During the succeeding fortnight, the intercourse between the Moseleys and their new acquaintances increased daily. It was rather awkward at first on the part of Emily; and her beating pulse and changing color too often showed the alarm of feelings not yet overcome, when any allusions were made to the absent husband of one of the ladies. Still, as her parents encouraged the acquaintance, and her aunt thought the best way to get rid of the remaining weakness with respect to Denbigh was not to shrink from even an interview with the gentleman himself, Emily succeeded in conquering her reluctance; and as the high opinion entertained by Lady Laura of her husband was expressed in a thousand artless ways, an interest was created in her that promised in time to weaken if not destroy the impression that had been made by Denbigh himself.
On the other hand, Egerton carefully avoided all collision with the Moseleys. Once, indeed, he endeavored to renew his acquaintance with John, but a haughty repulse almost produced a quarrel.
What representations Egerton had thought proper to make to his wife, we are unable to say; but she appeared to resent something, as she never approached the dwelling or persons of her quondam associates, although in her heart she was dying to be on terms of intimacy with their titled friends. Her incorrigible mother was restrained by no such or any other consideration, and contrived to fasten on the dowager and Lady Harriet a kind of bowing acquaintance, which she made great use of at the rooms.
The duke sought out the society of Emily wherever he could obtain it; and Mrs. Wilson thought her niece admitted his approaches with less reluctance than that of any other of the gentlemen around her. At first she was surprised, but a closer observation betrayed to her the latent cause.
Derwent resembled Denbigh greatly in person and voice, although there were distinctions easily to be made on an acquaintance. The duke had an air of command and hauteur that was never to be seen in his cousin. But his admiration of Emily he did not attempt to conceal; and, as he ever addressed her in the respectful language and identical voice of Denbigh, the observant widow easily perceived that it was the remains of her attachment to the one that induced her niece to listen with such evident pleasure to the conversation of the other.
The Duke of Derwent wanted many of the indispensable requisites of a husband, in the eyes of Mrs. Wilson; yet, as she thought Emily out of all danger at the present of any new attachment, she admitted the association, under no other restraint than the uniform propriety of all that Emily said or did.
"Your niece will one day be a duchess, Mrs. Wilson," whispered Lady Laura, as Derwent and Emily were running over a new poem one morning, in the lodgings of Sir Edward; the former reading a fine extract aloud so strikingly in the air and voice of Denbigh, as to call all the animation of the unconscious Emily into her expressive face.
Mrs. Wilson sighed, as she reflected on the strength of those feelings which even principles and testimony had not been able wholly to subdue, as she answered—
"Not of Derwent, I believe. But how wonderfully the duke resembles your husband at times," she added, entirely thrown off her guard.
Lady Laura was evidently surprised.
"Yes, at times he does; they are brothers' children, you know: the voice in all that connection is remarkable. Pendennyss, though a degree further off in blood, possesses it; and Lady Harriet, you perceive has the same characteristic; there has been some siren in the family, in days past."
Sir Edward and Lady Moseley saw the attention of the duke with the greatest pleasure. Though not slaves to the ambition of wealth and rank, they were certainly no objections in their eyes; and a proper suitor Lady Moseley thought the most probable means of driving the recollection of Denbigh from the mind of her daughter. The latter consideration had great weight in inducing her to cultivate an acquaintance so embarrassing on many accounts.
The colonel, however, wrote to his wife the impossibility of his quitting his uncle while he continued so unwell, and it was settled that the bride should join him, under the escort of Lord William.
The same tenderness distinguished Denbigh on this occasion that had appeared so lovely when exercised to his dying father. Yet, thought Mrs. Wilson, how insufficient are good feelings to effect what can only be the result of good principles.
Caroline Harris was frequently of the parties of pleasure, walks, rides, and dinners, which the Moseleys were compelled to join in; and as the Marquis of Eltringham had given her one day some little encouragement, she determined to make an expiring effort at the peerage, before she condescended to enter into an examination of the qualities of Captain Jarvis, who, his mother had persuaded her, was an Apollo, that she had great hopes of seeing one day a lord, as both the captain and herself had commenced laying up a certain sum quarterly for the purpose of buying a title hereafter—an ingenious expedient of Jarvis's to get into his hands a portion of the allowance of his mother.
