Precaution/Chapter 6

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During the week of mourning, the intercourse between Moseley Hall and the rectory was confined to messages and notes of inquiry after each other's welfare: but the visit of the Moseleys to the deanery had been returned; and the day after the appearance of the obituary paragraph, the family of the latter dined by invitation at the Hall. Colonel Egerton had recovered the use of his leg, and was included in the party. Between this gentleman and Mr. Benfield there appeared, from the first moment of their introduction, a repugnance which was rather increased by time, and which the old gentleman manifested by a demeanor loaded with the overstrained ceremony of the day, and which, in the colonel, only showed itself by avoiding, when possible, all intercourse with the object of his aversion. Both Sir Edward and Lady Moseley, on the contrary, were not slow in manifesting their favorable impressions in behalf of the gentleman. The latter, in particular, having ascertained to her satisfaction that he was the undoubted heir to the title, and most probably to the estates of his uncle, Sir Edgar Egerton, felt herself strongly disposed to encourage an acquaintance she found so agreeable, and to which she could see no reasonable objection. Captain Jarvis, who was extremely offensive to her, from his vulgar familiarity, she barely tolerated, from the necessity of being civil, and keeping up sociability in the neighborhood. It is true, she could not help being surprised that a gentleman, as polished as the colonel, could find any pleasure in an associate like his friend, or even in the hardly more softened females of his family; then again, the flattering suggestion would present itself, that possibly he might have seen Emily at Bath, or Jane elsewhere, and availed himself of the acquaintance of young Jarvis to get into their neighborhood. Lady Moseley had never been vain, or much interested about the disposal of her own person, previously to her attachment to her husband: but her daughters called forth not a little of her natural pride—we had almost said of her selfishness.

The attentions of the colonel were of the most delicate and insinuating kind; and Mrs. Wilson several times turned away in displeasure at herself, for listening with too much satisfaction to nothings, uttered in an agreeable manner, or, what was worse, false sentiments supported with the gloss of language and a fascinating deportment. The anxiety of this lady on behalf of Emily kept her ever on the alert, when chance, or any chain of circumstances, threw her in the way of forming new connections of any kind; and of late, as her charge approached the period of life when her sex are apt to make that choice from which there is no retreat, her solicitude to examine the characters of the men who approached her was really painful. As to Lady Moseley, her wishes disposed her to be easily satisfied, and her mind naturally shrank from an investigation to which she felt herself unequal; while Mrs. Wilson was governed by the convictions of a sound discretion, matured by long and deep reasoning, all acting on a temper at all times ardent, and a watchfulness calculated to endure to the end.

"Pray, my lady," said Mrs. Jarvis, with a look of something like importance, "have you made any discovery about this Mr. Denbigh, who died in the church lately?"

"I did not know, ma'am," replied Lady Moseley, "there was any discovery to be made."

"You know, Lady Moseley," said Colonel Egerton, "that in town, all the little accompaniments of such a melancholy death would have found their way into the prints; and I suppose this is what Mrs. Jarvis alludes to."

"Oh yes," cried Mrs. Jarvis, "the colonel is right." But the colonel was always right with that lady.

Lady Moseley bowed her head with dignity, and the colonel had too much tact to pursue the conversation; but the captain, whom nothing had ever yet abashed, exclaimed.

"These Denbighs could not be people of much importance—I have never heard the name before."

"It is the family name of the Duke of Derwent, I believe," dryly remarked Sir Edward.

"Oh, I am sure neither the old man nor his son looked much like a duke, or so much as an officer either," exclaimed Mrs. Jarvis, who thought the latter rank the dignity in degree next below nobility.

"There sat, in the parliament of this realm, when I was a member, a General Denbigh," said Mr. Benfield, with his usual deliberation; "he was always on the same side with Lord Gosford and myself. He and his friend, Sir Peter Howell, who was the admiral that took the French squadron, in the glorious administration of Billy Pitt, and afterwards took an island with this same General Denbigh; aye, the old admiral was a hearty blade; a good deal such a looking man as my Hector would make."

Hector was Mr. Benfield's bull-dog.

"Mercy!" whispered John to Clara, "that's your grandfather that is to be, uncle Benfield is speaking of."

Clara smiled, as she ventured to say, "Sir Peter was Mrs. Ives's father, sir."

"Indeed!" said the old gentleman, with a look of surprise, "I never knew that before; I cannot say they resemble each other much."

