Accordingly he gave the information required; and, insisting with great earnestness on the squire's promise not to mention to Madame di Negra his knowledge of Frank's pecuniary aid (for that would betray Randal as the informant); and satisfying himself as he best might with the squire's prompt assurance, "that he knew how to settle matters, without saying why or wherefore, as long as he opened his purse wide enough," he accompanied Mr. Hazeldean back into the streets, and there left him,—fixing an hour in the evening for an interview at Limmer's, and hinting that it would be best to have that interview without the presence of the parson.
"Excellent good man," said Randal, "but not with sufficient knowledge of the world for affairs of this kind, which you understand so well."
"I should think so," quoth the squire, who had quite recovered his good-humour. "And the parson is as soft as buttermilk. We must be firm here,—firm, sir." And the squire struck the end of his stick on the pavement, nodded to Randal, and went on to May Fair as sturdily and as confidently as if to purchase a prize cow at a cattle-show.
"Bring the light nearer," said John Burley,—"nearer still."
Leonard obeyed, and placed the candle on a little table by the sick man's bedside.
Burley's mind was partially wandering; but there was method in his madness. Horace Walpole said that "his stomach would survive all the rest of him." That which in Burley survived the last was his quaint, wild genius. He looked wistfully at the still flame of the candle: "It lives ever in the air!" said he.
"What lives ever?"
Burley's voice swelled, "Light!" He turned from Leonard, and again contemplated the little flame. "In the fixed star, in the Will-o'-the-wisp, in the great sun that illumines half a world, or the farthing rushlight by which the ragged student strains his eyes,—still the same flower of the elements! Light in the universe, thought in the soul—Ay, ay, go on with the simile. My head swims. Extinguish the light! You cannot; fool, it vanishes from your eye, but it is still in the space. Worlds must perish, suns shrivel up, matter and spirit both fall into nothingness, before the combinations whose union makes that little flame which the breath of a babe can restore to darkness, shall lose the power to form themselves into light once more. Lose the power!—no, the necessity: it is the one Must in creation. Ay, ay, very dark riddles grow clear now,—now when I could not cast up an addition sum in the baker's bill! What wise man denied that two and two made four? Do they not make four? I can't answer him. But I could answer a question that some wise men have contrived to make much knottier." He smiled softly, and turned his face for some minutes to the wall.
This was the second night on which Leonard had watched by his bedside, and Burley's state had grown rapidly worse. He could not last many days, perhaps many hours. But he had evinced an emotion beyond mere delight at seeing Leonard again. He had since then been calmer, more himself. "I feared I might have ruined you by my bad example," he said, with a touch of humour that became pathos as he added, "That idea preyed on me."
"No, no; you did me great good."
"Say that,—say it often," said Burley, earnestly; "it makes my heart feel so light."
He had listened to Leonard's story with deep interest, and was fond of talking to him of little Helen. He detected the secret at the young man's heart, and cheered the hopes that lay there, amidst fears and sorrows. Burley never talked seriously of his repentance; it was not in his nature to talk seriously of the things which he felt solemnly. But his high animal spirits were quenched with the animal power that fed them. Now, we go out of our sensual existence only when we are no longer enthralled by the Present, in which the senses have their realm. The sensual being vanishes when Ave are in the Past or the Future. The Present was gone from Burley; he could no more be its slave and its king.
It was most touching to see how the inner character of this man unfolded itself, as the leaves of the outer character fell off and withered,—a character no one would have guessed in him, an inherent refinement that was almost womanly; and he had all a woman's abnegation of self. He took the cares lavished on him so meekly. As the features of the old man return in the stillness of death to the aspect of youth,—the lines effaced, the wrinkles gone,—so, in seeing Burley now, you saw what he had been in his spring of promise. But he himself saw only what he had failed to be,—powers squandered, life wasted. "I once beheld," he said, "a ship in a storm. It was a cloudy, fitful day, and I could see the ship with all its masts fighting bard for life and for death. Then came night, dark as pitch, and I could only guess that the ship fought on. Towards the dawn the stars grew visible, and once more I saw the ship: it was a wreck,—it went down just as the stars shone forth."
When he had made that allusion to himself, he sat very still for some time, then he spread out his wasted hands, and gazed on them, and on his shrunken limbs. "Good," said he, laughing low; "these hands were too large and rude for handling the delicate webs of my own mechanism, and these strong limbs ran away with me. If I had been a sickly, puny fellow, perhaps my mind would have had fair play. There was too much of brute body here! Look at this hand now! You can see the light through it! Good, good!"
Now, that evening, until he had retired to bed, Burley had been unusually cheerful, and had talked with much of his old eloquence, if with little of his old humour. Amongst other matters, he had spoken with considerable interest of some poems and other papers in manuscript which had been left in the house by a former lodger, and which, the reader may remember, Mrs. Goodyer had urged him in vain to read, in his last visit to her cottage. But then he had her husband Jacob to chat with, and the spirit bottle to finish, and the wild craving for excitement plucked his thoughts back to his London revels. Now poor Jacob was dead, and it was not brandy that the sick man drank from the widow's cruse; and London lay afar amidst its fogs, like a world resolved back into nebula. So, to please his hostess and distract his own solitary thoughts, he had condescended (just before Leonard found him out) to peruse the memorials of a life obscure to the world, and new to his own experience of coarse joys and woes. "I have been making a romance, to amuse myself, from their contents," said he. "They maybe of use to you, brother author. I have told Mrs. Goodyer to place them in your room. Amongst those papers is a sort of journal,—a woman's journal; it moved me greatly. A man gets into another world, strange to him as the orb of Sirius, if he can transport himself into the centre of a woman's heart, and see the life there, so wholly unlike our own. Things of moment to us, to it so trivial; things trifling to us, to it so vast. There was this journal, in its dates reminding me of stormy events in my own existence, and grand doings in the world's. And those dates there, chronicling but the mysterious, unrevealed record of some obscure, loving heart! And in that chronicle, O Sir Poet, there was as much genius, vigour of thought, vitality of being, poured and wasted, as ever kind friend will say was lavished on the rude outer world by big John Burley! Genius, genius! are we all alike, then, save when we leash ourselves to some matter-of-fact material, and float over the roaring seas on a wooden plank or a herring tub?" And after he had uttered that cry of a secret anguish, John Burley had begun to show symptoms of growing fever and disturbed brain; and when they had got him into bed, he lay there muttering to himself, until, towards midnight, he had asked Leonard to bring the light nearer to him.
So now he again was quiet, with his face turned towards the wall; and Leonard stood by the bedside sorrowfully, and Mrs. Goodyer, who did not heed Burley's talk, and thought only of his physical state, was dipping cloths into iced water to apply to his forehead. But as she approached with these, and addressed him soothingly, Burley raised himself on his arm, and waved aside the bandages. "I do not need them," said he, in a collected voice. "I am better now. I and that pleasant light understand one another, and I believe all it tells me. Pooh, pooh, I do not rave." He looked so smilingly and so kindly into her face, that the poor woman, who loved him as her own son, fairly burst into tears. He drew her towards him, and kissed her forehead.
"Peace, old fool," said he, fondly. "You shall tell anglers hereafter how John Burley came to fish for the one-eyed perch which he never caught; and how, when he gave it up at the last, his baits all gone, and the line broken amongst the weeds, you comforted the baffled man. There are many good fellows yet in the world who will like to know that poor Burley did not die on a dunghill. Kiss me. Come, boy, you too. Now, God bless you, I should like to sleep." His cheeks were wet with the tears of both his listeners, and there was a moisture in his own eyes, which, nevertheless, beamed bright through the moisture.
He laid himself down again, and the old woman would have withdrawn the light. He moved uneasily. "Not that," he murmured,—"light to the last!" and putting forth his wan hand, he drew aside the curtain so that the light might fall full on his face.
[Every one remembers that Goethe's last words are said to have been, "More Light;" and perhaps what has occurred in the text may be supposed a plagiarism from those words. But, in fact, nothing is more common than the craving and demand for light a little before death. Let any consult his own sad experience in the last moments of those whose gradual close he has watched and tended. What more frequent than a prayer to open the shutters and let in the sun? What complaint more repeated and more touching than "that it is growing dark"? I once knew a sufferer, who did not then seem in immediate danger, suddenly order the sick room to be lit up as if for a gala. When this was told to the physician, he said gravely, "No worse sign."]
In a few minutes he was asleep, breathing calmly and regularly as an infant.
The old woman wiped her eyes, and drew Leonard softly into the adjoining room, in which a bed had been made up for him. He had not left the house since he had entered it with Dr. Morgan. "You are young, sir," said she, with kindness, "and the young want sleep. Lie down a bit: I will call you when he wakes."
"No, I could not sleep," said Leonard. "I will watch for you."
The old woman shook her head. "I must see the last of him, sir; but I know he will be angry when his eyes open on me, for he has grown very thoughtful of others."
"Ah, if he had but been, as thoughtful of himself!" murmured Leonard; and he seated himself by the table, on which, as he leaned his elbow, he dislodged some papers placed there. They fell to the ground with a dumb, moaning, sighing sound.—
"What is that?" said he, starting.
