Precaution/Chapter 25

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They returned to the lodge at an early hour, and Mrs. Wilson, after meditating upon the course she ought to take, resolved to have a conversation with her brother that evening after supper. Accordingly, as they were among the last to retire, she mentioned her wish to detain him, and when left by themselves, the baronet taking his seat by her on a sofa, she commenced as follows, willing to avoid her unpleasant information until the last moment.

"I wished to say something to you, brother, relating to my charge: you have, no doubt, observed the attentions of Mr. Denbigh to Emily?"

"Certainly, sister, and with great pleasure; you must not suppose I wish to interfere with the authority I have so freely relinquished to you, Charlotte, when I inquire if Emily favors his views or not?"

"Neither Emily nor I, my dear brother, wish ever to question your right, not only to inquire into, but to control the conduct of your child; she is yours, Edward, by a tie nothing can break, and we both love you too much to wish it. There is nothing you may be more certain of than that, without the approbation of her parents, Emily would accept of no offer, however splendid or agreeable to her own wishes."

"Nay, sister, I would not wish unduly to influence my child in an affair of so much importance to herself; but my interest in Denbigh is little short of that I feel for my daughter."

"I trust," continued Mrs. Wilson, "Emily is too deeply impressed with her duty to forget the impressive mandate, 'to honor her father and mother:' yes, Sir Edward, I am mistaken if she would not relinquish the dearest object of her affections at your request; and at the same time I am persuaded she would, under no circumstances, approach the altar with a man she did not both love and esteem."

The baronet did not appear exactly to understand his sister's distinction, as he observed, "I am not sure I rightly comprehend the difference you make, Charlotte."

"Only, brother, that she would feel that a promise made at the altar to love a man she felt averse to, or honor one she could not esteem, was a breach of a duty, paramount to all earthly considerations," replied his sister; "but to answer your question—Denbigh has never offered, and when he does, I do not think he will be refused."

"Refused!" cried the baronet, "I sincerely hope not; I wish with all my heart they were married already."

"Emily is very young," said Mrs. Wilson, "and need not hurry: I was in hopes she would remain single a few years longer."

"Well," said the baronet, "you and Lady Moseley, sister, have different notions on the subject of marrying the girls."

Mrs. Wilson replied, with a good-humored smile, "You have made Anne so good a husband, Ned, that she forgets there are any bad ones in the world; my greatest anxiety is, that the husband of my niece may be a Christian; indeed, I know not how I can reconcile it to my conscience, as a Christian myself, to omit this important qualification."

"I am sure, Charlotte, both Denbigh and Egerton appear to have a great respect for religion; they are punctual at church, and very attentive to the service:" Mrs. Wilson smiled as he proceeded, "but religion may come after marriage, you know."

"Yes, brother, and I know it may not come at all; no really pious woman can be happy, without her husband is in what she deems the road to future happiness himself; and it is idle—it is worse—it is almost impious to marry with a view to reform a husband: indeed, she greatly endangers her own safety thereby; for few of us, I believe, but find the temptation to err as much as we can contend with, without calling in the aid of example against us, in an object we love; indeed it appears to me, the life of such a woman must be a struggle between conflicting duties."

"Why," said the baronet, "if your plan were generally adopted, I am afraid it would give a deadly blow to matrimony."

"I have nothing to do with generals, brother; I am acting for individual happiness, and discharging individual duties: at the same time I cannot agree with you in its effects on the community. I think no man who dispassionately examines the subject, will be other than a Christian; and rather than remain bachelors, they would take even that trouble; if the strife in our sex were less for a husband, wives would increase in value."

"But how is it, Charlotte," said the baronet, pleasantly, "your sex do not use your power and reform the age?"

"The work of reformation, Sir Edward," replied his sister, gravely, "is an arduous one indeed, and I despair of seeing it general, in my day; but much, very much, might be done towards it, if those who have the guidance of youth would take that trouble with their pupils that good faith requires of them, to discharge the minor duties of life."

"Women ought to marry," observed the baronet, musing.

