Precaution/Chapter 48

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Napoleon had commenced those daring and rapid movements, which for a time threw the peace of the world into the scale of fortune, and which nothing but the interposition of a ruling Providence could avert from their threatened success. As the —th dragoons wheeled into a field already deluged with English blood, on the heights of Quatre Bras, the eye of its gallant colonel saw a friendly battalion falling beneath the sabres of the enemy's cuirassiers. The word was passed, the column opened, the sounds of the quivering bugle were heard for a moment above the roar of the cannon and the shouts of the combatants; the charge, sweeping like a whirlwind, fell heavily on those treacherous Frenchmen, who to-day had sworn fidelity to Louis, and to-morrow intended lifting their hands in allegiance to his rival.

"Spare my life in mercy," cried an officer, already dreadfully wounded, who stood shrinking from the impending blow of an enraged Frenchman. An English dragoon dashed at the cuirassier, and with one blow severed his arm from his body.

"Thank God!" sighed the wounded officer, sinking beneath the horse's feet.

His rescuer threw himself from the saddle, and raising the fallen man inquired into his wounds. It was Pendennyss and it was Egerton. The wounded man groaned aloud, as he saw the face of him who had averted the fatal blow; but it was not the hour for explanations or confessions, other than those with which the dying soldiers endeavored to make their tardy peace with their God.

Sir Henry was given in charge to two slightly wounded British soldiers, and the earl remounted: the scattered troops were rallied at the sound of the trumpet, and again and again, led by their dauntless colonel, were seen in the thickest of the fray, with sabres drenched in blood, and voices hoarse with the shouts of victory.

The period between the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo was a trying one to the discipline and courage of the British army. The discomfited Prussians on their flank had been routed and compelled to retire, and in their front was an enemy, brave, skillful, and victorious, led by the greatest captain of the age. The prudent commander of the English forces fell back with dignity and reluctance to the field of Waterloo; here the mighty struggle was to terminate, and the eye of every experienced soldier looked on those eminences as on the future graves for thousands.

During this solemn interval of comparative inactivity the mind of Pendennyss dwelt on the affection, the innocence, the beauty and worth of his Emily, until the curdling blood, as he thought on her lot should his life be the purchase of the coming victory, warned him to quit the gloomy subject, for the consolations of that religion which only could yield him the solace his wounded feelings required. In his former campaigns the earl had been sensible of the mighty changes of death, and had ever kept in view the preparations necessary to meet it with hope and joy; but the world clung around him now, in the best affections of his nature, and it was only as he could picture the happy reunion with his Emily in a future life, that he could look on a separation in this without despair.

The vicinity of the enemy admitted of no relaxation in the strictest watchfulness in the British lines: and the comfortless night of the seventeenth was passed by the earl, and his lieutenant-colonel, George Denbigh, on the same cloak, and under the open canopy of heaven.

As the opening cannon of the enemy gave the signal for the commencing conflict, Pendennyss mounted his charger with a last thought on his distant wife. With a mighty struggle he tore her as it were from his bosom, and gave the remainder of the day to duty.

Who has not heard of the events of that fearful hour, on which the fate of Europe hung as it were suspended in the scale? On one side supported by the efforts of desperate resolution, guided by the most consummate art; and on the other defended by a discipline and enduring courage almost without a parallel.

The indefatigable Blucher arrived, and the star of Napoleon sank.

Pendennyss threw himself from his horse, on the night of the eighteenth of June, as he gave way by orders, in the pursuit, to the fresher battalions of the Prussians, with the languor that follows unusual excitement, and mental thanksgivings that this bloody work was at length ended. The image of his Emily again broke over the sterner feelings of the battle, like the first glimmerings of light which succeed the awful darkness of the eclipse of the sun: and he again breathed freely, in the consciousness of the happiness which would await his speedy return.

"I am sent for the colonel of the —th dragoons," said a courier in broken English to a soldier, near where the earl lay on the ground, waiting the preparations of his attendants;" have I found the right regiment, my friend?"

"To be sure you have," answered the man, without looking up from his toil on his favorite animal, "you might have tracked us by the dead Frenchmen, I should think. So you want my lord, my lad, do you? do we move again to night?" suspending his labor for a moment in expectation of a reply.

"Not to my knowledge," rejoined the courier; "my message is to your colonel, from a dying man. Will you point out his station?"

The soldier complied, the message was soon delivered, and Pendennyss prepared to obey its summons immediately. Preceded by the messenger as a guide, and followed by Harmer, the earl retraced his steps over that ground on which he had but a few hours before been engaged in the deadly strife of man to man, hand to hand.

