No sooner had I acquiesced in the arrangements for that event which was to seal my destiny, that a confused feeling of regret came upon me. An oppression stole upon my spirits. The sounds of flattery and protestation I heard like a drowsy murmur, reaching the ear without impressing the mind and the gay forms of my companions flitted before me like their fellow-moths in the sunbeam, which the eye pursues, but not the thoughts. Yet I had not resolution to quit the scene, which had lost its charms for me.
Late in the night, silently, with the stealthy pace of guilt, I reentered that threshold which, till now, I had never trod but with the firm step of confidence. With breath suppressed, with the half-reverted eye of fear, I passed my father's chamber, as superstition passes the haunt of departed spirits. In profound silence I suffered my attendant to do her office; then threw myself upon my bed, with an eager but fruitless wish to escape the tumult of my thoughts in forgetfulness.
Sleep, however, came not at my bidding. Yet, watchful as I was, I might rather be said to dream than to think.
I rose long before my usual hour, and sought relief from inaction in preparations for my ill-omened journey. After selecting and packing up some necessary articles of dress, I sat down to write a few lines to be delivered to my father after my departure. But I found it impossible to express my feelings, yet disguise my purpose; and having written nearly twenty billets, and destroyed them all, I determined to defer asking forgiveness till I had consummated my offence.
The hour of breakfast, which my father always insisted upon having punctually observed, was past before I could summon courage to enter the parlour. I approached the door; then, losing resolution, retired;--drew near again, and listened whether my father's voice sounded from within. All was still, and I ventured to proceed, ashamed that a servant, who stood near, should witness my hesitation. I cast a timid glance towards my father's accustomed seat; it was vacant, and I drew a deep breath, as if a mountain had been lifted from my breast. "Where is Mr. Percy?" I inquired. "He went out early, ma'am," answered the servant, "and said he should not breakfast at home." Miss Arnold and I sat down to a silent and melancholy meal. I could neither speak of the subject which weighed upon my heart, nor force my attention to any other theme.
And now a new distress assailed me. My eye accidentally rested on the spot where Maitland had disappeared, and another shade was added to the dark colour of my thoughts. "He will never know," thought I, "how deeply my honour is pledged; and what will he think of me, when he hears that I have left my father?--left him without even one farewell! No! this I will not do."
The resolution was scarcely formed, when I saw Lady St. Edmunds' carriage drive rapidly up to the door. I hastened to receive her; and drawing her apart, informed her of my father's absence, and besought her either to send or go, and excuse me to Lord Frederick for this one day at least. Lady St. Edmunds expostulated against this instance of caprice. She represented my father's absence as a favourable circumstance, tending to save me the pain of suppressing, and the danger of betraying my feelings. She protested, that she would never be accessory to inflicting so cruel a disappointment upon a lover of Lord Frederick's passionate temperament. She remonstrated so warmly against the barbarity of such a breach of promise, and expressed such apprehension of its consequences, that, in the blindness of vanity, I suffered myself to imagine it more inhuman to destroy an expectation of yesterday, than to blight the hopes of seventeen years. Lady St. Edmunds immediately followed up her victory, and hurried me away.
I sought the companion of my early days, and hastily took such an ambiguous farewell as my fatal secret would allow. "Juliet," said I, wringing her hand, "I must leave you for a while. If my father miss me, you must supply my place. I charge you, dearest Juliet, if you have any regard for me, show him such kindness as--as I ought to have done." My strange expressions,--my faltering voice,--my strong emotion, could not escape the observation of Miss Arnold; but she was determined not to discover a secret which it was against her interest to know. With an air of the most unconscious carelessness, she dropped the hand which lingered in her hold; and not a shade crossed the last smile that ever she bestowed upon the friend of her youth.
A dark mist spread before my eyes, as I quitted the dwelling of my father; and ere I was again sensible to the objects which surrounded me, all that had been familiar to my sight were left far behind. Lady St. Edmunds cheered my failing spirits,--she soothed me with the words of kindness,--pressed me to become her guest immediately on my return from Scotland,--and to call her house my home, until my reconciliation with my father; a reconciliation of which she spoke as of no uncertain event. She interested me by lively characters of my new connexions, pointing out with great acuteness, my probable avenues to the favour of each, although it appeared that she herself had missed the way. Her conversation had its usual effect upon me; and, by the time we reached Barnet, my elastic spirits had in part risen from their depression. Yet, when we stopped at the inn-door, something in the nature of woman made me shrink from the expected sight of my bridegroom; and I drew back into the corner of the carriage, while Lady St. Edmunds alighted. But the flush of modesty deepened to that of anger, when I perceived that my lover was not waiting to welcome his bride. "A good specimen this of the ardour of a secure admirer," thought I, as in moody silence I followed my companion into a parlour.
