A New England Tale/Chapter VIII

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A New England Tale by Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Chapter VIII

 It may be said of him, that Cupid hath clap'd him o' the
shoulder, but I warrant him heart-whole.
 As you like it

More than two years glided away without the occurrence of any incident in the life of our heroine that would be deemed worthy of record, by any persons less interested in her history than Mary Hull, or the writer of her simple annals. The reader shall therefore be allowed to pass over this interval, with merely a remark, that Jane had improved in mortal and immortal graces; that the developement of her character seemed to interest and delight Mr. Lloyd almost as much as the progress of his own child, and that her uniform patience had acquired for her some influence over the bad passions of her aunt, whose rough points seemed to be a little worn by the continual dropping of Jane's virtues.

In this interval, Martha Wilson had made a stolen match with a tavern-keeper from a neighbouring village, and had removed from her mother's house, to display her character on a new stage, and in a worse light.

Elvira, at eighteen, was much the same as at sixteen, except, that the gayety of her spirits was somewhat checked by the apprehension (that seemed to have grown of late) that Edward Erskine's affections, which had been vacillating for some time between her and her cousin, would finally preponderate in Jane's favour. It may appear singular, that the same person should admire both the cousins; but it must be remembered, that Edward Erskine was not (as our readers are) admitted behind the scenes; and it must be confessed, that he had not so nice a moral sense, as we hope they possess. He neither estimated the purity of Jane's character, as it deserved to be estimated, nor felt for the faults of Elvira the dislike they merited. Edward Erskine belonged to one of the best families in the county of ———. His parents had lost several children in their infency, and this boy alone remained to them—to become the sole object of their cares and fondness. He was naturally what is called 'good-hearted,' which we believe means kind and generous. Flattery, and unlimited indulgence made him vain, selfish, and indolent. These qualities were, however, somewhat modified, by a frank and easy temper, and sheltered by an uncommonly handsome exterior. Some of his college companions thought him a genius, for, though he was seldom caught in the act of studying, he passed through college without disgrace; this (for he certainly was neither a genius nor a necromancer,) might be attributed in part to an aptness at learning, and an excellent memory; but chiefly to an extraordinary facility at appropriating to himself the results of the labours of others. He lounged through the prescribed course of law studies, and entered upon his professional career with considerable éclat. He had a rich and powerful voice; and it might be said of him, as of the chosen king of Israel—that 'from the shoulders upwards, he was taller and fairer than any of his brethren.' These are qualifications never slighted by the vulgar; and which are said, but we hope not with truth, to be sure passports to ladies' favour. He had too, for we would do him ample justice, uncommon talents, but not such as we think would justify the remark often made of him, "that the young squire was the smartest man in the county." In short, he belonged to that large class of persons who are generous, but not just; affectionate, but not constant; and often kind, though it would puzzle a casuist to assign to their motives their just proportions of vanity and benevolence. He had recently, by the death of his parents, come into possession of a handsome estate; and he was accounted the first match in the county of ———.

Mrs. Wilson could not be insensible to the advantages that she believed might be grasped by Elvira, and she determined to relax the strict rule of her house, and to join her assiduities to her daughter's arts, in order to secure the prize. She was almost as much embarrassed in her manœuvres as the famous transporter of the fox, the geese, and the corn. If she opened her doors to young Erskine, to display her daughter, Jane must be seen too; and though she was sufficiently ingenious in contriving ways and means of employing Jane, and securing a clear field for Elvira, Erskine, with the impatience and perversity of a spoiled child, set a double value on the pleasure that was denied him.

The affairs of Mrs. Wilson's household were in this train, when the following conversation occurred between the cousins:—

"If there is a party made to-morrow, to escort the bride, do you expect to join it, Jane?" said Elvira to her cousin, with an expression of anxiety that was quite as intelligible as her question.

"I should like to," replied Jane.

"Ah, that of course," answered Elvira; "but I did not ask what you would like, but what you expect."

"You know, Elvira, I am not sure of obtaining your mother's permission."

"For once in your life, Jane, do be content to speak less like an oracle, and tell me in plain English, whether you expect to go, if you can obtain mother's permission."

"In plain English then, Elvira, yes," replied Jane, smiling.

