Precaution/Chapter 27

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Emily threw a look of pleasure on Denbigh, as he handed her from the carriage, which would have said, if looks could talk, "In the principles you have displayed on more than one occasion, I have a pledge of your worth." As he led her into the house, he laughingly informed her that he had that morning received a letter which would make his absence from L—— necessary for a short time, and that he must remonstrate against these long and repeated visits to a cottage where all attendants of the male sex were excluded, as they encroached greatly on his pleasures and improvements, bowing, as he spoke, to Mrs. Wilson. To this Emily replied, gayly, that possibly, if he conducted himself to their satisfaction, they would intercede for his admission. Expressing his pleasure at this promise, as Mrs. Wilson thought rather awkwardly, Denbigh changed the conversation. At dinner he repeated to the family what he had mentioned to Emily of his departure, and also his expectation of meeting with Lord Chatterton during his journey.

"Have you heard from Chatterton lately, John?" inquired Sir Edward Moseley.

"Yes, sir, to-day: he had left Denbigh Castle a fortnight since, and writes, he is to meet his friend, the duke, at Bath."

"Are you connected with his Grace, Mr. Denbigh?" Risked Lady Moseley.

A smile of indefinite meaning played on the expressive face of Denbigh, as he answered slightly,—

"On the side of my father, madam."

"He has a sister," continued Lady Moseley, willing to know more of Chatterton's friends and Denbigh's relatives.

"He has," was the brief reply.

"Her name is Harriet," observed Mrs. Wilson. Denbigh bowed his assent in silence, and Emily timidly added—

"Lady Harriet Denbigh?"

"Lady Harriet Denbigh—will you do me the favor to take wine?"

The manner of the gentleman during this dialogue had not been in the least unpleasant, but it was peculiar; it prohibited anything further on the subject; and Emily was obliged to be content without knowing who Marian was, or whether her name was to be found in the Denbigh family or not. Emily was not in the least jealous, but she wished to know all to whom her lover was dear.

"Do the dowager and the young ladies accompany Chatterton?" asked Sir Edward, as he turned to John, who was eating his fruit in silence.

"Yes, sir—I hope—that is, I believe she will," was the answer.

"She! Who is she, my son?"

"Grace Chatterton," said John, starting from his meditations. "Did you not ask me about Grace, Sir Edward?"

"Not particularly, I believe," said the baronet, dryly.

Denbigh again smiled: it was a smile different from any Mrs. Wilson had ever seen on his countenance, and gave an entirely novel expression to his face; it was full of meaning, it was knowing—spoke more of the man of the world than anything she had before noticed in him, and left on her mind one of those vague impressions she was often troubled with, that there was something about Denbigh in character or condition, or both, that was mysterious.

The spirit of Jane was too great to leave her a pining or pensive maiden; yet her feelings had sustained a shock that time alone could cure. She appeared again amongst her friends; but the consciousness of her expectations with respect to the colonel being known to them, threw around her a hauteur and distance very foreign to her natural manner. Emily alone, whose every movement sprang from the spontaneous feelings of her heart, and whose words and actions were influenced by the finest and most affectionate delicacy, such as she was not conscious of possessing herself, won upon the better feelings of her sister so far, as to restore between them the usual exchange of kindness and sympathy. But Jane admitted no confidence; she found nothing consoling, nothing solid, to justify her attachment to Egerton; nothing indeed, excepting such external advantages as she was now ashamed to admit had ever the power over her they in reality had possessed. The marriage of the fugitives in Scotland had been announced; and as the impression that Egerton was to be connected with the Moseleys was destroyed of course, their every-day acquaintances, feeling the restraints removed that such an opinion had once imposed, were free in their comments on his character. Sir Edward and Lady Moseley were astonished to find how many things to his disadvantage were generally known; that he gambled, intrigued, and was in debt, were no secrets apparently to anybody, but to those who were most interested in knowing the truth; while Mrs. Wilson saw in these facts additional reasons for examining and judging for ourselves; the world uniformly concealing from the party and his friends their honest opinions of his character. Some of these insinuations reached the ears of Jane: her aunt having rightly judged, that the surest way to destroy Egerton's power over the imagination of her niece was to strip him of his fictitious qualities, suggested this expedient to Lady Moseley: and some of their visitors had thought, as the colonel had certainly been attentive to Miss Moseley, it would give her pleasure to know that her rival had not made the most eligible match in the kingdom. The project of Mrs. Wilson succeeded in a great measure; but although Egerton fell, Jane did not find she rose in her own estimation; and her friends wisely concluded that time was the only remedy that could restore her former serenity.

