Ethel Churchill/Chapter 2

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There was an evil in Pandora's box
Beyond all other ones, yet it came forth
In guise so lovely, that men crowded round
And sought it as the dearest of all treasure.
Then were they stung with madness and despair:
High minds were bow'd in abject misery.
The hero trampled on his laurell'd crown,
While genius broke the lute it waked no more.
Young maidens, with pale cheeks, and faded eyes,
Wept till they died. Then there were broken hearts—
Insanity and Jealousy, that feeds
Unto satiety, yet loathes its food:
Suicide digging its own grave; and Hate,
Unquenchable and deadly; and Remorse—
The vulture feeding on its own life-blood.
The evil's name was Love—these curses seem
His followers for ever.

Sir Jasper re-entered, bearing a crimson velvet casket, and broidered with armorial bearings.

"It is getting dark and cold," said he; "let us draw to the fire."

Henrietta rang for the attendants to draw in the ponderous curtains; and in the meanwhile, curious to behold the stores of the emblazoned depository, lighted the tapers for herself. The case was speedily unclasped, and the countess stood dazzled with the brilliancy of the precious contents. She hastily took thence the bracelets, and fastened them upon an arm round and polished as of marble, then gathered up her night-black hair into the lustrous coronet, and ran to a mirror, which, though dim with time and use, grew radiant with these shining gems.

"My dear, good uncle," she cried, "you are too kind, too generous."

"Giving you your own, is no generosity," returned Sir Jasper: "these are the jewels of your house—the portion of its heiress."

"I am glad," said Henrietta, a flush of pride deepening the bloom upon her cheek, "that they have been ours; I am glad to associate their brightness with the past. Fresh from the merchant, they convey no sentiment but that of wealth: while these hereditary diamonds recall whole generations of stately beauty. I rejoice that they have descended with our line."

"So do not I," said her uncle, in a low and altered tone. "I see in those glittering trinkets the departure of youth and of love, the wreck of the heart's best hopes and sweetest affections. To me they are mocking records of the past. As they fling back the taper's rays, they seem to boast,—'The heart was a game between us; you risked upon it passion, truth, belief, but we won the stake.'"

He sank back in his arm-chair, and riveted his gaze upon one of the portraits which hung on the gloomy walls. Almost unwittingly, Henrietta pursued the motion of his eyes, which rested intensely upon a picture that displayed herself, as a child of three years, her father, and her mother.

In Sir Henry Meredith's appearance there was nothing that won upon the sight, though the limner had done his best for him. The countenance had no character. But his consort was indeed lovely, like, and yet not like, the daughter who now watched her. There was the same rich complexion, although the features were of less perfect contour, the forehead more narrow, and the face devoid of the meaning which mind, and mind only, can impart. But this the passing observer might scarcely have detected, for few would seek beyond that exceeding loveliness.

"She is very beautiful," sighed Sir Jasper; "to me was that face once the fairest of the Almighty's works. I loved, as they love who love but once. At parting from her, I have flung me on the ground along which her light feet had skimmed, to gather the common wild flowers that they could not crush. The casual mention of her name was to my ear heaven's sweetest melody; and, if only for her sake, I believed in truth, and constancy, and goodness! I have felt sick with happiness when she has entered the room suddenly, and have trembled like an infant, when I but fancied I read anger in her averted eyes.

"Lady Agnes was my cousin; and in birth, youth, and affection, we were a fitting match: but we were poor. The world was, however, before us, and of what was I not capable for her love! I was strengthened even to parting from her, and we parted!—parted, with the fixed stars above, whose light was less lovely than her tears. Of the two, she was apparently the more sorrowful; for I subdued my sadness, that it might not enhance her suffering. She called me back to her, to give me one of those long black locks which, if but blown against my cheek, as we rambled together, made my whole frame shiver with delicious transport! I have now a raven curl, severed from her graceful brow, but it is not the same.

"Well, I forthwith went abroad, and joined my brother, who had for some years past resided at Vienna. My heart was too full, too young for silence, and I told him all. He heard me calmly; and as calmly promised to further our attachment. The implicitness of my reliance stayed not to ask his sympathy. To talk of her was happiness, and my brother seemed a part of that home whither he was then returning.

"What desolation was in his departure! for the first time I had to struggle against the world alone. Fortunately, from the absence of some, and illness of others, who were attached with me to the embassy, there was much to distract me from my dejection, for my official duties had become of unusual severity. I was even happy then, for I was employed, and had motive for employment. I lived in the future,—that future which I fashioned to my will. I have since tried occupation as a resource, and how different was it when sweetened by the projects of hope! A year passed rapidly away, and I could look sanguinely forward to a successful career. Intrusted, at length, with a mission to England, whose completion would give me a few days at Meredith Place, I planned to come upon them by surprise.

"How well I remember the evening that saw my return on that old domain! The same soft twilight pervaded nature as when I left it—not a shadow of change had passed over the old house and its grounds. The oaks, though scarcely yet in leaf, flung down their giant shadows, and the dew rested beneath their shelter. The hawthorn's breath came upon the gale as sweetly as of yore: and the wind, as it scattered the green blossoms which our young peasantry call "locks and keys," made the same rustling in the ashen boughs.

"I walked on alone, for my grooms had gone round with the horses. After a moment's pause to breathe—for the sense of present happiness was too much—I stood beside the little stream whereon her shadow was imprinted when we bade farewell: and fancied that, like my heart, it too should have retained that dark outline as faithfully as it mirrored the stars, which were flickering in the flood even as I saw them then.

"When nearer the house, however, there came upon me signs of change:—I heard the roll of carriages and the sound of music. Suddenly a stream of light burst from the windows. I must have arrived at the moment of some festive celebration;—fortunate, for Agnes would assuredly be there.

