"Vol. III." by Geraldine Jewsbury (1812-1880)
John Paul Gregory Marston had prospered in the world since last we met with him. He had become rich by the death of various relatives, he had risen in the Church, and contrived to make himself much more comfortable in it than ever he had expected. His talents for business, his love of bustle and excitement, his genius for managing his own intrigues and those of other people, had recommended him to the attention of the higher powers. Though English, he liked neither the country nor the customs; Italy was his delight. He had sufficient credit to get himself appointed one of the resident bishops in Rome; and he was often employed on secret missions and in various confidential affairs.
He was as great an athée as ever; but instead of ridiculing the Church and her doctrines as formerly, he now spoke of sacred matters with the most scrupulous and decorous consideration: in fact, he felt it incumbent upon him to treat with respect a Church which had behaved so exceedingly well towards him. He contrived to enjoy almost unrestrained licence of conduct, so that the fierce and terribly sincere invectives which formerly used to break from him, were not now needed as a relief to the unbearable constraint of his profession. He never disguised from himself that he was a hypocrite and a profligate, but he did not consider it necessary to take the whole world into his confidence. His self-complacency was not in the least ruffled by the consciousness that he was a hireling, body and soul; on the contrary, he felt a real satisfaction in forcing those who he knew saw into his real character, to treat with him as an honest man. He never attempted to put a varnish of integrity on his own conscience, for a villainous sort of sincerity lurked there in spite of all his sins; but he would tolerate nothing short of the most immaculate reputation from the world. There was a tacit conviction on the mind of every body who knew him, and nobody could say they were exactly imposed upon, yet no one spoke ill of him; his great ability was a safe common ground on which all his debatable qualities were merged. After all, when a man is endowed with real strength of character, when he is able and decided in all he undertakes, has an object and pursues it (no matter whether the object be good or bad), he is to be recognised as a man of character, and he is one who has the stuff of virtue in him though it may be shown in a perverse sort of fashion. Strength is the main element of virtue. The very wickedness of a steady purposed, strong minded man, is worth more than the virtuous tendencies of a weak one, that never grow to be actions, but are mere feeble indications; they have no principle within them, and the merest accident may convert them into active vices. Weakness is the only state for which there is no hope, either for this world or the world to come.
John Paul Gregory was certainly not to be called a good man, but he had the seeds of redemption within him.
He was in London at the time Everhard's book made its appearance; he had come over on a private mission, which at that time seemed of great importance, but which has long since been consigned to the impenetrable secrecy of oblivion. Attracted by the name, he made enquiries after the author, and found that it was indeed the very Everhard who had been his school-mate and fellow-student at college. They had long ago lost sight of each other, but John Paul Gregory still entertained a latent regard for the man so utterly unlike himself, and whom he considered as an amiable visionary who would never do any good with his talents. There was a boldness, a magnanimous temerity, in Everhard's book, which excited his sympathy, and he resolved to pay his old comrade a visit in the very teeth of episcopal decorum.
He accordingly drove in state to the obscure street where Everhard lodged - for he gloried in never seeming ashamed of any thing he did.
He was shown into a little dark parlour on the ground floor; the house was on the shady side of the street, and though it was a reasonably sunny day elsewhere, not a glance of the sunlight visited any thing except the chimney-tops on the opposite side.
Everhard was sitting over the small fire, ill in body and depressed in mind. He had not heard the bustle in the street, nor had he paid any attention to the bustle in the house, until the door was thrown open, and the handsome, portly, and somewhat blustering, form of John Paul Gregory entered, seeming to fill the little space between the four walls, full and overflowing.
Everhard actually shaded his eyes with his hand, to see if it were really a vision of this world that stood before him. John Paul Gregory enjoyed his perplexed look of astonishment, and, grasping his hand, cried, "You see it really is I myself. I only heard you were in London this morning, or I should have found you out before."
"How you found me out now", said Everhard, "is a marvel; you really are the kindest-hearted fellow that ever lived. I can't tell you the good it does me to see you; - how did you get to know where I was?"
"I inquired, to be sure," replied John Paul; "when people really want a thing, they can always get it; and the instant I knew that you were to be seen, I wanted to see you, and here I am in consequence."
The beginning of conversation between two people who have not seen each other for a length of time, is always tumultuous; and, for the first half hour, many things were asked and told, and nothing was finished. John Paul Gregory told Everhard that he was a bishop and a sort of ambassador; but both parties were too impatient to go into details.
At length, when the first ferment had a little subsided, John Paul said; "Well, but Everhard, you have not explained how it has come to pass, that such a sober person as yourself has set up a character that is frightening the whole world from its propriety."
"Yes," said Everhard, "I almost wonder at your daring to come near me."
"Why, faith, perhaps the daring gave a relish to my desire to see you. The folks at home may just say what they like; if they make grievance, I shall tell them I came to bring you back to the right way. But seriously, what have you been doing? I heard that you had left the Church, but nothing further. Do you remember the talk we had the first night you came to the college? Well, I have grown wiser since then, but you - you have progressed into one of those wise fools, whom the world always takes great credit to herself for having produced, after she has starved them to death, or worried them to death, with hard words; - broken their hearts in short, which is the only style of persecution tolerated in these days. Tell me all about yourself, and as we shall get on all the better for having some thing to do, give me a cup of the coffee you used to be so famous for making long ago. It is the only thing I drink. - But what a confounded noise! I should have expected that such a place as this would have the virtue of being quiet at all events!"
The fact was, that the sight of a carriage had warmly excited the curiosity of all the inhabitants of that street: and the rumour that it was "the Pope's own carriage", had stimulated their Protestant sensibilities to the highest pitch; by this time, mud and stones began to be thrown, and their orthodoxy would have proceeded to very inconvenient lengths, had not John Paul made his appearance amongst them; his good-humoured English look made a favourable impression upon the mob - the offending vehicle was allowed to drive off, a few dextrously interposed good words and jokes from John turned the current in his favour, the people began to cheer, and wisely retreating at the climax of his popularity, he retired into the house, and rejoined Everhard.
The coffee was ready. "Well now, Everhard, your history!" said John Paul, as he sat down. "Don't be diplomatic about it, tell me all the secret passages."
"You will hardly understand me, John Paul," said Everhard, smiling.
"A great compliment to my discernment, certainly, but pray let me try."
Everhard proceeded to tell him all that could be told; but, of course, the most important part remained of necessity unsaid - a proof that the truth is never to be extracted in words; the most sincere and truth-telling men can only speak a part of it - indeed, to tell all things exactly as they are, would often require more imprudence than sincerity: - a want of reticence is not truth.
When Everhard came to a conclusion, John Paul said, "Well, you must be left to fate, for clearly there is no use in Providence concerning itself any more about you. You have thrown away advantages which might have raised you to the highest dignities, and surely, even your appetite for doing good might have been satisfied by the legitimate opportunities which would have fallen to your share; why can you not apply your talents to ends that are already shaped out, instead of working in the dark, wasting both your time and talents upon Utopian experiments and schemes for regenerating the world, that would be scouted as fantastic even in Utopia itself, believe me; and instead of spending your strength in the endeavour to make men better, just employ one half the trouble in trying to make the best of them as they are; you would not only get more credit for your labours, but the rogues themselves would feel infinitely more grateful to you.
"There is such a press of business in the world, motion is generated till the whirl is enough to set the world in flames; and any one who is mad enough to want to stop the whole machine, in order to try some new patent wheel, to make it roll more smoothly, will only be thrown down and trampled to death for his pains; and the machine will go on in its old way all the same.
"Do you think that theories logically shaped beforehand, will ever shape the facts that come after? In short, my dear fellow, I cannot bear the idea of your wearing your life out for nothing in this way. Just leave this 'friend-of-man' nonsense, and consent to do some practical good in your generation; cast in your lot with mine, and trust me, you shall find plenty of employment for your talents after your own heart. You shall command all my credit to reconcile you to the heads of the Church, we will make easy terms with your conscience; leave this horrible hole, and come home with me.
"I am making no vague promises, I am assured that I can do all, and more than all I say. The Church would rejoice to get you back again, and your reconversion would be even a greater credit than if you had continued an unaltered allegiance; there would be more orthodox joy over the repenting sinner, than over ninety and nine dutiful sons like myself. I will not let you go back to the ranks I promise you, before I have secured your own terms; so you see you will risk nothing. Your consistency shall not be endangered till it is made clearly worth your while to abandon this canaille, whom you have so unaccountably taken it into your head to endeavour to raise to the rank of Men in the scale of creation. Believe me, who have to work with mankind, that no infusion of noble sentiments, will take effect on those in whom they do not rise spontaneously. That which is vice will remain vice still, when you have done everything; and as to calling such pitiful wretches brothers, where is the family likeness? I could say to you, as the slave-owner said to some mad methodist who asserted that negroes were human beings like him, 'Do you mean to tell me these niggers are men! - Only look at their calves?' It is of no use getting up a sympathy for people who cannot help themselves. Those who have any good in them, will raise themselves, without any need for you to sacrifice yourself to preach the gospel of love and fellow-feeling; those who make themselves of use, always get consideration in the world, quite as much as they have any right to expect."
"I have no patent scheme for regenerating the world as you seem to fancy," replied Everhard. "But I would have each man recognise the necessity of being true in whatever he does, if he would obtain any enduring good. I have no creed to preach; but I would have each man honestly profess that which he really does believe, and not lay out his whole soul to obtain a 'piece of silver and a morsel of bread', by pretending to be what he is not.
"You say if I will go along with you, I may gain opportunities of usefulness which are sealed to me in the position I now occupy. Too long I allowed myself to be blinded by maxims of expediency, too long I listened to second motives, and remained year after year in a position where I was obliged to act that which to me was a daily lie - because I persuaded myself there was this or that little bit of visible good I had it thereby in my power to transact. Believe me, John Paul, much that is not palpable to the senses of men, has a deep and permanent influence upon their souls, both for good and bad.
"It is not the obvious and tangible which is the all-important; - that which informs the spirit of man, is more to be accounted of than that which acts upon him bodily. Any way, we are not made responsible for the result of our actions, but we are responsible for bringing a pure mind and an earnest sincerity to every work we undertake, whether it be great or small; - it is only in proportion to our individual truthfulness, that the evil resulting from our blindness and incapacity, is not accumulated to our condemnation.
"I may seem to you to be wasting my energy in baseless schemes - to be doing nothing, in short. Certainly I have no result to show you for my labours - but I have at least made myself a true man. I have emancipated myself from that so far I have reason to consider false; - I am able to have faith in singleness of motive, and to tread under foot all temptations to expediency. I am thankful to have been enabled to make that which is within me, light, and to walk in some degree according to it; and I can truly say, that the price I have to pay in worldly comfort and reputation, to attain this, is not worthy to be named, though, till I go down to the grave, I must feel humbled at the recollection of the years during which I walked in the paths of expediency.
"What the work will be that I may be called upon to perform, I know not. It is possible that I may have no visible success in my teaching - still I must go on; - a way will be opened for me; and even if it is appointed to me to sit apparently idle, I am willing to do so. I can submit to think that my labour is not indispensable. He who is the ruler of all things, has all means in his hand. If work be given to me, I am willing to spend and be spent for it; - if nothing appointed for me, it is well also. 'They also serve who only stand and wait.'"
"Everhard," said John Paul, as he rose to depart. "You are only an elaborate fool, with all your wisdom. You talk like a rational lunatic; the world would just stand stock still, if you and such as you, had the management of it. Believe me too, it is only when things come to a stand still, that danger is to be apprehended; so long as they go on, no matter how - things will not fall to dissolution as you call it; but come, I have been talking in the vague quite as much as I have reproached you for doing. I cannot expect you should give up your beaux principes for general propositions; and whilst you have been talking, I have been thinking what actual and specific thing I can offer you.
"Come along with me, leave your goods and chattels a legacy to your landlady. There are certain private negotiations on foot with Spain, a special envoy is to be dispatched in a very short time, and you shall accompany the concern as secretary. In spite of all the foolish clamour that has been raised, you are known to be a man of talent and practical ability. I know I can obtain the appointment for you, because I happen to be able to give value received. Once set going, you must infallibly rise; and as you are no longer a Catholic, there will be no obstacle about religion; all the compromise that will be required of you is, 'tais toi, Jean Jacques, on ne te comprend pas'; and you know Solomon himself, your great oracle, says, 'there is a time for keeping silence'. Will you say 'yes' at once and come along with me to dinner?"
"John Paul," said Everhard, "you are a staunch friend, but you cannot help me, you must leave me to my own ways. The frank kind-heartedness you have shown this day has cheered my heart, and you must be content with having done that. Independently of everything else, the post you offer would not suit me, nor should I suit it; and besides," continued he, smiling, "you have overlooked the terrible impeachment it would be on your sagacity, to put an unbroken reformer into government harness! You must leave me as you found me, and yet not altogether so, for the sight of your friendly pleasant face has cheered me more than you can tell."
"Pshaw!" interrupted John Paul, impatiently, "then the devil may take you for an obstinate - but no," added he, softening, "you're a deal too good for the devil or any of his servants, for I think nearly all the people I have to deal with belong to him - myself amongst the number. But I can stay here no longer talking sincerity, I must be off to play Punch and Judy at a grand diplomatic dinner. I leave London in a fortnight, and I shall not be able to see you again, I know, so it is of no use making promises. God bless you, and if ever you should grow wise enough to do good to yourself, let me know, and it shall go hard but I will serve you."
He grasped Everhard's hand once more, and wrapping his cloak round him, he strode off in the gathering dusk.
"What a fine fellow he is, in spite of every thing!" said Everhard to himself as he gazed after him.
That night's post brought Everhard a letter from the Giffords, giving an account of their travels: - they had landed the day before at Leghorn - Clotilde was much better, the change of scene having had a most beneficial effect upon her spirits, and she was now in all respects like herself; "except", said the letter in conclusion, "that her affections now seem entirely weaned from every thing on earth; - she could hardly feel less interest in worldly matters if she were a disembodied spirit."
There was a postscript from Zoe, only a few words; it said - "Everhard, if your book has only strengthened the heart of one individual, as it has strengthened mine, you will not have written it in vain. If ever I grow to be worth any thing, I owe it to you: - do not let yourself be discouraged, for it shall surely be well with you."
The obloquy to which Everhard was exposed did not prevent his acquaintance being sought by many men of consideration and talent. They were most of them men who, like himself, were under a sort of social ban, for entertaining more liberal opinions than beseemed the then fashion; for that was a time when any tinge of liberality, either in politics or opinions, was accounted synonymous with a breach of morality. None of his new associates were possessed of the calm good sense, or the entire purity of motive that distinguished Everhard. There was a touch of idiosyncrasy in their lucubrations and best digested schemes for ameliorating the world. Still they were seekers after good, and mutually tolerated each other. Everhard believed that he beheld in them a type of better things, for the whole world.
That which is religion amongst the people, has, in the first instance, been entertained as philosophy in the schools. When philosophical truths spread amongst the mass of the people, they always take the guise of religious doctrines, and at length grow to be received like the common light of day; but the first teachers are always persecuted for atheists, or at best are looked on as setters forth of strange gods.
Everhard saw many of his liberally-minded friends fall away, and join the ranks of the divine right of the legitimacy in possession, rather than endure tangible inconvenience for the sake of what they had too little faith to consider as any thing better than abstract theories.
Everhard was surprised and grieved, but he was willing to bide his time.
One of his new friends, a gifted and fiery-hearted man, was on the point of undertaking a tour through Germany, not then recognised for the store-house of wisdom it has since been found. He was very anxious that Everhard should accompany him, who gladly acceded to the proposal, and they started accordingly. They travelled mostly on foot, and stopped whenever they found matter worthy of attention. They were furnished with letters to many men of note, but their own names were in themselves a passport.
Everhard was surprised to find that much which he had believed peculiar to himself, many views which he believed he had been the first to set forth, were, in different terms perhaps, but in substance held and taught there, as matters of course. Everhard found himself now for the first time for many years entirely emancipated from the strain of a false position: - he had neither to endure clamorous abuse nor the heated atmosphere of his own reputation; he was there amongst his brethren, dwelling as kings amongst each other, in a majestic simplicity of thought and speech. Everhard had never before been thrown amongst minds of a calibre equal to his own; now he lived in daily intercourse with men greater than himself, and in his own line. He felt his powers mature every day; and in the exercise of them he found rest and peace.
When his friend was on the point of returning to England, Everhard decided to remain behind. "I have no ties of any kind in England," said he, "and I can truly say with the disciples, 'it is good to be here'."
"What are your plans?" asked his friend. "Do you intend to do nothing to distinguish yourself? Whilst one lives, one must strive for something; what you write here will never be known in England unless you have singular luck; here you can make no impression, you are overshadowed by mighty men of renown; what is there in this world worth obtaining but fame? What could lead a man of noble mind through the drudgery of life but the hope that his name will live after him? and if you remain here, what will become of your hopes of teaching the world, and showing it is a more excellent way?"
"But", said Everhard, "I shall learn myself; and that is certainly better than beginning to teach. It is because I am here amongst greater minds than my own, that I desire to remain, and finally, as to fame, perhaps it may be the fault of my indolence, but strife and turmoil are my aversion. I have no taste for struggling, I would earnestly desire to obtain excellence, but whether I am recognised as the possessor of it, I do not and cannot care a straw; and then, my dear friend, it has been my lot to get not fame exactly but applause certainly, and all for things of which I have now grace enough to be utterly ashamed; besides, one cannot feel very anxious about what is such a mere accident. It would make no difference in my feelings for you, if the whole world were to begin and clap hands, nor would it make me think less of you, if it were to begin to hiss like an army of geese; believe me, my friend, your desire for fame is an alloy to your genius - is a drawback on your greatness; be, do - achieve, to any excess of which you are capable, but let the fame take care of itself; if you really are great, what does it signify whether you are called so or not?"
"My dear Everhard, begging your pardon, you talk like a fool; how can one work, strive, attain, as you call it without a motive? Reverence from one's fellows, honour and worship after one has passed away from this world, are the rewards assigned to him who labours to excel his fellows, and why, if I am willing to go through the labour, should I not enjoy the reward of my labour? You talk like a child; you say you are not ambitious and you say the truth, therefore you cannot understand what you are talking about; one throb of generous ambition, one kindling feeling of the god-like frenzy, and you would throw your wisdom to the winds for ever; once braced and nerved for the struggle - gods! the thought is worth a life. Heroes are not made of such stuff as you are. I shall go back to England, and girding on my armour, I will overpass and trample down all competitors; there is no room for soft and amiable feelings, you must tread upon your rivals if you would attain the pre-eminence." His eyes gleamed fire, his teeth were set, his hands were clenched and stretched forth, he looked like one who would neither take nor show quarter, but who would rather attain his aim and die.
"You look like an impersonation of Energy," said Everhard, as he gazed upon him.
"Ay," said the other, his muscles relaxing as he spoke in his ordinary manner, "Energy is the only deity a man ought to worship. But don't let us argue the last night we are together; we shall not agree, and it vexes me that you won't enter into my feelings: unless I struggle, I stagnate, and than that rather a thousand times death!"
"Well," said Everhard, smiling, "we must each work in our own way, and we each supply that which the other wants; - your fine, bold, positive actions will make more sensible impression on the world, than any thing I can expect to achieve; the positive always tells more visibly than the negative; still, both are needed, and I must be content to be that which I am; you cannot put your spirit into me, so we must each find work fitted for us."
Everhard's friend gave a half contemptuous shrug, and the conversation was changed. In a few days he departed for England, and Everhard remained behind.
The small annuity on which he had contrived to live in England, was, in the part of Germany where he took up his abode, more than ample. He was by no means condemned to inactivity, for where the disposition to do good exists, opportunities abound everywhere. He certainly was more occupied in learning than teaching; still he could not but be sensible, that he contrived to be of more actual use in the world, than he could flatter himself with having achieved during any other period of his life. His powers of mind expanded to their natural growth, and in the adequate employment of them he found rest and peace; - for it is the sense of inneffectual effort, the striving to reconcile ourselves with an ill-understood task stretching before us day after day, that wears out the heart-life of man. If we once could discern what was required of us exactly to do, it is not the greatness of the task that would frighten us (for we are capable of immense drudgery of labour); but it is left to us to discover our own work, and set our hands to it as best we can, and this makes the weariness of life. We spend half our strength in beating the air, and we seldom have the satisfaction of feeling that we have wisely and adequately bestowed our labour; that which we ought to have done still remains undone, and we are devoured by unrest and vague remorse. The only happiness worthy to be aspired after by men, is to see clearly what lies before them to do, with the disposition to set themselves diligently about it.
But without impugning Everhard's zeal in well doing, it must be confessed that it was his passion for Zoe which tinged his life with gladness: - it wrapped him round as with a bright cloud, through which none of the sordid evils of life could pierce. No communication ever passed between them; but he had no sense of being distant from her, her image coloured and vivified his whole destiny. The possibility of distrusting her, or of fancying that her regard could change, never occurred to him: he was too much engrossed in passionate love for her, to have any time to think whether her regard for him was of the same fervour. To be permitted to love her, to be able to dedicate himself to her, was all he required. The miniature which he had carried off on the night of the fire, was to him like that Talisman of old, which enabled all who held it, to throw themselves from precipices and to pass on unhurt: - it did far more, it kept him from all the evil that infects life - from that despondency and sense of disappointment which eats even the strongest hearts - and from all vain desires, for to him who has the gift to love intensely, what has the world either to give or withhold?
Everhard went on his way, clothed in the panoply of perfect love; and the tumult of this weary world, did not come nigh him. Singular as it may seem, he was not tormented with any desire to see Zoe, or to be near her. The relationship in which they stood to each other, was perfect and unbroken, and he did not wish for it to change.
Strong passion can create for itself a world amid perfect silence, and be satisfied to dwell therein: - but it must either be perfect possession or total separation. To have had occasional interviews with Zoe, could not have slaked the thirst of passion, and would only have served to make more visible the impassable gulf that lay between them: - they would have gained nothing but baffled hopes, aching desires, and all the tortures of unsatisfied passion.
He had lived calmly for several years - when he was threatened with an evil hitherto entirely unknown to him. His annuity, which was remitted from England, through a German bank, began to be exceedingly irregular, and at length ceased altogether; for the disturbed state of the continent rendered the communication between the two countries very difficult. His habits had always been of the simplest kind - still he had never known what it was to be in want of money; - it was a sort of thing he had never contemplated, for his money always coming in regular sums at stated times, he had grown to consider it a sort of natural production, as little likely to fail him as the air he breathed: and now that he found himself in a foreign country, entirely without resource, surprise and incredulity for a short time prevented him from actually looking his prospects in the face.
However, he did not allow it much to disturb him, thinking that he could easily find means to earn a living; but, as all who have tried can testify, that is no such easy task, when it is a hand-to-hand fight against starvation; and Everhard was reduced to terrible straits.
His friends were all poor; and besides, to live is a task that has to be renewed every day - so that even if he could have brought himself to accept assistance, casual help could only stave off the evil for a little while. He was fortunate enough to get work from booksellers: translations, school-books, copying of manuscripts, and all sorts of wearisome drudgery. He had written one or two works during his residence in Germany, which were much esteemed, and had been highly spoken of; but there was little money to be obtained by them; he struggled bravely on, however, working thankfully for daily bread when he could obtain work, fasting cheerfully, and enduring manfully every species of privation, with a sort of composed and unconscious stoicism; working in his intervals from drudgery, with undiminished ardour, at a philosophical history he had long had in hand, and which he hoped to make a work of solid and enduring worth.
He dwelt for months in a miserable garret, to which his room in the widow's cottage in Wales, was a palace. None of his friends in B---- knew of his necessities: not that he would have been too proud to be assisted, but he never dreamed of talking of his own matters, or wishing for sympathy; and besides, as we said before, all his friends were themselves very far from rich.
At last, one day when matters were at the worst with him, for it was mid-winter and he could obtain no sort of employment from the bookseller, he had no valuables that could be sold and he had begun to think of the possibility of getting work as a day labourer in the fields, when he received a letter, informing him that he was appointed librarian to the College of G----. The handwriting was totally unknown to him, and he would have almost considered the whole as a mistake, had not there been enclosed an order on a banker in the town where he resided, for a sum of money more than sufficient to discharge all his debts, and to furnish him with means to appear with decency at the college. People must have been in want before they can understand the delight of being relieved from it. Everhard was entirely at a loss to know to whom he was indebted for his good fortune; he at last discovered that the bookseller for whom he worked, had accidentally mentioned him to one of the college authorities who happened to come to his shop; - it was one of those small things which have greater results than many actions done with solemn design.
Everhard joyfully repaired to G-----, and found his new situation every way suitable to him. His book, which had been written under all kinds of hardship and privation, got itself perfected and brought to light, under auspices much more fortunate than he ever dreamed of.
Everhard had nothing left to wish for in the way of worldly comfort. Honour, consideration, friends amongst all the earth possessed of worthiest, these were now his; and he had the heart to enjoy all the blessings that were around him, which King Solomon adds as the crowning blessedness that can be bestowed on man. - Here we must leave him to return to Zoe.
Human beings cannot remain stationary; a constant expenditure of strength and effort is required even to retain their position; if once they fall into a state of negation, they recede, and lose the point they have gained. Life is a constant effort, a struggle against dissolution, and it is no wonder that every one, at times, feels "wearied with the greatness of the way", ready to sink down and die, if it so be that rest is not otherwise to be obtained.
Zoe, during the two years that had elapsed since she last saw Everhard, had experienced a peace and tranquillity far beyond positive happiness; she seemed to have obtained some high tableland in a serene atmosphere, and, in it she had hoped to dwell secure and peaceable for evermore; but these breathing spaces which we conquer for ourselves out of the struggle and conflict of our passions, are not intended as "secure habitations and quiet resting-places" for us to dwell in, but only as way-side tents, where we may recover strength, and from which we must ever hold ourselves in readiness to depart, and walk on in our life's journey.
Zoe's own thoughts and sensations had hitherto been the most important objects of her life; now, she had other occupation. Lawyers, executors, and matters of business, connected with the settlement of Gifford's affairs, threw her forcibly into a new channel, and by their tangible importance and peremptory claims on her attention, made every thing like sentiment and emotion seem very dreamy and unreal. It is quite impossible to entertain more than one current of feeling at a time.
She did not interfere much with the actual legislation of affairs, but it was necessary for her to be present, to understand, and to sanction, the different steps that were decided on for the advantageous arrangement of the property till her eldest son should be of age.
It was late on in the winter, before every thing was settled. As Zoe wished to remain near London, there was some talk of letting Gifford Castle, but to this she strenuously objected, and, accordingly, a couple of old servants were placed in it to keep the place in what order they best could.
Zoe could not conquer her reluctance to see the place again, but she sent down for all the furniture that was connected with old associations, and took a handsome house at Richmond, in order that the children might have the benefit of pure air, for she determined not to send them to school, but to superintend their education herself with the assistance of masters.
Her first step was to get rid of the tutor, and she contrived to procure him the situation of librarian to an old Catholic gentleman, for which he was much better calculated than to instruct children. Her establishment was handsome and substantial, but by no means conspicuous; her love of stylish display had long since been worn out.