Eltringham was strongly addicted to the ridiculous; and without committing himself in the least, drew the lady out of divers occasions, for the amusement of himself and the duke—who enjoyed, without practicing, that species of joke.
The collisions between ill-concealed art and as ill-concealed irony had been practiced with impunity by the marquis for a fortnight, and the lady's imagination began to revel in the delights of a triumph, when a really respectable offer was made to Miss Harris by a neighbor of her father's in the country—one she would rejoice to have received a few days before, but which, in consequence of hopes created by the following occurrence, she haughtily rejected.
It was at the lodgings of the baronet that Lady Laura exclaimed one day,—
"Marriage is a lottery, certainly, and neither Sir Henry nor Lady Egerton appears to have drawn a prize."
Here Jane stole from the room.
"Never, sister," cried the marquis. "I will deny that. Any man can select a prize from your sex, if he only knows his own taste."
"Taste is a poor criterion, I am afraid," said Mrs. Wilson gravely, "on which to found matrimonial felicity."
"To what would you refer the decision, my dear madam?" inquired the lady Laura.
Lady Laura shook her head doubtingly.
"You remind me so much of Lord Pendennyss! Everything he wishes to bring under the subjection of judgment and principles."
"And is he wrong, Lady Laura?" asked Mrs. Wilson, pleased to find such correct views existed in one of whom she thought so highly.
"Not wrong, my dear madam, only impracticable. What do you think, marquis, of choosing a wife in conformity to your principles, and without consulting your tastes?"
Mrs. Wilson shook her head with a laugh, and disclaimed any such statement of the case; but the marquis, who disliked one of John's didactic conversations very much, gayly interrupted her by saying—
"Oh! taste is everything with me. The woman of my heart against the world, if she suits my fancy, and satisfies my judgment."
"And what may this fancy of your lordship be?" said Mrs. Wilson, willing to gratify the trifling. "What kind of a woman do you mean to choose? How tall, for instance?"
"Why, madam," cried the marquis, rather unprepared for such a catechism, and looking around until the outstretched neck and the eager attention of Caroline Harris caught his eye, when he added with an air of great simplicity, "about the height of Miss Harris."
"How old?" asked Mrs. Wilson with a smile.
"Not too young, ma'am, certainly, I am thirty-two—my wife must be five or six and twenty. Am I old enough, do you think, Derwent?" he added in a whisper to the duke.
"Within ten years," was the reply.
Mrs. Wilson continued,—
"She must read and write, I suppose?"
"Why, faith," said the marquis, "I am not fond of a bookish sort of a woman, and least of all a scholar."
"You had better take Miss Howard," whispered his brother." She is old enough—never reads—and is just the height."
"No, no, Will," rejoined the brother. "Rather too old, that. Now, I admire a woman who has confidence in herself. One that understands the proprieties of life, and has, if possible, been at the head of an establishment before she is to take charge of mine."
The delighted Caroline wriggled about in her chair, and, unable to contain herself longer, inquired:—
"Noble blood, of course, you would require, my lord?"
"Why, no! I rather think the best wives are to be found in a medium. I would wish to elevate my wife myself. A baronet's daughter for instance."
Here Lady Jarvis, who had entered during the dialogue, and caught a clue to the topic they were engaged in, drew near, and ventured to ask if he thought a simple knight too low. The marquis, who did not expect such an attack, was a little at a loss for an answer; but recovering himself, answered gravely, under the apprehension of another design on his person, that "he did think that would be forgetting his duty to his descendants."
Lady Jarvis sighed, and fell back in disappointment; while Miss Harris, turning to the nobleman, in a soft voice, desired him to ring for her carriage. As he handed her down, she ventured to inquire if his lordship had ever met with such a woman as he described.
