Ethel Churchill/Chapter 1

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ETHEL CHURCHILL.




CHAPTER I.


AGE AND YOUTH.


"I tell thee," said the old man, "what is life.
A gulf of troubled waters—where the soul,
Like a vexed bark, is tossed upon the waves,
Of pain and pleasure, by the wavering breath
Of passions. They are winds that drive it on,
But only to destruction and despair.
Methinks that we have known some former state
More glorious than our present; and the heart
Is haunted by dim memories—shadows left
By past felicity. Hence do we pine
For vain aspirings—hopes that fill the eyes
With bitter tears for their own vanity.
Are we then fallen from some lovely star,
Whose consciousness is as an unknown curse?"


"And yet, you chose to marry him!"

"I did, and should marry him again; but bear with me for this night, dearest uncle, as you have often borne."

The old man's answer was to pass his hand caressingly over the beautiful head that rested on the arm of his chair; and his niece continued.

"My spirits are overcast with a sadness which I have not hitherto known, and inexplicable too. Did I believe in omens, I should say that my depression was ominous."

"It is the idea of departure—but you always wished to visit London."

"And wish it still: but I knew not, up to the hour of parting, how much it would cost me to sever myself from my kind, my only friend."

"You have your husband, Henrietta;" but the expression which accompanied the sentence was half sarcastic, half distrustful.

A still deeper shade of doubt passed across the high and finely cast features of the youthful female.

"You have, from my cradle, impressed upon me the folly of love: and so far as my knowledge goes, it goes with you. All the affairs of the heart that I have witnessed, have excited but my wonder or contempt; nor could I ever understand what people see so charming in each other. I could no more pass hours away, like dear Ethel, in imagining perfection in a nameless boy, than I could yield up all my faculties to the arrangement of colours in an endless Penelope-pleasing piece of embroidery; perhaps I am too quick-sighted for the delusions of love.

"Be your eyes never dimmed then," said the listener bitterly.

"Yet, if I put love out of the question, I could wish for something like affection; for, much as it accords with Hamlet, and with usage, to be 'a little more than kin, and less than kind,' still, Lord Marchmont's coldness oftentimes comes over me with the effect of suddenly rounding a headland in one of our valleys, and finding the north wind full in my face. He takes not the slightest interest in aught I say, and I have continually thoughts and feelings which I am restless to communicate. Here I do feel not this"—and she turned towards him her glistening eyes—"for my own dear uncle will always hearken to me, explain, encourage, and show me how to comprehend others and myself. But, far away from him, surrounded by new scenes, filled with fresh impressions, longing to clothe in utterance all the bursting thoughts they will excite, must I be lastingly condemned to a silent life, and a closed heart."

"Better keep them so forever. Wherefore unlock to others treasures priceless to yourself, and valueless to them, unless the disclosure serve to render you their dupe and victim."

"How differently, my uncle, do we view the world!"

"The difference lies but in knowledge. I know that world—you know it not."

"Nay, I have learned it from yourself, and experience teaches well."

"Ay; but before we profit, the experience must be our own. A few short years, Henrietta! for, to a temper such as yours, life gives its lessons quickly; and we shall think but too much alike. I may not live to see it, but the time must come—and, ah! how soon when you will commune with yourself in the solitude, perhaps, of this very chamber, and admit, 'gloomy as were my uncle's views of existence, the reality is yet more dark.'"

"O, no! Fate cannot but have made an exception in my favour. Is there a single advantage that fortune has not blest me with—young, high-born, married to one of England's richest and proudest peers, handsome, clever—is it not so? At morn I shall go hence, and, what sort of triumph and pleasure can I anticipate in the metropolis?"

"And you will find both: but, alas! human enjoyment is all too dearly atoned. The ancients gave the balance of life to a dark goddess, who, following in the track of fortune, as the shadow follows the sunshine, enforces bitter payment for our few and transitory delights. Nothing is good but evil comes thereof. I took you, Henrietta, when an infant, from your dying mother's arms. Your cradle was placed in my laboratory; and often have I closed the midnight volume, to watch the fitful slumbers of your childhood. I have since given you all I had to give, my time, my knowledge; and for your sake loved on—hoped on. And now, that you are my sweet and intelligent companion, and my whole heart is bound up in you—your smile my all of sunshine, your step my only music—you must leave me; and to a solitude saddened by the remembrance of a beloved one, who never more can be what she has been to its lonely and weary occupant."