Many of the people she had formerly known, were either dead or dispersed, and there were not many with whom she felt anxious to renew her old intercourse. She now felt ashamed of the things in which she used to delight: her staunch old friend the Duchess of N---- , still lived, however, and had a house not far from Richmond. She no sooner heard that Zoe was settled in her new abode, than she paid her a visit. Much delighted the good old lady was, to find her protégée so much improved, and she failed not to attribute it to her own sententious lectures on the feminine proprieties, which had borne fruit in the seclusion of her residence at Gifford Castle; and as every body feels an affection for those who conform to their model, there was nothing too grand or too good for the old lady to do, to render Zoe's residence at Richmond agreeable. Her son was on a visit to her, and had brought a party of friends with him, the élite of these were drafted off, and carried to be introduced to Zoe by the complacent old lady, so that though she did not mix in general society, she saw pretty nearly all who were best worth seeing and knowing.
From Clotilde, she heard frequently, as she went on in her mild, placid, and most heavenly-minded course, unruffled by the smallest tinge of earthly alloy; her brief dream of passion seemed to have broken up all her deeper affections only to make her cling more intensely to the spiritual manifestation of hope in religion; her letters were worthy of St Theresa, or any of the virgin martyrs of old.
All this time, Zoe heard nothing of Everhard, except that he had gone over to Germany before her return to England. All trace of him seemed to have vanished; his brother Louis, and Marian, never mentioned his name, as they considered it a most painful and humbling dispensation of Providence to be connected with him at all.
Zoe endeavoured to persuade herself that all Everhard did must be right; she knew she could trust him implicitly, and she felt confident that nothing could ever supersede her in his regard. She had loved him, knowing they could never be more to each other than they were, for even though her ties might be broken, his must remain in force for life. He had broken his connexion with the Church of Rome, but his vows of celibacy had been vowed to God and nothing could loose him from them, therefore there was no vague unsatisifed yearning in Zoe's bosom to become more to him than she already was; but she did feel oppressed and disappointed at the total silence he maintained; it was as if the grave had closed over him; - she felt that he might write - that he might counsel - that he might be her supporter through life; - he had touched all her womanly feelings, and it is in the nature of a woman to lean on him she loves. So long as Gifford lived, Everhard's silence had a majestic self-control and meaning, which now that she was free, it no longer retained. The past remained enshrined in her soul as a sacred mystery of which she might not speak without desecration - it was the secret source of her serenity and strength, but it was a thing apart from her actual life - it was confined to the "transparent prison of the past", and touched the present at no one point.
Everhard, poor fellow, supporting as we have seen his own struggling existence in Germany, could not communicate with her, and, besides, he found the thought of her a sufficient stay for his own soul, and he did not dream it could be different with her. He did not know women; he did not know that without any strong tie to the world except through their affections, the most exalted female nature requires some visible manifestation to cling to; - they are by the very constitution of their being, passive, receptive; in proportion as a true feminine disposition is developed, the positive, the active, becomes uncongenial to their nature; and in exact proportion as a woman becomes active, self-sufficing, subjective instead of objective, she is a grander character, of a stronger and more heroic mould, but she approaches the nature of a man, and loses her feminine empire over the hearts of men. With all her elevation of nature, Zoe was a thorough woman, and as the period from which she had last seen Everhard lengthened, the warmth and passionate energy of her sentiment for him, calmed down. At first it had surrounded every object with a halo of glorious beauty, but gradually that had subsided "into the light of common day". Her love for Everhard was as much a part of herself as her own soul, nothing could undermine it; but it had become a calm, grave reality, and no longer a passionate emotion; - her strong passions were slumbering and smouldering beneath a calm and serene exterior, and she felt as if nothing could ever rouse them more. A cold, majestic composure reigned within and without.
Her two children were all she could desire, and went on as well as human children could, both in body and mind; but the maternal instinct is only one passion amongst the many with which a woman is endowed.
Zoe might have had a great deal of society, but no one came across her path who interested her; when women have once known what it is to love, society for mere social purposes is very insipid except when there is the one to give a zest and signficance to its fêtes and réunions.
Well, and what of all this? As yet, candid reader, there is no predicating any thing, with any degree of certainty; - we have only wished by this unvarnished statement, to enable you to judge with fairness of events as they occur. Constancy, persistence of every kind, is the crowning virtue of man; but we suspect the physiology of constancy would present many curious anomalies, if sincerely recorded. Every thing in books is so varnished over with phrases, and cut out according to square compact maxims, that the human nature in books is as much like the human nature out of doors, as the yew-trees which ancient gardeners used to clip out in the shape of wigs and peacocks, resemble the trees in the woods and forests; or, as the dried and classified plants in a hortus siccus, look like those in a state of nature. Both cases may be improvements in the eyes of some people, but we are only speaking of the resemblance, and the amount of botany required to recognise them. Above all, we entreat the reader not to get out of patience, and abuse Zoe, till he knows what she is going to do: she may prove a miracle of constancy, for any thing he yet knows to the contrary. We would only suggest, in all humility, that more things go to make constancy that any one is aware of - till they try. A strong, vivid sensation, a vehement temptation, has, when it comes, a vitality and reality that make the most firmly believed and most emphatic maxims, seem very vague and ineffectual. Every body has an involuntary respect for whatever causes him to feel strongly, whether it be right or wrong (more's the pity). Whatever dignity the past may have, the present always overbears it in matters of feeling.
"The present new and near,
All this is a terrible digression, enough to weary the forbearance of the most gentle reader; but one comfort in writing a book, to be set against its many pains, is the privilege the author has, of saying his say without interruption; - the reader having also his remedy, of reading or not as it pleases him.
To get on, however, to what we began this chapter with the intention of telling the reader.
When Zoe had been a widow somewhere about eighteen months, she one morning received a letter from her old friend, Lady Clara Mandeville, saying that she had come back to England, and would be very happy to pay her a visit, if she would have her. Zoe and Lady Clara had not met for several years, their correspondence had died away, and their friendship had fallen into a sort of abeyance, but there had been neither breach nor coldness. People lose sight of each other, and renew their acquaintance in the merest accident. Friendships revive like torpid flies in the sunshine: it is hard to know when they are really dead. Persons whom we have once known with any sort of intimacy, are sure to reappear at intervals all through life.
Zoe was excessively pleased at the prospect of seeing her old friend again; independent of the cordial regard she entertained for her, Lady Clara was exactly the sort of person she wanted just then. A quick and cordial answer to her letter was immediately dispatched, begging her to hasten her visit as much as possible, and assuring her of the continued interest and affection felt for her by Zoe. While Lady Clara is making her journey, and Zoe is preparing to receive her, we will tell the reader something about her, for, as well as we recollect, he has not yet enjoyed the advantage of a personal introduction.
Lady Clara Augusta Mandeville, then, was a widow of some three or four-and-thirty, an age fatal to all mere prettiness, but an age at which all women of sterling beauty are in the full-blown radiance of their charms; their mind, too, if it possess any solidity, is then in full maturity; there is a glow of summer richness, which yet does not touch on autumn.
Lady Clara was the daughter of the Earl of Cheshunt, who had greatly embarrassed his affairs with gambling. Luckily there were no younger sons, or what must have become of them, with all the heavy luggage of family pride and family dignity they would have had to carry through the world with them! There was, however, only one son to inherit all that was left, by horses, cocks, dogs, cards, and two contested elections, in which the family candidate had been unseated on petition. The son having seen the evils of wanting money, and felt the annoyance of it, determined to be economical, and accordingly declined to increase the fortune of his only sister, beyond the three thousand pounds that came to her by his mother's marriage settlement. He also made other spasmodic attempts to overcome the spendthrift tendencies he had inherited from his father; but we believe there is no recorded instance of his having succeeded in economising at his own expense. Lady Clara resided with him for a short time after her father's death; but, not finding it a very comfortable home, she married, at the age of nineteen, Sir John Mandeville, Bart, a very rich and very infirm old man, who had married once before for love, and now wanted a wife to nurse him. Many respectable middle-aged females, who fancied their peculiar vocation lay in being "sisters of charity", were rather jealous at finding themselves superseded, and eased their feelings by declaring, "it went against their consciences, to see a young creature, like Lady Clara, sacrifice herself for money".
Of course it was a great consolation to their charitable bosoms, to find that Lady Clara contrived to make herself apparently very comfortable under her "sacrifice"; she had been accustomed to all sorts of disagreeables at home, and did not find her new situation by any means intolerable. She was endowed with the art of making every thing appear to the best advantage. Whatever befell her, good or bad, was sure to be placed in the most picturesque and imposing aspect; indeed, listening to her conversation was like reading a well-written novel; she was for the rest, thoroughly good-natured, very witty, and her manners were captivating to a degree that nothing human could resist their seduction; the only fault that balanced so many fascinations, was that she was not very placable when once offended. She had a great objection to having it thought she married for money, and always spoke of her husband as "her dear, darling Sir John". At eight-and-twenty, she was left a widow with an ample jointure. Adorers came upon her in regiments; but Lady Clara had no vocation for a second edition of matrimonial life; she determined to enjoy herself. Accordingly she took a large house in London, was presented at court "on her widowhood", as somebody maliciously said; gave splendid entertainments, assembled the best company, and was at the head of every thing that was brilliant and dashing. Her conduct during her husband's lifetime had been so unassailably correct, that no one now dared to gainsay any thing she chose to do; her reputation defied the most ingenious malice. Zoe and she had been very intimate, but Lady Clara went on the continent, just before Zoe returned to Devonshire, and so it had come to pass they gradually lost sight of each other.
"I wonder whether I shall like her as well as I used to do," thought Zoe, as on the morning appointed for Lady Clara's arrival she was arranging the flowers in her dressing-room. "One grows out of one's friends so sadly."
At this moment the sound of wheels was heard, and Zoe ran down to receive her friend, with some curiosity to see how the first glance would strike her.
A gay-looking carriage stopped at the door as she reached it, and a lovely creature, radiant with smiles and bird of paradise plumes, sprang out, before the two solemn footmen could let down the steps for descent.
"Oh, my dear Zoe! how glad I am to see you once more, and I hope you are glad to see me; how well you are looking! I was afraid I should find you in those odious weeds. It is so insincere to wear them, for no woman would make herself look unbecoming if she could help it. And what a beautiful place you have got! I am so glad to find myself here, that I shall commit all sorts of extravagances."
Zoe was almost overpowered with the torrent of words that poured forth without intermission; but, as soon as an opportunity was afforded, she assured Lady Clara of her own share in the gladness.
"How sedate you are grown!" exclaimed the lively lady.
Zoe laughed outright. "Every thing goes by comparison," said she; "but now let me take you to your room, perhaps you will like to rest a little before dinner."
"Oh, no, my dear lady, I hate the very word rest; poor dear Sir John was always talking about rest when he had his bilious fits, and most uneasy seasons those were to every body. But is this to be my room? What a pleasant one, and what a charming view from the window! Now sit down and let me look at you again; - well, I think I shall love you quite as much as I used to do, and, when the novelty of being together again is a little gone off, I shall be able to tell you all my secrets, and I have some very choice perplexities on hand, I can assure you, and I want to hear a great deal about you, too."
The two ladies had so many general matters to impart to each other, that they were kept well employed the rest of the day, without touching on any of the "choice perplexities" at which Lady Clara had hinted; and when they separated for the night they felt mutually pleased with each other.
"Well now, Clara," said Zoe, the next morning, as they were sitting together after breakfast, "you have given me a great deal of general history about yourself; but my taste is for private memoirs; I would not give a straw to hear all that the rest of the world may know; do tell me what it is you really have been doing to amuse yourself since we parted?"
"My dear lady," replied Clara, "your complaint about my telling you nothing, is very consistent; pray, what have you told me? Or am I to believe that you have done nothing more piquante than teaching your children their lessons?"
Zoe blushed and felt annoyed; she had never yet breathed a word of the subject that lay nearest her heart to a creature, and the light jesting tone in which Lady Clara spoke, jarred on her feelings: she did not immediately reply.
"How pretty and demure we both look," cried Lady Clara again "If I did not know how innocent I am, I should say that some devilry was coming. Come, my dear, there is nobody to edify by that proper-behaved look, and the only chance of two women not quarrelling when they are shut up together, is the excitement of their mutual confidences; without these, even if they did not quarrel, they would find each other very insipid."
"Well then," said Zoe, "insipid I fear I must be, for at this moment I am very badly off indeed; there is not a soul who comes in my way that I care a single straw about, and I really begin to find such calm work very stupid."
"I shall soon find out how far that is the case," said Lady Clara; "however, I am not sorry you have nothing on hand of your own, for now you will have patience to help me: there really is something I want to ask your opinion about."
"Well, what is it? You know you may depend on every thing I can say or do for you, so now begin."
"Why, after all, I have very little to tell you, and I am not sure you will feel any interest in the matter," said Lady Clara, playing with her snuff-box; "it really is nothing when you come to hear it."
"Well, but what is it?" said Zoe. "Do get on; you surely need not mind telling me any thing; it can go no further, for there is nobody to whom I can mention it, even if I felt disposed."
"Well then, I have fallen in love," said Lady Clara, "that is the summary of what I have to tell you."
"And am I to believe it is the first time you ever did such a thing? Who is it with, and what sort of a man is he? And what are the choice perplexities which surround the case? You said yesterday you would tell me; do go on without needing to have so many questions asked."
"Well then," said Clara, "you promise me it shall go no further?"
"To be sure," said Zoe, "now begin, begin."
"I am not at all clear that the man cares for me," said Clara, "and that is what provokes me. I don't even know where he is at this moment; I fancy he is in England, but I am not sure.
"Last May, I was at Spa; there were not many English families in the place, but after I had been there with my party about a week, an English clergyman arrived with his sick wife, and two of the loveliest children you ever saw - they were twins, and might be about eight years old. The father was not more than thirty, the most graceful and interesting creature you can conceive, but he looked constrained and ennuyé to death; at first, I thought he was in low spirits on account of his wife, but I soon found that his wife was a dreadful gêne to him; she was a cross, fretful, rigid woman, a great deal older than himself. How such a man could ever marry her, is a mystery to me; ill-humour is the only sin those evangelicals can commit with a safe conscience; they have always 'a sense of duty' to support them when they are inclined to be disagreeable, and this woman had the impertinence to treat her husband with the most solemn disapprobation, mixed up with the most provoking appearance of conjugal obedience and submission; she received all his little amiable and gallant attentions with a sort of suppressed contempt, and really he was kind and attentive to her beyond expression; nothing could provoke him out of his good temper - it was quite beautiful to see him. As to the children, they were by a former marriage, and the present wife tormented them with collects and catechisms, and lectures on 'original sin'; she was constantly telling them about their sinfulness, and the natural evil of their hearts, till the poor things made a crime of every thing. Only fancy, one Sunday, as they were going from their mother's room, where they had been reading and saying their catechism all day, I met them on the stairs and persuaded them to come into the balcony of my room, where they might hear the band play, and see the people walking about. I showed them some pictures, and tried to amuse the poor things; at first they seemed in great glee, but suddenly one of them, who had been engaged with a book of plates, exclaimed, 'Oh, Susan, what will mamma say to us, these are not Sunday-books, and that is not Sunday music the people are playing.' The other little one looked frightened, but the nurse at the moment came to fetch them, so I was spared all further danger of getting the poor things into trouble. This, however, proved the means of my becoming acquainted with their too charming papa; he called the next morning to explain in the most gentle terms, his lady's peculiarly strict views about Sunday amusements, and to beg that I would not feel annoyed at the request he brought, that I would not invite them again on that day. I cannot help thinking that this was a pretext to make acquaintance with me on his own account, for I had caught him looking at me in a very earnest way several times. I can give you no idea how charming he made himself, nor of his graceful conversation; he certainly is, without exception, the cleverest man I ever met. He spoke very highly of his wife, and told me a great many of the good qualities she possessed, for his amiability and goodness of heart are beyond all praise; in short, Zoe, you may fancy I am partial, but I do believe he is perfect! The very tone of his voice is fascinating, and his eyes positively give light when they look at you. Somehow, we saw a great deal of each other. I don't know how it happened, there was no plan in it; every thing fell out as naturally as possible: he soon grew to consider me as a sister, and he often declared that if he might only have ten minutes' conversation with me during a day, it made him a different man. We used to talk about every thing: he told me all his concerns, and all his prospects in the Church (he will be a bishop some day I have no doubt), and I used to give him all sorts of good advice. All this time he never spoke a word that the whole world might not have heard, except of course, he would not have liked all his private concerns known, but I mean for any wrong there was; his wife might have listened and she could not have found fault. We were, I may say, the most sincere friends; and his friendship was far better worth having than any other men's love. Now, my dear, don't think I fell in love with him whilst he was a married man, because I am sure I did not think of such a thing, and I would have done all in my power to make him happy with his horrid wife. He always spoke very highly of her good sense and all that; he had married her entirely for her good qualities, and because he thought she would bring up his children wisely; but he was not prepared, as he said, for the unbending rigour of her manners. I can give you no idea what a stiff, tiresome person she was; she was always 'under arms', and never 'stood at ease'; what between her prudery and her religion, her thoughts seemed frightened out of their senses, and did not know how to find words proper enough to express themselves. She could never endure me, nor be decently civil to me. All this time I thought there was nothing the matter with her but disagreeableness; yet it seems she was worse than I gave her credit for being, and one day she caught cold or something, inflammation came on, and she died, after a two days' illness. Well, would you believe it, when she was dead, her husband (who I told you was full of feeling) seemed to have his conscience hurt, because he had not loved her enough; he was much affected by her death, and took her body to England to bury. I had been obliged to go away for a week on the day she died; when I returned he was gone, and nothing left for me, but a short and hasty note of adieu. I don't think up to this time I was in love with him, but now that his wife was dead there was no obstacle, and when he was gone I felt very lost, and I found I really cared about him more than I ever thought I should care for any one: when these things begin, they always go on crescendo. I had nothing to do but to think of him, and now that he was gone, the place seemed quite different. I might have written him a letter of condolence but I wanted confidence, and I did not like to come to England for fear he should think I was following him. I went travelling about and heard nothing of him; and now I am come to England and I am none the nearer to him. What am I to do? I never thought I should be such a fool as to be caught by a man who never committed himself. Do you think from what I have told you he cares any thing about me? What is your opinion?"
"Why, my dear," said Zoe, "you see a married man and a clergyman, was not likely to go and make an éclat; he might not love his wife, and she might be a disagreeable woman as you say; but a man's wife is his wife, and when there are children, men do not feel inclined to throw themselves out of the current for a mere sentimental fancy; and however much men may abuse their wives, they find a great deal of solid comfort beside them in general, and their situation is not so intolerable as to induce them to throw up their prospects in life on a sudden impulse. People are less led away by impulse than is usually supposed, and however men may profess to be victims of uncontrollable impulse, for the sake of producing effect, they are quite able to stop themselves during the whole progress of a love affair, if they feel so disposed; and in general they are very wary to keep clear of any circumstances that may entangle them. None but a fool as unstable as the sand will break up his entrenchments in life on an impulse. Your friend seems to have been very much on his guard all along. That he enjoyed your society, and found you very charming, there can be no doubt; but the very fact of his talking so much about his wife, and being so devoted to his children, proves that he had no notion of being foolish, or of allowing himself to be made uneasy by getting to care for you too much.
"Now that he is free, if he has any desire to renew his acquaintance with you, he can easily do it: you are not an obscure Mrs Smith or Mrs Brown, and the newspapers will tell him that you have returned from the continent. There is nothing to hold him back now, and if when you see him again you do not captivate him, and make him your slave for life - should you continue to wish it - why then, my dear, you will deserve to sigh in vain! No man ever escaped yet whom you wished to bring to your feet. I think your proposals are as good as you can possibly desire. Let us see, his wife died last May, this is August, so he may with decency pay you as much attention as he likes: you managed very well not to come to England till now."
"Ah, my dear Zoe!" said Lady Clara, sighing, "it is easy for you to talk so coolly, but I am very anxious; the mere fact that I have hitherto succeeded so well with men, is against me now; there is always compensation in these things, and just because I have flirted so much, and made men in love with me when I did not care for them, I shall fail now that I am in earnest."
"Nonsense, Clara, you only want me to contradict you. What is his name? I wish he were not a clergyman. I don't like the profession."
"He is a dean," replied Clara; "I am sure I don't see any thing objectionable in the Church, it is far before any other profession: besides he is a clergyman, and I cannot fancy him any thing else: one loves people, because they are themselves."
"Very true," said Zoe: "now what is his name, for the third time of asking. I am very curious to know what your future name is to be."
"Horace O'Brian," replied Lady Clara, "he is nephew to the Earl of Tyrone."
"Horace O'Brian!" screamed Zoe. "Oh, Clara, you must have nothing to do with him. He is as contemptible a rascal as a man in a civilised community can become, with a due fear of justice before his eyes; of course, understand me, he has done nothing éclatant, all his villainy has been selon les règles, and very gracefully transacted indeed; but when I think of his heartless conduct to poor dear little Clotilde, I cannot speak of him with any patience. It is his fault she is now in a convent, and it is no thanks to him she is not now in her grave. He wrecked all her worldly happiness, in order that he might have pastime for his ennui; I tell you what, Clara, more sins and cruelty are committed for the sake of beguiling ennui, to fill up that weary slough of despond with amusement, than from all the strong passions and vehement temptations put together. I have some charity for a man who sins heartily, and because the temptation is too strong for him, no matter what he does; but I have no words to speak my contempt for a man who is ready to do any thing for the sake of the excitement: and that is the way both men and women sin the present day, they lay themselves out for sensations and have no idea of any thing beyond. It would be quite a relief to meet with a man who could commit good hearty crimes from the very strength of his organisation; but let them be the impetuous overflowing of undisciplined strength, instead of the morbid production of egoism and idleness."
"When you have quite finished your dissertation on grand wickedness, perhaps you will tell me in what way the Reverend Horace O'Brian has incurred your disapprobation?" said Lady Clara, haughtily.
"Perhaps you will think I speak more severely than he deserves," replied Zoe, "but I saw the misery he inflicted with my own eyes, and that makes me warm. He made love to poor little Clotilde, when she was staying with Marian, at the Manor House; and never rested till he had completely won her little innocent heart, all the while carefully keeping within the bounds, and never committing himself in words, and then, because circumstances occurred to make it suit his purpose, he went straight and married an evangelical old maid, who had powerful connexions in the Church; that was the lady you knew as his wife. I have heard she possessed many sterling qualities, and was a deal too good for him; no doubt she soon learned to rate her graceful good-for-nothing husband at his true value, for she was no fool. Clotilde's dangerous illness, and subsequent retirement to a convent, to say nothing of the severe mental suffering she endured, were the price of the Reverend Horace O'Brian's three months' amusement."
"So," said Lady Clara, with a heightened colour, "all this virtuous indignation resolves itself into a handsome young man's flirting with an inexperienced girl, who did not know the serious meaning to be attached to sweet speeches; and because he did not choose to sacrifice his prospects for life, he is to be abused in this manner! Really, Zoe, you, of all people have no right to talk; if flirtation were a capital crime, you would have been hanged long since. What possesses you to talk with such a rabid severity? If I recollect right, the very last letter I ever received from you, was full of projects for beguiling some unsuspecting Catholic priest into your snares, and you were a married woman at that time too! and here you give your tongue free licence to abuse poor O'Brian, though by your own account he never made any proposal to Clotilde. Girls ought to be taught, that whatever fine things men may say, they mean nothing till they actually make an offer, and then there would be many broken hearts kept whole. For my part, I think Miss Clotilde did quite the best thing, when she entered the convent; she was not at all fitted for such a man as O'Brian, she never could have understood his character, nor all that he required in a woman to make him happy. He is a very peculiar character, and has been misunderstood by almost every body; his wife was an odious woman, and he behaved beautifully to her - you don't know O'Brian as I do, and you cannot do justice to the noble and poetical temperament of his mind. You cruelly misjudge him; he is utterly incapable of any thing selfish or dishonourable!"
"My dear Clara," said Zoe gently; "I am very sorry to have annoyed you; I spoke warmly because I felt warmly. The affair with Clotilde is passed and gone; she is well and happy in her convent, so, if he behaves well to you, and makes you happy, I can afford to forgive him; but he is a slippery character, so take care of yourself, and consider your own feelings more than his, don't look at him in a grand heroic light, but treat him like a man whom you want to subdue into a submissive lover and a rational husband, treat him like a man, and don't bring any romantic generosity into play, and then you may do very well; but he is not the sort of character to stand too good treatment, it will all recoil on yourself, and you will repent of it if you get to care for him too much. I need not say that any thing I can do to serve you, may be depended upon; if we can but get hold of him, I have no fear but we shall make him do every thing we want. I will invite him here, and there are some splendid walks in the garden, and delightful shady seats and grottoes, where a man could not help making love if he were to try; for men don't like to lose good opportunities for making declarations, and they trust to fortune to get out of them afterwards, if they should happen to change their minds; besides, you never failed with a man yet, and you are not going to begin the first time you set your heart on success. Come, forgive my warmth of speech, and if he does not behave ill to you, I will not only forgive him, but take him into especial favour."
"Well," said Lady Clara, smiling, "I suppose I must forgive you, for the sake of your many virtues; but talk no more treason against him, if you wish to live in peace with me; it makes me feel as if I were doing wrong to listen to you. Is not Horace a very pretty name? There is something so graceful and high bred about it."
"Yes; but 'O'Brian' is not half so pretty as 'Mandeville'," said Zoe, maliciously. "But come, the children will have finished their lessons by this time; what do you say to a walk in the garden? I want to show you my shady bowers. I have taken to gardening lately by way of 'un plaisir innocent'; but I cannot say it is much to my taste. I don't like the stooping down."
"It is a charming place you have here," said Lady Clara, when they reached the garden. "It is a real shame such beautiful walks should be wasted on yourself alone, and no lover to have the benefit of them! What is the reason that people one does not care for abound, whilst those one can love are so scarce? Why should there be such a preponderance of stupid people in the world?"
"And yet," said Zoe, laughing; "every one of those stupid men is a Horace O'Brian to some equally stupid woman. One of my little boys was looking out of the window the other day, and suddenly exclaimed, 'Somebody loved that pig! come and see, mamma!' I looked, and saw a great, fat, dirty, white pig with a pink ribbon tied round its neck, driven along by a butcher's boy; as Frederick said, somebody had loved it."
"Ay," said Clara, "but the vexation is, that it is not always the right person."
"Well," replied Zoe, "love is never thrown away. 'The right person' is always very well pleased to see that we are recherché, and that a small discerning public is alive to the merits and charms which he is so fortunate in being about to invest in himself. Horace O'Brian will not set less store by you because you have already been sighed for in vain by so many other men. It gives a pleasant and complacent sense of difficulties overcome; - besides, it is always well to let them see you have a corps de reserve of lovers."