The old woman picked up the manuscripts and smoothed them carefully.
"Ah, sir, he bade me place these papers here. He thought they might keep you from fretting about him, in case you would sit up and wake. And he had a thought of me, too; for I have so pined to find out the poor young lady, who left them years ago. She was almost as dear to me as he is; dearer perhaps until now—when—when I am about to lose him!"
Leonard turned from the papers, without a glance at their contents: they had no interest for him at such a moment. The hostess went on,
"Perhaps she is gone to heaven before him; she did not look like one long for this world. She left us so suddenly. Many things of hers besides these papers are still, here; but I keep them aired and dusted, and strew lavender over them, in case she ever come for them again. You never heard tell of her, did you, sir?" she added, with great simplicity, and dropping a half courtesy.
"Of her—of whom?"
"Did not Mr. John tell you her name—dear, dear; Mrs. Bertram."
Leonard started; the very name so impressed upon his memory by Harley L'Estrange!
"Bertram!" he repeated. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes, sir! And many years after she had left us, and we had heard no more of her, there came a packet addressed to her here, from over sea, sir. We took it in, and kept it, and John would break the seal, to know if it would tell us anything about her; but it was all in a foreign language like,—we could not read a word."
"Have you the packet? Pray show it to me. It may be of the greatest value. To-morrow will do—I cannot think of that just now. Poor Burley!"
Leonard's manner indicated that he wished to talk no more, and to be alone. So Mrs. Goodyer left him, and stole back to Burley's room on tiptoe:
The young man remained in deep revery for some moments. "Light," he murmured. "How often 'Light' is the last word of those round whom the shades are gathering!" He moved, and straight on his view through the cottage lattice there streamed light indeed,—not the miserable ray lit by a human hand, but the still and holy effulgence of a moonlit heaven. It lay broad upon the humble floors, pierced across the threshold of the death chamber, and halted clear amidst its shadows.
Leonard stood motionless, his eye following the silvery silent splendour.
"And," he said inly—"and does this large erring nature, marred by its genial faults, this soul which should have filled a land, as yon orb the room, with a light that linked earth to heaven—does it pass away into the dark, and leave not a ray behind? Nay, if the elements of light are ever in the space, and when the flame goes out, return to the vital air, so thought once kindled lives forever around and about us, a part of our breathing atmosphere. Many a thinker, many a poet, may yet illumine the world, from the thoughts which yon genius, that will have no name, gave forth to wander through air, and recombine again in some new form of light."
Thus he went on in vague speculations, seeking, as youth enamoured of fame seeks too fondly, to prove that mind never works, however erratically, in vain, and to retain yet, as an influence upon earth, the soul about to soar far beyond the atmosphere where the elements that make fame abide. Not thus had the dying man interpreted the endurance of light and thought.
Suddenly, in the midst of his revery, a loud cry broke on his ear. He shuddered as he heard, and hastened forebodingly into the adjoining room. The old woman was kneeling by the bedside, and chafing Burley's hand, eagerly looking into his face. A glance sufficed to Leonard. All was over. Burley had died in sleep,—calmly, and without a groan.
The eyes were half open, with that look of inexpressible softness which death sometimes leaves; and still they were turned towards the light; and the light burned clear.
Leonard closed tenderly the heavy lids; and as he covered the face, the lips smiled a serene farewell.
We have seen Squire Hazeldean (proud of the contents of his pocketbook, and his knowledge of the mercenary nature of foreign women) set off on his visit to Beatrice di Negra. Randal thus left, musing lone in the crowded streets, resolved with astute complacency the probable results of Mr. Hazeldean's bluff negotiation; and convincing himself that one of his vistas towards Fortune was becoming more clear and clear, he turned, with the restless activity of some founder of destined cities in a new settlement, to lop the boughs that cumbered and obscured the others. For truly, like a man in a vast Columbian forest, opening entangled space, now with the ready axe, now with the patient train that kindles the slower fire, this child of civilized life went toiling on against surrounding obstacles, resolute to destroy, but ever scheming to construct. And now Randal has reached Levy's dainty business-room, and is buried deep in discussion how to secure to himself, at the expense of his patron, the representation of Lansmere, and how to complete the contract which shall reannex to his forlorn inheritance some fragments of its ancient wealth.
Meanwhile, Chance fought on his side in the boudoir of May Fair. The squire had found the marchesa at home, briefly introduced himself and his business, told her she was mistaken if she had fancied she had taken in a rich heir in his son; that, thank Heaven, he could leave his estates to his ploughman, should he so please, but that he was willing to do things liberally; and whatever she thought Frank was worth, he was very ready to pay for.
At another time Beatrice would perhaps have laughed at this strange address; or she might, in some prouder moment, have fired up with all a patrician's resentment and a woman's pride; but now her spirit was crushed, her nerves shattered: the sense of her degraded position, of her dependence on her brother, combined with her supreme unhappiness at the loss of those dreams with which Leonard had for a while charmed her wearied waking life,—all came upon her. She listened; pale and speechless; and the poor squire thought he was quietly advancing towards a favourable result, when she suddenly burst into a passion of hysterical tears; and just at that moment Frank himself entered the room. At the sight of his father, of Beatrice's grief, his sense of filial duty gave way. He was maddened by irritation, by the insult offered to the woman he loved, which a few trembling words from her explained to him,—maddened yet more by the fear that the insult had lost her to him; warm words ensued between son and father, to close with the peremptory command and vehement threat of the last.
"Come away this instant, sir! Come with me, or before the day is over, I strike you out of my will!"
The son's answer was not to his father; he threw himself at Beatrice's feet.
"Forgive him; forgive us both—"
"What! you prefer that stranger to me,—to the inheritance of Hazeldean!" cried the squire, stamping his foot.
"Leave your estates to whom you will; all that I care for in life is here!"
The squire stood still a moment or so, gazing on his son with a strange bewildered marvel at the strength of that mystic passion, which none not labouring under its fearful charm can comprehend, which creates the sudden idol that no reason justifies, and sacrifices to its fatal shrine alike the Past and the Future. Not trusting himself to speak, the father drew his hand across his eyes, and dashed away the bitter tear that sprang from a swelling and indignant heart; then he uttered an inarticulate sound, and, finding his voice gone, moved away to the door, and left the house.
He walked through the streets, bearing his head very erect, as a proud man does when deeply wounded, and striving to shake off some affection that he deems a weakness; and his trembling nervous fingers fumbled at the button of his coat, trying to tighten the garment across his chest, as if to confirm a resolution that still sought to struggle out of the revolting heart.
Thus he went on, and the reader, perhaps, will wonder whither; and the wonder may not lessen when he finds the squire come to a dead pause in Grosvenor Square, and at the portico of his "distant brother's" stately house.
At the squire's brief inquiry whether Mr. Egerton was at home, the porter summoned the groom of the chambers; and the groom of the chambers, seeing a stranger, doubted whether his master was not engaged, but would take in the stranger's card and see.
"Ay, ay," muttered the squire, "this is true relationship!—my child prefers a stranger to me; why should I complain that I am a stranger in a brother's house? Sir," added the squire aloud, and very meekly—"sir, please to say to your master that I am William Hazeldean."
The servant bowed low, and without another word conducted the visitor into the statesman's library, and announcing Mr. Hazeldean, closed the door.
Audley was seated at his desk, the grim iron boxes still at his feet, but they were now closed and locked. And the ex-minister was no longer looking over official documents; letters spread open before him of far different nature; in his hand there lay a long lock of fair silken hair, on which his eyes were fixed sadly and intently. He started at the sound of his visitor's name, and the tread of the squire's stalwart footstep; and mechanically thrust into his bosom the relic of younger and warmer years, keeping his hand to his heart, which beat loud with disease under the light pressure of that golden hair.
The two brothers stood on the great man's lonely hearth, facing each other in silence, and noting unconsciously the change made in each during the long years in which they had never met.
The squire, with his portly size, his hardy sunburned cheeks, the partial baldness of his unfurrowed open forehead, looked his full age,—deep into middle life. Unmistakably he seemed the pater familias, the husband and the father, the man of social domestic ties. But about Audley (really some few years junior to the squire), despite the lines of care on his handsome face, there still lingered the grace of youth. Men of cities retain youth longer than those of the country,—a remark which Buffon has not failed to make and to account for. Neither did Egerton betray the air of the married man; for ineffable solitariness seemed stamped upon one whose private life had long been so stern a solitude. No ray from the focus of Home played round that reserved, unjoyous, melancholy brow. In a word, Audley looked still the man for whom some young female heart might fondly sigh; and not the less because of the cold eye and compressed lip, which challenged interest even while seeming to repel it.
Audley was the first to speak, and to put forth the right hand, which he stole slowly from its place at his breast, on which the lock of hair still stirred to and fro at the heave of the labouring heart. "William," said he, with his rich deep voice, "this is kind. You are come to see me, now that men say that I am fallen. The minister you censured is no more; and you see again the brother."
