East Lynne/Chapter 21
Lady Isabel was seated on one of the benches of the Petit Camp, as it is called, underneath the ramparts of the upper tower. A week or ten days had passed away since the departure of Mr. Carlyle, and in her health there was a further visible improvement.
It was still evening, cool for July; no sound was heard save the hum of the summer insects, and Lady Isabel sat in silence with her companion, her rebellious heart beating with a sense of its own happiness. But for the voice of conscience, strong within her; but for the sense of right and wrong; but for the existing things; in short, but that she was a wife, she might have been content to sit by his side forever, never to wish to move or to break the silence. Did he read her feelings? He told her, months afterward, that he did; but it may have been a vain boast, an excuse.
"Do you remember the evening, Lady Isabel, just such a one as this, that we all passed at Richmond?" he suddenly asked. "Your father, Mrs. Vane, you, I and others?"
"Yes, I remember it. We had spent a pleasant day; the two Miss Challoners were with us. You drove Mrs. Vane home, and I went with papa. You drove recklessly, I recollect, and Mrs. Vane said when we got home that you should never drive her again."
"Which meant, not until the next time. Of all capricious, vain, exacting women, Emma Vane was the worst; and Emma Mount Severn is no improvement upon it; she's a systematic flirt, and nothing better. I drove recklessly on purpose to put her in a fright, and pay her off."
"What had she done?"
"Put me in a rage. She had saddled herself upon me, when I wanted—I wished for another to be my companion."
"Blanche Challoner!" echoed Captain Levison, in a mocking tone; "what did I care for Blanche Challoner?"
Isabel remembered that he had been supposed in those days to care a great deal for Miss Blanche Challoner—a most lovely girl of seventeen. "Mrs. Vane used to accuse you of caring too much for her," she said, aloud.
"She accused me of caring for some one else more than for Blanche Challoner," he significantly returned; "and for once her jealous surmises were not misplaced. No Lady Isabel, it was not Blanche Challoner I had wished to drive home. Could you not have given a better guess than that at the time?" he added, turning to her.
There was no mistaking the tone of his voice or the glance of his eye. Lady Isabel felt a crimson flush rising and she turned her face away.
"The past is gone, and cannot be recalled," he continued, "but we both played our cards like simpletons. If ever two beings were formed to love each other, you and I were. I sometimes thought you read my feelings—"
Surprise had kept her silent, but she interrupted him now, haughtily enough.
"I must speak, Lady Isabel; it is but a few words, and then I am silent forever. I would have declared myself had I dared, but my uncertain position, my debts, my inability to keep a wife, weighed me down; and, instead of appealing to Sir Peter, as I ought to have done, for the means to assume a position that would justify me in asking Lord Mount Severn's daughter, I crushed my hopes within me, and suffered you to escape—"
"I will not hear this, Captain Levison," she cried, rising from her seat in anger.
He touched her arm to place her on it again.
"One single moment yet, I pray you. I have for years wished that you should know why I lost you—a loss that tells upon me yet. I have bitterly worked out my own folly since I knew not how passionately I loved you until you became the wife of another. Isabel, I love you passionately still."
"How dare you presume so to address me?"
She spoke in a cold, dignified tone of hauteur, as it was her bounden duty to speak; but, nevertheless, she was conscious of an undercurrent of feeling, whispering that, under other auspices, the avowal would have brought to her heart the most intense bliss.
"What I have said can do no hurt now," resumed Captain Levison; "the time has gone by for it; for neither you nor I are likely to forget that you are a wife. We have each chosen our path in life, and must abide by it; the gulf between us is impassable but the fault was mine. I ought to have avowed my affection, and not have suffered you to throw yourself away upon Mr. Carlyle."
"Throw myself away!" she indignantly uttered, roused to the retort. "Mr. Carlyle is my dear husband, esteemed, respected, and beloved. I married him of my own free choice, and I have never repented it; I have grown more attached to him day by day. Look at his noble nature, his noble form; what are you by his side? You forget yourself, Francis Levison."