"You seem very sure of an invitation," answered Elvira, pettishly. Jane's deep blush revealed the truth to her suspicious cousin, which she did not wish to confess or evade; and Elvira continued, "I was sure I overheard Edward say something to you, about the ride last night, when you parted on the steps." She paused, and then added, her eyes flashing fire, "Jane, Edward Erskine preferred me once, and in spite of your arts, he shall prefer me again. Remember, miss, the fate of lady Euphrasia."

Jane replied, good naturedly, "I do remember her; but if her proud and artful character suits me, the poverty and helplessness of my condition bears a striking resemblance to the forlorn Amanda's. I trust, however, that my fate will resemble neither of your heroines, for you cannot expect me, on account of the honour of being your rival, to be dashed from a precipice, to point the moral of your story; and I am very certain of not marrying a lord."

"Yes, for there is no lord in this vulgar country to marry; but, with all your pretence of modesty, you aspire to the highest station within your reach."

Jane made no reply, and Elvira poured out her spleen in invectives, which neither abated her own ill humour, nor disturbed her cousin's equanimity. She was determined to compass her purposes, and in order to do so, she imparted her conjectures to her mother, who had become as faithful, as she was a powerful auxiliary.

In the evening they were all assembled in the parlour. Edward Erskine entered, and his entrance produced a visible sensation in every member of the little circle. Mrs. Wilson dropped half a needle full of stitches on her knitting work, and gave it to Jane to take them up. Jane seemed to find the task very difficult; for a little girl, who sat by the working stand, observed, "Miss Jane, I could take up the stitches better than you do; you miss them half."

"Give me my spectacles—I'll do it myself," said Mrs. .Wilson. "Some people are very easily discomposed."

It was a warm evening in the latter part of September; the window was open; Jane retreated to it, and busied herself in pulling the leaves off a rose-bush. Erskine brought matters to a crisis by saying, "I called, Mrs. Wilson, to ask of you the favour of Miss Elton's company to-morrow on the bridal escort."

"I am sorry," replied Mrs. Wilson, "that any young woman's manners, who is brought up in my house, should authorize a gentleman to believe she will, of course, ride with him if asked."

"I beg your pardon, madam," replied Edward (for he, at least, had no fear of the redoubtable Mrs. Wilson,) "I have been so happy as to obtain Miss Elton's consent, subject to yours."

"Is it possible!" answered Mrs. Wilson, sneeringly—" quite an unlooked-for deference from Miss Elton; not unnecessary however, for she probably recollected, that to-morrow is lecture-day; and, indifferent as she is to the privilege of going to meeting, she knows that no pleasures ever prevent my going."

"No, madam," replied Erskine, "the pleasures of others weigh very light against your duties."

Before Mrs. Wilson had made up her mind whether or not to resent the sarcasm, Erskine rose, and joining Jane at the window, whispered to her, "Rouse your spirit, for heaven's sake; do not submit to such tyranny."

Jane had recovered her self-possession and she replied, smiling, "It is my duty to subdue, not rouse my spirit."

"Duty!" exclaimed Erskine; "leave all that ridiculous cant for your aunt: I abhor it. I have your promise, and your promise to me is surely as binding as your duty to your aunt."

"That promise was conditional," replied Jane, "and it is no longer in my power to perform it."

"Nor in your inclination, Miss Elton?"

Jane was not well pleased that Erskine should persevere, at the risk of involving her with her aunt; and to avoid his importunity, and her aunt's displeasure, she left the room. "The girl wants spirit," said Erskine, mentally; "she is tame, very tame. It is quite absurd for a girl of seventeen to talk about duties.'^

He was about to take leave, when Mrs. Wilson, who knew none of the skilful tactics of accomplished manœverers, though her clumsy assaults were often as irresistible, said, "Don't be in such haste, Mr. Erskine. Elvira may go with you."

Edward's first impulse was to decline the offer; but he paused. Elvira was sitting by her mother, and she turned upon him a look of appeal and admiration; his vanity, which had been piqued by Jane, was soothed by this tribute, and he said,

"If Miss Wilson is inclined to tbe party, I will call for her to-morrow."

Miss Wilson confessed her inclination with a glow of pleasure; that consoled him for his disappointment.

