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It comes--it wrings me in my parting hour, The long-hid crime--the well-disguised guilt. Bring me some holy priest to lay the spectre!--Old Play.
The general expectation of the company had been disappointed by the pacific termination of the meeting betwixt the Earl of Etherington and Tyrrel, the anticipation of which had created so deep a sensation. It had been expected that some appalling scene would have taken place; instead of which, each party seemed to acquiesce in a sullen neutrality, and leave the war to be carried on by their lawyers. It was generally understood that the cause was removed out of the courts of Bellona into that of Themis; and although the litigants continued to inhabit the same neighbourhood, and once or twice met at the public walks or public table, they took no notice of each other, farther than by exchanging on such occasions, a grave and distant bow.
In the course of two or three days, people ceased to take interest in a feud so coldly conducted; and if they thought of it at all, it was but to wonder that both the parties should persevere in residing near the Spa, and in chilling, with their unsocial behaviour, a party met together for the purposes of health and amusement.
But the brothers, as the reader is aware, however painful their occasional meetings might be, had the strongest reasons to remain in each other's neighbourhood--Lord Etherington to conduct his design upon Miss Mowbray, Tyrrel to disconcert his plan, if possible, and both to await the answer which should be returned by the house in London, who were depositaries of the papers left by the late Earl.
Jekyl, anxious to assist his friend as much as possible, made in the meantime a visit to old Touchwood at the Aultoun, expecting to find him as communicative as he had formerly been on the subject of the quarrel betwixt the brothers, and trusting to discover, by dint of address, whence he had derived his information concerning the affairs of the noble house of Etherington. But the confidence which he had been induced to expect on the part of the old traveller was not reposed. Ferdinand Mendez Pinto, as the Earl called him, had changed his mind, or was not in the vein of communication. The only proof of his confidence worth mentioning, was his imparting to the young officer a valuable receipt for concocting curry-powder.
Jekyl was therefore reduced to believe that Touchwood, who appeared all his life to have been a great intermeddler in other people's matters, had puzzled out the information which he appeared to possess of Lord Etherington's affairs, through some of those obscure sources whence very important secrets do frequently, to the astonishment and confusion of those whom they concern, escape to the public. He thought this the more likely, as Touchwood was by no means critically nice in his society, but was observed to converse as readily with a gentleman's gentleman, as with the gentleman to whom he belonged, and with a lady's attendant, as with the lady herself. He that will stoop to this sort of society, who is fond of tattle, being at the same time disposed to pay some consideration for gratification of his curiosity, and not over scrupulous respecting its accuracy, may always command a great quantity of private anecdote. Captain Jekyl naturally enough concluded, that this busy old man became in some degree master of other people's affairs by such correspondences as these; and he could himself bear witness to his success in cross-examination, as he had been surprised into an avowal of the rencontre between the brothers, by an insidious observation of the said Touchwood. He reported, therefore, to the Earl, after this interview, that, on the whole, he thought he had no reason to fear much on the subject of the traveller, who, though he had become acquainted, by some means or other, with some leading facts of his remarkable history; only possessed them in a broken, confused, and desultory manner, insomuch that he seemed to doubt whether the parties in the expected lawsuit were brothers or cousins, and appeared totally ignorant of the facts on which it was to be founded.
It was the next day after this éclaircissement on the subject of Touchwood, that Lord Etherington dropped as usual into the bookseller's shop, got his papers, and skimming his eye over the shelf on which lay, till called for, the postponed letters destined for the Aultoun, saw with a beating heart the smart post-mistress toss amongst them, with an air of sovereign contempt, a pretty large packet, addressed to Francis Tyrrel, Esq. &c. He withdrew his eyes, as if conscious that even to have looked on this important parcel might engender some suspicion of his purpose, or intimate the deep interest which he took in the contents of the missive which was so slightly treated by his friend Mrs. Pott. At this moment the door of the shop opened, and Lady Penelope Penfeather entered, with her eternal pendante, the little Miss Digges.
"Have you seen Mr. Mowbray?--Has Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan's been down this morning?--Do you know any thing of Mr. Mowbray, Mrs. Pott?" were questions which the lettered lady eagerly huddled on the back of each other, scarcely giving time to the lady of letters to return a decided negative to all and each of them.
"Mr. Mowbray was not about--was not coming there this morning--his servant had just called for letters and papers, and announced as much."
