The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth
'Gone! for ever gone from me!' said Lord Colambre to himself, as the carriage drove away. 'Never shall I see her more--never will I see her more, till she is married.'
Lord Colambre went to his own room, locked the door, and was relieved in some degree by the sense of privacy; by the feeling that he could now indulge his reflections undisturbed. He had consolation--he had done what was honourable--he had transgressed no duty, abandoned no principle--he had not injured the happiness of any human being--he had not, to gratify himself, hazarded the peace of the woman he loved--he had not sought to win her heart. Of her innocent, her warm, susceptible heart, he might perhaps have robbed her--he knew it--but he had left it untouched, he hoped entire, in her own power, to bless with it hereafter some man worthy of her. In the hope that she might be happy, Lord Colambre felt relief; and in the consciousness that he had made his parents happy, he rejoiced. But, as soon as his mind turned that way for consolation, came the bitter concomitant reflection, that his mother must be disappointed in her hopes of his accompanying her home, and of his living with her in Ireland; she would be miserable when she should hear that he was going abroad into the army--and yet it must be so--and he must write, and tell her so. 'The sooner this difficulty is off my mind, the sooner this painful letter is written, the better,' thought he. 'It must be done--I will do it immediately.'
He snatched up his pen, and began a letter.
My dear mother--Miss Nugent--'
He was interrupted by a knock at his door.
'A gentleman below, my lord,' said a servant, 'who wishes to see you.'
I cannot see any gentleman. Did you say I was at home?'
'No,my lord; I said you was not at home; for I thought you would not choose to be at home, and your own man was not in the way for me to ask--so I denied you; but the gentleman would not be denied; he said I must come and see if you was at home. So, as he spoke as if he was a gentleman not used to be denied, I thought it might be somebody of consequence, and I showed him into the front drawing-room. I think he said he was sure you'd be at home for a friend from Ireland.'
'A friend from Ireland! Why did not you tell me that sooner?' said Lord Colambre, rising, and running downstairs. 'Sir James Brooke, I daresay.'
No, not Sir James Brooke; but one he was almost as glad to see --Count O'Halloran!
'My dear count! the greater pleasure for being unexpected.'
'I came to London but yesterday,' said the count; 'but I could not be here a day, without doing myself the honour of paying my respects to Lord Colambre.'
'You do me not only honour, but pleasure, my dear count. People when they like one another, always find each other out, and contrive to meet even in London.'
'You are too polite to ask what brought such a superannuated militaire as I am,' said the count, 'from his retirement into this gay world again. A relation of mine, who is one of our Ministry, knew that I had some maps, and plans, and charts, which might be serviceable in an expedition they are planning. I might have trusted my charts across the channel, without coming myself to convoy them, you will say. But my relation fancied--young relations, you know, if they are good for anything, are apt to overvalue the heads of old relations--fancied that mine was worth bringing all the way from Halloran Castle to London, to consult with tete-a-tete. So you know, when this was signified to me by a letter from the secretary in office, private, most confidential, what could I do, but do myself the honour to obey? For though honour's voice cannot provoke the silent dust, yet "flattery soothes the dull cold ear of age."--But enough, and too much of myself,' said the count: 'tell me, my dear lord, something of yourself. I do not think England seems to agree with you so well as Ireland; for, excuse me, in point of health, you don't look like the same man I saw some weeks ago.'
'My mind has been ill at ease of late,' said Lord Colambre.
'Ay, there's the thing! The body pays for the mind--but those who have feeling minds, pain and pleasure altogether computed, have the advantage; or at least they think so; for they would not change with those who have them not, were they to gain by the bargain the most robust body that the most selfish coxcomb, or the heaviest dunce extant, ever boasted. For instance, would you now, my lord, at this moment change altogether with Major Benson, or Captain Williamson, or even our friend, "Eh, really now,'pon honour"--would you!--I'm glad to see you smile.'