"Oh, Miss Harris," he whispered, as he handed her into the coach, "how can you ask me such a question? You are very cruel. Drive on, coachman."
"How cruel, my lord?" said Miss Harris eagerly. "Stop, John. How cruel, my lord?" and she stretched her neck out of the window as the marquis, kissing his hand to her, ordered the man to proceed.
"Don't you hear your lady, sir?"
Lady Jarvis had followed them down, also with a view to catch anything which might be said, having apologized for her hasty visit; and as the marquis handed her politely into her carriage, she also begged "he would favor Sir Timo and Sir Henry with a call;" which being promised, Eltringham returned to the room.
"When am I to salute a Marchioness of Eltringham?" cried Lady Laura to her brother, "one on the new standard set up by your lordship."
"Whenever Miss Harris can make up her mind to the sacrifice," replied the brother very gravely. "Ah me! how very considerate some of your sex are, for the modesty of ours."
"I wish you joy with all my heart, my lord marquis," exclaimed John Moseley. "I was once favored with the notice of that same lady for a week or two, but a viscount saved me from capture."
"I really think, Moseley," said the duke innocently, but speaking with animation, "an intriguing daughter worse than a managing mother."
John's gravity for a moment vanished, as he replied in a lowered key,
"Oh, much worse."
Grace's heart was in her throat, until, by stealing a glance at her husband, she saw the cloud passing over his fine brow; and happening to catch her affectionate smile, his face was at once lighted into a look of pleasantry.
"I would advise caution, my lord. Caroline Harris has the advantage of experience in her trade, and was expert from the first."
"John—John!" said Sir Edward with warmth, "Sir William is my friend, and his daughter must be respected."
"Then, baronet," cried the marquis, "she has one recommendation I was ignorant of, and as such I am silent: but ought not Sir William to teach his daughter to respect herself? I view these husband-hunting ladies as pirates on the ocean of love, and lawful objects for any roving cruiser like myself to fire at. At one time I was simple enough to retire as they advanced, but you know, madam," turning to Mrs. Wilson with a droll look, "flight only encourages pursuit, so I now give battle in self-defense."
"And I hope successfully, my lord," observed the lady. "Miss Harris, brother, does appear to have grown desperate in her attacks, which were formerly much more masked than at present. I believe it is generally the case, when a young woman throws aside the delicacy and feelings which ought to be the characteristics of her sex, and which teach her studiously to conceal her admiration, that she either becomes in time cynical and disagreeable to all around her from disappointment, or, persevering in her efforts, as it were, runs a muck for a husband. Now, in justice to the gentlemen, I must say, baronet, there are strong symptoms of the Malay about Caroline Harris."
"A muck, a muck," cried the marquis, as, in obedience to the signal of his sister, he rose to withdraw.
Jane had retired to her own room in a mortification of spirit she could ill conceal during this conversation, and she felt a degree of humiliation which almost drove her to the desperate resolution of hiding herself forever from the world. The man she had so fondly enshrined in her heart proving to be so notoriously unworthy as to be the subject of unreserved censure in general company, was a reproach to her delicacy, her observation, her judgment, that was the more severe, from being true; and she wept in bitterness over her fallen happiness.
Emily had noticed the movement of Jane, and waited anxiously for the departure of the visitors to hasten to her room. She knocked two or three times before her sister replied to her request for admittance.
"Jane, my dear Jane," said Emily, soothingly, "will you not admit me?"
Jane could not resist any longer the affection of her sister, and the door was opened; but as Emily endeavored to take her hand, she drew back coldly, and cried—
"I wonder you, who are so happy, will leave the gay scene below for the society of an humbled wretch like me;" and overcome with the violence of her emotion, she burst into tears.
"Happy!" repeated Emily, in a tone of anguish, "happy, did you say, Jane? Oh, little do you know my sufferings, or you would never speak so cruelly!"