The squire was softened at once by this address. He shook heartily the hand tendered to him; and then, turning away his head, with an honest conviction that Audley ascribed to him a credit which he did not deserve, he said, "No, no, Audley; I am more selfish than you think me. I have come—I have come to ask your advice,—no, not exactly that—your opinion. But you are busy?"
"Sit down, William. Old days were coming over me when you entered; days earlier still return now,—days, too, that leave no shadow when their suns are set."
The proud man seemed to think he had said too much. His practical nature rebuked the poetic sentiment and phrase. He re-collected himself, and added, more coldly, "You would ask my opinion? What on? Some public matter—some parliamentary bill that may affect your property?"
"Am I such a mean miser as that? Property—property? what does property matter, when a man is struck down at his own hearth? Property, indeed! But you have no child—happy brother!"
"Ay, ay; as you say, I am a happy man; childless! Has your son displeased you? I have heard him well spoken of, too."
"Don't talk of him. Whether his conduct be good or ill is my affair," resumed the poor father, with a testy voice—jealous alike of Audley's praise or blame of his rebellious son. Then he rose a moment, and made a strong gulp, as if for air; and laying his broad brown hand on his brother's shoulder, said, "Randal Leslie tells me you are wise,—a consummate man of the world. No doubt you are so. And Parson Dale tells me that he is sure you have warm feelings,—which I take to be a strange thing for one who has lived so long in London, and has no wife and no child, a widower, and a member of parliament,—for a commercial city, too. Never smile; it is no smiling matter with me. You know a foreign woman, called Negra or Negro; not a blackymoor, though, by any means,—at least on the outside of her. Is she such a woman as a plain country gentleman would like his only son to marry—ay or no?"
"No, indeed," answered Audley, gravely; "and I trust your son will commit no action so rash. Shall I see him, or her? Speak, my dear William. What would you have me do?"
"Nothing; you have said enough," replied the squire, gloomily; and his head sank on his breast.
Audley took his hand, and pressed it fraternally. "William," said the statesman, "we have been long estranged; but I do not forget that when we last met, at—at Lord Lansmere's house, and when I took you aside, and said, 'William, if I lose this election, I must resign all chance of public life; my affairs are embarrassed. I would not accept money from you,—I would seek a profession, and you can help me there,' you divined my meaning, and said, 'Take orders; the Hazeldean living is just vacant. I will get some one to hold it till you are ordained.' I do not forget that. Would that I had thought earlier of so serene an escape from all that then tormented me! My lot might have been far happier."
The squire eyed Audley with a surprise that broke forth from his more absorbing emotions. "Happier! Why, all things have prospered with you; and you are rich enough now; and—you shake your head. Brother, is it possible! do you want money? Pooh, not accept money from your mother's son!—stuff!" Out came the squire's pocketbook. Audley put it gently aside.
"Nay," said he, "I have enough for myself; but since you seek and speak with me thus affectionately, I will ask you one favour. Should I die before I can provide for my wife's kinsman, Randal Leslie, as I could wish, will you see to his fortunes, so far as you can, without injury to others,—to your own son?"
"My son! He is provided for. He has the Casino estate—much good may it do him! You have touched on the very matter that brought me here. This boy, Randal Leslie, seems a praiseworthy lad, and has Hazeldean blood in his veins. You have taken him up because he is connected with your late wife. Why should I not take him up, too, when his grandmother was a Hazeldean? My main object in calling was to ask what you mean to do for him; for if you do not mean to provide for him, why, I will, as in duty bound. So your request comes at the right time; I think of altering my will. I can put him into the entail, besides a handsome legacy. You are sure he is a good lad,—and it will please you too, Audley!"
"But not at the expense of your son. And stay, William: as to this foolish marriage with Madame di Negra,—who told you Frank meant to take such a step?"
"He told me himself; but it is no matter. Randal and I both did all we could to dissuade him; and Randal advised me to come to you."
"He has acted generously, then, our kinsman Randal—I am glad to hear it," said Audley, his brow somewhat clearing. "I have no influence with this lady; but, at least, I can counsel her. Do not consider the marriage fixed because a young man desires it. Youth is ever hot and rash."
"Your youth never was," retorted the squire, bluntly.
"You married well enough, I'm sure. I will say one thing for you: you have been, to my taste, a bad politician—beg pardon—but you were always a gentleman. You would never have disgraced your family and married a—"
"Hush!" interrupted Egerton, gently. "Do not make matters worse than they are. Madame di Negra is of high birth in her own country; and if scandal—"
"Scandal!" cried the squire, shrinking, and turning pale. "Are you speaking of the wife of a Hazeldean? At least she shall never sit by the hearth at which now sits his mother; and whatever I may do for Frank, her children shall not succeed. No mongrel cross-breed shall kennel in English Hazeldean. Much obliged to you, Audley, for your good feeling; glad to have seen you; and hark ye, you startled me by that shake of your head, when I spoke of your wealth; and from what you say about Randal's prospects, I guess that you London gentlemen are not so thrifty as we are. You shall let me speak. I say again, that I have some thousands quite at your service. And though you are not a Hazeldean, still you are my mother's son; and now that I am about to alter my will, I can as well scratch in the name of Egerton as that of Leslie. Cheer up, cheer up: you are younger than I am, and you have no child; so you will live longer than I shall."
"My dear brother," answered Audley, "believe me, I shall never live to want your aid. And as to Leslie, add to the L5,000 I mean to give him an equal sum in your will, and I shall feel that he has received justice."
Observing that the squire, though he listened attentively, made no ready answer, Audley turned the subject again to Frank; and with the adroitness of a man of the world, backed by cordial sympathy in his brother's distress, he pleaded so well Frank's lame cause, urged so gently the wisdom of patience and delay, and the appeal to filial feeling rather than recourse to paternal threats, that the squire grew mollified in spite of himself, and left his brother's house a much less angry and less doleful man.
Mr. Hazeldean was still in the Square, when he came upon Randal himself, who was walking with a dark-whiskered, showy gentleman, towards Egerton's house. Randal and the gentleman exchanged a hasty whisper, and the former then exclaimed,
"What, Mr. Hazeldean, have you just left your brother's house? Is it possible?"
"Why, you advised me to go there, and I did. I scarcely knew what I was about. I am very glad I did go. Hang politics! hang the landed interest! what do I care for either now?"
"Foiled with Madame di Negra?" asked Randal, drawing the squire aside.
"Never speak of her again!" cried the squire, fiercely. "And as to that ungrateful boy—but I don't mean to behave harshly to him,—he shall have money enough to keep her if he likes, keep her from coming to me, keep him, too, from counting on my death, and borrowing post-obits on the Casino—for he'll be doing that next—no, I hope I wrong him there; I have been too good a father for him to count on my death already. After all," continued the squire, beginning to relax, "as Audley says, the marriage is not yet made; and if the woman has taken him in, he is young, and his heart is warm. Make yourself easy, my boy. I don't forget how kindly you took his part; and before I do anything rash, I'll at least consult with his poor mother."
Randal gnawed his pale lip, and a momentary cloud of disappointment passed over his face.
"True, sir," said he, gently; "true, you must not be rash. Indeed, I was thinking of you and poor dear Frank at the very moment I met you. It occurred to me whether we might not make Frank's very embarrassments a reason to induce Madame di Negra to refuse him; and I was on my way to Mr. Egerton, in order to ask his opinion, in company with the gentleman yonder."
"Gentleman yonder. Why should he thrust his long nose into my family affairs? Who the devil is he?"
"Don't ask, sir. Pray let me act."
But the squire continued to eye askant the dark-whiskered personage thus interposed between himself and his son, and who waited patiently a few yards in the rear, carelessly readjusting the camellia in his button-hole.
"He looks very outlandish. Is he a foreigner too?" asked the squire at last.
"No, not exactly. However, he knows all about Frank's embarrassments; and—"
"Embarrassments! what, the debt he paid for that woman? How did he raise the money?"
"I don't know," answered Randal; "and that is the reason I asked Baron Levy to accompany me to Egerton's, that he might explain in private what I have no reason—"
"Baron Levy!" interrupted the squire. "Levy, Levy—I have heard of a Levy who has nearly ruined my neighbour Thornhill,—a money-lender. Zounds! is that the man who knows my son's affairs? I'll soon learn, sir."
Randal caught hold of the squire's arm: "Stop, stop; if you really insist upon learning more about Frank's debts, you must not appeal to Baron Levy directly, and as Frank's father: he will not answer you. But if I present you to him as a mere acquaintance of mine, and turn the conversation, as if carelessly, upon Frank, why, since, in the London world, such matters are never kept secret, except from the parents of young men, I have no doubt he will talk out openly."
"Manage it as you will," said the squire.
Randal took Mr. Hazeldean's arm, and joined Levy—"A friend of mine from the country, Baron." Levy bowed profoundly, and the three walked slowly on.
"By the by," said Randal, pressing significantly upon Levy's arm, "my friend has come to town upon the somewhat unpleasant business of settling the debts of another,—a young man of fashion,—a relation of his own. No one, sir (turning to the squire), could so ably assist you in such arrangements as could Baron Levy."
