Every successive season served to quicken the pulses of this growing hatred. Whether on the spot or at a distance, a thousand aggravations sprang up betwixt the parties: disputes between gamekeepers, quarrels between labourers, encroachments by tenants. Every thing and nothing was made the groundwork of ill-will. To Sir Laurence Altham's embittered feelings, the very rooks of Lexley Park seemed evermore to infringe upon the privileges of the rookery at Lexley Hall; and when, in the parish church, the new squire (or rather his workmen, for he was absent at the time attending his duties in Parliament) inadvertently broke off the foot of a marble cherub, weeping its alabaster tears, at the angle of a monument to the memory of a certain Sir Wilfred Altham, of the time of James II., in raising the woodwork of a pew occupied by Mr Sparks's family, the rage of Sir Laurence was so excessive as to be almost deserving of a strait-waistcoat.
The enmity of the baronet was all the more painful to himself that he felt it to be harmless against its object. In every way, Lexley Park had the best of it. Jonas Sparks was not only rich in a noble income, but in a charming wife and promising family. Every thing prospered with him; and, as to mere inferiority of precedence, it was well known that he had refused a baronetcy; and many people even surmised that, so soon as he was able to purchase another borough, and give a seat in Parliament to his second son, as well as resign his own to the eldest, he would be promoted to the Upper House.
The only means of vengeance, therefore, possessed by the vindictive man whose follies and vices had been the means of creating this perpetual scourge to his pride, was withholding from him the purchase of the remaining lands indispensable to the completion of his estate, more especially as regarded the water-courses, which, at Lexley Park, were commanded by the sluices of the higher grounds of the Hall; and mighty was the oath sworn by Sir Laurence, that come what might, however great his exigencies or threatening his poverty, nothing should induce him to dispose of another acre to Jonas Sparks. He was even at the trouble of executing a will, in order to introduce a clause imposing the same reservation upon the man to whom he devised his small remaining property—the heir-at-law, to whom, had he died intestate, it would have descended without conditions.
"The Congleton shopkeepers," muttered he, (whenever, in his solitary evening rides, he caught sight of the rich plate-glass windows of the new mansion, burnished by the setting sun,) "shall never, never lord it under the roof of my forefathers! Wherever else he may set his plebeian foot, Lexley Hall shall be sacred. Rather see the old place burned to the ground—rather set fire to it with my own hands—than conceive that, when I am in my grave, it could possibly be subjected to the rule of such a barbarian!"
For it had reached the ears of Sir Laurence—of course, with all the exaggeration derived from passing through the medium of village gossip—that a thousand local legends concerning the venerable mansion, sanctified by their antiquity in the ears of the family, afforded a fertile source of jesting to Jonas Sparks. The Hall abounded in concealed staircases and iron hiding-places, connected with a variety of marvellous traditions of the civil wars; besides a walled-up suite of chambers, haunted, as becomes a walled-up suite of chambers; and justice-rooms and tapestried-rooms, to which the long abandonment of the house, and the heated imaginations of the few menials left in charge of its desolate vastness, attributed romances likely enough to have provoked the laughter of a matter-of-fact man like the owner of Lexley Park. But neither Sir Laurence nor his old servants were likely to forgive this insult offered to the family legends of a house which had little else left to boast of. Even the neighbouring families were displeased to hear them derided; and my grandfather never liked to hear a joke on the subject of the coach-and-four which was said to have driven into the court-yard of the Hall on the eve of the execution of the rebel lords in 1745, having four headless inmates, who were duly welcomed as guests by old Sir Robert Altham. Nay, as a child, I had so often thrilled on my nurse's knees during the relation of this spectral visitation, that I own I felt indignant if any one presumed to laugh at a tale which had made me quake for fear.
Among those who were known to resent the familiar tone in which Mr Sparks had been heard to criticise the pomps and vanities exhibited at Lexley Hall by the Althams of the olden time, was a certain General Stanley, who, inhabiting a fine seat of his own at about ten miles' distance, was fond of bringing over his visitors to visit the old Hall, as an interesting specimen of county antiquity. He knew the peculiarities of the place, and could repeat the traditions connected with the hiding-places better than the housekeeper herself; and I have heard her say it was a pleasure to hear him relating these historical anecdotes with all the fire of an old soldier, and see his venerable grey hair blown about as he stood with his party on the battlements, pointing out to the ladies the fine range of territory formerly belonging to the Althams. The old lady protested that the general was nearly as much grieved as herself to behold the old mansion so shorn of its beams; and certain it is, that once when, on visiting the hall after Sir Laurence had been some years an absentee, he found the grass growing among the disjointed stones of the cloisters and justice-hall, he made a handsome present to one of the housekeeper's nephews, on condition of his keeping the purlieus of the venerable mansion free from such disgraceful evidences of neglect.
All this eventually reached the ears of the baronet; but instead of making him angry, as might have been expected, from one so tetchy and susceptible, he never encountered General Stanley, either in town or country, without demonstrations of respect. Though too reserved and morose for conversation, Sir Laurence was observed to take off his hat to him with a respect he was never seen to show towards the king or queen.
About this time I began to take personal interest in the affairs of the neighbourhood, though my own were now of a nature to engross my attention. By my grandfather's death, I had recently come into the enjoyment of the small inheritance which has sufficed to the happiness of my life; and, renouncing the profession for which I was educated, settled myself permanently at Lexley.
Well do I remember the melancholy face with which the good old rector, the very first evening we spent together, related to me in confidence that he had three years' dues in arrear to him from Lexley Hall; but that so wretched was said to be the state of Sir Laurence's embarrassments, that, for more than a year, his dread of arrest had kept him a close prisoner in his house in London.
"We have not seen him here these six years!" observed Dr Whittingham; "and I doubt whether he will ever again set foot in the county. Since an execution was put into the Hall, he has never crossed the threshold, and I suspect never will. Far better were he to dispose of the property at once! Dismembered as it is, what pleasure can it afford him? And, since he is unlikely to marry and have heirs, there is less call upon him to retain this remaining relic of family pride; yet I am assured—nay, have good reason to know, that he has refused a very liberal offer on the part of Mr Sparks. Malicious people do say, by the way, that it was by the advice of Sparks's favourite attorneys the execution was enforced, and that no means have been left unattempted to disgust him with the place. Yet he is firm, you see, and persists in disappointing his creditors, and depriving himself of the comforts of life, merely in order that he may die, as his fathers did before him—the lord of Lexley Hall!"
"I don't wonder!" said I, with the dawning sentiments of a landed proprietor—"'Tis a splendid old house, even in its present state of degradation; and, by Jove! I honour his pertinacity."
Thus put upon the scent, I sometimes fancied I could detect wistful looks on the part of my prosperous neighbour of the Park, when, in the course of Dr Whittingham's somewhat lengthy sermons, he directed his eyes towards the carved old Gothic tribune, containing the family-pew of the Althams, in the parish church; and, whenever I happened to encounter him in the neighbourhood of the Hall, his face was so pointedly averted from the house, as if the mere object were an offence. I could not but wonder at his vexation; being satisfied in my own mind, that sooner or later the remaining heritage of the spendthrift must fall to his share.
Judge, therefore, of my surprise, when one fine morning, as I sauntered into the village, I found the whole population gathered in groups on the little market-place, and discovered from the incoherent exclamations of the crowd, that "the new proprietor of the Hall had just driven through in a chaise-and-four!"
Yes—"the new proprietor!" The place was sold! The good doctor's prediction was verified. Sir Laurence was never more to return to Lexley Hall!
The satisfaction of the villagers almost equalled their surprise on finding that General Stanley was their new landlord. It suited them much better that there should be two families settled on the property than one; and as it was pretty generally reported, that, in the event of Sparks becoming the purchaser, he intended to demolish the old house, and reconsolidate the estate around his own more commodious mansion, they were right glad to find it rescued from such a sentence—General Stanley, who was the father of a family, would probably settle the hall on one of his daughters, after placing it in the state of repair so much needed.
When the chaise-and-four returned, therefore, a few hours afterwards, through the village, the General was loudly cheered by his subjects. His partiality for the place was so well known at Lexley, that already these people seemed to behold in him the guardian of a monument so long the object of their pride.
For my own part, nothing surprised me so much in the business as that Sparks should have allowed the purchase to slip through his fingers. It was worth thrice as much to him as to any body else. It was the keystone of his property. It was the one thing needful to render Lexley Park the most perfect seat in the county. But I was not slow in learning (for every thing transpires in a small country neighbourhood) that whatever my surprise on finding that the old Hall had changed its master, that of Sparks was far more overwhelming; that he was literally frantic on finding himself frustrated in expectations which formed the leading interest of his declining years. For the progress of time which had made me a man and a landed proprietor, had converted the stout active squire into an infirm old man; and it was his absorbing wish to die sole owner of the whole property to which the baronets of the Altham family were born.
