I am not One who much or oft delights
To season my Friends with personal talk,—
Of Friends who live within an easy walk.
Or Neighbours, daily, weekly in my sight:
And, for my chance acquaintance, Ladies bright.
Sons, Mothers, Maidens with ering on the stalk.
These all wear out of me, like Forms, with chalk
Painted on rich men's floors, for one feast-night.
Mrs. Elizabeth Fitzhenry returned to Longfield from Maristow Castle at the end of the month of November. She gladly came back, in all the dinginess and bleakness of that dismal season, to her beloved seclusion at Longfield. The weather was dreary, a black frost invested every thing with its icy chains, the landscape looked disconsolate, and now and then wintry blasts brought on snow-storms, and howled loudly through the long dark nights. The amiable spinster drew her chair close to the fire; with half-shut eyes she contemplated the glowing embers, and recalled many past winters just like this, when was alive and in America; or, diving yet deeper into memory, when the honoured chair she now occupied, had been dignified by her father, and she had tried to sooth his querulous complaints on the continued absence of her brother Henry. When, instead of these familiar thoughts, the novel ones of Ethel and Villiers intruded themselves, she rubbed her eyes to be quite sure that she did not dream. It was a lamentable change; and who the cause? Even she whose absence had been, she felt, wickedly lamented at Maristow Castle, Cornelia Santerre-she, who in an evil hour, had become Lady Lodore, and who would before God, answer for the disasters and untimely death of her ill-fated husband.
With any but Mrs. Fitzhenry, such accusations had, after the softening process of time, been changed to an admission, that, despite her errors, Lady had rather been misled and mistaken, than heinously faulty; and her last act, in sacrificing so much to her daughter, although the extent of her sacrifice was unknown to her sister-in-law, had cancelled her former delinquencies. But the prejudiced old lady was not so easily mollified; she was harsh alone towards her, but all the gall of her nature was collected and expended on the head of her brother's widow. Probably an instinctive feeling of her unreasonableness made her more violent. Her language was bitter whenever she alluded to her—she rejoiced at her absence, and instead of entering into Ethel's gratitude and impatience, she fervently prayed that she might never appear on the scene again.
Mrs. Elizabeth Fitzhenry was less of a gossip than any maiden lady who had ever lived singly in the centre of a little village. Her heart was full of the dead and the absent—of past events, and their long train of consequences, so that the history of the inhabitants of her village, possessed no charm for her. If any one among them suffered from misfortune she endeavoured to relieve them, and if any died, she lamented, moralized on the passage of time, and talked of 's death; but the scandal, the marriages, the feuds, and wonderful things that came to pass at Longfield, appeared childish and contemptible, the flickering of earth-born tapers compared to the splendour, the obscuration, and final setting of the celestial luminary which had been the pole-star of her life.
It was from this reason that Mrs. Fitzhenry had not heard of the Lady who lodged at Dame Nixon's cottage, in the Vale of Bewling, till the time, when, after having exhausted the curiosity of Longfield, she was almost forgotten. The Lady, she was known by no other name, had arrived in the town during Mrs. Fitzhenry's visit to Maristow castle. She had arrived in her own chariot, unattended by any servant; the following day she had taken up her abode at Dame Nixon's cottage, saying, that she was only going to stay a week: she had continued there for more than three months.
Dame Nixon's cottage was situated about a mile and a half from Longfield. It stood alone in a little hollow embowered by trees; the ground behind rose to a slight upland, and a rill trickled through the garden. You got to it by a bye path, which no wheeled vehicle could traverse, though a horse might, and it was indeed the very dingle and cottage which Ethel had praised during her visit into Essex in the preceding year. The silence and seclusion were in summer tranquillizing and beautiful; in winter sad and drear; the fields were swampy in wet weather, and in snow and frost it seemed cut off from the rest of the world. Dame Nixon and her granddaughter lived there alone. The girl had been engaged to be married. Her lover jilted her, and wedded a richer bride. The story is so old, that it is to be wondered that women have not ceased to lament so common an occurrence. Poor Margaret was, on the contrary, struck to the heart—she despised herself for being unable to preserve her lover's affections, rather than the deceiver for his infidelity. She neglected her personal appearance, nor ever showed herself among her former companions, except to support her grandmother to church. Her false lover sat in the adjoining pew. She fixed her eyes on her Prayer-book during the service, and on the ground as she went away. She did not wish him to see the change which his faithlessness had wrought, for surely it would afflict him. Once there had not bloomed a fresher or gayer rose in the fields of Essex—now she had grown thin and pale—her young light step had become slow and heavy—sickness and sorrow made her eyes hollow, and her cheeks sunken. She avoided every one, devoting herself to attendance on her grandmother. Dame Nixon was nearly doting. Life was ebbing fast from her old frame; her best pleasure was to sun herself in the garden in summer, or to bask before the winter's fire. While enjoying these delights, her dimmed eyes brightened, and a smile wreathed her withered lips; she said, "Ah! this is comfortable;" while her broken-hearted grandchild envied a state of being which could content itself with mere animal enjoyment. They were very poor. Margaret had to work hard; but the thoughts of the head, or, at least, the feelings of the heart, need not wait on the labour of the hands. The Sunday visit to church kept alive her pain; her very prayers were bitter, breathed close to the deceiver and her who had usurped her happiness: the memory and anticipation haunted her through the week; she was often blinded by tears as she patiently pursued her household duties, or her toil in their little garden. Her hands were hardened with work, her throat, her face sunburnt; but exercise and occupation did not prevent her from wasting away, or her cheek from becoming sunk and wan.
