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The exact hour assigned found Hartley at the door of the rich native merchant, who, having some reasons for wishing to oblige the Begum Mon treville, had relinquished, for her accommodation and that of her numerous retinue, almost the whole of his large and sumptuous residence in the Black Town of Madras, as that district of the city is called which the natives occupy.
A domestic, at the first summons, ushered the visitor into an apartment, where he expected to be joined by Miss Gray. The room opened on one side into a small garden or parterre, filled with the brilliant-coloured flowers of Eastern climates; in the midst of which the waters of a fountain rose upwards in a sparkling jet, and fell back again into a white marble cistern.
A thousand dizzy recollections thronged on the mind of Hartley, whose early feelings towards the companion of his youth, if they had slumbered during distance and the various casualties of a busy life, were revived when he found himself placed so near her, and in circumstances which interested from their unexpected occurrence and mysterious character. A step was heard--the door opened--a female appeared--but it was the portly form of Madame de Montreville.
"What do you please to want, sir?" said the lady; "that is, if you have found your tongue this morning, which you had lost yesterday."
"I proposed myself the honour of waiting upon the young person, whom I saw in your excellency's company yesterday morning," answered Hartley, with assumed respect. "I have had long the honour of being known to her in Europe, and I desire to offer my services to her in India."
"Much obliged--much obliged; but Miss Gray is gone out, and does not return for one or two days. You may leave your commands with me."
"Pardon me, madam," replied Hartley; "but I have some reason to hope you may be mistaken in this matter--And here comes the lady herself."
"How is this, my dear?" said Mrs. Montreville, with unruffled front, to Menie, as she entered; "are you not gone out for two or three days, as I tell this gentleman?--mais c'est egal--it is all one thing. You will say, How d'ye do, and good-bye, to Monsieur, who is so polite as to come to ask after our healths, and as he sees us both very well, he will go away home again."
"I believe, madam," said Miss Gray, with appearance of effort, "that I must speak with this gentleman for a few minutes in private, if you will permit me."
"That is to say, get you gone? but I do not allow that--I do not like private conversation between young man and pretty young woman; cela n'est pas honnete. It cannot be in my house."
"It may be out of it, then, madam," answered Miss Gray, not pettishly nor pertly, but with the utmost simplicity.--"Mr. Hartley, will you step into that garden?--and, you, madam, may observe us from the window, if it be the fashion of the country to watch so closely."
As she spoke this she stepped through a lattice-door into the garden, and with an air so simple, that she seemed as if she wished to comply with her patroness's ideas of decorum, though they appeared strange to her. The Queen of Sheba, notwithstanding her natural assurance, was disconcerted by the composure of Miss Gray's manner, and left the room, apparently in displeasure. Menie turned back to the door which opened into the garden, and said in the same manner as before, but with less nonchalance,--
"I am sure I would not willingly break through the rules of a foreign country; but I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of speaking to so old a friend,--if indeed," she added, pausing and looking at Hartley, who was much embarrassed, "it be as much pleasure to Mr. Hartley as it is to me."
"It would have been," said Hartley, scarce knowing what he said--"it must be a pleasure to me in every circumstance--But this extraordinary meeting--But your father"--
Menie Gray's handkerchief was at her eyes.--"He is gone, Mr. Hartley. After he was left unassisted, his toilsome business became too much for him--he caught a cold which hung about him, as you know he was the last to attend to his own complaints, till it assumed a dangerous, and, finally, a fatal character. I distress you, Mr. Hartley, but it becomes you well to be affected. My father loved you dearly."
"Oh, Miss Gray!" said Hartley, "it should not have been thus with my excellent friend at the close of his useful and virtuous life--Alas, wherefore--the question bursts from me involuntarily--wherefore could you not have complied with his wishes?--wherefore"--
"Do not ask me," said she, stopping the question which was on his lips; "we are not the formers of our own destiny. It is painful to talk on such a subject; but for once, and for ever, let me tell you that I should have done Mr. Hartley wrong, if, even to secure his assistance to my father, I had accepted his hand, while my wayward affections did not accompany the act."
