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Chapter 13

Dire was his thought, who first in poison steeped
The weapon formed for slaughter--direr his,
And worthier of damnation, who instilled
The mortal venom in the social cup,
To fill the veins with death instead of life.
Anonymous.

"Upon my Word, Mr. Francis Osbaldistone," said Miss Vernon, with the air
of one who thought herself fully entitled to assume the privilege of
ironical reproach, which she was pleased to exert, "your character
improves upon us, sir--I could not have thought that it was in you.
Yesterday might be considered as your assay-piece, to prove yourself
entitled to be free of the corporation of Osbaldistone Hall. But it was a
masterpiece."

"I am quite sensible of my ill-breeding, Miss Vernon, and I can only say
for myself that I had received some communications by which my spirits
were unusually agitated. I am conscious I was impertinent and absurd."

"You do yourself great injustice," said the merciless monitor--"you have
contrived, by what I saw and have since heard, to exhibit in the course
of one evening a happy display of all the various masterly qualifications
which distinguish your several cousins;--the gentle and generous temper
of the benevolent Rashleigh,--the temperance of Percie,--the cool courage
of Thorncliff,--John's skill in dog-breaking,--Dickon's aptitude to
betting,--all exhibited by the single individual, Mr. Francis, and that
with a selection of time, place, and circumstance, worthy the taste and
sagacity of the sapient Wilfred."

"Have a little mercy, Miss Vernon," said I; for I confess I thought the
schooling as severe as the case merited, especially considering from what
quarter it came, "and forgive me if I suggest, as an excuse for follies I
am not usually guilty of, the custom of this house and country. I am far
from approving of it; but we have Shakspeare's authority for saying, that
good wine is a good familiar creature, and that any man living may be
overtaken at some time."

"Ay, Mr. Francis, but he places the panegyric and the apology in the
mouth of the greatest villain his pencil has drawn. I will not, however,
abuse the advantage your quotation has given me, by overwhelming you with
the refutation with which the victim Cassio replies to the tempter Iago.
I only wish you to know, that there is one person at least sorry to see a
youth of talents and expectations sink into the slough in which the
inhabitants of this house are nightly wallowing."

"I have but wet my shoe, I assure you, Miss Vernon, and am too sensible
of the filth of the puddle to step farther in."

"If such be your resolution," she replied, "it is a wise one. But I was
so much vexed at what I heard, that your concerns have pressed before my
own,--You behaved to me yesterday, during dinner, as if something had
been told you which lessened or lowered me in your opinion--I beg leave
to ask you what it was?"

I was stupified. The direct bluntness of the demand was much in the style
one gentleman uses to another, when requesting explanation of any part of
his conduct in a good-humoured yet determined manner, and was totally
devoid of the circumlocutions, shadings, softenings, and periphrasis,
which usually accompany explanations betwixt persons of different sexes
in the higher orders of society.

I remained completely embarrassed; for it pressed on my recollection,
that Rashleigh's communications, supposing them to be correct, ought to
have rendered Miss Vernon rather an object of my compassion than of my
pettish resentment; and had they furnished the best apology possible for
my own conduct, still I must have had the utmost difficulty in detailing
what inferred such necessary and natural offence to Miss Vernon's
feelings. She observed my hesitation, and proceeded, in a tone somewhat
more peremptory, but still temperate and civil--"I hope Mr. Osbaldistone
does not dispute my title to request this explanation. I have no relative
who can protect me; it is, therefore, just that I be permitted to protect
myself."

I endeavoured with hesitation to throw the blame of my rude behaviour
upon indisposition--upon disagreeable letters from London. She suffered
me to exhaust my apologies, and fairly to run myself aground, listening
all the while with a smile of absolute incredulity.

"And now, Mr. Francis, having gone through your prologue of excuses, with
the same bad grace with which all prologues are delivered, please to draw
the curtain, and show me that which I desire to see. In a word, let me
know what Rashleigh says of me; for he is the grand engineer and first
mover of all the machinery of Osbaldistone Hall."

"But, supposing there was anything to tell, Miss Vernon, what does he
deserve that betrays the secrets of one ally to another?--Rashleigh, you
yourself told me, remained your ally, though no longer your friend."