BARON (modestly, and with a moralizing air).—"I have some experience in such matters, and I hold it a duty to assist the parents and relations of young men who, from want of reflection, often ruin themselves for life. I hope the young gentleman in question is not in the hands of the Jews?"
RANDAL.—"Christians are as fond of good interest for their money as ever the Jews can be."
BARON.—"Granted, but they have not always so much money to lend. The first thing, sir" (addressing the squire),—"the first thing for you to do is to buy up such of your relation's bills and notes of hand as may be in the market. No doubt we can get them a bargain, unless the young man is heir to some property that may soon be his in the course of nature."
RANDAL.—"Not soon—Heaven forbid! His father is still a young man,—a fine healthy man," leaning heavily on Levy's arm; "and as to post-obits—"
BARON.—"Post-obits on sound security cost more to buy up, however healthy the obstructing relative may be."
RANDAL.—"I should hope that there are not many sons who can calculate, in cold blood, on the death of their fathers."
BARON.—"Ha, ha! He is young, our friend Randal; eh, sir?"
RANDAL.—"Well, I am not more scrupulous than others, I dare say; and I have often been pinched hard for money, but I would go barefoot rather than give security upon a father's grave! I can imagine nothing more likely to destroy natural feeling, nor to instil ingratitude and treachery into the whole character, than to press the hand of a parent, and calculate when that hand may be dust; than to sit down with strangers and reduce his life to the measure of an insurance-table; than to feel difficulties gathering round one, and mutter in fashionable slang, 'But it will be all well if the governor would but die.' And he who has accustomed himself to the relief of post-obits must gradually harden his mind to all this."
The squire groaned heavily; and had Randal proceeded another sentence in the same strain, the squire would have wept outright. "But," continued Randal, altering the tone of his voice, "I think that our young friend, of whom we were talking just now, Levy, before this gentleman joined us, has the same opinions as myself on this head. He may accept bills, but he would never sign post-obits."
BARON (who, with the apt docility of a managed charger to the touch of a rider's hand, had comprehended and complied with each quick sign of Randal's).—"Pooh! the young fellow we are talking of? Nonsense. He would not be so foolish as to give five times the percentage he otherwise might. Not sign post-obits! Of course he has signed one."
RANDAL.—"Hist! you mistake, you mistake!"
SQUIRE (leaving Randal's arm and seizing Levy's).—"Were you speaking of Frank Hazeldean?"
BARON.—"My dear sir, excuse me, I never mention names before strangers."
SQUIRE.—"Strangers again! Man, I am the boy's father Speak out, sir," and his hand closed on Levy's arm with the strength of an iron vice.
BARON.—"Gently; you hurt me, sir: but I excuse your feelings. Randal, you are to blame for leading me into this indiscretion; but I beg to assure Mr. Hazeldean, that though his son has been a little extravagant—"
RANDAL.—"Owing chiefly to the arts of an abandoned woman."
BARON.—"Of an abandoned woman;—still he has shown more prudence than you would suppose; and this very post-obit is a proof of it. A simple act of that kind has enabled him to pay off bills that were running on till they would have ruined even the Hazeldean estate; whereas a charge on the reversion of the Casino—"
SQUIRE.—"He has done it then? He has signed a postobit?"
RANDAL.—"No, no, Levy must be wrong."
BARON.—"My dear Leslie, a man of Mr. Hazeldean's time of life cannot have your romantic boyish notions. He must allow that Frank has acted in this like a lad of sense—very good head for business has my young friend Frank! And the best thing Mr. Hazeldean can do is quietly to buy up the post-obit, and thus he will place his son henceforth in his power."
SQUIRE.—"Can I see the deed with my own eyes?"
BARON.—"Certainly, or how could you be induced to buy it up? But on one condition; you must not betray me to your son. And, indeed, take my advice, and don't say a word to him on the matter."
SQUIRE.—"Let me see it, let me see it with my own eyes! His mother else will never believe it—nor will I."
BARON.—"I can call on you this evening."
BARON.—"You can spare me, Randal; and you yourself can open to Mr. Egerton the other affair respecting Lansmere. No time should be lost, lest L'Estrange suggest a candidate."
RANDAL (whispering).—"Never mind me. This is more important." (Aloud)—"Go with Mr. Hazeldean. My dear kind friend" (to the squire), "do not let this vex you so much. After all, it is what nine young men out of ten would do in the same circumstances. And it is best you should know it; you may save Frank from further ruin, and prevent, perhaps, this very marriage."
"We will see," exclaimed the squire, hastily. "Now, Mr. Levy, come."
Levy and the squire walked on, not arm in arm, but side by side. Randal proceeded to Egerton's house.
"I am glad to see you, Leslie," said the ex-minister. "What is it I have heard? My nephew, Frank Hazeldean, proposes to marry Madame di Negra against his father's consent? How could you suffer him to entertain an idea so wild? And how never confide it to me?"
RANDAL.—"My dear Mr. Egerton, it is only to-day that I was informed of Frank's engagement. I have already seen him, and expostulated in vain; till then, though I knew your nephew admired Madame di Negra, I could never suppose he harboured a serious intention."
EGERTON.—"I must believe you, Randal. I will myself see Madame di Negra, though I have no power, and no right, to dictate to her. I have but little time for all such private business. The dissolution of parliament is so close at hand."
RANDAL (looking down).—"It is on that subject that I wished to speak to you, sir. You think of standing for Lansmere. Well, Baron Levy has suggested to me an idea that I could not, of course, even countenance, till I had spoken to you. It seems that he has some acquaintance with the state of parties in that borough. He is informed that it is not only as easy to bring in two of our side as to carry one, but that it would make your election still more safe not to fight single-handed against two opponents; that if canvassing for yourself alone, you could not carry a sufficient number of plumper votes; that split votes would go from you to one or other of the two adversaries; that, in a word, it is necessary to pair you with a colleague. If it really be so, you of course will learn best from your own Committee; but should they concur in the opinion Baron Levy has formed, do I presume too much on your kindness to deem it possible that you might allow me to be the second candidate on your side? I should not say this, but that Levy told me you had some wish to see me in parliament, amongst the supporters of your policy. And what other opportunity can occur? Here the cost of carrying two would be scarcely more than that of carrying one. And Levy says the party would subscribe for my election; you, of course, would refuse all such aid for your own; and indeed, with your great name, and Lord Lansmere's interest, there can be little beyond the strict legal expenses."
As Randal spoke thus at length, he watched anxiously his patron's reserved, unrevealing countenance.
EGERTON (dryly).—"I will consider. You may safely leave in my hands any matter connected with your ambition and advancement. I have before told you I hold it a duty to do all in my power for the kinsman of my late wife, for one whose career I undertook to forward, for one whom honour has compelled to share in my own political reverses."
Here Egerton rang the bell for his hat and gloves, and walking into the hall, paused at the street door. There beckoning to Randal, he said, slowly, "You seem intimate with Baron Levy; I caution you against him,—a dangerous acquaintance, first to the purse, next to the honour."
RANDAL.—"I know it, sir; and am surprised myself at the acquaintance that has grown up between us. Perhaps its cause is in his respect for yourself."
RANDAL.—"Whatever it be, he contrives to obtain a singular hold over one's mind, even where, as in my case, he has no evident interest to serve. How is this? It puzzles me!"
EGERTON.—"For his interest, it is most secured where he suffers it to be least evident; for his hold over the mind, it is easily accounted for. He ever appeals to two temptations, strong with all men,—Avarice and Ambition. Good-day."
RANDAL.—"Are you going to Madame di Negra's? Shall I not accompany you? Perhaps I may be able to back your own remonstrances."
EGERTON.—"No, I shall not require you."
RANDAL.—"I trust I shall hear the result of your interview? I feel so much interested in it. Poor Frank!"
Audley nodded. "Of course, of course."
On entering the drawing-room of Madame di Negra, the peculiar charm which the severe Audley Egerton had been ever reputed to possess with women would have sensibly struck one who had hitherto seen him chiefly in his relations with men in the business-like affairs of life. It was a charm in strong contrast to the ordinary manners of those who are emphatically called "Ladies' men." No artificial smile, no conventional, hollow blandness, no frivolous gossip, no varnish either of ungenial gayety or affected grace. The charm was in a simplicity that unbent more into kindness than it did with men. Audley's nature, whatever its faults and defects, was essentially masculine; and it was the sense of masculine power that gave to his voice a music when addressing the gentler sex, and to his manner a sort of indulgent tenderness that appeared equally void of insincerity and presumption.
Frank had been gone about half-an-hour, and Madame di Negra was scarcely recovered from the agitation into which she had been thrown by the affront from the father and the pleading of the son.
Egerton took her passive hand cordially, and seated himself by her side.
"My dear marchesa," I said he, "are we then likely to be near connections? And can you seriously contemplate marriage with my young nephew, Frank Hazeldean? You turn away. Ah, my fair friend, there are but two inducements to a free woman to sign away her liberty at the altar. I say a free woman, for widows are free, and girls are not. These inducements are, first, worldly position; secondly, love. Which of these motives can urge Madame di Negra to marry Mr. Frank Hazeldeani?"