"But wherefore do I see you here, Menie?--Forgive me, Miss Gray, my tongue as well as my heart turns back to long-forgotten scenes--But why here?--why with this woman?"
"She is not, indeed, every thing that I expected," answered Menie; "but I must not be prejudiced by foreign manners, after the step I have taken--She is, besides, attentive, and generous in her way, and I shall soon"--she paused a moment, and then added, "be under better protection."
"That of Richard Middlemas?" said Hartley with a faltering voice.
"I ought not, perhaps, to answer the question," said Menie; "but I am a bad dissembler, and those whom I trust, I trust entirely. You have guessed right, Mr. Hartley," she added,--colouring a good deal, "I have come hither to unite my fate to that of your old comrade."
"It is, then, just as I feared!" exclaimed Hartley.
"And why should Mr. Hartley fear?" said Menie Gray. "I used to think you too generous--surely the quarrel which occurred long since ought not to perpetuate suspicion and resentment."
"At least, if the feeling of resentment remained in my own bosom, it would be the last I should intrude upon you, Miss Gray," answered Hartley. "But it is for you, and for you alone, that I am watchful.--This person--this gentleman whom you mean to intrust with your happiness--do you know where he is--and in what service?"
"I know both, more distinctly perhaps than Mr. Hartley can do. Mr. Middlemas has erred greatly, and has been severely punished. But it was not in the time of his exile and sorrow, that she who has plighted her faith to him should, with the flattering world, turn her back upon him. Besides, you have, doubtless, not heard of his hopes of being restored to his country and his rank?"
"I have," answered Hartley, thrown off his guard; "but I see not how he can deserve it, otherwise than by becoming a traitor to his new master, and thus rendering himself even more unworthy of confidence than I hold him to be at this moment."
"It is well that he hears you not," answered Menie Gray, resenting, with natural feeling, the imputation on her lover. Then instantly softening her tone she added, "My voice ought not to aggravate, but to soothe your quarrel. Mr. Hartley, I plight my word to you that you do Richard wrong."
She said these words with affected calmness, suppressing all appearance of that displeasure, of which she was evidently sensible, upon this depreciation of a beloved object.
Hartley compelled himself to answer in the same strain.
"Miss Gray," he said, "your actions and motives will always be those of an angel; but let me entreat you to view this most important matter with the eyes of worldly wisdom and prudence. Have you well weighed the risks attending the course which you are taking in favour of a man, who,--nay, I will not again offend you--who may, I hope, deserve your favour?"
"When I wished to see you in this manner, Mr. Hartley, and declined a communication in public, where we could have had less freedom of conversation, it was with the view of telling you every thing. Some pain I thought old recollections might give, but I trusted it would be momentary; and, as I desire to retain your friendship, it is proper I should show that I still deserve it. I must then first tell you my situation after my father's death. In the world's opinion we were always poor, you know; but in the proper sense I had not known what real poverty was, until I was placed in dependence upon a distant relation of my poor father, who made our relationship a reason for casting upon me all the drudgery of her household, while she would not allow that it gave me a claim to countenance, kindness, or anything but the relief of my most pressing wants. In these circumstances I received from Mr. Middlemas a letter, in which he related his fatal duel, and its consequences. He had not dared to write to me to share his misery--Now, when he was in a lucrative situation, under the patronage of a powerful prince, whose wisdom knew how to prize and protect such Europeans as entered his service--now, when he had every prospect of rendering our government such essential service by his interest with Hyder Ali, and might eventually nourish hopes of being permitted to return and stand his trial for the death of his commanding officer--now, he pressed me to come to India, and share his reviving fortunes, by accomplishing the engagement into which we had long ago entered. A considerable sum of money accompanied this letter. Mrs. Duffer was, pointed out as a respectable woman, who would protect me during the passage. Mrs. Montreville, a lady of rank, having large possessions and high interest in the Mysore, would receive me on my arrival at Fort St. George, and conduct me safely to the dominions of Hyder. It was farther recommended, that, considering the peculiar situation of Mr. Middlemas, his name should be concealed in the transaction, and that the ostensible cause of my voyage should be to fill an office in that lady's family--What was I to do?--My duty to my poor father was ended, and my other friends considered the proposal as too advantageous to be rejected. The references given, the sum of money lodged, were considered as putting all scruples out of the question, and my immediate protectress and kinswoman was so earnest that I should accept of the offer made me, as to intimate that she would not encourage me to stand in my own light, by continuing to give me shelter and food, (she gave me little more,) if I was foolish enough to refuse compliance."