"I have neither patience for evasion, nor inclination for jesting, on the
present subject. Rashleigh cannot--ought not--dare not, hold any language
respecting me, Diana Vernon, but what I may demand to hear repeated. That
there are subjects of secrecy and confidence between us, is most certain;
but to such, his communications to you could have no relation; and with
such, I, as an individual, have no concern."

I had by this time recovered my presence of mind, and hastily determined
to avoid making any disclosure of what Rashleigh had told me in a sort of
confidence. There was something unworthy in retailing private
conversation; it could, I thought, do no good, and must necessarily give
Miss Vernon great pain. I therefore replied, gravely, "that nothing but
frivolous talk had passed between Mr. Rashleigh Osbaldistone and me on
the state of the family at the Hall; and I protested, that nothing had
been said which left a serious impression to her disadvantage. As a
gentleman," I said, "I could not be more explicit in reporting private
conversation."

She started up with the animation of a Camilla about to advance into
battle. "This shall not serve your turn, sir,--I must have another answer
from you." Her features kindled--her brow became flushed--her eye glanced
wild-fire as she proceeded--"I demand such an explanation, as a woman
basely slandered has a right to demand from every man who calls himself a
gentleman--as a creature, motherless, friendless, alone in the world,
left to her own guidance and protection, has a right to require from
every being having a happier lot, in the name of that God who sent _them_
into the world to enjoy, and _her_ to suffer. You shall not deny me--or,"
she added, looking solemnly upwards, "you will rue your denial, if there
is justice for wrong either on earth or in heaven."

I was utterly astonished at her vehemence, but felt, thus conjured, that
it became my duty to lay aside scrupulous delicacy, and gave her briefly,
but distinctly, the heads of the information which Rashleigh had conveyed
to me.

She sate down and resumed her composure, as soon as I entered upon the
subject, and when I stopped to seek for the most delicate turn of
expression, she repeatedly interrupted me with "Go on--pray, go on; the
first word which occurs to you is the plainest, and must be the best. Do
not think of my feelings, but speak as you would to an unconcerned third
party."

Thus urged and encouraged, I stammered through all the account which
Rashleigh had given of her early contract to marry an Osbaldistone, and
of the uncertainty and difficulty of her choice; and there I would
willingly have paused. But her penetration discovered that there was
still something behind, and even guessed to what it related.

"Well, it was ill-natured of Rashleigh to tell this tale on me. I am like
the poor girl in the fairy tale, who was betrothed in her cradle to the
Black Bear of Norway, but complained chiefly of being called Bruin's
bride by her companions at school. But besides all this, Rashleigh said
something of himself with relation to me--Did he not?"

"He certainly hinted, that were it not for the idea of supplanting his
brother, he would now, in consequence of his change of profession, be
desirous that the word Rashleigh should fill up the blank in the
dispensation, instead of the word Thorncliff."

"Ay? indeed?" she replied--"was he so very condescending?--Too much
honour for his humble handmaid, Diana Vernon--And she, I suppose, was to
be enraptured with joy could such a substitute be effected?"

"To confess the truth, he intimated as much, and even farther
insinuated"--

"What?--Let me hear it all!" she exclaimed, hastily.

"That he had broken off your mutual intimacy, lest it should have given
rise to an affection by which his destination to the church would not
permit him to profit."

"I am obliged to him for his consideration," replied Miss Vernon, every
feature of her fine countenance taxed to express the most supreme degree
of scorn and contempt. She paused a moment, and then said, with her usual
composure, "There is but little I have heard from you which I did not
expect to hear, and which I ought not to have expected; because, bating
one circumstance, it is all very true. But as there are some poisons so
active, that a few drops, it is said, will infect a whole fountain, so
there is one falsehood in Rashleigh's communication, powerful enough to
corrupt the whole well in which Truth herself is said to have dwelt. It
is the leading and foul falsehood, that, knowing Rashleigh as I have
reason too well to know him, any circumstance on earth could make me
think of sharing my lot with him. No," she continued with a sort of
inward shuddering that seemed to express involuntary horror, "any lot
rather than that--the sot, the gambler, the bully, the jockey, the
insensate fool, were a thousand times preferable to Rashleigh:--the
convent--the jail--the grave, shall be welcome before them all."

