Precaution/Chapter 30

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

A day elapsed between the departure of Denbigh and the reappearance of Emily amongst her friends. An indifferent observer would have thought her much graver and less animated than usual. A loss of the rich color which ordinarily glowed on her healthful cheek might be noticed; but the placid sweetness and graceful composure which regulated her former conduct pervaded all she did or uttered. Not so with Jane: her pride had suffered more than her feelings—her imagination had been more deceived than her judgment—and although too well-bred and soft by nature to become rude or captious, she was changed from a communicative, to a reserved; from a confiding, to a suspicious companion. Her parents noticed this alteration with an uneasiness that was somewhat embittered by the consciousness of a neglect of some of those duties that experience now seemed to indicate could never be forgotten with impunity.

Francis and Clara had arrived from their northern tour, so happy in each other, and so contented with their lot, that it required some little exercise of fortitude in both Lady Moseley and her daughters to expel unpleasant recollections while they contemplated it. Their relation of the little incidents of their tour had, however, an effect to withdraw the attention of their friends in some degree from late occurrences, and a melancholy and sympathizing kind of association had taken the place of the unbounded confidence and gayety which so lately prevailed at Benfield Lodge. Mr. Benfield mingled with his solemnity an air of mystery; and he was frequently noticed by his relatives looking over old papers, and was apparently employed in preparations that indicated movements of more than usual importance.

The family were collected in one of the parlors on an extremely unpleasant day, the fourth after the departure of John, when the thin person of Johnson stalked in amongst them. All eyes were fixed on him in expectation of what he had to communicate, and all apparently dreading to break the silence, from an apprehension that his communication would be unpleasant. In the mean time Peter, who had respectfully left his hat at the door, proceeded to uncase his body from the multiplied defenses he had taken against the inclemency of the weather. His master stood erect, with an outstretched hand, ready to receive the reply to his epistle; and Johnson, having liberated his body from thralldom, produced the black leathern pocket-book, and from its contents a letter, when he read aloud, "Roderic Benfield, Esq., Benfield Lodge, Norfolk; favored by Mr."—here Peter's modesty got the better of his method; he had never been called Mr. Johnson by anybody, old or young; all knew him in that neighborhood as Peter Johnson—and he had very nearly been guilty of the temerity of arrogating to himself another title in the presence of those he most respected: a degree of self-elevation from which he escaped with the loss of a small piece of his tongue. Mr. Benfield took the letter with an eagerness that plainly indicated the deep interest he took in its contents, while Emily, with a tremulous voice and flushed cheek, approached the steward with a glass of wine.

"Peter," she said, "take this; it will do you good."

"Thank you, Miss Emma," said Peter, casting his eyes from her to his master, as the latter, having finished his letter, exclaimed, with a strange mixture of consideration and disappointment,—

"Johnson, you must change your clothes immediately, or you will take cold: you look now like old Moses, the Jew beggar."

Peter sighed heavily at this comparison, and saw in it a confirmation of his fears; for he well knew, that to his being the bearer of unpleasant tidings was he indebted for a resemblance to anything unpleasant to his master, and Moses was the old gentleman's aversion.

The baronet now followed his uncle from the room to his library, entering it at the same moment with the steward, who had been summoned by his master to an audience.

Pointing to a chair for his nephew, Mr. Benfield commenced the discourse with saying,—

"Peter, you saw Mr. Denbigh; how did he look?"

"As usual, master," said Peter, laconically, still piqued at being likened to old Moses.

"And what did he say to the offer? did he not make any comments on it? He was not offended at it, I hope," demanded Mr. Benfield.

"He said nothing but what he has written to your honor," replied the steward, losing a little of his constrained manner in real good feeling to his master.

"May I ask what the offer was?" inquired Sir Edward.

Mr. Benfield regarding him a moment in silence, said, "Certainly, you are nearly concerned in his welfare; your daughter"—the old man stopped, turned to his letter-book, and handed the baronet a copy of the epistle he had sent to Denbigh. It read as follows:—

"Dear Friend Mr. Denbigh,—I have thought a great deal on the reason of your sudden departure from a house I had begun to hope you thought your own; and by calling to mind my own feelings when Lady Juliana became the heiress to her nephew's estate, take it for granted you have been governed by the same sentiments; which I know both by my own experience and that of the bearer, Peter Johnson, is a never-failing accompaniment of pure affection. Yes, my dear Denbigh, I honor your delicacy in not wishing to become indebted to a stranger, as it were, for the money on which you subsist, and that stranger your wife—who ought in reason to look up to you, instead of your looking up to her; which was the true cause Lord Gosford would not marry the countess—on account of her great wealth, as he assured me himself notwithstanding, envious people said it was because her ladyship loved Mr. Chaworth better: so in order to remove these impediments of delicacy, I have to make three propositions, namely, that I bring you into parliament the next election for my own borough—that you take possession of the lodge the day you marry Emmy, while I will live, for the little time I have to stay here, in the large cottage built by my uncle—and that I give you your legacy of ten thousand pounds down, to prevent trouble hereafter.