"Sordid wretch!" said Hartley, "how little did she deserve such a charge!"
"Let me speak a proud word, Mr. Hartley, and then you will not perhaps blame my relations so much. All their persuasions, and even their threats, would have failed in inducing me to take a step, which has an appearance, at least, to which I found it difficult to reconcile myself. But I had loved Middlemas--I love him still--why should I deny it?--and I have not hesitated to trust him. Had it not been for the small still voice which reminded me of my engagements, I had maintained more stubbornly the pride of womanhood, and, as you would perhaps have recommended, I might have expected, at least, that my lover should have come to Britain in person, and might have had the vanity to think," she added, smiling faintly, "that if I were worth having, I was worth fetching."
"Yet now--even now," answered Hartley, "be just to yourself while you are generous to your lover.--Nay, do not look angrily, but hear me. I doubt the propriety of your being under the charge of this unsexed woman, who can no longer be termed a European. I have interest enough with females of the highest rank in the settlement--this climate is that of generosity and hospitality--there is not one of them, who, knowing your character and history, will not desire to have you in her society, and under her protection, until your lover shall be able to vindicate his title to your hand in the face of the world.--I myself will be no cause of suspicion to him, or of inconvenience to you, Menie. Let me but have your consent to the arrangement I propose, and the same moment that sees you under honourable and unsuspected protection, I will leave Madras, not to return till your destiny is in one way or other permanently fixed."
"No, Hartley," said Miss Gray. "It may, it must be, friendly in you thus to advise me; but it would be most base in me to advance my own affairs at the expense of your prospects. Besides, what would this be but taking the chance of contingencies, with the view of sharing poor Middlemas's fortunes, should they prove prosperous, and casting him off, should they be otherwise? Tell me only, do you, of your own positive knowledge, aver that you consider this woman as an unworthy and unfit protectress for so young a person as I am?"
"Of my own knowledge I can say nothing; nay, I must own, that reports differ even concerning Mrs. Montreville's character. But surely the mere suspicion"----
"The mere suspicion, Mr. Hartley, can have no weight with me, considering that I can oppose to it the testimony of the man with whom I am willing to share my future fortunes. You acknowledge the question is but doubtful, and should not the assertion of him of whom I think so highly decide my belief in a doubtful matter? What, indeed, must he be, should this Madame Montreville be other than he represented her?"
"What must he be, indeed!" thought Hartley internally, but his lips uttered not the words. He looked down in a deep reverie, and at length started from it at the words of Miss Gray.
"It is time to remind you, Mr. Hartley, that we must needs part. God bless and preserve you."
"And you, dearest Menie," exclaimed Hartley as he sunk on one knee, and pressed to his lips the hand which she held out to him. "God bless you!--you must deserve blessing. God protect you!--you must need protection.--Oh, should things prove different from what you hope, send for me instantly, and if man can aid you, Adam Hartley will!"
He placed in her hand a card containing his address. He then rushed from the apartment. In the hall he met the lady of the mansion, who made him a haughty reverence in token of adieu, while a native servant of the upper class, by whom she was attended, made a low and reverential salam.
Hartley hastened from the Black Town, more satisfied than before that some deceit was about to be practised towards Menie Gray--more determined than ever to exert himself for her preservation; yet more completely perplexed, when he began to consider the doubtful character of the danger to which she might be exposed, and the scanty means of protection which she had to oppose to it.
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