'I thank you for making me smile, for I assure you I want it. I wish--if you would not think me encroaching upon your politeness and kindness in honouring me with this visit--You see,' continued he, opening the doors of the back drawing-room, and pointing to large packages--'you see we are all preparing for a march; my mother has left town half an hour ago--my father engaged to dine abroad--only I at home--and, in this state of confusion, could I even venture to ask Count O'Halloran to stay and dine with me, without being able to offer him Irish ortolans or Irish plums--in short, will you let me rob you of two or three hours of your time? I am anxious to have your opinion on a subject of some importance to me, and on one where you are peculiarly qualified to judge and decide for me.'
'My dear lord, frankly, I have nothing half so good or so agreeable to do with my time; command my hours. I have already told you how much it flatters me to be consulted by the most helpless clerk in office; how much more about the private concerns of an enlightened young--friend, will Lord Colambre permit me to say? I hope so; for though the length of our acquaintance might not justify the word, yet regard and intimacy are not always in proportion to the time people have known each other, but to their mutual perception of certain attaching qualities, a certain similarity and suitableness of character.'
The good count, seeing that Lord Colambre was in much distress of mind, did all he could to soothe him by kindness; far from making any difficulty about giving up a few hours of his time, he seemed to have no other object in London, and no purpose in life, but to attend to our hero. To put him at ease, and to give him time to recover and arrange his thoughts, the count talked of indifferent subjects.
'I think I heard you mention the name of Sir James Brooke.'
'Yes, I expected to have seen him when the servant first mentioned a friend from Ireland; because Sir James had told me that, as soon as he could get leave of absence, he would come to England.'
'He is come; is now at his estate is Huntingdonshire; doing, what do you think? I will give you a leading hint; recollect the seal which the little De Cresey put into your hands the day you dined at Oranmore. Faithful to his motto, "Deeds not words," he is this instant, I believe, at deeds, title-deeds; making out marriage settlements, getting ready to put his seal to the happy articles.'
'Happy man! I give him joy,' said Lord Colambre; 'happy man! going to be married to such a woman--daughter of such a mother.'
'Daughter of such a mother! That is indeed a great addition and a great security to his happiness,' said the count. 'Such a family to marry into; good from generation to generation; illustrious by character as well as by genealogy; "all the sons brave, and all the daughters chaste."'--Lord Colambre with difficulty repressed his feelings.--'if I could choose, I would rather that a woman I loved were of such a family than that she had for her dower the mines of Peru.'
'So would I,' cried Lord Colambre.
'I am glad to hear you say so, my lord, and with such energy; so few young men of the present day look to what I call good connexion. In marrying, a man does not, to be sure, marry his wife's mother; and yet a prudent man, when he begins to think of the daughter, would look sharp at the mother; ay, and back to the grandmother too, and along the whole female line of ancestry.'
'True--most true--he ought he must.'
'And I have a notion,' said the count, smiling, 'your lordship's practice has been conformable to your theory.'
'I!--mine!' said Lord Colambre, starling, and looking at the count with surprise.
'I beg your pardon,' said the count; 'I did not intend to surprise your confidence. But you forget that I was present, and saw the impression which was made on your mind by a mother's want of a proper sense of delicacy and propriety--Lady Dashfort.'
'Oh, Lady Dashfort! she was quite out of my head.'
'And Lady Isabel?--I hope she is quite out of your heart.'
'She never was in it,' said Lord Colambre.
'Only laid siege to it,' said the count. 'Well, I am glad your heart did not surrender at discretion, or rather without discretion. Then I may tell you, without fear or preface, that the Lady Isabel, who "talks of refinement, delicacy, sense," is going to stoop at once, and marry--Heathcock.'
Lord Colambre was not surprised, but concerned and disgusted, as he always felt, even when he did not care for the individual, from hearing anything which tended to lower the female sex in public estimation.
'As to myself,' said he, 'I cannot say I have had an escape, for I don't think I ever was in much danger.'
'It is difficult to measure danger when it is over--past danger, like past pain, is soon forgotten,' said the old general. 'At all events, I rejoice in your present safety.'
'But is she really going to be married to Heathcock?' said Lord Colambre.