"Pray, uncle, does Frank look much like the family?" asked John, with an air of unconquerable gravity.

"But, sir," interrupted Emily, "were General Denbigh and Admiral Howell related?"

"Not that I ever knew, Emmy dear. Sir Frederick Denbigh did not look much like the admiral; he rather resembled"—gathering himself up into an air of formality, and bowing stiffly to Colonel Egerton—"this gentleman, here."

"I have not the honor of the connection," observed the colonel, withdrawing behind the chair of Jane.

Mrs. Wilson changed the conversation to one more general; but the little that had fallen from Mr. Benfield gave reason for believing a connection, in some way of which they were ignorant, existed between the descendants of the two veterans, and which explained the interest they felt in each other.

During dinner, Colonel Egerton placed himself next to Emily, and Miss Jarvis took the chair on the other side He spoke of the gay world, of watering-places, novels, plays, and still finding his companion reserved, and either unwilling or unable to talk freely, be tried his favorite sentiment. He had read poetry, and a remark of his lighted up a spark of intelligence in the beautiful face of his companion that for a moment deceived him; but as he went on to point out his favorite beauties, it gave place to a settled composure, which at last led him to imagine the casket contained no gem equal to the promise of its brilliant exterior. After resting from one of his most labored displays of feeling and imagery, he accidentally caught the eyes of Jane fastened on him with an expression of no dubious import, and the soldier changed his battery. In Jane he found a more willing auditor; poetry was the food she lived on, and in works of the imagination she found her greatest delight. An animated discussion of the merits of their favorite authors now took place; to renew which, the colonel early left the dining-room for the society of the ladies; John, who disliked drinking excessively, being happy of an excuse to attend him.

The younger ladies had clustered together round a window, and even Emily in her heart rejoiced that the gentlemen had come to relieve herself and sisters from the arduous task of entertaining women who appeared not to possess a single taste or opinion in common with themselves.

"You were saying, Miss Moseley," observed the colonel in his most agreeable manner, as he approached them, "you thought Campbell the most musical poet we have; I hope you will unite with me in excepting Moore."

Jane colored, as with some awkwardness she replied, "Moore was certainly very poetical."

"Has Moore written much?" innocently asked Emily.

"Not half as much as he ought," cried Miss Jarvis. "Oh! I could live on his beautiful lines."

Jane turned away in disgust; and that evening, while alone with Clara, she took a volume of Moore's songs and very coolly consigned them to the flames. Her sister naturally asked an explanation of so extraordinary a procedure.

"Oh!" cried Jane, "I can't abide the book, since that vulgar Miss Jarvis speaks of it with so much interest. I really believe Aunt Wilson is right in not suffering Emily to read such things." And Jane, who had often devoured the treacherous lines with ardor, shrank with fastidious delicacy from the indulgence of a perverted taste, when it became exposed, coupled with the vulgarity of unblushing audacity.

Colonel Egerton immediately changed the subject to one less objectionable, and spoke of a campaign he had made in Spain. He possessed the happy faculty of giving an interest to all he advanced, whether true or not; and as he never contradicted, or even opposed unless to yield gracefully, when a lady was his opponent, his conversation insensibly attracted, by putting the sex in good humor with themselves. Such a man, aided by the powerful assistants of person and manners, and no inconsiderable colloquial talents, Mrs. Wilson knew to be extremely dangerous as a companion to a youthful female heart; and as his visit was to extend to a couple of months, she resolved to reconnoitre the state of her pupil's opinion forthwith in reference to his merits. She had taken too much pains in forming the mind of Emily to apprehend she would fall a victim to the eye; but she also knew that personal grace sweetened a benevolent expression, and added force even to the oracles of wisdom. She labored a little herself under the disadvantage of what John called a didactic manner, and which, although she had not the ability, or rather taste, to amend, she had yet the sense to discern. It was the great error of Mrs. Wilson to attempt to convince, where she might have influenced; but her ardor of temperament, and great love of truth, kept her, as it wore, tilting with the vices of mankind, and consequently sometimes in unprofitable combat. With her charge, however, this could never be said to be the case. Emily knew her heart, felt her love, and revered her principles too deeply, to throw away an admonition, or disregard a precept, that fell from lips she knew never spoke idly or without consideration.

