Precaution/Chapter 26

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Although the affections of Jane had sustained a heavy blow, her pride had received a greater, and no persuasions of her mother or sister could induce her to leave her room. She talked little, but once or twice she yielded to the affectionate attentions of Emily, and poured out her sorrows into the bosom of her sister. At such moments she would declare her intention of never appearing in the world again. One of these paroxysms of sorrow was witnessed by her mother, and, for the first time, self-reproach mingled in the grief of the matron. Had she trusted less to appearances and to the opinions of indifferent and ill-judging acquaintances, her daughter might have been apprised in season of the character of the man who had stolen her affections. To a direct exhibition of misery Lady Moseley was always sensible, and, for a moment, she became alive to its causes and consequences; but a timely and judicious safeguard against future moral evils was a forecast neither her inactivity of mind nor abilities were equal to.

We shall leave Jane to brood over her lover's misconduct, while we regret she is without the consolation alone able to bear her up against the misfortunes of life, and return to the other personages of our history.

The visit to Mrs. Fitzgerald had been postponed in consequence of Jane's indisposition; but a week after the colonel's departure, Mrs. Wilson thought, as Jane had consented to leave her room, and Emily really began to look pale from her confinement by the side of a sick bed, she would redeem the pledge she had given the recluse on the following morning. They found the ladies at the cottage happy to see them, and anxious to hear of the health of Jane, of whose illness they had been informed by note. After offering her guests some refreshments, Mrs. Fitzgerald, who appeared laboring under a greater melancholy than usual, proceeded to make them acquainted with the incidents of her life.

The daughter of an English merchant at Lisbon had fled from the house of her father to the protection of an Irish officer in the service of his Catholic Majesty: they were united, and the colonel immediately took his bride to Madrid. The offspring of this union were a son and daughter. The former, at an early age, had entered into the service of his king, and had, as usual, been bred in the faith of his ancestors; but the Señora M'Carthy had been educated, and yet remained a Protestant, and, contrary to her faith to her husband, secretly instructed her daughter in the same belief. At the age of seventeen, a principal grandee of the court of Charles sought the hand of the general's child. The Conde d'Alzada was a match not to be refused, and they were united in the heartless and formal manner in which marriages are too often entered into, in countries where the customs of society prevent an intercourse between the sexes. The Conde never possessed the affections of his wife. Of a stern and unyielding disposition, his harshness repelled her love; and as she naturally turned her eyes to the home of her childhood, she cherished all those peculiar sentiments she had imbibed from her mother. Thus, although she appeared to the world a Catholic, she lived in secret a Protestant. Her parents had always used the English language in their family, and she spoke it as fluently as the Spanish. To encourage her recollections of this strong feature, which distinguished the house of her father from the others she entered, she perused closely and constantly those books which the death of her mother placed at her disposal. These were principally Protestant works on religious subjects, and the countess became a strong sectarian, without becoming a Christian. As she was compelled to use the same books in teaching her only child, the Donna Julia, English, the consequences of the original false step of her grandmother were perpetuated in the person of this young lady. In learning English, she also learned to secede from the faith of her father, and entalled upon herself a life of either persecution or hypocrisy. The countess was guilty of the unpardonable error of complaining to their child of the treatment she received from her husband; and as these conversations were held in English, and were consecrated by the tears of the mother, they made an indelible impression on the youthful mind of Julia, who grew up with the conviction that next to being a Catholic herself, the greatest evil of life was to be the wife of one.

On her attaining her fifteenth year, she had the misfortune (if it could be termed one) to lose her mother, and within the year her father presented to her a nobleman of the vicinity as her future husband. How long the religious faith of Julia would have endured, unsupported by example in others, and assailed by the passions soliciting in behalf of a young and handsome cavalier, it might be difficult to pronounce; but as her suitor was neither very young, and the reverse of very handsome, it is certain the more he wooed, the more confirmed she became in her heresy, until, in a moment of desperation, and as an only refuge against his solicitations, she candidly avowed her creed. The anger of her father was violent and lasting: she was doomed to a convent, as both a penance for her sins and a means of reformation. Physical resistance was not in her power, but mentally she determined never to yield. Her body was immured, but her mind continued unshaken and rather more settled in her belief, by the aid of those passions which had been excited by injudicious harshness. For two years she continued in her novitiate, obstinately refusing to take the vows of the order, and at the end of that period the situation of her country had called her father and uncle to the field as defenders of the rights of their lawful prince. Perhaps to this it was owing that harsher measures were not adopted in her case.