"Good Heaven! how unfortunate!" said Lady Penelope, with a deep sigh, and sinking down on one of the little sofas in an attitude of shocking desolation, which called the instant attention of Mr. Pott and his good woman, the first uncorking a small phial of salts, for he was a pharmacopolist as well as vender of literature and transmitter of letters, and the other hastening for a glass of water. A strong temptation thrilled from Lord Etherington's eyes to his finger-ends. Two steps might have brought him within arm's-length of the unwatched packet, on the contents of which, in all probability, rested the hope and claims of his rival in honour and fortune; and, in the general confusion, was it impossible to possess himself of it unobserved? But no--no--no--the attempt was too dreadfully dangerous to be risked; and, passing from one extreme to another, he felt as if he was incurring suspicion by suffering Lady Penelope to play off her airs of affected distress and anxiety, without seeming to take that interest in them which her rank at least might be supposed to demand. Stung with this apprehension, he hastened to express himself so anxiously on the subject, and to demonstrate so busily his wish to assist her ladyship, that he presently stood committed a great deal farther than he had intended. Lady Penelope was infinitely obliged to his lordship--indeed, it was her character in general not to permit herself to be overcome by circumstances; but something had happened, so strange, so embarrassing, so melancholy, that she owned it had quite overcome her--notwithstanding, she had at all times piqued herself on supporting her own distresses, better than she was able to suppress her emotions in viewing those of others.
"Could he be of any use?" Lord Etherington asked. "She had enquired after Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan's--his servant was at her ladyship's service, if she chose to send to command his attendance."
"Oh! no, no!" said Lady Penelope; "I dare say, my dear lord, you will answer the purpose a great deal better than Mr. Mowbray--that is, provided you are a Justice of Peace."
"A Justice of Peace!" said Lord Etherington, much surprised; "I am in the commission unquestionably, but not for any Scotch county."
"O, that does not signify," said Lady Penelope; "and if you will trust yourself with me a little way, I will explain to you how you can do one of the most charitable, and kind, and generous things in the world."
Lord Etherington's delight in the exercise of charity, kindness, and generosity, was not so exuberant as to prevent his devising some means for evading Lady Penelope's request, when, looking through the sash-door, he had a distant glance of his servant Solmes approaching the Post-office.
I have heard of a sheep-stealer who had rendered his dog so skilful an accomplice in his nefarious traffic, that he used to send him out to commit acts of felony by himself, and had even contrived to impress on the poor cur the caution that he should not, on such occasions, seem even to recognise his master, if they met accidentally.[II-9] Apparently, Lord Etherington conducted himself upon a similar principle; for he had no sooner a glimpse of his agent, than he seemed to feel the necessity of leaving the stage free for his machinations.
"My servant," he said, with as much indifference as he could assume, "will call for my letters--I must attend Lady Penelope;" and, instantly proffering his services as Justice of the Peace, or in whatever other quality she chose to employ them, he hastily presented his arm, and scarce gave her ladyship time to recover from her state of languor to the necessary degree of activity, ere he hurried her from the shop; and, with her thin hatchet-face chattering close to his ear, her yellow and scarlet feathers crossing his nose, her lean right honourable arm hooking his elbow, he braved the suppressed titters and sneers of all the younger women whom he met as they traversed the parade. One glance of intelligence, though shot at a distance, passed betwixt his lordship and Solmes, as the former left the public walk under the guidance of Lady Penelope, his limbs indeed obeying her pleasure, and his ears dinned with her attempts to explain the business in question, but his mind totally indifferent where he was going, or ignorant on what purpose, and exclusively occupied with the packet in Mrs. Pott's heap of postponed letters, and its probable fate.
At length an effort of recollection made Lord Etherington sensible that his abstraction must seem strange, and, as his conscience told him, even suspicious in the eyes of his companion; putting therefore the necessary degree of constraint upon himself, he expressed, for the first time, curiosity to know where their walk was to terminate. It chanced, that this was precisely the question which he needed not to have asked, if he had paid but the slightest attention to the very voluble communications of her ladyship, which had all turned upon this subject.
"Now, my dear lord," she said, "I must believe you lords of the creation think us poor simple women the vainest fools alive. I have told you how much pain it costs me to speak about my little charities, and yet you come to make me tell you the whole story over again. But I hope, after all, your lordship is not surprised at what I have thought it my duty to do in this sad affair--perhaps I have listened too much to the dictates of my own heart, which are apt to be so deceitful."