"As I know nothing but delicacy has driven you away from us, I make no doubt you will now mind all objections removed, and that Peter will bring back the joyful intelligence of your return to us, as soon as the business you left us on, is completed.

"Your uncle, that is to be,
"Roderic Benfield."

"N. B. As Johnson is a stranger to the ways of the town, I wish you to advise his inexperience, particularly against the arts of designing women, Peter being a man of considerable estate, and great modesty."

"There, nephew," cried Mr. Benfield, as the baronet finished reading the letter aloud—"is it not unreasonable to refuse my offers? Now read his answer."

"Words are wanting to express the sensations which have been excited by Mr. Benfield's letter; but it would be impossible for any man to be so base as to avail himself of such liberality; the recollection of it, together with that of his many virtues, will long continue deeply impressed on the heart of him, whom Mr. Benfield would, if within the power of man, render the happiest amongst human beings."

The steward listened eagerly to this answer, but after it was done he was as much at a loss to know its contents as before its perusal. He knew it was unfavorable to their wishes, but could not comprehend its meaning or expressions, and immediately attributed their ambiguity to the strange conference he had witnessed between Denbigh and the military stranger.

"Master," exclaimed Peter, with something of the elation of a discoverer, "I know the cause, it shows itself in the letter; there was a man talking Greek to him while he was reading your letter."

"Greek!" exclaimed Sir Edward in astonishment.

"Greek!" said the uncle. "Lord Gosford read Greek; but I believe never conversed in that language."

"Yes, Sir Edward—yes, your honor—pure wild Greek; it must have been something of that kind," added Peter, with positiveness, "that would make a man refuse such offers—Miss Emily—the lodge—ten thousand pounds!"—and the steward shook his head with much satisfaction at having discovered the cause.

Sir Edward smiled at the simplicity of Johnson, but disliking the idea attached to the refusal of his daughter, said,

"Perhaps, after all, uncle, there has been some misunderstanding between Emily and Denbigh, which may have driven him from us so suddenly."

Mr. Benfield and his steward exchanged looks, and a new idea broke upon them at the instant. They had both suffered in that way; and after all it might prove that Emily was the one whose taste or feelings had subverted their schemes. The impression, once made, soon became strong, and the party separated; the master thinking alternately on Lady Juliana and his niece, while the man, after heaving one heavy sigh to the memory of Patty Steele, proceeded to the usual occupations of his office.

Mrs. Wilson thinking a ride would be of service to Emily, and having the fullest confidence in her self-command and resignation, availed herself of a fine day to pay a visit to their friend in the cottage. Mrs. Fitzgerald received them in her usual manner, but a single glance of her eye sufficed to show the aunt that she noticed the altered appearance of Emily and her manners, although without knowing its true reason, which she did not deem it prudent to explain. Julia handed her friend a note which she said she had received the day before, and desired their counsel how to proceed in the present emergency. As Emily was to be made acquainted with its contents, her aunt read it aloud as follows:—

"My dear Niece,—Your father and myself had been induced to think you were leading a disgraceful life, with the officer your husband had consigned you to the care of; for hearing of your captivity, I had arrived with a band of guerrillas, on the spot where you were rescued, early the next morning, and there learnt of the peasants your misfortunes and retreat. The enemy pressed us too much to allow us to deviate from our route at the time; but natural affection and the wishes of your father have led me to make a journey to England, in order to satisfy our doubts as regards your conduct. I have seen you, heard your character in the neighborhood, and after much and long search have found out the officer, and am satisfied, that so far as concerns your deportment, you are an injured woman. I have therefore to propose to you, on my own behalf, and that of the Conde, that you adopt the faith of your country, and return with me to the arms of your parent, whose heiress you will be, and whose life you may be the means of prolonging. Direct your answer to me, to the care of our ambassador; and as you decide, I am your mother's brother, Louis M'Carthy y Harrison."

"On what point do you wish my advice?" said Mrs. Wilson, kindly, after she had finished reading the letter, "and when do you expect to see your uncle?"

"Would you have me accept the offer of my father, dear madam, or am I to remain separated from him for the short residue of his life?"

Mrs. Fitzgerald was affected to tears, as she asked this question, and awaited her answer, in silent dread of its nature.

"Is the condition of a change of religion, an immovable one?" inquired Mrs. Wilson, in a thoughtful manner.

"Oh! doubtless," replied Julia, shuddering; "but I am deservedly punished for my early disobedience, and bow in submission to the will of Providence. I feel now all that horror of a change of my religion, I once only affected; I most live and die a Protestant, madam."

