Precaution/Chapter 24

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Mrs. Wilson and Emily, in the fortnight they had been at Benfield Lodge, paid frequent and long visits to the cottage: and each succeeding interview left a more favorable impression of the character of its mistress, and a greater certainty that she was unfortunate. The latter, however, alluded very slightly to her situation or former life; she was a Protestant, to the great surprise of Mrs. Wilson; and one that misery had made nearly acquainted with the religion she professed. Their conversations chiefly turned on the customs of her own, as contrasted with those of her adopted country, or in a pleasant exchange of opinions, which the ladies possessed in complete unison. One morning John had accompanied them and been admitted; Mrs. Fitzgerald receiving him with the frankness of an old acquaintance, though with the reserve of a Spanish lady. His visits were permitted under the direction of his aunt, but no others of the gentlemen were included amongst her guests. Mrs. Wilson had casually mentioned, in the absence of her niece, the interposition of Denbigh between her and death; and Mrs. Fitzgerald was so much pleased at the noble conduct of the gentleman, as to express a desire to see him; but the impressions of the moment appeared to have died away, as nothing more was said by either lady on the subject, and it was apparently forgotten. Mrs. Fitzgerald was found one morning, weeping over a letter she held in her hand, and the Donna Lorenza was endeavoring to console her. The situation of this latter lady was somewhat doubtful; she appeared neither wholly a friend nor a menial. In the manners of the two there was a striking difference; although the Donna was not vulgar, she was far from possessing the polish of her more juvenile friend, and Mrs. Wilson considered her to be in a station between that of a housekeeper and that of a companion. After hoping that no unpleasant intelligence had occasioned the distress they witnessed, the ladies were delicately about to take their leave, when Mrs. Fitzgerald entreated them to remain.

"Your kind attention to me, dear madam, and the goodness of Miss Moseley, give you a claim to know more of the unfortunate being your sympathy has so greatly assisted to attain her peace of mind. This letter is from the gentleman of whom you have heard me speak, us once visiting me, and though it has struck me with unusual force, it contains no more than I expected to hear, perhaps no more than I deserve to hear."

"I hope your friend has not been unnecessarily harsh: severity is not the best way, always, of effecting repentance, and I feel certain that you, my young friend, can have been guilty of no offense that does not rather require gentle than stern reproof," said Mrs. Wilson.

"I thank you, dear madam, for your indulgent opinion of me, but although I have suffered much, I am willing to confess it is a merited punishment; you are, however, mistaken as to the source of my present sorrow. Lord Pendennyss is the cause of grief, I believe, to no one, much less to me."

"Lord Pendennyss!" exclaimed Emily in surprise, unconsciously looking at her aunt.

"Pendennyss!" reiterated Mrs. Wilson, with animation; "and is he your friend, too?"

"Yes, madam; to his lordship I owe everything—honor, comfort, religion—and even life itself."

Mrs. Wilson's cheek glowed with an unusual color, at this discovery of another act of benevolence and virtue, in a young nobleman whose character she had so long admired, and whose person she had in vain wished to meet.

"You know the earl, then?" inquired Mrs. Fitzgerald.

"By reputation, only, my dear," said Mrs. Wilson; "but that is enough to convince me a friend of his must be a worthy character, if anything were wanting to make as your friends."

The conversation was continued for some time, and was concluded by Mrs. Fitzgerald saying she did not feel equal just then to the undertaking, but the next day, if they would honor her with another call, she would make them acquainted with the incidents of her life, and the reasons she had for speaking in such terms of Lord Pendennyss. The promise to see her was cheerfully made by Mrs. Wilson, and her confidence accepted; not from a desire to gratify an idle curiosity, but a belief that it was necessary to probe a wound to cure it; and a correct opinion that she would be a better adviser for a young and lovely woman, than even Pendennyss; for the Donna Lorenza she could hardly consider in a capacity to offer advice, much less dictation. They then took their leave, and Emily, during their ride, broke the silence with exclaiming,—

"Wherever we hear of Lord Pendennyss, aunt, we hear of him favorably."

"A certain sign, my dear, he is deserving of it. There is hardly any man who has not his enemies, and those are seldom just; but we have met with none of the earl's yet."

"Fifty thousand a year will make many friends," observed Emily, shaking her head.

