Heaven first, in its mercy, taught mortals their letters, For ladies in limbo, and lovers in fetters, Or some author, who, placing his persons before ye, Ungallantly leaves them to write their own story.
When Mannering returned to England, his first object had been to place his daughter in a seminary for female education, of established character. Not, however, finding her progress in the accomplishments which he wished her to acquire so rapid as his impatience expected, he had withdrawn Miss Mannering from the school at the end of the first quarter. So she had only time to form an eternal friendship with Miss Matilda Marchmont, a young lady about her own age, which was nearly eighteen. To her faithful eye were addressed those formidable quires which issued forth from Mervyn Hall on the wings of the post while Miss Mannering was a guest there. The perusal of a few short extracts from these may be necessary to render our story intelligible.
'Alas! my dearest Matilda, what a tale is mine to tell! Misfortune from the cradle has set her seal upon your unhappy friend. That we should be severed for so slight a cause--an ungrammatical phrase in my Italian exercise, and three false notes in one of Paisiello's sonatas! But it is a part of my father's character, of whom it is impossible to say whether I love, admire, or fear him the most. His success in life and in war, his habit of making every obstacle yield before the energy of his exertions, even where they seemed insurmountable--all these have given a hasty and peremptory cast to his character, which can neither endure contradiction nor make allowance for deficiencies. Then he is himself so very accomplished. Do you know, there was a murmur, half confirmed too by some mysterious words which dropped from my poor mother, that he possesses other sciences, now lost to the world, which enable the possessor to summon up before him the dark and shadowy forms of future events! Does not the very idea of such a power, or even of the high talent and commanding intellect which the world may mistake for it,--does it not, dear Matilda, throw a mysterious grandeur about its possessor? You will call this romantic; but consider I was born in the land of talisman and spell, and my childhood lulled by tales which you can only enjoy through the gauzy frippery of a French translation. O, Matilda, I wish you could have seen the dusky visages of my Indian attendants, bending in earnest devotion round the magic narrative, that flowed, half poetry, half prose, from the lips of the tale-teller! No wonder that European fiction sounds cold and meagre, after the wonderful effects which I have seen the romances of the East produce upon their hearers.'
'You are possessed, my dear Matilda, of my bosom-secret, in those sentiments with which I regard Brown. I will not say his memory; I am convinced he lives, and is faithful. His addresses to me were countenanced by my deceased parent, imprudently countenanced perhaps, considering the prejudices of my father in favour of birth and rank. But I, then almost a girl, could not be expected surely to be wiser than her under whose charge nature had placed me. My father, constantly engaged in military duty, I saw but at rare intervals, and was taught to look up to him with more awe than confidence. Would to Heaven it had been otherwise! It might have been better for us all at this day!'
'You ask me why I do not make known to my father that Brown yet lives, at least that he survived the wound he received in that unhappy duel, and had written to my mother expressing his entire convalescence, and his hope of speedily escaping from captivity. A soldier, that "in the trade of war has oft slain men," feels probably no uneasiness at reflecting upon the supposed catastrophe which almost turned me into stone. And should I show him that letter, does it not follow that Brown, alive and maintaining with pertinacity the pretensions to the affections of your poor friend for which my father formerly sought his life, would be a more formidable disturber of Colonel Mannering's peace of mind than in his supposed grave? If he escapes from the hands of these marauders, I am convinced he will soon be in England, and it will be then time to consider how his existence is to be disclosed to my father. But if, alas! my earnest and confident hope should betray me, what would it avail to tear open a mystery fraught with so many painful recollections? My dear mother had such dread of its being known, that I think she even suffered my father to suspect that Brown's attentions were directed towards herself, rather than permit him to discover their real object; and O, Matilda, whatever respect I owe to the memory of a deceased parent, let me do justice to a living one. I cannot but condemn the dubious policy which she adopted, as unjust to my father, and highly perilous to herself and me. But peace be with her ashes! her actions were guided by the heart rather than the head; and shall her daughter, who inherits all her weakness, be the first to withdraw the veil from her defects?'
FOURTH EXTRACT 'MERVYN HALL.
'If India be the land of magic, this, my dearest Matilda, is the country of romance. The scenery is such as nature brings together in her sublimest moods-sounding cataracts--hills which rear their scathed heads to the sky--lakes that, winding up the shadowy valleys, lead at every turn to yet more romantic recesses--rocks which catch the clouds of heaven. All the wildness of Salvator here, and there the fairy scenes of Claude. I am happy too in finding at least one object upon which my father can share my enthusiasm. An admirer of nature, both as an artist and a poet, I have experienced the utmost pleasure from the observations by which he explains the character and the effect of these brilliant specimens of her power. I wish he would settle in this enchanting land. But his views lie still farther north, and he is at present absent on a tour in Scotland, looking, I believe, for some purchase of land which may suit him as a residence. He is partial, from early recollections, to that country. So, my dearest Matilda, I must be yet farther removed from you before I am established in a home. And O how delighted shall I be when I can say, Come, Matilda, and be the guest of your faithful Julia!