He even indulged in expressions of irritation, which nearly proved the means of commencing this new neighbourship by a duel; accusing General Stanley of having possessed himself by unfair means of Sir Laurence's confidence, and employed agents, underhand, to effect the purchase. In consequence of these groundless representations, it transpired in the country that the decayed baronet had actually volunteered the offer of the estate to the veteran proprietor of Stanley Manor; that he had solicited him to become the proprietor, and even accommodated him with peculiar facilities of payment, on condition of his inserting in the title-deeds an express undertaking, never to dispose of the old Hall, or any portion of the property, to Jonas Sparks of Lexley Park, or his heirs for ever. The solicitor by whom, under Sir Laurence's direction, the deeds had been prepared, saw fit to divulge this singular specification, rather than that a hostile encounter should run the risk of embruing in blood the hands of two grey haired men.
Excepting as regarded the disappointment of our wealthy neighbour, all was now established on the happiest footing at Lexley. The reparation instantly commenced by the General, gave employment throughout the winter to our workmen; and the evils arising from an absentee landlord began gradually to disappear. It was a great joy to me to perceive that the new proprietor of the Hall had the good taste to preserve the antique character of the place in the minutest portion of his alterations; and though the old gardens were no longer a wilderness, not a shrub was displaced—not a mutilated statue removed. The furniture had been sold off at the time of the execution; and that which came down in cart-loads from town to replace it, was rigidly in accordance with the semi-Gothic architecture of the lofty chambers. Poor Sparks must have been doubly mortified; for not only did he find his old eyesore converted into an irremediable evil by the restoration of the Hall, but the supremacy hitherto maintained in the neighbourhood by the modern elegance of his house and establishment, was thrown into the shade by the rich and tasteful arrangements of the Hall.
From the contracted look of his forehead, and sudden alteration of his appearance, I have reason to think he was beginning to undergo all the moral martyrdom sustained for thirty years past by the unfortunate Sir Laurence Altham; and were I not by nature the most contented of men, it would have sufficiently reconciled me to the mediocrity of my fortunes, to see that these two great people of my neighbourhood—the nobly-descended baronet and rich parvenu—were miserable men; that, so long as I could remember, one or other of them had been given over to surliness and discontent.
Before the close of the year the grand old Hall had become one of the noblest seats in the county. There was talk about it in all the country round, and even the newspapers took notice of its renovation, and of General Stanley's removal thither from Stanley Manor. Many people, of the species who love to detect spots in the sun, were careful to point out the insufficiency of the estate, as at present constituted, to maintain so fine a house. But, after all, what mattered this to General Stanley, who had a fine rent-roll elsewhere?
The first thing he did, on taking possession, was to give a grand ball to the neighbourhood; nor was it till the whole house was lighted up for this festive occasion, that people were fully aware of the grandeur of its proportions. He was good enough to send me an invitation on so especial an occasion. But already I had imbibed the distaste which has pursued me through life for what is called society; and I accordingly contented myself with surveying from a distance the fine effect produced by the light streaming from the multitude of windows, and exhibiting to the whole country round the gorgeous nature of the decorations within. To own the truth, I could scarcely forbear regretting, as I surveyed them, the gloomy dilapidation of the venerable mansion. This modernized antiquity was a very different thing from the massy grandeur of its neglected years; and I am afraid I loved the old house better with the weeds springing from its crevices, than with all this carving and gilding, this ebony, and iron, and light.
The people of Lexley imagined that nothing would induce the Sparks's family to be seen under General Stanley's roof. But we were mistaken. So much the contrary, that the squire of Lexley Park made a particular point of being the first and latest of the guests—not only because his reconciliation with his new neighbour was so recent, but from not choosing to authenticate, by his absence, the rumours of his grievous disappointment.
For all the good he was likely to derive from his visit, the poor man had better have stayed away; for that unlucky night laid foundations of evil for him and his, far greater than any he had incurred from the animosity of Sir Laurence. Nay, when in the sequel these results became matter of public commentation, superstitious people were not wanting to hint that the evil spirit, traditionally said to haunt one of the wings of the old manor, and to have manifested itself on more than one occasion to members of the Altham family, (and more especially to the late worthless proprietor of the Hall,) had acquired a fatal power over the two supplanters of the ruined family the moment they crossed the threshold.
General Stanley, after marrying late in life, had been some years a widower—a widower with two daughters, his co-heiresses. The elder of these young ladies was a hopeless invalid, slightly deformed, and so little attractive in person, or desirous to attract, that there was every prospect of the noble fortunes of the General centring in her sister. Yet this sister, this girl, had little need of such an accession to her charms; for she was one of those fortunate beings endowed not only with beauty and excellence, but with a power of pleasing not always united with even a combination of merit and loveliness.
Every body agreed that Mary Stanley was charming. Old and young, rich and poor, all loved her, all delighted in her. It is true, the good rector's maiden sisters privately hinted to me their horror of the recklessness with which—sometimes with her sister, oftener without, but wholly unattended—she drove her little pony-chaise through the village, laughing like a madcap at pranks of a huge Newfoundland dog named Sergeant, the favourite of General Stanley, which, while escorting the young ladies, used to gambol into the cottages, overset furniture and children, and scamper out again amid a general uproar. For though Miss Mary was but sixteen, the starched spinsters decided that she was much too old for such folly; and that, if the General intended to present her at court, it was high time for her to lay aside the hoyden manners of childhood.
But, as every one argued against them, why should this joyous, bright, and beautiful creature lay aside what became her so strangely? Mary Stanley was not made for the formalities of what is called high-breeding. Her light, easy, sinuous figure, did not lend itself to the rigid deportment of a prude; and her gay laughing eyes, and dimpled mouth, were ill calculated to grace a dignified position. The long ringlets of her profuse auburn hair were always out of order—either streaming in the wind, or straying over her white shoulders—her long lashes and beautifully defined eyebrows of the same rich tint, alone preserving any thing like uniformity—a uniformity which, combined with her almost Grecian regularity of features, gave her, on the rare occasions when her countenance and figure were at rest, the air of some nymph or dryad of ancient sculpture. But to compare Mary Stanley to any thing of marble is strangely out of place; for her real beauty consisted in the ever-varying play of her features, and a certain impetuosity of movement, that would have been a little characteristic of the romp, but that it was restrained by the spell of feminine sensibility. Heart was evidently the impulse of every look and every gesture.
For a man of my years, methinks I am writing like a lover. And so I was! From the first moment I saw that girl, at an humble and unaspiring distance, I could dream of nothing else. Every thing and every body seemed fascinated by Mary Stanley. When she walked out into the fields with the General, her two hands clasping, like those of a child, her father's arm, his favourite colts used to come neighing playfully towards them; and not the fiercest dog of his extensive kennel but, even when unmanageable by the keeper, would creep fawning to her feet.
It was strange enough, but still more fortunate, that all the adoration lavished upon this lovely creature by gentle and simple, Christian and brute, provoked no apparent jealousy on the part of her elder sister. Selina Stanley was afflicted with a cold, reserved, unhappy countenance, only too completely in unison with her disastrous position. But her heart was perhaps as genuine as her face was forbidding; for she loved the merry, laughing, handsome Mary, more as a mother her child, than as a sister nearly of her own years—that is, exultingly, but anxiously. Every one else foresaw nothing but prosperity, and joy, and love, in store for Mary. Selina prayed that it might prove so;—but she prayed with tears in her eyes, and trembling in her soul! For where are the destinies of persons thus exquisitely organized—thus full of love and loveliness—thus readily swayed to joy or sorrow, by the trivial incidents of life—characterised by what the world calls happiness—such happiness, I mean, as is enjoyed by the serene and the prudent, the unexcitable, the unaspiring! Miss Stanley foresaw only too truly, that the best days likely to be enjoyed by her sister, were those she was spending under her father's roof—a general idol—an object of deference and delight to all around.
At the General's housewarming, though not previously introduced into society, Mary was the queen of the ball; and all present agreed, that one of the most pleasing circumstances of the evening was to watch the animated cordiality with which she flew from one to the other of those old neighbours of Stanley Manor, (whom she alone had managed to persuade that a dozen miles was no distance to prevent their accepting her father's invitation;) and not the most brilliant of her young friends received a more eager welcome, or more sustained attention throughout the evening, than the few homely elderly people, (such as my friends the Whittinghams,) who happened to share the hospitality of General Stanley. I daresay that even I, had I found courage to accept his invitation, should have received from the young beauty some gentle word, in addition to the kindly smiles with which she was sure to return my respectful obeisance whenever we met accidentally in the village.