Elvira made the most of the advantage she had gained. Mrs. Wilson had of late, though the effort cost her many a groan, indulged Elvira's passion for dress, in the hope that the glittering of the bait would attract the prey. In this calculation she was not mistaken; for, though Erskine affected a contempt for the distinctions of dress, he had been too much flattered for his personal charms, to permit him to be insensible to them; and when he handed Elvira into his gig, he noticed, with pleasure, that she was the best dressed and most stylish looking girl in the party. His vanity was still further gratified, when he overheard his servant say to one of his fellows, "By George, they are a most noble looking pair!" Such is the cormorant appetite of vanity, never satisfied with the quantity, and never nice as to the quality of the food it devours.

Elvira had penetration enough to detect the weakest points in the fortress she had to assail; and so skilfully and successfully did she ply her arts on this triumphant day, that Erskine scarcely thought of Jane, and we fear not once with regret.

Poor Jane remained at home, mortified that Edward went without her, and vexed with herself that she was mortified. To avoid seeing the party on their return, she went out to walk, and was deliberating whither to direct her steps, when she met her friend Mr. Lloyd. "Ah, Jane," said he, "I just came on an errand from my saucy little girl: she has succeeded for the first time to-day in hitching words together, so as to make quite an intelligible sentence; and she is so much elated, that she has bid me tell thee she cannot go to sleep till "dear Jane" has heard her read."

Jane replied, she "should be glad to hear her;" but with none of the animation with which she usually entered into the pleasures of her little friend. Mr. LJoyd was disappointed; but he thought she had been suffering some domestic vexation, and they walked on silently.

After a few moments he said, "Quaker as I am, I do not like a silent meeting;—though I should be used to it, for, except that I must answer the questions of my Rebecca, and am expected by thy friend Mary to reply to her praises of thee, I have not much more occasion for the gift of speech, than the brothers of La Trappe."

"You forget," replied Jane, who felt her silence gently reproached, "that besides all the use you have for that precious faculty, in persuading the stupid and the obstmaie to adopt your benevolent plans of reform, you sometimes condescend to employ it in behalf of a very humble young friend."

"But that young friend must lay aside her humility so far, as to flatter me with the appearance of listening."

Jane was a little disconcerted, and Mr. Lloyd did not seem quite free from embarassment; but as he had roused ber from her abstractedness, he began to expatiate on the approach of evening, the charms of that hour when the din of toil has eased, and no sound is heard but the sweet sounds of twilight breathing the music of nature's evening hymn; he turned his eye to the heavens, which, in their 'far blue arch,' disclosed star after star, and then the constellations in their brightness. He spoke of the power that formed, and the wisdom that directed them. Jane was affected by his devotion; it was a promethean touch that infused a soul into all nature. She listened with delight, and before they reached the house, her tranquillity wa« quite restored; and the child and father were both entirely satisfied with the pleasure she manifested in the improvement of her little favourite. But her trials were not over: after the lesson was past—"Dear Jane," said Rebecca, "why did not thee go with the party to-day? I saw them all go past here, and Mr. Erskine and Elvira were laughing, and I looked out sharp for thee; would not any body take thee, Jane?"

Jane did what of all other things she would least have wished to have done—-she burst into tears.

The sweet child, whose directness had taken her by surprise, crept up into her lap, and putting her arms around her neck, said affectionately, "I am sorry for thee, dear Jane; don't cry, father would have asked thee, if he had gone." Poor Jane hid her blushes and her tears on the bosom of her kind, but unskilful comforter. She felt the necessity of saying something; but confessions she could not make, and pretences she never made.

Mr. Lloyd saw and pitied her confusion: he rose, and tenderly placing his hand on her head, he said, "My dear young friend, thou hast wisely and safely guided thy little bark thus far down the stream of life; be still vigilant and prudent, and thou wilt glide unharmed through the dangers that alarm thee." He then relieved Jane from his presence, saying, "I am going to my library, and will send Mary to escort thee home."

Jane could not have borne a plainer statement of her case; and though it was very clear that Mr. Lloyd had detected the lurking weakness of her heart, she was soothed by his figurative mode of insinuating his knowledge and his counsel. Persons of genuine sensibility possess a certain tact, that enables them to touch delicate subjects without giving pain. This touch differs as much from a rude and unfeehng grasp as does the management of a fine instrument in the hands of a skilful surgeon, from the mangling and hacking of a vulgar operator.

