl, in a tone of surprise.
"Have you no mother?"
"No! I had a father once. But he died, they say. I did not see him die. I sometimes cry when I think that I shall never, never see him again! But," she said, changing her accent from melancholy almost to joy, "he is to have a grave here like the other girl's fathers—a fine stone upon it —and all to be done with my money!"
"Your money, my child?"
"Yes; the money I make. I sell my work and take the money to my grandfather; but I lay by a little every week for a gravestone for my father."
"Will the gravestone be placed in that churchyard?" They were now in another lane; and, as he spoke, the stranger checked her, and bending down to look into her face, he murmured to himself, "Is it possible?—it must be—it must!"
"Yes! I love that churchyard—my brother told me to put flowers there; and grandfather and I sit there in the summer, without speaking. But I don't talk much, I like singing better:—
"'All things that good and harmless are Are taught, they say, to sing The maiden resting at her work, The bird upon the wing; The little ones at church, in prayer; The angels in the sky The angels less when babes are born Than when the aged die.'"
And unconscious of the latent moral, dark or cheering, according as we estimate the value of this life, couched in the concluding rhyme, Fanny turned round to the stranger, and said, "Why should the angels be glad when the aged die?"
"That they are released from a false, unjust, and miserable world, in which the first man was a rebel, and the second a murderer!" muttered the stranger between his teeth, which he gnashed as he spoke.
The girl did not understand him: she shook her head gently, and made no reply. A few moments, and she paused before a small house.
"This is my home."
"It is so," said her companion, examining the exterior of the house with an earnest gaze; "and your name is Fanny."
"Yes—every one knows Fanny. Come in;" and the girl opened the door with a latch-key.
The stranger bowed his stately height as he crossed the low threshold and followed his guide into a little parlour. Before a table on which burned dimly, and with unheeded wick, a single candle, sat a man of advanced age; and as he turned his face to the door, the stranger saw that he was blind.
The girl bounded to his chair, passed her arms round the old man's neck, and kissed his forehead; then nestling herself at his feet, and leaning her clasped hands caressingly on his knee, she said,—
"Grandpapa, I have brought you somebody you must love. He has been so kind to Fanny."
"And neither of you can remember me!" said the guest.
The old man, whose dull face seemed to indicate dotage, half raised himself at the sound of the stranger's voice. "Who is that?" said he, with a feeble and querulous voice. "Who wants me?"
"I am the friend of your lost son. I am he who, ten years go, brought Fanny to your roof, and gave her to your care—your son's last charge. And you blessed your son, and forgave him, and vowed to be a father to his Fanny." The old man, who had now slowly risen to his feet, trembled violently, and stretched out his hands.
"Come near—near—let me put my hands on your head. I cannot see you; but Fanny talks of you, and prays for you; and Fanny—she has been an angel to me!"
The stranger approached and half knelt as the old man spread his hands over his head, muttering inaudibly. Meanwhile Fanny, pale as death—her lips apart—an eager, painful expression on her face—looked inquiringly on the dark, marked countenance of the visitor, and creeping towards him inch by inch, fearfully touched his dress—his arms—his countenance.
"Brother," she said at last, doubtingly and timidly, "Brother, I thought I could never forget you! But you are not like my brother; you are older;—you are—you are!—no! no! you are not my brother!"
"I am much changed, Fanny; and you too!"
He smiled as he spoke; and the smile-sweet and pitying—thoroughly changed the character of his face, which was ordinarily stern, grave, and proud.
"I know you now!" exclaimed Fanny, in a tone of wild joy. "And you come back from that grave! My flowers have brought you back at last! I knew they would! Brother! Brother!"
And she threw herself on his breast and burst into passionate tears. Then, suddenly drawing herself back, she laid her finger on his arm, and looked up at him beseechingly.
"Pray, now, is he really dead? He, my father!—he, too, was lost like you. Can't he come back again as you have done?"
"Do you grieve for him still, then? Poor girl!" said the stranger, evasively, and seating himself. Fanny continued to listen for an answer to her touching question; but finding that none was given, she stole away to a corner of the room, and leaned her face on her hands, and seemed to think—till at last, as she so sat, the tears began to flow down her cheeks, and she wept, but silently and unnoticed.
"But, sir," said the guest, after a short pause, "how is this? Fanny tells me she supports you by her work. Are you so poor, then? Yet I left you your son's bequest; and you, too, I understood, though not rich, were not in want!"