On the watch to get at something explanatory, yet afraid, by demanding it directly, to show that the previous tide of narrative and pathos had been lost on an inattentive ear, Lord Etherington could only say, that Lady Penelope could not err in acting according to the dictates of her own judgment.
Still the compliment had not sauce enough for the lady's sated palate; so, like a true glutton of praise, she began to help herself with the soup-ladle.
"Ah! judgment?--how is it you men know us so little, that you think we can pause to weigh sentiment in the balance of judgment?--that is expecting rather too much from us poor victims of our feelings. So that you must really hold me excused if I forgot the errors of this guilty and unhappy creature, when I looked upon her wretchedness--Not that I would have my little friend, Miss Digges, or your lordship, suppose that I am capable of palliating the fault, while I pity the poor, miserable sinner. Oh, no--Walpole's verses express beautifully what one ought to feel on such occasions--
'For never was the gentle breast Insensible to human woes; Feeling, though firm, it melts distress'd For weaknesses it never knows.'"
"Most accursed of all précieuses," thought his lordship, "when wilt thou, amidst all thy chatter, utter one word sounding like sense or information!"
But, Lady Penelope went on--"If you knew, my lord, how I lament my limited means on those occasions! but I have gathered something among the good people at the Well. I asked that selfish wretch, Winterblossom, to walk down with me to view her distress, and the heartless beast told me he was afraid of infection!--infection from a puer--puerperal fever! I should not perhaps pronounce the word, but science is of no sex--however, I have always used thieves' vinegar essence, and never have gone farther than the threshold."
Whatever were Etherington's faults, he did not want charity, so far as it consists in giving alms.
"I am sorry," he said, taking out his purse, "your ladyship should not have applied to me."
"Pardon me, my lord, we only beg from our friends; and your lordship is so constantly engaged with Lady Binks, that we have rarely the pleasure of seeing you in what I call my little circle."
Lord Etherington, without further answer, tendered a couple of guineas, and observed, that the poor woman should have medical attendance.
"Why, so I say," answered Lady Penelope; "and I asked the brute Quackleben, who, I am sure, owes me some gratitude, to go and see her; but the sordid monster answered, 'Who was to pay him?'--He grows every day more intolerable, now that he seems sure of marrying that fat blowzy widow. He could not, I am sure, expect that I--out of my pittance--And besides, my lord, is there not a law that the parish, or the county, or the something or other, shall pay for physicking the poor?"
"We will find means to secure the Doctor's attendance," said Lord Etherington; "and I believe my best way will be to walk back to the Well, and send him to wait on the patient. I am afraid I can be of little use to a poor woman in a childbed fever."
"Puerperal, my lord, puerperal," said Lady Penelope, in a tone of correction.
"In a puerperal fever, then," said Lord Etherington; "why, what can I do to help her?"
"Oh! my lord, you have forgotten that this Anne Heggie, that I told you of, came here with one child in her arms--and another--in short, about to become a mother again--and settled herself in this miserable hut I told you of--and some people think the minister should have sent her to her own parish; but he is a strange, soft-headed, sleepy sort of man, not over active in his parochial duties. However, there she settled, and there was something about her quite beyond the style of a common pauper, my lord--not at all the disgusting sort of person that you give a sixpence to while you look another way--but some one that seemed to have seen better days--one that, as Shakspeare says, could a tale unfold--though, indeed, I have never thoroughly learned her history--only, that to-day, as I called to know how she was, and sent my maid into her hut with some trifle, not worth mentioning, I find there is something hangs about her mind concerning the Mowbray family here of St. Ronan's--and my woman says the poor creature is dying, and is raving either for Mr. Mowbray or for some magistrate to receive a declaration; and so I have given you the trouble to come with me, that we may get out of the poor creature, if possible, whatever she has got to say.--I hope it is not murder--I hope not--though young St. Ronan's has been a strange, wild, daring, thoughtless creature--sgherro insigne, as the Italian says.--But here is the hut, my lord--pray, walk in."
