I, who should shield thy unprotected head,
Accident appeared so far to favour Emmeline's wishes. Sir Sidney and she, in their rambles round the village, more than once encountered Mrs Villiers. On these occasions, however, she always happened to be so earnestly engaged in conversation, that she could only spare time for a slight bow to De Clifford, without even a single glance towards Emmeline.
At first Emmeline doubted, or rather tried to doubt, how far this preoccupation was intentional. One day, however, De Clifford and she suddenly turning a corner, found that they were entering at the same moment with Mrs Villiers into the little shop which pretended to supply Euston with the minor articles of millinery. Emmeline coloured deeply, and her heart fluttered with something like expectation. Mrs Villiers gracefully made way, as if to offer her precedence; then addressing to Sir Sydney one phrase of the most commonplace civility, she passed to the other side of the shop, and occupied her attention there. The rising in Emmeline's throat scarcely allowed her to speak her errand, which she hurried over in a few moments, then without venturing to look back, she glided away.
De Clifford bit his lip till the blood came. Emmeline put her arm into his, and pressed her bosom to him with a gesture which seemed to say, "Thou art my own--Why should I care for the slights of a stranger?" but the scalding tears dropped upon the arm she pressed. They walked on in silence till they found themselves in the noble avenue of Euston hall. De Clifford then raised his head. "I wonder, Emmeline," he said, "that you should prefer scrambling through a dirty detestable village, to walking in your own unmolested grounds!"
"I only go, my love, that--in hopes of meeting--something to amuse and please you," returned Emmeline.
"Indeed!" said De Clifford, wholly subdued by the tenderness of her voice and manner. "Then, I assure you, I am never so much pleased with any walks as those where you and I may wander undisturbed together."
This intimation of her husband's taste was sufficient for the present to confine Emmeline's walks within the grounds of Euston. Her life was therefore, if possible, more monotonous than ever.
About this time, however, a circumstance occurred which, from its rarity, appeared to her not wholly unimportant. She was roused one day by the sound of a carriage driving up to the door. Emmeline ran to the window, and saw with some pleasure a lady alight. The servants announced Mr and Mrs Jenkinson, and a robust handsome young woman entered, followed by a fat elderly lethargic looking man. The appearance and manners of the visitors did not prepossess Emmeline much in their favour. The lady was over dressed, and by an evident effort was familiarly at ease; the gentleman was so without an effort, by the mere force of a certain good-humoured effrontery, which was by far the most tangible feature of a character as smooth, common-place, and unimpressive, as his face.
Emmeline, however, was not disposed to view her guests with a fastidious eye. She received them very graciously, and sent to inform De Clifford of their arrival. Mrs Jenkinson did not leave to her hostess the task of leading the conversation. She excused the long delay of her visit upon the score of her recent confinement; and then proceeded to relate her relapses and recovery. This led to an account of the number, ages, and dispositions of her children; this, to a comparison of them with other families in the neighbourhood, and this, with a few slight questions from Emmeline, to a history, full and particular at least, if not true, of all the gentry within a drive of Euston.
To this conversation Mr Jenkinson gave what assistance his wife's superior facilities of speech would allow him; as he sat at a table covered with refreshments, from which he first industriously extracted all that he considered as the nice bits, and then, rather than desist from the exercise of eating, continued to devour the debris which he had made. The visit had been protracted even beyond the customary length, when the entrance of Sir Sydney silenced the loquacious lady. Emmeline no sooner cast her eyes on him, than, accustomed now to watch the traces of disquiet, she saw them lurking under the calmness of a countenance, which, like the brow of night, often darkened, but seldom glared with the coming storm. Habitual politeness dictated his behaviour to his guests; yet there was in his eye that rebuke, in his air and manner that cold stateliness, which makes itself felt, though it cannot be complained of. Jenkinson, however, saw and felt nothing of this; protected by obtuse perception and natural assurance. He shook De Clifford heartily by the hand, and, while his wife only ventured in an under tone to renew her dialogue with Emmeline, he assured De Clifford of his desire to be on neighbourly terms with him; discussed the merits of the intended canal; reviewed the proceedings of the December county meeting; applauded De Clifford's speech; reminded him that his father, Sir Michael De Clifford, had represented the county in parliament for above twenty years; advised him to stand candidate at the next election, and assured him that it might be carried without any expense worth mentioning.