Mary was dressed in white, with a few natural flowers in her hair, which, owing to the impetuosity of her movements, soon fell out, leaving only a stray leaf or two, that would have looked ridiculous any where but among her rich, but dishevelled locks; and the pleasant anxieties of the evening imparted such a glow to her usually somewhat pale complexion, that her beauty is said to have been, that night, almost supernatural. She was more like the creature of a dream than one of those wooden puppets, who move mechanically through the world under the name of well brought-up young ladies.
It will easily be conceived how much this ball, so rare an event in our quiet neighbourhood, was discussed, not only the following day, but for days and weeks to come. Even at the rectory I heard of nothing else; while by my good old housekeeper, who had a son in service at General Stanley's, and a daughter waiting-maid to Miss Sparks, I was let in to secrets concerning it of which even the rectory knew nothing.
In the first place, though Mr Sparks had peremptorily signified from the first to his family, his desire that all should accompany him to Lexley Hall on this trying occasion, (and it was only natural he should wish to solace his wounded pride, by appearing before his noble neighbour surrounded by his handsome progeny,) two of his children had risen up in rebellion against the decree—and for the first time—for Sparks was happy in a dutiful and well-ordered family. But the youngest daughter, Kezia, a girl of high spirits and intelligence, who fancied she had been pointedly slighted by the Misses Stanley, when, in one of Mary's harum-scarum expeditions on her Shetland pony, she had passed without recognition the better-mounted young lady of Lexley Park; and the eldest son, who so positively refused to accompany his father to the house of a man by whom Mr Sparks had inconsiderately represented himself as aggrieved, that, for once, the kind parent was forced to play the tyrant, and insist on his obedience.
It was, accordingly, with a very ill grace that these two, the prettiest of the daughters, and by far the handsomest of his three handsome sons, made their appearance at the fete. But no sooner were they welcomed by General Stanley and his daughters, than the brother and sister, who had mutually encouraged each other's disputes, hastened to recant their opinions.
"How could you, dearest father, describe this courteous, high-bred old gentleman, as insolent and overbearing?"—whispered Kezia.
"How could you possibly suppose that yonder lovely, gracious creature, intended to treat you with impertinence?"—was the rejoinder of her brother; and already the Stanleys had two enemies the less among their neighbours at Lexley Park.
On the other hand, the General had been forced to have recourse to severe schooling to bring his daughters to a sense of what was due to his guests, as regarded the family of a man who was known to have spoken disparagingly of them all. Moreover, if the truth must be owned, Mary was not altogether free from the prejudices of her caste; and, proud of her father's noble extraction, was apt to pout her pretty lip on mention of "the people at Lexley Park;" for the General, who had no secrets from his girls, had foolishly permitted them to see certain letters addressed to him by the eccentric Sir Laurence Altham, justifying himself concerning the peculiar clause introduced into his deeds of conveyance of his Hall estate, on the grounds of the degraded origin of "the upstart" he was so malignantly intent on discomposing.
"They will spoil our ball, dear papa—I know these vulgar people will completely spoil our ball!" said she. "I think I hear them announced:—'Mr Jonas Sparks, Miss Basiliza and Miss Kezia Sparks!'—What names?"
"The parents of Mr Sparks were dissenters," observed the General, trying to look severe. "Dissenters are apt to hold to scriptural names. But name is not nature, Mary; and, to judge by appearances, this man's—this gentleman's—this Mr Sparks's daughters, have every qualification to be an ornament to society."
"With all my heart, papa, but I wish it were not ours!" cried the wayward girl. "On the present occasion, especially, I could spare such an accession to our circle; for I know that Mr Sparks has presumed to speak of——"
She was interrupted by a sterner reproof on the part of the General than he had ever before administered to his favourite daughter; and the consequence of this unusual severity was the distinguished reception bestowed, both by Selina and her sister, on the family from Lexley Park.
Next day, however, General Stanley found a totally different cause for rebuke in the conduct of his dear Mary.
"You talked to nobody last night, but those Sparks's!" said he. "Lord Dudley informed me he had asked you to dance three times in vain; and Lord Robert Stanley assured me he could scarcely get a civil answer from you!—Yet you found time, Mary, to dance twice in the course of the evening with that son of Sparks's!"
"That son of Sparks's, as you so despisingly call him, dearest papa, is a most charming partner; while Lord Dudley, and my cousin Robert, are little better than boors. Everard Sparks can talk and dance, as well as they ride across a country. Not but what he, too, passes for a tolerable sportsman; and do you know, papa, Mr Sparks is thinking seriously of setting up a pack of harriers at Lexley?"
"At Lexley Park!" insisted her father, who chose to enforce the distinction instituted by Sir Laurence Altham. "I fancy he will have to ask my permission first. My land lies somewhat inconveniently, in case I choose to oppose his intentions."
"But you won't oppose them!—No, no, dear papa, you sha'n't oppose them!"—cried Mary Stanley, throwing her arms coaxingly round her father's neck, and imprinting a kiss on his venerable forehead. "Why should we go on opposing and opposing, when it would be so much happier for all of us to live together as friends and neighbours?"
The General surveyed her in silence for some moments as she looked up lovingly into his face; then gravely, and in silence, unclasped her arms from his neck. For the first time, he had gazed upon his favourite child without discerning beauty in her countenance, or finding favour for her supplications.
"My opinion of Mr Sparks and his family is not altered since yesterday," said he coldly, perceiving that she was about to renew her overtures for a pacification. "Your father's prejudices, Mary, are seldom so slightly grounded, that the adulation of a few gross compliments, such as were paid you last night by Mr Everard Sparks, may suffice for their obliteration. For the future, remember the less I hear of Lexley Park the better. In a few weeks we shall be in London, where our sphere is sufficiently removed, I am happy to say, from that of Mr Jonas Sparks, to secure me against the annoyance of familiarity with him or his."
The partiality of his darling Mary for the handsomest and most agreeable young man who had ever sought to make himself agreeable to her, had sufficed to turn the arguments of General Stanley as decidedly against his parvenu neighbours, as, two days before, his eloquence had been exercised in their defence.
And now commenced between the young people and their parents, one of those covert warfares certain to arise from similar interdictions. Mr Sparks—satisfied that he should have further insults to endure on the part of General Stanley, in the event of his son pretending to the hand of the proud old man's daughter—sought a serious explanation with Everard, on finding that he neglected no opportunity of meeting Mary Stanley in her drives, and walks, and errands of village benevolence; and by the remonstrances of one father, and peremptoriness of the other, the young couple were soon tempted to seek comforts in mutual confidences. Residing almost within view of each other, there was no great difficulty in finding occasion for an interview. They met, moreover, naturally, and without effort, in all the country houses in the neighbourhood; and so frequently, that I often wondered they should consider it worth while to hazard the General's displeasure by partaking a few moments' conversation, every now and then, among the old thorns by the water-side, just where the bend of the river secured them from observation; or in the green lane leading from Lexley Park to my farm, while Miss Stanley took charge of the pony-chaise during the hasty explanations of the imprudent couple. Having little to occupy my leisure during the intervals of my agricultural pursuits, I was constantly running against them, with my gun on my shoulder or my fishing-rod in my hand. I almost feared young Sparks might imagine that I was employed by the General as a spy upon their movements, so fierce a glance did he direct towards me one day when I was unlucky enough to vault over a hedge within a few yards of the spot where they were standing together—Miss Mary sobbing like a child. But, God knows! he was mistaken if he thought I was taking unfair heed of their proceedings, or likely to gossip indiscreetly concerning what fell accidentally under my notice.
Not that a single soul in the neighbourhood approved General Stanley's opposition to the attachment. On the contrary, from the moment of the liking between the young people becoming apparent, the whole country decided that there could not be a more propitious mode of reuniting the dismembered Lexley estates; for though the General was expressly debarred from selling Lexley Hall to Sparks or his heirs, he could not be prevented bequeathing it to his daughters—the heirs of Jonas Sparks being the children of her body. And thus all objections would have been remedied.
But such was not the proud old man's view of the case. He had set his heart on perpetuating his own name in his family. He had set his heart on the union of his dear Mary with her cousin Lord Robert Stanley; and Everard Sparks might have been twice the handsome, manly young fellow he was—twice the gentleman, and twice the scholar—it would have pleaded little in his favour against the predetermined projects of the positive General. There was certainly some excuse for his ambition on Miss Mary's account. Beauty, merit, fortune, connexion, every advantage was hers calculated to do honour to a noble alliance; and as her father often exclaimed, with a bitter sneer, in answer to the mild pleadings of Selina—"Such a girl as that—a girl born to be a duchess—to sacrifice herself to the son of a Congleton manufacturer!"