"There are other motives than those you speak of,—the need of protection, the sense of solitude, the curse of dependence, gratitude for honourable affection. But you men never know women!"
"I grant that you are right there,—we never do; neither do women ever know men. And yet each sex contrives to dupe and to fool the other! Listen to me. I have little acquaintance with my nephew, but I allow he is a handsome young gentleman, with whom a handsome young lady in her teens might fall in love in a ball-room. But you, who have known the higher order of our species, you who have received the homage of men, whose thoughts and mind leave the small talk of drawing-room triflers so poor and bald, you cannot look me in the face and say that it is any passion resembling love which you feel for my nephew. And as to position, it is right that I should inform you that if he marry you he will have none. He may risk his inheritance. You will receive no countenance from his parents. You will be poor, but not free. You will not gain the independence you seek for. The sight of a vacant, discontented face in that opposite chair will be worse than solitude. And as to grateful affection," added the man of the world, "it is a polite synonym for tranquil indifference."
"Mr. Egerton," said Beatrice, "people say you are made of bronze. Did you ever feel the want of a home?"
"I answer you frankly," replied the statesman, "if I had not felt it, do you think I should have been, and that I should be to the last, the joyless drudge of public life? Bronze though you call my nature, it would have melted away long since like wax in the fire, if I had sat idly down and dreamed of a home!"
"But we women," answered Beatrice, with pathos, "have no public life, and we do idly sit down and dream. Oh," she continued, after a short pause, and clasping her hands firmly together, "you think me worldly, grasping, ambitious; how different my fate had been had I known a home!—known one whom I could love and venerate; known one whose smiles would have developed the good that was once within me, and the fear of whose rebuking or sorrowful eye would have corrected what is evil."
"Yet," answered Audley, "nearly all women in the great world have had that choice once in their lives, and nearly all have thrown it away. How few of your rank really think of home when they marry! how few ask to venerate as well as to love! and how many, of every rank, when the home has been really gained, have wilfully lost its shelter,—some in neglectful weariness, some from a momentary doubt, distrust, caprice, a wild fancy, a passionate fit, a trifle, a straw, a dream! True, you women are ever dreamers. Commonsense, common earth, is above or below your comprehension."
Both now are silent. Audley first roused himself with a quick, writhing movement. "We two," said he, smiling half sadly, half cynically,—"we two must not longer waste time in talking sentiment. We know both too well what life, as it has been made for us by our faults or our misfortunes, truly is. And once again, I entreat you to pause before you yield to the foolish suit of my foolish nephew. Rely on it, you will either command a higher offer for your prudence to accept; or, if you needs must sacrifice rank and fortune, you, with your beauty and your romantic heart, will see one who, at least for a fair holiday season (if human love allows no more), can repay you for the sacrifice. Frank Hazeldean never can."
Beatrice turned away to conceal the tears that rushed to her eyes.
"Think over this well," said Audley, in the softest tones of his mellow voice. "Do you remember that when you first came to England, I told you that neither wedlock nor love had any lures for me? We grew friends upon that rude avowal, and therefore I now speak to you like some sage of old, wise because standing apart and aloof from all the affections and ties that mislead our wisdom. Nothing but real love—how rare it is; has one human heart in a million ever known it?—nothing but real love can repay us for the loss of freedom, the cares and fears of poverty, the cold pity of the world that we both despise and respect. And all these, and much more, follow the step you would inconsiderately take, an imprudent marriage."
"Audley Egerton," said Beatrice, lifting her dark, moistened eyes, "you grant that real love does compensate for an imprudent marriage. You speak as if you had known such love—you! Can it be possible?"
"Real love—I thought that I knew it once. Looking back with remorse, I should doubt it now but for one curse that only real love, when lost, has the power to leave evermore behind it."
"What is that?"
"A void here," answered Egerton, striking his heart. "Desolation!—Adieu!"
He rose and left the room.
"Is it," murmured Egerton, as he pursued his way through the streets—"is it that, as we approach death, all the first fair feelings of young life come back to us mysteriously? Thus I have heard, or read, that in some country of old, children scattering flowers preceded a funeral bier."
And so Leonard stood beside his friend's mortal clay, and watched, in the ineffable smile of death, the last gleam which the soul had left there; and so, after a time, he crept back to the adjoining room with a step as noiseless as if he had feared to disturb the dead. Wearied as he was with watching, he had no thought of sleep. He sat himself down by the little table, and leaned his face on his hand, musing sorrowfully. Thus time passed. He heard the clock from below strike the hours. In the house of death the sound of a clock becomes so solemn. The soul that we miss has gone so far beyond the reach of time! A cold, superstitious awe gradually stole over the young man. He shivered, and lifted his eyes with a start, half scornful, half defying. The moon was gone; the gray, comfortless dawn gleamed through the casement, and carried its raw, chilling light through the open doorway into the death-room. And there, near the extinguished fire, Leonard saw the solitary woman, weeping low; and watching still. He returned to say a word of comfort; she pressed his hand, but waved him away. He understood. She did not wish for other comfort than her quiet relief of tears. Again, he returned to his own chamber, and his eye this time fell upon the papers which he had hitherto disregarded. What made his heart stand still, and the blood then rush so quickly through his veins? Why did he seize upon those papers with so tremulous a hand, then lay them down, pause, as if to nerve himself, and look so eagerly again? He recognized the handwriting,—those fair, clear characters, so peculiar in their woman-like delicacy and grace, the same as in the wild, pathetic poems, the sight of which had made an era in his boyhood. From these pages the image of the mysterious Nora rose once more before him. He felt that he was with a mother. He went back, and closed the door gently, as if with a jealous piety, to exclude each ruder shadow from the world of spirits, and be alone with that mournful ghost. For a thought written in warm, sunny life, and then suddenly rising up to us, when the hand that traced and the heart that cherished it are dust, is verily as a ghost. It is a likeness struck off of the fond human being, and surviving it. Far more truthful than bust or portrait, it bids us see the tear flow, and the pulse beat. What ghost can the churchyard yield to us like the writing of the dead?
The bulk of the papers had been once lightly sewn to each other; they had come undone, perhaps in Burley's rude hands, but their order was easily apparent. Leonard soon saw that they formed a kind of journal,—not, indeed, a regular diary, nor always relating to the things of the day. There were gaps in time—no attempt at successive narrative; sometimes, instead of prose, a hasty burst of verse, gushing evidently from the heart; sometimes all narrative was left untold, and yet, as it were, epitomized by a single burning line—a single exclamation—of woe or joy! Everywhere you saw records of a nature exquisitely susceptible; and, where genius appeared, it was so artless, that you did not call it genius, but emotion. At the onset the writer did not speak of herself in the first person. The manuscript opened with descriptions and short dialogues, carried on by persons to whose names only initial letters were assigned, all written in a style of simple innocent freshness, and breathing of purity and happiness, like a dawn of spring. Two young persons, humbly born, a youth and a girl, the last still in childhood, each chiefly self-taught, are wandering on Sabbath evenings among green dewy fields, near the busy town, in which labour awhile is still. Few words pass between them. You see at once, though the writer does not mean to convey it, how far beyond the scope of her male companion flies the heavenward imagination of the girl. It is he who questions, it is she who answers; and soon there steals upon you, as you read, the conviction that the youth loves the girl, and loves in vain. All in this writing, though terse, is so truthful! Leonard, in the youth, already recognizes the rude imperfect scholar, the village bard, Mark Fairfield. Then there is a gap in description; but there are short weighty sentences, which show deepening thought, increasing years, in the writer. And though the innocence remains, the happiness begins to be less vivid on the page.
Now, insensibly, Leonard finds that there is a new phase in the writer's existence. Scenes no longer of humble, workday rural life surround her, and a fairer and more dazzling image succeeds to the companion of the Sabbath eves. This image Nora evidently loves to paint,—it is akin to her own genius; it captivates her fancy; it is an image that she (inborn artist, and conscious of her art) feels to belong to a brighter and higher school of the Beautiful. And yet the virgin's heart is not awakened,—no trace of the heart yet there! The new image thus introduced is one of her own years, perhaps; nay, it may be younger still, for it is a boy that is described, with his profuse fair curls, and eyes new to grief, and confronting the sun as a young eagle's; with veins so full of the wine of life, that they overflow into every joyous whim; with nerves quiveringly alive to the desire of glory; with the frank generous nature, rash in its laughing scorn of the world, which it has not tried. Who was this boy? it perplexed Leonard. He feared to guess. Soon, less told than implied, you saw that this companionship, however it chanced, brings fear and pain on the writer. Again (as before, with Mark Fairfield), there is love on the one side and not on the other; with her there is affectionate, almost sisterly, interest, admiration, gratitude, but a something of pride or of terror that keeps back love.
Here Leonard's interest grew intense. Were there touches by which conjecture grew certainty; and he recognized, through the lapse of years, the boy-lover in his own generous benefactor?