The colour rose in De Clifford's face, and he smothered a heavy sigh; but seeing the sly black eye of Mrs Jenkinson turned towards him, he answered carelessly, that "he had no thoughts of exposing himself for his country in that way."
The visit at last was ended, and De Clifford quitted Emmeline without any explanation of his cloudy aspect. It was not till they met some hours afterwards that he said, "Pray, Lady De Clifford, do you know who the person is whom you thought fit to receive so cordially this morning?"
His eye was scarcely turned towards Emmeline as he spoke; but there was a sarcastic curl on his lip, which inspired her with something like fear.
"Mrs Jenkinson," answered she, kindly; "the mistress, I believe, of that great place upon the hill."
"Jenkinson's housekeeper, whom he chose to marry a few years ago."
A long silence followed, and the subject dropped.
Emmeline, however, was far from repenting of her attentions to her guest. "She meant to shew me a kindness; and kindnesses are so scarce with me now!" thought Emmeline. But she would not for the world have uttered this complaint to De Clifford, lest she should seem to reproach him with the consequences of their misconduct.
The visit had been long unrepaid before Emmeline ventured to say, in a voice of timid inquiry, "You think we ought not to return the Jenkinsons' visit?"
"As you please, Emmeline," was the reply.
A stranger might have thought it intended to leave her judgment free. Emmeline understood it differently.
"Perhaps, then," said she, in the same tone, "I had better write her a note to say, that I pay no visits at present."
"If you choose, my love," was De Clifford's reply.
Its words were of the same import as the last; its manner was so different, that Emmeline saw he approved her proposal.
The note was dispatched with regret; for seven months of total seclusion--of that penal seclusion which mankind inflict, not in their forgetfulness, but in their scorn--had given value to any mark of human sympathy or respect. Respect! Emmeline became every hour more sensible that this sentiment she must never more hope to awaken. She had gradually learnt to watch for the expression of an opposite feeling. In her better days, the gentle feminine Emmeline had claimed no deference which all were not willing to bestow. But now a watchful jealousy was stealing upon her. She read contempt in many an indifferent look, and heard reproach in words which conveyed it to no other ear.
De Clifford had nothing communicative in his temper. He was one of those persons, who can sit for hours in the company of the friend they love best, happy in the possibility of exchanging sentiments, without, perhaps, once taking advantage of that possibility. What he had no intention to conceal, he yet felt no temptation to communicate; and his thoughts and purposes were often to be gathered from some accidental expression, rather than deliberately unfolded. Yet to the inquiries of a friend, De Clifford was the most open of mankind. Any question which Emmeline could have asked him, would have been answered, concisely indeed, but with the most explicit frankness. Had she ventured to oppose his opinion or his will, he would have remained firm, indeed, but not without giving a reason for his firmness.
But Emmeline ventured neither question nor opposition. That which was a general habit of her husband's mind, she often mistook for the expression of a peculiar feeling towards herself. "Had he married a woman whom he respected," she thought, "to her he might have opened his whole heart. She might almost have been his friend. But I!--What am I but his toy?--only to be cared for in an idle hour--soon, perhaps, to be thrown aside for ever.--Oh! shall I live to see that day! No. I shall see its approach, and that will break my heart before I have lost all!"
It was not in her husband's conduct alone that Emmeline watched for tokens of disrespect. She dreaded even the presence of her servants. She could not venture to reprove their misconduct, or even to remark their omissions. Their insolence she dared not encounter; for she knew, and they knew, the vulnerable point, where the meanest hand could fix a poisoned dart. The impertinence which another would have answered with a smile of good-natured contempt, or a burst of idle indignation, wrung the heart of her whose conscience justified the scorn cast on her by the meanest of mankind. The encroachments, therefore, of her domestics were unresisted, their neglects passed without notice, their irregularities without reproof; and as they fully understood the reason of this laxity, endurance only increased the evil.
De Clifford perceived that his household was disorderly, its economy ill arranged, his domestics turbulent and dissatisfied. He remembered, with a sigh, its easy, regular, and willing movement, while guided by the calm but determined spirit of his mother; and the respect of which Emmeline was so jealous, gained little by the contrast. The charms of his long-loved home were one by one decaying. His friends had forsaken it. The charities of relationship were fled. His still dear Emmeline was no longer the playful being formed to banish gloom, or enliven ease to pleasure. Anxiety and care were setting their untimely stamp upon her youthful features. The smile which had once lighted them with gladdening sunshine, was now but the cold and short-lived spark that flashes in the troubled deep.