There was a sad and melancholy cadence in her voice, corresponding with
the strange and interesting romance of her situation. So young, so
beautiful, so untaught, so much abandoned to herself, and deprived of all
the support which her sex derives from the countenance and protection of
female friends, and even of that degree of defence which arises from the
forms with which the sex are approached in civilised life,--it is scarce
metaphorical to say, that my heart bled for her. Yet there was an
expression of dignity in her contempt of ceremony--of upright feeling in
her disdain of falsehood--of firm resolution in the manner in which she
contemplated the dangers by which she was surrounded, which blended my
pity with the warmest admiration. She seemed a princess deserted by her
subjects, and deprived of her power, yet still scorning those formal
regulations of society which are created for persons of an inferior rank;
and, amid her difficulties, relying boldly and confidently on the justice
of Heaven, and the unshaken constancy of her own mind.

I offered to express the mingled feelings of sympathy and admiration with
which her unfortunate situation and her high spirit combined to impress
me, but she imposed silence on me at once.

"I told you in jest," she said, "that I disliked compliments--I now tell
you in earnest, that I do not ask sympathy, and that I despise
consolation. What I have borne, I have borne--What I am to bear I will
sustain as I may; no word of commiseration can make a burden feel one
feather's weight lighter to the slave who must carry it. There is only
one human being who could have assisted me, and that is he who has rather
chosen to add to my embarrassment--Rashleigh Osbaldistone.--Yes! the time
once was that I might have learned to love that man--But, great God! the
purpose for which he insinuated himself into the confidence of one
already so forlorn--the undeviating and continued assiduity with which he
pursued that purpose from year to year, without one single momentary
pause of remorse or compassion--the purpose for which he would have
converted into poison the food he administered to my mind--Gracious
Providence! what should I have been in this world, and the next, in body
and soul, had I fallen under the arts of this accomplished villain!"

I was so much struck with the scene of perfidious treachery which these
words disclosed, that I rose from my chair hardly knowing what I did,
laid my hand on the hilt of my sword, and was about to leave the
apartment in search of him on whom I might discharge my just indignation.
Almost breathless, and with eyes and looks in which scorn and indignation
had given way to the most lively alarm, Miss Vernon threw herself between
me and the door of the apartment.

"Stay!" she said--"stay!--however just your resentment, you do not know
half the secrets of this fearful prison-house." She then glanced her eyes
anxiously round the room, and sunk her voice almost to a whisper--"He
bears a charmed life; you cannot assail him without endangering other
lives, and wider destruction. Had it been otherwise, in some hour of
justice he had hardly been safe, even from this weak hand. I told you,"
she said, motioning me back to my seat, "that I needed no comforter. I
now tell you I need no avenger."

I resumed my seat mechanically, musing on what she said, and recollecting
also, what had escaped me in my first glow of resentment, that I had no
title whatever to constitute myself Miss Vernon's champion. She paused to
let her own emotions and mine subside, and then addressed me with more
composure.

"I have already said that there is a mystery connected with Rashleigh, of
a dangerous and fatal nature. Villain as he is, and as he knows he stands
convicted in my eyes, I cannot--dare not, openly break with or defy him.
You also, Mr. Osbaldistone, must bear with him with patience, foil his
artifices by opposing to them prudence, not violence; and, above all, you
must avoid such scenes as that of last night, which cannot but give him
perilous advantages over you. This caution I designed to give you, and it
was the object with which I desired this interview; but I have extended
my confidence farther than I proposed."

I assured her it was not misplaced.

"I do not believe that it is," she replied. "You have that in your face
and manners which authorises trust. Let us continue to be friends. You
need not fear," she said, laughing, while she blushed a little, yet
speaking with a free and unembarrassed voice, "that friendship with us
should prove only a specious name, as the poet says, for another feeling.
I belong, in habits of thinking and acting, rather to your sex, with
which I have always been brought up, than to my own. Besides, the fatal
veil was wrapt round me in my cradle; for you may easily believe I have
never thought of the detestable condition under which I may remove it.
The time," she added, "for expressing my final determination is not
arrived, and I would fain have the freedom of wild heath and open air
with the other commoners of nature, as long as I can be permitted to
enjoy them. And now that the passage in Dante is made so clear, pray go
and see what has become of the badger-baiters. My head aches so much that
I cannot join the party."