Dame Nixon's cottage was poor but roomy; some years before, a gentleman from London had, in a freak, hired two rooms in it, and furnished them. Since then, she had sometimes let them, and now they were occupied by the stranger lady. At first all three of the inhabitants appeared each Sunday at church. The Lady was dressed in spotless and simple white, and so closely veiled, that no one could see her face; of course she was beautiful. Soon after Mrs. Elizabeth's return from Maristow Castle, it was discovered that first the lady stayed away, and soon, that the whole party absented themselves on Sunday; and as this defalcation demanded inquiry, it was discovered that a pony chaise took them three miles off to the church of the nearest village. This was a singular and yet a beneficial change. The false swain must rejoice at losing sight of the memento of his sin, and Margaret would certainly pray with a freer heart, when she no longer shrunk from his gaze and that of his wife.
It was not until the end of January that Mrs. Elizabeth heard of the Lady; it was not till the beginning of February that she asked a single question about her.
In January, passing the inn-yard, the curate's wife, who was walking with her, said, "There is the chariot belonging to the Lady who lodges at dame Nixon's cottage. I wonder who she is. The arms are painted out."
"Ah, dame Nixon has a lodger then; that is a good thing, it will help her through the winter. I have not seen her or her daughter at church lately."
"No," replied the other, "they go now to Bewling church."
"I am glad to hear it," said Mrs. Fitzhenry; "it is much better for poor Margaret not to come here."
The conversation went on, and the Lady was alluded to, but no questions were asked or curiosity excited. In February she heard from the doctor's wife, that the doctor had been to the cottage, and that the Lady was indisposed. She heard at the same time that this Lady had refused to receive the visits of the curate's lady and the doctor's lady—excusing herself, that she was going to leave Essex immediately. This had happened two months before. On hearing of her illness, Mrs. Elizabeth thought of calling on her, but this stopped her. "It is very odd," said the doctor's wife, "she came in her own carriage, and yet has no servants. She lives in as poor a way as can be, down in that cottage, yet my husband says she is more like the Queen of England in her looks and ways than any one he ever saw."
"Like the Queen of England?" said Mrs. Fitzhenry, "What queen?—Queen Charlotte?" who had been the queen of the greater part of the good lady's life.
"She is as young and beautiful as an angel," said the other, half angry; "it is very mysterious. She did not look downcast like, as if any thing was wrong, but was as cheerful and condescending as could be. 'Condescending, Doctor,' said I, for my husband used the word; 'you don't want condescension from a poor body lodging at dame Nixon's.'—'A poor body!' said he, in a huff, 'she is more of a lady, indeed more like the Queen of England than any rich body you ever saw.' And what is odd, no one knows her name—Dame Nixon and Margaret always call her Lady—the very marks are picked out from her pocket handkerchiefs. Yet I did hear that there was a coronet plain to be seen on one—a thing impossible unless she was a poor cast-away; and the doctor says he'd lay his life that she was nothing of that. He must know her name when he makes out her bill, and I told him to ask it plump, but he puts off, and puts off, till I am out of all patience."
A misty confused sense of discomfort stole over Mrs. Elizabeth when she heard of the coronet in the corner of the pocket handkerchief, but it passed away without suggesting any distinct idea to her mind. Nor did she feel curiosity about the stranger—she was too much accustomed to the astonishment, the conjectures, the gossip of Longfield, to suppose that there was any real foundation for surprise, because its wonder-loving inhabitants choose to build up a mystery out of every common occurrence of life.
This absence of inquisitiveness must long have kept Mrs. Fitzhenry in ignorance of who her neighbour was, and the inhabitants of Longfield would probably have discovered it before her, had not the truth been revealed even before she entertained a suspicion that there was any secret to be found out.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," said her maid to her one evening, as she was superintending the couchée of the worthy spinster, "I think you ought to know, though I am afraid you may be angry."
The woman hesitated; her mistress encouraged her. "If it is any thing I ought to know, Wilmot, tell it at once, and don't be afraid. What has happened to you?"
