On withdrawing to her dressing-room after dinner, Mrs. Wilson commenced the disagreeable duty of removing the veil from the eyes of her niece, by recounting to her the substance of Mrs. Fitzgerald's last communication. To the innocence of Emily such persecution could excite no other sensations than surprise and horror; and as her aunt omitted the part concerning the daughter of Sir Edward Moseley, she naturally expressed her wonder as to who the wretch could be.
"Possibly, aunt," she said with an involuntary shudder, "some of the many gentlemen we have lately seen, and one who has had art enough to conceal his real character from the world."
"Concealment, my love," replied Mrs. Wilson, "would be hardly necessary. Such is the fashionable laxity of morals, that I doubt not many of his associates would laugh at his misconduct, and that he would still continue to pass with the world as an honorable man."
"And ready," cried her niece, "to sacrifice human life, in the defense of any ridiculous punctilio."
"Or," added Mrs. Wilson, striving to draw nearer to her subject, "with a closer veil of hypocrisy, wear even an affectation of principle and moral feeling that would seem to forbid such a departure from duty in favor of custom."
"Oh! no, dear aunt," exclaimed Emily, with glowing cheeks and eyes dancing with pleasure, "he would hardly dare to be so very base. It would be profanity."
Mrs. Wilson sighed heavily as she witnessed that confiding esteem which would not permit her niece even to suspect that an act which in Denbigh had been so warmly applauded, could, even in another, proceed from unworthy motives; and she found it would be necessary to speak in the plainest terms, to awaken her suspicions. Willing, however, to come gradually to the distressing truth, she replied,—
"And yet, my dear, men who pride themselves greatly on their morals, nay, even some who wear the mask of religion, and perhaps deceive themselves, admit and practice this very appeal to arms. Such inconsistencies are by no means uncommon. And why, then, might there not, with equal probability, be others who would revolt at murder, and yet not hesitate being guilty of lesser enormities? This is, in some measure, the case of every man; and it is only to consider killing in unlawful encounters as murder, to make it one in point."
"Hypocrisy is so mean a vice, I should not think a brave man could stoop to it," said Emily, "and Julia admits he was brave."
"And would not a brave man revolt at the cowardice of insulting an unprotected woman? And your hero did that too," replied Mrs. Wilson, bitterly, losing her self-command in indignation.
"Oh! do not call him my hero, I beg of you, dear aunt," said Emily, starting, excited by so extraordinary an allusion, but instantly losing the unpleasant sensation in the delightful consciousness of the superiority of the man on whom she had bestowed her own admiration.
"In fact, my child," continued her aunt, "our natures are guilty of the grossest inconsistencies. The vilest wretch has generally some property on which he values himself, and the most perfect are too often frail on some tender point. Long and tried friendships are those only which can be trusted, and these oftentimes fail."
Emily looked at her aunt in surprise at hearing her utter such unusual sentiments; for Mrs. Wilson, at the same time she had, by divine assistance, deeply impressed her niece with the frailty of her nature, had withheld the disgusting representation of human vices from her view, as unnecessary to her situation and dangerous to her humility.
After a short pause, Mrs. Wilson continued, "Marriage is a fearful step in a woman, and one she is compelled, in some measure, to adventure her happiness on, without fitting opportunities of judging of the merit of the man she confides in. Jane is an instance in point, but I devoutly hope you are not to be another."
While speaking, Mrs. Wilson had taken the hand of Emily, and by her looks and solemn manner she had succeeded in alarming her niece, although Denbigh was yet furthest from the thoughts of Emily. The aunt reached her a glass of water, and willing to get rid of the hateful subject she continued, hurriedly, "Did you not notice the pocket-book Francis gave to Mr. Denbigh?" Emily fixed her inquiring eyes on her aunt, as the other added, "It was the one Mrs. Fitzgerald gave me to-day." Something like an indefinite glimpse of the facts crossed the mind of Emily; and as it most obviously involved a separation from Denbigh, she sank lifeless into the extended arms of her aunt. This had been anticipated by Mrs. Wilson, and a timely application of restoratives soon brought her back to a consciousness of misery. Mrs. Wilson, unwilling any one but herself should witness this first burst of grief, succeeded in getting her niece to her own room and in bed. Emily made no lamentations—shed no tears—asked no questions—her eye was fixed, and every faculty appeared oppressed with the load on her heart. Mrs. Wilson knew her situation too well to intrude with unseasonable consolation or useless reflections, but sat patiently by her side, waiting anxiously for the moment she could be of service. At length the uplifted eyes and clasped hands of Emily assured her she had not forgotten herself or her duty, and she was rewarded for her labor and forbearance by a flood of tears. Emily was now able to listen to a more full statement of the reasons her aunt had for believing in the guilt of Denbigh, and she felt as if her heart was frozen up forever, as the proofs followed each other until they amountd to demonstration. As there was some indication of fever from her agitated state of mind, her aunt required she should remain in her room until morning; and Emily, feeling every way unequal to a meeting with Denbigh, gladly assented. After ringing for her maid to sit in the adjoining room, Mrs. Wilson went below, and announced to the family the indisposition of her charge, and her desire to obtain a little sleep. Denbigh looked anxious to inquire after the health of Emily, but there was a restraint on all his actions, since the return of his book, that persuaded Mrs. Wilson he apprehended that a detection of his conduct had taken place. He did venture to ask when they were to have the pleasure of seeing Miss Moseley again, hoping it would be that evening, as he had fixed the morning for his departure; and when he learnt that Emily had retired for the night, his anxiety was sensibly increased, and he instantly withdrew. Mrs. Wilson was alone in the drawing-room, and about to join her niece, as Denbigh entered it with a letter in his hand; he approached her with a diffident and constrained manner, and commenced the following dialogue:—
"My anxiety and situation will plead my apology for troubling Miss Moseley at this time—may I ask you, madam, to deliver this letter—I hardly dare ask you for your good offices."