I left the library, but not to join the hunters. I felt that a solitary
walk was necessary to compose my spirits before I again trusted myself in
Rashleigh's company, whose depth of calculating villany had been so
strikingly exposed to me. In Dubourg's family (as he was of the reformed
persuasion) I had heard many a tale of Romish priests who gratified, at
the expense of friendship, hospitality, and the most sacred ties of
social life, those passions, the blameless indulgence of which is denied
by the rules of their order. But the deliberate system of undertaking the
education of a deserted orphan of noble birth, and so intimately allied
to his own family, with the perfidious purpose of ultimately seducing
her, detailed as it was by the intended victim with all the glow of
virtuous resentment, seemed more atrocious to me than the worst of the
tales I had heard at Bourdeaux, and I felt it would be extremely
difficult for me to meet Rashleigh, and yet to suppress the abhorrence
with which he impressed me. Yet this was absolutely necessary, not only
on account of the mysterious charge which Diana had given me, but because
I had, in reality, no ostensible ground for quarrelling with him.

I therefore resolved, as far as possible, to meet Rashleigh's
dissimulation with equal caution on my part during our residence in the
same family; and when he should depart for London, I resolved to give
Owen at least such a hint of his character as might keep him on his guard
over my father's interests. Avarice or ambition, I thought, might have as
great, or greater charms, for a mind constituted like Rashleigh's, than
unlawful pleasure; the energy of his character, and his power of assuming
all seeming good qualities, were likely to procure him a high degree of
confidence, and it was not to be hoped that either good faith or
gratitude would prevent him from abusing it. The task was somewhat
difficult, especially in my circumstances, since the caution which I
threw out might be imputed to jealousy of my rival, or rather my
successor, in my father's favour. Yet I thought it absolutely necessary
to frame such a letter, leaving it to Owen, who, in his own line, was
wary, prudent, and circumspect, to make the necessary use of his
knowledge of Rashleigh's true character. Such a letter, therefore, I
indited, and despatched to the post-house by the first opportunity.

At my meeting with Rashleigh, he, as well as I, appeared to have taken up
distant ground, and to be disposed to avoid all pretext for collision. He
was probably conscious that Miss Vernon's communications had been
unfavourable to him, though he could not know that they extended to
discovering his meditated villany towards her. Our intercourse,
therefore, was reserved on both sides, and turned on subjects of little
interest. Indeed, his stay at Osbaldistone Hall did not exceed a few days
after this period, during which I only remarked two circumstances
respecting him. The first was the rapid and almost intuitive manner in
which his powerful and active mind seized upon and arranged the
elementary principles necessary to his new profession, which he now
studied hard, and occasionally made parade of his progress, as if to show
me how light it was for him to lift the burden which I had flung down
from very weariness and inability to carry it. The other remarkable
circumstance was, that, notwithstanding the injuries with which Miss
Vernon charged Rashleigh, they had several private interviews together of
considerable length, although their bearing towards each other in public
did not seem more cordial than usual.

When the day of Rashleigh's departure arrived, his father bade him
farewell with indifference; his brothers with the ill-concealed glee of
school-boys who see their task-master depart for a season, and feel a joy
which they dare not express; and I myself with cold politeness. When he
approached Miss Vernon, and would have saluted her she drew back with a
look of haughty disdain; but said, as she extended her hand to him,
"Farewell, Rashleigh; God reward you for the good you have done, and
forgive you for the evil you have meditated."

"Amen, my fair cousin," he replied, with an air of sanctity, which
belonged, I thought, to the seminary of Saint Omers; "happy is he whose
good intentions have borne fruit in deeds, and whose evil thoughts have
perished in the blossom."

These were his parting words. "Accomplished hypocrite!" said Miss Vernon
to me, as the door closed behind him--"how nearly can what we most
despise and hate, approach in outward manner to that which we most
venerate!"

I had written to my father by Rashleigh, and also a few lines to Owen,
besides the confidential letter which I have already mentioned, and which
I thought it more proper and prudent to despatch by another conveyance.
In these epistles, it would have been natural for me to have pointed out
to my father and my friend, that I was at present in a situation where I
could improve myself in no respect, unless in the mysteries of hunting
and hawking; and where I was not unlikely to forget, in the company of
rude grooms and horse-boys, any useful knowledge or elegant
accomplishments which I had hitherto acquired. It would also have been
natural that I should have expressed the disgust and tedium which I was
likely to feel among beings whose whole souls were centred in
field-sports or more degrading pastimes--that I should have complained of
the habitual intemperance of the family in which I was a guest, and the
difficulty and almost resentment with which my uncle, Sir Hildebrand,
received any apology for deserting the bottle. This last, indeed, was a
topic on which my father, himself a man of severe temperance, was likely
to be easily alarmed, and to have touched upon this spring would to a
certainty have opened the doors of my prison-house, and would either have
been the means of abridging my exile, or at least would have procured me
a change of residence during my rustication.