Two years did the struggle continue—during the greater part of which I was a constant eyewitness of the sorrows which so sobered the impetuous deportment of the light-hearted Mary Stanley. Her father took her to London, with the project of separation he had haughtily announced; but only to find, to his amazement, that Eton and Oxford had placed the son of Mr Sparks of Lexley Park, a member of Parliament, on as good a footing as himself in nearly all the circles he frequented. Even when, in the desperation of his fears, he removed his family to the Continent, the young lover (as became the lover of so endearing and attractive a creature) followed her, at a distance, from place to place. At length, one angry day, the General provoked him to a duel. But Everard would not lift his hand against the father of his beloved Mary. An insult from General Stanley was not as an offence from any other man. The only revenge taken by the high-spirited young man, was to urge the ungenerous conduct of the father as an argument with the daughter to put an end, by an elopement, to a state of things too painful to be borne. After much hesitation, it seems, she most unhappily complied. They were married—at Naples I think, or Turin, or some other city of Italy, where we have a diplomatic resident; and after their marriage—poor, foolish young people!—they went touring it about gaily in the Archipelago and Levant, waiting a favourable moment to propose a reconciliation with their respective fathers—as if the wrath and malediction of parents was so mere a trifle to deal with.
The first step taken by General Stanley, on learning the ungrateful rebellion of his favourite child, was to return to England. He seemed to want to be at home again, the better to enjoy and cultivate his abhorrence of every thing bearing the despised name of Sparks; for now began the genuine hatred between the families. Nothing would satisfy the obstinate old soldier, but that the elder Sparks had, from the first, secretly encouraged the views of his son upon the heiress of Lexley Hall; while Mr Sparks naturally resented with enraged spirit the overbearing tone assumed by his aristocratic neighbour towards those so nearly his equals. Every day produced some new grounds for offence; and never had Sir Laurence Altham, in the extremity of his poverty, regarded the thriving mansion in the valley with half the loathing which the view of Lexley Park produced in the mind of General Stanley. He was even at the trouble of trenching a plantation on the brow of the hill, with the intention of shutting out the detested object. But trees do not grow so hastily as antipathies; and the General had to endure the certainty, that, for the remainder of his life at least, that beautiful domain must be unrolled, map-like, at his feet. Nor is it to be supposed that the battlements of the old hall found greater favour in the sight of the parvenu squire, than when in Sir Laurence's time the very sight of them was wormwood to his soul.
Unhappily, while the Congleton manufacturer contented himself with angry words, the gentleman of thirty descents betook himself to action. General Stanley swore to be mightily revenged—and he was so.
On the very day following his return to England, before he even visited his desolate country-house, he sent for Lord Robert Stanley, and made him the confidant of his indignation—avowed his former good intentions in his favour—betrayed all Mary's—all Mr Everard Sparks's disparaging opposition; and ended by enquiring whether, since whichever of his daughters became Lady Robert Stanley would become sole heiress to his property, his lordship could make up his mind to accept Selina as a wife? Proud as he was, the General almost condescended to plead the cause of his deformed daughter: enlarging upon her excellences of character, and, still more, upon her aversion to society, which would secure the self-love of her husband against any public remarks on her want of personal attractions.
Alas! all these arguments were thoroughly thrown away. Lord Robert was, as his cousin Mary had truly described him, little better than a boor. But he was also a spendthrift and a libertine; and had Miss Stanley been as deformed in mind as she was in person, he would have joyfully taken to wife the heiress of ten thousand a-year, and two of the finest seats in the county of Chester.
To herself, meanwhile, no hint of these family negotiations was vouchsafed; and Selina Stanley had every reason to suppose—when her cousin became on a sudden an assiduous visitor at the house, and very shortly a declared lover—that their intimacy from childhood had accustomed his eye to her want of personal charms—she had become endeared to him by her mild and submissive temper. So little was she aware of her father's testamentary dispositions in her favour, that the interested nature of Lord Robert's views did not occur to her mind; and, little accustomed to protestations of attachment, Selina's heart was not very difficult to soften towards the only man who had ever pretended to love her, and whose apparent attachment promised some consolation for the loss of her sister's society, as well as the chance of reunion with one whom her father had sworn should never, under any possible circumstances, again cross his threshold.
Six months after General Stanley's pride had been wounded to the quick by the newspaper account of a marriage between his favourite child and "a man of the name of Sparks," balm was poured into the wound by another and more pompous paragraph, announcing the union, by special license, of the Right Hon. Lord Robert Stanley and the eldest daughter and heiress of Lieut.-Gen. Stanley, of Stanley Manor, only son of the late Lord Henry Stanley, followed by the usual list of noble relatives gracing the ceremony with their presence, and a flourishing account of the departure of the happy couple, in a travelling carriage and four, for their seat in Cheshire.
This announcement, by the way, probably served to convey the intelligence to Mr and Mrs Everard Sparks; for the General having carefully intercepted every letter addressed by Mary to her sister, Lady Robert had not the slightest idea in what direction to communicate with one who possessed an undiminished share in her affections.
On General Stanley's arrival in Cheshire, at the close of the honeymoon, the most casual observer might have noticed the alteration which had taken place in his appearance. Instead of the sadness I had expected to find in his countenance after so severe a stroke as the disobedience of his darling girl, I never saw him so exulting. Yet his smiles were not smiles of good-humour. There was bitterness at the bottom of every word he uttered; and a terrible sound of menace rung in his unnatural laughter. Consciousness never seemed a moment absent from his mind, that he had defeated the calculations of the designing family; that he had distanced them; that he was triumphing over them. Alas! none at present entertained the smallest suspicion to what extent!
Preparatory to the settlements made by the General on Lord and Lady Robert Stanley, it had been found necessary to place in the hands of his lordship's solicitors the deeds of the Lexley Hall estate; when, lo! to the consternation of all parties, it appeared that the General's title was an unsound one; that by the general terms of this ancient property, rights of heirship could only be evaded by the payment of a certain fine, after intimation of sale in a certain form to the nearest-of-kin of the heir in possession, which form had been overlooked or wantonly neglected by Sir Laurence Altham!
The discovery was indeed embarrassing. Fortunately, however, the sum of ten thousand pounds only had been paid by the General to satisfy the immediate funds of the unthrifty baronet; the remainder of the purchase-money having been left in the form of mortgage on the property. There was consequently the less difficulty, though considerable expense, in cancelling the existing deeds, going through the necessary forms, and, after paying the forfeiture to the heir, (to whom the very existence of his claims was unknown,) renewing the contract with Sir Laurence; to whom, so considerable a sum being still owing, it was as essential as to General Stanley that the covenant should be completed without delay. But all this occurred at so critical a moment, that the General had ample cause to be thankful for the promptitude with which he decided Selina's marriage; for only four days after the signature of the new deeds, Sir Laurence concluded his ill-spent life—his death being, it was thought, accelerated by the excitement consequent on this strange discovery, and the investigations on the part of the heir to which it was giving rise.
For the clause in the original grant of the Lexley estate (which dated from the Reformation) affected the property purchased by Jonas Sparks as fully as that which had been assigned to the General; and the baronet being now deceased, there was no possibility of co-operation in rectifying the fatal error. It was more than probable, therefore, that Lexley Park, with all its improvements, was now the property of John Julius Altham, Esq.!—the only dilemma still to be decided by the law, being the extent to which, his kinsman having died insolvent and intestate, he was liable to the suit of Jonas Sparks for the return of the purchase money, amounting to L.145,000.
Already the fatal intelligence had been communicated by the attorneys of John Julius Altham to those of the astonished man, who, though still convinced of the goodness of his cause, (which, on the strength of certain various statutes affecting such a case, he was advised to contest to the utmost,) foresaw a long, vexatious, and expensive lawsuit, that would certainly last his life, and prevent the possibility of one moment's enjoyment of the estate, from which he had received the usual notice of ejection. Fortunately for him, the present Mr Altham was not only a gentleman, and disposed to exercise his rights in the most decorous manner; but, of course, unbiassed by the personal prejudices so strongly felt by Sir Laurence, and so unfairly communicated by him to the General. Still, the question was proceeding at the snail's pace rate of Chancery suits at the commencement of the present century, and the unfortunate Congleton manufacturer had every reason to curse the day when he had become enamoured of the grassy glades and rich woodlands of Lexley; seeing that, at the close of an honourable and well-spent life, he was uncertain whether the sons and daughters to whom he had laboured to bequeath a handsome independence, might not be reduced to utter destitution.
Such was the intelligence that saluted the ill-starred Mary and her husband on their return to England! Instead of the brilliant prospects in which she had been nurtured—disinheritance met her on the one side, and ruin on the other!
Her vindictive father had even made it a condition of his bounties to Lord and Lady Robert, that all intercourse should cease between them and their sister; a condition which the former, in revenge for the early slights of his fairer cousin, took care should be punctually obeyed by his wife.