Fragments of dialogue now began to reveal the suit of an ardent, impassioned nature, and the simple wonder and strange alarm of a listener who pitied but could not sympathize. Some great worldly distinction of rank between the two became visible,—that distinction seemed to arm the virtue and steel the affections of the lowlier born. Then a few sentences, half blotted out with tears, told of wounded and humbled feelings,—some one invested with authority, as if the suitor's parent, had interfered, questioned, reproached, counselled. And it was evident that the suit was not one that dishonoured; it wooed to flight, but still to marriage.
And now these sentences grew briefer still, as with the decision of a strong resolve. And to these there followed a passage so exquisite, that Leonard wept unconsciously as he read. It was the description of a visit spent at home previous to some sorrowful departure. He caught the glimpse of a proud and vain, but a tender wistful mother, of a father's fonder but less thoughtful love. And then came a quiet soothing scene between the girl and her first village lover, ending thus: "So she put M.'s hand into her sister's, and said, 'You loved me through the fancy, love her with the heart,' and left them comprehending each other, and betrothed."
Leonard sighed. He understood now how Mark Fairfield saw, in the homely features of his unlettered wife, the reflection of the sister's soul and face.
A few words told the final parting,—words that were a picture. The long friendless highway, stretching on—on—towards the remorseless city, and the doors of home opening on the desolate thoroughfare, and the old pollard-tree beside the threshold, with the ravens wheeling round it and calling to their young. He too had watched that threshold from the same desolate thoroughfare. He too had heard the cry of the ravens. Then came some pages covered with snatches of melancholy verse, or some reflections of dreamy gloom.
The writer was in London, in the house of some high-born patroness,—that friendless shadow of a friend which the jargon of society calls "companion." And she was looking on the bright storm of the world as through prison bars. Poor bird, afar from the greenwood, she had need of song,—it was her last link with freedom and nature. The patroness seems to share in her apprehensions of the boy suitor, whose wild rash prayers the fugitive had resisted; but to fear lest the suitor should be degraded, not the one whom he pursues,—fear an alliance ill-suited to a high-born heir. And this kind of fear stings the writer's pride, and she grows harsh in her judgment of him who thus causes but pain where he proffers love. Then there is a reference to some applicant for her hand, who is pressed upon her choice; and she is told that it is her duty so to choose, and thus deliver a noble family from a dread that endures so long as her hand is free. And of this fear, and of this applicant, there breaks out a petulant yet pathetic scorn. After this the narrative, to judge by the dates, pauses for days and weeks, as if the writer had grown weary and listless,—suddenly to reopen in a new strain, eloquent with hopes and with fears never known before. The first person was abruptly assumed,—it was the living "I" that now breathed and moved along the lines. How was this? The woman was no more a shadow and a secret unknown to herself. She had assumed the intense and vivid sense of individual being; and love spoke loud in the awakened human heart.
A personage not seen till then appeared on the page. And ever afterwards this personage was only named as "He," as if the one and sole representative of all the myriads that walk the earth. The first notice of this prominent character on the scene showed the restless, agitated effect produced on the writer's imagination. He was invested with a romance probably not his own. He was described in contrast to the brilliant boy whose suit she had feared, pitied, and now sought to shun,—described with a grave and serious, but gentle mien, a voice that imposed respect, an eye and lip that showed collected dignity of will. Alas? the writer betrayed herself, and the charm was in the contrast, not to the character of the earlier lover, but her own. And now, leaving Leonard to explore and guess his way through the gaps and chasms of the narrative, it is time to place before the reader what the narrative alone will not reveal to Leonard.
Nora Avenel had fled from the boyish love of Harley L'Estrange, recommended by Lady Lansmere to a valetudinarian relative of her own, Lady Jane Horton, as companion. But Lady Lansmere could not believe it possible that the lowborn girl could long sustain her generous pride, and reject the ardent suit of one who could offer to her the prospective coronet of a countess. She continually urged upon Lady Jane the necessity of marrying Nora to some one of rank less disproportioned to her own, and empowered that lady to assure any such wooer of a dowry far beyond Nora's station. Lady Jane looked around, and saw in the outskirts of her limited social ring a young solicitor, a peer's natural son, who was on terms of more than business-like intimacy with the fashionable clients whose distresses made the origin of his wealth. The young man was handsome, well-dressed, and bland. Lady Jane invited him to her house; and, seeing him struck with the rare loveliness of Nora, whispered the hint of the dower. The fashionable solicitor, who afterwards ripened into Baron Levy, did not need that hint; for, though then poor, he relied on himself for fortune, and, unlike Randal, he had warm blood in his veins. But Lady Jane's suggestions made him sanguine of success; and when he formally proposed, and was as formally refused, his self-love was bitterly wounded. Vanity in Levy was a powerful passion; and with the vain, hatred is strong, revenge is rankling. Levy retired, concealing his rage; nor did he himself know how vindictive that rage, when it cooled into malignancy, could become, until the arch-fiend OPPORTUNITY prompted its indulgence and suggested its design.
Lady Jane was at first very angry with Nora for the rejection of a suitor whom she had presented as eligible. But the pathetic grace of this wonderful girl had crept into her heart, and softened it even against family prejudice; and she gradually owned to herself that Nora was worthy of some one better than Mr. Levy.
Now, Harley had ever believed that Nora returned his love, and that nothing but her own sense of gratitude to his parents, her own instincts of delicacy, made her deaf to his prayers. To do him justice, wild and headstrong as he then was, his suit would have ceased at once had he really deemed it persecution. Nor was his error unnatural; for his conversation, till it had revealed his own heart, could not fail to have dazzled and delighted the child of genius; and her frank eyes would have shown the delight. How, at his age, could he see the distinction between the Poetess and the Woman? The poetess was charmed with rare promise in a soul of which the very errors were the extravagances of richness and beauty. But the woman—no! the woman required some nature not yet undeveloped, and all at turbulent, if brilliant, strife with its own noble elements, but a nature formed and full-grown. Harley was a boy, and Nora was one of those women who must find or fancy an Ideal that commands and almost awes them into love.
Harley discovered, not without difficulty, Nora's new residence. He presented himself at Lady Jane's, and she, with grave rebuke, forbade him the house. He found it impossible to obtain an interview with Nora. He wrote, but he felt sure that his letters never reached her, since they were unanswered. His young heart swelled with rage. He dropped threats, which alarmed all the fears of Lady Lansmere, and even the prudent apprehensions of his friend, Audley Egerton. At the request of the mother, and equally at the wish of the son, Audley consented to visit at Lady Jane's, and make acquaintance with Nora.
"I have such confidence in you," said Lady Lansmere, "that if you once know the girl, your advice will be sure to have weight with her. You will show her how wicked it would be to let Harley break our hearts and degrade his station."
"I have such confidence in you," said young Harley, "that if you once know my Nora, you will no longer side with my mother. You will recognize the nobility which nature only can create, you will own that Nora is worthy a rank more lofty than mine; and my mother so believes in your wisdom, that, if you plead in my cause, you will convince even her."
Audley listened to both with his intelligent, half-incredulous smile; and wholly of the same opinion as Lady Lansmere, and sincerely anxious to save Harley from an indiscretion that his own notions led him to regard as fatal, he resolved to examine this boasted pearl, and to find out its flaws. Audley Egerton was then in the prime of his earnest, resolute, ambitious youth. The stateliness of his natural manners had then a suavity and polish which, even in later and busier life, it never wholly lost; since, in spite of the briefer words and the colder looks by which care and power mark the official man, the minister had ever enjoyed that personal popularity which the indefinable, external something, that wins and pleases, can alone confer. But he had even then, as ever, that felicitous reserve which Rochefoucauld has called the "mystery of the body,"—that thin yet guardian veil which reveals but the strong outlines of character, and excites so much of interest by provoking so much of conjecture. To the man who is born with this reserve, which is wholly distinct from shyness, the world gives credit for qualities and talents beyond those that it perceives; and such characters are attractive to others in proportion as these last are gifted with the imagination which loves to divine the unknown.
At the first interview, the impression which this man produced upon Nora Avenel was profound and strange. She had heard of him before as the one. whom Harley most loved and looked up to; and she recognized at once in his mien, his aspect, his words, the very tone of his deep tranquil voice, the power to which woman, whatever her intellect, never attains; and to which, therefore, she imputes a nobility not always genuine,—namely, the power of deliberate purpose and self-collected, serene ambition. The effect that Nora produced on Egerton was not less sudden. He was startled by a beauty of face and form that belonged to that rarest order, which we never behold but once or twice in our lives.
He was yet more amazed to discover that the aristocracy of mind could bestow a grace that no aristocracy of birth could surpass. He was prepared for a simple, blushing village girl, and involuntarily he bowed low his proud front at the first sight of that delicate bloom, and that exquisite gentleness which is woman's surest passport to the respect of man. Neither in the first, nor the second, nor the third interview, nor, indeed, till after many interviews, could he summon up courage to commence his mission, and allude to Harley. And when he did so at last his words faltered. But Nora's words were clear to him. He saw that Harley was not loved; and a joy, which he felt as guilty, darted through his whole frame. From that interview Audley returned home greatly agitated, and at war with himself. Often, in the course of this story, has it been hinted that, under all Egerton's external coldness and measured self-control, lay a nature capable of strong and stubborn passions. Those passions broke forth then. He felt that love had already entered into the heart, which the trust of his friend should have sufficed to guard.
