The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth
Lady Clonbrony was taken ill the day after her gala; she had caught cold by standing, when much overheated, in a violent draught of wind, paying her parting compliments to the Duke of V--, who thought her a bore, and wished her in heaven all the time for keeping his horses standing. Her ladyship's illness was severe and long; she was confined to her room for some weeks by a rheumatic fever, and an inflammation in her eyes. Every day, when Lord Colambre went to see his mother, he found Miss Nugent in her apartment, and every hour he found fresh reason to admire this charming girl. The affectionate tenderness, the indefatigable patience, the strong attachment she showed for her aunt, actually raised Lady Clonbrony in her son's opinion. He was persuaded she must surely have some good or great qualities, or she could not have excited such strong affection. A few foibles out of the question, such as her love of fine people, her affectation of being English, and other affectations too tedious to mention, Lady Clonbrony was really a good woman, had good principles, moral and religious, and, selfishness not immediately interfering, she was good-natured; and though her soul and attention were so completely absorbed in the duties of acquaintanceship that she did not know it, she really had affections--they were concentrated upon a few near relations. She was extremely fond and extremely proud of her son. Next to her son, she was fonder of her niece than of any other creature. She had received Grace Nugent into her family when she was left an orphan, and deserted by some of her other relations. She had bred her up, and had treated her with constant kindness. This kindness and these obligations had raised the warmest gratitude in Miss Nugent's heart; and it was the strong principle of gratitude which rendered her capable of endurance and exertions seemingly far above her strength. This young lady was not of a robust appearance, though she now underwent extraordinary fatigue. Her aunt could scarcely bear that she should leave her for a moment: she could not close her eyes unless Grace sat up with her many hours every night. Night after night she bore this fatigue; and yet, with little sleep or rest, she preserved her health, at least supported her spirits; and every morning, when Lord Colambre came into his mother's room, he saw Miss Nugent look as blooming as if she had enjoyed the most refreshing sleep. The bloom was, as he observed, not permanent; it came and went, with every emotion of her feeling heart; and he soon learned to fancy her almost as handsome when she was pale as when she had a colour. He had thought her beautiful when he beheld her in all the radiance of light, and with all the advantages of dress at the gala, but he found her infinitely more lovely and interesting now, when he saw her in a sick-room--a half-darkened chamber --where often he could but just discern her form, or distinguish her, except by her graceful motion as she passed, or when, but for a moment, a window-curtain drawn aside let the sun shine upon her face, or on the unadorned ringlets of her hair.
Much must be allowed for an inflammation in the eyes, and something for a rheumatic fever; yet it may seem strange that Lady Clonbrony should be so blind and deaf as neither to see nor hear all this time; that, having lived so long in the world, it should never occur to her that it was rather imprudent to have a young lady, not eighteen, nursing her--and such a young lady!-- when her son, not one-and-twenty--and such a son!--came to visit her daily. But, so it was. Lady Clonbrony knew nothing of love --she had read of it, indeed, in novels, which sometimes for fashion's sake she had looked at, and over which she had been obliged to doze; but this was only love in books--love in real life she had never met with--in the life she led, how should she? She had heard of its making young people, and old people even, do foolish things; but those were foolish people; and if they were worse than foolish, why it was shocking, and nobody visited them. But Lady Clonbrony had not, for her own part, the slightest, notion how people could be brought to this pass, nor how anybody out of Bedlam could prefer to a good house, a decent equipage, and a proper establishment, what is called love in a cottage. As to Colambre, she had too good an opinion of his understanding--to say nothing of his duty to his family, his pride, his rank, and his being her son--to let such an idea cross her imagination. As to her niece; in the first place, she was her niece, and first cousins should never marry, because they form no new connexions to strengthen the family interest, or raise its consequence. This doctrine her ladyship had repeated for years so often and so dogmatically, that she conceived it to be incontrovertible, and of as full force as any law of the land, or as any moral or religious obligation. She would as soon have suspected her niece of an intention of stealing her diamond necklace as of purloining Colambre's heart, or marrying this heir of the house of Clonbrony.