"Marriage is certainly the natural and most desirable state for a woman, but how few are there who, having entered it, know how to discharge its duties; more particularly those of a mother! On the subject of marrying our daughters, for instance, instead of qualifying them to make a proper choice, they are generally left to pick up such principles and opinions as they may come at, as it were by chance. It is true, if the parent be a Christian in name, certain of the externals of religion are observed; but what are these, if not enforced by a consistent example in the instructor?"

"Useful precepts are seldom lost, I believe, sister," said Sir Edward, with confidence.

"Always useful, my dear brother; but young people are more observant than we are apt to imagine, and are wonderfully ingenious in devising excuses to themselves for their conduct. I have often heard it offered as an apology, that father or mother knew it, or perhaps did it, and therefore it could not be wrong: association is all-important to a child."

"I believe no family of consequence admits of improper associates within my knowledge," said the baronet.

Mrs. Wilson smiled as she answered, "I am sure I hope not, Edward; but are the qualifications we require in companions for our daughters, always such as are most reconcilable with our good sense or our consciences; a single communication with an objectionable character is a precedent, if known and unobserved, which will be offered to excuse acquaintances with worse persons: with the other sex, especially, their acquaintance should be very guarded and select."

"You would make many old maids, sister."

"I doubt it greatly, brother; it would rather bring female society in demand. I often regret that selfishness, cupidity, and the kind of strife which prevails in our sex, on the road to matrimony, have brought celibacy into disrepute. For my part, I never see an old maid, but I am willing to think she is so from choice or principle, and although not in her proper place, serviceable, by keeping alive feelings necessary to exist, that marriages may not become curses instead of blessings."

"A kind of Eddystone, to prevent matrimonial shipwrecks," said the brother, gayly.

"Their lot may be solitary, baronet, and in some measure cheerless, but infinitely preferable to a marriage that may lead them astray from their duties, or give birth to a family which are to be turned on the world without any religion but form, without any morals but truisms, or without even a conscience which has not been seared by indulgence. I hope that Anne, in the performance of her system, will have no cause to regret its failure."

"Clara chose for herself, and has done well, Charlotte; and so, I doubt not, will Jane and Emily: and I confess I think their mother is right."

"It is true," said Mrs. Wilson, "Clara has done well, though under circumstances of but little risk; she might have jumped into your fish-pond, and escaped with life, but the chances are she would drown: nor do I dispute the right of the girls to choose for themselves; but I say the rights extend to requiring us to qualify them to make their choice. I am sorry, Edward, to be the instigator of doubts in your breast of the worth of any one, especially as it may give you pain." Here Mrs. Wilson took her brother affectionately by the hand, and communicated what she had overheard that evening. Although the impressions of the baronet were not as vivid, or as deep as those of his sister, his parental love was too great not to make him extremely uneasy under the intelligence; and after thanking her for her attention to his children's welfare, he kissed her, and withdrew. In passing to his own room, he met Egerton, that moment returned from escorting the Jarvis ladies to their lodgings; a task he had undertaken at the request of Jane, as they were without any male attendant. Sir Edward's heart was too full not to seek immediate relief, and as he had strong hopes of the innocence of the colonel, though he could give no reason for his expectation, he returned with him to the parlor, and in a few words acquainted him with the slanders which had been circulated at his expense; begging him by all means to disprove them as soon as possible. The colonel was struck with the circumstance at first, but assured Sir Edward, it was entirely untrue. He never played, as he might have noticed, and that Mr. Holt was an ancient enemy of his. He would in the morning take measures to convince Sir Edward, that he stood higher in the estimation of his uncle, than Mr. Holt had thought proper to state. Much relieved by this explanation, the baronet, forgetting that this heavy charge removed, he only stood where he did before he took time for his inquiries, assured him, that if he could convince him, or rather his sister, he did not gamble, he would receive him as a son-in-law with pleasure. The gentlemen shook hands and parted.

Denbigh had retired to his room early, telling Mr. Benfield he did not feel well, and thus missed the party at supper; and by twelve, silence prevailed in the house.

As usual after a previous day of pleasure, the party were late in assembling on the following, yet Denbigh was the last who made his appearance. Mrs. Wilson thought he threw a look round the room as he entered, which prevented his making his salutations in his usual easy and polished manner. In a few minutes, however, his awkwardness was removed, and they took their seats at the table. At that moment the door of the room was thrown hastily open, and Mr. Jarvis entered abruptly, and with a look bordering on wildness in his eye—"Is she not here?" exclaimed the merchant, scanning the company closely.