He bit his lip. "No, I do not."
"You are talking to me as you have no right to talk!" she exclaimed, in agitation. "Who but you, would so insult me, taking advantage of my momentarily unprotected condition. Would you dare to do it, were Mr. Carlyle within reach! I wish you good-evening, sir."
She walked away as quickly as her tired frame would permit. Captain Levison strode after her. He took forcible possession of her hand, and placed it within his arm.
"I pray you forgive and forget what has escaped me, Lady Isabel. Suffer me to be, as before, the kind friend, the anxious brother endeavoring to be of service to you in the absence of Mr. Carlyle."
"It is what I have suffered you to be, looking upon you as, I may say, a relative," she coldly rejoined, withdrawing her hand from his contact. "Not else should I have permitted your incessant companionship; and this is how you have repaid it! My husband thanked you for your attention to me; could he have read what was in your false heart, he had offered you different sort of thanks, I fancy."
"I ask your pardon, Lady Isabel; I have acknowledged my fault, and I can do no more. I will not so offend again; but there are moments when our dearest feelings break through the convenances of life and betray themselves, in spite of our sober judgment. Suffer me to support you down this steep hill," he added, for they were then going over the sharp stones of the Grand Rue; "you are not strong enough to proceed alone, after this evening's long walk."
"You should have thought of that before," she said, with some sarcasm in her tone. "No; I have declined."
So she had to put his arm back, which he was holding out, as she walked on unsupported, with what strength she had, he continuing by her side. Arriving at her own door, she wished him a cool good-evening, and he turned away in the direction of his hotel.
Lady Isabel brushed past Peter, and flew upstairs, startling Wilson, who had taken possession of the drawing-room to air her smart cap at its windows in the absence of her lady.
"My desk, Wilson, immediately," cried she, bearing off her gloves, her bonnet, and her shawl. "Tell Peter to be in readiness to take a letter to the post; and he must walk fast, or he will not catch it before the English mail is closed."
The symptoms of sinful happiness throbbing at her heart while Francis Levison told her of his love, spoke plainly to Lady Isabel of the expediency of withdrawing entirely from his society, and his dangerous sophistries; she would be away from the very place that contained him; put the sea between them. So she dashed off a letter to her husband; an urgent summons that he should come to her without delay for remain away longer she would not. It is probable she would have started alone, not waiting for Mr. Carlyle, but for fear of not having sufficient funds for the journey, after the rent and other things were paid.
Mr. Carlyle, when he received the letter and marked its earnest tone, wondered much. In reply, he stated that he would be with her on the following Saturday, and then her returning, or not, with him could be settled. Fully determined not to meet Captain Levison, Isabel, in the intervening days, only went out in a carriage. He called once, and was shown into the drawing-room; but Lady Isabel, who happened to be in her own chamber, sent out a message, which was delivered by Peter. "My lady's compliments, but she must decline receiving visitors."
Sunday morning—it had been impossible for him to get away before—brought Mr. Carlyle. He strongly combatted her wish to return home until six weeks should have expired, he nearly said he would not take her, and she grew earnest over it, almost to agitation.
"Isabel," he said, "let me know your motive, for it appears to me you have one. The sojourn here is evidently doing you a vast deal of good, and what you urge about 'being dull,' sounds very like nonsense. Tell me what it is."
A sudden impulse flashed over her that she would tell him the truth. Not tell him that she loved Francis Levison, or that he had spoken to her as he did; she valued her husband too greatly to draw him into any unpleasantness whose end could not be seen; but own to him that she had once felt a passing fancy for Francis Levison, and preferred not to be subjected to his companionship now. Oh, that she had done so! Her kind, her noble, her judicious husband! Why did she not? The whole truth, as to her present feelings, it was not expedient that she should tell, but she might have confided to him quite sufficient. He would only have cherished her the more deeply, and sheltered her under his fostering care, safe from harm.