How different is the contemplation of a field of battle during and after the conflict! The excitement, suspended success, shouts, uproar, and confusion of the former, prevent any contemplation of the nicer parts of this confused mass of movements, charges, and retreats; or if a brilliant advance is made, a masterly retreat effected, the imagination is chained by the splendor and glory of the act, without resting for a moment on the sacrifice of individual happiness with which it is purchased. A battle-ground from which the whirlwind of the combat has passed, presents a different sight; it offers the very consummation of human misery.

There may occasionally be an individual, who from station, distempered mind, or the encouragement of chimerical ideas of glory, quits the theatre of life with at least the appearance of pleasure in his triumphs. If such there be in reality, if this rapture of departing glory be anything more than the deception of a distempered excitement, the subject of its exhibition is to be greatly pitied. To the Christian, dying in peace with both God and man, can it alone be ceded in the eye of reason, to pour out his existence with a smile on his quivering lip.

And the warrior, who falls in the very arms of victory, after passing a life devoted to the world, even if he sees kingdoms hang suspended on his success, may smile indeed, may utter sentiments full of loyalty and zeal, may be the admiration of the world, and what is his reward? a deathless name, and an existence of misery, which knows no termination.

Christianity alone can make us good soldiers in any cause, for he who knows how to live, is always the least afraid to die.

Pendennyss and his companions pushed their way over the ground occupied before the battle by the enemy; descended into and through that little valley, in which yet lay, in undistinguished confusion, masses of the dead and dying of either side; and again over the ridge, on which could be marked the situation of those gallant squares which had so long resisted the efforts of the horse and artillery by the groups of bodies, fallen where they had bravely stood, until even the callous Harmer sickened with the sight of a waste of life that he had but a few hours before exultingly contributed to increase.

Appeals to their feelings as they rode through the field had been frequent, and their progress was much retarded by attempts to contribute to the ease of a wounded or a dying man; but as the courier constantly urged speed, as the only means of securing the object of their ride, these halts were reluctantly abandoned.

It was ten o'clock before they reached the farm-house, where, in the midst of hundreds of his countrymen, lay the former lover of Jane.

As the subject of his confession must be anticipated by the reader, we will give a short relation of his life, and of those acts which more materially affect our history.

Henry Egerton had been turned early on the world, like hundreds of his countrymen, without any principle to counteract the arts of infidelity, or resist the temptations of life. His father held a situation under government, and was devoted to his rise in the diplomatic line. His mother was a woman of fashion, who lived for effect and idle competition with her sisters in weakness and folly. All he learnt in his father's house was selfishness, from the example of one, and a love of high life and its extravagance from the other.

He entered the army young, and from choice. The splendor and reputation of the service caught his fancy: and, by pride and constitution, he was indifferent to personal danger. Yet he loved London and its amusements better than glory; and the money of his uncle, Sir Edgar, whose heir he was reputed to be, raised him to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, without his spending an hour in the field.

Egerton had some abilities, and a good deal of ardor of temperament, by nature. The former, from indulgence and example, degenerated into acquiring the art to please in mixed society; and the latter, from want of employment, expended itself at the card table.

The association between the vices is intimate. There really appears to be a kind of modesty in sin that makes it ashamed of good company. If we are unable to reconcile a favorite propensity to our principles, we are apt to abandon the unpleasant restraint on our actions, rather than admit the incongruous mixture. Freed entirely from the fetters of our morals, what is there that our vices will not prompt us to commit? Egerton, like thousands of others, went on from step to step, until he found himself in the world, free to follow all his inclinations, so he violated none of the decencies of life.

When in Spain, in his only campaign, he was accidentally, as has been mentioned, thrown in the way of the Donna Julia, and brought her off the ground under the influence of natural sympathy and national feeling; a kind of merit that makes vice only more dangerous, by making it sometimes amiable. He had not seen his dependent long before her beauty, situation, and his passions decided him to effect her ruin.

This was an occupation that his figure, manners, and propensities had made him an adept in, and nothing was further from his thoughts than the commission of any other than the crime that, according to his code, a gentleman might be guilty of with impunity.

It is, however, the misfortune of sin, that from being our slave it becomes a tyrant; and Egerton attempted what in other countries, and where the laws ruled, might have cost him his life.

The conjecture of Pendennyss was true. He saw the face of the officer who interposed between him and his villainous attempt, but was hid himself from view. He aimed not at his life, but at his own escape. Happily his first shot succeeded, for the earl would have been sacrificed to preserve the character of a man of honor; though no one was more regardless of the estimation he was held in by the virtuous than Colonel Egerton.

In pursuance of his plans on Mrs. Fitzgerald, the colonel had sedulously avoided admitting any of his companions into the secret of his having a female in his care.