Till the event of the trial, Mr Sparks retained, of course, possession of the Park; but so bitter was the mortification of the family, on discovering in the village precisely the same ungrateful feeling which had so embittered the soul of Sir Laurence, that they preferred remaining in London—where no one has leisure to dwell upon the mischances of his neighbours, and where sympathy is as little expected as conceded. But when Mary arrived—poor Mary! who had now the prospect of becoming a mother—and who, though affectionately beloved by her husband's family, saw they regarded her as the innocent origin of their present reverses—she soon persuaded her husband to accompany her to her old haunts.
"Do not imagine, dearest," said she, "that I have any project of debasing you and myself, by intruding into my father's presence. Had we been still prosperous, Everard, I would have gone to him—knelt to him—prayed to him—wept to him—so earnestly, that his forgiveness could not have been long withheld from the child he loved so dearly. I would have described to him all you are to me—all your indulgences—all your devotion—and you, too, my own husband, would have been forgiven. But as it is, believe me, I have too proud a sense of what is due to ourselves, to combat the unnatural hostility in which my sister and her husband appear to take their share. O Everard! to think of Selina becoming the wife of that coarse and heartless man, of whom, in former times, she thought even more contemptuously than I; and who, with his dissolute habits, can only have made my poor afflicted sister his wife from the most mercenary motives! I dread to think of what may be her fate hereafter, when, having obtained at my father's death all the advantages to which he looks forward, he will show himself in his true colours."
Thus, even with such terrible prospects awaiting herself, the good, generous Mary trembled only to contemplate those of her regardless sister; and it was chiefly for the delight of revisiting the spots where they had played together in childhood—the fondly-remembered environs of Stanley Manor—that she persuaded her husband to take up his abode in the deserted mansion at the Park, where, from prudential motives, Mr Sparks had broken up his establishment, and sold off his horses.
Attended by a single servant, in addition to the old porter and his wife who were in charge of the house, Mary trusted that their arrival at Lexley would be unnoticed in the neighbourhood. Confining herself strictly within the boundaries of the Park, which neither her father nor the bride and bridegroom were likely to enter, she conceived that she might enjoy, on her husband's arm, those solitary rambles of which every day circumscribed the extent; without affording reason to the General to suppose, when, discerning every morning from his lofty terraces the mansion of his falling enemy, that, in place of the man he loathed, it contained his discarded child.
The dispirited young woman, on the other hand, delighted in contemplating from the windows of her dressing-room the towers beneath, whose shelter she had abided in such perfect happiness with her doating father and apparently attached sister. They loved her no longer, it is true. Perhaps it was her fault—(she would not allow herself to conceive it could be a fault of theirs)—but at all events she loved them dearly as ever; and it was comforting to her poor heart to catch a glimpse of their habitation, and know herself within reach, should sickness or evil betide.
"If I should not survive my approaching time," thought Mary, often surveying for hours, through her tears, the heights of Lexley Hall, and fancying she could discern human figures moving from window to window, or from terrace to terrace; "if I should be fated never to behold this child, already loved—this child which is to be so dear a blessing to us both—in my last hours my father would not surely refuse to give me his blessing; nor would Selina persist in her present cruel alienation. It is, indeed, a comfort to be here."
Her husband thought otherwise. To him nothing was more trying than this compulsory sojourn at Lexley; not that he required other society than that of his engaging and attached wife. At any other moment it would have been delightful to him to enjoy the country pleasures around them, with no officious intrusive world to interpose between their affection. But in his present uncertainty as to his future prospects, to be mocked by this empty show of proprietorship, and have constantly before his eyes the residence of the man who had heaped such contumely on his head, and inflicted such pain on the gentlest and sweetest of human hearts, was a state of moral torment.
In the course of my fishing excursions—(for, thanks to Mr Sparks's neighbourly liberality, I had a card of general access to his parks)—I frequently met the young couple; and having no clue to their secret sentiments, noticed, with deep regret, the sadness of Mary's countenance and sinister looks of her husband. I feared—I greatly feared—that they were not happy together. The General's daughter repined, perhaps, after her former fortunes. The young husband sighed, doubtless, over the liberty he had renounced.
It was spring time, and Lord Robert having satisfied his cravings after the pleasures of London, by occasional bachelor visits on pretence of business, the family were to remain at the Hall till after the Easter holidays, so that Mary had every expectation of the accomplishment of her hopes previous to their departure. Perhaps, in the bottom of her heart, she flattered herself that, on hearing of her safety, her obdurate relations might be moved, by a sudden burst of pity and kindliness, to make overtures of reconciliation—at all events to dispatch words of courteous enquiry; for she was ever dwelling on her good fortune that her father should, on this particular year, have so retarded the usual period of his departure. Yet when the report of these exulting exclamations on her part reached my ear, I was ungenerous enough to attribute them to a very different origin, fancying that the poor submissive creature was thankful for being within reach of protection from conjugal misusage.
Meanwhile, she was so far justified in one portion of her premises, that no tidings of her residence at Lexley Park had as yet reached the ear of her father. The fact was, that not a soul had courage to do so much as mention, in his presence, the name of his once idolized child; and Lord Robert, having been apprized of the circumstance, instantly exacted a promise from his wife, that nothing should induce her to hazard her father's displeasure by communication with her sister, or by acquainting the General of the arrival of the offending pair. The consequence was, that in the dread of encountering her sister, (whom she felt ashamed to meet as the wife of the man they had so often decried together,) Lady Robert rarely quitted the house; and these two sisters, so long the affectionate inmates of the same chamber—the sisters who had wept together over their mother's deathbed—abided within sight of each other's windows, yet estranged as with the estrangement of strangers.
And then, we pretend to talk with horror of the family feuds of southern nations; and, priding ourselves on our calm and passionless nature, feel convinced that all the domestic virtues extant on earth, have taken refuge in the British empire!
Every day, meanwhile, I noticed that the handsome countenance of Everard Sparks grew gloomier and gloomier; and how was I to know that every day he received letters from his father, announcing the unfavourable aspect of their suit; and that (owing, as was supposed, to the suggestions of General Stanley's solicitors) even the conduct of the adverse party was becoming offensive. The elder Sparks wrote like a man overwhelmed with mortification, and stung by a sense of undeserved injury; and his appeals to the sympathy and support of his son, were such as to place the spirited young man in a most painful predicament as regarded the family of his wife.
Unwilling to utter in her presence an injurious word concerning those who, persecute her as they might, were still her nearest and dearest by the indissoluble ties of nature, all he could do, in relief to his overcharged feelings, was to rush forth into the Park, and curse the day that he was born to behold all he loved in the world overwhelmed in one common ruin.
On such occasions, while pretending to fix my attention on my float upon the river, I often watched him from afar, till I was terrified by the frantic vehemence of his gestures. There was almost reason to fancy that the evil influences of the old Hall were extending their power over the valley; and that this distracted young man was falling into the eccentricities of Sir Laurence Altham.
After viewing with anxiety the wild deportment of poor Mary's husband, I happened one day to pass along the lane I have described as skirting the garden of the manor-house, on my way homewards to my farm; and on plunging my eyes, as usual, into the verdant depths of the clipped yew-walks, visible through the iron-palisades, was struck by the contrast afforded to the scene I had just witnessed, not only by its aristocratic tranquillity, but by the grave and subdued deportment of Lady Robert Stanley, who was sauntering in one of the alleys, accompanied by a favourite dog I had often seen following her sister in former days, and looking the very picture of contented egotism.
I almost longed to call aloud to her, and confide all I knew and all that I supposed. But what right had I to create alarms in her sister's behalf? What right had I to incite her to disobedience against the father on whom she and her husband were dependent? Better leave things as they were—the common philosophy of selfish, timid people, afraid of exposing their own heads to a portion of the storm their interference may chance to bring down, while assisting the cause of the weak against the strong.
I used often to go home and think of poor Mary till my heart ached. That young and beautiful creature—that creature till lately so beloved—to be thus cruelly abandoned, thus helpless, thus unhappy! Perhaps not a soul sympathizing with her but myself—an obscure, low-born, uninfluential man, of no more value as a protector than a willow-wand shivered from the Lexley plantations! Not so much as the merest trifle in which I could demonstrate my good-will. I thought and thought it over, and there was nothing I could do—nothing I could offer. When I did hit upon some pretext of kindness, I only did amiss. The fruit season was not begun—nay, the orchards were only in blossom—and times were over for forcing-houses at Lexley Park! Thinking, therefore, that the invalid might be pleased with a basket of Jersey pears, of which a very fine kind grew in my orchard, I ventured to send some to her address. But the very next time I encountered Everard in the village, he cast a look at me as if he would have killed me for my officiousness, or, perhaps, for taking the liberty to suppose that Lexley Park was less luxuriously provisioned than in former years. Nor was it till long afterwards I discovered that my old housekeeper (who had taken upon herself to carry my humble offering to the park) had not only seen the poor young lady, but been foolish enough to talk of Lady Robert in a tone which appears to have exercised a cruel influence over her gentle heart; so that, when her husband returned home from rabbit-shooting, an hour afterwards, he found her recovering from a fainting fit, he visited upon me the folly of my servant; and such was the cause of his angry looks.