John had felt tempted to push the conversation with Miss Jarvis, and he was about to utter something rapturous respecting the melodious poison of Little's poems, as the blue eye of Emily rested on him in the fullness of sisterly affection, and checking his love of the ridiculous, he quietly yielded to his respect for the innocence of his sisters; and, as if eager to draw the attention of all from the hateful subject, he put question after question to Egerton concerning the Spaniards and their customs.

"Did you ever meet Lord Pendennyss in Spain, Colonel Egerton?" inquired Mrs. Wilson, with interest.

"Never, madam," he replied. "I have much reason to regret that our service lay in different parts of the country; his lordship was much with the duke, and I made the campaign under Marshal Beresford."

Emily left the group at the window, and taking a seat on the sofa by the side of her aunt, insensibly led her to forget the gloomy thoughts which had begun to steal over her; which the colonel, approaching where they sat, continued, by asking,—

"Are you acquainted with the earl, madam?"

"Not in person, but by character," said Mrs. Wilson, in a melancholy manner.

"His character as a soldier was very high. He had no superior of his years in Spain, I am told."

No reply was made to this remark, and Emily endeavored anxiously to draw the mind of her aunt to reflection of a more agreeable nature. The colonel, whose vigilance to please was ever on the alert, kindly aided her, and they soon succeeded.

The merchant withdrew, with his family and guest, in proper season; and Mrs. Wilson, heedful of her duty, took the opportunity of a quarter of an hour's privacy in her own dressing-room, in the evening, to touch gently ou the subject of the gentlemen they had seen that day.

"How are you pleased, Emily, with your new acquaintances?" familiarly commenced Mrs. Wilson.

"Oh! aunt, don't ask me; as John says, they are new, indeed."

"I am not sorry," continued the aunt, "to have you observe more closely than you have been used to, the manners of such women as the Jarvises: they are too abrupt and unpleasant to create a dread of any imitation; but the gentlemen are heroes in very different styles."

"Different from each other, indeed."

"To which do you give the preference, my dear?"

"Preference, aunt!" said her niece with a look of astonishment; "preference is a strong word for either; but I rather think the captain the most eligible companion of the two. I do believe you see the worst of him; and although I acknowledge it to be bad enough, he might amend; but the colonel"—

"Go on," said Mrs. Wilson.

"Why, everything about the colonel seems so seated, so ingrafted in his nature, so—so very self-satisfied, that I am afraid it would be a difficult task to take the first step in amendment—to convince him of its necessity."

"And is it then so necessary?"

Emily looked up from arranging some laces, with an expression of surprise, as she replied,—

"Did you not hear him talk of those poems, and attempt to point out the beauties of several works? I thought everything he uttered was referred to taste, and that not a very natural one; at least," she added with a laugh, "it differed greatly from mine. He seemed to forget altogether there was such a thing as principle; and then he spoke of some woman to Jane, who had left her father for her lover, with so much admiration of her feelings, to take up with poverty and love, as he called it, in place of condemning her want of filial piety—I am sure, aunt, if you had heard that, you would not admire him so much."

"I do not admire him at all, child; I only want to know your sentiments, and I am happy to find them so correct. It is as you think; Colonel Egerton appears to refer nothing to principle: even the more generous feelings, I am afraid, are corrupted in him, from too low intercourse with the surface of society. There is by far too much pliability about him for principle of any kind, unless indeed it be a principle to please, no matter how. No one, who has deeply seated opinions of right and wrong, will ever abandon them, even in the courtesies of polite intercourse: they may be silent, but never acquiescent: in short, my dear, the dread of offending our Maker ought to be so superior to that of offending our fellow creatures, that we should endeavor, I believe, to be even more unbending to the follies of the world than we are."

"And yet the colonel is what they call a good companion—I mean a pleasant one."

"In the ordinary meaning of the words, he is certainly, my dear; yet you soon tire of sentiments which will not stand the test of examination, and of a manner you cannot but see is artificial. He may do very well for a companion, but very ill for a friend; in short, Colonel Egerton has neither been satisfied to yield to his natural impressions, nor to obtain new ones from a proper source: he has copied from bad models, and his work must necessarily be imperfect."

Kissing her niece, Mrs. Wilson then retired into her own room, with the happy assurance that she had not labored in vain; but that, with divine aid, she had implanted a guide in the bosom of her charge that could not fail, with ordinary care, to load her straight through the devious path of female duties.