In the morning, Mrs. Wilson, unwilling to have Emily present at a conversation she intended to hold with Denbigh, with a view to satisfy her annoying doubts as to some minor points in his character, after excusing herself to her niece, invited that gentleman to a morning drive. He accepted her invitation cheerfully; and Mrs. Wilson saw, it was only as they drove from the door without Emily, that he betrayed the faintest reluctance to the jaunt. When they had got a short distance from the lodge she acquainted him with her intention of presenting him to Mrs. Fitzgerald, whither she had ordered the coachman to proceed. Denbigh started as she mentioned the name, and after a few moments' silence, desired Mrs. Wilson to allow him to stop the carriage; he was not very well—was sorry to be so rude—but with her permission, he would alight and return to the house. As he requested in an earnest manner that she would proceed without him, and by no means disappoint her friend, Mrs. Wilson complied; yet, somewhat at a loss to account for his sudden illness, she turned her head to see how the sick man fared, a short time after he had left her, and was not a little surprised to see him talking very composedly with John, who had met him on his way to the fields with his gun. Lovesick—thought Mrs. Wilson with a smile; and as she rode on she came to the conclusion that as Denbigh was to leave them soon, Emily would have an important communication to make on her return.

"Well," thought Mrs. Wilson with a sigh, "if it is to happen, it may as well be done at once."

Mrs. Fitzgerald was expecting her, and appeared rather pleased than otherwise that she had come alone. After some introductory conversation, the ladies withdrew by themselves, and Julia acquainted Mrs. Wilson with a new source of uneasiness. The day the ladies had promised to visit her, but had been prevented by the arrangements for the ball, the Donna Lorenza had driven to the village to make some purchases, attended, as usual, by their only man-servant, and Mrs. Fitzgerald was sitting in the little parlor in momentary expectation of her friends by herself. The sound of footsteps drew her to the door, which she opened for the admission of the wretch whose treachery to her dying husband's requests had given her so much uneasiness. Horror—fear—surprise—altogether prevented her from making any alarm at the moment, and she sank into a chair. He stood between her and the door, as he endeavored to draw her into a conversation; he assured her she had nothing to fear; that he loved her, and her alone; that he was about to be married to a daughter of Sir Edward Moseley, but would give her up, fortune, everything, if she would consent to become his wife—that the views of her protector, he doubted not, were dishonorable—that he himself was willing to atone for his former excess of passion, by a life devoted to her.

How much longer he would have gone on, and what further he would have offered, is unknown; for Mrs. Fitzgerald, having recovered herself a little, darted to the bell on the other side of the room; he tried to prevent her ringing it, but was too late; a short struggle followed, when the sound of the footsteps of the maid compelled him to retreat precipitately. Mrs. Fitzgerald added, that his assertion concerning Miss Moseley had given her incredible uneasiness, and prevented her making the communication yesterday; but she understood this morning through her maid, that a Colonel Egerton, who had been supposed to be engaged to one of Sir Edward's daughters, had eloped with another lady. That Egerton was her persecutor, she did not now entertain a doubt; but that it was in the power of Mrs. Wilson probably to make the discovery, as in the struggle between them for the bell, a pocket-book had fallen from the breast-pocket of his coat, and his retreat was too sadden to recover it.

As she put the book into the hands of Mrs. Wilson, she desired she would take means to return it to its owner; its contents might be of value, though she had not thought it correct to examine it. Mrs. Wilson took the book, and as she dropped it into her work-bag, smiled at the Spanish punctilio of her friend in not looking into her prize under the peculiar circumstances.

A few questions as to the place and year of his first attemps, soon convinced her it was Egerton whose unlicensed passions had given so much trouble to Mrs. Fitzgerald. He had served but one campaign in Spain, and in that year, and that division of the army; and surely his principles were no restraint upon his conduct. Mrs. Fitzgerald begged the advice of her more experienced friend as to the steps she ought to take; to which the former asked if she had made Lord Pendennyss acquainted with the occurrence. The young widow's cheek glowed as she answered, that, at the same time she felt assured the base insinuation of Egerton was unfounded, it had created a repugnance in her to troubling the earl any more than was necessary in her affairs; and as she kissed the hand of Mrs. Wilson, she added—"besides, your goodness, my dear madam, renders any other adviser unnecessary now." Mrs. Wilson pressed her hand affectionately, and assured her of her good wishes and unaltered esteem. She commended her delicacy, and plainly told the young widow, that however unexceptionable the character of Pendennyss might be, a female friend was the only one a woman in her situation could repose confidence in, without justly incurring the sarcasms of the world.

As Egerton was now married, and would not probably offer, for the present at least, any further molestation to Mrs. Fitzgerald, it was concluded to be unnecessary to take any immediate measures of precaution; and Mrs. Wilson thought the purse of Mr. Jarvis might be made the means of keeping him within proper bounds in future. The merchant was prompt, and not easily intimidated; and the slightest intimation of the truth would, she knew, be sufficient to engage him on their side, heart and hand.