A few days afterwards, however, he had far more to reproach his conscience withal than poor Barbara. Having no concealments from his wife, to whom he was in the habit of avowing every emotion of his heart, he was rash enough to mention of having met the travelling carriage of Lord and Lady Robert on the London road. They had quitted the Hall ten days previous to the epoch originally fixed for their departure.
"Gone—exactly gone!—already at two hundred miles' distance from me!" cried poor Mary, nothing doubting that her father had, as usual, accompanied them, and feeling herself now, for the first time, alone in the dreary seclusion to which she had condemned herself, only that she might breathe the same atmosphere with those she loved. "Yet they had certainly decided to remain at the Hall till after Easter! Perhaps they discovered my being here, and the discovery hastened their journey. Unhappy creature that I am, to have become thus hateful to those in whose veins my blood is flowing! Everard, Everard! O, what have I done that God should thus abandon me?"
The soothing and affectionate remonstrances now addressed to her by her husband, had so far a good effect, that they softened her despair to tears. Long and unrestrainedly did she weep upon his shoulder; tried to comfort him by the assurance that she was comforted, or at least that she would endeavour to seek comfort from the protection and goodness whence it had been so often derived.
A few minutes afterwards, having been persuaded by Everard to rest herself on the sofa, to recover the effects of the agitation his indiscreet communication had excited, she suddenly complained of cold, and begged him to close the windows. It was a balmy April day, with a genial sun shining fresh into the room. The air was as the air of midsummer—one of those days on which you almost see the small green leaves of spring bursting from their shelly covering, and the resinous buds of the chestnut-trees expanding into maturity. Poor Everard saw at once that the chilliness of which his wife complained must be the effect of illness. More cautious, however, on this occasion than before, he enquired, as her shivering increased, what preparations she had made for the events which still left her some weeks for execution. "None. His sisters had kindly undertaken to supply her with all she might require; and the services of the nurse accustomed to attend his married sister, were engaged on her behalf. At the end of the month this woman was to arrive at Lexley, bringing with her the wardrobe of the little treasure who was to accord renewed peace and happiness to its mother."
Though careful to conceal his anxiety from his wife, Everard Sparks, disappointed and distressed, quitted the room in haste to send for the medical man who had long been the attendant of his family. But before he arrived, the shivering fit of the poor sufferer had increased to an alarming degree. A calming potion was administered, and orders issued that she was to be kept quiet; but in the consternation created in the little household by the communication Dr R. thought it necessary to make of the possibility of a premature confinement, poor Mrs Sparks's maid, a young inexperienced woman, dispatched a messenger to my house for her old kinswoman, and it was through Barbara I became acquainted with the melancholy incidents I am about to relate.
The sedatives administered failed in their effect. A fatal shock had been already given; and while struggling through that direful night with the increasing pangs that verified the doctor's prognostications, the sympathizing women around the sufferer could scarcely restrain their tears at the courage with which she supported her anguish, rejoicing in it, as it were, in the prospect of embracing her child—when all present were aware that the compensation was about to be denied her, that the child was already dead. Just as the day dawned, her anxious husband was congratulated on her safety, and then the truth could no longer be concealed from Mary. She asked to see her babe. Her husband was employed to persuade her to defer seeing it for an hour or two, "till it was dressed—till she was more composed." But the truth rushed into her mind, and she uttered not another word, in the apprehension of increasing his disappointment and mortification.
So long did her silence continue, that, trusting she had fallen asleep, old Barbara's granddaughter entreated poor Everard to withdraw and leave her to her rest. But the moment he quitted the room, she spoke, spoke resolutely, and in a firmer voice than her previous sufferings had given them reason to suppose possible.
"Now, then, let me see my boy," said she. "I know that he is dead. But do not be afraid of shocking or distressing me. I have courage to look upon the poor little creature for whom I have suffered so much, and who, I trusted, would reward me for all."
The women remonstrated, as it was their duty to remonstrate. But when they saw that opposition on this point only excited her, dreading an accession of fever, they brought the poor babe and laid it on the pillow beside its mother. That first embrace, to which she had looked forward with such intensity of delight, folded to her burning bosom only a clay-cold child!
Even thus it was fair to look on—every promise in its little form, that its beauty would have equalled that of its handsome parents; and Mary, as she pressed her lips to its icy forehead, fancied she could trace on those tiny features a resemblance to its father. Old Barbara, perceiving how bitterly the tears of the sufferer were falling on the cheeks of her lost treasure, now interfered. But the mother had still a last request to make. A few downy curls were perceptible on the temples—in colour and fineness resembling her own. She wished to rescue from the grave this slight remembrance of her poor nameless offspring; and her wish having been complied with, she suffered the babe to be taken from her relaxed and moveless grasp.
"Leave me the hair," said she, in a faint voice. "Thanks—thanks! I am happy now—I will try to sleep—I am happy—happy now!"
She slept—and never woke again. At the close of an hour or two, her anxious husband, finding she had not stirred, gently and silently approached the bedside, and took into his own the fair hand lying on the coverlid, to ascertain whether fever had ensued. Fever? It was already cold with the damps of death!
Imagine, if you can, the agony and self-reproach of that bereaved man! Again and again did he revile himself as her murderer; accusing himself—her father—her sister—the whole world. At one moment, he fancied that her condition had not been properly treated by her attendants; at another, that the medical man ought not to have left the house. Nay, hours and hours after she was gone for ever—after the undertakers had commenced their hideous preparations—even while she lay stretched before him, white and cold as marble, he persisted that life might be still recalled; and, but for the better discrimination of those around him, would have insisted on attempts at resuscitation, calculated only to disturb, almost sacrilegiously, the sound peace of the dead!
I was one of the first to learn the heart-rending news of this beloved being's untimely end; for my old woman having asked permission to remain with her through the night, (explaining the exigency of the case,) I could not forbear hurrying to the house as soon as it was day, in the hope of hearing she was a happy mother. Somehow or other, I had never contemplated an unfavourable result. The idea of death never presented itself to me in common with any thing so young and fair; and as I walked through the park, and crossed the bridge, with the white cheerful mansion before me, and the morning sun shining full upon its windows, I thought how gladsome it looked, but could not forbear feeling that, even with the prospect of losing it—even with the certainty of beggary, Everard, as a husband and father, was the fellow most to be envied upon earth!
I reached the house, and the old man who answered my ring at the office entrance, was speechless from tears. Though usually hard as iron, he sobbed as if his heart would break. I asked to speak with Barbara—with my housekeeper. He told me I could not—that she was "busy laying out the body." I was answered. That dreadful word told me all—I had no more questions to ask. I cared not who survived, or what became of the survivors. And as I turned sickening away, to bend my steps homewards, I remember wondering how that fair spring morning could shine so bright and auspiciously, when she was gone from us. It seemed to triumph in our loss! Alas! it shone to welcome a new angel to the kingdom of our Father who is in heaven!
Suddenly it struck me, that I, too, had a duty to perform. In that scanty household there was no one to take thought of the common forms of life; so I hastened to the rectory, to suggest to our good pastor a visit of consolation to the house of mourning, and acquaint his sisters with its forlorn condition. Like myself, they began exclaiming, "Alas! alas! It was but the other day that"——reverting to all the acts of charity and girlish graces of that dear departed Mary Stanley, who had been among us as the shadow of a dream.
Before I left the rectory, Dr Whittingham had issued his orders; and lo! as I proceeded homewards, with a heavy step and a heavier heart, the sound of the passing bell from Lexley church pursued me with its measured toll, till I could scarcely refrain from sitting me down by the wayside, and weeping my very soul away.
On reaching the lane I have so often described as skirting the gardens of the old Hall, I noticed, through the palisades, a person, probably one of the gardeners, sauntering along Lady Robert's favourite yew-walk. No! on a nearer approach, I saw, and almost shuddered to see, that it was General Stanley himself (who, I fancied, had accompanied his son-in-law to town) taking an early walk, to enjoy the sweetness of that delicious morning.
As I drew nearer, I averted my head. At that moment I had not courage to look him in the face. I could scarcely suppose him ignorant of what had occurred; and, if aware of the sad event, his obduracy was unmanly to a degree that filled me with disgust. But just as I came opposite the iron gates, he hailed me by name—more familiarly and courteously than he was wont—to ask whether I came from the village, and for whose death they were tolling?