Mr. Lloyd had heard the village gossip of Edward Erskine's divided attentions to the cousins. Nothing that concerned Jane was uninteresting to him; and he had watched with eager anxiety the character and conduct of Erskine. He had never liked the young man; but he thought that he had probably done him injustice, and he had too fair a mind to harbour a prejudice. 'Perhaps,' he said to himself, 'I have judged him hardly; I am apt to carry my strait-coat habits into every thing; the young man's extravagant way of talking, his sacrifices to popularity, and his indolence and love of pleasure, may all have been exagerated in my eyes by their opposition to the strict, sober ways in which I have been bred; at any rate, I will look upon the bright side. Jane Elton, pure, excellent as she is, cannot love such a man as Edward Erskine appears to me to be; and she is too noble, I am sure, to regard the advantages which excite the cupidity of her vulgar aunt.'

The result of Mr. Lloyd's investigations was not favourable to Erskine. Still his faults were so specious, that they were often mistaken for virtues; and virtues he had, though none unsullied. There was nothing in his character or history, as far as Mr. Lloyd could ascertain it, that would give him a right to interfere with his advice to Jane; but still he felt as if she was on the brink of a precipice, and he had no right to warn her of her danger. Perhaps this was a false delicacy, considering the amount of the risk; but there are few persons of principle and refinement who do not shrink from meddling with affairs of the heart. Mr. Lloyd hoped—believed that Jane would not marry Edward Erskine; but he did not allow enough for the inexperience of youth, for the liability of a young lady of seventeen to fall in love; for the faith that hopes al things, and believes all things—it wishes to believe,

The fall, the winter, and the spring wore away, and, as yet, no certain indication appeared of the issue of this, to our villagers, momentous affair. Edward certainly preferred Jane, and yet he was more at his ease with Elvira. He could not but perceive the decided superiority of Jane; but Elvira made him always think more and better of himself; and this most agreeable effect of her flatteries and servility reflected a charm on her. Jane was never less satisfied with herself than during this harassing period of her life. A new set of feelings were springing up in her heart, over which she felt that she had little control. At times, her confidence in Edward was strong; and then, suddenly, a hasty expression, or an unprepared action, revealed a trait that deformed the fair proportions of the hero of her imagination. Elvira's continual projects, and busy rivalry, provoked, at last, a spirit of competition; which was certainly natural, though very wrong; hut, alas! our heroine had infirmities. Who is without them?

In the beginning of the month of June, David Wilson came from college, involved in debt and in disgrace. His youthful follies had ripened into vices, and his mother had no patience, no forbearance for the faults, which she might have traced to her own mismanagement, but for which she found a source that relieved her from responsibility. The following was the close of an altercation, noisy and bitter, between this mother and son:—"I am ruined, utterly ruined, if you refuse me the money. Elvira told me you received a large sum yesterday; and 'tis but one hundred dollars that I ask for."

"And I wonder you can have the heart to ask," replied Mrs. Wilson, sobbing with passion, not grief; "you have no feeling; you never bad any for my afflictions. It is but two months, yesterday, since Martha died, and I have no reason to hope for her. She died without repentance."

"Ha!" replied David, "Elvira told me, that she confessed, to her husband, her abuse of his children, her love of the bottle, (which, by the by, every body knew before,) and a parcel of stuff that, for our sakes, I think she might have kept to herself."

"Yes, yes, she did die in a terrible uproar of mind about some things of that kind; but she had no feeling of her lost state by nature."

"Oh, the devil!" grumbled the hopeful son and brother; "if I had nothing to worry my conscience but my state by nature, I might get one good night's sleep, instead of lying from night till morning like a toad under a harrow."

This comment was either unheard or unheeded by the mother, and she went on: "David, your extravagance is more than I can bear. I have been wonderfully supported under my other trials. If my children, though they are my flesh and blood, are not elected, the Lord is justified in their destruction, and I am still. I have done my duty, and I know not 'why tarry His chariot wheels.'"

"It is an easy thing, maam," said David, interrupting his mother, "to be reeonciled to everlasting destruction; but if your mind is not equally resigned to the temporal ruin of a child, you must lend me the money."

"Lend it! You have already spent more than your portion in riotous living, and I cannot, in conscience, give you any thing."

Mrs. Wilson thus put a sudden conclusion to the conversation, and retreated from the field, like a skilful general, having exhausted all her ammunition.

As she closed the door, David muttered, "curses on her conscience; it will never let her do what she is not inclined to, and always finds a reason to back her inclinations. The money I must have: if fair means will not obtain it, foul must."