Miss Nugent was so well apprised, and so thoroughly convinced of all this, that she never for one moment allowed herself to think of Lord Colambre as a lover. Duty, honour, and gratitude-- gratitude, the strong feeling and principle of her mind--forbade it; she had so prepared and habituated herself to consider him as a person with whom she could not possibly be united that, with perfect ease and simplicity, she behaved towards him exactly as if he was her brother--not in the equivocating sentimental romance style in which ladies talk of treating men as their brothers, whom they are all the time secretly thinking of and endeavouring to please as lovers--not using this phrase as a convenient pretence, a safe mode of securing herself from suspicion or scandal, and of enjoying the advantages of confidence and the intimacy of friendship, till the propitious moment, when it should be time to declare or avow the secret of the heart. No; this young lady was quite above all double- dealing; she had no mental reservation--no metaphysical subtleties--but, with plain, unsophisticated morality, in good faith and simple truth, acted as she professed, thought what she said, and was that which she seemed to be.
As soon as Lady Clonbrony was able to see anybody, her niece sent to Mrs. Broadhurst, who was very intimate with the family; she used to come frequently, almost every evening, to sit with the invalid. Miss Broadhurst accompanied her mother, for she did not like to go out with any other chaperon--it was disagreeable to spend her time alone at home, and most agreeable to spend it with her friend Miss Nugent. In this she had no design, no coquetry; Miss Broadhurst had too lofty and independent a spirit to stoop to coquetry: she thought that, in their interview at the gala, she understood Lord Colambre, and that he understood her--that he was not inclined to court her for her fortune--that she would not be content with any suitor who was not a lover. She was two or three years older than Lord Colambre, perfectly aware of her want of beauty, yet with a just sense of her own merit, and of what was becoming and due to the dignity of her sex. This, she trusted, was visible in her manners, and established in Lord Colambre's mind; so that she ran no risk of being misunderstood by him; and as to what the rest of the world thought, she was so well used to hear weekly and daily reports of her going to be married to fifty different people, that she cared little for what was said on this subject. Indeed, conscious of rectitude, and with an utter contempt for mean and commonplace gossiping, she was, for a woman, and a young woman, rather too disdainful of the opinion of the world. Mrs. Broadhurst, though her daughter had fully explained herself respecting Lord Colambre, before she began this course of visiting, yet rejoiced that, even on this footing, there should be constant intercourse between them. It was Mrs. Broadhurst's warmest wish that her daughter should obtain rank, and connect herself with an ancient family: she was sensible that the young lady's being older than the gentleman might be an obstacle; and very sorry she was to find that her daughter had so imprudently, so unnecessarily, declared her age; but still this little obstacle might be overcome; much greater difficulties in the marriage of inferior heiresses were every day got over, and thought nothing of. Then, as to the young lady's own sentiments, her mother knew them better than she did herself; she understood her daughter's pride, that she dreaded to be made an object of bargain and sale; but Mrs. Broadhurst, who, with all her coarseness of mind, had rather a better notion of love matters than Lady Clonbrony, perceived, through her daughter's horror of being offered to Lord Colambre, through her anxiety that nothing approaching to an advance on the part of her family should be made, that if Lord Colambre should himself advance, he would stand a better chance of being accepted than any other of the numerous persons who had yet aspired to the favour of this heiress. The very circumstance of his having paid no court to her at first, operated in his favour; for it proved that he was not mercenary, and that, whatever attention he might afterwards show, she must be sure would be sincere and disinterested.
'And now, let them but see one another in this easy, intimate kind of way, and you will find, my dear Lady Clonbrony, things will go on of their own accord, all the better for our--minding our cards--and never minding anything else. I remember, when I was young--but let that pass--let the young people see one another, and manage their own affairs their own way--let them be together--that's all I say. Ask half the men you are acquainted with why they married, and their answer, if they speak truth, will be: "Because I met Miss such-a-one at such a place, and we were continually together." Propinquity! propinquity!--as my father used to say-- and he was married five times, and twice to heiresses.'
In consequence of this plan of leaving things to themselves, every evening Lady Clonbrony made out her own little card-table with Mrs. Broadhurst, and a Mr. and Miss Pratt, a brother and sister, who were the most obliging, convenient neighbours imaginable. From time to time, as Lady Clonbrony gathered up her cards, she would direct an inquiring glance to the group of young people at the other table; whilst the more prudent Mrs. Broadhurst sat plump with her back to them, pursing up her lips, and contracting her brows in token of deep calculation, looking down impenetrable at her cards, never even noticing Lady Clonbrony's glances, but inquiring from her partner, 'How many they were by honours?'