The ladies parted, with a promise of meeting soon again, and an additional interest in each other by the communications of that and the preceding day.

Mrs. Wilson had ridden half the distance between the cottage and the lodge, before it occurred to her they had not absolutely ascertained, by the best means in their possession, the identity of Colonel Egerton with Julia's persecutor. She accordingly took the pocket-book from her bag, and opened it for examination; a couple of letters fell from it into her lap, and conceiving their direction would establish all she wished to know, as they had been read, she turned to the superscription of one of them, and saw "George Denbigh, Esq.," in the well-known handwriting of Dr. Ives. Mrs. Wilson felt herself overcome to a degree that compelled her to lower a glass of the carriage for air. She sat gazing on the letters until the characters swam before her eyes in undistinguished confusion; and with difficulty she rallied her thoughts to the point necessary for investigation. As soon as she found herself equal to the task, she examined the letters with the closest scrutiny, and opened them both to be sure there was no mistake. She saw the dates, the "Dear George" at the commencements, and the doctor's name subscribed, before she would believe they were real; and it was then the truth appeared to break upon her in a flood of light. The aversion of Denbigh to speak of Spain, or of his services in that country—his avoiding Sir Herbert Nicholson, and that gentleman's observations respecting him—Colonel Egerton's and his own manners—his absence from the ball, and startling looks on the following morning, and at different times before and since—his displeasure at the name of Pendennyss on various occasions—and his cheerful acceptance of her invitation to ride until he knew her destination, and singular manner of leaving her—were all accounted for by this dreadful discovery, and Mrs. Wilson found the solution of her doubts rushing on her mind with a force and rapidity that sickened her.

The misfortunes of Mrs. Fitzgerald, the unfortunate issue to the passion of Jane, were trifles in the estimation of Mrs. Wilson compared to the discovery of Denbigh's unworthiness. She revolved in her mind his conduct on various occasions, and wondered how one who could behave so well in common, could thus yield to temptation on a particular occasion. His recent attempts, his hypocrisy, however, proved that his villainy was systematic, and she was not weak enough to hide from herself the evidence of his guilt, or of its enormity. His interposition between Emily and death, she attributed now to natural courage, and perhaps in some measure to chance; but his profound and unvarying reverence for holy things, his consistent charity, his refusing to fight, to what were they owing? And Mrs. Wilson mourned the weakness of human nature, while she acknowledged to herself, there might be men, qualified by nature, and even disposed by reason and grace, to prove ornaments to religion and the world, who fell beneath the maddening influence of their besetting sins. The superficial and interested vices of Egerton vanished before these awful and deeply seated offenses of Denbigh, and the correct widow saw at a glance, that he was the last man to be intrusted with the happiness of her niece; but to break this heart-rending discovery to Emily was a new source of uneasiness to her, and the carriage stopped at the door of the lodge, ere she had determined on the first step required of her by duty.

Her brother handed her out, and, filled with the dread that Denbigh had availed himself of the opportunity of her absence to press his suit with Emily, she eagerly inquired after him. She was rejoiced to hear he had returned with John for a fowling-piece, and together they had gone in pursuit of game, although she saw in it a convincing proof that a desire to avoid Mrs. Fitzgerald, and not indisposition, had induced him to leave her. As a last alternative, she resolved to have the pocket-book returned to him in her presence, in order to see if he acknowledged it to be his property; and, accordingly, she instructed her own man to hand it to him while at dinner, simply saying he had lost it.

The open and unsuspecting air with which her niece met Denbigh on his return gave Mrs. Wilson an additional shock, and she could hardly command herself sufficiently to extend the common courtesies of good breeding to Mr. Benfield's guest.

While sitting at the dessert, her servant handed the pocket-book, as directed by his mistress, to its owner, saying, "Your pocket-book, I believe, Mr. Denbigh." Denbigh took the book, and held it in his hand for a moment in surprise, and then fixed his eye keenly on the man, as he inquired where he found it, and how he knew it was his. These were interrogatories Francis was not prepared to answer, and in his confusion he naturally turned his eyes on his mistress. Denbigh followed their direction with his own, and in encountering the looks of the lady, he asked in a stammering manner, and with a face of scarlet,—

"Am I indebted to you, madam, for my property?"

"No, sir; it was given me by one who found it, to restore to you," said Mrs. Wilson, gravely, and the subject was dropped, both appearing willing to say no more. Yet Denbigh was abstracted and absent during the remainder of the repast, and Emily spoke to him once or twice without obtaining an answer. Mrs. Wilson caught his eye several times fixed on her with an inquiring and doubtful expression, that convinced her he was alarmed. If any confirmation of his guilt had been wanting, the consciousness he betrayed during this scene afforded it; and she set seriously about considering the shortest and best method of interrupting his intercourse with Emily, before he had drawn from her an acknowledgment of her love.