I say, my dear Tresham, that, considering how very unpleasant a prolonged
residence at Osbaldistone Hall must have been to a young man of my age,
and with my habits, it might have seemed very natural that I should have
pointed out all these disadvantages to my father, in order to obtain his
consent for leaving my uncle's mansion. Nothing, however, is more
certain, than that I did not say a single word to this purpose in my
letters to my father and Owen. If Osbaldistone Hall had been Athens in
all its pristine glory of learning, and inhabited by sages, heroes, and
poets, I could not have expressed less inclination to leave it.

If thou hast any of the salt of youth left in thee, Tresham, thou wilt be
at no loss to account for my silence on a topic seemingly so obvious.
Miss Vernon's extreme beauty, of which she herself seemed so little
conscious--her romantic and mysterious situation--the evils to which she
was exposed--the courage with which she seemed to face them--her manners,
more frank than belonged to her sex, yet, as it seemed to me,
exceeding in frankness only from the dauntless consciousness of her
innocence,--above all, the obvious and flattering distinction which she
made in my favour over all other persons, were at once calculated to
interest my best feelings, to excite my curiosity, awaken my
imagination, and gratify my vanity. I dared not, indeed, confess to
myself the depth of the interest with which Miss Vernon inspired me, or
the large share which she occupied in my thoughts. We read together,
walked together, rode together, and sate together. The studies which she
had broken off upon her quarrel with Rashleigh, she now resumed, under
the auspices of a tutor whose views were more sincere, though his
capacity was far more limited.

In truth, I was by no means qualified to assist her in the prosecution of
several profound studies which she had commenced with Rashleigh, and
which appeared to me more fitted for a churchman than for a beautiful
female. Neither can I conceive with what view he should have engaged
Diana in the gloomy maze of casuistry which schoolmen called philosophy,
or in the equally abstruse though more certain sciences of mathematics
and astronomy; unless it were to break down and confound in her mind the
difference and distinction between the sexes, and to habituate her to
trains of subtle reasoning, by which he might at his own time invest that
which is wrong with the colour of that which is right. It was in the same
spirit, though in the latter case the evil purpose was more obvious, that
the lessons of Rashleigh had encouraged Miss Vernon in setting at nought
and despising the forms and ceremonial limits which are drawn round
females in modern society. It is true, she was sequestrated from all
female company, and could not learn the usual rules of decorum, either
from example or precept; yet such was her innate modesty, and accurate
sense of what was right and wrong, that she would not of herself have
adopted the bold uncompromising manner which struck me with so much
surprise on our first acquaintance, had she not been led to conceive that
a contempt of ceremony indicated at once superiority of understanding and
the confidence of conscious innocence. Her wily instructor had, no doubt,
his own views in levelling those outworks which reserve and caution erect
around virtue. But for these, and for his other crimes, he has long since
answered at a higher tribunal.

Besides the progress which Miss Vernon, whose powerful mind readily
adopted every means of information offered to it, had made in more
abstract science, I found her no contemptible linguist, and well
acquainted both with ancient and modern literature. Were it not that
strong talents will often go farthest when they seem to have least
assistance, it would be almost incredible to tell the rapidity of Miss
Vernon's progress in knowledge; and it was still more extraordinary, when
her stock of mental acquisitions from books was compared with her total
ignorance of actual life. It seemed as if she saw and knew everything,
except what passed in the world around her;--and I believe it was this
very ignorance and simplicity of thinking upon ordinary subjects, so
strikingly contrasted with her fund of general knowledge and information,
which rendered her conversation so irresistibly fascinating, and rivetted
the attention to whatever she said or did; since it was absolutely
impossible to anticipate whether her next word or action was to display
the most acute perception, or the most profound simplicity. The degree of
danger which necessarily attended a youth of my age and keen feelings
from remaining in close and constant intimacy with an object so amiable,
and so peculiarly interesting, all who remember their own sentiments at
my age may easily estimate.

Sir Walter Scott