The young party generally consisted of Miss Broadhurst, Lord Colambre, Miss Nugent, and her admirer, Mr. Salisbury. Mr. Salisbury was a middle-aged gentleman, very agreeable, and well informed; he had travelled; had seen a great deal of the world; had lived in the best company; had acquired what is called good tact; was full of anecdote, not mere gossiping anecdotes that lead to nothing, but anecdotes characteristic of national manners, of human nature in general, or of those illustrious individuals who excite public curiosity and interest. Miss Nugent had seen him always in large companies, where he was admired for his scavoir-vivre, and for his entertaining anecdotes, but where he had no opportunity of producing any of the higher powers of his understanding, or showing character. She found that Mr. Salisbury appeared to her quite a different person when conversing with Lord Colambre. Lord Colambre, with that ardent thirst for knowledge which it is always agreeable to gratify, had an air of openness and generosity, a frankness, a warmth of manner, which, with good breeding, but with something beyond it and superior to its established forms, irresistibly won the confidence and attracted the affection of those with whom he conversed. His manners were peculiarly agreeable to a person like Mr. Salisbury, tired of the sameness and egotism of men of the world.
Miss Nugent had seldom till now had the advantage of hearing much conversation on literary subjects. In the life she had been compelled to lead she had acquired accomplishments, had exercised her understanding upon everything that passed before her, and from circumstances had formed her judgment and her taste by observations on real life; but the ample page of knowledge had never been unrolled to her eyes. She had never had opportunities of acquiring literature herself, but she admired it in others, particularly in her friend Miss Broadhurst. Miss Broadhurst had received all the advantages of education which money could procure, and had profited by them in a manner uncommon among those for whom they are purchased in such abundance; she not only had had many masters, and read many books, but had thought of what she read, and had supplied, by the strength and energy of her own mind, what cannot be acquired by the assistance of masters. Miss Nugent, perhaps overvaluing the information that she did not possess, and free from all idea of envy, looked up to her friend as to a superior being, with a sort of enthusiastic admiration; and now, with 'charmed attention,' listened, by turns, to her, to Mr. Salisbury, and to Lord Colambre, whilst they conversed on literary subjects--listened, with a countenance so full of intelligence, of animation so expressive of every good and kind affection, that the gentlemen did not always know what they were saying.
'Pray go on,' said she, once, to Mr. Salisbury; 'you stop, perhaps, from politeness to me--from compassion to my ignorance; but, though I am ignorant, you do not tire me, I assure you. Did you ever condescend to read the Arabian tales? Like him whose eyes were touched by the magical application from the dervise, I am enabled at once to see the riches of a new world--Oh! how unlike, how superior to that in which I have lived!--the great world, as it is called.'
Lord Colambre brought down a beautiful edition of the Arabian tales, looked for the story to which Miss Nugent had alluded, and showed it to Miss Broadhurst, who was also searching for it in another volume.
Lady Clonbrony, from her card-table, saw the young people thus engaged.
'I profess not to understand these things so well as you say you do, my dear Mrs. Broadhurst,' whispered she; 'but look there now; they are at their books! What do you expect can come of that sort of thing? So ill-bred, and downright rude of Colambre, I must give him a hint.'
'No, no, for mercy's sake! my dear Lady Clonbrony, no hints, no hints, no remarks! What would you have!--she reading, and my lord at the back of her chair, leaning over--and allowed, mind, to lean over to read the same thing. Can't be better! Never saw any man yet allowed to come so near her! Now, Lady Clonbrony, not a word, not a look, I beseech.'
'Well, well!--but if they had a little music.'
'My daughter's tired of music. How much do I owe your ladyship now?--three rubbers, I think. Now, though you would not believe it of a young girl,' continued Mrs. Broadhurst, 'I can assure your ladyship, my daughter would often rather go to a book than a ball.'
'Well, now, that's very extraordinary, in the style in which she has been brought up; yet books and all that are so fashionable now, that it's very natural,' said Lady Clonbrony.