'Positively; they all came over in the same packet with me, and they are all in town now, buying jewels, and equipages, and horses. Heathcock, you know, is as good as another man, a peu pres, for all those purposes; his father is dead, and left him a large estate. Que voulez vous? as the French valet said to me on the occasion. C'est que monsieur est un homme de bien: il a des biens, a ce qu'on dit.'
Lord Colambre could not help smiling. 'How they got Heathcock to fall in love is what puzzles me,' said his lordship. 'I should as soon have thought of an oyster's falling in love as that being!'
'I own I should have sooner thought,' replied the count, 'Of his falling in love with an oyster; and so would you, if you had seen him, as I did, devouring oysters on shipboard.
'Say, can the lovely heroine hope to vie With a fat turtle or a ven'son pie?
But that is not our affair; let the Lady Isabel look to it.'
Dinner was announced; and no farther conversation of any consequence passed between the count and Lord Colambre till the cloth was removed and the servants had withdrawn. Then our hero opened on the subject which was heavy at his heart.
'My dear count--to go back to the burial place of the Nugents, where my head was lost the first time I had the pleasure of seeing you--you know, or, possibly,' said he, smiling, 'you do not know, that I have a cousin of the name of Nugent?'
'You told me,' replied the count, 'that you had near relations of that name; but I do not recollect that you mentioned any one in particular.'
'I never named Miss Nugent to you. No! it is not easy to me to talk of her, and impossible to me to describe her. If you had come one half-hour sooner this morning, you would have seen her: I know she is exactly suited to your excellent taste. But it is not at first sight she pleases most; she gains upon the affections, attaches the heart, and unfolds upon the judgment. In temper, manners, and good sense, in every quality a man can or should desire in a wife, I never saw her equal. Yet, there is an obstacle, an invincible obstacle, the nature of which I cannot explain to you, that forbids me to think of her as a wife. She lives with my father and mother: they are returning to Ireland, I wished, earnestly wished, on many accounts, to have accompanied them, chiefly on my mother's; but it cannot be. The first thing a man must do is to act honourably; and, that he may do so, he must keep out of the way of a temptation which he believes to be above his strength. I will never see Miss Nugent again till she is married; I must either stay in England, or go abroad. I have a mind to serve a campaign or two, if I could get a commission in a regiment going to Spain; but I understand so many are eager to go at this moment, that it is very difficult to get a commission in such a regiment.'
'It is difficult,' said the count. 'But,' added he, after thinking for a moment, 'I have it! I can get the thing done for you, and directly. Major Benson, in consequence of that affair, you know, about his mistress, is forced to quit the regiment. When the lieutenant-colonel came to quarters, and the rest of the officers heard the fact, they would not keep company with Benson, and would not mess with him. I know he wants to sell out; and that regiment is to be ordered immediately to Spain. I will have the thing done for you, if you request it.'
'First, give me your advice, Count O'Halloran; you are well acquainted with the military profession, with military life. Would you advise me--I won't speak of myself, because we judge better by general views than by particular cases--would you advise a young man at present to go into the army?'
The count was silent for a few minutes, and then replied: 'Since you seriously ask my opinion, my lord, I must lay aside my own prepossessions, and endeavour to speak with impartiality. To go into the army in these days, my lord, is, in my sober opinion, the most absurd and base, or the wisest and noblest thing a young man can do. To enter into the army, with the hope of escaping from the application necessary to acquire knowledge, letters, and science--I run no risk, my lord, in saying this to you--to go into the army, with the hope of escaping from knowledge, letters, science, and morality; to wear a, red coat and an epaulette; to be called captain; to figure at a ball; to lounge away time in country sports, at country quarters, was never, even in times of peace, creditable; but it is now absurd and base. Submitting to a certain portion of ennui and contempt, this mode of life for an officer was formerly practicable--but now cannot be submitted to without utter, irremediable disgrace. Officers are now, in general, men of education and information; want of knowledge, sense, manners, must consequently be immediately detected, ridiculed, and despised in a military man. Of this we have not long since seen lamentable examples in the raw officers who have lately disgraced themselves in my neighbourhood in Ireland--that Major Benson and Captain Williamson. But I will not advert to such insignificant individuals, such are rare exceptions--I leave them out of the question--I reason on general principles. The life of an officer is not now a life of parade, of coxcombical, or of profligate idleness--but of active service, of continual hardship and danger. All the descriptions which we see in ancient history of a soldier's life--descriptions which, in times of peace, appeared like romance--are now realised; military exploits fill every day's newspapers, every day's conversation. A martial spirit is now essential to the liberty and the existence of our own country. In the present state of things, the military must be the most honourable profession, because the most useful. Every movement of an army is followed, wherever it goes, by the public hopes and fears. Every officer must now feel, besides this sense of collective importance, a belief that his only dependence must be on his own merit and thus his ambition, his enthusiasm, are raised; and when once this noble ardour is kindled in the breast, it excites to exertion, and supports under endurance. But I forget myself,' said the count, checking his enthusiasm; 'I promised to speak soberly. If I have said too much, your own good sense, my lord, will correct me, and your good-nature will forgive the prolixity of an old man, touched upon his favourite subject--the passion of his youth.'