They were passing through the lodge gate, as Frederick, the eldest of the boys, ran past with a printed paper, which his brother tried to get from him, "to cut the letters out to print a book with", as he said. The dispute was getting high, when they both appealed to their mamma. "Let me see what it is you are quarrelling about," said she, taking the paper from them. "There, go away and play," said she, hastily, after looking at it; "and I will give you both a newspaper apiece, to cut up when we go in. I must keep this." Then quickening her pace to overtake Lady Clara, who had walked on, "You are a lucky person!" she exclaimed, joyfully; "read that - 'August, 3rd - Sermons will be preached - Richmond, by the Very Reverend the Dean of St ---- , on behalf', and so forth! What do you say to that? You see the right people do come sometimes. Perhaps he may know you are here, and have schemed this; and yet that is hardly likely. You only came here yesterday, and these things are always arranged long beforehand. To-morrow will be the 3rd, so of course he must arrive in Richmond to-night, as it would not be orthodox to travel on Sunday. I wish we knew where he would put up; however, there is nothing to hinder us taking a drive tonight to reconnoitre.
"Do any of your servants know him?"
"Oh, yes," replied Clara, "Vaughan, my maid, was a great admirer of him, so no doubt I shall hear through her if any thing is to be heard."
"Well, then," said Zoe, "my Abigail is going out this afternoon to visit some friend of hers, and your Vaughan shall go with her. If we can once contrive to let him know that you are here, it will be for him to act afterwards."
"But", remonstrated Lady Clara, "I feel to want confidence; suppose he should get to know that I am scheming to see him?"
"'Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all'," laughed Zoe, "it is very natural you should want confidence for yourself, but it is also natural that I should not want confidence for you, or else where is the use of having friends?"
"You are really good," said Lady Clara. "I only wish I could find somebody for you to take an interest in, and then you could keep me in countenance, and I should not seem so abominably engrossed with my own affairs."
"That you need not hope to do," replied Zoe, with a half sigh, "I am very well as I am; but now we had better go in; it will never do for you to fatigue yourself, you must be in brilliant looks this evening, and you had better begin to dress before dinner, as recollect, Vaughan is to go out, and your dress is a matter of importance just now. What do you intend to wear?"
"I am sure I wish you would come with me and decide on a robe de triomphe; I have more faith in your taste than my own," said Clara.
The two friends were deep in discussion on the relative merits of a maize-coloured satin, and a delicate peach pink brocaded silk, when the hall door-bell rang sonorously, causing Lady Clara to start. "What is the matter?" asked Zoe.
"I don't know," stammered Clara, looking at the door, which opened, and a servant came in with a card which he handed to Lady Clara.
"'The Very Reverend Horace O'Brian!' Your heart was prophetic, my dear Clara, but don't tremble so violently, sit down a moment and drink this sal volatile; - do not keep the poor man in suspense any longer - if you would like me to see him, send me a message, and I will come."
"But don't I look very ugly in this gown?" said Lady Clara, going up to the mirror, "I don't like myself at all."
"Oh, no, you cannot possibly be better," said Zoe, "your heightened colour becomes you, and if you had dressed on purpose, you could have worn nothing prettier for a morning; but now go down or he will be getting vexed."
"What am I to do with the Very Reverend Horace O'Brian?" soliloquised Zoe, after Clara had left the room, "the man, with all his composed impudence, will feel awkward at coming into my presence, knowing all that he knows; and yet I want to make acquaintance with him for Clara's sake; I only hope he will behave better to her than he did to poor Clotilde; but things must just take their own course, she is a clever woman, and will be his match."
"Do come down," said Lady Clara, returning into the room, and looking rather agitated, "he has expressed a wish to be presented to you, and I thought I would fetch you myself."
"Well, and how have you gone on?" asked Zoe.
"I hardly know," said Clara, "I suppose as well as I could reasonably expect, but people never meet again on the same terms they parted. I have got on further in my sentiment for him, whilst he has been busy with other matters; but come down, and you will be able to judge for yourself."
The Very Reverend Horace O'Brian had grown handsomer than ever, since he last appeared before the reader; he had grown not portly but august looking, and a shade of dignity had been added to his still bland and insinuating manner. "I do not wonder at Clotilde nor at Clara either," thought Zoe, as she seated herself where she could view him at her ease, whilst she was herself shadowed by a curtain.
He entered into a light conversation on the beauty of the place; said that he had come to look for a furnished house, as he wished his children to have the benefit of good air, whilst he was obliged to remain in London. He asked Zoe about her family, and hearing she was educating them herself, entered on a graceful eulogy on home education. He spoke so nicely, and said such really good things, that Zoe got interested in spite of herself, and not only cordially offered her services to look out for an eligible place for the children, but volunteered to visit them, and see that they were well attended to in his absence; any thing connected with children found its way directly to Zoe's heart.
"I am very much indebted to those dear children," said Horace, with a smile, "they have made a way for me to the hearts of many valued friends, poor darlings, it is a blessing I hope they will retain, for they are getting of an age when the loss of a mother is a heavy disadvantage to girls; your boys are more fortunate, if one parent must be taken away, the father can be spared far better than the mother; girls require an understanding watchfulness, which a father, however he may desire it, cannot give; my children are my great worldly anxiety," added he, looking at Lady Clara.
The conversation then changed to London news, and he supplied the ladies with abundance of gossip - offered them tickets for a grand musical festival, that was to be held the ensuing week in Westminster Abbey, and promised to escort them himself if they would go. Lady Clara looked on the ground for her bracelet, which she dropped on purpose, in order that she might not seem too much pleased with the proposal; whilst Zoe, with becoming composure and courtesy, assented to the arrangement. Soon afterwards he rose to take leave. Zoe invited him to dine with them the next day; for independent of wishing to please Clara, she had not met so agreeable a man for some time.
"That I cannot," said he. "I am engaged to dinner at my friend Lord Seaborne's, but if you will let me come in the evening, I will try to get away in good time, and if I am prevented doing that, I will call before I leave on Monday. An invitation from you is too great a privilege to let it lightly escape; I wish to hope that I am laying the foundation of an acquaintance that will not soon pass away."
"Well, what do you think of him?" asked Clara, as soon as the hall-door closed upon him.
"Why, I must confess, I don't much wonder at your being éprise, but, for Heaven's sake, mind what you are about; with all his soft, bland, susceptible manner, he will be wary how he commits himself. I can understand him now better than I did, and make allowances for him; he is quite sincere whilst he is with you, means all he says, and is quite in earnest in all the interest he seems to take; in fact, it is the vivid way in which he feels every thing that makes him so dangerously agreeable. But, my dear, those who are with him, have him, and if you want to hold him, you must not let him go from under your immediate influence; - he is too indolent, and too fond of pleasurable emotions, to fight against the stream he is in. He has the quality (which will not tell in your favour) of finding something pleasant, or at least very tolerable, in every person and every circumstance that comes in his way."
"Zoe, you are a perfect witch for understanding men!" cried Lady Clara, laughing, "but now tell me, do you think he cares for me?"
"Yes; I call his coming this morning a very good sign, but it will require good management on your part, to make it end as you wish; there is no depending on him when he is out of your way; and, besides, I can see he hates trouble. We shall not see him again this time; he will cool down about us when he gets out of our meridian into that of Lord Seaborne. However, we shall be sure to see him next Wednesday at the festival, for he will be only too proud to appear in public with two women such as we are. We must go and hear him preach to-morrow."
"I never heard him," said Clara, "and I am very curious to know whether he is as eloquent in the pulpit as out of it; I have heard he is a very fine orator."
"I don't fancy that it will be oratory that will take much hold on me," said Zoe, "there will be more words than thoughts. I never yet heard any thing that came up to my idea of eloquence in public speaking."
Zoe was quite right in her calculations. Horace O'Brian did not come again; instead, there came an elegant billet with tickets for reserved seats for the ensuing festival, and a promise to be in waiting for them at the private entrance.
Clara was piqued, but said nothing. On the day appointed, Zoe dressed to go with the most profound indifference to the whole affair, the only point of interest being to watch the progress of her friend Clara's flirtation.
"I do wish", said Clara, "there were likely to be any one there, in whom you could take an interest; these things are so insipid when they stand on their own charms, unless it be to some half a score critics and amateurs, and you are neither one nor the other. I wish you had a Horace O'Brian of your own, but you have been so good-natured to me, that I feel sure you will have something by way of compensation. You know that is my favourite doctrine."
"The only compensation I want, is to see Horace O'Brian behave himself conformably to what a true lover ought to be," replied Zoe, "but make haste, for we have no time to lose; your very reverend admirer will not stand in the cold to wait for us."
They arrived in due time. Horace was there to receive them, they were soon seated, and every thing went to Lady Clara's entire satisfaction.
The oratorio began; it was a ponderous, scientific, cold-blooded affair, which has long since been drowned in the Lethe which posterity provides for the greater number of the "works destined for immortality" confided to her by unappreciated genius. Posterity is a very Mrs Brownrigg in her way of treating the foundlings committed to her tender mercies.
Zoe gazed round on the crowd of well-dressed people, sighing in weariness to think that amongst the multitude of amiable looking faces, there was not one who cared a straw about her, or to whom she was of the least importance; to be sure she could not have pointed out one person in whom she took the smallest interest herself, or who excited her benevolent sensibilities in the least; but every body likes occasionally to take refuge in a gentle shade of misanthropy, and to feel ill-used when there is nothing to amuse them. So Zoe sat in a dignified abstraction to all that was going on, comforting herself with the thought, that if Everhard had been there she would not have been so completely an object of indifference.
There was a slight disturbance near her, caused by a person making his way to one of the reserved seats a little on her left; she turned her head to see what was the matter, and she neither thought of the new singer who just then began his first recitative, nor did she relapse into her abstraction the whole evening; her attention was occupied with the new comer, who certainly was a sufficiently remarkable man. He was very large, and intensely ugly, much marked with the small pox, he had a look of rouéism, that was by no means charming to the eye of respectability, but it was mingled with a genial bonhomie and kind-heartedness that attracted the beholder to him with an irresistible instinct. A radiant intelligence that glanced from his large brown eyes, gleamed like lightning over his face, giving it an appearance far beyond beauty. A forest of shaggy brown hair, not confined in a queue as was the fashion of the day, fell like a lion's mane about his head and neck. His limbs were cast in the mould of a giant, and looked strong in proportion; but he seemed withal somewhat worn and broken with struggle and excess. Altogether he was as different from the surrounding multitude, as if he had belonged to a different race of men, or had come from another planet. Zoe soon found that the stranger on his part seemed to have his attention quite as much attracted by her; she felt that he took no notice of any thing or any body else, and that he was watching her slightest movements. Women have a wonderful instinct for knowing when they are admired.
"Who was that remarkable looking man?" said she to Horace O'Brian, as they were passing to their carriage.
"What remarkable looking man?" asked Horace. "I saw no one near us of any importance, except Lord M----."
"No, no, it was that striking looking man who came with Lord M----'s party."
"Ah, a very singular character indeed; it was the Comte de Mirabeau, a French adventurer of very doubtful character, but who has nevertheless contrived to obtain currency in very good circles here. They say he is clever, but there are strange tales about him; and I confess I wonder at so correct a man as his lordship, being intimate with him."
Zoe raised her eyes, and saw the stranger standing close beside her; he must have heard all that Horace had said. Zoe coloured with confusion and vexation. The stranger did not seem in the least disconcerted. He stood with immovable gravity till the carriage drove off, and then rejoined Lord M----'s party, handed her ladyship into her carriage, got in after her, and was driven away, doubtless to the still further astonishment of the Very Reverend Horace O'Brian, who would have been very glad to be intimate with his lordship, for he was an influential member of the administration of that day.
"My dear Zoe, what a stupid evening you must have had; you looked quite absent and ennuyée all the evening. What did you think of the oratorio?"
"It is so long since I was in public before, that I found the light and heat almost intolerable; one must get used to the hard labour of fashionable life, before one can find the pleasure of it. I confess, just now, I would (barring the disgrace) quite as soon be committed for six months to Bridewell, as be condemned to go through a 'London season'!"
"So you are going to turn a fair recluse, à la bonne heure," said Clara, laughing. "We shall see. Who was that ugly man who never took his eyes from us?"
"Did Horace say when he should be coming again?" said Zoe, without noticing the question.
"He brings the children on Friday, when he will remain with them till the beginning of the week."
"Good night," said Zoe, yawning, and taking up her candle.
Was Zoe quite as much tired as she appeared? We really cannot settle the question to our satisfaction; we appeal to the reader, telling him, at the same time, that she sat in a deep reverie for full half an hour after she had dismissed her maid, at the end of which she extinguished her lamp, saying, "Doubtful or not doubtful, I wish any body would bring him here and introduce him. I have heard so much of Mirabeau."
The morning after the oratorio the old Duchess of N---- was sitting in her pleasant summer-house, reading a volume of Massillon's sermons; she had a most imperious notion of her own dignity and always dressed up to it. Her stiff black silk dress and point lace ruffles and apron, her hair powdered and combed back from her high forehead, the searching half sarcastic expression of her face which still bore traces of its former beauty, her erect carriage, and the gracious dignity of her whole bearing, formed a charming picture of a thoroughbred English lady of the old school. In truth, the duchess was a very remarkable old lady in many ways, and for nothing more, than that whilst she was a great stickler for all the conventional etiquettes of society, she had a singular charity for all eccentricities that had any thing genuine to extenuate them, and her intolerance of even innocent affectations was extreme. She was a strong-minded woman, though somewhat warped and prejudiced. We have mentioned her to the reader several times as Zoe's great friend and upholder in society against all gainsayers. She had been a widow many years, and constantly wore a large miniature of her husband, who had been killed at the siege of Quebec. She was sitting on this particular morning, reading according to her custom before she was visible to any callers, or even to visitors staying in the house. Her missal with silver clasps lay beside an ivory crucifix on a table before her. A small ebony writing-case clamped with silver was within reach, and a pretty gentle-looking girl sat engaged in needlework at a table in a corner of the room.
"Sophia, child!" cried the old duchess, in a clear quick voice, "can you not see that the sun is shining through that window and nearly blinding me? must I get up myself to put the blind down? I like to see young people attentive; they should never wait to be told what to do, but always keep their eyes open."
Sophia rose quietly to do what was required - "A gentleman is coming this way," said she.
"Who can it be?" said her grace; "I never admit gentlemen here, and Stratham knows I never receive any visitors in this place. How can he have been so inattentive; do you see who it is?"
"It is the Comte de Mirabeau, I think," said Sophia, blushing.
"Well," said the old lady, looking keenly at her, "and what have you to do with blushing about the Count Mirabeau? He has done more mischief to women than he is ever likely to repair; you are never to believe a word you hear Count Mirabeau say, do you hear? You have nothing in you to attract him in the way of conversation, so if he talks to you it is for no good; now remember you have been warned."
"Yes, madam," replied the girl, submissively.
Further admonition was cut short by the entrance of the count. The old duchess looked at him with a surprised and stately air, enough to have abashed the self-possession of any mortal man; but the Count Mirabeau was something more than mortal. He approached the duchess without appearing to notice her stateliness, and kneeling on one knee, he kissed the hem of her lace apron. "Pardon, most gracious lady," said he, in a deep, mellow voice: "pardon for two culprits, but whose faults are both united in me; Stratham did all that usher could, to keep me from your presence; he protested against my coming here so long as I was in hearing, indeed, he refused to tell me where I should find you; so, in fact, he is innocent, and I being doubly guilty, you must stretch out your ebony sceptre and show me grace. I must be forgiven before I can speak my errand. Your grace must be aware that nothing but a strong motive would have enabled me to run the risk of your displeasure."
The earnest look and tone of the count, made the duchess believe something urgent was the matter; and, besides, incomprehensible as it may seem, he was a great favourite with her, a puzzle only to be explained by the strange influence he obtained over every one he came near; - none but those at a distance from his fascination, could be severe in their judgment on him.
"Well," said she, lightly touching him with her wand; "and what brings you here in this madcap way, against all my rules? What are you come for? People don't sin prepense for nothing."
"I want your most serene graciousness to order your carriage, and take me out with you this very morning to pay a visit."
"You do! and where may it please your modesty to wish me to take you?"
"I saw Mrs Gifford at the oratorio last night; she is the most wonderful-looking woman I ever beheld - she has penetrated my soul - I cannot live without being presented to her. I know some other friends of hers, but it will be more to my credit to go under your grace's auspices. I want her to think well of me. Your grace has been so indulgent to my follies, that you surely will not refuse the first wise thing I have desired for many months," continued he, pleadingly.
"You know, Count Mirabeau," said the duchess, gravely, "that you are not a fit person to be introduced into a quiet orderly family. You are not a fit companion for a young woman. I have a great regard for Mrs Gifford - too much to take you to see her. I will have nothing at all to do with it, and I shall warn her against having any thing to do with you."
"Mrs Gifford is not a woman like other women; she is strong and wise. If such a woman had fallen to my lot, I should not have become the reckless outcast I am; it is a desire to unite myself with what is good and excellent, that now impels me; does your grace see nothing in me worth redeeming? Oh, if your grace will but take me, it will at once introduce me to a pure world, where I may become worthy of a place. If I intended aught wrong, it is not to your grace I should have applied for a passport. I hope", continued he, proudly, "your grace does not think so meanly of me, as to believe I would disgrace your recommendation."
Much more was said on both sides; but the submissive earnestness of the count, and the consciousness that as she could not actually prevent the acquaintance, it would, in many respects, be better to come through her, and also the impossibility she shared, along with every body else who came in contact with him, of refusing any thing he chose to set himself to obtain, vanquished the old lady's resistance; and, though blaming herself for her facility, she ordered her carriage, and proceeded with Count Mirabeau to visit Zoe.
The ladies were in the garden when the carriage drove to the door, and the old lady and her companion followed them there.
Before they appeared in sight Zoe felt a conviction who was coming; the blood rushed from her heart; she felt choked, and when the duchess and her companion appeared she almost sank to the ground.
"Well, my dear child! how do you after your first appearance in the world after so long an absence? You look but pale this morning; I have brought a young man whose head you completely turned with your bright glances: - will you allow me to present him to you, in the hope that he may recover his senses on a nearer view. Count Honoré Gabriel de Mirabeau - Mrs Gifford."
Zoe made the requisite curtsey, and the count made a profound bow, as all well-bred gentlemen ought to do; but he could not utter a single phrase; he only went very red, and dropped first his cane and then his snuff-box, the contents of which flew over Lady Clara, who just then unfortunately came up. This occurrence, however, seemed to break the spell that lay on the count, and the witty, graceful manner in which he extricated himself from his gaucherie, only rendered his awkwardness the more inexplicable.
"His father", said the duchess to Zoe, as they walked a little in advance of the other two, "was a great friend of my father's, and though the son is a sad dog, and has committed more sins than he will ever be absolved for, and he will want more masses when he dies than I fear his poor soul will ever get said for it; yet I cannot help liking him. He is on a large scale, both morally and physically, and we little people cannot always judge wisely of such men; any way he is a man of genius, and they have always the seeds of redemption in them; now, though I have brought him (he gave me no peace till I came), yet don't you, my dear, go and be very intimate with him; remember you are a young woman, and he is in England under a cloud as it were; you must not let him have the entrée; but I know you are prudent, still it is as well to put you on your guard against him, for he has the tongue of the old serpent himself. I don't feel as if I had done a wise thing; to be sure he would have found other means of coming if I had refused to bring him; but, remember now, you have been warned."
Zoe smiled; this "remember now, you have been warned", was her grace's way of throwing up all responsibility; after she had once uttered her warning, she knew not what self-reproach meant.
The duchess now gave the signal to depart; the count apparently took no notice whatever of Zoe, beyond a formal and hurried bow; Zoe and Lady Clara accompanied them to the gate. Zoe politely expressed a hope to see the count again; he raised his eyes quickly to her face for an instant, and a flush suffused his whole countenance. He did not speak, however, and the carriage drove off.
A fortnight elapsed, and Zoe neither saw nor heard any more of him; she was angry at herself for the hold he had taken on her imagination; she was troubled at the blind stirring of passion she felt in the depths of her heart - she was ashamed and abased at the consciousness that she was giving herself to another, she who had vowed to live in cold and stern fidelity to the memory of Everhard. She had not forgotten him, she had not become indifferent to him, she loved and revered him still, as an angel from Heaven: never, for a moment, did she place the image of Mirabeau in the pure shrine she had dedicated to him; her love to Everhard was a thing apart; she loved him now, as men worship beings of a superior nature, she felt that she could go to him in all her troubles; if the world were cold or harsh she would have gone to him for refuge and comfort, but the hot passionate feelings which he had given back to her own keeping were without occupation, lying latent in her heart; passionate emotions which till then had never been thoroughly awakened, never satisfied, were roused at the approach of this strange new object. His ungovernable impetuosity had a charm for her, after the calm self-government of Everhard. Mirabeau had taken possession of her imagination, and all the strong passion of her nature. He overbore her love for Everhard in the same way that an earthly affection obscures the sense of religion in the soul; not obliterating it, for it still lives there, but burying it under the burning lava of excited earthly emotion. She blamed herself, and strove by every means to repress the thoughts that more and more absorbed her; she once thought of writing to Everhard, to tell him to assert his possession of her heart, and not leave her longer to the cold abstraction of her own strength and constancy, to beg him to save her from herself; - but she involuntarily shrank from this; she dreaded lest she should be taken at her word, and the new idol broken and taken from her. Everhard was too pure and self-controlled to sympathise with her passionate weakness; besides (and it was an intense relief when she recollected it), she did not actually know where he was, nor could she with the most honest endeavour have ascertained. The question was thus set at rest for her, and she tried to shut her eyes on her growing indifference to Everhard. In fact, a strong genuine emotion asserts its supremacy over all the reflections, and resolutions, and theories, with which we may endeavour to blank it out. One emotion may always be conquered by another; so it is not very wonderful that poor Zoe, in spite of all her struggles, found herself sinking every day deeper and deeper in dreamy reveries about - Mirabeau! Then began the restless, aching sense of absence. The hours became intolerable to her, Lady Clara's dissertations on Horace O'Brian altogether insufferable, she could not bear to be alone, and if in company, she was abrupt, restless, absent; the sameness of her life was insupportable, and yet nothing she could devise improved it. The duchess had gone to Hastings, so she could hear no intelligence from her: if she drove out, she was restless till she returned; when in the house, she fancied going abroad might bring some good; she always involuntarily assumed the attitude of watching or listening.
If Lady Clara had not been the most easy tempered of women, she must infallibly have quarrelled with Zoe, and left her house; but fortunately she was a good deal engrossed with her own affairs; she dragged Zoe to visit the children, who had been established in a farm-house about two miles off, and persuaded her to invite them to spend a long day; the Rev. Horace O'Brian happening to come over from town that very day to see them, brought them himself; so that, on the whole, Lady Clara did not pay much attention to her friend's distractions.
About a fortnight after the duchess had brought Mirabeau to call (it was the longest and most weary period Zoe had ever known), on descending to breakfast one morning, she found cards of invitation for a grand dinner-party which the duchess intended to give in honour of her son's birthday, with a note, telling Zoe that she had returned the day before from Hastings, and intended to go to see Garrick in "King Lear" to-morrow, if Zoe and Clara would accompany her. This restored all Zoe's animation; she resolved to drive over after breakfast with Lady Clara, and take their reply themselves.
The old lady was sitting in her summer-house, and received them most graciously. She had much to tell them about what she had seen and done during her absence, and was remarkably full of news and good-humour; but Zoe listened in vain for the name she wished to hear, it was not mentioned; at length, in very desperation, she took courage and said, "Have you heard or seen any thing of Count Mirabeau since the day he emptied his snuff-box over poor Clara?"
The old lady looked keenly at her, and replied, "Count Mirabeau is gone away, no one knows where; he disappeared the day after his visit to you, so probably you had the last of him - for, before he comes back, he will no doubt have got into some scrape that will banish him out of good society."
Zoe's consciousness would not allow her to say more, but all her desire for the dinner-party and theatre had vanished. She shortly afterwards took her leave, and had hardly patience to listen to the parting arrangements for the next evening.
Arrived at home, she flung herself on the sofa, and hiding her face in the crimson pillow, endeavoured to crush out the consciousness of what was passing within or without, holding herself stretched and still, in the stiff rigid tension of endurance. Lady Clara went to her own room to write letters.
At length Zoe heard the door open without any announcement from the domestic, and a step noiselessly approached the couch; but it was a step that sent all the blood like boiling lead through her veins. She started up - Count Mirabeau stood before her!
The life she had lived in her own heart, since she last saw him, completely obliterated the recollection that they were almost actual strangers to each other. She was confused and oppressed with the consciousness that the secret of her heart was laid bare to him, and that he could not but see it. She could not utter a word of common greeting. He looked gloomy and moody; there was a determined and almost savage expression in his countenance.
"You are ill; something has happened," said Zoe, forcing herself to speak.
"Yes, madam, I am ill - ill at ease. I have this day done a cruel action; how would you have me feel after it? Women can gloss over every thing with the varnish of sentiment or duty; and of course, madam, you, with your smiles and roses, never knew what remorse meant; but I tell you, that remorse is the only hell a noble-minded man can dread. Women feel nothing, but the hell of consequences; understand nothing, beyond the blame of the world, and the loss of reputation."
"Nay," said Zoe, gently, "some women can fear the reality of doing wrong, more than the blame attached to it; and for remorse, there are none who have not a chamber of bitter regret, into which they dread to look."
"Then you know what it is to feel that you do not justify your actions to yourself; there is a point of sympathy between us. And yet I should be grieved for you to have your heart wrung as mine is."
"What is it?" said Zoe. "Can I - may I - "
"Yes," rejoined he, "I will tell you - I came to tell you.
"I have this morning sent away a young creature to encounter all the evil there is in the world, for women who have placed themselves under the world's ban. She had loved me, sacrificed every thing to follow me into this country; women have no perception of virtue or excellence in one who has committed all her sins from love; so you may think I have only performed an act of morality in casting her away from me - but I know I have behaved damnably. Any way," continued he, after a pause, "we must always approach our deities with sacrifice; and the more innocent, the more excellent is the victim. I have done this for you, Zoe; because, since I looked on you, there has existed no other woman in the world for me: I wished to put away every thing that could stand between us. I did not dare to approach you till all that could offend you had been put away. Zoe, I am come to give myself up to you. I only ask you to let me come to you. I have known no rest since I saw you last, and now that I have committed this cruelty to be free to love you, do not cast me away from you; say you accept my sacrifice - no, not sacrifice, for I would freely give everything, life itself, to be beloved by you. Say that I may come and worship you, and find peace. Do not send me away to be alone."
Zoe trembled violently, but she did not speak.
"I know", continued he, still more passionately, "the world does not speak well of me - I am no credit to you, my fortunes are broken, and I am an outcast both from my country and my father's house; - but I ask nothing from you till you freely give it. I only ask you to let me remain near you - let me live in your presence. Oh, Zoe! if you had crossed my path earlier, I should not have been the battered, sullied wretch I am. Heaven has rained all its curses on me; but it has sent me to you to be purified and calmed. Speak one word, Zoe, and say that you accept the office, that you will be all to me, that you will be my angel."
Zoe breathed thick and heavily - but she did not utter a word.
"Zoe! is all I have done of no avail? Why will you not speak? What do you see in me to trifle with?"