The mention of the St. Ronan's family, and of a secret relating to them, banished the thoughts which Lord Etherington began to entertain of leaving Lady Penelope to execute her works of devoted charity without his assistance. It was now with an interest equal to her own, that he stood before a most miserable hut, where the unfortunate female, her distresses not greatly relieved by Lady Penelope's ostentatious bounty, had resided both previous to her confinement, and since that event had taken place, with an old woman, one of the parish poor, whose miserable dole the minister had augmented, that she might have some means of assisting the stranger.
Lady Penelope lifted the latch and entered, after a momentary hesitation, which proceeded from a struggle betwixt her fear of infection, and her eager curiosity to know something, she could not guess what, that might affect the Mowbrays in their honour or fortunes. The latter soon prevailed, and she entered, followed by Lord Etherington. The lady, like other comforters of the cabins of the poor, proceeded to rebuke the grumbling old woman for want of order and cleanliness--censured the food which was provided for the patient, and enquired particularly after the wine which she had left to make caudle with. The crone was not so dazzled with Lady Penelope's dignity or bounty as to endure her reprimand with patience. "They that had their bread to won wi' ae arm," she said, for the other hung powerless by her side, "had mair to do than to soop hooses; if her leddyship wad let her ain idle quean of a lass take the besom, she might make the house as clean as she liked; and madam wad be a' the better of the exercise, and wad hae done, at least, ae turn of wark at the week's end."
"Do you hear the old hag, my lord?" said Lady Penelope. "Well, the poor are horrid ungrateful wretches--And the wine, dame--the wine?"
"The wine!--there was hardly half a mutchkin, and puir, thin, fusionless skink it was--the wine was drank out, ye may swear--we didna fling it ower our shouther--if ever we were to get good o't, it was by taking it naked, and no wi' your sugar and your slaisters--I wish, for ane, I had ne'er kend the sour smack o't. If the bedral hadna gien me a drap of usquebaugh, I might e'en hae died of your leddyship's liquor, for"----
Lord Etherington here interrupted the grumbling crone, thrusting some silver into her grasp, and at the same time begging her to be silent. The hag weighed the crown-piece in her hand, and crawled to her chimney-corner, muttering as she went,--"This is something like--this is something like--no like rinning into the house and out of the house, and geeing orders, like mistress and mair, and than a puir shilling again Saturday at e'en."
So saying, she sat down to her wheel, and seized, while she spun, her jet-black cutty pipe, from which she soon sent such clouds of vile mundungus vapour as must have cleared the premises of Lady Penelope, had she not been strong in purpose to share the expected confession of the invalid. As for Miss Digges, she coughed, sneezed, retched, and finally ran out of the cottage, declaring she could not live in such a smoke, if it were to hear twenty sick women's last speeches; and that, besides, she was sure to know all about it from Lady Penelope, if it was ever so little worth telling over again.
Lord Etherington was now standing beside the miserable flock-bed, in which lay the poor patient, distracted, in what seemed to be her dying moments, with the peevish clamour of the elder infant, to which she could only reply by low moans, turning her looks as well as she could from its ceaseless whine to the other side of her wretched couch, where lay the unlucky creature to which she had last given birth; its shivering limbs imperfectly covered with a blanket, its little features already swollen and bloated, and its eyes scarce open, apparently insensible to the evils of a state from which it seemed about to be speedily released.
"You are very ill, poor woman," said Lord Etherington; "I am told you desire a magistrate."
"It was Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan's, whom I desired to see--John Mowbray of St. Ronan's--the lady promised to bring him here."
"I am not Mowbray of St. Ronan's," said Lord Etherington; "but I am a justice of peace, and a member of the legislature--I am, moreover, Mr. Mowbray's particular friend, if I can be of use to you in any of these capacities."
The poor woman remained long silent, and when she spoke it was doubtfully.
"Is my Lady Penelope Penfeather there?" she said, straining her darkened eyes.
"Her ladyship is present, and within hearing," said Lord Etherington.
"My case is the worse," answered the dying woman, for so she seemed, "if I must communicate such a secret as mine to a man of whom I know nothing, and a woman of whom I only know that she wants discretion."
"I--I want discretion!" said Lady Penelope; but at a signal from Lord Etherington she seemed to restrain herself; nor did the sick woman, whose powers of observation were greatly impaired, seem to be aware of the interruption. She spoke, notwithstanding her situation, with an intelligible and even emphatic voice; her manner in a great measure betraying the influence of the fever, and her tone and language seeming much superior to her most miserable condition.