If worlds had depended on my answer, I could not have uttered a word! But I conclude that, catching sight of my troubled face and swollen eyelids, the General supposed I had lost some near and dear friend; for, instead of renewing his question, he merely touched his hat, and passed on, leaving me to proceed in my turn. But the spectacle of my profound affliction probably excited his curiosity; for I found afterwards, that, instead of pursuing his walk, he returned straight to the house, and addressed the enquiry which had so distressed me, to others having more courage to reveal the fatal truth. I believe it was the old family butler, who abruptly answered—"For my poor young lady, General—for the sweetest angel that ever trod the earth!"
For my part, I wonder the announcement did not strike him to the earth! But he heard it without apparent emotion; like a man who, having already sustained the worst affliction this world can afford, has no sensibility for further trials. Still the intelligence was not ineffective. Without pausing an instant for reflection, or the indulgence of his feelings, he set forth on foot to Lexley Park. With his hat pulled over his eyes, and a determined air, rather as if about to execute an act of vengeance than offer a tardy tribute of tenderness to his victim, he hurried to the house—commanded the startled old servant to show him the way to her room—entered it—and knelt down beside the bed on which she lay, with her dead infant on her arm, asking her forgiveness, and the forgiveness of God, as humbly as though he were not the General Stanley proverbial for implacability and pride.
Old Barbara, who had not quitted the room, assured me it was a heart-breaking sight to behold that white head bowed down in agony upon the cold feet of his child. For he felt himself unworthy to press her helpless hand to his lips, or remove the cambric from her face, but called, in broken accents, upon the name of Mary! his child! his darling! addressing her rather with the fondling terms bestowed upon girlhood than as a woman—a wife—a mother!
"But a more affecting story still," said the old woman, "was to see that Mr Everard took no more heed of the General's sudden entrance than though it were a thing to be looked for. He seemed neither to hear his exclamations nor perceive his distress." Poor gentleman! His haggard eyes were fixed, his mind bewildered, his hopes blasted for ever, his life a blank. He neither answered when spoken to, nor even spoke, when the good rector, according to his promise, came to announce that he had dispatched the fatal intelligence by express to his family, beseeching his instructions concerning the steps to be taken for the burial of the dead.
But why afflict you and myself by recurring to these melancholy details! Suffice it, that this dreadful blow effected what nothing else on earth could have effected in the mind of General Stanley. Humbled to the dust, even the arrival of the once despised owner of Lexley Park did not drive him from the house. He asked his pity—he asked his pardon. Beside the coffin of his daughter he expressed all the compunction a generous-hearted and broken-hearted man could express; and all he asked in return, was leave to lay her poor head in the grave of her ancestors.
No one opposed his desire. The young widower had not as much consciousness left as would have enabled him to utter the negative General Stanley seemed prepared to expect; and as to his father, about to abandon Lexley for ever, to what purpose erect a family vault in a church which neither he nor his were ever likely to see again?
To the chapel at Stanley Manor, accordingly, were the mother and child removed. The General wrote expressly to forbid his son-in-law and Selina returning to the Hall, on pretence of sustaining him in his affliction. He chose to give way to it; he chose to be alone with his despair.
Never shall I forget the day that mournful funeral procession passed through the village! Young and old came forth weeping to their doors to bid her a last farewell; even as they used to come and exchange smiles with her, in those happy days when life lay before her, bright—hopeful—without a care—without a responsibility. I had intended to pay him the same respect. I meant, indeed, to have followed the hearse, at an humble distance, to its final destination. But when I rose that morning a sudden weakness came upon me, and I was unable to quit my room. I, so strong, so hardy, who have passed through life without sickness or doctor, was as powerless that day as an infant.
It was from the good rector, therefore, I heard how the General (on whom, in consequence of the precarious condition of the afflicted husband, devolved the task of chief mourner) sustained his carriage to perform with dignity and propriety his duty to the dead. As he followed the coffin through the churchyard, crowded by his old pensioners—many of them praying on their knees as it passed—his step was as firm and his brow as erect as though at the head of his regiment. It was not till all was over—the mournful ceremony done, the crowd dispersed, the funeral array departed—that having descended into the vault, ere the stone was rolled to the door of the sepulchre, in order to point out the exact spot where he wished her remains to be deposited, so that hereafter his own might rest by her side, he renounced all self-restraint, and throwing himself upon the ground, gave himself up to his anguish, and refused to be comforted!
That summer was as dreary a season at Lexley as the dreariest winter! Both the Park and the Hall were shut up; nor did General Stanley ever again resume his tenancy of the old manor. When the result of the Chancery suit left Mr Altham in possession of the former estate, the General literally preferred forfeiting the moiety of the purchase-money he had paid, and giving up the place to be re-united with the property, which the rigour of the law thus singularly restored to the last heirs of the Althams; and such was the cause of my neighbour, the present Sir Julius Altham, regaining possession of the Hall.
It was not for many years, however, that the cause was ultimately decided. There was an appeal against the Chancellor's decree; and even after the decree was confirmed, came an endless number of legal forms, which so procrastinated the settlement, that not only the original unfortunate purchaser, but poor Everard himself, was in his grave when the mansion, in which they had so prided themselves, was pulled down, and all trace of their occupancy effaced.
I sometimes ask myself, indeed, whether the whole of this "strange eventful history," with which the earliest feelings of my heart were painfully interwoven, really occurred? whether the manor ever passed for a time out of the possession of the ancient house of Altham? whether the domain, now one and indivisible, were literally partitioned off—a park paling interposing only between the patrician and plebeian. Often, after spending hour after hour by the river side, when the fly is on the water and the old thorns in bloom, I recur to the first day I came back into Lexley Park after the funeral had passed through, and recollect the soreness of heart with which I lifted my eyes towards the house, of which every trace has since disappeared. At that moment there seemed to rise before me, sporting among the gnarled branches of the old thorn-trees, the graceful form of Mary Stanley, followed by old Sergeant, bounding and barking through the fern; and the General looking on from a distance, pretending to be angry, and desiring her to come out of the covert and not disturb the game. Exactly thus, and there, I beheld them for the first time. What would I not give to realize once more, if only for a day, that happy, happy vision!
Stanley Manor is let to strangers during the minority of Lord Robert's sickly son; the father being an absentee, the mother in an early grave. She lived long enough, however, to be a repining wife; and my neighbour, Sir Julius Altham, has more than once hinted to me, that, of the whole family, the portion of Selina most deserved compassion.
To me, however, her callous conduct towards that gentle sister, always rendered her the least interesting of my COUNTRY NEIGHBOURS.
TRAVELS OF KERIM KHAN.
 Travels of Kerim Khan; being a narrative of his Journey from Delhi to Calcutta, and thence by Sea to England: containing his remarks upon the manners, customs, laws, constitutions, literature, arts, manufactures, &c., of the people of the British Isles. Translated from the original Oordu—(MS.)
Among the various signs of the times which mark the changes of manners in these latter days of the world, not the least remarkable is the increasing frequency of the visits paid by the natives of the East to the regions of Europe. Time was, within the memory of most of the present generation, when the sight of a genuine Oriental in a London drawing-room, except in the angel visits, "few and far between," of a Persian or Moorish ambassador, was a rarity beyond the reach of even the most determined lion-hunters; and if by any fortunate chance a stray Persian khan, or a "very magnificent three-tailed bashaw," was brought within the circle of the quidnuncs of the day, the sayings and doings of the illustrious stranger were chronicled with as much minuteness as if he had been the denizen of another planet. Every hair of his beard, every jewel in the hilt of his khanjar, was enumerated and criticised; while all oriental etiquette was violated by the constant enquiries addressed to him relative to the number of his wives, and the economy of his domestic arrangements. "Mais a present on a change tout cela." The reforms of Sultan Mahmood, the invention of steam, and the re-opening of the overland route to India, have combined to effect a mighty revolution in all these points. Osmanlis, with shaven chins and tight trousers, have long been as plenty as blackberries in the saloons of the West, eating the flesh of the unclean beast, quaffing champagne, and even (if we have been rightly informed) figuring in quadrilles with the moon-faced daughters of the Franks; and though the natives of the more distant regions of the East have not yet appeared among us in such number, yet the lamb-skin cap of the Persian, the pugree, or small Indian turban, and even the queer head-dress of the Parsee, is far from being a stranger in our assemblies. We doubt whether the name of Akhbar Khan himself, proclaimed at the foot of a staircase, would excite the same sensation in the present day, as the announcement of the most undistinguished wearer of the turban some ten or twenty years ago; but of the "Tours" and "Narratives" which are usually the inevitable result of such an influx of pilgrims, our Oriental visitors have as yet produced hardly their due proportion. For many years, the travels of Mirza Abu-Talib Khan, a Hindustani Moslem of rank and education, who visited Europe in the concluding years of the last century, stood alone as an example of the effect produced on an Asiatic by his observation of the manners and customs of the West; and even of late our stock has not been much increased. The journal of the Persian princes (a translation of which, by their Syrian mehmandar, Assaad Yakoob Khayat, has been printed in England for private circulation) is curious, as giving a picture of European ways and manners when viewed through a purely Asiatic medium; while the remarkably sensible and well-written narrative of the two Parsees who lately visited this country for the purpose of instruction in naval architecture, differs little from the description of the same objects which would be given by an intelligent and well-educated European, if they could be presented to him in the aspect of utter novelty. The latest of these Oriental wanderers in the ungenial climes of Franguestan, is the one whose name appears at the head of this article, and who, with a rare and commendable modesty, has preferred introducing himself to the public under the protecting guidance of Maga, to venturing, alone and without a pilot, among the perilous rocks and shoals of the critics of the Row; him therefore we shall now introduce, without further comment, to the favourable notice of our readers.