About this time, Mr. Berryl, Lord Colambre's Cambridge friend, for whom his lordship had fought the battle of the curricle with Mordicai, came to town. Lord Colambre introduced him to his mother, by whom he was graciously received; for Mr. Berryl was a young gentleman of good figure, good address, good family, heir to a good fortune, and in every respect a fit match for Miss Nugent. Lady Clonbrony thought that it would be wise to secure him for her niece before he should make his appearance in the London world, where mothers and daughters would soon make him feel his own consequence. Mr. Berryl, as Lord Colambre's intimate friend, was admitted to the private evening parties at Lady Clonbrony's, and he contributed to render them still more agreeable. His information, his habits of thinking, and his views, were all totally different from Mr. Salisbury's; and their collision continually struck out that sparkling novelty which pleases peculiarly in conversation. Mr. Berryl's education, disposition, and tastes, fitted him exactly for the station which he was destined to fill in society--that of a country gentleman; not meaning by that expression a mere eating, drinking, hunting, shooting, ignorant country squire of the old race, which is now nearly extinct; but a cultivated, enlightened, independent English country gentleman--the happiest, perhaps, of human beings. On the comparative felicity of the town and country life; on the dignity, utility, elegance, and interesting nature of their different occupations, and general scheme of passing their time, Mr. Berryl and Mr. Salisbury had one evening a playful, entertaining, and, perhaps, instructive conversation; each party, at the end, remaining, as frequently happens, of their own opinion. It was observed that Miss Broadhurst ably and warmly defended Mr. Berryl's side of the question; and in their views, plans, and estimates of life, there appeared a remarkable, and as Lord Colambre thought, a happy coincidence. When she was at last called upon to give her decisive judgment between a town and a country life, she declared that 'if she were condemned to the extremes of either, she should prefer a country life, as much as she should prefer Robinson Crusoe's diary to the journal of the idle man in the Spectator.'
'Lord bless me! Mrs. Broadhurst, do you hear what your daughter is saying?' cried Lady Clonbrony, who, from the card-table, lent an attentive ear to all that was going forward. 'Is it possible that Miss Broadhurst, with her fortune, and pretensions, and sense, can really be serious in saying she would be content to live in the country?'
'What's that you say, child, about living in the country?' said Mrs. Broadhurst.
Miss Broadhurst repeated what she had said.
'Girls always think so who have lived in town,' said Mrs. Broadhurst. 'They are always dreaming of sheep and sheephooks; but the first winter the country cures them; a shepherdess, in winter, is a sad and sorry sort of personage, except at a masquerade.'
'Colambre,' said Lady Clonbrony, 'I am sure Miss Broadhurst's sentiments about town life, and all that, must delight you; for do you know, ma'am, he is always trying to persuade me to give up living in town? Colambre and Miss Broadhurst perfectly agree.'
'Mind your cards, my dear Lady Clonbrony,' interrupted Mrs. Broadhurst, 'in pity to your partner. Mr. Pratt has certainly the patience of Job--your ladyship has revoked twice this hand.'
Lady Clonbrony begged a thousand pardons, fixed her eyes and endeavoured to fix her mind on the cards; but there was something said at the other end of the room, about an estate in Cambridgeshire, which soon distracted her attention again. Mr. Pratt certainly had the patience of Job. She revoked, and lost the game, though they had four by honours.
As soon as she rose from the card-table, and could speak to Mrs. Broadhurst apart, she communicated her apprehensions.
'Seriously, my dear madam,' said she, 'I believe I have done very wrong to admit Mr. Berryl just now, though it was on Grace's account I did it. But, ma'am, I did not know Miss Broadhurst had an estate in Cambridgeshire; their two estates just close to one another, I heard them say. Lord bless me, ma'am! there's the danger of propinquity indeed!'
'No danger, no danger,' persisted Mrs. Broadhurst. 'I know my girl better than you do, begging your ladyship's pardon. No one thinks less of estates than she does.'
'Well, I only know I heard her talking of them, and earnestly too.'
'Yes, very likely; but don't you know that girls never think of what they are talking about, or rather never talk of what they are thinking about? And they have always ten times more to say to the man they don't care for, than to him they do.'
'Very extraordinary!' said Lady Clonbrony. 'I only hope you are right.'