Why did she not? In the impulse of the moment she was about to do so, when Mr. Carlyle, who had been taking a letter from his pocket book put it into her hand. Upon what slight threads the events of life turn! Her thoughts diverted, she remained silent while she opened the letter. It was from Miss Carlyle, who had handed it to her brother in the moment of his departure, to carry to Lady Isabel and save postage. Mr. Carlyle had nearly dropped it into the Folkestone post office.
A letter as stiff as Miss Corny herself. The children were well, and the house was going on well, and she hoped Lady Isabel was better. It filled three sides of note paper, but that was all the news it contained, and it wound up with the following sentence, "I would continue my epistle, but Barbara Hare, who is to spend the day with us, has just arrived."
Barbara Hare spending the day at East Lynne! That item was quite enough for Lady Isabel, and her heart and her confidence closed to her husband. She must go home to her children, she urged; she could not remain longer away from them; and she urged it at length with tears.
"Nay, Isabel," said Mr. Carlyle; "if you are so much in earnest as this, you shall certainly go back with me."
Then she was like a child let loose from school. She laughed, she danced in her excess of content; she showered kisses on her husband, thanking him in her gleeful gratitude. Mr. Carlyle set it down to her love for him; he arrived at the conclusion that, in reiterating that she could not bear to be away from him, she spoke the fond truth.
"Isabel," he said, smiling tenderly upon her, "do you remember, in the first days of our marriage, you told me you did not yet love me, but that the love would come. I think this is it."
Her face flushed nearly to tears at the words; a bright, glowing, all too conscious flush. Mr. Carlyle mistook its source, and caught her to his heart.
Lady Isabel had returned home to bodily health, to the delight of meeting her children, to the glad sensation of security. But as the days went on, a miserable feeling of apathy stole over her: a feeling as if all whom she had loved in the world had died, leaving her living and alone.
She did not encourage these reflections; knowing what you do know of her, you may be sure of that, but they thrust themselves continually forward. The form of Francis Levison was ever present to her; not a minute of the day but it gave the coloring to her thoughts, and at night it made the subject of her dreams. Oh, those dreams! They were painful to wake from; painful from the contrasts they presented to reality; and equally painful to her conscience, in its strife after what was right.
Mr. Carlyle mounted his horse one morning and rode over to Levison Park. He asked for Sir Peter, but was shown into the presence of Lady Levison—a young and pretty woman dressed showily. She inquired his business.
"My business, madam, is with Sir Peter."
"But Sir Peter is not well enough to attend to business; it upsets him—worries him."
"Nevertheless, I am here by his own appointment. Twelve o'clock he mentioned; and the hour has barely struck."
Lady Levison bit her lip and bowed coldly; and at that moment a servant appeared to conduct Mr. Carlyle to Sir Peter. The matter which had taken Mr. Carlyle thither was entered upon immediately—Francis Levison, his debts, and his gracelessness. Sir Peter, an old gentleman in a velvet skullcap, particularly enlarged upon the latter.
"I'd pay his debts to-day and set him upon his legs again, but that I know I should have to do the same thing over and over again to the end of the chapter, as I have done it repeatedly hitherto," cried Sir Peter. "His grandfather was my only brother, his father my dutiful and beloved nephew; but he is just as bad as they were estimable. He is a worthless fellow and nothing else, Mr. Carlyle."
"His tale drew forth my compassion, and I promised I would see you and speak for him," returned Mr. Carlyle. "Of Captain Levison's personal virtues or vices, I know nothing."
"And the less you know the better," growled Sir Peter. "I suppose he wants me to clear him and start him afresh."
"Something of that sort, I conclude."
"But how is it to be done? I am at home, and he is over there. His affairs are in a state of confusion, and nobody can come to the bottom of them without an explanation from him. Some liabilities, for which I have furnished the money, the creditors swear have not been liquidated. He must come over if he wants anything done."