She tried in vain to disguise the change from De Clifford. It met him in a thousand forms, each alternately inspiring him with pity, grief, or displeasure. "Sweet frail thing!" he thought, "alike unable to resist temptation, or to endure punishment! Why did I disquiet thy peaceful life?" So thought De Clifford, as unexpectedly entering his wife's apartment he surprised her in tears. She hastily concealed them, and he ventured not to inquire their cause; but sitting down by her, endeavoured to divert her melancholy.
"You have not shewn me your portfolio for a long while, Emmeline. I doubt you have been very idle. Come, little trifler, let me inspect your proceedings."
"Oh! not to-day," said Emmeline, laying her hand on the portfolio; "not to-day! By to-morrow I hope to have something that will please you."
"But I am in the humour to-day," insisted De Clifford, with good-natured obstinacy; "and you know how your resistance always ends, Emmeline."
The fading rose in Emmeline's cheek deepened to crimson, and spread over her face and bosom. "Alas! I know that too well!" she thought; "but why must the reproach come from you?"
De Clifford, unconscious that his words could insinuate reproach, was now examining some sketches which had never been meant for his eye. Two infant figures were repeated in every attitude of sport and of repose. Many of them were blotted with tears. Upon some the names were written again and again, as if the very names were dear; and sometimes they were joined with a short and melancholy sentence that sued for pity or forgiveness.
While De Clifford hurried over his comfortless survey, Emmeline unresisting stood by and wept. In painful compassion he pressed her to his breast, but he did not speak, for he felt that this was a sorrow which refuses to be comforted. He now heartily regretted the solitude which left her to the free indulgence of recollections so dispiriting. He fervently wished that she had possessed one friend, or even companion, to cheer her lonely hours. He thought of his mother, and for a moment he half purposed to forget his displeasure, and entreat that she would come to sooth the wounded spirit of his Emmeline; but when a doubt arose of her compliance, he found it more easy to resolve upon undertaking the task himself, and he determined to devote himself to its accomplishment. And he would have kept his determination, could it have been fulfilled at the expence of only fortune or life, for life and fortune were still light in his regard compared with his beloved Emmeline. But he forgot to take time into his account. He forgot the lengthened demands which the office of comforter would make upon his patience, and upon that regular, continued, self-devotion, which, if indeed it ever be a natural virtue, is not the virtue of masculine nature.
A few days served to make him weary of the confinement to which he subjected himself; and then he presently grew angry with Emmeline, as if she had compelled him to this unnatural constraint. He inwardly accused her of weakness and selfishness, for not absolutely driving him from her to his accustomed exercises and employments. After the first week, every day subtracted something from the entireness of his self-devotion; and while he was secretly angry with himself for breaking his resolution, he was yet more angry with Emmeline for making him feel that he ought to keep it.
Fortunately for both, a slight incident at this time diverted their thoughts into another channel. Spring was now far advanced, and the woods of Euston began once more to invite their masters with a grateful shade. In this delightful season of activity, of progress, of hope, which breathes sympathetic gladness into the youthful heart, and brightens again the fires that were expiring in the calm of riper years, De Clifford and Emmeline wandered through their noble domain, vainly seeking that which the careless passenger found in every lawn and grove
Emmeline's walk always paused on a little rising ground commanding a near view of Mrs Villiers' mansion. And it was a view to engage attention; for it was a gay and peopled scene. The ornamented farm which surrounded that spacious and cheerful dwelling, was busy with rustic labour and easy superintendance, with the voluntary toils of youth, and the noisy sports of childhood. With a sigh would Emmeline gaze on Mr and Mrs Villiers as they consulted together upon some rural plan, or together watched its execution. With mortal sickness of the soul she turned away when she saw their children address them with confiding gesture and owe to their assistance an increase of innocent joy. She could often hear their very voices in the breeze, for so near was their neighbourhood that the magnificent oaks of Euston threw here and there branches into the less splendid domain of Mr Villiers.