"Doubtless, my love, or as many enemies; but honor life, and religion, my child, are debts not owing to money—in this country, at least."

To this remark Emily assented; and after expressing her own admiration of the character of the young nobleman, she dropped into a reverie. How many of his virtues she identified with the person of Mr. Denbigh, it is not, just now, our task to enumerate; but judges of human nature may easily determine, and that too without having sat in the parliament of this realm.

The morning this conversation occurred at the cottage, Mr. and Mrs. Jarvis, with their daughters, made their unexpected appearance at L——. The arrival of a post-chaise and four, with a gig, was an event soon circulated through the little village, and the names of its owners reached the lodge just as Jane had allowed herself to be persuaded by the colonel to take her first walk with him unaccompanied by a third person. Walking is much more propitious to declarations than riding; and whether it was premeditated on the part of the colonel or not, or whether he was afraid that Mrs. Jarvis or some one else would interfere, he availed himself of this opportunity, and had hardly got out of hearing of her brother and Denbigh, before he made Jane an explicit offer of his hand. The surprise was so great, that some time elapsed before the distressed girl could reply. This she, however, at length did, but incoherently; she referred him to her parents, as the arbiters of her fate, well knowing that her wishes had long been those of her father and mother. With this the colonel was obliged to be satisfied for the present. But their walk had not ended, before he gradually drew from the confiding girl an acknowledgment that, should her parents decline his offer, she would be very little less miserable than himself; indeed, the most tenacious lover might have been content with the proofs of regard that Jane, unused to control her feelings, allowed herself to manifest on this occasion. Egerton was in raptures; a life devoted to her would never half repay her condescension; and as their confidence increased with their walk, Jane reentered the lodge with a degree of happiness in her heart she had never before experienced. The much dreaded declaration—her own distressing acknowledgments, were made, and nothing farther remained but to live and be happy. She flew into the arms of her mother, and, hiding her blushes in her bosom, acquainted her with the colonel's offer and her own wishes. Lady Moseley, who was prepared for such a communication, and had rather wondered at its tardiness, kissed her daughter affectionately, as she promised to speak to her father, and to obtain his approbation.

"But," she added, with a degree of formality and caution which had better preceded than have followed the courtship, "we must make the usual inquiries, my child, into the fitness of Colonel Egerton as a husband for our daughter. Once assured of that, you have nothing to fear."

The baronet was requested to grant an audience to Colonel Egerton, who now appeared as determined to expedite things, as he had been dilatory before. On meeting Sir Edward, he made known his pretensions and hopes. The father, who had been previously notified by his wife of what was forthcoming, gave a general answer, similar to the speech of the mother, and the colonel bowed in acquiescence.

In the evening, the Jarvis family favored the inhabitants of the lodge with a visit, and Mrs. Wilson was struck with the singularity of their reception of the colonel. Miss Jarvis, especially, was rude to both him and Jane, and it struck all who witnessed it as a burst of jealous feeling for disappointed hopes; but to no one, excepting Mrs. Wilson, did it occur that the conduct of the gentleman could be at ill implicated in the transaction. Mr. Benfield was happy to see under his roof again the best of the trio of Jarvises he had known, and something like sociability prevailed. There was to be a ball, Miss Jarvis remarked, at L——, the following day, which would help to enliven the scene a little, especially as there were a couple of frigates at anchor, a few miles off, and the officers were expected to join the party. This intelligence had but little effect on the ladies of the Moseley family; yet, as their uncle desired that, out of respect to his neighbors, if invited, they would go, they cheerfully assented. During the evening, Mrs. Wilson observed Egerton in familiar conversation with Miss Jarvis; and as she had been notified of his situation with respect to Jane, she determined to watch narrowly into the causes of so singular a change of deportment in the young lady. Mrs. Jarvis retained her respect for the colonel in full force, and called out to him across the room, a few minutes before she departed,—

"Well, colonel, I am happy to tell you I have heard very lately from your uncle, Sir Edgar."

"Indeed, madam!" replied the colonel, starting. "He was well, I hope."