The attendant whom Lady St. Edmunds had despatched to inquire for Lord Frederick now returned to inform her that his lordship had not arrived. "He must be here in five minutes at farthest," said Lady St. Edmunds, in answer to a kind of sarcastic laugh with which I received this intimation; and she stationed herself at a window, to watch for his arrival, while I affected to be wholly occupied with the portraits of the Durham Ox and the Godolphin Arabian. The five minutes, however, were doubly past and still no Lord Frederick appeared. Lady St. Edmunds continued to watch for him, foretelling his approach in every carriage that drove up; but when her prediction had completely failed, she began to lose patience. "I could have betted a thousand guineas," said she, "that he would serve us this trick; for he never kept an appointment in his life."
"His lordship need not hurry himself," said I, "for I mean to beg a place in your ladyship's carriage to town."
After another pause, however, Lady St. Edmunds declared her opinion, that some accident must have befallen, her nephew.
"Only an accident to his memory, madam, I fancy," said I, and went on humming an opera tune.
After waiting, however, nearly an hour, my spirit could brook the slight no longer; and I impatiently urged Lady St. Edmunds to return with me instantly to town. My friend, for a while, endeavoured to obtain some farther forbearance towards the tardy bridegroom; but, finding me peremptory, she consented to go. Still, however, she contrived to delay our departure, by calling for refreshments, and ordering her horses to be fed. At length my indignant pride overcoming even the ascendancy of Lady St. Edmunds, I impatiently declared, that if she would not instantly accompany me, would order a carriage, and return home alone.
We had now remained almost two hours at the inn; and my companion beginning herself to despair of Lord Frederick's appearance, no longer protracted our stay. She had already ordered her sociable to the door, when a horseman was heard galloping up witk such speed, that, before she could reach the window, he was already dismounted. "This must be he at last!" cried Lady St Edmunds. "Now he really deserves that you should torment him a little."
A man's step approached the door. It opened, and I turned away pouting, yet cast back a look askance, to ascertain whether the intruder was Lord Frederick. I saw only a servant, who delivered a letter to Lady St. Edmunds, and retired. Strong curiosity now mingled with my indignant feelings. I turned to Lady St. Edmunds; and thought I gathered from her confused expressions, that she held in her hand a letter of apology from Lord Frederick, which also contained intelligence of disastrous importance.
What this intelligence was, I saw that she hesitated to announce. Her hesitation alarmed me, for I was obliged to infer from it, that she had news to communicate which concerned me yet more nearly than the desertion of Lord Frederick. Already in a state of irritation which admitted not of cool inquiry, I mixed my scornful expressions of indifference as to the conduct of my renegado lover, with breathless, half-uttered questions of its cause. "Indeed, Miss Percy," stammered Lady St. Edmunds, "it is a very--very disagreeable office which Lord Frederick has thought fit to lay upon me. To be sure, every one is liable to misfortune, and I dare say you will show that you can bear it with proper spirit. Your father--but you tremble--you had better swallow a little wine."
"What of my father?" I exclaimed; and with an impatience which burst through all restraints, I snatched the letter from her hands; and, in spite of her endeavours to prevent me, glanced over its contents. I have accidentally preserved this specimen of modern sentiment, and shall here transcribe it:--
"My dear St. E.,--The Percys are blown to the devil. The old
one has failed for near a million. By the luckiest chance upon
earth, I heard of it not five minutes before I was to set out. See
what a narrow escape I have had from blowing out my own
brains. I would have despatched Hodson sooner, but waited to
make sure of the fact. I shall set about Darnel immediately--a
confounded exchange, for the Percy was certainly the finest girl
in London. By the by, make the best story you can for me.
I know she likes me, for all her wincing; and I shall need some
little private comfort, if I marry that ugly thing Darnel.
"F. DE BURGH.
"You need not quake for your five thousand--Darnel will bite at once."