"I am not the abject creature which I seem," she said; "at least, I was not born to be so. I wish I were that utter abject! I wish I were a wretched pauper of the lowest class--a starving vagabond--a wifeless mother--ignorance and insensibility would make me bear my lot like the outcast animal that dies patiently on the side of the common, where it has been half-starved during its life. But I--but I--born and bred to better things, have not lost the memory of them, and they make my present condition--my shame--my poverty--my infamy--the sight of my dying babes--the sense that my own death is coming fast on--they make these things a foretaste of hell!"
Lady Penelope's self-conceit and affectation were broken down by this fearful exordium. She sobbed, shuddered, and, for once perhaps in her life, felt the real, not the assumed necessity, of putting her handkerchief to her eyes. Lord Etherington also was moved.
"Good woman," he said, "as far as relieving your personal wants can mitigate your distress, I will see that that is fully performed, and that your poor children are attended to."
"May God bless you!" said the poor woman, with a glance at the wretched forms beside her; "and may you," she added, after a momentary pause, "deserve the blessing of God, for it is bestowed in vain on those who are unworthy of it!"
Lord Etherington felt, perhaps, a twinge of conscience; for he said, something hastily, "Pray go on, good woman, if you really have any thing to communicate to me as a magistrate--it is time your condition was somewhat mended, and I will cause you to be cared for directly."
"Stop yet a moment," she said; "let me unload my conscience before I go hence, for no earthly relief will long avail to prolong my time here.--I was well born, the more my present shame! well educated, the greater my present guilt!--I was always, indeed, poor, but I felt not of the ills of poverty. I only thought of it when my vanity demanded idle and expensive gratifications, for real wants I knew none. I was companion of a young lady of higher rank than my own, my relative however, and one of such exquisite kindness of disposition, that she treated me as a sister, and would have shared with me all that she had on earth----I scarce think I can go farther with my story!--something rises to my throat when I recollect how I rewarded her sisterly love!--I was elder than Clara--I should have directed her reading, and confirmed her understanding; but my own bent led me to peruse only works, which, though they burlesque nature, are seductive to the imagination. We read these follies together, until we had fashioned out for ourselves a little world of romance, and prepared ourselves for a maze of adventures. Clara's imaginations were as pure as those of angels; mine were--but it is unnecessary to tell them. The fiend, always watchful, presented a tempter at the moment when it was most dangerous."
She paused here, as if she found difficulty in expressing herself; and Lord Etherington, turning, with great appearance of interest, to Lady Penelope, began to enquire, "Whether it were quite agreeable to her ladyship to remain any longer an ear-witness of this unfortunate's confession?--it seems to be verging on some things--things that it might be unpleasant for your ladyship to hear."
"I was just forming the same opinion, my lord; and, to say truth, was about to propose to your lordship to withdraw, and leave me alone with the poor woman. My sex will make her necessary communications more frank in your lordship's absence."
"True, madam; but then I am called here in my capacity of a magistrate."
"Hush!" said Lady Penelope; "she speaks."
"They say every woman that yields, makes herself a slave to her seducer; but I sold my liberty not to a man, but a demon! He made me serve him in his vile schemes against my friend and patroness--and oh! he found in me an agent too willing, from mere envy, to destroy the virtue which I had lost myself. Do not listen to me any more--Go, and leave me to my fate! I am the most detestable wretch that ever lived--detestable to myself worst of all, because even in my penitence there is a secret whisper that tells me, that were I as I have been, I would again act over all the wickedness I have done, and much worse. Oh! for Heaven's assistance, to crush the wicked thought!"
She closed her eyes, folded her emaciated hands, and held them upwards in the attitude of one who prays internally; presently the hands separated, and fell gently down on the miserable couch; but her eyes did not open, nor was there the slightest sign of motion in the features. Lady Penelope shrieked faintly, hid her eyes, and hurried back from the bed, while Lord Etherington, his looks darkening with a complication of feelings, remained gazing on the poor woman, as if eager to discern whether the spark of life was totally extinct. Her grim old assistant hurried to the bedside, with some spirits in a broken glass.