"Where is he to come to? He must be in England sub rosa."
"He can't be here," hastily rejoined Sir Peter. "Lady Levison would not have him for a day."
"He might be at East Lynne," good-naturedly observed Mr. Carlyle. "Nobody would think of looking for him there. I think it is a pity that you should not meet, if you do feel inclined to help him."
"You are a deal more considerate to him than he deserves, Mr. Carlyle. May I ask if you intend to act for him in a professional capacity?"
"I do not."
A few more words, and it was decided that Captain Levison should be immediately sent for. As Mr. Carlyle left Sir Peter's presence, he encountered Lady Levison.
"I can scarcely be ignorant that your conference with my husband has reference to his grandnephew," she observed.
"It has," replied Mr. Carlyle.
"I have had a very bad opinion of him, Mr. Carlyle; at the same time I do not wish you to carry away a wrong impression of me. Francis Levison is my husband's nephew, his presumptive heir; it may, therefore, appear strange that I set my face against him. Two or three years ago, previous to my marriage with Sir Peter, in fact before I knew Sir Peter, I was brought into contact with Francis Levison. He got acquainted with some friends of mine, and at their house I met him. He behaved shamefully ill; he repaid their hospitality with gross ingratitude; other details and facts regarding his conduct also became known to me. Altogether I believe him to be a base and despicable man, both by nature and inclination, and that he will remain such to the end of time."
"I know very little indeed of him," observed Mr. Carlyle. "May I inquire the nature of his ill-conduct in that instance?"
"He ruined them—he ruined them, Mr. Carlyle. They were simple, unsuspicious country people, understanding neither fraud nor vice, nor the ways of an evil world. Francis Levison got them to put their names to bills, 'as a matter of form, to accommodate him for a month or so,' he stated, and so they believed. They were not wealthy; they lived upon their own small estate, with none too much of superfluous money to spare, and when the time came for them to pay—as come it did—it brought ruin, and they had to leave their home. He deliberately did it—knowing what would be the end. And I could tell you of other things. Sir Peter may have informed you that I object to receive him here. I do. My objection is to the man—to his character; not owing, as I hear it has been said, to any jealous paltry feeling touching his being the heir. I must lose my own self-respect before I admit Francis Levison to my house as an inmate. Sir Peter may assist him in welcome—may pay his debt, and get him out of his scrapes as often as he pleases, but I will not have him here."
"Sir Peter said you declined to receive him. But it is necessary that he should come to England, if his affairs are to be set straight, and also that he should see Sir Peter."
"Come to England!" interrupted Lady Levison. "How can he come to England under present circumstances, unless, indeed, he comes en cachette?"
"En cachette, of course," replied Mr. Carlyle. "There is no other way. I have offered to let him stay at East Lynne. He is, you may be aware, a sort of connection of Lady Isabel's."
"Take care that he does not repay your hospitality with ingratitude," warmly returned Lady Levison. "It would only be in accordance with his practice."
Mr. Carlyle laughed.
"I do not see what harm he could do me, allowing that he had the inclination. He would not scare my clients from me, or beat my children, and I can take care of my pocket. A few days will, no doubt, be the extent of his sojourn."
Lady Levison smiled too, and shook hands with Mr. Carlyle.
"In your house, perhaps, there may be no field for his vagaries, but rely upon it, where there is one he is sure to be at some mischief or other."
This visit of Mr. Carlyle's to Levison Park took place on a Friday morning, and on his return to his office he dispatched an account of it to Captain Levison at Boulogne, telling him he had better come over. But now Mr. Carlyle, like many another man whose mind has its share of work, was sometimes forgetful of trifles, and it entirely slipped his memory to mention the expected arrival at home. The following evening, Saturday, he and Lady Isabel were dining in the neighborhood, when the conversation at table turned upon the Ducies and their embarrassments. The association of ideas led Mr. Carlyle's thoughts to Boulogne, to Captain Levison and his embarrassments, and it immediately occurred to him that he had not told his wife of the anticipated visit. He kept it in his mind then, and spoke as soon as they were in the chariot returning home.