"I will go there no more," said he, abruptly, to Harley.
"The girl does not love you. Cease then to think of her."
Harley disbelieved him, and grew indignant. But Audley had every worldly motive to assist his sense of honour. He was poor, though with the reputation of wealth, deeply involved in debt, resolved to rise in life, tenacious of his position in the world's esteem. Against a host of counteracting influences, love fought single-handed. Audley's was a strong nature; but, alas! in strong natures, if resistance to temptation is of granite, so the passions that they admit are of fire.
Trite is the remark that the destinies of our lives often date from the impulses of unguarded moments. It was so with this man, to an ordinary eye so cautious and so deliberate. Harley one day came to him in great grief; he had heard that Nora was ill: he implored Andley to go once more and ascertain. Audley went. Lady Jane Horton, who was suffering under a disease which not long afterwards proved fatal, was too ill to receive him. He was shown into the room set apart as Nora's. While waiting for her entrance, he turned mechanically over the leaves of an album, which Nora, suddenly summoned away to attend Lady Jane, had left behind her on the table. He saw the sketch of his own features; he read words inscribed below it,—words of such artless tenderness, and such unhoping sorrow, words written by one who had been accustomed to regard her genius as her sole confidant, under Heaven; to pour out to it, as the solitary poet-heart is impelled to do, thoughts, feelings, the confession of mystic sighs, which it would never breathe to a living ear, and, save at such moments, scarcely acknowledge to itself. Audley saw that he was beloved, and the revelation, with a sudden light, consumed all the barriers between himself and his own love. And at that moment Nora entered. She saw him bending over the book. She uttered a cry, sprang forward, and then sank down, covering her face with her hands. But Audley was at her feet. He forgot his friend, his trust; he forgot ambition, he forgot the world. It was his own cause that he pleaded,—his own love that burst forth from his lips. And when the two that day parted, they were betrothed each to each. Alas for them, and alas for Harley! And now this man, who had hitherto valued himself as the very type of gentleman, whom all his young contemporaries had so regarded and so revered, had to press the hand of a confiding friend, and bid adieu to truth. He had to amuse, to delay, to mislead his boy-rival,—to say that he was already subduing Nora's hesitating doubts, and that with a little time, she could be induced to consent to forget Harley's rank, and his parent's pride, and become his wife. And Harley believed in Egerton, without one suspicion on the mirror of his loyal soul.
Meanwhile, Audley, impatient of his own position,—impatient, as strong minds ever are, to hasten what they have once resolved, to terminate a suspense that every interview with Harley tortured alike by jealousy and shame, to pass out of the reach of scruples, and to say to himself, "Right—or wrong, there is no looking back; the deed is done,"—Audley, thus hurried on by the impetus of his own power of will, pressed for speedy and secret nuptials,—secret, till his fortunes, then wavering, were more assured, his career fairly commenced. This was not his strongest motive, though it was one. He shrank from the discovery of his wrong to his friend, desired to delay the self-humiliation of such announcement, until, as he persuaded himself, Harley's boyish passion was over, had yielded to the new allurements that would naturally beset his way. Stifling his conscience, Audley sought to convince himself that the day would soon come when Harley could hear with indifference that Nora Avenel was another's. "The dream of an hour, at his age," murmured the elder friend; "but at mine the passion of a life!" He did not speak of these latter motives for concealment to Nora. He felt that to own the extent of his treason to a friend would lower him in her eyes. He spoke therefore but slightingly of Harley, treated the boy's suit as a thing past and gone. He dwelt only on reasons that compelled self-sacrifice on his side or hers. She did not hesitate which to choose. And so, where Nora loved, so submissively did she believe in the superiority of the lover, that she would not pause to hear a murmur from her own loftier nature, or question the propriety of what he deemed wise and good.
Abandoning prudence in this arch affair of life, Audley still preserved his customary caution in minor details. And this indeed was characteristic of him throughout all his career, heedless in large things, wary in small. He would not trust Lady Jane Horton with his secret, still less Lady Lansmere. He simply represented to the former that Nora was no longer safe from Harley's determined pursuit under Lady Jane's roof, and that she had better elude the boy's knowledge of her movements, and go quietly away for a while, to lodge with some connection of her own.
And so, with Lady Jane's acquiescence, Nora went first to the house of a very distant kinswoman of her mother's, and afterwards to one that Egerton took as their bridal home, under the name of Bertram. He arranged all that might render their marriage most free from the chance of premature discovery. But it so happened on the very morning of their bridal, that one of the witnesses he selected (a confidential servant of his own) was seized with apoplexy. Considering, in haste, where to find a substitute, Egerton thought of Levy, his own private solicitor, his own fashionable money-lender, a man with whom he was then as intimate as a fine gentleman is with the lawyer of his own age, who knows all his affairs, and has helped, from pure friendship, to make them as bad as they are! Levy was thus suddenly summoned. Egerton, who was in great haste, did not at first communicate to him the name of the intended bride; but he said enough of the imprudence of the marriage, and his reasons for secrecy, to bring on himself the strongest remonstrances; for Levy had always reckoned on Egerton's making a wealthy marriage,—leaving to Egerton the wife, and hoping to appropriate to himself the wealth, all in the natural course of business. Egerton did not listen to him, but hurried him on towards the place at which the ceremony was to be performed; and Levy actually saw the bride before he had learned her name. The usurer masked his raging emotions, and fulfilled his part in the rites. His smile, when he congratulated the bride, might have shot cold into her heart; but her eyes were cast on the earth, seeing there but a shadow from heaven, and her heart was blindly sheltering itself in the bosom to which it was given evermore. She did not perceive the smile of hate that barbed the words of joy. Nora never thought it necessary later to tell Egerton that Levy had been a refused suitor. Indeed, with the exquisite tact of love, she saw that such a confidence, the idea of such a rival, would have wounded the pride of her high-bred, well-born husband.
And now, while Harley L'Estrange, frantic with the news that Nora had left Lady Jane's roof, and purposely misled into wrong directions, was seeking to trace her refuge in vain, now Egerton, in an assumed name, in a remote quarter, far from the clubs, in which his word was oracular, far from the pursuits, whether of pastime or toil, that had hitherto engrossed his active mind, gave himself up, with wonder at his own surrender, to the only vision of fairyland that ever weighs down the watchful eyelids of hard ambition. The world for a while shut out, he missed it not. He knew not of it. He looked into two loving eyes that haunted him ever after, through a stern and arid existence, and said murmuringly, "Why, this, then, is real happiness!" Often, often, in the solitude of other years, to repeat to himself the same words, save that for is, he then murmured was! And Nora, with her grand, full heart, all her luxuriant wealth of fancy and of thought, child of light and of song, did she then never discover that there was something comparatively narrow and sterile in the nature to which she had linked her fate? Not there could ever be sympathy in feelings, brilliant and shifting as the tints of the rainbow. When Audley pressed her heart to his own, could he comprehend one finer throb of its beating? Was all the iron of his mind worth one grain of the gold she had cast away in Harley's love?
Did Nora already discover this? Surely no. Genius feels no want, no repining, while the heart is contented. Genius in her paused and slumbered: it had been as the ministrant of solitude: it was needed no more. If a woman loves deeply some one below her own grade in the mental and spiritual orders, how often we see that she unconsciously quits her own rank, comes meekly down to the level of the beloved, is afraid lest he should deem her the superior,—she who would not even be the equal. Nora knew no more that she had genius; she only knew that she had love.
And so here, the journal which Leonard was reading changed its tone, sinking into that quiet happiness which is but quiet because it is so deep. This interlude in the life of a man like Audley Egerton could never have been long; many circumstances conspired to abridge it. His affairs were in great disorder; they were all under Levy's management. Demands that had before slumbered, or been mildly urged, grew menacing and clamorous. Harley, too, returned to London from his futile researches, and looked out for Audley. Audley was forced to leave his secret Eden, and reappear in the common world; and thenceforward it was only by stealth that he came to his bridal home,—a visitor, no more the inmate. But more loud and fierce grew the demands of his creditors, now when Egerton had most need of all which respectability and position and belief of pecuniary independence can do to raise the man who has encumbered his arms, and crippled his steps towards fortune. He was threatened with writs, with prison. Levy said "that to borrow more would be but larger ruin," shrugged his shoulders, and even recommended a voluntary retreat to the King's Bench. "No place so good for frightening one's creditors into compounding their claims; but why," added Levy, with covert sneer, "why not go to young L'Estrange, a boy made to be borrowed from!"
Levy, who had known from Lady Jane of Harley's pursuit of Nora, had learned already how to avenge himself on Egerton. Audley could not apply to the friend he had betrayed. And as to other friends, no man in town had a greater number. And no man in town knew better that he should lose them all if he were once known to be in want of their money. Mortified, harassed, tortured, shunning Harley, yet ever sought by him, fearful of each knock at his door, Audley Egerton escaped to the mortgaged remnant of his paternal estate, on which there was a gloomy manor-house, long uninhabited, and there applied a mind, afterwards renowned for its quick comprehension of business, to the investigation of his affairs, with a view to save some wreck from the flood that swelled momently around him.