"There was a curse on my gold," said the old man, sternly. "It was stolen from us."
There was another pause. Simon broke it.
"And you, young man—how has it fared with you? You have prospered, I hope."
"I am as I have been for years—alone in the world, without kindred and without friends. But, thanks to Heaven, I am not a beggar!"
"No kindred and no friends!" repeated the old man. "No father—no brother—no wife—no sister!"
"None! No one to care whether I live or die," answered the stranger, with a mixture of pride and sadness in his voice. "But, as the song has it—
"'I care for nobody—no, not I, For nobody cares for me!'"
There was a certain pathos in the mockery with which he repeated the homely lines, although, as he did, he gathered himself up, as if conscious of a certain consolation and reliance on the resources not dependent on others which he had found in his own strong limbs and his own stout heart.
At that moment he felt a soft touch upon his hand, and he saw Fanny looking at him through the tears that still flowed.
"You have no one to care for you? Don't say so! Come and live with us, brother; we'll care for you. I have never forgotten the flowers—never! Do come! Fanny shall love you. Fanny can work for three!"
"And they call her an idiot!" mumbled the old man, with a vacant smile on his lips.
"My sister! You shall be my sister! Forlorn one—whom even Nature has fooled and betrayed! Sister!—we, both orphans! Sister!" exclaimed that dark, stern man, passionately, and with a broken voice; and he opened his arms, and Fanny, without a blush or a thought of shame, threw herself on his breast. He kissed her forehead with a kiss that was, indeed, pure and holy as a brother's: and Fanny felt that he had left upon her cheek a tear that was not her own.
"Well," he said, with an altered voice, and taking the old man's hand, "what say you? Shall I take up my lodging with you? I have a little money; I can protect and aid you both. I shall be often away—in London or else where—and will not intrude too much on you. But you blind, and she—(here he broke off the sentence abruptly and went on)—you should not be left alone. And this neighbourhood, that burial-place, are dear to me. I, too, Fanny, have lost a parent; and that grave—"
He paused, and then added, in a trembling voice, "And you have placed flowers over that grave?"
"Stay with us," said the blind man; "not for our sake, but your own. The world is a bad place. I have been long sick of the world. Yes! come and live near the burial-ground—the nearer you are to the grave, the safer you are;—and you have a little money, you say!"
"I will come to-morrow, then. I must return now. Tomorrow, Fanny, we shall meet again."
"Must you go?" said Fanny, tenderly. "But you will come again; you know I used to think every one died when he left me. I am wiser now. Yet still, when you do leave me, it is true that you die for Fanny!"
At this moment, as the three persons were grouped, each had assumed a posture of form, an expression of face, which a painter of fitting sentiment and skill would have loved to study. The visitor had gained the door; and as he stood there, his noble height—the magnificent strength and health of his manhood in its full prime—contrasted alike the almost spectral debility of extreme age and the graceful delicacy of Fanny—half girl, half child. There was something foreign in his air— and the half military habit, relieved by the red riband of the Bourbon knighthood. His complexion was dark as that of a Moor, and his raven hair curled close to the stately head. The soldier-moustache—thick, but glossy as silk-shaded the firm lip; and the pointed beard, assumed by the exiled Carlists, heightened the effect of the strong and haughty features and the expression of the martial countenance.
But as Fanny's voice died on his ear, he half averted that proud face; and the dark eyes—almost Oriental in their brilliancy and depth of shade—seemed soft and humid. And there stood Fanny, in a posture of such unconscious sadness—such childlike innocence; her arms drooping— her face wistfully turned to his—and a half smile upon the lips, that made still more touching the tears not yet dried upon her cheeks. While thin, frail, shadowy, with white hair and furrowed cheeks, the old man fixed his sightless orbs on space; and his face, usually only animated from the lethargy of advancing dotage by a certain querulous cynicism, now grew suddenly earnest, and even thoughtful, as Fanny spoke of Death!
"Ulyss. Time hath a wallet at his back Wherein he puts alms for oblivion. * * Perseverance, dear my lord, Keeps honour bright."—Troilus and Cressida.