She made an effort, but no sound came from her lips.
"I thought you were superior to womanish weakness," said he, contemptuously; "but perhaps you do not consider me worth deciding about; in that case, I can relieve you from your embarassment." He rose as if to leave the room.
"I may not - I dare not," burst from Zoe's lips in suffocating accents.
"How dare not?"
"I belong to another," said she, in a sharp, quick tone, as if the utterance gave her physical pain.
"Do not deceive yourself, Zoe," said Mirabeau, in a calm, cold voice; "your heart does not belong wholly to him at this moment; - do not sacrifice my happiness and your own to the fashion of a word which no longer has a meaning for you. What is the good of calling yourself constant, when you know you are so no longer? - do you fancy you can hide yourself from me? Zoe, you will never find one who can love you as I do. I only ask you to allow me to be near you - to let me pour out my whole soul before you. I only ask not to be forbidden to give myself to you. Is that requiring so much from you?"
If he would only have interpreted her emotion, she would have been thankful; but that did not suit him.
"Nay," said he, "I cannot be satisfied without a reply from you; tell me only that you accept me, I ask nothing from you in return. I do not wish to distress you; - I will depart now, if you desire it; - but if I go, I do not return. Now speak, - shall I go?" He fixed his eyes steadily upon her - there was a pause.
"No," said she, at last, in a tone so choked, that it was scarcely audible.
He folded his strong arms round her, pressing her to his bosom, on which she lay like a child, and he whispered, "Zoe, you must let me love you always."
A footstep was heard approaching the door; Mirabeau placed Zoe on the sofa, and sprang back some paces, so as to be leaning against the chimney-piece, when Lady Clara entered.
Zoe was too much agitated to attempt a word; but Mirabeau began a conversation full of brilliant nonsense with Lady Clara, which so engaged her attention, that she never noticed Zoe. Shortly afterwards, she went towards a table at the window to fetch her netting. Whilst her back was towards them, Mirabeau darted forwards, stooped down and kissed Zoe's feet, which were on a footstool; then, without moving a muscle of his countenance, said in a quiet voice, "It is time for me to go. Farewell, madam," and bowing profoundly to Zoe, he approached Lady Clara, of whom he took a laughing leave, in order, as he said, "to escape being entangled in her net", and quitted the room.
A profound calm always follows gratified passion, of what nature soever the passion may be, which is in exact proportion to the previous tumult. Desire sleeps, and we wonder at our own eagerness; of course it awakens again and again, the refluent wave flows foward bearing down every thing in its progress, until the tide is at its height, and then - !
The first fullness of satisfaction is, however, widely different from the exhausted calm of that "sad satiety", which comes when we know the whole length and breadth of that which we have been struggling to obtain; when there is no more mystery remaining in it, and it yields no hope or sensation that we do not recognise afar off.
When Zoe came to reflect on the occurrences of the morning, she was terrified at what she had done. She could not reconcile the solecism of loving two men at once; and though her feelings had been as spontaneous as Nature itself, she was self-reproached with unfaithfulness and wrong. The more her heart refused to feel unhappy (for there was a secret joy that welled up from its depths), the more strenuously she felt that she ought to be ashamed of herself. Perhaps after all there might have been a little genuine shame in the matter, when she saw the calm radiant edifice of her high platonic constancy disappearing before the presence of a much more earthly emotion; undoubtedly she did not feel self-complacent on the subject; but there is no wrestling against facts, and it was an undoubted fact that she did love Mirabeau, though with a sort of dread she had never experienced before.
This is all we can say to pacify the reader's indignation at Zoe's dereliction from her allegiance to Everhard. "FOR EVER", can only be a mortal's word, so long as the PRESENT, that gave it birth, retains its influence.
The next day, Zoe did not feel at all inclined to join the party to the theatre; she was not well for one thing, and she had a strong disinclination to leave the house. She made an excuse, and much to the annoyance of the old duchess, who could never bear any one to break an engagement, remained at home.
She was sitting plunged in a confused reverie, of which it would have puzzled her to give an account, when she was roused by the sound of wheels; a hurried parley was held at the door, and Mirabeau, with his dress somewhat disordered, and his eyes flashing, entered the room.
"I am come, madam," said he, in his deep voice, "to know why you did not keep your word and accompany your friends to the theatre. Do you know that I went there to meet you; why were you so childish as to stay away? Perhaps you wished to avoid me, but you see that is impossible when I choose to see you. Do you think I am a man like your other lovers, to tremble at your caprices or to bend to them? I am your master; - do not set up a petty opposition to my desires, it offends me; give yourself up to me; - who is there to come between us? Does any one care for you as I do? Are you not more precious in my eyes than all the world contains besides? Why then do you keep up this childish pretence of independence? Do not I love you more than you can possibly love yourself?"
This appeal was uttered with a passionate rapidity, that prevented all possibility of reply. Zoe was stunned and astonished - she had never been addressed in her life before by any man, except with most perfect deference.
"Why, I ask," said he, after a slight pause, "did you not go to the theatre to-night?"
"I was not well, and I did not feel disposed," said Zoe, with some haughtiness.
"Not disposed! - I believe it," replied he, contemptuously. "You repented the word you said yesterday, and, like a woman, wished to draw back. - Zoe! Why do you rebel against me, and try to put these ridiculous formalities between us? - Will all the struggles in the world unsay what you have already said? - Will they break the bond that binds you to me? - It is in vain you attempt to withdraw yourself - your being is swallowed up in mine, and this womanish vacillation makes me angry; it is unworthy of you. It will not alter the fact, that you are unfaithful to that other, that you have given yourself to me, and that I will keep you mine for ever. This weak opposition irritates me, displeases me. It lessens the respect I have for you - and you cannot set yourself free."
Zoe sighed. - "I am come", continued he, "to fetch you to the theatre. Your dress, no doubt, was got ready, before you made up your mind to stay away. Go, and put it on - or, come as you are. I can stay but ten minutes, and why should you deprive me even of ten minutes, you cannot recall them; - come as you are," said he, changing to a look and tone of tenderness singularly different from the harshness with which he had at first addressed her.
"There is no one there you wish to dress for - tell me, is there?" said he, impatiently, observing that Zoe hesitated.
"You know there is not," said she, in a low voice.
"That is well - come along. - Bah! the night is stormy, you will catch cold, your poor tender frame will suffer, you must have a mantle." He rang the bell impetuously. "Your mistress's cloak; - quick."
The wondering Abigail brought her mistress's head-dress and fan also; for, with the instinct of a waiting-woman, she divined that they were needful.
"Bah! what need of these details?" said he, impatiently. "You women fritter yourselves away, body and soul - you could think of a set of ribbons in the day of judgment; there is nothing large or grand in your natures." He wrapped the cloak round her as he said this, with the most scrupulous care, and, almost carrying her to the carriage, bade the postilion drive for his life.
Exclamations of wonder, and a whole storm of questions, greeted the entrance of Zoe and Mirabeau into the duchess's box. Zoe was horribly afraid of the old duchess; but Mirabeau interposed, to divert attention from her.
"Your ladyship has lost your wager," said he, smiling, to Lady Clara; "you said your friend would not come, that nothing would bring her. I love to conquer difficulties better than to listen to a five act tragedy. You excited my spirit of enterprise. I went in your name, and conquered! - Will you not, after this, entrust me with some mission for yourself? I will do any thing; tell me any thing you desire," said he, with emphasis, "and I will bring it to pass, especially if it be impossible. - Let me be your providence. Ah! then you will ask nothing, you leave yourself in my hands, like a true believer. Well, then, I will make the heart of an insincere man earnest!" He darted a meaning glance at her, and she cast down her eyes beneath it.
"Well," said the old duchess to Zoe, "I don't understand all this, it is very extraordinary; how did you come? - or why did you come at all, if not with us? Really it is too eccentric."
"My dear duchess," said Mirabeau, reverentially, "Mrs Gifford is a victim to circumstances. Visit me with your displeasure. Mrs Gifford always tells the truth, and fancies it impossible for any one else to do otherwise; and, when I made use of your name, she came with me as unsuspectingly as a lamb with its butcher. Your personal influence must indeed be terrible, when the mere utterance of your name in a request was sufficient to bring a fair lady in dishabille to the theatre on a night like this. I must appeal, not only for your forgiveness, but also intreat your intercession with Mrs Gifford for hers. But indeed, your grace owes me some thanks for the proof I have elicited of your influence over Mrs Gifford. The influence of some women is not a world's wonder, but a world's miracle, an enchantment producing effects without visible means."
He spoke in such a respectful truthful tone, there was such fascination in his manner, that the duchess was not proof against it. She tapped him with her fan, shook her head, and said, "I think you are an acquaintance who will do Mrs Gifford no good, and the less she has to say to you the better. Only consider how seriously you might have compromised the dear unsuspecting creature, had I not fortunately been here to receive her, after your wild-goose errand."
"And does your grace really believe me so mad as to have run the risk, had I not been perfectly certain that joining you would effectually check all surprise or surmise at our entrance together? Believe me, I well knew the value of your grace's presence, or I should not have ventured on such an escapade. I had heard of your influence, and I wished to try it. Mrs Gifford is one worth influencing."
"Indeed she is a charming creature," said the duchess, quite mollified; "but don't do any thing imprudent to get her talked about, or I shall never forgive myself for introducing you to her. I don't believe half the ill that is said of you, or rather I believe in all the good that is in you; but you are not a proper companion for a young and lovely woman."
"But then there is your grace to counteract my ill effects," said Mirabeau, in a mocking tone.
He only once approached Zoe, and that was as they left the theatre. He whispered in her ear, "Foolish and faithless one! will you not now trust me to carry you scatheless of blame through the conventionality of life? Trust yourself to me."
When he handed the duchess to her carriage, he said "I must make haste or I shall be late; I am engaged to supper with Mr Wilberforce. I like to study the respectable virtues first in my friends, and then, if they seem worth any thing, I can set them up for myself."
"Well, now Mrs Gifford," said the old duchess, when they were seated, as she drew up the glasses, "how came you to trust yourself with that wild man? What did he say to induce you to come with him?"
"Really, your grace, I hardly know; he ordered the post-boys to drive furiously, and I was at the theatre before I had ceased to wonder why I left home."
"Take care," said the duchess, "he does not persuade you into worse mischief some of these days, for he has the tongue of the old serpent himself."
"How did you and Horace get on, to-night?" asked Zoe, when they were once more seated in the drawing-room.
"What on earth!" exclaimed Clara, who had not spoken a word since they left the theatre; "what on earth possessed you to come in that wild way? Why could you not come quietly with us? Horace was wondering about you all the evening. I never saw such a person as you are - never easy but when all the men are taken up with you." There was a slight pique in Lady Clara's manner that appeared through the tone of badinage she attempted to assume, and it did not escape Zoe's notice.
"Clara," said she, kindly, "you do me great injustice if you think I want to attract Horace, even if he were to my taste (which he is not); after what you told me, I should consider myself the most heartless and dishonest of human beings, were I to wish to attract him. I will do any thing in my power to serve you, though you cannot need my assistance, for Horace certainly cares more for you than any one else; but do not, even in thought, accuse me of trifling with your feelings, for the pitiful gratification of my own vanity."
"It is all very fine," said Clara, "you think yourself above all female weakness, but if it were not to attract Horace, what other motive could bring you? Did you not stay away, as you told me yourself, in order that he might not be obliged to pay attention to any one else? did you not insist on staying at home, in spite of all our persuasions? and then to come after all! - If you really cared for him, I would say nothing; we should be on equal terms, and might each do our best; but it is because I know you despise him, and care nothing about him, that I am so indignant at your trifling. But you seem to think me altogether a fool!"
Lady Clara had worked herself up into a passion, and here burst into a fit of hysterical weeping. Zoe was altogether bewildered by this sudden tempest, and fancied that Lady Clara must have gone deranged. She had been so engrossed by her own feelings of late, that she had never noticed the fact that Horace had really seemed more occupied with her, than Lady Clara was at all likely to approve; and, in utter absence of mind, indeed, with her heart, as the reader knows, distracted by hopes and wishes infinitely removed from the Reverend Horace, she had smiled on him and talked to him without any sort of calculation as to the appearance it might bear; and Lady Clara had not unnaturally interpreted her abstraction and frequent abruptness of manner, and all the inequalities of temper she exhibited, to her struggles to repress a growing partiality for the said Reverend Horace O'Brian. Nothing of this, however, dawned on Zoe's comprehension; but she saw that her friend was suffering, and she was much distressed at the turn her fancy had taken. She did not speak to her, but placing a large goblet of water beside her, retired out of sight till her agitation should subside, which at length it did. Then, taking her hand and sitting down on an ottoman at her feet, she said in the kindest tone she could assume,
"My dear Clara, what frenzy possesses you? Horace O'Brian does not care for me, does not even admire me. Do you not see that he fears I shall prejudice you against him, on account of his affair with Clotilde, and that he is endeavouring to propitiate me? He is attached to you, but he cannot make up his mind to propose; he is too full of the mitre he is hoping for, and that is your rival, not me. You will have some trouble to bring him to the point, but love, or even admiration of me, will not be one of the hindrances. Horace O'Brian's great aim and object is now to be made a bishop, and to obtain that, he would marry his grandmother if it were needed. All sorts of people come here, and he may fancy I have some influence, for when men are intriguing for place or power, they make a lever of the veriest straw. Somebody told me that the old Bishop of Lichfield was dangerously ill; - if you can serve him, he will make court to you, and you may have as much of his love as ever you want. It is not sufficient that you are charming, and that you love him, you must be able to help him on in the world. Think over all your friends and acquaintances, and let him feel you have some influence. Why, Clara! love seems to have obscured, instead of brightening your faculties."
"Zoe, you are very good to be so patient with me, and I am very childish; but I am very unhapppy," and she put her arms round Zoe's neck and hid her face in her bosom.
Zoe soothed and caressed her, and at last restored her to something like cheerfulness.
"You really are the best comforter I ever knew," said Lady Clara, smiling, as she took up her candle.
"I wish I had any body to comfort me," said Zoe to herself, when she was alone. "I am losing my nature, I think; God knows what is to become of me!"
When Zoe came to reflect calmly on the occurrences of the theatre night, she was piqued at the tameness with which she had allowed herself to be domineered over by a man whom she had as yet hardly accepted for a lover; she determined that the next time he came, she would assert her own dignity, and act up to her old maxim, that "no man can stand being treated too well".
She had ample time to nurse her anger, and mature her plans, for Mirabeau did not make his appearance either the next day, as she confidently expected, nor the next after that; - nor did he send her note or message, or in any way testify of his existence. From being angry, Zoe became anxious. She fancied that he must be ill, or that he had met with some untoward event, for she knew his reckless and impetuous character. She conjured up visions of all sorts of evils, to which it ought to have been her privilege to minister; finally, humbled, as her proud mind had never been humbled before, she began to speculate on what offence she might have given him. She tasked her memory with every look and word during the last evening they were together; the result was - deep perplexity. That her present lover was not a man to be trifled with, she clearly saw; and bitterly resolved that when he returned to her, she would run no risk of again ruffling the plumes of her "tasselled gentle".
At length, quite wearied out of all remains of her dignity, she determined to discover his abode, and send an embassy to him. Accordingly one fine morning, she proposed to Lady Clara that they should go to town for a "day's shopping". Lady Clara joyfully assented, and they set out to celebrate that truly feminine mystery.
After they had turned over silks and seen ribbons and feathers enough to have apparelled half the houris in Mahomet's Paradise, she and Clara each selected a magnificent dress, in honour of the duchess's dinner, and bought a quantity of those elegant nothings, which women contrive to manufacture into irresistible attractions. It is an odd fact, that whenever a woman sets up a lover, she should set up a great deal of finery at the same time; but whenever a woman falls in love, she shows it by dressing and adorning herself after the most elaborate fashion. To do them justice, women do not love dress for its own sake so much as is supposed; there are few who would dress for dinner if they were thrown on a desert island, with no lover in company. Zoe was not at all insensible to the charms of becoming attire, and in the care of assorting the shades of trimmings, and the inspection of a box of exquisite French lace that had just been smuggled over, her late anxiety was, we are ashamed to say, suspended for the moment; be it remembered, all this care was to look well in the eyes of another. There is some pleasure in wearing pretty things, when one we love is to behold them.
At length, when all was bought and ordered, and the footman paused for his direction, and the real object of her journey to town was to be transacted, Zoe feared that Clara, that the footman, that the very coach-horses, would divine her secret; she coloured, hesitated, and at length summoned courage to order them to drive to a bookseller whom she named; then, turning with a sort of apology to Lady Clara, she said, "We may as well get that French novel, or some new books at any rate, for they have sent us nothing worth reading lately." Her heart beat violently, and she talked on rapidly, till the carriage arrived at the door of the shop. Clara would not alight, and Zoe entered alone.
She asked for several things, and bought half-a-dozen books she did not want to read, before she could summon confidence to ask for a pamphlet by Count Mirabeau, which just at that time was making a sensation.
She knew it was Mirabeau's publisher who was speaking to her so blandly - she asked a question about him.
"Count Mirabeau? - Ah! a wonderful genius, pity he should be so eccentric and irregular; a man of great powers - very - much cleverer when you come to talk to him, than you would fancy from his writings: he was here, only a few minutes ago; it is a pity you missed him, as you might have liked to see him."
Zoe thought it a great pity too. "Does Count Mirabeau often come here?" continued she.
"Oh yes, several times a week. He generally calls about this time, but to-day he was earlier."
"Can you give me his address?" said Zoe, with a desperate effort at indifference.
"Certainly," replied he, "or, if you like to leave a note, I will forward it immediately."
This, however, Zoe refused, and taking the precious scrap on which the address was written, she left the place.
Anything so beautiful or graceful had never before entered those dingy precincts, and when Mirabeau returned later in the day, he did not fail to hear of the lovely apparition who had been inquiring for him. He had no difficulty in divining who it was: he had now reduced her to the state he wished, and the next morning, whilst Lady Clara in her dressing-room was solacing herself with the new books, and Zoe in her little morning-room was sitting writing, and destroying the paper as fast as she wrote, Mirabeau stood beside her! He entered, according to his custom, unannounced; - Zoe's pique, offended womanhood, fears, anxiety were all forgotten in the deep throb of joy that seeing him caused. "My own Zoe!" was all that was said, for many minutes. No word of explanation was given or asked - he was there, she required no more. He persuaded her to walk out into the grounds, where there would be less fear of interruption; there, in those walks, which had so won the admiration of Lady Clara - in those shaded seats, which she had declared wasted without a lover - sat Mirabeau and Zoe in a happy trance. He had placed himself on the ground, sometimes covering her hands with kisses, sometimes gazing into those glorious eyes, which were cast down on him, dimmed with ineffable love. The sun-light glanced in upon them through the boughs which though autumn had already begun to thin, still a pleasant chequered shade came through the green leaves. A few expressions of passionate tenderness, broke forth at intervals, but the time of words had not yet come.
They were together, and required nothing beyond. There was no "before or after" for them yet; the present moment absorbed all their being.
"Oh, Zoe!" said Mirabeau at last, "is not this worth an eternity?"
"It is," replied Zoe, in a tone not louder than a sigh. "I am so happy, that it begins to be like pain."
How the hours flew, neither of them could have told; when at length Mirabeau quitted her, Zoe remained dreaming and entranced on the same spot, not thinking, not remembering, but wrapped round in happiness; it seemed as if it were needful for Mirabeau to go away, before she could become conscious of the extent of it.
She went all that day in her blessedness; and then began the thought, "when will he return?" and she began to think of the next meeting, and to live in the hope of it; - for it is true of all things, but of happiness more emphatically, that it "holds in perfection but a little moment".
Before Zoe left her room the next morning, a note was handed to her, with information that her grace's own page waited for an answer.
"My dear Mrs Gifford," (so ran the note)
Zoe wrote an answer in the affirmative, though she did not feel much tempted at the prospect it opened. Lady Clara insisted upon finishing the last volume of her novel before she stirred, and Zoe, seeing her so much engrossed, mentally resolved that she should never lack a good supply, so long as she remained her guest.
They found the old duchess in a most gracious mood, and as much occupied in arranging the details of her fête, as if she were still asserting her claim to be at the head of the fashionable world.
It was finally settled that as a fine day was highly doubtful, it should be a natural dinner in the dining-room, and that whatever rurality might seem advisable, should be improvised when the time actually came. "I shall not live to give many more fêtes," said the old lady, "and I have quite set up my heart upon every body enjoying this one very much indeed. Now, children, is there any one either of you would like to have invited? If there is, sit down and write a card."
"Has your grace any objection to ask the Reverend Horace O'Brian, the Dean of ----?" said Zoe. "You have seen him, he was of the party to the theatre the other night."
"Write by all means," said the old lady, "that is if he be not already invited; look over the list of guests, here it is. Whilst you have the pen in your hand, you may write a card to Count Mirabeau; he has reappeared since the invitations were issued; and add a note in my name, to beg he will make a point of coming, as some of the parties he will meet here, may be serviceable to him. His father, the crabbed old 'Friend of Man', was an admirer of mine some forty years ago, and although he has since become so wild and eccentric, he was in those days a man of whose admiration any woman might feel proud; and I take great interest in his son, though he both does and says things to make the hair of one's head stand on end; still it is more the fault of his bringing up, than any vice of his nature; and I have a great deal more regard for him, than for many of those who pass for being more respectable; he has some tenacity and substance in his character, and I do honour that whenever I see it; - still you must recollect, children, that though it may be all very well for me, who am besides an old woman, to be friendly with him, I do not recommend him as a companion to either of you; so remember, you have been warned."
Zoe wrote the note with a beating heart. It certainly would have surprised any one not in the secret, to see the reverence with which, after this, she listened to the old duchess, and the zeal with which she arranged stands of flowers, legislated about lustres and chandeliers, and finally showed the resources of a whole "committee of amusement", in her own unassisted genius!
Zoe did not again see Mirabeau till the day of the fête; he was obliged to go into the country, and had, besides, to work day and night to have a work he had promised ready for the printers by a certain day. But this absence was not painful and heavy like the last; he found time to write her passionate, if hurried letters, and she had to reply to them. They were the first love letters she had ever written in her life.
At length the grand day arrived, and Zoe dressed for the occasion, with a feeling of delight and buoyancy she had never known in her life before. She could hardly help smiling at herself, as she gazed on her reflection in the mirror, it looked so bright and happy.
"Youth is a movable feast, after all," thought she, "I never felt so youthful as I do to-day. Pray Heaven!" she sighed a moment after, "that it may not be the forerunner of some ill; if I were a heathen, I should forthwith offer a sacrifice to avert the omen of too much happiness."
"Really, Zoe!" cried Lady Clara, when they met in the drawing-room, "I never saw you look so well; when I left my room I was pretty well satisfied with myself; but I am more than half out of conceit, now that I see you."
"If Horace O'Brian's heart be not burnt to a cinder to-day, he must be an insensible brute," said Zoe, laughing.
When they entered the drawing-room at ---- Castle, it was about half full. They paid their respects to the duchess, who was dressed in great state, and then found seats at a little distance, where they were soon surrounded by some of the most distinguished-looking men in the room. Zoe looked round for Mirabeau, and as she caught his eye, her glance said to him, "All this is for you." He made his way towards the spot where she sat - as he passed her chair no ear but her own, caught the low passionate exclamation, "My Zoe!" He did not attempt to enter into conversation with her, he talked to those around him; but almost every sentence he uttered had a secret meaning for her.
She kept her eyes fixed on the figures of her Indian fan; but she felt his looks upon her, and knew every change that passed over that wild countenance; and no one in all the vast apartment suspected the secret communication that was going on between them.
The fashionable men and young élégants round her, flattered themselves that her air of gentle preoccupation was the effect of their individual fascinations, for it seemed utterly impossible that any thing so precious as was each one of them in his own eyes, could be altogether indifferent in hers; and Zoe was so happy, that she really thought them, one and all, very amiable, and not at all bores.
We may as well mention here, in order not to interrupt the course of this history, that, in consequence of her very charming behaviour on this day, poor Zoe incurred the necessity of having to refuse three separate offers of most respectable hands, with the hearts thereunto appertaining, and all at the imminent peril, as the owners averred, of "blighting them irrevocably"! This may serve to warn women that they cannot be charming with impunity.
A movement was at length made towards the dining-room. A wizened, diminutive, changeling-looking man, offered his arm to Zoe, and handed her down stairs. He set himself seriously to entertain her, and little as she was disposed to care who became her neighbour, she soon found her interest excited by her strange-looking companion. Indeed, as Zoe was not destined to fall to the lot of her lover, she could not well have been more fortunate, for this peculiar individual was Wilberforce, one of the most remarkably agreeable men of the day. Mirabeau, however, was on the opposite side of the table, and within both sight and hearing. Horace O'Brian and Lady Clara sat together near Zoe, and he allowed all his attention to be engrossed by his fair companion, except just the portion he contrived to bestow on Wilberforce, who was the friend of influential men.
The guests had all been selected for either distinguished talent or social reputation. These quintessential réunions are often failures; when people are obliged to go into company, armed de pied en cap in their reputation, to meet others cased in equally brilliant sheen, a metaphysical influence seems to pervade all, and impede the natural use of their faculties. But the good duchess was destined to succeed; the dinner went on pleasantly, and the guests talked in their natural manner.
Zoe said to her companion, who had been telling her some amusing anecdotes about the king and queen, "How happens it, that though power is always imposing, yet the kings and ministers, and all parties invested with it, seem insignificant? - They do so little, compared with the means they have at their command."
"Persons at a distance may fancy they achieve little, because they see nothing of the difficulties of their position," replied he; "invisible hindrances impede the simplest action - placing a man at the head of affairs, is like setting him to walk on a rock of loadstone in iron-bound shoes; no one merely looking on, can see why it is he makes so little progress. Having to set a cumbrous machinery in motion, and to act with it, absorbs much strength and enthusiasm, for which there is nothing to show!"
"Kings and nobles", said Mirabeau, who had been listening to what Zoe was saying; "seem insignificant, because their position is an exaggerated one, and their capacities are not magnified in proportion; - to make the most of the means at their disposal, would require them to be a race of heroes and demigods, like the first founders of their order. The doings of average men look small and poor beside the amount of power placed at their disposal - generally speaking, they really achieve as much as nine out of ten men ever accomplish, but they seem to do less, because they have had larger characters cast to them in the world's drama than they can fill."
"I should like to see a real hero," said Zoe.