The war now raged around them in its greatest horrors, until at length a general battle was fought in the neighborhood, and the dormitories of the peaceful nuns were crowded with wounded British officers. Amongst others of his nation was a Major Fitzgerald, a young man of strikingly handsome countenance and pleasant manners. Chance threw him under the more immediate charge of Julia: his recovery was slow, and for a time doubtful, and as much owing to good nursing as science. The major was grateful, and Julia unhappy as she was beautiful. That love should be the offspring of this association, will excite no surprise. A brigade of British encamping in the vicinity of the convent, the young couple sought its protection from Spanish vengeance and Romish cruelty. They were married by the chaplain of the brigade, and for a month they were happy.

As Napoleon was daily expected in person at the seat of war, his generals were alive to their own interests, if not to that of their master. The body of troops in which Fitzgerald had sought a refuge, being an advanced party of the main army, were surprised and defeated with loss. After doing his duty as a soldier at his post, the major, in endeavoring to secure the retreat of Julia, was intercepted, and they both fell into the hands of the enemy. They were kindly treated, and allowed every indulgence their situation admitted, until a small escort of prisoners was sent to the frontiers; in this they were included, and had proceeded to the neighborhood of the Pyrenees, when, in their turn, the French were assailed suddenly, and entirely routed; and the captive Spaniards, of which the party, with the exception of our young couple, consisted, released. As the French guard made a resistance until overpowered by numbers, an unfortunate ball struck Major Fitzgerald to the earth—he survived but an hour, and died where he fell, on the open field. An English officer, the last of his retiring countrymen, was attracted by the sight of a woman weeping over he body of a fallen man, and approached them. In a few words Fitzgerald explained his situation to this gentleman, and exacted a pledge from him to guard his Julia, in safety, to his mother in England.

The stranger promised everything the dying husband required, and by the time death had closed the eyes of Fitzgerald, he had procured from some peasants a rude conveyance, into which the body, with, its almost equally lifeless widow, were placed. The party which intercepted the convoy of prisoners, had been out from the British camp en other duty, but its commander hearing of the escort, had pushed rapidly into a country covered by the enemy to effect their rescue; and his service done, he was compelled to make a hasty retreat to ensure his own security. To this was owing the indifference, which left the major to the care of the Spanish peasantry who had gathered to the spot, and the retreating troops had got several miles on their return, before the widow and her protector commenced their journey. It was impossible to overtake them, and the inhabitants acquainting the gentleman that a body of French dragoons were already harassing their rear, he was compelled to seek another route to the camp. This, with some trouble and no little danger, he at last effected; and the day following the skirmish, Julia found herself lodged in a retired Spanish dwelling, several miles within the advanced posts of the British army. The body of her husband was respectfully interred, and Julia was left to mourn her irretrievable loss, uninterrupted by anything but by the hasty visits of the officer in whose care she had been left—visits which he stole from his more important duties as a soldier.

A month glided by in this melancholy manner, leaving to Mrs. Fitzgerald the only consolation she would receive—her incessant visits to the grave of her husband. The calls of her protector, however, became more frequent; and at length he announced his intended departure for Lisbon, on his way to England. A small covered vehicle, drawn by one horse, was to convey them to the city, at which place he promised to procure her a female attendant, and necessaries for the voyage home. It was no time or place for delicate punctilio; and Julia quietly, but with a heart nearly broken, prepared to submit to the wishes of her late husband. After leaving the dwelling, the manners of her guide sensibly altered; he became complimentary and assiduous to please, but in a way rather to offend than conciliate; until his attentions became so irksome, that Julia actually meditated stopping at some of the villages through which they passed, and abandoning the attempt of visiting England entirely. But the desire to comply with Fitzgerald's wish, that she would console his mother for the loss of an only child, and the dread of the anger of her relatives, determined her to persevere until they reached Lisbon, where she was resolved to separate for ever from the disagreeable and unknown guardian into whose keeping she had been thrown by chance.