"Isabel," began he, "I suppose we have always rooms ready for visitors, because I am expecting one."
"Oh, yes; or if not, they are soon made ready."
"Ah, but to-morrow's Sunday, and I have no doubt that's the day he will take advantage of to come. I am sorry I forgot to mention it yesterday."
"Who is coming, then?"
"Who?" repeated Lady Isabel, in a sharp tone of consternation.
"Captain Levison. Sir Peter consents to see him, with a view to the settlement of his liabilities, but Lady Levison declines to receive him at the Park. So I offered to give him house-room at East Lynne for a few days."
There is an old saying, "the heart leaping into the mouth;" and Lady Isabel's leaped into hers. She grew dizzy at the words—her senses seemed momentarily to desert her. Her first sensation was as if the dull earth had opened and shown her a way into Paradise; her second, a lively consciousness that Francis Levison ought not to be suffered to come again into companionship with her. Mr. Carlyle continued to converse of the man's embarrassments, of his own interview with Sir Peter and Lady Levison; but Isabel was as one who heard not. She was debating the question, how she could prevent his coming?
"Archibald," she presently said, "I do not wish Francis Levison to stay at East Lynne."
"It will only be for a few days—perhaps but a day or two. Sir Peter is in the humor to discharge the claims, and, the moment his resolve is known, the ex-captain can walk on her majesty's dominions, an unmolested man, free to go where he will."
"That may be," interrupted Lady Isabel, in an accent of impatience; "but why should he come to our house?"
"I proposed it myself. I had no idea you would dislike his coming. Why should you?"
"I don't like Francis Levison," she murmured. "That is, I don't care to have him at East Lynne."
"My dear, I fear there is no help for it now; he is most likely on his road, and will arrive to-morrow. I cannot turn him out again, after my own voluntary invitation. Had I known it would be disagreeable to you, I would not have proposed it."
"To-morrow!" she exclaimed, all the words that caught her ear. "Is he coming to-morrow?"
"Being Sunday, a free day, he will be sure to take advantage of it. What has he done that you should object to his coming? You did not say in Boulogne that you disliked him."
"He had done nothing," was her faltering answer, feeling that her grounds of opposition must melt under her one by one.
"Lady Levison appears to possess a very ill opinion of him," resumed Mr. Carlyle. "She says she knew him in years gone by. She mentioned one or two things which, if true, must be bad enough. But possibly she may be prejudiced."
"She is prejudiced," said Isabel. "At least Francis Levison told me at Boulogne. There appeared to be no love lost between them."
"At any rate, his ill doings or well doings cannot affect us for the short period he is likely to remain. You have taken a prejudice against him also, I suppose, Isabel."
She suffered Mr. Carlyle to remain in the belief, and sat with clasped hands and a despairing spirit feeling that fate was against her.
How could she accomplish her task of forgetting this man, if he was thus to be thrown into her home and her companionship? Suddenly she turned to her husband, and laid her cheek upon his shoulder.
He thought she was tired. He passed his arm round her waist, drew her face to a more comfortable position, and bent his own lovingly upon it. It came to her mind, as she lay there, to tell him a portion of the truth, like it had done once before. It was a strong arm of shelter, that round her—a powerful pillar of protection, him upon whom she leaned; why did she not confide herself to him as trustingly as a little child? Simply because her courage failed. Once, twice, the opening words were upon her lips, but come forth they did not; and then the carriage stopped at East Lynne, and the opportunity was over. Oh! How many a time in her after years did Lady Isabel recall that midnight drive with her husband, and wish, in her vain repentance, that she had opened his eyes to that dangerous man.
On Sunday Captain Levison arrived at East Lynne.