The young countess sprang from her seat, and threw herself at the old man's knees which she fondly clasped.

"No, no, my more, my more dear than father, I will not leave you. How vain, how selfish have I been! Why did you suffer me to marry—nay, what is Lord Marchmont to me? I will stay here happy, ah, too happy, in devoting all life to the debt of gratitude—nay, not gratitude, of love—that I owe to you."

Sir Jasper struggled for a moment,—'twas only for a moment—and the strong emotion was subdued.

"Not thus, my sweet child: the laws of nature are immutable: and they have decreed that the young bird shall leave the nest. Do not weep, my beloved girl: of what avail were it to keep you here until your loveliness and youth had departed. Even with your gladdening presence, I cannot now number many years; and to feel that I was leaving you lonely and defenceless—unpractised, too, in that world which requires all youth's energies to encounter—would embitter even the pang of death! No—my best beloved Henrietta—I would have you form new ties, and other friends. The rare advantages of youth pass rapidly away, and my darling must enjoy them while she may. Her old uncle will not be forgotten. You will write to me often; and I shall still feel and think with you:" and, bending down, he kissed the sweet eyes that were looking up at him with such sad tenderness.

For a long time they sat in unbroken silence, and neither looked upon the other. Each gazed at the surrounding objects, and alike beheld them not. They saw but with the heart's eyes, and these turn on an inward world.

There are in existence two periods when we shrink from any great vicissitude—early youth and old age. In the middle of life, we are indifferent to change; for we have discovered that nothing is, in the end, so good or so bad as it at first appeared. We know, moreover, how to accommodate ourselves to circumstances; and enough of exertion is still left in us to cope with the event.

But age is heart-wearied and tempest-torn: it is the crumbling cenotaph of fear and hope! Wherefore should there be turmoil for the few, and evening hours, when all they covet is repose? They see their shadow fall upon the grave: and need but to be at rest beneath!

Youth is not less averse from change; but that is from exaggeration of its consequences, for all seems to the young so important, and so fatal. They are timid, because they know not what they fear; hopeful, because they know not what they expect. Despite their gayety of confidence, they yet dread the first plunge into life's unfathomed deep.

Thus it was with Henrietta. She knew more of the world than most women of her years; for her converse had been chiefly with her uncle, a man of remarkable endowments: and she had read an infinite variety of book—read them, too, with that quick perception which seizes motive and meaning with intuitive accuracy.

Such, however, inevitably is half knowledge; and theory that lacks the correction of practice, is as the soul without the body.

In common with all of her impassioned temper, and sensitive feelings, she had much imagination. She had created a world which she was resolved to realise—a world where beauty was power, whose luxuries were poetry, and to whose triumphs she gave all the brilliant colouring of hope. Who, in after life, can help smiling at the fancies in which early anticipation revelled; how absurd, how impossible, do they not now appear! Yet, in such mockery lurks much of bitterness: the laugh rings hollow from many a disappointment, and many a mortification.

Henrietta had all this to acquire, and was taking on that very evening one of her first lessons in experience. Contrary to their wont, her wishes were at variance with themselves—the past and the future contended in her. Impatient to enter the "new more magnificent world," on whose threshold she now stood, she was yet withheld by all the tenderest recollections of her childhood. She could not brook the thought of abandoning her uncle, as his long and gloomy evenings arose sadly before her—she saw him wandering all solitary through their favourite walks—sitting down to his lonely meals—watching by himself the dim hearth, and thinking continually of her. She raised not her eyes, but every object was distinctly visible to them, and woke a train of association which gave her the keenest pain. Never had the place seemed to her so gloomy; and all therein was so characteristic of its master.

It was a large vaulted apartment, and had been once a chapel: but it was now half library, half laboratory. The arches were formed of black oak, hewn into all the fantastic shapes of Gothic imaginings; in which it was singular to note that all the natural imitations were graceful, while those of humanity were hideous. The oak-leaf and the garland mingled grotesquely with the distorted faces, that ever and anon peeped from among their wreaths.