'I am sure of it,' said Mrs. Broadhurst. 'Only let things go on, and mind your cards, I beseech you, to-morrow night better than you did to-night; and you will see that things will turn out just as I prophesied. Lord Colambre will come to a point-blank proposal before the end of the week, and will be accepted, or my name's not Broadhurst. Why, in plain English, I am clear my girl likes him; and when that's the case, you know, can you doubt how the thing will end?'
Mrs. Broadhurst was perfectly right in every point of her reasoning but one. From long habit of seeing and considering that such an heiress as her daughter might marry whom she pleased--from constantly seeing that she was the person to decide and to reject--Mrs. Broadhurst had literally taken it for granted that everything was to depend upon her daughter's inclinations: she was not mistaken, in the present case, in opining that the young lady would not be averse to Lord Colambre, if he came to what she called a point-blank proposal. It really never occurred to Mrs. Broadhurst that any man, whom her daughter was the least inclined to favour, could think of anybody else. Quick-sighted in these affairs as the matron thought herself, she saw but one side of the question: blind and dull of comprehension as she thought Lady Clonbrony on this subject, she was herself so completely blinded by her own prejudices, as to be incapable of discerning the plain thing that was before her eyes; Videlicet, that Lord Colambre preferred Grace Nugent. Lord Colambre made no proposal before the end of the week, but this Mrs. Broadhurst attributed to an unexpected occurrence, which prevented things from going on in the train in which they had been proceeding so smoothly. Sir John Berryl, Mr. Berryl's father, was suddenly seized with a dangerous illness. The news was brought to Mr. Berryl one evening whilst he was at Lady Clonbrony's. The circumstances of domestic distress, which afterwards occurred in the family of his friend, entirely occupied Lord Colambre's time and attention. All thoughts of love were suspended, and his whole mind was given up to the active services of friendship. The sudden illness of Sir John Berryl spread an alarm among his creditors which brought to light at once the disorder of his affairs, of which his son had no knowledge or suspicion. Lady Berryl had been a very expensive woman, especially in equipages; and Mordicai, the coachmaker, appeared at this time the foremost and the most inexorable of their creditors. Conscious that the charges in his account were exorbitant, and that they would not be allowed if examined by a court of justice; that it was a debt which only ignorance and extravagance could have in the first instance incurred, swelled afterwards to an amazing amount by interest, and interest upon interest; Mordicai was impatient to obtain payment whilst Sir John yet lived, or at least to obtain legal security for the whole sum from the heir. Mr. Berryl offered his bond for the amount of the reasonable charges in his account; but this Mordicai absolutely refused, declaring that now he had the power in his own hands, he would use it to obtain the utmost penny of his debt; that he would not let the thing slip through his fingers; that a debtor never yet escaped him, and never should; that a man's lying upon his deathbed was no excuse to a creditor; that he was not a whiffler, to stand upon ceremony about disturbing a gentleman in his last moments; that he was not to be cheated out of his due by such niceties; that he was prepared to go all lengths the law would allow; for that, as to what people said of him, he did not care a doit--'Cover your face with your hands, if you like it, Mr. Berryl; you may be ashamed for me, but I feel no shame for myself--I am not so weak.' Mordicai's countenance said more than his words; livid with malice, and with atrocious determination in his eyes, he stood. 'Yes, sir,' said he, 'you may look at me as you please--it is possible I am in earnest. Consult what you'll do now, behind my back or before my face, it comes to the same thing; for nothing will do but my money or your bond, Mr. Berryl. The arrest is made on the person of your father, luckily made while the breath is still in the body. Yes--start forward to strike me, if you dare--your father, Sir John Berryl, sick or well, is my prisoner.'
Lady Berryl and Mr. Berryl's sisters, in an agony of grief, rushed into the room.
'It's all useless,' cried Mordicai, turning his back upon the ladies; 'these tricks upon creditors won't do with me; I'm used to these scenes; I'm not made of such stuff as you think. Leave a gentleman in peace in his last moments. No! he ought not, nor shan't die in peace, if he don't pay his debts; and if you are all so mighty sorry, ladies, there's the gentleman you may kneel to; if tenderness is the order of the day, it's for the son to show it, not me. Ay, now, Mr. Berryl,' cried he, as Mr. Berryl took up the bond to sign it, 'you're beginning to know I'm not a fool to be trifled with. Stop your hand, if you choose it, sir --it's all the same to me; the person, or the money, I'll carry with me out of this house.'