I have, not sought—as would have been easy, by a little ingenuity in the earlier portion of this narrative—whatever source of vulgar interest might be derived from the mystery of names and persons. As in Charles Spencer the reader is allowed at a glance to detect Sidney Morton, so in Philip de Vaudemont (the stranger who rescued Fanny) the reader at once recognises the hero of my tale; but since neither of these young men has a better right to the name resigned than to the name adopted, it will be simpler and more convenient to designate them by those appellations by which they are now known to the world. In truth, Philip de Vaudemont was scarcely the same being as Philip Morton. In the short visit he had paid to the elder Gawtrey, when he consigned Fanny to his charge, he had given no name; and the one he now took (when, towards the evening of the next day he returned to Simon's house) the old man heard for the first time. Once more sunk into his usual apathy, Simon did not express any surprise that a Frenchman should be so well acquainted with English—he scarcely observed that the name was French. Simon's age seemed daily to bring him more and more to that state when life is mere mechanism, and the soul, preparing for its departure, no longer heeds the tenement that crumbles silently and neglected into its lonely dust. Vaudemont came with but little luggage (for he had an apartment also in London), and no attendant,—a single horse was consigned to the stables of an inn at hand, and he seemed, as soldiers are, more careful for the comforts of the animal than his own. There was but one woman servant in the humble household, who did all the ruder work, for Fanny's industry could afford it. The solitary servant and the homely fare sufficed for the simple and hardy adventurer.
Fanny, with a countenance radiant with joy, took his hand and led him to his room. Poor child! with that instinct of woman which never deserted her, she had busied herself the whole day in striving to deck the chamber according to her own notions of comfort. She had stolen from her little hoard wherewithal to make some small purchases, on which the Dowbiggin of the suburb had been consulted. And what with flowers on the table, and a fire at the hearth, the room looked cheerful.
She watched him as he glanced around, and felt disappointed that he did not utter the admiration she expected. Angry at last with the indifference which, in fact, as to external accommodation, was habitual to him, she plucked his sleeve, and said,—
"Why don't you speak? Is it not nice?—Fanny did her best."
"And a thousand thanks to Fanny! It is all I could wish."
"There is another room, bigger than this, but the wicked woman who robbed us slept there; and besides, you said you liked the churchyard. See!" and she opened the window and pointed to the church-tower rising dark against the evening sky.
"This is better than all!" said Vaudemont; and he looked out from the window in a silent reverie, which Fanny did not disturb.
And now he was settled! From a career so wild, agitated, and various, the adventurer paused in that humble resting-nook. But quiet is not repose—obscurity is not content. Often as, morn and eve, he looked forth upon the spot, where his mother's heart, unconscious of love and woe, mouldered away, the indignant and bitter feelings of the wronged outcast and the son who could not clear the mother's name swept away the subdued and gentle melancholy into which time usually softens regret for the dead, and with which most of us think of the distant past, and the once joyous childhood!
In this man's breast lay, concealed by his external calm, those memories and aspirations which are as strong as passions. In his earlier years, when he had been put to hard shifts for existence, he had found no leisure for close and brooding reflection upon that spoliation of just rights—that calumny upon his mother's name, which had first brought the Night into his Morning. His resentment towards the Beauforts, it is true, had ever been an intense but a fitful and irregular passion. It was exactly in proportion as, by those rare and romantic incidents which Fiction cannot invent, and which Narrative takes with diffidence from the great Store-house of Real Life, his steps had ascended in the social ladder—that all which his childhood had lost—all which the robbers of his heritage had gained, the grandeur and the power of WEALTH—above all, the hourly and the tranquil happiness of a stainless name, became palpable and distinct. He had loved Eugenie as a boy loves for the first time an accomplished woman. He regarded her, so refined—so gentle—so gifted, with the feelings due to a superior being, with an eternal recollection of the ministering angel that had shone upon him when he stood on the dark abyss. She was the first that had redeemed his fate— the first that had guided aright his path—the first that had tamed the savage at his breast:—it was the young lion charmed by the eyes of Una. The outline of his story had been truly given at Lord Lilburne's. Despite his pride, which revolted from such obligations to another, and a woman—which disliked and struggled against a disguise which at once and alone saved him from the detection of the past and the terrors of the future—he had yielded to her, the wise and the gentle, as one whose judgment he could not doubt; and, indeed, the slanderous falsehoods circulated by the lackey, to whose discretion, the night of Gawtrey's death, Eugenie had preferred to confide her own honour, rather than another's life, had (as Liancourt rightly stated) left Philip no option but that which Madame de Merville deemed the best, whether for her happiness or her good name. Then had followed a brief season—the holiday of his life—the season of young hope and passion, of brilliancy and joy, closing by that abrupt death which again left him lonely in the world.