The walls were entirely hidden by bookshelves, or by cases containing rare specimens of fossil bones and reptile skeletons. Here was a grizzly crocodile, its teeth white and sharp as when they glistened in the waters of the Nile; there, a massy serpent, knotted into huge and hideous contortions; while myriads of small snakes, lizards, and disgusting insects, were stored around, with a care which had obtained for Sir Jasper Meredith, among his neighbours, the reputation of a magician, though they were but the sickly fancies of a heart ill at ease, that mocked itself in its pursuits.

The ceiling had been painted with the martyrdom of some saint. Who shall place a bound to human folly, when both the inflicter and the endurer of torture have deemed that pain is acceptable in the sight of God? The tints had long since faded from the ceiling, and in the twilight nothing was discernible save two or three wild and ghastly faces, far less like "spirits of health," than "goblins damned!"

On the carpet, at the hearth, basked, in a wood-fire's heat, three enormous and black cats, the predilection for which, instead of for dogs, the usual chosen companions of country gentlemen, further increased the belief in Sir Jasper's unholy studies.

The reason given for this preference, was tinctured with the same morbid perversity that had its source in early disappointment.

"I like a cat," he would say, "because it does not disguise its selfishness with any flattering hypocrisies. Its attachment is not to yourself, but to your house. Let it but have food, and a warm lair among the embers, and it heeds not at whose expense. Then it has the spirit to resent aggression. You shall beat your dog, and he will fawn upon you; but a cat never forgives: it has no tender mercies, and it torments before it destroys its prey."

The landscape from the oriel window, in which they were now seated, was quite in accordance with Sir Jasper's professed tastes.

It fronted the bleakest part of the coast, a desolate heath, which was relieved only by a few stunted trees, and became gradually merged in the sands. An undulating purple line, which was "earth's great antagonist," the sea, closed the distance.

On the horizon rested heavy masses of cloud, broken by red gleams of dying sunset, which, as its vivid colours parted the darkening vapours but to disappear, showed like some gallant spirit struggling vainly with the pressure of adversity, and yielding one energy after another, as it sank beneath some last misfortune, heavier than all before.

As yet, the crimson hues flitted around, rendering distinct first one object and then another. They settled now upon the two that watched them from that oriel window.

The aged man was leaning back in a quaintly embossed oaken chair, on whose carving the arms of his family were gorgeously painted and inlaid. In youth he must have been singularly handsome, but years and care had left their vestiges on his noble features, which were thin even to emaciation. You might almost see the veins flow under the sunken temples. Scarcely a hue of life hovered on that wan cheek and lip, and his extreme paleness was heightened by a profusion of black hair, from whence time had not taken a shade or curl. Contrary to the fashion of his time, it drooped upon his shoulders, like a pall falling round the white face of a corpse.

On a low cushion beside sat his niece, at once a likeness and a contrast. Their resemblance was striking,—there was the identical outline,—though age had lost the glowing tints of youth. Both had the same mass of black hair, the high intellectual forehead, the strongly marked brow, the slightly aquiline nose: but, above all, there was the same expression, an inward and melancholy look, whenever their features were in repose. It was a similitude that every year would increase, for it was the similitude of character.

Henrietta's was a style of beauty uncommon in England, a bright and sunny brunette, the soft brown of whose skin was warmed by the richest crimson that ever flushed a cheek with a whole summer of roses, while her lip was of scarlet—the dewy coral has its freshness, but conveys not its brightness. Her hair floated unbound in long soft tresses, and her tall figure was almost concealed by a white damask robe, fastened loosely at the waist, but leaving that graceful outline which reveals the most exquisite proportion!

No wonder that the old man's eye dwelt upon her with mingled pride and tenderness; yet was it a face that might cause affection many an anxious hour, for there was mind in the lofty and clear forehead, heart in the warm and flushed cheek,—and what are mind and heart to woman, but fairy gifts, for whose possession a grievous price will be exacted.

Suddenly her uncle rose from his seat, exclaiming, "We are over sad and silent. I will go seek the gift, reserved by me for our parting. No duchess in the court of St. James shall rival the Lady Marchmont in diamonds, at least,—and you, Henrietta, will have to make no sacrifice for their enjoyment."

The youthful countess was gratified by display, for, to the imaginative, it bears a charm, of which a more staid temperament dreams not. Yet, at that moment, she felt as if the acquisition of these gems were a calamity. Their possession involved separation from her uncle, from every relic of home affections, and from all that yet lingered with her of her childhood.