Mr. Beryl signed the bond, and threw it to him.
'There, monster!--quit the house!'
'Monster is not actionable--I wish you had called me rascal,' said Mordicai, grinning a horrible smile; and taking up the bond deliberately, returned it to Mr. Berryl. 'This paper is worth nothing to me, sir--it is not witnessed.'
Mr. Berryl hastily left the room, and returned with Lord Colambre. Mordicai changed countenance and grew pale, for a moment, at sight of Lord Colambre.
'Well, my lord, since it so happens, I am not sorry that you should be witness to this paper,' said, he; 'and indeed not sorry that you should witness the whole proceeding; for I trust I shall be able to explain to you my conduct.'
'I do not come here, sir,' interrupted Lord Colambre, 'to listen to any explanations of your conduct, which I perfectly understand;--I come to witness a bond for my friend Mr. Berryl, if you think proper to extort from him such a bond.'
'I extort nothing, my lord. Mr. Berryl, it is quite a voluntary act, take notice, on your part; sign or not, witness or not, as you please, gentlemen,' said Mordicai, sticking his hands in his pockets, and recovering his look of black and fixed determination.
'Witness it, witness it, my dear lord,' said Mr. Berryl, looking at his mother and weeping sisters; 'witness it, quick!'
'Mr. Berryl must just run over his name again in your presence, my lord, with a dry pen,' said Mordicai, putting the pen into Mr. Berryl's hand.
'No, sir,' said Lord Colambre, 'my friend shall never sign it.'
'As you please, my lord--the bond or the body, before I quit this house,' said Mordicai.
'Neither, sir, shall you have; and you quit this house directly.'
'How! how!--my lord, how's this?'
'Sir, the arrest you have made is as illegal as it is inhuman.'
'Illegal, my lord!' said Mordicai, startled.
'Illegal, sir. I came into this house at the moment when your bailiff asked and was refused admittance. Afterwards, in the confusion of the family above stairs, he forced open the house door with an iron bar--I saw him--I am ready to give evidence of the fact. Now proceed at your peril.'
Mordicai, without reply snatched up his hat, and walked towards the door; but Lord Colambre held the door open--the door was immediately at the head of the stairs--and Mordicai, seeing his indignant look and proud form, hesitated to pass; for he had always heard that Irishmen are 'quick in the executive part of justice.'
'Pass on, sir,' repeated Lord Colambre, with an air of ineffable contempt; 'I am a gentleman--you have nothing to fear.'
Mordicai ran downstairs; Lord Colambre, before he went back into the room, waited to see Mordicai and his bailiff out of the house. When Mordicai was fairly at the bottom of the stairs, he turned, and, white with rage, looked up at Lord Colambre.
'Charity begins at home, my lord,' said he. 'Look at home--you shall pay for this,' added he, standing half-shielded by the house door, for Lord Colambre moved forward as he spoke the last words; 'and I give you this warning, because I know it will be of no use to you--Your most obedient, my lord.'
The house door closed after Mordicai.
'Thank Heaven!' thought Lord Colambre, 'that I did not horsewhip that mean wretch! This warning shall be of use to me. But it is not time to think of that yet.'
Lord Colambre turned from his own affairs to those of his friend, to offer all the assistance and consolation in his power. Sir John Berryl died that night. His daughters, who had lived in the highest style in London, were left totally unprovided for. His widow had mortgaged her jointure. Mr. Berryl had an estate now left to him, but without any income. He could not be so dishonest as to refuse to pay his father's just debts; he could not let his mother and sisters starve. The scene of distress to which Lord Colambre was witness in this family made a still greater impression upon him than had been made by the warning or the threats of Mordicai. The similarity between the circumstances of his friend's family and of his own struck him forcibly.
All this evil had arisen from Lady Berryl's passion for living in London and at watering-places. She had made her husband an absentee--an absentee from his home, his affairs, his duties, and his estate. The sea, the Irish Channel, did not, indeed, flow between him and his estate; but it was of little importance whether the separation was effected by land or water--the consequences, the negligence, the extravagance, were the same.
Of the few people of his age who are capable of profiting by the experience of others, Lord Colambre was one. 'Experience,' as an elegant writer has observed, 'is an article that may be borrowed with safety, and is often dearly bought.'