"Who?" inquired all in a breath.

"Polly—my daughter—my child," said the merchant, endeavoring to control his feelings; "did she not come here this morning with Colonel Egerton?"

He was answered in the negative, and he briefly explained the cause of his anxiety. The colonel had called very early, and sent her maid up to his daughter, who rose immediately. They had quitted the house together, leaving word the Miss Moseleys had sent for the young lady to breakfast, for some particular reason. Such was the latitude allowed by his wife, that nothing was suspected until one of the servants of the house said he had seen Colonel Egerton and a lady drive out of the village that morning in a post-chaise and four.

Then the old gentleman first took the alarm, and he proceeded instantly to the lodge in quest of his daughter. Of the elopement there now remained no doubt, and examination into the state of the colonel's room, who, it had been thought, was not yet risen, gave assurance of it. Here was at once sad confirmation that the opinion of Mr. Holt was a just one. Although every heart felt for Jane during this dreadful explanation, no eye was turned on her excepting the stolen and anxious glances of her sister; but when all was confirmed, and nothing remained but to reflect or act upon the circumstances, she naturally engrossed the whole attention of her fond parents. Jane had listened in indignation to the commencement of the narrative of Mr. Jarvis, and so firmly was Egerton enshrined in purity within her imagination, that not until it was ascertained that both his servant and clothes were missing, would she admit a thought injurious to his truth. Then indeed the feelings of Mr. Jarvis, his plain statement corroborated by this testimony, struck her at once as true; and as she rose to leave the room, she fell senseless into the arms of Emily, who observing her movement and loss of color had flown to her assistance. Denbigh had drawn the merchant out in vain efforts to appease him, and happily no one witnessed this effect of Jane's passion but her nearest relatives. She was immediately removed to her own room, and in a short time was in bed with a burning fever. The bursts of her grief were uncontrolled and violent. At times she reproached herself—her friends—Egerton; in short, she was guilty of all the inconsistent sensations that disappointed hopes, accompanied by the consciousness of weakness on our part seldom fail to give rise to; the presence of her friends was irksome to her, and it was only to the soft and insinuating blandishments of Emily's love that she would at all yield. Perseverance and affection at length prevailed, and as Emily took the opportunity of some refreshments, to infuse a strong soporific, Jane lost her consciousness of misery in a temporary repose. In the meantime a more searching inquiry had been able to trace out the manner and direction of the journey of the fugitives.

It appeared the colonel left the lodge immediately after his conversation with Sir Edward; he slept at a tavern, and caused his servant to remove his baggage at daylight; here he had ordered a chaise and horses, and then proceeded, as mentioned, to the lodgings of Mr. Jarvis. What arguments he used with Miss Jarvis to urge her to so sudden a flight, remained a secret; but from the remarks of Mrs. Jarvis and Miss Sarah, there was reason to believe that he had induced them to think from the commencement, that his intentions were single, and Mary Jarvis their object. How he contrived to gloss over his attentions to Jane in such a manner as to deceive those ladies, caused no little surprise; but it was obvious it had been done, and the Moseleys were not without hopes his situation with Jane would not make the noise in the world such occurrences seldom fail to excite. In the afternoon a letter was handed to Mr. Jarvis, and by him immediately communicated to the baronet and Denbigh, both of whom he considered as among his best friends. It was from Egerton, and written in a respectful manner: he apologized for his elopement, and excused it on the ground of a wish to avoid the delay of a license or the publishing of bans, as he was in hourly expectation of a summons to his regiment, and contained many promises of making an attentive husband, and an affectionate son. The fugitives were on the road to Scotland, whence they intended immediately to return to London and to wait the commands of their parents. The baronet in a voice trembling with emotion at the sufferings of his own child, congratulated the merchant that things were no worse; while Denbigh curled his lips as he read the epistle, and thought settlements were a greater inconvenience than the bans—for it was a well-known fact, a maiden aunt had left the Jarvises twenty thousand pounds between them.