"He would not be at all like what you probably expect," replied Mirabeau; "heroes, whilst they are living and struggling through their labours, do not appear the trim well-polished characters you find in romances; they are not finished in the Sir Charles Grandison fashion. Life is not a stage representation, with every incident placed in its most effective light; there is blood, and sweat, and fatigue, and much failure, before aught heroic can be achieved. Your heroes are washed and trimmed, before they are put in history, and the greater number of their deeds buried in silence. A hero would shock all your notions of respectability; he would be on so much larger a scale than you have been accustomed to see, that you would only find him probably full of inequalities, rough, cruel, unjust; you would see the details were not finished according to the bland conventionalities of polite society - and you would be unable to take in the design of his character as a whole. A hero requires to be removed from the present time and placed on a pedestal of at least a century of the past, before the eyes of men can take in his greatness. Heroes are not gods, or they might work like Nature, silently, majestically, and without visible effort; - but they are men, only of a larger soul; and they have to do their work like men, with all the impediments of an imperfect will, fiery passions, and the sense of an illimitable task spreading itself out before them, with the consciousness that all their toil and effort produces only shortcomings, and that their aim is so high they cannot attain to it; - thus they who are constantly grappling with a task not to be done easily, but which takes all their strength, have none to spare in making themselves amiable, and in conciliating approbation. They who are despatched into 'dark regions to slay monsters for us', do not return without bearing marks of the fray. The world would soon come to dissolution if heroes were not sent into it from time to time; but heroes would not be convenient drawing-room acquaintances."
"Yet," replied Wilberforce, "we have the Model, in whom no short-comings or imperfections are to be discerned."
"And what was said of Him during life?" rejoined Mirabeau.
"I wish you could give me a receipt how to conquer difficulties," said Lady Clara, "I am not a hero nor even a heroine, still there are many things I wish to accomplish and cannot compass."
"Difficulties cannot be artificially overcome," said Mirabeau, "nor is there any invention whereby a man may be spared the trouble of conquering them; they must be grasped firmly, strangled, crushed, trampled down in manful fight. The savages are not far wrong, when they believe, that the strength of their conquered enemy passes into their own body."
"Yes," said Lady Clara, slightly shrugging her white shoulders, "but we so soon get not to care about things - the inclination for them so soon passes away, that it is hardly worth while to weary ourselves; even annoyances are not worth so much trouble to avoid. It is better to resign ourselves, and take things as easily as possible."
"I have often felt a painful sympathy", said Zoe, "for men who might have been heroes had they lived in another age - they are great men manqué - they succeed in nothing."
"And success", said Wilberforce, "is the only point of which the world takes cognisance; it is never grateful for intentions or efforts, nor even for imperfect success."
"And that", said Mirabeau, "is not so unjust as it may seem, for failure is an evidence that there is a flaw somewhere. If there is a want of facility to conform themselves to the actual circumstances in which they are placed, men will break down on all occasions, will succeed in nothing; why should we pride ourselves in being men, unless we actually achieve all that we have to do, whether it be small or great, the minutest domestic arrangement, or the government of an empire? A man ought never to say anything that requires to be done, that is beneath me, nor feel any thing that comes in his way beyond his power; for nothing is impossible to the man who can keep his will erect and firm."
"Ay," said Zoe, "but our firmness of will depends so much on the accidental variations of our inclination. We forget the point of view in which we but yesterday beheld the object; and, as Lady Clara says, except in the heat of the moment, it does not seem worth while to make a strong effort."
"In general," said Wilberforce, "men are strong in habit, and weak in will. Habits give us no trouble, there is no friction; the obstacles to the little exertion required by a habit are worn smooth and almost obliterated, like the head of an old sixpence."
"Yes," said Mirabeau, "our vices are oftener habits than passions; habits wear men into uncouth shapes, as water models stones. All mechanical contrivance is habit materialised; it is continued action without any effort of will, except in the beginning."
"It is a great consolation", said Wilberforce, "to take refuge from our unstable noisy efforts, and the vain show in which we delight ourselves, in the knowledge that there is a Wisdom higher than our own, wherein is 'no variableness, neither shadow of turning'. Indeed, that seems the only knowledge that brings no sorrow with it."
The conversation then merged into the general topics of the day; and the duchess soon after giving the signal, the ladies left the dining-room, and proceeded to the grounds, which had been ornamented for their reception. Most of the gentlemen joined them shortly after, out of compliment to the duchess, whose guests they were. Her son, however, was obliged to remain to keep a knot of veterans company, who would have deemed an early rising from table as a perilous innovation on the principles of the British constitution.
"You will see me to-morrow," said Mirabeau, in a low voice, to Zoe, as they were drinking coffee in the drawing-room.
"Will you not come to see the children to-morrow?" whispered Horace O'Brian to Lady Clara. "Your presence is as great a blessing to them as it is to me; they do not rejoice in it as much as I do."
Never was oracle of old more pondered upon than these vague words.
Soon afterwards, the party broke up, for the duchess, like a loyal lady, followed Queen Charlotte's example, and did not patronise late hours.
"What a delicious dinner-party!" exclaimed Lady Clara, as they drove off.
"Yes, it really has been very agreeable, I have seldom enjoyed one more," replied Zoe.
"What a stupid affair! - I declare I never met such a set of shallow conceited men, and how absurdly over-dressed both Mrs Gifford and her friend Lady Clara were."
"Mrs Gifford is a dreadful flirt, and very much gone off in her looks. - As to that Lady Clara, her manners are sadly against her, poor thing. I am glad we have got away early, for it began to be very heavy."
Such was the conversation that passed in the carriage immediately behind Zoe and Lady Clara - for,
"This vain world is all a dream
If any one ever expected that "to love", would render them happy, they might as reasonably lie down on burning coals, in the hope of taking rest.
The next day, Mirabeau arrived almost before Zoe had dared to hope for him, but the gleam of sunshine had already passed from his features; he looked ill and moody.
"What ails you?" said she, anxiously.
"Nothing more than usual; you are deceived if you expect me to be always wooing you with smiles and gentle words - there is something deeper than those; it is childish love that expects to be fed on smiles and honeyed words. Zoe," said he, abruptly, after a pause, "I am ill - I am mad - I am come to you to be exorcised. Let me sit here beside you, and lay your soft hand on my shaggy mane - there - all sorts of gentle and healing influences distil from your touch." He laid his rough head upon her knee, and she bent over him uttering broken words of gentle tendency. "Ay," said he, after a little while, "had I earlier met with you, I should have been a different man; why did we never meet till now, when it is all but too late? You, too, have you ever met with a mate who could rouse all the noble faculties of your soul? Are not you too, cramped and perverted from what you might have been? Zoe, you must be mine. Why cannot we always be together? - and yet, to belong to each other now, it will require to break down all the conventionalities in which you have been bricked up. You would have to stand amid the ruins of your worldly position; - but, Zoe, I can bear you up through all; you may lean securely on me; ruined and broken in my fortunes as I may appear, still I can bear you up above the scorn of the world. You may love me, Zoe, love me with your whole heart - I can bear the weight of it; - intense passionate love embarrasses most men, and they throw it back upon the being who offers it; - but, if you love me, Zoe, you must give me your whole being - you must abandon yourself to me. Strong as you are, I am stronger still, and can give you in return love such as you never dreamed of. Tell me you love me, Zoe! - let me hear you say so - the words do me good."
"You know I do," said Zoe, in a low voice.
"Ay, but I cannot hear it too often. Tell me so again and again."
"I do love you, with all my whole soul," said Zoe, firmly; "does that satisfy you?" she added, with a slight smile.
"Zoe," said he, after a pause, "my energies have never yet been called forth for any thing but to struggle with oppression - pitiful inflictions that brought no glory in either conquering or enduring them; but I will yet do that which shall make me worthy of your love. Oh, you cannot know the strength and healing that lies in your words. I have long wished to talk to you about myself; you will interpret me with a loving heart.
"Oh, Zoe! when I think of all the good that was in me - how it has been broken, perverted, crushed out, till I am so soiled and defaced by evil passions, so scarred and thunder-riven, that no glory I can ever achieve, will make me bright and whole again. Zoe, I am not given to indulging in vain regrets, but when I think of these things, my heart seems as if it must burst.
"My father! how would I not have loved him! but he too arrayed himself against me to break me. We were both strong, and if I have not been crushed, I have been broken. All natural affection has been turned to poison and gall; I would have loved all whom nature has given me, father, sisters, wife, but they all bent under me and failed me in my need. Zoe, all the love I have ever known has been illicit. I was driven into the wilderness to perish, and I have become as rough and barren of all good as itself. Zoe, you have not sought your own happiness in loving me, but you have made mine. I have it in me to overcome the world. I have already mastered, in loathsome persecutions and ignoble misfortunes, what would have killed most men; but there has been no dignity; no glory; I have only succeeded in avoiding being stifled and swallowed up in stinking mire. Aught of employment for the energy I have in me, is further off than ever. I am consumed by my activity, and the candle lighted at both ends is fast disappearing - it has given a bright light on a worthless game. Those men whom we saw yesterday, are babies to me; - I feel I hold them all in my hand; - I grasp them and can turn them as it pleases me. I am their born master, and yet they, one and all, value themselves above me, because they have been able to keep in the trim garden of respectability. They regard me as an Ishmaelite, an outcast, and fancy they stretch out a hand to aid ME! Me they pity! me they apologise for knowing! and speak of me as one they must give an account of! No sympathy, no work! - all my strength must be consumed in battling with the world for my daily bread, in avoiding my creditors; - pursued by debts, dragged down and steeped in poverty to the very lips, unable even by my labour to supply the degrading wants of life; - and knowing what I ought to have been, what I have it in me to be; - oh! Zoe, is it not maddening? is it not enough to burn the heart that is in one to ashes?"
The giant-like man wept, his great chest heaved and his whole frame shook with the strength of his emotion. Zoe, inexpressibly affected, threw her arms round him, and clung to him, striving with passionate caresses to soothe him. There is always something dreadful to a woman in the sight of a strong man's emotion. For some time she spoke no words; at length, burying her face in his thick black locks, she whispered:
"Dear Gabriel, remember that the same Providence which has permitted all these trials and obstacles to befall you, has also ordained that you should not be overwhelmed by them. An object worthy of your energies will yet, fear not, be disclosed to you; and who knows for what great things you have all this while been fashioned and fitted? Slight difficulties would not have trained you - you required to be disciplined by what was harder and stronger than yourself; so that must needs seem beyond all credence rough and savage which has befallen you. Your great heart", said she, smiling sadly, and passing her hand over his rough brow, "would have disdained petty schooling; you have tried your strength with destiny herself; and are come alive and instructed out of her school. You have it in you to be great, and some great task is yet appointed you to fulfil. Let not your faith in yourself fail; remember the words you spoke only yesterday, about difficulties conquered."
"Ay," said he, bitterly; "but the reality of things comes upon us at times stronger than the wise theories and aphorisms, which we have framed when at ease. Today, I am weary and broken, and all philosophy sounds like mockery. Zoe, it is you who have brought this black fit of despondency upon me. It is seeing you, so bright and radiant, that has shown me the wretch I am - it is like looking up to Heaven, and seeing the miserable depth at which I lie beneath!"
"Dear Gabriel!" said Zoe, softly, "all the value of my radiance, as you call it, is, that it may give me power to soothe and brighten up your darkness a little. I never cared much about my position in life before, but now I feel glad that I am one of the world's 'respectable people', that I may give you the benefit of it all. All that I have is yours!"
"Thanks, Zoe. I will be content with knowing that is so. Oh! if I had you always to stand by me in my hours of darkness - they would be dark hours no longer," added he, gaily; "but come, the evil spirit is again off me, let us go into the garden. - Where is your friend?"
"She is gone to see the children of a friend," said Zoe.
"Ah! that Horace O'Brian's, I dare say; he is a plausible clever fellow, and might be bought body and soul for a mitre; but unless your friend can give him something else besides her heart, he will hardly value it. I had much conversation with him yesterday."
"He has a good deal of feeling," said Zoe, "and yet it is odd, that those men of feeling, do the cruellest things."
"Because", said Mirabeau, "their feelings are the lazy spontaneous growth of pleasurable emotions; they have no deeper root than inclination; all their energy has been choked out of them by ease; and, to save their own soul, they would shrink from doing any thing that was disagreeable at the moment. When people systematically try to spare themselves trouble, they are sure in the end, to act either like fools or villains."
"And yet," said she, "perhaps none would feel more shocked than they, were they told beforehand what they will do. 'Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?'"
"Yes," replied Mirabeau, "it seems at a little distance that there must always lie some great gulf between ourselves and an evil deed, and we fancy that having to leap it, will bring us to our senses when we stand upon the brink; - but you may believe me (for I have had experience)," he added, with a laugh, "that those deeds which are the very worst to look back upon come step by step so naturally, when you are once in the way, that the climax which gives the deed its name, is a result as little strained, and gives no more of a shock, than coming out of yonder door into this garden. 'What a little thing to fuss about!' is the involuntary comment of every one, who has been unfortunate enough to become criminal. It is the first declension from the level line of what is right that must be jealously regarded, for the inclined plane is so gentle, that it is easy to fancy we are going straight along. Nobody ever sees an action as very wrong when under the excitement of doing it."
"Then I suppose that explains the mystery of the Reverend Horace O'Brian's coldblooded conduct to poor Clotilde," said Zoe - "I wonder whether he will ever suffer for it."
"I believe", said Mirabeau, "the good and the bad that is in man, is compensated beyond its actual worth; and, though nothing is ever to its full extent, either so bad or so good as it logically ought to be from the elements called into action to produce it, yet no action can be committed without a consequence ensuing. But now tell me what is this about O'Brian. What has he done?"
"It is a story so common, that it seems almost childish to waste any indignation upon it; - and yet whatever befalls ourselves, has quite an original and emphatic air in our eyes." And then she related what is already known to the reader.
"Poor little girl!" said Mirabeau, when she ceased. "She must have been a sweet creature, but it is a law of Nature that the weakest must go to the wall - there is no evading it; the weak must break when they come in contact with aught harder than themselves - but, on the other hand, the same qualities that impelled him to behave so cruelly, will work to his own hindrance, and incidentally Clotilde will be avenged."
"Dear little soul, she does not dream of such a thing!" exclaimed Zoe; "but how do you think matters will end with Clara?"
"Does your friend know the history you have just told me?"
"What is that line of your English poet?
'And men think all men mortal but themselves.'
We shall see, I cannot pretend to prophesy the effects of your friend's fascination; but now my time is expired, and I must go."
"Oh, no, no, not yet!" cried Zoe.
"How gladly would I be always with you, and that you know, but there is no option for me just now; - it is a great blessing to be under the law of necessity, it saves much useless struggling. I am to dine with Sir Gilbert Elliot at five o'clock, and it is now past two; so you have nearly reduced me already to an impossibility. My own Zoe, you send me back a better man than I came; I cannot believe in the black thoughts that then oppressed me."
"When will you come again?"
"Soon, sooner than you expect. Commend me to your friend - and do not forget that you have undertaken to cover me with the mantle of your respectability! I fear", said he, as he lifted her in his arms like a child, "it will be Gulliver clothed by the Lilliputian - no offence to your serene highness - but I think I shall require more than you can supply; so farewell, my own darling." He was gone before Zoe could look round, and when she found herself really alone, she felt very much inclined to cry. She did not like the way in which he had departed at all: - restless and dissatisfied, though she would have been puzzled to say at what, she returned to the house.
Lady Clara shortly afterwards returned, bringing the two children with her. "My dear Zoe," she exclaimed, "the poor things begged so much to come and see you and the gold fish, I could not find in my heart to refuse."
"I am just delighted you have brought them. I intended to tell you, and then I forgot until too late." And in playing with the children Zoe recovered her composure. The boys had a holiday given them for the remainder of the day, and a very merry day it was for all parties.
"Did you see Horace this morning?" asked Zoe, when they sat down together at night, after quietness had been restored in the house.
"Oh, yes, and we had a long and most delightful conversation; - he said and looked every thing that could be desired. It was more like our old intercourse than we have had yet; and he said more than he ever ventured to say before."
"What was it?" asked. Zoe, seeing that she hesitated.
"He said, that if his daughters resembled me, all his wishes for them would be more than gratified - that I was his ideal of what a woman ought to be; and then he seemed embarrassed, as if he had said more than he ought, and began to talk hurriedly of something quite different."
"Well, I call that the best thing you have told me yet," said Zoe; "but he gets on very slowly - it is quite provoking."
"And what did you do all the time of my absence? It was very rude in me to leave you."
"Oh," said Zoe, "I was in the garden part of the time; - one must make the most of these fine warm days, they are the last we shall have this year."
It would have brushed the bloom of Zoe's happiness, to have made it a subject of conversation, even to her friend. We do not want to tell of it when we are very happy.
Many changes had come over the Rectory since the reader last visited it. Uncle Oliver was becoming very infirm, and had long employed a curate. Aunt Martha was still living, but she was very feeble and scarcely able to move across the room, even with the assistance of her ebony staff and the stout arm of the country girl engaged to wait upon her. She still kept her little spider-legged table beside her easy chair, and knitted indefatigably; though somehow her knitting now never achieved any shape.
Cousin Sarah Anne, who married the "young squire", had by the death of the old man, progressed into the style and title of Mrs Copley the squire's lady. Sarah Anne had proved herself worthy to face Rhadamanthus, for though she had not achieved the full complement of "bringing her husband seven daughters, and making eleven thousand cheeses", yet she had done a great deal towards it.
She was famous for her cheese, butter, and poultry, and had obtained celebrity for her method of fattening calves. Her children were brought up to be notable; she had four, two boys and two girls; the eldest, a girl of about thirteen, was herself in miniature, and followed her about in thick black worsted stockings, a stuff frock, and blue pinafore, into the dairy and over the house, visiting on the younger children all the cuffs and scoldings she herself received from her mother.
Every body has some pet virtue, and Sarah Anne especially prided herself on her economy; she boasted that she had once dined thirteen people for one shilling. It was her pleasure, however, to appear at church on Sundays, with her husband and four children in the Grange pew, dressed in the most wonderful array of silks and many-coloured ribbons; whilst all her household were arranged in a pew at some distance, but within view; and woe to the luckless dairy-maid who ventured to cast a look on any of the plough boys, for Sarah Anne was the very dragon of propriety.
The "young squire" was scolded and henpecked, till by dint of hearing so constantly of his wife's virtues from her own lips, he ended at last by believing as he was told; - he smoked his pipe in the porch and drank his tankard of ale, and fell asleep in his three-cornered arm-chair every evening over his county newspaper, as his father had done before him; he took all his wife's crossness very peaceably, indeed it may be questioned whether he would have believed her to be the sensible woman he did, unless he had heard her sharp objurgatory voice ringing through the house all day long; he took it for the natural sign of her energy and thriftiness.
One evening Sarah Anne was knitting a stout worsted stocking, and her husband the squire was sitting opposite to her, smoking his evening pipe in their warm cosy parlour, when one of the female servants rushing across the red tile paved hall, burst into the room, exclaiming:
"I say, missus, here's one come from the Rectory, to say the parson's took with a fit."
The boy, who brought the intelligence, thrust his head into the door-way, confirming the intelligence, and begged her to go down to the Rectory directly.
Sarah Anne did not lose her presence of mind; she sharply reprimanded the servant who stood by with open mouth, desiring her to go back to her work, for a lazy, good-for-nothing hussy as she was, and then, clothing herself in an old pelisse, and a battered beaver bonnet, she bade her husband find his hat, and putting on her pattens, gave the lanthorn to the boy, took hold of her husband's arm, and set off to the Rectory.
When they arrived, they found all in confusion, the servants crying and running hither and thither; the poor old lady, querulously demanding what was the matter, and on the point of falling into a fit herself; from fright and agitation.
The surgeon had arrived a few moments previously, and was now attempting to bleed the rector in another apartment. Sarah Anne first administered a few sharp words, by way of bringing every body to their senses, and then inquired how it had happened. Half-a-dozen tongues were set going at once, and she contrived to ascertain that her uncle had assembled the household for family worship at the usual hour, when nothing remarkable was perceived; but, on the servant entering a short time afterwards with his basin of boiled milk, she found him lying senseless on the hearth-rug. - "I thought how it would be, ma'am, when I heard the death-watch last night: it all comes from Sally upsetting the salt, and breaking the salt-cellar, last Thursday; - I was certain sure something was going to happen, for the looking-glass in my room fell down without hands, and was all broken to pieces this blessed day! - Something could not help but come of it," added she, sententiously, almost satisfied that her master ought to die, to pay due honour to her auguries.
The surgeon here entered the kitchen, to say, that the rector had recovered his speech, and that she had better see him.
Sarah Anne was so shocked for a few moments at the change in her uncle, that she forgot every thing else. His mouth was drawn to one side, and he had entirely lost all sensation down one side of his body. When she drew near, he intimated, in scarcely intelligible accents, that he wished Zoe should be sent for express. - "A postchaise," articulated the poor old man, with difficulty.
This restored Sarah Anne's sensibility to its usual composure; - she could not refuse, and, as she turned away, with a scarcely repressed toss of her head, to execute the unwelcome command, her mother hobbled into the room, supported by her stout country girl, whose broad face was blistered and swollen with crying. "Brother, brother," cried the old lady, in her sharp querulous tones, "what is all this? Well-a-day! - But you shall not leave me, we will both go together, we have lived together nigh forty years and we'll not be parted now. Give me a chair, child," said she to the servant; and, seating herself close beside the bed, took hold of her brother's hand, and tried to rub it between her own, scarcely less useless and palsied.
Sarah Anne in the meanwhile retired to the tea-room, to indite such a letter to her cousin Zoe as should do credit to her own dignity and sensibility, whilst it should keep up the tone of superiority which she still imagined she had a right to maintain over her cousin. She was not much in the habit of letter-writing, so, as the reader may imagine, she had a task of some difficulty to encounter; but Sarah Anne was one of those singularly fortunate persons who come up to their own ideal in every thing. She went to work, whilst a man was despatched to the inn for a chaise, and wrote the following epistle.
Sarah Anne did not seal up this letter without first reading it over to her husband, who was quite astonished at the performance. "Why, Sally," said he, "thou art quite a scholar, girl; it is as pretty a letter as ever I heard. I did not think thou couldst have written like it."
"Oh," said Sarah Anne, with a toss, "I would write quite as well as another, if I had time to give to such things; but I consider that a woman ought to be a good wife first and foremost; and I shall teach my girls not to be bookworms. I think, Will, you ought to be very thankful. If you had had your own way, you might at this moment have had Zoe Gifford for your wife instead of me, and been the husband of one who is neither fish nor flesh, instead of a father of as fine a family as any in England: and where would you have been then, I should like to know?"
Zoe could not arrive before the following evening, and Sarah Anne made use of the time to order a most imposing new hat and feathers, though her husband remonstrated against it as extravagant, seeing "she was so soon going into mourning" but she sharply retorted, that though it became all people to be humble and affable, she was not going to be disparaged beside her cousin Zoe; and that she had saved enough of his money to buy a new hat when she chose, without being accused of extravagance.
When the chaise drove up to the Rectory door, Sarah Anne was ready to receive her cousin, in a new hat and feathers, and the very stiffest and most radiant-coloured brocade dress her wardrobe afforded. Zoe, anxious as she felt about her uncle, could scarcely help smiling at the figure which presented itself; however, she greeted her cousin very cordially, who was much consoled to find that Zoe was attired merely in a white wrapper and plain black silk mantle, and that her bonnet was a coarse straw, "without any trimming to signify, and not at all tasty", as she afterwards said to her husband.
Poor Uncle Oliver remained still in the same state - there had been no change in him since the night before. He rallied a little for a few moments when Zoe entered, and told her it was a great comfort to him to see her; but he soon fell off into a doze, with her hand in his.
Zoe felt very mournful; he was the last relation left, except her aunt and cousin; and whatever other friends we may have, we care for relations as we care for nobody else.
Zoe was in due time summoned down to supper. Sarah Anne had determined that her supper should be as imposing as her headdress: there was a hot round of boiled beef at the top, a roast goose at the bottom, with all sorts of vegetables at the sides, and a large plum-pudding in the centre. The silver branch candlestick - that never saw light but on very grand occasions - had been brought down, all the glass that could by any means be displayed was set out, and Sarah Anne flattered herself that Zoe would be quite as much impressed with the magnificent display as she was herself. Zoe, the doctor, Sarah Anne, and her husband, sat down to table: the supper passed off without any incident, except that Sarah Anne ruined the front breadth of her best gown in carving the goose.
Zoe declared her intention of watching beside her uncle all night, in spite of Sarah Anne's assurances that the best room had been got ready, and a fire lighted in it, on purpose for her.
There is something almost appalling in watching all night beside the couch of sickness. The chill night air, the heavy stillness, the tall flickering shadows cast from the rushlight, all produce a sensation as of being in the presence of an unearthly being; the very sleeper, though our most familiar friend, seems transformed into something awful and mysterious.
The old man did not speak during the whole night; Zoe raised him up to give him his medicine, but he seemed quite unconscious of who was beside him. Towards morning he opened his eyes, and said, "You are very good to me, Zoe," and then relapsed into his former insensible state. At five o'clock she was relieved from her watch by the nurse, and retired to take the repose of which she stood in so much need. She did not again see poor Uncle Oliver alive; the nurse knocked at her door about eight o'clock, to tell her that all was over: "He went off like a bird, poor old gentleman. He just muttered a few words I could not understand, and then he was gone. He was always a good man, and a real gentleman, if ever there was one," said the nurse, wiping her eyes. "Well, we must all be took some time, and it's well for them as can make as good an end as he did. I ask your pardon, ma'am, for disturbing of you, but I thought it would be a comfort to you to know. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go, as I've many things to see about."
The whole of the day the house was in a state of bustle and confusion that was quite painful to Zoe, who established herself in her aunt's apartment, that she might see and hear as little of it as possible. The old lady took very little notice of Zoe, and when informed of her brother's death, seemed much less affected than they expected; she only said, "Ah, well-a-day, we shall not be long parted." When the girl brought her knitting, as usual, she put it on one side, saying, "I shall not want it again; but you have been a good girl to me, and I give you these needles, and the silver sheath too, for a keepsake"; on which the girl went crying into the kitchen, and said she was "sure missis was going to die, she was so mild and strangelike".
Her fears were realised. The old lady took to her bed that day; the doctor declared nothing was the matter, but that unless she were roused, she would die from the conceit of it. From whatever cause it came, the old lady sank rapidly; and when the coffin was brought home for Uncle Oliver the undertaker had to receive orders for another for Aunt Martha. They were both buried on the same day, amid the sincere tears of the whole parish; and they were long regretted by old and young.
Zoe, who had become uneasy at receiving no letters, had two put into her hands on the day of the funeral; they were both from Lady Clara, but owing to the mysteries of a cross post, she received them together; they were to entreat her to hasten her return, as the eldest boy had been attacked with something which they feared was scarlet fever. There was a postcript to one of the letters, saying, that Count Mirabeau called a few hours after she left, and seemed singularly annoyed at finding her absent, and that the note she left for him did not seem to please him. This intimation Zoe scarcely heeded, so entirely were her thoughts engrossed by her child's illness. She signified her intention of departing so soon as a chaise could be procured. Sarah Anne, having secured the pattern of as many caps and sleeves as she desired, had no further wish to detain her, though she suggested she had better stay till after dinner.
Zoe went over the house and garden for the last time, and lingered in all the spots associated with childish recollections. She could never hope to behold them again, as the place was about to pass into the hands of strangers. Her uncle's study was the last place she visited; she sat down in his old black leathern chair quite overpowered. Sarah Anne, who was with her, exhorted her "not to take on so, as it could do no good, and would not bring back those who were gone".