'I am at present the inmate of Mr. and Mrs. Mervyn, old friends of my father. The latter is precisely a good sort of woman, ladylike and housewifely; but for accomplishments or fancy--good lack, my dearest Matilda, your friend might as well seek sympathy from Mrs. Teach'em;--you see I have not forgot school nicknames. Mervyn is a different--quite a different being from my father, yet he amuses and endures me. He is fat and good-natured, gifted with strong shrewd sense and some powers of humour; but having been handsome, I suppose, in his youth, has still some pretension to be a beau garcon, as well as an enthusiastic agriculturist. I delight to make him scramble to the tops of eminences and to the foot of waterfalls, and am obliged in turn to admire his turnips, his lucerne, and his timothy grass. He thinks me, I fancy, a simple romantic Miss, with some--the word will be out--beauty and some good-nature; and I hold that the gentleman has good taste for the female outside, and do not expect he should comprehend my sentiments farther. So he rallies, hands, and hobbles (for the dear creature has got the gout too), and tells old stories of high life, of which he has seen a great deal; and I listen, and smile, and look as pretty, as pleasant, and as simple as I can, and we do very well.
'But, alas! my dearest Matilda, how would time pass away, even in this paradise of romance, tenanted as it is by a pair assorting so ill with the scenes around them, were it not for your fidelity in replying to my uninteresting details? Pray do not fail to write three times a week at least; you can be at no loss what to say.'
'How shall I communicate what I have now to tell! My hand and heart still flutter so much, that the task of writing is almost impossible! Did I not say that he lived? did I not say I would not despair? How could you suggest, my dear Matilda, that my feelings, considering I had parted from him so young, rather arose from the warmth of my imagination than of my heart? O I was sure that they were genuine, deceitful as the dictates of our bosom so frequently are. But to my tale--let it be, my friend, the most sacred, as it is the most sincere, pledge of our friendship.
'Our hours here are early--earlier than my heart, with its load of care, can compose itself to rest. I therefore usually take a book for an hour or two after retiring to my own room, which I think I have told you opens to a small balcony, looking down upon that beautiful lake of which I attempted to give you a slight sketch. Mervyn Hall, being partly an ancient building, and constructed with a view to defence, is situated on the verge of the lake. A stone dropped from the projecting balcony plunges into water deep enough to float a skiff. I had left my window partly unbarred, that, before I went to bed, I might, according to my custom, look out and see the moonlight shining upon the lake. I was deeply engaged with that beautiful scene in the "Merchant of Venice" where two lovers, describing the stillness of a summer night, enhance on each other its charms, and was lost in the associations of story and of feeling which it awakens, when I heard upon the lake the sound of a flageolet. I have told you it was Brown's favourite instrument. Who could touch it in a night which, though still and serene, was too cold, and too late in the year, to invite forth any wanderer for mere pleasure? I drew yet nearer the window, and hearkened with breathless attention; the sounds paused a space, were then resumed, paused again, and again reached my ear, ever coming nearer and nearer. At length I distinguished plainly that little Hindu air which you called my favourite. I have told you by whom it was taught me; the instrument, the tones, were his own! Was it earthly music, or notes passing on the wind, to warn me of his death?
'It was some time ere I could summon courage to step on the balcony; nothing could have emboldened me to do so but the strong conviction of my mind that he was still alive, and that we should again meet; but that conviction did embolden me, and I ventured, though with a throbbing heart. There was a small skiff with a single person. O, Matilda, it was himself! I knew his appearance after so long an absence, and through the shadow of the night, as perfectly as if we had parted yesterday, and met again in the broad sunshine! He guided his boat under the balcony, and spoke to me; I hardly knew what he said, or what I replied. Indeed, I could scarcely speak for weeping, but they were joyful tears. We were disturbed by the barking of a dog at some distance, and parted, but not before he had conjured me to prepare to meet him at the same place and hour this evening.
'But where and to what is all this tending? Can I answer this question? I cannot. Heaven, that saved him from death and delivered him from captivity, that saved my father, too, from shedding the blood of one who would not have blemished a hair of his head, that Heaven must guide me out of this labyrinth. Enough for me the firm resolution that Matilda shall not blush for her friend, my father for his daughter, nor my lover for her on whom he has fixed his affection.'
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