Mrs. Wilson took the letter and coldly replied,—
"Certainly, sir; and I sincerely wish I could be of any real service to you."
"I perceive, madam," said Denbigh, like one that was choking, "I have forfeited your good opinion—that pocket- book"—
"Has made a dreadful discovery," said Mrs. Wilson shuddering.
"Will not one offense be pardoned, dear madam?" cried Denbigh, with warmth; "if you knew my circumstances—the cruel reasons—why—why did I neglect the paternal advice of Doctor Ives?"
"It is not yet too late, sir," said Mrs. Wilson, more mildly, "for your own good; as for us, your deception"—
"Is unpardonable—I see it—I feel it," cried he, in the accent of despair; "yet Emily—Emily may relent—you will at least give her my letter—anything is better that this suspense."
"You shall have an answer from Emily this evening, and one entirely unbiassed by me," said Mrs. Wilson. As she closed the door, she observed Denbigh gazing on her retiring figure with a countenance of despair, that caused a feeling of pity to mingle with her detestation of his vices.
On opening the door of Emily's room, Mrs. Wilson found her niece in tears, and her anxiety for her health was alleviated. She knew or hoped, that if she could once call in the assistance of her judgment and piety to lessen her sorrows, Emily, however she might mourn, would become resigned to her situation; and the first step to attain this was the exercise of those faculties which had been, as it were, momentarily annihilated. Mrs. Wilson kissed her niece with tenderness, as she placed the letter in her hand, and told her she would call for her answer within an hour. Employment, and the necessity of acting, would, she thought, be the surest means of reviving her energies; nor was she disappointed. When the aunt returned for the expected answer, she was informed by the maid in the ante-chamber, that Miss Moseley was up, and had been writing. On entering, Mrs. Wilson stood a moment in admiration of the picture before her. Emily was on her knees, and by her side, on the carpet, lay the letter and its answer; her face was hid by her hair, and her hands were closed in the fervent grasp of petition. In a minute she rose, and approaching her aunt with an air of profound resignation, but great steadiness, she handed her the letters, her own unsealed:—
"Read them, madam, and if you approve of mine, I will thank you to deliver it."
Her aunt folded her in her arms, until Emily, finding herself yielding under the effects of sympathy, begged to be left alone. On withdrawing to her own room, Mrs. Wilson read the contents of the two letters.
"I rely greatly on the goodness of Miss Moseley to pardon the liberty I am taking, at a moment she is so unfit for such a subject; but my departure—my feelings—must plead my apology. From the moment of my first acquaintance with you, I have been a cheerful subject to your loveliness and innocence. I feel—I know—I am not deserving of such a blessing; but since knowing you, as I do, it is impossible not to strive to win you. You have often thanked me as the preserver of your life, but you little knew the deep interest I had in its safety. Without it my own would be valueless. By accepting my offered hand, you will place me amongst the happiest, or by rejecting it, the most wretched of men."
To this note, which was unsigned, and evidently written under great agitation of mind, Emily had penned the following reply:—
"Sir—It is with much regret that I find myself reduced to the possibility of giving uneasiness to one to whom I am under such heavy obligations. It will never be in my power to accept the honor you have offered me; and I beg you to receive my thanks for the compliment conveyed in your request, as well as my good wishes for your happiness in future, and fervent prayers that you may be ever found worthy of it. Your humble servant, "Emily Moseley."
Perfectly satisfied with this answer, Mrs. Wilson went below in order to deliver it at once. She thought it probable, as Denbigh had already sent his baggage to a tavern, preparatory to his intended journey, they would not meet again; and as she felt a strong wish, both on account of Doctor Ives, and out of respect to the services of the young man himself, to conceal his conduct from the world entirely, she was in hopes that his absence might make any disclosure unnecessary. He took the letter from her with a trembling hand, and casting one of his very expressive looks at her, as if to read her thoughts, he withdrew.
Emily had fallen asleep free from fever, and Mrs. Wilson had descended to the supper-room, when Mr. Benfield was first struck with the absence of his favorite. An inquiry after Denbigh was instituted, and while they were waiting his appearance, a servant handed the old man a note.