"To me, ma'am,—la! nothing," replied the maid; "it's something about the Lady at dame Nixon's, only you commanded me never to speak the name of—"
And again the good woman stopped short. Mrs. Fitzhenry, a little surprised, and somewhat angry, bade her go on. At length, in plain words she was told:
"Why, ma'am, the Lady down in the Vale is no other than my lady—than Lady ."
"Ridiculous—who told you so?"
"My own eyes, ma'am; I shouldn't have believed any thing else. I saw the Lady, and it was my Lady, as sure as I stand here."
"But how could you know her? it is years since you saw her."
"Yes, ma'am," said the woman, with a smile of superiority; "but it is not easy to forget Lady . See her yourself, ma'am,—you will know then that I am right."
Wilmot had lived twenty years with Mrs. Fitzhenry. She had visited town with her at the time of Ethel's christening. She had been kept in vexatious ignorance of subsequent events, till the period of the visit of her mistress and niece to London two years before, when she indemnified herself. Through the servants of Villiers, and of the Misses Saville, she had learnt a vast deal; and not satisfied with mere hearsay, she had seen Lady several times getting into her carriage at her own door, and had even been into her house: such energy is there in a liberal curiosity. The same disinterested feeling had caused her to go down to dame Nixon's with an offer from her mistress of service to the Lady, hearing she was ill. She went perfectly unsuspicious of the wonderful discovery she was about to make, and was thus rewarded beyond her most sanguine hopes, by being in possession of a secret, known to herself alone. The keeping of a secret is, however, a post of no honour if all knowledge be confined to the possessor alone. Mrs. Wilmot was tolerably faithful, with all her love of knowledge; she was sure it would vex her mistress if Lady Lodore's strange place of abode were known at Longfield, and Mrs. Fitzhenry was consequently the first person to whom she had hinted the fact. All this account she detailed with great volubility. Her mistress recommended discretion most earnestly; and at the same time expressed a doubt whether her information was correct.
"I wish you would go and judge for yourself, ma'am," said the maid.
"God forbid!" exclaimed Mrs. Fitzhenry. "God grant I never see Lady again! She will go soon. You tell me that dame Nixon says she is only staying till she is well. She will go soon, and it need never be known, except to ourselves, Wilmot, that she was ever here."
There was a dignity in this eternal mystery that somewhat compensated for the absence of wonder and fuss which the woman had anticipated with intense pleasure. She assured her mistress, over and over again, of her secrecy and discretion, and was dismissed with the exhortation to forget all she had learnt as quickly as possible.
"Wherefore did she come here? what can she be doing?" Mrs. Fitzhenry asked herself over and over again. She could not guess. It was strange, it was mysterious, and some mischief was at the bottom—but she would go soon—"would that she were already gone!"
It must be mentioned that Mrs. Elizabeth Fitzhenry had left Maristow Castle before the arrival of Mr. Gayland, and had therefore no knowledge of the still more mysterious cloud that enveloped Lady 's absence. Ignorant of her self-destroying sacrifices and generosity, her pity was not excited, her feelings were all against her. She counted the days as they passed, and looked wistfully at Wilmot, hoping that she would quickly bring tidings of the Lady's departure. In vain; the doctor ceased to visit the cottage, but the Lady remained. All at once the doctor visited it again with greater assiduity than ever—not on account of his beautiful patient—but Dame Nixon had had a paralytic stroke, and the kind Lady had sent for him, and promised to defray all the expenses of the poor woman's illness.
All this was truly vexatious. Mrs. Fitzhenry fretted, and even asked Wilmot questions, but the unwelcome visitor was still there. Wherefore? What could have put so disagreeable a whim into her head? The good lady could think of no motive, while she considered her presence an insult. She was still more annoyed when she received a letter from Ethel. It had been proposed that Mr. and Mrs. Villiers should pay her a visit in the spring; but now Ethel wrote to say that she might be immediately expected. "I have strange things to tell you about my dear mother," wrote Ethel; "it is very uncertain where she is. Horatio can hear nothing of her at Paris, and will soon return. Edward is going to Wales, as there seems a great likelihood that she has secluded herself there. While he is away you may expect me. I shall not be able to stay long—he will come at the end of a week to fetch me."
Mrs. Fitzhenry shuddered. Her prejudices were stronger than ever. She experienced the utmost wretchedness from the idea that the residence of Lady would be discovered, and a family union effected. It seemed desecration to the memory of her brother, ruin to Ethel—the greatest misfortune that could befal any of them. Her feelings were exaggerated, but they were on that account the more powerful. How could she avert the evil?—a remedy must be sought, and she fixed on one—a desperate one, in truth, which appeared to her the sole mode of saving them all from the greatest disasters.
She resolved to visit Lady ; to represent to her the impropriety and wickedness of her having any intercourse with her daughter, and to entreat her to depart before Ethel's arrival. Her violence might almost seem madness; but all people who live in solitude become to a certain degree insane. Their views of things are not corrected by comparing them with those of others; and the strangest want of proportion always reigns in their ideas and sentiments.