Lord Colambre, of course, assured the count that he was not tired. Indeed, the enthusiasm with which this old officer spoke of his profession, and the high point of view in which he placed it, increased our hero's desire to serve a campaign abroad. Good sense, politeness, and experience of the world preserved Count O'Halloran from that foible with which old officers are commonly reproached, of talking continually of their own military exploits. Though retired from the world, he had contrived, by reading the best books, and corresponding with persons of good information, to keep up with the current of modern affairs; and he seldom spoke of those in which he had been formerly engaged. He rather too studiously avoided speaking of himself; and this fear of egotism diminished the peculiar interest he might have inspired: it disappointed curiosity, and deprived those with whom he conversed of many entertaining and instructive anecdotes. However, he sometimes made exceptions to his general rule in favour of persons who peculiarly pleased him, and Lord Colambre was of this number.
He this evening, for the first time, spoke to his lordship of the years he had spent in the Austrian service; told him anecdotes of the emperor; spoke of many distinguished public characters whom he had known abroad; of those officers who had been his friends and companions. Among others he mentioned, with particular regard, a young English officer who had been at the same time with him in the Austrian service, a gentleman of the name of Reynolds. The name struck Lord Colambre; it was the name of the officer who had been the cause of the disgrace of Miss St. Omar --of Miss Nugent's mother. 'But there are so many Reynoldses.'
He eagerly asked the age--the character of this officer.
'He was a gallant youth,' said the count, 'but too adventurous --too rash. He fell, after distinguishing himself in a glorious manner, in his twentieth year--died in my arms.' 'Married or unmarried?' cried Lord Colambre.
'Married--he had been privately married, less than a year before his death, to a very young English lady, who had been educated at a convent in Vienna. He was heir to a considerable property, I believe, and the young lady had little fortune; and the affair was kept secret from the fear of offending his friends, or for some other reason--I do not recollect the particulars.'
'Did he acknowledge his marriage?' said Lord Colambre.
'Never till he was dying--then he confided his secret to me.'
'Do you recollect the name of the young lady he married?' 'Yes --Miss St. Omar.'
'St. Omar!' repeated Lord Colambre, with an expression of lively joy in his countenance. 'But are you certain, my dear count, that she was really married, legally married, to Mr. Reynolds? Her marriage has been denied by all his friends and relations-- hers have never been able to establish it--her daughter is--My dear count, were you present at the marriage?'