Zoe begged her uncle's writing-desk, and an old copy of Virgil, in which she used to construe with him. As they were of no value, Sarah Anne made no objection.
The chaise having now arrived, she accompanied her cousin to the door. Zoe left proper messages for the squire, and drove away.
"I wonder", said Sarah Anne to her husband, "whether she will ever invite any of us to see her in London. I am sure she cannot say but what we have given her of the best, and showed her every respect whilst she has been here. I wonder what she gave the servants; I shall ask. I saw her give the gown she came in, to Nancy, who waited on her; but I shan't let her wear it. I really cannot see what beauty there is in her, can you?"
"Eh, what did you say, missis?" cried the squire, rousing from his nap as her voice ceased.
"I ask you whether you think Zoe Gifford a beauty?" said she, sharply.
"She would be well enough, if she was not so proud - keeping one at a distance like; and yet I have known the day, when she might have been thankful for an honest man to look at her."
"I warrant she has forgotten all that," replied Sarah Anne. "But I must go and look what those servants are doing at home; I declare we shall never be straight again."
Leaving her husband to finish his after dinner sleep, Sarah Anne proceeded to soothe herself by looking into her mother's hoards, to see what valuables had fallen into her possession, and to pack them up for transportation to the Grange.
It was late at night when Zoe arrived at home. Lady Clara met her on the doorsteps. "I am so thankful you are returned!" was all that she could utter.
"For God's sake tell me the worst. - He is not dead?"
"No, oh no; - but the doctor has been here three times to-day. I was on the point of sending an express for you."
Zoe did not say another word, but went instantly into the room where the child lay. It was the third day of his illness; - he was delirious, and did not recognise his mother. He seemed to be suffering under a degree of terror and anxiety that was most painful to behold. When Zoe entered, he fancied she had come to carry him away to some place where all sorts of mysterious evil was to be practised against him, and he screamed so violently, that Zoe was obliged to conceal herself behind the bed-curtains.
On inquiring for the youngest boy, she found that he had been removed to the farmhouse where the little O'Brians were staying; in fact, he had not been in the house since his brother had begun to feel unwell. "On the very morning when Frederick first complained," said Lady Clara, "I offered to take them both with me for a walk; Frederick refused, but Charles was delighted; the children were so pleased with their playfellow, that they entreated me to leave him till night. I complied, but at night Frederick was so much worse, that, with a sort of instinct I cannot understand (for I suspected nothing really dangerous), I determined he should remain all night; it was a damp wet evening, and that I think decided me - and most providential it has proved; the next morning the doctor pronounced it scarlet fever. How he has caught it, I cannot imagine - he has not been out of the grounds since you went."
"But Charles?" said Zoe anxiously. "Charles is well? when did you hear of him?"
"He is quite well; I heard this evening at six o'clock."
"Thank God for that!" said Zoe; "but now, dear Clara, you are exhausted. I shall not go to bed to-night, I could rest nowhere but by his bedside. Do you retire - believe me, I am most grateful for all you have done, but you must keep yourself well for the sake of us all."
Lady Clara at length consented to go to bed, on condition that Zoe would yield her place to the nurse at daybreak, and that she should take some refreshment now. Zoe changed her heavy dress for a loose wrapper, and then, after hastily swallowing some coffee which Lady Clara brought, she returned to her son's bedside, and dismissing the attendant to sleep, remained alone to watch. She had always been tremblingly alive to the slightest ailments of her children, and had often needlessly tormented herself and every body round her. But now that sickness was indeed come, and in a shape that threatened to be mortal, her energies were roused, and all her anxieties merged into a stern breathless composure. Towards morning, the child fell into a doze; but it was troubled and restless, he seemed haunted with muttering dreams. It was a chill autumn night; the light had been removed into the adjoining dressing-room, as it had seemed to distress the patient. A thick white mist, like smoke, covered the ground, and the beams of the waning moon made every thing look ghastly and fantastic. There is something unearthly in this dim, white light; it is the light by which one would expect to see a supernatural manifestation. Zoe's thoughts had of late been familiarised with scenes of sickness and death. A mother's heart is always foreboding, and as she sat there listening to the tossings and mutterings of her darling child, occasionally raising his head to give him drink and medicine, smoothing his rumpled pillow, and bathing his brow with cooling applications, she felt as if standing on the threshold of the two worlds of life and death; her very fears seemed turned to stone, in the presence of the great stern inevitable Necessity which crushed all thoughts of prayer or hope out of her heart. A prayer is the natural speech of humanity in times of trouble and distress; but prayer seems so feeble when we stand in the presence of a great reality like death, that utter dumbness and stupefaction seizes upon us.
Early the next morning the doctor arrived; he declined giving any decided opinion, said it was a very severe case; that he was glad - very glad, Mrs Gifford had come back; that he would return toward the middle of the day, and that he would be able to speak more decidedly when he saw the child again in the evening. With this vague response, the wretched Zoe was obliged to be content. Lady Clara, with much difficulty, persuaded her to lie down for a few hours, but she refused to remove further than the dressing-room, and there, on a sofa, chilled, and utterly exhausted, she fell into a sleep, that scarcely veiled the consciousness of her misery from her.
When she awoke, she found it was near noon, and sprang up with a start of self-reproach, at having been away from her child so long. Lady Clara entered with some breakfast, and the intelligence that the child had fallen into a quiet sleep. She prevailed on Zoe to change her dress, and to go for a short time into the open air before she returned to the sick chamber, promising to take her place meanwhile.
Before Zoe had completed her toilet, a servant came to the door, to say that Count Mirabeau was below. Zoe felt absolutely indifferent, at that moment, whether she ever saw him again or not - but she went down to him nevertheless.
Mirabeau had come with the intention of spending several hours with Zoe, and had been pleasing himself all the way with anticipating her joy at seeing him; he had also many things to tell her, in which he knew she would rejoice.
He had not seen her since the day after the dinner-party, and as that had arisen not from his own will, but from Zoe's unexpected departure to her uncle's, he was infinitely more anxious and impatient to see her now, than he had ever felt before.
He sprang to meet her as the door opened, but started at the sight of her pale face, and sunk, discoloured eyes - "Good Heavens! Zoe. - What is the matter? - You in sorrow, and I here! Tell me what it is?"
Zoe sank on the sofa, and burst into tears, "Oh, Gabriel, my child is dying!"
"Nay," replied he, sitting down beside her, "you are tormenting yourself without need; other children have been as ill, and have recovered."
"No," said Zoe, sobbing, "it is the worst kind of fever, and the doctor gives me no hope."
"I am more afraid for you than the child; have you had it yourself?"
"No," said Zoe.
"Then you shall not go into the room again; you are of more worth than a hundred children, and I cannot run the risk of losing you; what is to become of me if you fall ill and die! Promise me", continued he, vehemently, "that you will not go near him again, but be content with the doctor's report: - why cannot he remain constantly with him? and Lady Clara - she may nurse him, but you, you shall not stay in this infected place. Come away with me now, and let me see you in safety!"
"Oh, Gabriel! how can you talk so? - I cannot even remain longer with you here. I must go back to his room; it is very mournful for you to come and find me thus, when you expected a happy meeting. I cannot think even of you now, except to feel you are my friend, and will not weary of me in my sorrow. I will write every day and tell you how he goes on; but do not come again to see me till I tell you. I shall know the worst to-night: - now farewell, dear love," said she, rising and preparing to leave the room.
"I will certainly neither remain nor return to embarrass you, madam," said Mirabeau, in a sarcastic tone, "I perceive I do not stand in your regard so high as I had flattered myself. I came, anticipating a happy meeting all the way as I came along; but it is only fools who are sanguine, and this will teach me never to feel too sure of a good reception. However, it may be some relief to you to learn, that I shall go to Scotland to-night for some time; - I shall hope to find you restored to something like composure when I return, and willing to see me if I should chance to come. I have the honour of wishing you good day, madam," added he, bowing profoundly, and retreating towards the door.
"Oh! do not leave me in that mocking way!" cried Zoe; "you are the only comfort I looked to in my trouble, I thought you would feel for me, for I am very wretched!"
"That is unfortunate," returned Mirabeau, coldly, "I have an unhappy temper, and should be a bad comforter. I am a brute, I dare say; - but", said he, shrugging his shoulders, "what would you have? Caprice and coldness always act unpleasantly upon me. I had prepared myself for a different reception, and I am disappointed; it is better I should be so, than you; however, if we meet again, I trust it may be in a more congenial mood, when there will be neither uncle, nor child, nor sick puppy-dog, to prefer their claims before me. Again I have the honour to wish you good day, till it be more convenient to you to receive me." He bowed again when he reached the door, and departed.
Zoe, stupefied with surprise at the bitter tone in which he had spoken, could not believe he really intended to quit her in such a manner; but, on lifting her eyes to the window, she saw him proceeding with hasty steps down the garden, and he disappeared almost immediately behind the holly fence. At another time she would have been almost distracted at this occurrence, but her one great sorrow absorbed all her feelings, and she felt little beyond surprise. She returned to her child's room and found him still asleep, but it was heavy and he moaned in it.
For several days longer he hovered between life and death; at last, however, he was pronounced "out of danger", and in Zoe's rapture of thankfulness, she became conscious of the depth of misery out of which she was raised. Still the doctor prohibited any interview between her and her youngest son, and it was near a month before it was judged prudent for him to return home.
Zoe and Lady Clara were both ill from fatigue and anxiety; sea air was prescribed for all; accordingly, the fifth week after Zoe's return from the Rectory, saw them established at Hastings.
All this time she had been scarcely sensible of Mirabeau's absence. She more than once felt astonished at her own insensibility; but now that her pressing anxiety was removed the reaction came. Her health and spirits were weakened by long confinement, and she had less strength to stand against the deferred hope, the wearying suspense, that every day became more intolerable.
Mirabeau had now been gone near two months, and she had received no tidings from him. She walked every day to meet the post, and her heart sickened at the smiling shake of the head, and "no letters for you to-day, ma'am", which constantly greeted her. Before leaving home she had written a few lines to him, telling him of their departure from Richmond, and had sent it to his bookseller to forward; but it was doubtful whether even his bookseller knew his address.
The last thought that enters a woman's heart is to blame him whom she loves. Men are much more magnanimous, and show their superior nature in nothing more than in that they never suffer their judgment to be impaired by any misgivings; however bitterly they may quarrel with their mistress, they are always equal to the effort of self-defence and justification. A true woman always blames herself, and it is a point on which her lover, to do him justice, never contradicts her.
Zoe wandered alone amongst the cliffs every day, sinking deeper and deeper into despondency. On the most minute self-examination she could not discover any thing in what she had done, but what, under the circumstances, she should do again; - still she could not bear to blame Mirabeau; she made all sorts of excuses for him, and laid the blame on something in her own manners, of which she was not conscious at the time.
Women are generally very perverse about their lovers; it has been sarcastically said, that "they never believe themselves loved, unless they are ill-used". We fear it is true, that most women prefer violent, selfish, even cruel, demonstrations of love, to the most generous, self-denying, silent renunciation; - any way it is certain that a selfish, imperious lover, gets much better treated than a generous one. Women like to make sacrifices to those they love, and they like to have them exacted. Zoe was infinitely more gentle, loving, and tractable with Mirabeau, than she ever would have been, under any circumstances, with Everhard. Her very nature seemed changed. Mirabeau was of a larger and stronger character than even Zoe. His genius mastered hers, and she felt it. He held her proud imperious nature in subjection, he kept her in a constant ferment. She was never quite sure of him, never at rest; and it was delightful to be so tormented!
A woman often loves a man who is her inferior in all things, but she never finds any comfort in it; she is constantly endeavouring to make him her master, but never succeeds; it is all obedience on the voluntary principle, and never compelled by the "right divine" of a monarch.
The boys grew and thrived at Hastings like young giants; but Zoe became every day more pale, thin, and unhappy. Lady Clara, with all her gaiety of temper and goodness of heart, began to find matters too triste and ennuyeux to be endured much longer. She tried to persuade Zoe to return home, and it was settled they should do so at the end of ten days, and in the meanwhile, Zoe continued her solitary strolls.
One dull-looking afternoon, such as autumn often assumes to prepare us for November and winter, Zoe put on her bonnet, and merely leaving word that she should not be absent long, turned her steps in her accustomed direction.
To people who are not happy, there is a soothing influence in the leaden hue of the sky, which seems one entire cloud; - the mild air which scarcely a breeze stirs, and the many tinted leaves that lie on the moist ground, giving an earthy and not unpleasing odour as they rustle and crush beneath the foot. An afternoon like this, is far more congenial to a state of mind like Zoe's, than a bright sunny season. However dull a day may have been, there is generally an attempt at brightness towards the close; if one were superstitious, it might comfort one's heart to see the bright streaks that break the sky to the west a little before sunset, when the sun shines forth between his prison bars, after one has given up all hopes of seeing him that day.
Zoe walked along listlessly watching the sun sink lazily behind a bank of cloud; - she had gone further than she intended, it was beginning to grow dusk, and in some haste she turned to retrace her steps homeward. Her attention was drawn to a figure on the cliffs above her; - it was that of a man, wrapped in a large loose riding coat. Zoe, though not a coward, instinctively quickened her pace, but by this time the individual had descended to the level ground, and was standing in the path immediately before her, apparently with the intention of stopping her way. There was no other passer by in sight, and she was at some distance from any dwelling. In the desperation of her fear, Zoe raised her eyes to the stranger, intending to make an appeal to be allowed to pass on, but she well nigh sank to the ground at the apparition she beheld, for it was Mirabeau himself who stood before her.
"Nay, madam, if I alarm you so much, I had better go away again," said he, in a mocking tone; "but it is late for you to be out alone. Allow me to escort you home."
They walked for some paces in silence. He was watching her intently.
"Zoe," said he again with more tenderness, "you are ill, you are sadly changed, you can hardly support yourself. Tell me what it is."
"Oh, how could you leave me as you have done for so long without a word. - Is it any wonder I am ill?"
A few drops of rain began to fall; he did not speak, but taking off his large cloak, he wrapped it round her, and seeing from her agitation she could scarcely walk, he passed his arm round her waist and almost carried her along.
"I have been a wretch," said he, at last, "but you shall be well again now that I am come back to you. Zoe, I never intended to make you suffer thus; tell me you forgive me, or I shall never forgive myself. Zoe, you are more to me than the whole world beside: I have been mad, angry, but that very bitterness showed how much I cared for you. But it is forgotten now, and we are again to each other all we ever were? Tell me, is it not so?"
Zoe did not reply in words, but Mirabeau felt her press the arm that was round her.
"Zoe, now that we have found each other again, we will never separate more; there is nothing for me in this world beside you: I will never grieve you again."
Zoe entered the house in a very different frame of mind to that in which she had quitted it. She made an excuse to Lady Clara for passing at once into her own room. She required to be alone, to think over the happiness so unexpectedly restored to her, and which she still almost feared was a dream.
Early the next morning, after breakfast, Mirabeau made his appearance, and remained some time, making himself as gentle and charming as mortal man could be. By daylight he was even more shocked at the change the last few weeks had produced in Zoe's appearance; but he quieted his conscience by thinking, "It is only nervous; and she will soon get better now."
A servant was once engaging herself to a "place of all work". "Pray have you any followers, young woman?" asked the mistress, "for I do not allow them." "Then I fear, ma'am, we shall not suit," replied the poor girl, "for there is a young man I have kept company with nearly seven years, and I should not like to give him up."
"You are going to be soon married to him then, of course?"
"Married!" said the servant, indignantly. "Oh dear, no, ma'am; such a thought never entered my head."
"Then what is it all to end in?" asked the lady, very pertinently.
Now if any one has asked Zoe what her "keeping company" with Count Mirabeau "was to end in" she would have been much puzzled to answer. In fact, she had never once thought about the matter; and it was with astonishment only to be equalled by the extreme naturalness of the inquiry, that she heard Lady Clara, as soon as the departure of Mirabeau left them alone together, say, "I had no idea you were so intimate with the count, Zoe. You never told me you were engaged to him; and considering that I have always told you every thing, I do not feel myself well treated; but I suspected something that day I came into the room and found him leaning against the chimney-piece - I don't know why. It has so happened I have never been in the way when he has called since. I began to think he had vanished, it is so long since we saw any thing of him. When did he come back?"
"He has been in Scotland," said Zoe, "and he startled me by his sudden appearance last night; - he met me in my walk, and brought me home."
"Oh-h," replied Lady Clara, "I see now why you went to bed without supper! But, my dear creature, will he be a good match for you?"
"Upon my word, Clara, he has never made me an offer yet."
"No! Then what does he mean?"
"I don't know; but really I have never thought about the matter."
"Then the sooner you begin the better. You are not a person to be trifled with. - But what do you intend?"
"Well," said Zoe, "to tell the truth, I have had a vague idea of being friends all our lives, but I have never thought of any thing beyond the present, and if you had not spoken, there is no saying how long it might have been before I had done any thing so prosaic."
"My dear Zoe," said Clara, very gravely, "you take me for a thoughtless, giddy creature; but, after all, I think I have more practical sense than you have. Unless you intend to become Madame la Comtesse de Mirabeau, he must not go on visiting you as he has done. Remember you do not stand alone: you are the guardian of your children. Count Mirabeau is a most wonderful man, but he is a more than questionable character; even if you marry him, your discretion may very reasonably be called in question, but terms of intimacy, except with that view, cannot for a moment be tolerated; - to talk of friendship for such a man is nonsense, unless, like the good old duchess, you had had a tendresse for the father, which made you patronising for the son. You love him, and now I have the clue to all that has perplexed me in you since we came here; and before Frederick's illness; in fact, ever since the night of the oratorio. You have been playing a most hazardous game, and it must go on no longer, either for your own sake, or the children's. Zoe, you know I care for you more than any other woman under the sun, and therefore it is, that I speak thus plainly; - you are not angry with me?"
"No," said Zoe, "not at all - but I never once thought about any thing, except seeing him."
"Would you marry him, if he asked you?"
"Certainly I would," replied Zoe, distinctly.
"You have, decidedly, every right to please yourself," said Lady Clara, "but it will not be a wise match for you - for him, of course, it will be every thing that is fortunate; - but whatever you do, you must not compromise yourself by going on any longer in this ambiguous style."
This conversation left Zoe uneasy and anxious, the shadowy romance of her connexion with Mirabeau was over. After being lapped in an Elysian dream, she had suddenly jarred against earth with a rude shock.
She felt the good sense of Lady Clara's observations. With persons of Zoe's character to perceive what is right, gives them strength to perform it. She suddenly was roused as from slumber, and saw whereabouts she was standing. She perceived there was a real world to be considered, of which she had been too long forgetful.
Matters came to crisis sooner than she anticipated. Two days after the foregoing conversation, Zoe, Lady Clara, and the two boys, were sitting over the breakfast-table on a morning of storm and rain. They were far from expecting a visitor, but the door bell rang. "That is Count Mirabeau if it is any one," said Frederick, "he always rings furiously, and he always comes when no body else would be admitted; he likes to make people do what they don't want."
Lady Clara laughed, but had no time to reply, for at that moment Mirabeau actually entered. He was restless and absent, and he had evidently something on his mind; he seemed impatient at finding the room full of people; - at the end of five minutes it seemed as if he could endure it no longer, he said abruptly to Zoe:
"My God! madam, do you intend to remain in the house all this fine day?"
The boys both laughed at this joke, as they thought it; but Lady Clara giving a malicious glance at Zoe, said to the boys, "Come, I want you to help me to pack some books, and if you will find my keys, I will give you the paints and brushes you were wishing for before breakfast."
"Oh! that is capital," said they both together, "you will spare us our lessons this morning, won't you, mamma, and let us be useful to Lady Clara?"
"Yes, yes," said Lady Clara, "you shall have a holiday, for I shall want you all the morning, so come along."
After the door closed, Mirabeau remained a few moments silent, gazing earnestly on Zoe, as he stood before her. "Zoe," said he, at length, "the time is come when you must prove whether your love for me is real. Last night I received news from France: I must return thither immediately; a career at last is opened, even for me. True prophetess that you are, you foretold this to me when I would have despaired. Now I come to ask you to share my destinies. I feel, I know, there are great things before me; with you to be my angel, my support, my counsellor, I feel strong to govern the world; with you by my side, I go forth to conquer and to rule. I am not speaking vain words of boasting - you know I am not. Zoe, till this moment I never knew how much I loved you, I never knew the hold you have upon me: without you, power and honour would be insipid and worthless. It is you who give all meaning and value to my life. Tell me you are mine, that you will go forth with me."
Zoe felt that the crisis of her fate was come. For the first time she had listened to Mirabeau in the hope of hearing something beside words of love. She was one of those who dare to look their fate into the very eyes: - it is only weak souls who trifle and seek delay. She crimsoned over face, neck, and arms; but she spoke in a steady voice as she said, "If it is to become your wife, Gabriel, that you are asking me, I am willing to do so: there can be no discomfort or danger to me where you are."
Mirabeau smiled bitterly, and tossed back his long shaggy locks. "Why," said he, sternly, "do you name Wife to me? Why do you speak to me of that cursed one? She has been one of those who have made me what I am, who have made my life the mad guilty course it has been. Yes, my wife was a fool, but she spoiled and ruined my existence. We are divorced, it is true; but divorce with us does not allow either party to contract new ties: till that woman dies, you cannot be my wife. You see that even to gain you I will not tell you a lie. But what! does your courage fail at the first sacrifice required? Does your love, after all, prove only lip deep? It is only great souls that have it in them to make sacrifices. - I thought you were one."
Zoe looked at Mirabeau for a moment, as if she doubted whether she heard him aright; then, when there was no doubt under which she might find refuge, when his meaning stood in all its audacity before her, then all her womanly scorn and indignation at the outrage broke forth, bearing down like a lava torrent all sentiments of love and gentleness; her lip quivered, and her nostril dilated, and all the pride of her nature flashed from her eyes.
"This, then," said she, "is the goodly fruit of the love you profess for me. You have known your position from the beginning, and now, when you believe me fluttering in your toils, when you believe that I love you as a weak woman, you come, and dare to propose that I should disgrace my children, stand forth to the world as an abandoned woman, and take my place in the ranks of the hundred other women you have loved and abandoned! If that be all the return - "
"Nay, madam," interrupted Mirabeau, "if you begin to talk of gratitude I must own myself a bankrupt; I was not aware you wished to drive a bargain. I can repay your sacrifices with nothing but my love; and that, it seems, counts for nothing when weighed against the loss of worldly consideration. I was a fool to believe you different to other women, to believe that you would have greatness of soul enough to give yourself to me. Women let themselves be taken, and then, pretty dears, think they avoid the sin and scandal by acting under compulsion. A woman's love is no compliment, she is the prey to whoever will take her; she feels no pride in belonging to you, she would have got up the same pride in belonging to another, the same love for any other who had courted her. No, you are made of the same stuff as all the other women I have known; but I love you, Zoe, with all the force of my soul; you possess me like a demon, and you shall be mine. You shall not drive me mad, and remain yourself in your cold and selfish safety; your whole being shall be molten into mine. You are worthy to be a portion of me, Zoe. I do not love with soft honeyed words; I love you like hatred - and hatred it will be if you oppose me. If you let me leave your presence now, I shall not go forth a despairing lover, I shall hate you, I shall despise you - I shall never forget you, but I shall remember you with bitterness and curses, as one of those who have made my life a howling wilderness, as one who had the power to save me, and would not stretch out a hand, preferring to dwell in worldly respectability without me. And Zoe, you will never be able to forget me; you will think of this hour, but you will think of it with bitter and vain regret - and shame that, in this hour, when I had put my future fate into your hands to mould it as you would, you sat quietly calculating, and in cold blood could prefer yourself to me."
"Monsieur de Mirabeau," said Zoe, haughtily, "threats and taunts take no effect upon me. You are unjust, and you know it."
"Zoe!" said Mirabeau, in a voice of pity, "when I am no longer here the false strength that enables you to set yourself against me will fail: - who is there can supply my place to you? When I am gone, what comfort will you find in the consciousness that you have saved yourself and lost me? For if you fail me now, all hope of good is over for me. You have power to do with me what you will, to make of me what you will: you know not the extent of your power over me. - I never knew it till this moment, when my fate is trembling in the balance. Oh, Zoe, do not cast me out for ever. Think, what can supply your place to me? My place to you? For we love each other, Zoe. Think, when I was away from you lately, did your children fill up your heart? Did you find that the congregation of people, about whom you were perfectly indifferent, and who form what you call society and the world, could comfort you? Does their opinion weigh with you in such an earnest matter as this, when they would not, any one of them, have influence to determine the colour of your ribbons? Is it to the fear of what these might say that you sacrifice me and yourself? Oh, Zoe! I can supply the place of all these things to you; but pile up together all the small things in the universe, and will they outweigh me? Zoe, I do not taunt you, I do not threaten you. You see I am gentle and humble; I can kneel to you, most humbly and reverently, as to an angel from heaven, and entreat you not to leave me, not to withdraw your presence from me. Oh, Zoe! no man ever loved a woman as I love you: - will you save your reputation at the cost of my happiness? Will you sacrifice me at the shrine of a word that has no substance - for a formula? Can noble self-sacrifice be a dishonour?"
Zoe sat all this time pale and motionless, only the convulsive grasp of her fingers round each other showed the struggle that went on within. "Gabriel," said she, when he had ceased to speak, "you can break my heart, and it is hardly worth while to put forth so much strength only to do that. You know, I love you; - if it were only myself at stake, I could not contend against you; I would sacrifice myself to you, though with my eyes open to the consequence; for when I had become a thing of no account, a woman dishonoured and cast out by the world, I should lose my power over you; I should become a degrading burden to you: - but, no matter, I would rejoice to become an outcast, if by so doing I could give you one moment's pleasure. You may beat down all my self-defences. I am your captive, helpless and submissive before you. I do not set myself up against you. If I did, I was wrong. But you see I am humble now, I own your power. But oh! in mercy try me no further. - I cannot be yours. - I cannot dishonour my children. I cannot leave them. I am not my own. I cannot give myself to you. You may kill me. I am dying now with this agony; - but I will not yield. I am theirs, I am their mother, and they shall not lose me. For the love of God! Mirabeau, be merciful and deliver me."
Mirabeau smiled scornfully.
"Certainly, madam," said he, ironically, "I will pain you no further by my presence; but I cannot deliver you from the consequences of what you do. If you love your children more than me, you are prepared to abide by the loss of my love. I have offered myself to you, and you reject me; you insult me, by preferring other objects before me. I will leave you with what you have chosen; but", said he, breaking out into a terrible and savage voice, "do you think I am one of those small creatures who swarm round you, who pretend to love, and, if rejected, can, with a look of folly, pretend to wish you well, and to become that neutral platitude - a friend! Do you think that I - I, ever can, or ever will be, your friend! No; when I cease to love you, I shall hate you. Do not trifle with me. Choose, Zoe."
Zoe did not speak, she felt all turned to stone.
"Zoe! my Zoe!" said he, melting into a tone of unutterable tenderness; "pause one moment before you decide, before you throw me off for ever. I love you; oh, Zoe, you know not the world of meaning rounded into that word. - Oh, come along with me. - Make but a sign. - Look at me only, and I will stay."