 Shalwarlek—"tight trousers"—was a phrase used, under the old Turkish regime, as equivalent to a blackguard.
 The Moslems, and other natives of India descended from foreign races, are properly called Hindustanis, while the aborigines are the Hindus—a distinction not well understood in Europe. The former take their name from the country, as natives of Hindustan, which has derived its own name from the latter, as being the country of the Hindus.
 Journal of a Residence of Two Years and a Half in Great Britain, by Jehangeer Nowrojee and Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee of Bombay, Naval Architects. London: 1841.
Of Kerim Khan himself, the writer of his narrative, and of his motives for daring the perils of the kala-pani, (or black water, the Hindi name for the ocean,) on a visit to Franguestan, we have little information beyond what can be gathered from the MS. itself. There can be no doubt, however, that he was a Mussulman gentleman of rank and consideration, and of information far superior to that of his countrymen in general; nor does it appear that he was driven, like Mirza Abu-Talib, by political misfortune, to seek in strange climes the security which his native land denied him. His narrative commences abruptly:—"On the 21st of Ramazan, in the year of the Hejra 1255," (Dec. 1, A.D. 1839,) "between four and five in the afternoon, I took leave of the imperial city of Delhi, and proceeded to our boat, which was at anchor near the Derya Ganj." The voyage down the Jumna, to its junction with the Ganges at Allahabad, a distance of not more than 550 miles by land, but which the endless windings of the stream increase to 2010 by water, presents few incidents worthy of notice: but our traveller observes par parenthese, that "though it is said that the sources of this river have not been discovered, I have heard from those who have crossed the Himalaya from China, that it rises in that country on the other side of the mountains, and, forcing its way through them, arrives at Bighamber. They say that gold is found there in large quantities, and the reason they assign is this—the philosopher's stone is found in that country, and whatever touches it becomes gold, but the stone itself can never be found!" Near Muttra he encountered the splendid cortege of Lord Auckland, then returning to Calcutta after his famous interview with Runjeet Singh at Lahore, with such a suwarree as must have recalled the pomp and sultanut for which the memory of Warren Hastings is even yet celebrated among the natives of India: "his staff and escort, with the civil and military officers of government in attendance on him, amounted to about 4000 persons, besides 300 elephants and 800 camels." The noble buildings of Akbarabad or Agra, the capital and residence of Akbar and Shalijehan, the mightiest and most magnificent of the Mogul emperors, detained the traveller for a day; and he notices with deserved eulogium the splendid mausoleum of Shalijehan and his queen, known as the Taj-Mahal. There is nothing that can be compared with it, and those who have visited the farthest parts of the globe, have seen nothing like it. At Allahabad he launched on the broad stream of the Ganges; and after passing through part of the territory of Awadh or Oude, the insecurity of life and property in which is strongly contrasted with the rigid police in the Company's dominions, arrived in due time at the holy city of Benares, the centre of Hindoo and Brahminical sanctity.
 Many of our readers must have seen the beautiful ivory model of this far-famed edifice, lately exhibited in Regent Street, and now, we believe, in the Cambridge University museum. It is fortunate that so faithful a miniature transcript of the beauties of the Taj is in existence, since the original is doomed, as we are informed, to inevitable ruin at no distant period, from the ravages of the white ants on the woodwork.
The shrines of Benares, with their swarms of sacred monkeys and Brahminy bulls, were objects of little interest to our Moslem wayfarer, who on the contrary recounts with visible satisfaction the destruction of several of these But Khanas, or idol-temples, by the intolerable bigotry of Aurungzib, and the erection of mosques on their sites. Among the objects of attraction in the environs of the city, he particularly notices a famous footprint upon stone, called the Kadmsherif, or holy mark, deposited in a mosque near the serai of Aurungabad, and said to have been brought from Mekka by Sheik Mohammed Ali Hazin, whom the translator of his interesting autobiography (published in 1830 by the Oriental Society) has made known to the British public, up to the period when the tyranny of Nadir Shah drove him from Persia. "Here, during his lifetime, he used to go sometimes on a Thursday, and give alms to the poor in the name of God. He was a very learned and accomplished man; and his writings, both in prose and verse, were equal to those of Zahiri and Naziri. When he first came to India, he resided for some years at Delhi; but having had some dispute with the poet-laureate of the Emperor Mohammed Shah, he found himself under the necessity of retiring to Benares, where he lived in great privacy. As he was a stranger in the country, was engaged in no calling or profession, and received no allowance from the Emperor, it was never known whence, or how, he was supplied with the means of keeping up the establishment he did, which consisted of some hundred servants, palanquins, horses, &c. It is said that when the Nawab Shujah-ed-dowlah projected his attack on the English in Bengal, he consulted the Sheik on the subject, who strongly dissuaded him from the undertaking. He died shortly after the battle of Buxar in 1180," (A.D. 1766.) The battle of Buxar was fought Oct. 23, 1764; but that Sheik Ali Hazin died somewhere about this time, seems more probable than that his life was extended (as stated by Sir Gore Ouseley) till 1779; since he describes himself at the conclusion of his memoirs in 1742, when only in his 53d year, as "leading the dullest course of existence in the dullest of all dull countries, and disabled by his increasing infirmities from any active exertion of either body or mind"—a state of things scarcely promising a prolongation of life to the age of ninety.
 These sacred footmarks are more numerous among the Buddhists than the Moslems—the most celebrated is that on the summit of Adam's Peak, in Ceylon.
Resuming his voyage from Benares, the Khan notices with wonder the apparition of the steamers plying between Calcutta and Allahabad, several of which he met on his course, and regarded with the astonishment natural in one who had never before seen a ship impelled, apparently by smoke, against wind and tide:—"I need hardly say how intensely I watched every movement of this extraordinary, and to me incomprehensible machine, which in its passage created such a vast commotion in the waters, that my poor little budjrow (pinnace) felt its effects for the space of full two hos," (nearly four miles.) The picturesque situation of the city of Azimabad or Patna, extending for several miles along the right bank of the Ganges, with the villas and beautiful gardens of the resident English interspersed among the houses, is described in terms of high admiration; and the mosques, some of which were as old as the time of the Patan emperors, are not forgotten by our Moslem traveller in his enumeration of the marvels of the city. A few days' more boating brought him to Rajmahal; "on one side of which," says he, "the country is called Bengal, and on the other Poorb, or the East"—a name from which the independent dynasty of Moslem kings, who once ruled in Bengal, assumed the appellation of Poorby-Shaby. He was now among the rice-fields, the extent and luxuriance of which surprised him: "There are a great variety of sorts, and if a man were to take a grain of each sort he might soon fill a lota (water-pot) with them—so innumerable are the different kinds. The cultivators who have measured the largest species, have declared them to exceed the length of fifty cubits; but I have never seen any of this length, though others may have." He now entered the Bhagirutti, or branch of the Ganges leading to Calcutta, and which bears in the lower part of its course the better known name of the Hoogly—while the main stream to the left is again subdivided into innumerable ramifications, the greater part of which lose themselves among the vast marshes of the Sunderbunds; but he complains, that "though by this branch large vessels and steamers pass up and down to and from the Presidency, the route is very bad, from the extensive jungles on both banks, which are haunted by Thugs and Decoits, (river pirates:)—indeed I have heard and read, that the shores of the Ganges have been infested by freebooters, pirates, and thieves of all sorts, from time immemorial." He escaped unharmed, however, through these manifold perils; and passing Murshidabad, the ancient capital of Bengal, and other places of less note, his remarks upon which we shall not stay to quote, reached the ghauts of Calcutta in safety.