One day as Emmeline was making her usual pause of melancholy survey, she observed one of the little Villierses climbing among the boughs which had thus invited him to trespass. The boy perceiving at last that he was observed, stopped, and seemed to think of retreating; then stimulated perhaps equally by the approving smile of De Clifford and the alarm of Emmeline, he proceeded fearlessly. He had nearly gained the top, and was casting down a triumphant glance on the spectators of his achievement, when a hollow branch to which he had trusted gave way, and he fell to the ground. Emmeline, shrieking, hid her eyes, and listened during a time that seemed lengthened tenfold, to the rustling of the twigs, the rebound on the branches, the heavy sound with which all was closed. She felt the very whirl of the air, the vibration of the ground on which she stood; but she had not courage to look where, close to her foot, the child had fallen.
De Clifford, who attempting to save him, had somewhat broken his fall, raised him and found him insensible. His first thought was to carry him in his arms to Euston Hall; but fearing to injure him by removal he laid him down upon Emmeline's lap, and ran to procure such medical aid as the village could afford.
Emmeline, trembling and in tears, continued to chafe the child's cold hands, now fancying signs of returning life, and now fearing that all was over. Some of her domestics soon came to her assistance, but she would not resign her charge; and when the surgeon arrived, and directed the removal of his patient to the house, Emmeline continued to watch by the bedside of the little sufferer, and to perform with her own hands every service which his state required. Though her delicate frame could ill support alarm or fatigue, she refused to seek rest or refreshment. "My own children," she thought, bursting into tears, "may need a stranger's care. I will not leave him!"
Meanwhile Sir Sidney humanely undertook the office of conveying tidings of the accident to the child's parents; and the moment he obtained the surgeon's opinion that the injuries were not mortal, he departed on his painful errand.
Emmeline continued to watch by her little patient, as he still lay in a heavy stupor, till she heard the carriage return, and was told that Mrs Villiers was alighting from it. Then Emmeline started, and her breath came quick. She remembered how decidedly Mrs Villiers had avoided her. She felt that only circumstances of overpowering force had brought the irreproachable Mrs Villiers to Euston; and, even in her own house, the unhappy Emmeline shrunk under a sense that her presence would be deemed intrusive.
Yet an indistinct wish crossed her mind that Mrs Villiers should know how she had been employed;--should know, that she owed something to this poor despised being, whose very presence was degradation. Without perceiving her own motive, she busied herself again about the child, and hesitated whether to go or to remain, till Mrs Villiers entered the room. Then Emmeline timidly drew back, and wished herself away. But Mrs Villiers could now send no glance to daunt or to encourage Emmeline. Her straining eyes were fixed on one object alone. "Harry! my dear Harry!" was all that her ashy lips could utter, as she pressed them a thousand times to the face of her senseless child.
The surgeon endeavoured to comfort her with assurances that his patient had suffered no fracture, nor any other outward injury; but he was obliged to confess, that, in the present state of things, it was impossible to ascertain the extent of the danger; and even that the event might for days remain doubtful. "God's will be done!" the mother tried to say; but the words were almost lost to human ear.
Mr Villiers, who had been from home when the news of his misfortune was brought, now arrived; and Emmeline stole unnoticed from the room. Nor, during the day and night which elapsed before the child could be removed, did she venture to intrude upon Mrs Villiers, though every attention which politeness could suggest, was bestowed upon the unwilling visitor.
Nor was it politeness alone that dictated those attentions. Emmeline's heart was in them all. While useful to the virtuous Mrs Villiers, Emmeline felt for the moment as if restored to her better self,--as if she could once more claim faint affinity with the worthier part of womankind. Her spirits rose; she endeavoured to persuade herself that she had now obtained a certain introduction to the notice of Mrs Villiers; and she already anticipated, as its happy consequence, the restoration of her intercourse with Lady De Clifford and Mary, the most respected and beloved of her friends. "And you, dear De Clifford," she thought, as she looked at her husband, "will again be happy in a home peopled with those you love; your noble spirit will no longer be galled by seeing your wife despised and renounced by all human kind; and then, perhaps, your poor Emmeline will seem less unworthy to be treated and trusted like a friend!"
Mrs Villiers's involuntary visit, however, drew to a close. The child was pronounced out of danger, and permission was given for his removal. With a beating heart, Emmeline saw the preparations for the departure of her guests. At first, she thought herself sure that Mrs Villiers could not go without thanking her in person for her attentions, and turned to her glass with a wish to render her appearance as prepossessing as she could; drew closer the covering on her bosom, and arranged her head-dress to an air of grave simplicity. The only ornament of her attire she laid aside--herself unconscious why she did so. It was De Clifford's picture which hung round her neck, and she herself knew not that she shrunk from reminding Mrs Villiers of her connection with De Clifford.