Zoe sat with her head averted, and neither spoke nor moved. He retreated some steps towards the door, keeping his eyes still fixed upon her. Zoe felt every step fall upon her heart. Still she sat motionless, frozen with grief and terror. Suddenly he returned, knelt at her feet - cold tears fell from his eyes over her hands, his voice was choked and husky; "Zoe, for the last time, I implore you to speak."
Zoe shivered with agony, but she gave no sign.
"Then all is over," said he, rising, "and your love is a vain thing." He left the room; and, when Lady Clara returned some time afterwards, she found Zoe lying stiff and senseless on the floor.
Zoe remained so long in this rigid deathlike state, in spite of all means used to restore her, that Lady Clara, in great terror, sent for medical assistance. The doctor, when he arrived, pronounced it a species of catalepsy, the effect of some great shock, and under that stilled exterior, the powers of life were working to destruction; he seemed apprehensive of a fatal result - or, at least, that the crisis would be attended with some terrible struggle. After lying many hours in this life-in-death state, the chains that held her seemed gradually to relax; she did not become, at once, conscious of what was around her, but tears streamed from her still-closed eyes. Her breathing became regular, and her senses were unlocked from the strange torpor that had enthralled them. She was, however, as weak as an infant. She recognised Lady Clara, who had never for a moment quitted her; but she was unable to speak above a whisper; at length, she fell into a gentle sleep, which continued for some hours. In a few days, she was apparently in her usual health, but so unnaturally still and quiet, that Lady Clara was far from feeling easy on her account.
They left Hastings, and returned home, so soon as Zoe could bear the journey. She went about as usual, and engaged in her accustomed occupations; but she never made the most distant allusion to what had passed between herself and Mirabeau at their last interview. Once Lady Clara said something about her recent illness, but Zoe shrank in evident pain; "Not yet, not yet," she said, "sometime you shall know every thing; but there are some wounds we do not look at, even to dress them; - let me alone a little while longer. - I am not insensible of your true friendship, though I seem so cold."
Thus the winter passed. Lady Clara gave up all her own plans, that she might remain beside her friend, and seemed to have forgotten all her own private store of hopes and fears. All that was frivolous or thoughtless in her character disappeared before this appeal to her better nature.
The little O'Brians had left Richmond whilst they were at Hastings. A letter from the father, containing grateful thanks, most gracefully expressed, for all the attention they had received from Zoe and her friend, seemed to have closed their intercourse with the family.
Early in February, the old Duchess of N---- , who had taken a great fancy to Lady Clara, insisted upon her coming to stay a short time with her, to assist her in doing the honours to a large party of visitors she was expecting. Zoe would not suffer her to refuse, and she went.
The weather had been stormy, and for more than a week past no visitors had been near Zoe; but the very day after Lady Clara's departure, a carriage drove to the door to Zoe's great annoyance. She, however, with the nervous vacillation induced by her state of health, could not resolve to deny herself till the moment for doing so was past, and the visitor, whoever he might be, had been admitted. The Reverend Horace O'Brian was announced by the servant. For Clara's sake Zoe exerted herself to receive him cordially; she inquired after the children, and expressed her regret that Lady Clara should be absent. His manners were abrupt, and he was in evident agitation which deprived him of his usual graceful urbanity. The conversation on ordinary topics soon flagged, for Zoe was too weary to sustain it. At length, by an evident effort he roused himself. "I am on the point of departing for Italy," said he, "on account of my daughter Susan, who has been ill, and is ordered to a warmer climate. I come to you - I am come to ask - Mrs Gifford I know you think me a heartless scoundrel - and no wonder, for I have been one. Men make excuses to themselves for that sort of thing, and pass them lightly over with a jest; but no man ever acted as I have done, and felt his heart at ease after. You know too well to what I allude. Till I became free again, I knew not how I had cherished the image of that gentle angel. I know she is lost to me for ever; but I can think of no one else; all other women seem coarse and trifling beside the memory of her. - I shall never marry again. - I wish you at least to know the sincerity of my regret for the past. You mentioned Lady Clara - she is all a woman should be, gentle, and good, and fascinating in every way; but I am now expiating a fault committed long ago.
"I might have been happy with Clotilde, but my cursed vanity, my selfish worldliness, made me mad and blind - and now that another woman, every way too good for me, is within my reach, I cannot take the blessing offered. Mrs Gifford, we can never escape from the evil of our own faults. It pursues us years after they are committed. I have not trifled with your friend - do me that justice at least; but you do not know how hard it is for a man to check himself, to measure his words, to refrain from the society of a fascinating woman. I could not leave England without some explanation to you. I must have seemed inconsistent. I never have dared to let your friend see how much I valued and admired her; my words would have borne a meaning to her that they did not to me. Therefore it is that I seemed so cold and contradictory. Now that I am going to Italy, I must see Clotilde once more. Do not gainsay me, for it will be in vain. Tell me in what convent she is buried."
He spoke rapidly, his words were broken and unconnected. Zoe in vain tried to discourage him from his project of seeing Clotilde again; - she was fearful of unsettling her, and she felt by no means sure that her religion would prevent a relapse into an earthly sentiment; - it certainly was a very hazardous experiment, and she was, besides, terribly disappointed at poor Clara's prospects. But Horace O'Brian was too impetuous to listen to her reasons, he was too earnest, and she was too weak, to contend with him. She gave him the name of the convent of which Clotilde was now the abbess, and asked whether she should write and prepare Clotilde for seeing him.
"No," said he, "things always arrange themselves better than we can scheme them. I have already intruded too long upon you; I must now go. If you mention this visit to your friend, I wish you also to tell her the high respect I entertain for her. I am fully aware of all her worth. Now, madam, farewell! I am deeply grateful for the patience and consideration you have shown for me."
He bowed and left the room.
Zoe mused for some time, considering whether it would be better to tell Lady Clara all that had passed. On the whole she decided merely to mention his visit in general terms. His departure for Italy would prevent her nourishing any vain hopes; and, moreover, if Clotilde went through the ordeal preparing for her, in the way Zoe anticipated, then in the ordinary course of things, the Reverend Horace O'Brian would take the good yet within his reach and be much happier than he deserved with Lady Clara, who, as he truly said, was a great deal too good for him; - and, in the meanwhile, there was no use in vexing her with an account of his revived love for Clotilde. Horace might make the confession himself, if ever she were destined to hear of it.
It was the hour of recreation in the convent of Santa ----. The sisters were all assembled in the garden; but the reverend mother (such was now the style and title of the gentle, unassuming Clotilde) sat in her pleasant parlour alone. The few years that have passed since last she appeared before the reader, have made a great change in her appearance. She is no longer the timid, unformed girl; her form has developed and matured to a fullness of womanly beauty; a self-possession and gentle dignity have taken the place of her former shrinking manner: the habit of directing the proceedings of others gave this, for though her sway was gentle, she was too conscientious not to be firm. No unruly passions struggled within her bosom to disturb its holy serenity - all earthly thoughts were dead, she lived in her religion; earthly hopes and fears had ceased to touch her sympathies. There was nothing austere or ascetic about her; but her thoughts constantly fixed on the mysteries of the unseen world, the communion of saints, gave a holy imaginativeness to her daily life. Love of the infinitely holy and true, as embodied in the doctrines and devotions of the Church, satisfied all the yearnings of affection, without the alloy of trouble and unrest that attends those who invest their love in earthly objects. She thought of the one great trial of her young life, her dream of passion for Horace O'Brian, as of a temptation from which she had been delivered, through no power or merit of her own, and she looked with feelings of humility and gratitude on the happy tranquil lot appointed for her in its stead. On this day she was sitting at her open casement, looking into the garden where the nuns and novices were walking. She was interrupted by a lay sister, who came to say that an English gentleman and two little girls were in the reception room, and wished to see her, for that he brought her tidings from home. Clotilde rose immediately, and proceeded to the convent parlour. The Catholic Church thoroughly understands all that is graceful in costume, and the robes for both the clergy and the religious orders are the perfection of arrangement in drapery.
The black flowing robe, falling in ample folds to the feet, the veil floating over the head and shoulders, and the fair young face of Clotilde peering out of the white plaited wimple, made a beautiful picture. If she had studied for a century, she could not have devised a more becoming costume than the one in which she now made her appearance to Horace O'Brian. She recognised him at once. A slight tinge passed across her cheek at the unexpected sight of him who had been so much to her, but it was a blush at the recollection of her former weakness. It passed instantly; and with her own sweet voice she said, "This is very kind, Mr O'Brian, to take so much trouble to bring me news of my dear friends at home. When did you see my mother? How are my brothers? You cannot tell me too much about them."
Horace O'Brian was abashed and confused; he had not settled in his own mind what he expected to see, and he felt something very like awe, before the sweet, grave, tranquil face that now appeared to him. The two children had shrunk behind their father, and peeped at her with timid, wondering eyes; - she was Miss Gifford still, and yet not Miss Gifford; they did not dare to approach her in that strange black dress; - and then of late, they had been accustomed to the quick lively manners of Lady Clara.
"Ah, you have brought me the dear children once more! You do not know how glad you have made me feel. But have you forgotten me, my darlings? and will you not come and play with me again? I have a beautiful garden here, and we will build another castle for the doll."
The little ones ventured from their hiding-place. She took them on her knee, and they soon became as friendly as ever.
"We have got another doll since we saw you, a very large one with wax hands and feet - and we have learned to read, and to say hymns too; may we say some to you?"
"You will tire Miss Gifford," said their father.
"Tire me!" cried Clotilde. "Oh! if you only knew the joy it gives me to see them once more. They are grown like little angels."
Horace thought this a very good sign in his favour, and he said, "Perhaps you will let them go and see the garden, for I have many things to say to you."
Clotilde gently inclined her head in token of assent, and turning to the children, she said, "Will you come along with me, my darlings?" At first they did not like leaving their papa, but on his promising to wait till they came back, they took courage and went with "Miss Gifford", as they still called her.
"See what I have brought you!" cried she to the nuns who gathered round, themselves like so many children. The little O'Brians were handed from one to another, caressed, feasted with all the most delicious confitures of the convent, and showed so many beautiful things, that they soon became quite at home, and were contented that Clotilde should leave them for a while, to return to their father.
"Now," said she, with a smile, "let me hear all your English news; the dear children will be very happy where they are for a short time."
Horace O'Brian told her of Zoe's illness, about her brothers, and about a visit he had recently paid to his Rectory at Sutton - but he was distrait and troubled, as he gazed on the gentle creature before him. His narrative was by no means consecutive or lucid; Clotilde had to gain her intelligence by many questions. - Horace was reminded of his singular behaviour, only on perceiving the mild surprise that appeared in Clotilde's blue eyes, at his contradictory statements about the age and number of Marian's children. "Clotilde," said he, in an agitated voice, "it is in vain for me to attempt to converse on other matters, till I have eased my conscience by asking your forgiveness. I am come to Italy for no other purpose. Tell me are you happy; - then, at least, I may be once more at peace with myself."
Every thing that was passionate and tender beamed in the eyes of Horace; - the tones of his voice were soft and earnest - but what once had power to move her whole soul, now failed in its magic. She looked at him steadily and calmly, whilst she said,
"For what have you to ask my forgiveness? You never did any thing to need forgiveness from me. And why do you ask whether I am happy? - Can you not see yourself that it is well with me?"
"Then, Clotilde, have you altogether forgotten me? I confess with bitter shame, that I deserve it at your hands, but I had still dared to hope differently. I am free - my wife is dead - or I would not have dared to appear before you; and those children are once more motherless."
Clotilde looked perplexed and slightly troubled. "Oh, Clotilde!" cried he, "if I had formerly listened to your voice, I should have been wise and happy now. Clotilde, do the angels interpose in our behalf when we have once rejected them? At least, my children have not sinned against you. Take them, bring them up in your own presence, make them good and pure like yourself. Clotilde, will you grant my request? - Will you take my children and educate them?"
A mild pleasure beamed from Clotilde's eyes, as she said, "Oh! this is beyond all my hopes! but are you indeed in earnest? You have not embraced our holy faith?"
"No," said Horace, "I have lost Heaven, it is no matter now what comes to me; but take my children, and make them like yourself."
"And did you indeed come to Italy to have these precious children brought up in the only true way? Then indeed have my unworthy prayers been granted! Do you know, I have said prayers constantly for you and these darlings to the Blessed Virgin, and Father Bernard, our holy confessor, he also has prayed for you; his heart will rejoice to hear these tidings!"
"I care for no prayers and no rejoicings save your own, Clotilde," said Horace.
"But I am not Clotilde now," said she, "I am called the Mother Angelique."
"Then you are an angel now, both by name and nature," said he, warmly.
"When will the children come? I feel impatient till we have them."
"To-day, to-morrow, when you will," said Horace, "but you will let me visit them."
"Whenever you please," replied Clotilde, "at the visiting hours."
"And you will promise that I shall always see you?"
Horace received no reply to this request. Possibly Clotilde did not hear it, for her attention was drawn to the children, who at that moment reappeared laden with treasures, and wild with spirits; they both began talking at once to their papa of all they had seen. "And we are to come again, papa, to hear the nuns sing in the beautiful chapel! Oh, how I should like to stay here always!"
"Yes," said the other, "if papa might come too. - Will you ask him, Miss Gifford?"
"Miss Gifford has invited you to come to-morrow to stay with her, and she says I may come and see you. Will that do, my queens?"
And so it was settled. The children with their father departed, and Clotilde was left once more alone: - And what were her meditations? Was her tranquil bosom agitated with the blind tumult of earthly feeling? Had the sight of the only one she had ever loved, rendered her unfit for the discharge of her sacred duties? No. Clotilde had passed once for all, into a higher, purer region - where the storm of passion cannot come nigh. She went into her oratory, where she returned thanks for the miraculous answer to her prayer in these children being once more placed in her care.
The little O'Brians came according to arrangement, and were installed in the convent as boarders, all the inmates vying with each other which should do the most towards spoiling them. Clotilde, however, took care that a certain portion of lessons should be gone through every day. And certainly, whatever might be Horace O'Brian's motive in consigning his children to the convent, he could hardly have done a wiser thing; for the practical example of the subdued temper, the meekness and gentleness, of the daily life of Clotilde and her nuns, did not fail to have a most beneficial influence upon them, which lasted all their life. When they were fairly settled, their father - whether he really felt inclined to go the journey, or whether he wished to try the salutary effect of a little critical absence in re-awakening the tenderness of Clotilde - certain it is, that he left Rome with a party of friends to make a tour through the southern parts of Italy, intending also to cross over into Sicily.
It seemed as if Clotilde's tranquil life was destined about this time to suffer nothing but invasions. Scarcely had Horace departed, when she received a letter from Zoe, not written in her usual bold, decided characters, but faint, uneven, and almost illegible; it was to say that she was ill, and that she and the boys were on the point of starting for Italy, and would take up their abode with Clotilde, if she could receive them. "A dear and most kind friend will accompany me," said the letter in conclusion, "one who has been more than a sister to me; you must take her in also. I have suffered much, dear Clotilde, and it may only be a sick fancy, but it seems as though with you I should find peace and healing. I am restless and oppressed till I find myself once more with you." Clotilde's tears fell over this letter; she knew how utterly bowed down the heart of her mother must have been before she could have written thus. She lifted her eyes to the image of the Virgin: "Oh, Holy Mother," cried she, "intercede for her, that her heart may be open to receive the only true consolation provided for us. Amen."
The nuns, who dearly loved a little gentle bustle and excitement, were delighted to hear of the expected visitors, and every hand in the convent was busily employed in decorating and preparing the rooms for their reception. The little O'Brians were scarcely less enchanted at the prospect of so soon seeing again their two playfellows, and longed for their father's return, that they might tell him all about it.
At length, after various delays, Zoe and her party arrived. The passage had been stormy and tedious, and Zoe was so weak on her arrival, that she had to be carried from the carriage into the parlour. Clotilde was much shocked at the change in her proud and beautiful mother; she was obliged to leave the room abruptly, in order that Zoe might not be agitated with seeing her emotion.
The little O'Brians carried off the boys, to show them all the wonders of the place; Lady Clara, who had ever been unremitting in her attention to Zoe, assisted her to undress; and when she was laid on her bed, in the bright picturesque-looking room, taking a hand of Clotilde and Clara, she said with a smile, "I am come to get well here, and I must do that before I can repay your kindness." It was the strange gentleness and submissiveness of Zoe's manner that affected Clotilde more than even the change in her appearance.
Total change of scene, however, soon wrought a beneficial influence on Zoe's health and spirits. So long as she remained at home, where every object reminded her of what had been, where the very trees seemed to nod their heads and mock her as she passed along, it was hardly to be expected that, with her best efforts, she could avoid sinking deeper and deeper in despondency. But we are creatures of time, which wears down all our sorrows; example, too, has a strange magnetic influence over us, almost like sorcery; and the regular occupations, the tranquil habits of all who surrounded her, after the lapse of some weeks, wrought Zoe into a more healthy frame of mind, and the apathy in which she had been wrapped melted away.
Zoe looked on Clotilde with wonder, and something not unlike envy.
"Oh that I were altogether such as you are!" exclaimed she one afternoon, as she lay on the couch in Clotilde's parlour, watching her employed in preparing linen and bandages for the hospital. "What good has my life done to myself or any one else? What profit has there been in all the intellect and beauty on which I so foolishly and vainly prided myself? When I was a child I used to fancy I would do great things, and now my life has nearly passed away, and I am thus."
"Dearest mother," said Clotilde, laying down her work, "all these gifts must seem wasted unless they are dedicated to the highest uses, not to our own glory. He who bestowed them, He alone can find due employment for them; He is the only being whom we may securely love, whom we may venture to serve with all our soul and strength. In Him alone can we safely put our whole trust. Do not think me presumptuous in speaking to you; they are not words of my own wisdom. You know how once I suffered when I was in the world. Well, I found no consolation until I submitted myself to Him, made my will and wishes His - believing them, feeling them to be the best, though I had suffered so cruelly from them. And oh!" said she, raising her eyes, "believe me, no happiness from gratified wishes can be half so sweet as that which follows the submitting of ourselves to Him who is the Highest. They are not mere words I am speaking, as you would know if you would only once sacrifice your hopes and fears to Him, and wait in peace." The tears streamed down her cheeks as she spoke thus, but they were not tears of unhappiness. She came up to Zoe, and putting her arms round her neck, said, "I seem to love you so much more than ever I did, since you were in sorrow."
Zoe kissed her fair forehead, but she made no reply.
The little O'Brians came running in, to say that their papa was come home, and was waiting in the parlour. Lady Clara, who just then entered with a vase of flowers, hit it against the table, the vase was broken, and the flowers fell all around. She was looking at Clotilde, and so was Zoe. Clotilde quietly began to gather up the fragments and the fallen flowers, saying, "Perhaps, Lady Clara, you will go and receive Mr O'Brian, ask him to come here and take an English tea with us; but are you well enough to see him, mamma?" continued she, turning to Zoe.
Nothing but the most perfect unconsciousness was to be discerned in Clotilde's manner.
"I should like to see him of all things," said Zoe.
Lady Clara departed on her errand with a heightened colour, whilst Clotilde quietly repaired the confusion occasioned by Lady Clara's accident.
Horace O'Brian's temper had apparently been ruffled by some untoward occurrence, for though he followed Lady Clara into Clotilde's parlour, he looked sulky and discomposed; he scarcely paid any attention to Zoe, merely making a few slight inquiries after her health, and her journey, and showed some anxiety to know how long she intended to remain. To Lady Clara he was almost rude, and to Clotilde, from whom, however, he hardly removed his eyes, following her slightest movement, he was cross and abrupt; he made no attempt to keep up conversation, but seemed all along to labour under the idea, that he was a singularly ill-used person. After sitting for about a quarter of an hour, he rose to depart, declaring that he had an engagement.
"When will you come again?" asked Clotilde, kindly.
"Whenever you will ask me."
"Well, then, come to-morrow."
These few words seemed to restore his good-humour as if by magic. He spoke quite affectionately to Zoe, and entreated that she would allow him to take her eldest boy to ride with him the next day, on a beautiful English pony he had brought over for his own daughter; and promised to fetch him. He departed without noticing Lady Clara - till he reached the door, when seeming suddenly to recollect himself, he turned round, and said negligently, "Oh, good night, Lady Clara, I beg your pardon."
Zoe saw Clara go to the window, trying to repress the tears that started to her eyes.
"Do you like your children to have any thing to do with horses?" asked Clotilde, when Horace was gone.
"Oh, yes," said Zoe, "I wish them to become good horsemen."
"I am very nervous about horses," said Clotilde, "and I do not like the idea of his going out."
The next morning Horace O'Brian was at the convent early, and brought with him, not only the pony for Frederick, but another horse with a lady's saddle for Zoe. After a little persuasion, Zoe consented to accompany him, and they set off. Lady Clara watched them depart, and then sat down, burying her face in her hands, and cried bitterly. Clotilde looked at her with compassion. She saw exactly how matters stood; she could almost have smiled, to think that it had fallen to her lot to comfort another, under the same trial that had once been almost heavier than she could bear. She wondered how it was she had become so indifferent to one who had once been so dear; and then she sighed, to think of all poor Lady Clara must be suffering. On passing to the table where she usually sat, she was startled to find a letter addressed to herself; and her surprise gave way to indignation and horror, as she perused the contents. It was nothing less than a mad declaration of love from Horace O'Brian! who, driven to desperation at finding no chance of a private interview, had taken that method of making known his passion. It was the letter of a man perfectly beside himself; every thing that regret, despair, and mad wild passion could dictate, was uttered with an eloquence that might have won admiration, had it not excited shame and horror in the bosom of her to whom it was addressed. It seemed to Clotilde that she was committing a sin even to read it; all her ideas of purity and sanctity were cruelly outraged. Our dearest wishes often seem like judgments when they are granted to us after the first heat of desire has passed over. So it was with Clotilde: she sat for some time undecided what course to pursue; then, passing into her oratory, she despatched a message requesting Father Bernard to come to her directly. The old man speedily obeyed her summons, for he expected to hear nothing less than that all the English party staying within the convent walls had suddenly got converted, in answer to the "Novena" he had caused to be put up for them. His celestial castles in the air were destined to be rudely overthrown. His horror on receiving Clotilde's communication was scarcely inferior to her own. He first gave her the absolution she earnestly craved for becoming acquainted, however involuntarily, with such a sacrilegious proposal - for we omitted to say, that Horace proposed that Clotilde should abandon her convent, and fly with him to England, and there become his wife!
"We must be careful how we deal with this wild, bad man," said the old priest; "if we drive him beyond bounds, he will remove the dear children out of our hands, and then who will save their precious souls? We must pray that this mad passion may be overruled to good. You have influence over him, and you must use it."
"I, Father!" exclaimed Clotilde. "I can never see him again."
"You must constrain yourself, my daughter; remember, it is in a good cause you are working; you must overlook your own feelings, when it is a question of saving souls to the glory of the Church. I will be with you, and stand beside you, whilst you speak."
"And that poor Lady Clara," cried Clotilde, "who loves him so much; why cannot he love her, and marry her, as he ought to do?"
"The Devil is the author of confusion and every evil work," rejoined Father Bernard; "but we may yet baffle his malice, if you are earnest and faithful."
Clotilde remained for some time longer in her oratory, endeavouring to calm and prepare her mind for the task before her.
She was disturbed by a confused noise, very different from the stillness that usually pervaded the place, mingled with shrieks, and the trampling of hurried feet coming towards her room. Immediately afterwards, a violent knocking came to the door; on opening it, a crowd of nuns, pale, agitated, and breathless, told her, in phrases hardly intelligible, that the pony, on which Frederick Gifford had that morning gone out to ride, had just galloped into the yard, covered with blood and foam, without its rider! Sick with horror, Clotilde hastily descended, and there found all as she had been told. Half-an-hour of the most agonising suspense followed. Vain hopes and useless conjectures wearied every heart. Father Bernard went forth to see if he could obtain intelligence, but every moment seemed to increase the agony of fear. At length, a group arrived at the gate. Clotilde hardly dared to look - suspense seemed at that instant more tolerable than certainty. When she ventured to raise her eyes, she saw Horace on foot leading his horse by the bridle and supporting Frederick. At length all were assembled in the parlour, and Frederick deposited on the sofa. Horace O'Brian clasped his two little ones to his bosom, in a transport of thankfulness; Zoe knelt beside Frederick, with her arms round her other son, looking with intense anxiety, as Clotilde and Lady Clara examined him to see what injury he had sustained. Beyond a few bruises, he was unhurt; no bones were broken, nor was there any serious contusion. The doctor just then came in, and confirmed their report. The revulsion of feeling was almost too much for Zoe - she burst into tears. The doctor administered some medicine to the boy, and he was removed to bed, with orders to be kept quiet for the remainder of the day, and then there was leisure to give an account of all that had happened.
This accident prevented every one from thinking of their own private embarrassments. Lady Clara was too busy about the child to think of Horace; Horace was, for the moment, too much engrossed by his own children, to think of Clotilde; and Clotilde was too much engaged in thinking about every body else, to have any thought to spare for her own situation.
"Oh, Clotilde," said Zoe, "till I saw my child lying, as I fancied, dead before me, I never knew how much more wretched I might be. Oh! how thankless and selfish I have been, to feel unhappy, when both my children are left to me! I feel now as if I never could be sufficiently thankful!" She followed Lady Clara out of the room to go to Frederick - for she could not bear to have him out of her sight. The other children would not remain quiet, unless they might see all that was going on, and they soon crept out of the room. Horace and Clotilde were left alone.
If Horace had ever dared to hope, one glance at the severe and majestic gravity of her countenance undeceived him. He was dismayed to recollect his reckless audacity, and stood silent and confused before her. Clotilde was the first to speak; - "Mr O'Brian," said she, "I have seen the letter you wrote to me, and placed upon my table. It is not an outrage upon me alone, that you have committed; - you have been guilty of an act of sacrilege; and you have caused me to be guilty of sin, in becoming cognisant of it, though, thank Heaven, it inspired me with nothing but horror. You must never come within these precincts again - depart at once. I would not wish to hate any one, but the very sight of you is painful."
"Oh, Clotilde, Clotilde!" cried he, "pass any sentence upon me but that; I was mad, frantic, to dream that you would stoop from your purity to such a wretch as I; but do not bid me depart; you have all power over me, I submit myself to you. I will do any thing, so you do not utterly banish me. Pardon, pardon, on any terms, if not for my own sake, for the children's."
"It is not fitting that a worm like me, should arrogate a power that belongs alone to your Maker!" said Clotilde, austerely. "To please me, is not the motive from which you ought to act. Oh, bethink you of your high calling, and rouse yourself to more worthy actions! If I could speak one word that might be the means of enkindling in your heart, thoughts and feelings such as behove a man, who will one day have to give an account, not of himself alone, but of those committed to his care. Oh, for very shame, rouse yourself and consider, whether it is fitting for a man who has the care of souls upon him; who look to him for their guidance in this world, and their knowledge of the next; to be giving loose to unruly desires and effeminate emotions! - Is it a light thing to have the blood of all these souls upon your head?"