"Certainly, I hope so, my dear," said Mrs. Wilson; "I am not a bigot, and think it unfortunate you were not, in your circumstances, bred a pious Catholic. It would have saved you much misery, and might have rendered the close of your father's life more happy; but as your present creed embraces doctrines too much at variance with the Romish church to renounce the one or to adopt the other, with your views, it will be impossible to change your church without committing a heavy offense against the opinions and practices of every denomination of Christians. I should hope a proper representation of this to your uncle would have its weight, or they might be satisfied with your being a Christian, without becoming a Catholic."

"Ah! my dear madam," answered Mrs. Fitzgerald, despairingly, "you little know the opinions of my countrymen on this subject."

"Surely, surely," cried Mrs. Wilson, "parental affection is a stronger feeling than bigotry."

Mrs. Fitzgerald shook her head in a manner which bespoke both her apprehensions and her filial regard.

"Julia ought not, must not, desert her father, dear aunt," said Emily, her face glowing with the ardency of her feelings.

"And ought she to desert her Heavenly Father, my child?" asked the aunt, mildly.

"Are the duties conflicting, dearest aunt?"

"The Conde makes them so. Julia is, I trust, in sincerity a Christian, and with what face can she offer up her daily petitions to her Creator, while she wears a mask to her earthly father; or how can she profess to honor doctrines that she herself believes to be false, or practice customs she thinks improper?"

"Never, never," exclaimed Julia, with fervor; "the struggle is dreadful, but I submit to the greater duty."

"And you decide rightly, my friend," said Mrs. Wilson, soothingly; "but you need relax no efforts to convince the Conde of your wishes; truth and nature will finally conquer."

"Ah!" cried Mrs. Fitzgerald, "the sad consequences of one false step in early life!"

"Rather," added Mrs. Wilson," the sad consequences of one false step in generations gone by. Had your grandmother listened to the voice of prudence and duty, she never would have deserted her parents for a comparative stranger, and entailed upon her descendants a train of evils which yet exist in your person."

"It will be a sad blow to my poor uncle, too," said Mrs. Fitzgerald, "he who once loved me so much."

"When do you expect to see him?" inquired Emily.

Julia informed them she expected him hourly; as, fearful a written statement of her views would drive him from the country without paying her a visit before he departed, she had earnestly entreated him to see her without delay.

On taking their leave, the ladies promised to obey her summons whenever called to meet the general, as Mrs. Wilson thought she might be better able to give advice to a friend, by knowing more of the character of her relatives, than she could do with her present information.

One day intervened, and it was spent in the united society of Lady Moseley and her daughters, while Sir Edward and Francis rode to a neighboring town on business; and on the succeeding, Mrs. Fitzgerald apprised them of the arrival of General M'Carthy. Immediately after breakfast, Mrs. Wilson and Emily drove to the cottage, the aunt both wishing the latter as a companion in her ride, and believing the excitement would have a tendency to prevent her niece from indulging in reflections, alike dangerous to her peace of mind and at variance with her duties.

Our readers have probably anticipated, that the stage companion of John Moseley was the Spanish general, who had just been making those inquiries into the manner of his niece's living which terminated so happily in her acquittal. With that part of her history which relates to the injurious attempts on her before she arrived at Lisbon, he appears to have been ignorant, or his interview with Denbigh might have terminated very differently from the manner already related.

A description of the appearance of the gentleman presented to Mrs. Wilson is unnecessary, as it has been given already; and the discerning matron thought she read through the rigid and set features of the soldier, a shade of kinder feelings, which might be wrought into an advantageous intercession on behalf of Julia. The general was evidently endeavoring to keep his feelings within due bounds, before the decision of his niece might render it proper for him to indulge in that affection for her, which his eye plainly showed existed under the cover of his assumed manner.

It was an effort of great fortitude on the part of Julia to acquaint her uncle with her resolution; but as it must be done, she seized a moment after Mrs. Wilson had at some length defended her adhering to her present faith, until religiously impressed with its errors, to inform him such was her unalterable resolution. He heard her patiently, and without anger, but in visible surprise. He had construed her summons to her house into a measure preparatory to accepting his conditions; yet he betrayed no emotion, after the first expression of his wonder; he told her distinctly, a renunciation of her heresy was the only condition on which her father would own her either as his heiress or his child. Julia deeply regretted the decision, but was firm; and her friends left her to enjoy uninterruptedly for one day, the society of so near a relative. During this day every doubt as to the propriety of her conduct, if any yet remained, was removed by a relation of her little story to her uncle; and after it was completed, he expressed great uneasiness to get to London again, in order to meet a gentleman he had seen there, under a different impression as to his merits, than what now appeared to be just. Who the gentleman was, or what these impressions were, Julia was left to conjecture, taciturnity being a favorite property in the general.