"From whom?" cried Mr. Benfield, in surprise.
"Mr. Denbigh, sir," said the servant.
"Mr. Denbigh?" exclaimed Mr. Benfield: "no accident, I hope—I remember when Lord Gosford—here, Peter, your eyes are young; read it for me, read it aloud."
As all but Mrs. Wilson were anxiously waiting to know the meaning of this message, and Peter had many preparations to go through before his youthful eyes could make out the contents, John hastily caught the letter out of his hand, saying he would save him the trouble, and, in obedience to his uncle's wishes, he read aloud:—
"Mr. Denbigh, being under the necessity of leaving L—— immediately, and unable to endure the pain of taking leave, avails himself of this means of tendering his warmest thanks to Mr. Benfield for his hospitalitv, and to his amiable guests for their many kindnesses. As he contemplates leaving England, he desires to wish them all a long and an affectionate farewell."
"Farewell!" cried Mr. Benfield; "farewell—does he say farewell, John? Here, Peter, run—no, you are too old—John, run—bring my hat; I'll go myself to the village—some love-quarrel—Emmy sick—and Denbigh going away—yes—yes, I did so myself—Lady Juliana, poor, dear soul, she was a long time before she could forget it—but Peter"—Peter had disappeared the instant the letter was finished, and he was quickly followed by John. Sir Edward and Lady Moseley were lost in amazement at this sudden and unexpected movement of Denbigh, and the breast of each of the affectionate parents was filled with a vague apprehension that the peace of mind of another child was at stake. Jane felt a renewal of her woes, in the anticipation of something similar for her sister—for the fancy of Jane was yet active, and she did not cease to consider the defection of Egerton a kind of unmerited misfortune and fatality, instead of a probable consequence of want of principle. Like Mr. Benfield, she was in danger of raising au ideal idol, and of spending the remainder of her days in devotion to qualities, rarely if ever found identified with a person, that never had existed. The old gentleman was entirely engrossed by a different object; and having in his own opinion decided there must have been one of those misunderstandings which sometimes had occurred to himself and Lady Juliana, he quietly composed himself to eat his salad at the supper table: on turning his head, however, in quest of his first glass of wine, he observed Peter standing quietly by the sideboard with the favorite goggles over his eyes. Now Peter was troubled with two kinds of debility about his organs of vision; one was age and natural weakness, while the other proceeded more directly from the heart. His master knew of these facts, and he took the alarm. Again the wine-glass dropped from his nerveless hand, as he said in a trembling tone,—
"Peter, I thought you went"—
"Yes, master," said Peter, laconically.
"You saw him, Peter—will he return?"
Peter was busily occupied at his glasses, although no one was dry.
"Peter," repeated Mr. Benfield, rising from his seat, "is he coming in time for supper?"
Peter was obliged to reply, and deliberately uncasing his eyes and blowing his nose, he was on the point of opening his mouth, as John came into the room, and threw himself into a chair with an air of great vexation. Peter pointed to the young gentleman in silence, and retired.
"John," cried Sir Edward, "where is Denbigh?"
"Yes, my dear father," said John, "gone without saying good-by to one of us—without telling us whither, or when to return. It was cruel in him—unkind—I'll never forgive him"—and John, whose feelings were strong, and unusually excited, hid his face between his hands on the table. As he raised his head to reply to a question of Mr. Benfield—of "how he knew he had gone, for the coach did not go until daylight?" Mrs. "Wilson saw evident marks of tears. Such proofs of emotion in one like John Moseley gave her the satisfaction of knowing that if she had been deceived, it was by a concurrence of circumstances and a depth of hypocrisy almost exceeding belief: self-reproach added less than common, therefore, to the uneasiness of the moment.
"I saw the innkeeper, uncle," said John, "who told me that Denbigh left there at eight o'clock in a post-chaise and four; but I will go to London in the morning myself." This was no sooner said than it was corroborated by acts, for the young man immediately commenced his preparations for the journey. The family separated that evening with melancholy hearts; and the host and his privy counselor were closeted for half an hour ere they retired to their night's repose. John look his leave of them, and left the lodge for the inn, with his man, in order to be ready for the mail. Mrs. Wilson looked in upon Emily before she withdrew herself, and found her awake, but perfectly calm and composed: she said but little, appearing desirous of avoiding all allusions to Denbigh; and after her aunt had simply acquainted her with his departure, and her resolution to conceal the cause, the subject was dropped. Mrs. Wilson, on entering her own room, thought deeply on the discoveries of the day: they had interfered with her favorite system of morals, baffled her ablest calculations upon causes and effects, but in no degree had impaired her faith or reliance on Providence. She knew one exception did not destroy a rule: she was certain without principles there was no security for good conduct, and the case of Denbigh proved it. To discover these principles might be difficult; but was a task imperiously required at her hands, as she believed, ere she yielded the present and future happiness of her pupil to the power of any man.