When he left the army to return home, he remained until a movement of the troops to a distant part of the country enabled him to effect his own purposes, without incurring their ridicule; and when he found himself obliged to abandon his vehicle for a refuge in the woods, the fear of detection made him alter his course; and under the pretense of wishing to be in a battle about to be fought, he secretly rejoined the army, and the gallantry of Colonel Egerton was mentioned in the next dispatches.

Sir Herbert Nicholson commanded the advanced guard, at which the earl arrived with the Donna Julia; and like every other brave man (unless guilty himself) was indignant at the villainy of the fugitive. The confusion and enormities daily practiced in the theatre of the war prevented any close inquiries into the subject, and circumstances had so enveloped Egerton in mystery, that nothing but an interview with the lady herself was likely to expose him.

With Sir Herbert Nicholson he had been in habits of intimacy, and on that gentleman's alluding in a conversation in the barracks at F—— to the lady brought into his quarters before Lisbon, he accidentally omitted mentioning the name of her rescuer. Egerton had never before heard the transaction spoken of, and as he had of course never mentioned the subject himself, was ignorant who had interfered between him and his views; also of the fate of Donna Julia; indeed, he thought it probable that it had not much improved by a change of guardians.

In coming into Northamptonshire he had several views; he wanted a temporary retreat from his creditors. Jarvis had an infant fondness for play, without an adequate skill, and the money of the young ladies, in his necessities, was becoming of importance; but the daughters of Sir Edward Moseley were of a description more suited to his taste, and their portions were as ample as the others. He had become in some degree attached to Jane; and as her imprudent parents, satisfied with his possessing the exterior and requisite recommendations of a gentleman, admitted his visits freely, he determined to make her his wife.

When he met Denbigh the first time, he saw that chance had thrown him in the way of a man who might hold his character in his power. He had never seen him as Pendennyss, and, it will be remembered, was ignorant of the name of Julia's friend: he now learnt for the first time that it was Denbigh. Uneasy at he knew not what, fearful of some exposure he knew not how, when Sir Herbert alluded to the occurrence, with a view to rebut the charge, if Denbigh should choose to make one, and with the near-sightedness of guilt, he pretended to know the occurrence, and under the promise of secrecy, mentioned that the name of the officer was Denbigh. He had noticed Denbigh avoiding Sir Herbert at the ball; and judging others from himself, thought it was a wish to avoid any allusions to the lady he had brought into the other's quarters that induced the measure; for he was in hopes that if Denbigh was not as guilty as himself, he was sufficiently so to wish to keep the transaction from the eyes of Emily. He was, however, prepared for an explosion or an alliance with him, when the sudden departure of Sir Herbert removed the danger of a collision. Believing at last that they were to be brothers-in-law, and mistaking the earl for his cousin, whose name he bore, Egerton became reconciled to the association; while Pendennyss, having in his absence heard, on inquiring, some of the vices of the colonel, was debating with himself whether he should expose them to Sir Edward or not.

It was in their occasional interchange of civilities that Pendennyss placed his pocket-book upon a table, while he exhibited the plants to the colonel; the figure of Emily passing the window drew him from the room, and Egerton having ended his examination, observing the book, put it in his own pocket, to return it to its owner when they next met.

The situation, name, and history of Mrs. Fitzgerald were never mentioned by the Moseleys in public; but Jane, in the confidence of her affections, had told her lover who the inmate of the cottage was. The idea of her being kept there by Denbigh immediately occurred to him, and although he was surprised at the audacity of the thing, he was determined to profit by the occasion.

To pay this visit, he stayed away from the excursion on the water, as Pendennyss had done to avoid his friend, Lord Henry Stapleton. An excuse of business, which served for his apology, kept the colonel from seeing Denbigh to return the book, until after his visit to the cottage. His rhapsody of love, and offers to desert his intended wife, were nothing but the common-place talk of his purposes; and his presumption in alluding to his situation with Miss Moseley, proceeded from his impressions as to Julia's real character. In the struggle for the bell, the pocket-book of Denbigh accidentally fell from his coat, and the retreat of the colonel was too precipitate to enable him to recover it.

Mrs. Fitzgerald was too much alarmed to distinguish nicely, and Egerton proceeded to the ball-room with the indifference of a hardened offender. When the arrival of Miss Jarvis, to whom he had committed himself, prompted him to a speedy declaration, and the unlucky conversation of Mr. Holt brought about a probable detection of his gaming propensities, the colonel determined to get rid of his awkward situation and his debts, by a coup-de-main. He accordingly eloped with Miss Jarvis.

What portion of the foregoing narrative made the dying confession of Egerton to the man he had so lately discovered to be the Earl of Pendennyss, the reader can easily imagine.