The amazement with which I read this letter instantly gave place to doubts of the misfortune which it announced, I had been so accustomed to rest secure in the possession of splendid affluence, that a sudden reverse appeared incredible. It occurred to me that some groundless report must have misled Lord Frederick, who was thus outwitted by his own avarice. But, when I reached the close of his sentimental billet, scorn and indignation overpowered every other feeling. "The luckiest chance!" I exclaimed. "Well may he call it so! Oh, what a wretch have I escaped! What a complication of all that is basest and vilest!--No!" said I, detaining with a disdainful smile the letter, which Lady St. Edmunds reached her hand to receive, "no! this I will keep, as a memorial of the disinterestedness of man, and the 'passionate temperament' of Lord Frederick de Burgh. Now, I suppose your ladyship will not object to returning instantly to town?"
Lady St. Edmunds, who actually seemed to quail beneath my eye, made no objection to this proposal; but followed in silence, as I haughtily led the way to the carriage. We entered, and it drove rapidly homewards.
My thoughts again recurring to the letter, another light now flashed upon me; and a stronger burst of resentment swelled my heart. "This epistle," I suddenly exclaimed, "is a master-teacher. It shows me the sincerity of friends, as well as the tenderness of lovers. Where was your boasted friendship, Lady St. Edmunds?--where was your common humanity, when you took advantage of a foolish pity--a mistaken sense of honour--to lure me into a marriage with that heartless earth-worm? Me, whom you pretended to love,--me, whom in common justice and gratitude--" The remembrance of all my affection for this treacherous friend choked my voice, and forced bitter--bitter tears to my eyes; but pride, with a strong effort, suppressed the gentler feeling, and I turned scornfully from the futile excuses and denials of my false counsellor.
Resentment, however, at length began to give place to apprehension, when I reflected upon the decisive terms in which Lord Frederick announced my father's ruin, and the certainty which he must have attained of the fact, before he could have determined finally to relinquish his pursuit. Some circumstances tended to confirm his assertion. I now recollected the letter which my father had read with such evident emotion; and his unusual absence in the morning, before the customary hours of business. I vainly endeavoured to balance against these his late boast of his immense possessions, and the improbability of a wreck so sudden.
In spite of myself an anxious dread fell upon me. My knees trembled; my face now glowed with a hurried flush; and now a cold shudder ran through my limbs. But disdaining to expose my alarm to her who had betrayed my security, I proudly struggled with my anguish, affecting a careless disbelief of my misfortune, and an easy scorn of the summer friendships which had fled from its very name. I even strove to jest upon Lord Frederick's premature desertion, bursting at times into wild hysterical laughter.
The duration of our journey seemed endless; yet when I came within sight of my father's house, I would have given a universe to delay the certainty of what I feared. Every breath became almost a sob,--every movement convulsive, while in the agony of suppressed emotion I fixed my straining eyes upon my home, as if they could have penetrated into the souls of its inhabitants. The carriage stopped, and, scarcely hearing Lady St. Edmunds' polite excuse for not entering the house of mourning, I sprang towards the door.
It was long ere my repeated summons was answered. "Has my father inquired for me?" I hastily demanded, as I entered.
"No, ma'am; he never spoke."
"Is he at home?"
"Mr. Percy is--is in the house, ma'am, but--" The man paused, and his face wore a ghastly expression of horror.
A dark and shapeless dread rushed across my mind; but the cup was already full, and I could bear no more. I sunk down in strong convulsions.
A long forgetfulness was varied only by dim recollections, which came and went like the fitful dreams of delirium. My first distinct impression of the past was formed when, awaking as if from a deep sleep, I found myself alone in my chamber. My flight--the humiliation which it had brought upon me--the treachery of my friend--the prospect of ruin--all stood at once before me.
My soul, already wounded by affection abused, felt the deserted loneliness in which I was left as a confirmation of the dreaded evil. Juliet Arnold, the companion of my pleasures, came to my thoughts, and her absence stung me like neglect. "All, all have forsaken me," thought I. "Yet there is one heart still open to me. My father will love me still. My father will take me to his breast. And if I must hear the worst, I will hear it from him who has never betrayed me--who will never cast me off."
"With thoughts like these I quitted my bed, and stole feebly towards my father's apartment. The lights which were wont to blaze cheerfully--the attendants who used to crowd the halls--were vanished. A dark twilight faintly showed my way. A strange and dreary silence reigned around me. I entered my father's chamber. A red glare from the sky gave it a dismal increase of light. Upon a couch lay a form that seemed my father's. The face I saw not. A cloth frightfully stained with blood--No! It cannot be told.
This presentation of Discipline: A Novel, by Mary Brunton is Copyright 2003 by P.J. LaBrocca. It may not be copied, duplicated, stored or transmitted in any form without written permission. The text is in the public domain.