"To place this beyond doubt, ere I withdrew to change my dress, I entered the vestibule unperceived, and made my way to the musician's gallery, from which I could look down upon the scene below. All was gaiety and animation; brilliant groups were flitting past in rapid succession; but my attention was at once attracted to the head of the room, where was stationed a lady in white satin, to whom my brother was presenting every guest successively.

"I could hear the musicians applaud among themselves the beauty of the bride, who at that moment turned her head towards the gallery; I felt upon whom I must look—it was the face of Agnes!

"Henrietta, I watched her more unmovedly than I now tell you of that watching! The beauteous head, from whose dark ringlets came the one yet next my heart, was bound with these very diamonds; and the eyes that I had last seen so sad and tearful, were now full of light.

"The sound of her silvery laughter came where I stood, as, resting on my brother's arm, she paced along the room. At once I darted from the gallery and forsook my father's house, and neither saw it nor England for many long years. It matters not how those years went by; suffice it, that my heart at length yearned within me to behold my native land again. Experience had taught me, that woman's falsehood was no unparalleled marvel; but it had coupled with this conviction, that nothing in after life can atone for the bitterness of our first rude awakening.

"I returned, hardly knowing wherefore, to Meredith Place—as if the scenes of youth could recall our youth again! they only make us feel the more acutely how far it is removed.

"On my arrival, I met, winding darkly along the great avenue, my brother's funeral train. I saw the soft blossoms of the hawthorn mingle with the black plumes of the hearse.

"Confusion was upon all things. Creditors were clamouring aloud in the house of the widow and the fatherless; and in the very hall through which a coffin had lately passed, were heard the jingling of glasses and the rattle of the dice-box.

"To my inquiries concerning Lady Meredith, the domestics abruptly replied, that 'she was very ill, in her own chamber.' 'Ay take my word, she will never leave it without being carried,' muttered an old woman, unfeelingly, as she hobbled slowly onward, with strength and temper alike exhausted by attendance on the invalid.

"I bade this person go, and demand if Lady Meredith could receive her brother-in-law; for, painful as our interview might be, it was indispensable. Meantime I stood apart in a recess, loathing the scene on which I was compelled to look: it was another leaf in the dark history of man's selfishness and ingratitude.

"Sir Henry had consumed his substance in ostentation and riotous hospitality—had fed many at his board, made many merry in his halls, but not a friend was in his house of mourning; the very retainers who had grown rich upon his ruin, seemed to deem the burial of their master but a signal for carousing and license. The old woman soon returned, bringing word that 'her ladyship would be glad to see me.' What mockery in such a message! Though my way was through many well-known chambers, I recognised not one. My sight was deadened to external things: I was absorbed by a troubled and vague picture—the coming interview.

"'This is my lady's room,' said my decrepit guide. Even in that hour, what first occurred to me was surprise that the lady of our noble mansion should have chosen for her abode one of its smallest and worst apartments. All bore an air of discomfort. Though the evenings were still chilly, no fire was upon the hearth, which was strewed only with yesterday's gray and mouldering ashes: night was fast closing in, and the curtains were as yet undrawn, while the half daylight made the single still glimmering candle yet more faint.

"I approached the bed, and all else was forgotten. There was stretched, pale, worn, and changed, beyond what I had even dreamed of change, she whose image was still treasured in my heart so fair and so bright. Years, long years of care, had borne heavily on those sunken temples, and on those pallid features.

"She perceived me instantly, and feebly extended her hand, but her words died in the utterance. I kissed her cold and wasted fingers, and bent in silence over her.

"A little creature was already kneeling there, but I yet saw nothing beyond the strange and hollow eyes which gazed upon me, as if in entreaty. Though altered and dim I could still read their wishes. She then pointed to a restorative medicine which stood near; and, young as you were, Henrietta, you marked the sign, and, pouring a few drops into a cup, brought it towards the couch. Not tall enough to reach her mouth, you gave the cup gently into my hands—and your parent's weary head was upheld by my arm to take it from me, but she had no longer the power to swallow. By the help of a chair, you had now clambered up among the pillows, and were trying if she would drink it at your offer. Something in the face suddenly struck you as unaccustomed, for you were terrified, and looked imploringly towards me for aid.

"I turned to the aged nurse, but she was lying back in a deep-cushioned easy chair, overpowered with weariness and heavy sleep.

"Again Lady Meredith raised her head from the pillow, and a sudden and unnatural light flashed from her drooping eye-lids.

"'I know you, Jasper,' said she, in a faint and sepulchral voice. 'It had been hard for me to die without your forgiveness. You are looking kindly and sadly on me: look ever thus, I pray you, on my poor and orphan child, who can claim no friend upon the earth, except yourself.' I raised you, pale, pretty creature that you were, from the bed, and you clung about my neck. 'Yes, she will love you!' murmured the sufferer, yet more feebly; and, at the next effort to ejaculate, her accents died away with a frightful gurgling in the throat.

"She stretched her hands convulsively—a rapid change passed over her features—I looked upon the face of the dead!"

The silence which ensued at the close of this narrative, was broken by Sir Jasper's remark: "Well, my poor Henrietta, the mother more than atoned for all, when she bequeathed to me the daughter. But human nature is, at the best, but selfish: I looked forward to your alliance with Lord Marchmont as the realisation of my dearest wishes. You are married; and I shrink from your alienation from me. I dread to commit my treasure to a callous, cruel world. But, good night, love, for we must arise with the dawn, and I am weary-most weary; to-morrow, I shall be in better spirits."

He kissed her, and they parted for the night.