"Have ye no had pennyworths for your charity?" she said, in spiteful scorn. "Ye buy the very life o' us wi' your shillings and sixpences, your groats and your boddles--ye hae garr'd the puir wretch speak till she swarfs, and now ye stand as if ye never saw a woman in a dwam before? Let me till her wi' the dram--mony words mickle drought, ye ken--Stand out o' my gate, my leddy, if sae be that ye are a leddy; there is little use of the like of you when there is death in the pot."
Lady Penelope, half affronted, but still more frightened by the manners of the old hag, now gladly embraced Lord Etherington's renewed offer to escort her from the hut. He left it not, however, without bestowing an additional gratuity on the old woman, who received it with a whining benediction.
"The Almighty guide your course through the troubles of this wicked warld--and the muckle deevil blaw wind in your sails," she added, in her natural tone, as the guests vanished from her miserable threshold. "A wheen cork-headed, barmy-brained gowks! that wunna let puir folk sae muckle as die in quiet, wi' their sossings and their soopings."[II-10]
"This poor creature's declaration," said Lord Etherington to Lady Penelope, "seems to refer to matters which the law has nothing to do with, and which, perhaps, as they seem to implicate the peace of a family of respectability, and the character of a young lady, we ought to enquire no farther after."
"I differ from your lordship," said Lady Penelope; "I differ extremely--I suppose you guess whom her discourse touched upon?"
"Indeed, your ladyship does my acuteness too much honour."
"Did she not mention a Christian name?" said Lady Penelope; "your lordship is strangely dull this morning!"
"A Christian name?--No, none that I heard--yes, she said something about--a Catherine, I think it was."
"Catherine!" answered the lady; "No, my lord, it was Clara--rather a rare name in this country, and belonging, I think, to a young lady of whom your lordship should know something, unless your evening flirtations with Lady Binks have blotted entirely out of your memory your morning visits to Shaws-Castle. You are a bold man, my lord. I would advise you to include Mrs. Blower among the objects of your attention, and then you will have maid, wife, and widow upon your list."
"Upon my honour, your ladyship is too severe," said Lord Etherington; "you surround yourself every evening with all that is clever and accomplished among the people here, and then you ridicule a poor secluded monster, who dare not approach your charmed circle, because he seeks for some amusement elsewhere. This is to tyrannize and not to reign--it is Turkish despotism!"
"Ah! my lord, I know you well, my lord," said Lady Penelope--"Sorry would your lordship be, had you not power to render yourself welcome to any circle which you may please to approach."
"That is to say," answered the lord, "you will pardon me if I intrude on your ladyship's coterie this evening?"
"There is no society which Lord Etherington can think of frequenting, where he will not be a welcome guest."
"I will plead then at once my pardon and privilege this evening--And now," (speaking as if he had succeeded in establishing some confidence with her ladyship,) "what do you really think of this blind story?"
"O, I must believe it concerns Miss Mowbray. She was always an odd girl--something about her I could never endure--a sort of effrontery--that is, perhaps, a harsh word, but a kind of assurance--an air of confidence--so that though I kept on a footing with her, because she was an orphan girl of good family, and because I really knew nothing positively bad of her, yet she sometimes absolutely shocked me."
"Your ladyship, perhaps, would not think it right to give publicity to the story? at least, till you know exactly what it is," said the Earl, in a tone of suggestion.
"Depend upon it, that it is quite the worst, the very worst--You heard the woman say that she had exposed Clara to ruin--and you know she must have meant Clara Mowbray, because she was so anxious to tell the story to her brother, St. Ronan's."
"Very true--I did not think of that," answered Lord Etherington; "still it would be hard on the poor girl if it should get abroad."
"O, it will never get abroad for me," said Lady Penelope; "I would not tell the very wind of it. But then I cannot meet Miss Mowbray as formerly--I have a station in life to maintain, my lord--and I am under the necessity of being select in my society--it is a duty I owe the public, if it were even not my own inclination."
"Certainly, my Lady Penelope," said Lord Etherington; "but then consider, that, in a place where all eyes are necessarily observant of your ladyship's behaviour, the least coldness on your part to Miss Mowbray--and, after all, we have nothing like assurance of any thing being wrong there--would ruin her with the company here, and with the world at large."
"Oh! my lord," answered Lady Penelope, "as for the truth of the story, I have some private reasons of my own for 'holding the strange tale devoutly true;' for I had a mysterious hint from a very worthy, but a very singular man, (your lordship knows how I adore originality,) the clergyman of the parish, who made me aware there was something wrong about Miss Clara--something that--your lordship will excuse my speaking more plainly,--Oh, no!--I fear--I fear it is all too true--You know Mr. Cargill, I suppose, my lord?"