'No,' said the count, 'I was not present at the marriage; I never saw the lady, nor do I know anything of the affair, except that Mr. Reynolds, when he was dying, assured me that he was privately married to a Miss St. Omar, who was then boarding at a convent in Vienna. The young man expressed great regret at leaving her totally unprovided for; but said that he trusted his father would acknowledge her, and that her friends would be reconciled to her. He was not of age, he said, to make a will; but I think he told me that his child, who at that time was not born, would, even if it should be a girl, inherit a considerable property. With this, I cannot, however, charge my memory positively; but he put a packet into my hands which, he told me, contained a certificate of his marriage, and, I think he said, a letter to his father; this he requested that I would transmit to England by some safe hand. Immediately after his death, I went to the English ambassador, who was then leaving Vienna, and delivered the packet into his hands; he promised to have it safely delivered. I was obliged to go the next day, with the troops, to a distant part of the country. When I returned, I inquired at the convent what had become of Miss St. Omar--I should say Mrs. Reynolds; and I was told that she had removed from the convent to private lodgings in the town, some time previous to the birth of her child. The abbess seemed much scandalised by the whole transaction; and I remember I relieved her mind by assuring her that there had been a regular marriage. For poor young Reynolds's sake, I made farther inquiries about the widow, intending, of course, to act as a friend, if she was in any difficulty or distress. But I found, on inquiry at her lodgings, that her brother had come from England for her, and had carried her and her infant away. The active scenes,' continued the count, 'in which I was immediately afterwards engaged, drove the whole affair from my mind. Now that your questions have recalled them, I feel certain of the facts I have mentioned; and I am ready to establish them by my testimony.'
Lord Colambre thanked him with an eagerness that showed how much he was interested in the event. It was clear, he said, either that the packet left with the ambassador had not been delivered, or that the father of Mr. Reynolds had suppressed the certificate of the marriage, as it had never been acknowledged by him or by any of the family. Lord Colambre now frankly told the count why he was so anxious about this affair; and Count O'Halloran, with all the warmth of youth, and with all the ardent generosity characteristic of his country, entered into his feelings, declaring that he would never rest till he had established the truth.
'Unfortunately,' said the count, 'the ambassador who took the packet in charge is dead. I am afraid we shall have difficulty.'
'But he must have had some secretary,' said Lord Colambre; 'who was his secretary?--we can apply to him.'
'His secretary is now charge d'affaires in Vienna--we cannot get at him.'
'Into whose hands have that ambassador's papers fallen--who is his executor?' said Lord Colambre.
'His executor!--now you have it,' cried the count. 'His executor is the very man who will do your business--your friend Sir James Brooke is the executor. All papers, of course, are in his hands; or he can have access to any that are in the hands of the family. The family seat is within a few miles of Sir James Brooke's, in Huntingdonshire, where, as I told you before, he now is.'
'I'll go to him immediately--set out in the mail this night. Just in time!' cried Lord Colambre, pulling out his watch with one hand, and ringing the bell with the other.
'Run and take a place for me in the mail for Huntingdon. Go directly,' said Lord Colambre to the servant.
'And take two places, if you please, sir,' said the count. 'My lord, I will accompany you.'
But this Lord Colambre would not permit, as it would be unnecessary to fatigue the good old general; and a letter from him to Sir James Brooke would do all that the count could effect by his presence; the search for the papers would be made by Sir James, and if the packet could be recovered, or if any memorandum or mode of ascertaining that it had actually been delivered to old Reynolds could be discovered, Lord Colambre said he would then call upon the count for his assistance, and trouble him to identify the packet; or to go with him to Mr. Reynolds to make farther inquiries; and to certify, at all events, the young man's dying acknowledgment of his marriage and of his child.
The place in the mail, just in time, was taken. Lord Colambre sent a servant in search of his father, with a note explaining the necessity of his sudden departure. All the business which remained to be done in town he knew Lord Clonbrony could accomplish without his assistance. Then he wrote a few lines to his mother, on the very sheet of paper on which, a few hours before, he had sorrowfully and slowly begun--
My dear mother Miss Nugent.
The count, in the meantime, wrote a letter for him to Sir James Brooke, describing the packet which he had given to the ambassador, and relating all the circumstances that could lead to its recovery. Lord Colambre, almost before the wax was hard, seized possession of the letter; the count seeming almost as eager to hurry him off as he was to set out. He thanked the count with few words, but with strong feeling. Joy and love returned in full tide upon our hero's soul; all the military ideas, which but an hour before filled his imagination, were put to flight: Spain vanished, and green Ireland reappeared.
Just as they shook hands at parting, the good old general, with a smile, said to him, 'I believe I had better not stir in the matter of Benson's commission till I hear more from you. My harangue, in favour of the military profession, will, I fancy, prove like most other harangues, en pure perte.'