"Very well, the day before yesterday. His neighbor old Mr. Holt, is a lodger in the same house with us at L——; and as I thought you would like to hear, I made particular inquiries about the baronet." The word baronet was pronounced with emphasis and a look of triumph, as if it would say, You see we have baronets as well as you. As no answer was made by Egerton, excepting an acknowledging bow, the merchant and his family departed.

"Well, John," cried Emily, with a smile, "we have heard more good to-day of our trusty and well-beloved cousin, the Earl of Pendennyss."

"Indeed!" exclaimed her brother. "You must keep Emily for his lordship, positively, aunt: she is almost as great an admirer of him as yourself."

"I apprehend it is necessary she should be quite as much so, to become his wife," said Mrs. Wilson.

"Really," said Emily, more gravely, "if all one hears of him be true, or even half, it would be no difficult task to admire him."

Denbigh was standing leaning on the back of a chair, in a situation where he could view the animated countenance of Emily as she spoke, and Mrs. Wilson noticed an uneasiness and a changing of color in him that appeared uncommon from so trifling a cause. Is it possible, she thought, Denbigh can harbor so mean a passion as envy? He walked away as if unwilling to hear more, and appeared much engrossed with his own reflections for the remainder of the evening. There were moments of doubting which crossed the mind of Mrs. Wilson with a keenness of apprehension proportionate to her deep interest in Emily, with respect to certain traits in the character of Denbigh; and this, what she thought a display of unworthy feeling, was one of them. In the course of the evening the cards for the expected ball arrived, and were accepted. As this new arrangement for the morrow interfered with their intended visit to Mrs. Fitzgerald, a servant was sent with a note of explanation in the morning, and a request that on the following day the promised communication might be made. To this arrangement the recluse assented, and Emily prepared for the ball with a melancholy recollection of the consequences which grew out of the last she had attended—melancholy at the fate of Digby, and pleasure at the principles manifested by Denbigh, on the occasion. The hitter, however, with a smile, excused himself from being of the party, telling Emily he was so awkward, that he feared some unpleasant consequences to himself or his friends would arise from his inadvertencies, did he venture again with her into such an assembly.

Emily sighed gently as she entered the carriage of her aunt early in the afternoon, leaving Denbigh in the door of the lodge, and Egerton absent on the execution of some business; the former to amuse himself as he could until the following morning, and the latter to join them in the dance in the evening.

The arrangement included an excursion on the water, attended by the bands from the frigates, a collation, and in the evening a ball. One of the vessels was commanded by a Lord Henry Stapleton, a fine young man, who, struck with the beauty and appearance of the sisters, sought an introduction to the baronet's family, and engaged the hand of Emily for the first dance. His frank and gentlemanlike deportment was pleasing to his new acquaintances; the more so as it was peculiarly suited to their situation at the moment. Mrs. Wilson was in unusual spirits, and maintained an animated conversation with the young sailor, in the course of which he spoke of his cruising on the coast of Spain, and by accident he mentioned his having carried out to that country, upon one occasion, Lord Pendennyss. This was common ground between them, and Lord Henry was as enthusiastic in his praises of the earl, as Mrs. Wilson's partiality could desire. He also knew Colonel Egerton slightly, and expressed his pleasure, in polite terms, when they met in the evening in the ball-room, at being able to renew his acquaintance. The evening passed off as such evenings generally do—in gayety, listlessness, dancing, gaping, and heartburnings, according to the dispositions and good or ill fortune of the several individuals who compose the assembly. Mrs. Wilson, while her nieces were dancing, moved her seat to be near a window, and found herself in the vicinity of two elderly gentlemen who were commenting on the company. After making several commonplace remarks, one of them inquired of the other—"Who is that military gentleman amongst the naval beaux, Holt?"

"That is the hopeful nephew of my friend and neighbor, Sir Edgar Egerton; he is here dancing and misspending his time and money, when I know Sir Edgar gave him a thousand pounds six months ago, on express condition, he should not leave the regiment or take a card in his hand for a twelvemonth."

"He plays, then?"

"Sadly; he is, on the whole, a very bad young man."

As they changed their topic, Mrs. Wilson joined her sister, dreadfully shocked at this intimation of the vices of a man so near an alliance with her brother's child. She was thankful it was not too late to avert part of the evil, and determined to acquaint Sir Edward at once with what she had heard, in order that an investigation might establish the colonel's innocence or guilt.