"Yes--no--I--I think I have seen him," said Lord Etherington. "But how came the lady to make the parson her father-confessor?--they have no auricular confession in the Kirk--it must have been with the purpose of marriage, I presume--let us hope that it took place--perhaps it really was so--did he, Cargill--the minister, I mean--say any thing of such a matter?"
"Not a word--not a word--I see where you are, my lord; you would put a good face on't.--
'They call'd it marriage, by that specious name To veil the crime, and sanctify the shame.'
Queen Dido for that. How the clergyman came into the secret I cannot tell--he is a very close man. But I know he will not hear of Miss Mowbray being married to any one, unquestionably because he knows that, in doing so, she would introduce disgrace into some honest family--and, truly, I am much of his mind, my lord."
"Perhaps Mr. Cargill may know the lady is privately married already," said the Earl; "I think that is the more natural inference, begging your ladyship's pardon for presuming to differ in opinion."
Lady Penelope seemed determined not to take this view of the case.
"No, no--no, I tell you," she replied; "she cannot be married, for if she were married, how could the poor wretch say that she was ruined?--You know there is a difference betwixt ruin and marriage."
"Some people are said to have found them synonymous, Lady Penelope," answered the Earl.
"You are smart on me, my lord; but still, in common parlance, when we say a woman is ruined, we mean quite the contrary of her being married--it is impossible for me to be more explicit upon such a topic, my lord."
"I defer to your ladyship's better judgment," said Lord Etherington. "I only entreat you to observe a little caution in this business--I will make the strictest enquiries of this woman, and acquaint you with the result; and I hope, out of regard to the respectable family of St. Ronan's, your ladyship will be in no hurry to intimate any thing to Miss Mowbray's prejudice."
"I certainly am no person to spread scandal, my lord," answered the lady, drawing herself up; "at the same time, I must say, the Mowbrays have little claim on me for forbearance. I am sure I was the first person to bring this Spa into fashion, which has been a matter of such consequence to their estate; and yet Mr. Mowbray set himself against me, my lord, in every possible sort of way, and encouraged the under-bred people about him to behave very strangely.--There was the business of building the Belvidere, which he would not permit to be done out of the stock-purse of the company, because I had given the workmen the plan and the orders--and then, about the tea-room--and the hour for beginning dancing--and about the subscription for Mr. Rymour's new Tale of Chivalry--in short, I owe no consideration to Mr. Mowbray of St. Ronan's."
"But the poor young lady?" said Lord Etherington.
"Oh! the poor young lady?--the poor young lady can be as saucy as a rich young lady, I promise you.--There was a business in which she used me scandalously, Lord Etherington--it was about a very trifling matter--a shawl. Nobody minds dress less than I do, my lord; I thank Heaven my thoughts turn upon very different topics--but it is in trifles that disrespect and unkindness are shown; and I have had a full share of both from Miss Clara, besides a good deal of impertinence from her brother upon the same subject."
"There is but one way remains," thought the Earl, as they approached the Spa, "and that is to work on the fears of this d--d vindictive blue-stocking'd wild-cat.--Your ladyship," he said aloud, "is aware what severe damages have been awarded in late cases where something approaching to scandal has been traced to ladies of consideration--the privileges of the tea-table have been found insufficient to protect some fair critics against the consequences of too frank and liberal animadversion upon the characters of their friends. So pray, remember, that as yet we know very little on this subject."
Lady Penelope loved money, and feared the law; and this hint, fortified by her acquaintance with Mowbray's love of his sister, and his irritable and revengeful disposition, brought her in a moment much nearer the temper in which Lord Etherington wished to leave her. She protested, that no one could be more tender than she of the fame of the unfortunate, even supposing their guilt was fully proved--promised caution on the subject of the pauper's declaration, and hoped Lord Etherington would join her tea-party early in the evening, as she wished to make him acquainted with one or two of her protegés, whom, she was sure, his lordship would find deserving of his advice and countenance. Being by this time at the door of her own apartment, her ladyship took leave of the Earl with a most gracious smile.
[II-9] Note I.
[II-10] Note II.
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