She every moment expected to hear her announced; but the moments passed, and brought no visitor. She began to wonder whether it were possible that Mrs Villiers could depart without seeing her, and then to fear that it was certain. She began to doubt whether she ought not, in politeness, to have sought the company of her guest, and hesitated whether she should not yet present herself before Mrs Villiers; but some remains of pride, that incurable disease of the human soul, which not even anguish, remorse, and disgrace can eradicate, forbade her to hazard a repulse.
The carriage which was to convey the invalid home drove up to the door, and tears of disappointment and mortification had filled Emmeline's eyes, when Mrs Villiers at last requested admission. The glow of joy and of timidity brightening in her delicate cheek, Emmeline hastily advanced to receive her welcome visitor; and, as she stood before her guest, trembling, yet glad,--embarrassed, yet graceful--the forgotten tear still glittering under her long dark eye-lashes--her slender form bending somewhat forward, half in courtesy, half in habitual dejection,--Mrs Villiers gazed on her with a compassion that rose even to pain. "Lovely, miserable thing!" she thought, "must thou, so formed to adorn virtue, charm only to disguise the deformity of vice! Yet, such as thou art, except those charms, might I have been, had not the providence and grace of Him whom thou knowest not, preserved me! Unhappy victim of a sentence wise as it is terrible!--But the nobler the victim, the more solemn the warning! I must not help thee to hide the brand that warns others from thy crime and thy punishment."
No trace of severity or of scorn appeared in her manner; for her's was the spirit that "rejoiceth not in iniquity," but regards it as the foul spot of pestilence, loathsome indeed, but deadly too. The majesty of independence and virtue was so softened in her mind and voice by Christian compassion, that Emmeline was irresistibly won to love, as well as to respect, and felt almost re-assured and happy.
Mrs Villiers had thanked her gracefully, nay warmly, for her hospitalities; she had bid her a gentle, almost a kind farewell; she had turned to go and was already disappearing, before Emmeline observed that not a hint had been dropped of their future intercourse. She made one quick gesture as if to follow her guest, then with a bitter sigh sunk back into her seat. "It is all over!" she said. "From equal as from friend, I am banished for ever! Oh De Clifford! What have I not sacrificed for you!"
Yet the thought was scarcely formed, ere she reproached herself with regretting any sacrifice which could be made for one so dear; and when De Clifford came in, and tenderly enquired the cause of her encreased melancholy, all that she had renounced seemed for the moment light in the balance. It was with some reluctance that she confessed to her husband her hopes and their disappointment; for she was daily sinking deeper into that abasement, which, by imperceptible degrees, was withdrawing her from the confidence of wedded friendship.
Before she had ended her detail, De Clifford had coldly released her from his arms. "And is that all?" he said, turning away. "If you would learn a little of the dignity and self-dependence that become your condition, Emmeline, it would not be in the power of every indifferent person to ruffle your spirits or your temper."
The reproach was no sooner uttered, than he was conscious that the latter part of it sprang only from his own jaundiced perceptions; yet not deigning to retract, he left Emmeline alone to weep over its injustice. But Emmeline was not the greatest sufferer. The pliant nature of woman is perhaps incapable of that anguish which deserved humiliation inflicts on the stubborn soul of man. Emmeline could shed tears and find relief in them; could own that she deserved her fate, and submit to it unresisting, though in sorrow. Hour after hour, De Clifford could nurse his bitter thoughts alone, could find in his own misery a reason for hating all human kind, could execrate the severity of those who stand, and the folly of those who fall; could weigh what he had renounced against what he had obtained; smile in disdain upon the infatuated eagerness of his former pursuit, and the more infatuated facility of his prey; could curse the hour when honour, activity, and fame, every manly pursuit, every heroic purpose, were spurned for a toy; doubt whether life were worth the load of weariness which it laid on him; rouse himself at the thought that a brave man's death might yet shed its glory on his tarnished name;--then remember the desolate widowed Emmeline, and falter; then wipe the cold drops from his forehead, submit himself again to the gaze of man, and be like the deep flood of lava, firm, dark, and cold to the beholder, while devouring fires are yet glowing in its heart.
This presentation of Emmeline. With Some Other Pieces., 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.