Jane, in her turn, surprised at the strength of Emily's language, considered her weeping sister with commiseration; and then her thoughts recurring to her own case, she continued with energy,—
"Yes, Emily, happy; for whatever may have been the reason of Denbigh's conduct, he is respected; and if you do or did love him, he was worthy of it. But I," said Jane, wildly, "threw away my affections on a wretch—mere impostor—and I am miserable forever."
"No, dear Jane," rejoined Emily, having recovered her self-possession, "not miserable—nor forever. You have many, very many sources of happiness yet within your reach, even in this world. I—I do think, even our strongest attachments may be overcome by energy and a sense of duty. And oh! how I wish I could see you make the effort."
For a moment the voice of the youthful moralist had failed her; but anxiety in behalf of her sister overcame her feelings, and she ended the sentence with earnestness.
"Emily," said Jane, with obstinacy, and yet in tears, "you don't know what blighted affections are. To endure the scorn of the world, and see the man you once thought near being your husband married to another, who is showing herself in triumph before you, wherever you go!"
"Hear me, Jane, before you reproach me further, and then judge between us." Emily paused a moment to acquire nerve to proceed, and then related to her astonisbed sister the little history of her own disappointments. She did not affect to conceal her attachment for Denbigh. With glowing cheeks she acknowledged that she found a necessity for all her efforts to keep her rebellious feelings yet in subjection; and as she recounted generally his conduct to Mrs. Fitzgerald, she concluded by saying, "But, Jane, I can see enough to call forth my gratitude; and although, with yourself, I feel at this moment as if my affections were sealed forever, I wish to make no hasty resolutions, nor act in any manner as if I were unworthy of the lot Providence has assigned me."
"Unworthy? no!—you have no reasons for self-reproach. If Mr. Denbigh has had the art to conceal his crimes from you, he did it to the rest of the world also, and has married a woman of rank and character. But how differently are we situated! Emily—I—I have no such consolation."
"You have the consolation, my sister, of knowing there is an interest made for you where we all require it most, and it is there I endeavor to seek my support," said Emily, in a low and humble tone. "A review of our own errors takes away the keenness of our perception of the wrongs done us, and by placing us in charity with the rest of the world, disposes us to enjoy calmly the blessings within our reach. Besides, Jane, we have parents whose happiness is locked up in that of their children, and we should—we must overcome the feelings which disqualify us for our common duties, on their account."
"Ah!" cried Jane, "how can I move about in the world, while I know the eyes of all are on me, in curiosity to discover how I bear my disappointments. But you, Emily, are unsuspected. It is easy for you to affect a gayety you do not feel."
"I neither affect nor feel any gayety," said her sister, mildly. "But are there not the eyes of One on us of infinitely more power to punish or reward than what may be found in the opinions of the world? Have we no duties? For what is our wealth, our knowledge, our time given us, but to improve for our own and for the eternal welfare of those around us? Come then, my sister, we have both been deceived—let us endeavor not to be culpable."
"I wish, from my soul, we could leave Bath," cried Jane. "The place, the people are hateful to me!"
"Jane," said Emily, "rather say you hate their vices, and wish for their amendment: but do not indiscriminately condemn a whole community for the wrongs you have sustained from one of its members."
Jane allowed herself to be consoled, though by no means convinced, by this effort of her sister; and they both found a relief by thus unburdening their hearts to each other, that in future brought them more nearly together, and was of mutual assistance in supporting them in the promiscuous circles in which they were obliged to mix.
With all her fortitude and principle, one of the last things Emily would have desired was an interview with Denbigh; and she was happily relieved from the present danger of it by the departure of Lady Laura and her brother, to go to the residence of the colonel's sick uncle.
Both Mrs. Wilson and Emily suspected that a dread of meeting them had detained him from his intended journey to Bath; and neither was sorry to perceive, what they considered as latent signs of grace—a grace which Egerton appeared entirely to be without.
"He may yet see his errors, and make a kind and affectionate husband," thought Emily; and then, as the image of Denbigh rose in her imagination, surrounded with the domestic virtues, she roused herself from the dangerous reflection to the exercise of the duties in which she found a refuge from unpardonable wishes.