The last day of their weary ride, while passing a wood, the officer so far forgot his own character and Julia's misfortunes, as to offer personal indignities. Grown desperate from her situation, Mrs. Fitzgerald sprang from the vehicle, and by her cries attracted the notice of an officer who was riding express on the same road with themselves. He advanced to her assistance at speed, but as he arrived near them, a pistol fired from the carriage brought his horse down, and the treacherous friend was enabled to escape undetected. Julia endeavored to explain her situation to her rescuer; and by her distress and appearance, satisfied him at once of its truth. Within a short time, a strong escort of light dragoons came up, and the officer despatched some for a conveyance, and others in pursuit of that disgrace to the army, the villainous guide: the former was soon obtained, but no tidings could be had of the latter. The carriage was found at a short distance, without the horse and with the baggage of Julia, but with no vestige of its owner. She never knew his name, and either accident or art had so completely enveloped him in mystery, that all efforts to unfold it then were fruitless, and had continued so ever since.

On their arrival in Lisbon, every attention was shown to the disconsolate widow the most refined delicacy could dictate, and every comfort and respect were procured for her which the princely fortune, high rank, and higher character of the Earl of Pendennyss could command. It was this nobleman, who, on his way from head-quarters with despatches for England, had been the means of preserving Julia from a fate worse than death. A packet was in waiting for the earl, and they proceeded in her for home. The Donna Lorenza was the widow of a subaltern Spanish officer, who had fallen under the orders and near Pendennyss, and the interest he took in her brave husband had induced him to offer her, in the destruction of her little fortune by the enemy, his protection; for near two years he had maintained her at Lisbon, and now, judging her a proper person, had persuaded her to accompany Mrs. Fitzgerald to England.

On the passage, which was very tedious, the earl became more intimately acquainted with the history and character of his young friend, and by a course of gentle yet powerful expedients had drawn her mind gradually from its gloomy contemplation of futurity, to a juster sense of good and evil. The peculiarity of her religious persuasion afforded an introduction to frequent discussions of the real opinions of that church, to which Julia had hitherto belonged, although ignorant of all its essential and vital truths. These conversations, which were renewed repeatedly in their intercourse while under the protection of his sister in London, laid the foundations of a faith which left her nothing to hope for but the happy termination of her earthly probation.

The mother of Fitzgerald was dead, and as he had no near relative left, Julia found herself alone in the world. Her husband had taken the precaution to make a will in season; it was properly authenticated, and his widow, by the powerful assistance of Pendennyss, was put in quiet possession of a little independency. It was while waiting the decision of this affair that Mrs. Fitzgerald resided for a short time near Bath. As soon as it was terminated, the earl and his sister had seen her settled in her present abode, and once since had they visited her; but delicacy had kept him away from the cottage, although his attempts to serve her had been constant, though not always successful. He had, on his return to Spain, seen her father, and interceded with him on her behalf, but in vain. The anger of the Spaniard remained unappeased, and for a season he did not renew his efforts; but having heard that her father was indisposed, Julia had employed the earl once more to make her peace with him, without prevailing. The letter the ladies had found her weeping over was from Pendennyss, informing her of his want of success on that occasion.

The substance of the foregoing narrative was related by Mrs. Fitzgerald to Mrs. Wilson, who repeated it to Emily in their ride home. The compassion of both ladies was strongly moved in behalf of the young widow; yet Mrs. Wilson did not fail to point out to her niece the consequences of deception, and chiefly the misery which had followed from an abandonment of some of the primary duties of life—obedience and respect to her parent. Emily, though keenly alive to all the principles inculcated by her aunt, found so much to be pitied in the fate of her friend, that her failings lost their proper appearance in her eyes, and for a while she could think of nothing but Julia and her misfortunes. Previously to their leaving the cottage, Mrs. Fitzgerald, with glowing cheeks and some hesitation, informed Mrs. Wilson she had yet another important communication to make, but would postpone it until her next visit, which Mrs. Wilson promised should be on the succeeding day.