Horace O'Brian actually trembled before her rebukes. "Tell me," said he, submissively, "what you would have me do?"
"I would have you", replied she, "return to your own land, and fulfil the duties imposed upon you by your station. I would have you consider something higher in life than self-pleasing; study something more noble than self-indulgence."
"Oh, I will do this, and more than this; there is no penance I would not thankfully perform to appease you; - but tell me that you do not utterly despise me."
"What am I," rejoined Clotilde, "that I should dare to despise any one? But I can think of you with no complacency during your present course."
"Oh, tell me - may I hope to become worthy to have a place in your thoughts? Will penance and amendment avail?"
"Become what you ought to be, and you will attain something far better than any approval I can give."
"But will you keep the children till I can worthily claim them? - Till you yourself believe they will be as well with me as with yourself?"
"I will do so, if you wish it," replied Clotilde, hardly able to repress the joy this proposal gave her. "But now, you must depart, and return no more."
There was an air of majesty in her command, that Horace did not dare to disobey; - he retired from her presence as from before a queen. Clotilde fell on her knees before the image of the Virgin, and returned thanks that the heart of Horace had been moved to let the children remain with her.
Horace, without taking leave of his children, or seeing any of his friends, departed the next day for England. Clotilde's words seemed to have struck some hidden chord in his heart. His eyes were suddenly opened to a sense of his own worthlessness - a feeling of humility sprang up in his heart for the first time; - he became alive to a sense of the requirements of his position in life, all slothfulness and love of ease, were burned out of his heart. From the day on which he left Clotilde's presence, he became a different man. The image of Clotilde became to him that of a saint, and stimulated him onwards in his course of well-doing.
A renovating moral influence seemed to distil on all within the sphere of Clotilde; her gentle example told on all around her.
Zoe roused herself from her torpor of sorrow, and felt that life still retained claims upon her; a desire to exert herself, to work at something, no matter what, arose within her breast. Her boys had already lost much time, and she now became impatient to return home, to the occupations and duties that lay for her there. After a sojourn of three months the whole party prepared to depart. The little O'Brians, however, still remained with Clotilde, as they had not been claimed by their father.
When they arrived in England, Lady Clara proposed to leave Zoe, and go to her own home; but Zoe entreated her so earnestly to remain with her, to make up her mind to live with her, that Lady Clara, albeit very doubtful of the abstract wisdom of taking up her permanent abode with any dear friend, suffered herself to be persuaded. In fact, when it came to the point, she could not bear the thought of leaving Zoe, between whom and herself many points of union had arisen; sickness and sorrow knit the hearts of friends together as no communion of happiness ever does.
It was determined that the boys should be sent to Eton till it was time for them to go to college.
Zoe received no tidings either of Mirabeau or Everhard. A fatality seemed to hang over her lovers, whereby they were, at what threatened to be the very crisis and climax of fate, spirited away from her into silence and space. Clotilde would have said it was her guardian angel who interposed, but we doubt whether Zoe would have been of the same opinion.
The memory of Mirabeau, however, faded like a dream, or like the passing away of a fierce tropical storm; he retained no practical influence over her, he did not modify her character. He had roused her strong passionate nature, but as the storm sank to rest, so did the recollection pass away. It was singular, that the more she occupied herself with her boys, the more the memory of Everhard was reawakened in her bosom; he had always associated himself with her in all her interests, in all her occupations, and she now found herself constantly referring to his opinion, to his judgment, to things that he had once said, to counsels that he had formerly given; so long as the boys remained, they formed a bond between him and her. Mirabeau, who had impetuously refused to divide his interest in her with any other object, who had, sought to concentrate every one of her thoughts and feelings in himself, had left no trace of himself now that he had passed away. There remained no community of interest between them. He had never given her his confidence about his own affairs; he and his doings had always been shrouded in mystery, which perhaps had not been without its effect at the time; but it was not the basis to build on, to endure absence.
Zoe found herself constantly referring to Everhard, to his opinions, to his works. It was not love she felt for him, she was too wearied and exhausted now for passionate emotions; besides, Everhard had long since ceased to excite them: it was a tranquil affection, a firm and trusting friendship, that strengthened day by day. She felt as sure of him and of his love for her, as if she had never parted from him. She felt sure that he would not only forgive her passion for Mirabeau, but that he would have allowed her to talk of it to him, as to her most indulgent friend; for she knew that Everhard loved her, and not himself in disguise. After all, either a man or a woman might be very proud of inspiring such an affection, though it says a great deal for their strength that they can endure it, for they must love without the hope of being beloved again. Some people have the faculty of enduring the rack with more fortitude than others.
One day, towards the latter end of July, the old duchess (who was now very infirm, and scarcely ever stirred from her home) came to see Zoe, and spend the day with her. After she had been placed in the most comfortable place in the sunny morning-room, seated in the large easy chair (for which Clotilde had embroidered a cover), with a table beside her, and a cushion under her feet, the old lady found herself quite at her ease, and proceeded to take her tatting out of her work-bag: at the same time she handed a letter over to Zoe, and lifting up her spectacles said, "There, my dear, I have brought this letter because I want to know what it is about, and I cannot read those cramp foreign handwritings; it is from our old friend Count Mirabeau; he always writes as if he were in a rage with his pen and ink, and had not patience to form his words. Just make it out to yourself first, and then read it to me, will you? It came several days ago, but I have not been able to get to see you before, and now I am become quite impatient to hear it."
Zoe started as if a serpent had stung her. All her recent tranquillity vanished, and left a sensation of hurried pain and baffled desire: she did not attempt to speak, but taking the letter, went to another part of the room. There was not much in the letter beyond an account of his election, and the flood of triumphant success which poured in upon him. She had to read it every word, and to listen to the old lady's commentaries, and her own personal experience of elections, and wherein English elections differed from French ones, till she was almost mad with the irritation. Her own name occurred in a postscript: "I hear Mrs Gifford has been ill, but no doubt she is recovered by this time, for she is one of those strong, cold souls who will hold both death and hell at bay, and make terms with them (parlementer avec eux); such women are more wonderful than lovable." In another part he said, "It is not triumph alone that I seek; there are a thousand revenges in all I am achieving." A few words immediately following the sentence were effaced. Zoe's senses were in a tumult; all her old feelings for Mirabeau once more broke their bounds: she was overpowered by the bitter, sarcastic tone in which he named her; she saw how cruelly, how unjustly he judged her; and she was almost mad with agitation. How the remainder of the day passed she knew not, but it seemed as if it would never end. She at length was free to taste the luxury of being alone in her chamber, where she might weep as long and bitterly as she pleased.
It was many days before she recovered from the effect of the letter; but time never was faithless to a sufferer yet: there never yet was one whom he did not console.
An unexpected event turned Zoe's interest into another channel.
One fine morning the Reverend Horace O'Brian made his appearance. He was shown into the drawing-room, where Zoe was sitting alone. After a few very awkward attempts at conversation, he blushed, and inquired whether Lady Clara were within, and whether he might have a few moments' conversation with her. "So it is coming at last," thought Zoe, "now that poor dear Clara has schooled herself to be resigned without him. But whenever one's wishes are granted, it is always just when we have become indifferent whether we obtain them or no." She did not say this aloud, of course; she only gravely answered, that she "would go and look for Lady Clara". She had too much feminine sympathy to allow her friend to come in until she had made herself look as well as possible.
When Lady Clara entered, Horace O'Brian was seized with a very edifying and becoming sense of diffidence, as to whether, in spite of all favourable symptoms, he might not have been making himself rather too sure of her.
It was with manly and unaffected candour that he entered into a statement of his bygone errors, he did not in the least attempt to extenuate his former behaviour to Clotilde, nor did he disguise his madness and rashness when in Italy; but he told Clara, how long he had known her worth, and how sensible he had become of her attractions, and concluded by declaring that she held his happiness in her hands, and he said the most charming things in the most irresistible way. He assured Lady Clara, that she was without a rival in his breast, for that he loved her as entirely and devotedly as her perfections deserved, and then he made an appeal to her on behalf of the children; in short, he was perfectly in earnest, and very anxious about the result, so of course the reader may conclude, that he left nothing unsaid, or unlooked - for looks in these cases are more effective than words. Some people may think that Lady Clara was sadly deficient in "proper womanly spirit", as it is called; we are very sorry if such was the case, but we cannot falsify truth. Lady Clara had long loved Horace O'Brian, of late it had been very hopelessly, and now that he came to her with a declaration of his own attachment, and a candid avowal of all his former errors, it 'was not in her nature to stand out for a punctilio; she never once thought about either her "spirit" or her "dignity". What she said, never exactly reached us, but Horace O'Brian was grateful and happy. Zoe sent the dinner away three times, before any one appeared to eat it - and yet Lady Clara was ungrateful enough to complain that it had been sadly hastened that day! Zoe sympathised warmly and thoroughly in her friend's happiness, and quite forgot her own affairs. There was no necessity for any delay. Six weeks from the day on which Horace O'Brian had declared his love, Lady Clara became his wife; and never was that magical ceremony performed over two people, who more confidently believed it would bestow the most perfect ideal of human happiness. - If happiness be the natural result of logical premises, Horace and Lady Clara had no reason to fear disappointment.
Horace could now boldly claim his children. He wrote to Clotilde a history of all that had befallen him: in conclusion, he said, "If I am become in any wise a better man; if I am at all deserving of the happiness that has fallen to my lot, it is to you, to your precepts, to your example, to your influence, that I owe every thing."
The joy of Clotilde's heart may be imagined, but it was a terrible trial to part with the dear girls; however, she had the satisfaction of hoping she had grounded them in the principles of her own religion; but her loving soul was torn to lose them, many tears were shed on both sides, and the promise of "coming again very soon", consoled neither party.
Both Horace and Lady Clara were surprised at the great improvement visible in the children. They were much grown and developed in every way; Lady Clara said they reminded her so much of Clotilde in their manner, that it was like being in her company; and perhaps she never had said any thing for which Horace felt so pleased and grateful.
After this, events flowed on in an even, continuous course. Zoe always spent some weeks in every year with the O'Brians.
After the usual time spent at Eton, her eldest son proceeded to Cambridge, where he distinguished himself highly. The youngest boy showed a decided predilection for the sea, and nothing else would satisfy him but entering the navy.
One day in early spring of the year 17-- , a stranger was seen passing up the steep ascent that led to Gifford Castle; his dress and appearance had something ecclesiastical about them. He did not seem old; but he had the look of an athletic man, worn down by ill health. His hair was nearly white. There was a look of calm, stern composure on his countenance, which would have amounted to austerity, had it not been for a pair of large lustrous eyes, that seemed like wells of soul and feeling.
He passed along, and turned into a private path, with which he seemed well acquainted. It was overgrown with grass and briars, so as to be almost impassable; but it led at length to the castle door. He walked on like one in a dream, seeing nothing, yet conscious of every thing. He rang at the hall bell, which sounded with a shrill and startling echo, as of a place where no one dwells.
The door was opened after a short time; the servant started back in joyful astonishment, mingled with doubt.
"Can it be you, Father Everhard, come back to us?"
Everhard, for it was he, was startled in his turn. "I did not expect", said he, "to find any one here who would remember me. I understood that all the family were from home."
"So they are, sir, only me and my wife, we live here, and keep things in order a little. The garden must seem to you a sad wilderness; nobody has been here since they came back from Italy. But won't you walk in, sir, and perhaps you will condescend to sit down in our room, it is the only place that has a fire in it; and my wife will be overproud to set her eyes on you again. You may remember her, sir; she was a young slip of a girl when you were here, whom my lady took from the hamlet, and brought up and taught herself."
The room into which the loquacious servant ushered Everhard had formerly been Gifford's study. Everhard would have given the world to be alone. A chill suffocation, as from a tomb, struck on his heart. He seemed to be farther from Zoe, standing there in that desolate room, than he had been during all the years of his separation from her.
"Maybe Father Everhard would like to be by himself, as he goes through the rooms," said the woman to her husband, hardly knowing why she said so. Everhard bowed his head in assent; he could not trust himself to speak.
"The doors are all unlocked, sir; I open the windows myself every day when it is at all sunny."
Everhard went first into those rooms which had been common to the whole family - the chill, deserted aspect was not in them so intolerable.
At the door of Zoe's boudoir he stood trembling and agitated, as if it were her actual presence into which he was about to enter. The light blue hangings had not been removed, but they hung faded and moth-eaten; nothing that he could identify with Zoe remained, except the actual chairs and tables, which stood stiff and tarnished against the walls. The whole room, which had formerly been so redolent of beauty and grace, was now like a corpse that has been embalmed: the actual lineaments indeed preserved, but all that made the beauty and the soul departed. The singing of the birds, and the rustling of the trees, contrasted strangely with the stillness of the deserted room. The window was open, and he looked forth: the view from it was the same in all the great outlines, but all that had endeared it to him had passed away.
Zoe's flower-beds were so overgrown with weeds and grass, that scarcely a trace of them remained: rank, luxuriant vegetation, giving the idea of waste, not fertility, had obliterated all marks of the "trim gardens" that had once bloomed there. Several lilac and laburnum trees grew almost into the window, and were heavy with their luxurious flowers. The trees were everywhere bursting into leaf, the air was laden with spring odours, the sea was shining and glittering in the distance, and small fishing-boats, with their white sails, were sailing about in all directions.
It was on such another day, that he last walked in those gardens with Zoe. He stood as in an oppressive dream; the minutest incidents of that day came fresh into his mind, as if they were written in a book; the weight of memory was intolerable. A groan that burst from the very depths of his soul, was the only utterance of his dumb anguish.
He had been standing for he knew not how long, when he was roused by the voice of the housekeeper, and he perceived that the shadows were beginning to lengthen.
"Dear heart, sir, I feared you were taken ill, you were so long by yourself, and I made bold to come to you; it's a weary thing to come back and see the place so changed; the house though is in pretty good repair - the ceilings are all water tight, except just one of the attics; to be sure, the grand drawing-room has got sadly mildewed, and every day I expect to see the damp begin to show itself, on the fine painted ceiling; the gold of it is all blackened as it is. Maybe, if you are going up to London, you would just tell my lady, that it is a pity to let such a fine property go to a wilderness, and all for want of a little paint and whitewash; I am sure I have done my part, and slaved night and day to keep things decent, and I hope you will say so, sir, to my lady, if she asks any questions. I do my duty, sir, for I wish nobody to be wronged. - But, sir," she continued, seeing that Everhard did not look as if he knew what she was saying; "my husband and I thought it would be a shame to let you go to the village, you that used to belong here, as I may say, so we have done up what used to be the library, and made it more comfortable like, and I have made bold to get a bit of dinner, and it is quite ready, if you will please to come and eat it. These rooms are all damp, and I doubt but you will have been staying in them too long."
Obeying her gesture rather than her words, Everhard followed the chattering housekeeper into the library, where a good fire had been lighted - an arm-chair, and a small table, spread for dinner, had been drawn close beside it.
Everhard had not yet been into this room. - The books had all been removed, but the pictures that Everhard well recollected, still hung in their old places; and much of the heavy furniture had been brought in from the other apartments, so that its appearance was much more comfortable than might have been expected.
The bustling housekeeper soon returned bearing in a fowl, that had been killed and roasted whilst Everhard was indulging in his meditations; her husband followed with a bottle of old port wine (for he had fallen legitimate heir to all that had been left in the cellar at the breaking up of the establishment).
"I hope, sir," said he, respectfully, "you will take the will for the deed; if we had had more notice, we might have managed better."
Everhard roused himself to thank the good people for their attention, and to please them put something on his plate.
They left him to finish his meal alone; but as soon as the door closed behind them, the woman said to her husband, "He is not long for this world, poor gentleman; there's death in his face."
"He seems changed since he came in, to my thinking," said the man; "where was he when you went to him?"
"In madam's sitting-room - her boudoir."
"Ay, I thought it would be so; he was always fond of missis; we all knew he came to see her, and worshipped the very ground under her feet."
"Lor! I always thought he was such a good man," replied his wife.
"And do I say he was not? you fool!" said the husband, angrily; "he was fond of missis sure enough, but he never said or thought any thing that all the world might not know, that I'll stake my life on."
"Why, how do you know?"
"Because I watched them when they little thought of it."
"Poor gentleman!" said the sympathetic housekeeper, "no wonder he should be so cut up at seeing the old place look so like a wilderness, as if nobody cared about it."
Everhard remained plunged in the chaos of his own sensations, the events of that day had utterly overwhelmed him. His head ached and throbbed - his veins seemed filled with fire; - he felt as if he were going mad. The housekeeper entered to remove the things.
"Why, dear heart, sir!" she exclaimed, "you have neither eaten nor drank; is there any thing else you could fancy better?"
"No, no, my good woman, I am sorry to have been so much trouble; bring me some water if you will, for I have a burning thirst. Have you any writing materials in the house?"
"My husband has some white paper, I know; but whether it is such as the like of you can write upon, I can't say."
She presently returned with some pens and coarse paper. "I did not think", said she, "that cold water would be so good for you, so I just made you something that will be better for you, if you have the fever on you."
Everhard thanked the good woman for her attention, though he felt it somewhat oppressive, and again he was left alone.
The desire to approach Zoe, to commune with her, was a necessity if he were to live. He could not rest: he paced up and down the room. At length, taking up one of the candles, by a sudden impulse he went towards the chapel. Some of the pictures still hung against the walls; and the altar-piece that Zoe was putting up the first time he saw her, was still in its place. A ladder, that had been brought for some accidental purpose, and some workmen's tools, stood so as to remind him forcibly of the aspect the place bore on that evening. There are certain superstitious feelings to which all those whose emotions are excited are liable; they seem worse than childish when repeated, but they are phantoms that the heart alone can raise. Everhard's agitation was calmed; - he felt a strange certainty that Zoe must soon be in that very spot again. That chapel was the only place that seemed to speak to him of the past, without desolation. When he returned to the library, he wrote to Zoe. Words and tears were equally intended for the relief of man: both have healing in them.
"I am in England, I am here, why are you not here? I am farther from you in these your accustomed places, than I have felt during all the time we have been separated. There is no need to tell you that you have been my thought day and night; - you know it. You know that you have been the life of my life: - that you have kept me from all sense of ill. I have walked overshadowed by your presence; - but now - now, that I am come back to your accustomed places, and find you no longer where I always found you before, I sink under the sense of your absence. I cannot endure again what I have endured to-day; - Zoe, I must see you. Come to me. Come here. You know that I have endured, you know that I would have died before I would have caused you one perplexed thought, but now, I can struggle no longer. I must see you again. Oh! you know not, you cannot know the fierce unslaked thirst of absence. Come to me, my one beloved, and do not delay. The hand of death is on me; I am only come to England to die. This is no vague presentiment; the sentence of death is within my heart, and I have a very short time before me. My unutterable yearning to behold you, to hear once more the sound of your voice, is mightier than death. I cannot, I shall not, die till you come. The end, which has shown me the worthlessness of every thing else in this world, has made you more unutterably precious. Zoe, I have not spoken to you for long years. You do not know all you have been, all you are, to me. I could not have spoken and lived apart from you. I durst not break the silence in which I had frozen myself up. Do not, my beloved, think me cold; there are no words into which my love can form itself. My love has been life itself; and only now, that I am dying, can I speak of it at all. But it will not depart with life - I take it out of this world with me. Zoe, my beloved, when I am no more here, let it console you to know that you have never given me one moment's pain; you have never said or done one thing I would wish recalled. You do not need that I should say this; but let it remain for you on record, that when I can no more tell you how much I have worshipped, no thought of doubt or remorse may come near you; for I know the terrible light that death casts on our past deeds to the most tenderly treated friend, and I would spare you that anguish. In no one respect would I have wished you to be other than you have been. I have never had a shadow of doubt or distrust of you - not for one second. I do indeed 'know all that is in your heart'. Your last and sweetest assurance has never failed me!
"So long as you could by any possibility be compromised, I have refrained from even wishing you to be near me - but death swallows up all things except love. Come to me then, and let me die here. The shadow from Death's presence has already fallen upon me. When we are called to die, it is the most solemn act of all we have to transact under the sun - it gives a tragic dignity to the pitiful details of life. It is to no joyful and tumultuous reunion that I am bidding you. I call for you to stand beside me on the brink of the unknown darkness into which I am about to plunge. I ask you to come with me to the threshold of the Infinite. When I enter, I must loose your hand, but come with me so far; - it is the only desire I have; for dwelling near to death, quenches all vain wishes. You are the life that I must resign. You are the secret of all that has been worth any thing in me, and I would have you visibly present when I resign you; be the last object on which my eyes rest.
"Zoe, I shall seem cold to you, and yet it is my very soul that speaks; but all meaning seems to have gone away from words; there are none that will tell you all I want you to know. Zoe, I love you; my whole being is rounded in that one word; - my heart thirsts with an overwhelming longing to hear once more the sound of your voice. I fear I must depart without it; - the dark depths open to receive me, - the weight of eternity is upon me, - I stand at the juncture of the mysteries of life and death. Oh! come to me before I depart hence!"
Everhard did not seal this letter; he left it intending to add something more definite about himself the next day before post-time. The next day, however, he was unable to leave his bed, being delirious with fever. The surgeon from Minehead was sent for; he was the son of the surgeon who had practised there when Everhard lived at the college. He was a skilful man, and the housekeeper was a careful nurse, but the fever increased in spite of both.
Everhard's strength had previously been so completely undermined, that he had no chance of recovery from the first. Indeed, the surgeon said that even if this attack of fever had not come on, he could not have lasted many weeks. The man and his wife took counsel together on hearing this, and with much pain and care, the man wrote what he considered a very proper letter to his lady - for he had, as we have seen, the idea that his mistress and Father Everhard were more to each other than appeared to the world - and he would on no account permit the surgeon to write.
Zoe was dressing to go with her eldest son to a large dinner party at the Duke of L----'s when a letter was brought in to her that contrasted strangely with the silver salver on which it was handed. It was very dirty, and had been folded and refolded many times before it had been finally reduced to shape, and the red wafer came half over the back.
"Dear my lady, that is not fit for you to touch, it is some petition I suppose; I should not wonder if we all got some disease some of these days from those nasty things; there is no other lady who would meddle with them as you do."
The torrent of the Abigail's eloquence was suddenly stopped by perceiving that her mistress had fallen back into her chair, pale and rigid, her eyes fixed on the crumpled and dirty letter which had so much excited her wrath.
"Oh! dear, my lady, do not look in that dreadful way. What is the matter; no bad news I hope?" She deluged Zoe with Hungary water and essences, looking all the while with curious eyes hoping to discover the mystery.
In a few moments Zoe regained her self-control, and telling the woman that she would be obliged to go from home immediately, she ordered her to make the needful preparations. She then sat down and wrote a few lines to her son, enclosing the letter she had received to account for her hasty departure, and in less than an hour she was on her way to Gifford Castle. She travelled without delaying a moment, except to change horses. One thought absorbed her, one feeling swallowed up all others - the devouring anxiety lest she should be too late.
It was the evening of the next day before she arrived. "Am I in time?" was all she could articulate to the old servant who came to the door.
"The doctor is with him, ma'am. - This way please." Zoe was hurrying up stairs hardly knowing where she went. "I will go and tell the doctor you are here."
He left, and Zoe paced up and down in uncontrollable agitation. The doctor entered after a few moments, which to her had seemed hours; he started at her pale and agitated appearance.
"Is Father Everhard still alive? Can I see him?" she asked, in a voice scarcely articulate.
"Alive, certainly, but in a state of stupor that will only terminate in death. Your seeing him would do no good, he would not be sensible of your presence; if he should recover his senses for a few moments, which is just possible, you shall know. I will watch beside him, and if there is a change I will send for you."
"Then there is no hope? He is dying!" cried Zoe in an accent of despair. The doctor shook his head sadly, and turned away.
After he was gone, all Zoe's hopes and thoughts centred on the chance of being summoned to see him, for she felt if she could only hear his voice once more, she could bear the shock of losing him; the hope of seeing him kept the other evil in the back ground.
She listened to each noise with an intensity of anxiety as if every sense was absorbed in that of hearing. She sat with a strange unnatural patience, expecting every instant a summons. At length a step approached the door - the doctor entered - one glance at his face was enough, she saw that all was over, and fell insensible on the floor.
It was long before she recovered her consciousness, and then it was only to relapse into a succession of fainting fits. The agitation and fatigue of the last two days had exhausted her frame, and she was for several weeks unable to rise from her bed.
Her son, who arrived two days after her, was indefatigable in his attentions, but as he did not know the secret of her interest in Everhard, he was utterly unable to account for the passionate burst of emotion with which she received the account he gave of all he had done to show respect to the memory of his father's old friend; - neither could he make out why the death of a man whom she had not seen for years, should afflict her so much more than the loss of her husband had done; but members of the same family are generally the last people in the world who draw inferences, so Zoe had neither question nor surmise to annoy her.
The first day she was able to leave her room, the old servant man sent a request to be allowed to speak to her. He entered somewhat embarrassed by the sense of his consciousness of his mistress's secret.
"I have made bold to bring you, ma'am," said he, in the most respectful manner he could assume, "what few things were about poor Father Everhard. - I sealed them up myself, and nobody has seen or meddled with them but me. He was writing nearly all the night before he was taken ill. I have kept the portfolio safe too; you will judge best, ma'am, what you think right to be done." He placed the portfolio on the table, and retired.
To Zoe it seemed as if the dead had risen from the tomb to say farewell. Hitherto she had shed few tears, but now she wept long and uninterruptedly.
On opening the packet, she found the miniature and broken chain, which had so long been Everhard's companions. In the portfolio was the unfinished letter, addressed to her; with which the reader is already acquainted.
Zoe reappeared in the world, for life subdues us back to its occupations and even to its amusements; they who live cannot dedicate themselves to grief. Zoe's position in society was a conspicuous one: her eldest son was not married, and Zoe was at the head of his establishment. If worldly prosperity could nourish the heart, Zoe was prosperous beyond the lot of women. Her eldest son had entered Parliament, where he distinguished himself; his house was the resort of all the distinguished men of the day. The radiance of Zoe's beauty had faded, yet she commanded more homage now in the decline of her life, than she had done when she first appeared as a young beauty.
Her youngest son rose in his profession, and was several times mentioned in the "Gazette" with honour.
Some time after Everhard's death, Frederick Gifford (the Member) married his old playfellow, Susan O'Brian, now a lovely young woman; - her sister went to Italy after the marriage, and became a nun in Clotilde's convent. It certainly caused some scandal that the daughter of the Dean of ----- should be a Catholic and a nun; but that did not hinder the Rev. Horace O'Brian from being made a bishop after all. As he grew older, his character matured and improved, and Lady Clara had no reason to repent her love and constancy to him. They had a large family, but Horace brought none of them up to the Church, which, considering all the patronage he had, spoke highly for his unworldliness. The friendship between Zoe and Clara continued without any break during their lifetime.
Zoe was neither insensible nor unthankful for all the blessings of her lot - she went through life with a composed and chastened spirit. But life is no holiday game; they who live earnestly are weary enough at their journey's end - they rejoice when the time comes to rest from their labours.
"The mildest herald by your fate allotted
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