And now—to condense as much as possible a record that runs darkly on into pain and sorrow—now Levy began to practise his vindictive arts; and the arts gradually prevailed. On pretence of assisting Egerton in the arrangement of his affairs, which he secretly contrived, however, still more to complicate, he came down frequently to Egerton Hall for a few hours, arriving by the mail, and watching the effect which Nora's almost daily letters produced on the bridegroom, irritated by the practical cares of life. He was thus constantly at hand to instil into the mind of the ambitious man a regret for the imprudence of hasty passion, or to embitter the remorse which Audley felt for his treachery to L'Estrange. Thus ever bringing before the mind of the harassed debtor images at war with love, and with the poetry of life, he disattuned it (so to speak) for the reception of Nora's letters, all musical as they were with such thoughts as the most delicate fancy inspires to the most earnest love. Egerton was one of those men who never confide their affairs frankly to women. Nora, when she thus wrote, was wholly in the dark as to the extent of his stern prosaic distress. And so—and so—Levy always near—type of the prose of life in its most cynic form—so by degrees all that redundant affluence of affection, with its gushes of grief for his absence, prayers for his return, sweet reproach if a post failed to bring back an answer to the woman's yearning sighs,—all this grew, to the sensible, positive man of real life, like sickly romantic exaggeration. The bright arrows shot too high into heaven to hit the mark set so near to the earth. Ah, common fate of all superior natures! What treasure, and how wildly wasted! "By-the-by," said Levy, one morning, as he was about to take leave of Audley and return to town,—"by-the-by, I shall be this evening in the neighbourhood of Mrs. Egerton."
EGERTON.—"Say Mrs. Bertram!"
LEVY.—"Ay; will she not be in want of some pecuniary supplies?"
EGERTON. "My wife!—Not yet. I must first be wholly ruined before she can want; and if I were so, do you think I should not be by her side?"
LEVY.—"I beg pardon, my dear fellow; your pride of gentleman is so susceptible that it is hard for a lawyer not to wound it unawares. Your wife, then, does not know the exact state of your affairs?"
EGERTON.—"Of course not. Who would confide to a woman things in which she could do nothing, except to tease one the more?"
LEVY.—"True, and a poetess too! I have prevented your finishing your answer to Mrs. Bertram's last letter. Can I take it—it may save a day's delay—that is, if you do not object to my calling on her this evening."
EGERTON (sitting down to his unfinished letter).—"Object! no."
LEVY (looking at his watch).—"Be quick, or I shall lose the coach."
EGEPTON (sealing the letter).—"There. And I should be obliged to you if you would call; and without alarming her as to my circumstances, you can just say that you know I am much harassed about important affairs at present, and so soothe the effects of my very short answers—"
LEVY.—"To those doubly-crossed, very long letters,—I will."
"Poor Nora," said Egerton, sighing, "she will think this answer brief and churlish enough. Explain my excuses kindly, so that they will serve for the future. I really have no time and no heart for sentiment. The little I ever had is well-nigh worried out of me. Still I love her fondly and deeply."
LEVY.—"You must have done so. I never thought it in you to sacrifice the world to a woman."
EGERTON.—"Nor I either; but," added the strong man, conscious of that power which rules the world infinitely more than knowledge, conscious of tranquil courage, "but I have not sacrificed the world yet. This right arm shall bear up her and myself too."
LEVY.—"Well said! but in the mean while, for heaven's sake, don't attempt to go to London, nor to leave this place; for, in that case, I know you will be arrested, and then adieu to all hopes of parliament,—of a career."
Audley's haughty countenance darkened; as the dog, in his bravest mode, turns dismayed from the stone plucked from the mire, so, when Ambition rears itself to defy mankind, whisper "disgrace and a jail,"—and, lo, crestfallen, it slinks away! That evening Levy called on Nora, and ingratiating himself into her favour by praise of Egerton, with indirect humble apologetic allusions to his own former presumption, he prepared the way to renewed visits; she was so lonely, and she so loved to see one who was fresh from seeing Audley, one who would talk to her of him! By degrees the friendly respectful visitor thus stole into her confidence; and then, with all his panegyrics on Audley's superior powers and gifts, he began to dwell upon the young husband's worldly aspirations, and care for his career; dwell on them so as vaguely to alarm Nora,—to imply that, dear as she was, she was still but second to Ambition. His way thus prepared, he next began to insinuate his respectful pity at her equivocal position, dropped hints of gossip and slander, feared that the marriage might be owned too late to preserve reputation. And then what would be the feelings of the proud Egerton if his wife were excluded from that world whose opinion he so prized? Insensibly thus he led her on to express (though timidly) her own fear, her own natural desire, in her letters to Audley. When could the marriage be proclaimed? Proclaimed! Audley felt that to proclaim such a marriage at such a moment would be to fling away his last cast for fame and fortune. And Harley, too,—Harley still so uncured of his frantic love! Levy was sure to be at hand when letters like these arrived.
And now Levy went further still in his determination to alienate these two hearts. He contrived, by means of his various agents, to circulate through Nora's neighbourhood the very slanders at which he had hinted. He contrived that she should be insulted when she went abroad, outraged at home by the sneers of her own servant, and tremble with shame at her own shadow upon her abandoned bridal hearth.
Just in the midst of this intolerable anguish, Levy reappeared. His crowning hour was ripe. He intimated his knowledge of the humiliations Nora had undergone, expressed his deep compassion, offered to intercede with Egerton "to do her justice." He used ambiguous phrases, that shocked her ear and tortured her heart, and thus provoked her on to demand him to explain; and then, throwing her into a wild state of indefinite alarm, in which he obtained her solemn promise not to divulge to Audley what he was about to communicate, he said, with villanous hypocrisy of reluctant shame, "that her marriage was not strictly legal; that the forms required by the law had not been complied with, that Audley, unintentionally or purposely, had left himself free to disown the rite and desert the bride." While Nora stood stunned and speechless at a falsehood which, with lawyer-like show, he contrived to make truth-like to her inexperience, he hurried rapidly on, to re-awake on her mind the impression of Audley's pride, ambition, and respect for worldly position. "These are your obstacles," said he; "but I think I may induce him to repair the wrong, and right you at last." Righted at last—oh, infamy!
Then Nora's anger burst forth. She believe such a stain on Audley's honour!
"But where was the honour when he betrayed his friend? Did you not know that he was entrusted by Lord L'Estrange to plead for him. How did he fulfil the trust?"
"Plead for L'Estrange!" Nora had not been exactly aware of this,—in the sudden love preceding those sudden nuptials, so little touching Harley (beyond Audley's first timid allusions to his suit, and her calm and cold reply) had been spoken by either.
Levy resumed. He dwelt fully on the trust and the breach of it, and then said: "In Egerton's world, man holds it far more dishonour to betray a man than to dupe a woman; and if Egerton could do the one, why doubt that he would do the other? But do not look at me with those indignant eyes. Put himself to the test; write to him to say that the suspicions amidst which you live have become intolerable, that they infect even yourself, despite your reason, that the secrecy of your nuptials, his prolonged absence, his brief refusal, on unsatisfactory grounds, to proclaim your tie, all distract you with a terrible doubt. Ask him, at least (if he will not yet declare your marriage), to satisfy you that the rites were legal."
"I will go to him," cried Nora, impetuously.
"Go to him!—in his own house! What a scene, what a scandal! Could he ever forgive you?"
"At least, then, I will implore him to come here. I can not write such horrible words; I cannot! I cannot! Go, go!" Levy left her, and hastened to two or three of Audley's most pressing creditors,—men, in fact, who went entirely by Levy's own advice. He bade them instantly surround Audley's country residence with bailiffs. Before Egerton could reach Nora, he would thus be lodged in a jail. These preparations made, Levy himself went down to Audley, and arrived, as usual, an hour or two before the delivery of the post.
And Nora's letter came; and never was Audley's grave brow more dark than when he read it. Still, with his usual decision, he resolved to obey her wish,—rang the bell, and ordered his servant to put up a change of dress, and send for post-horses.
Levy then took him aside, and led him to the window. "Look under yon trees. Do you see those men? They are bailiffs. This is the true reason why I come to you to-day. You cannot leave this house."
Egerton recoiled. "And this frantic, foolish letter at such a time!" he muttered, striking the open page, full of love in the midst of terror, with his clenched hand. O Woman, Woman! if thy heart be deep, and its chords tender, beware how thou lovest the man with whom all that plucks him from the hard cares of the workday world is frenzy or a folly! He will break thy heart, he will shatter its chords, he will trample out from its delicate framework every sound that now makes musical the common air, and swells into unison with the harps of angels.
"She has before written to me," continued Audley, pacing the room with angry, disordered strides, "asking me when our marriage can be proclaimed, and I thought my replies would have satisfied any reasonable woman. But now, now this is worse, immeasurably worse,—she actually doubts my honour! I, who have made such sacrifices,—actually doubts whether I, Audley Egerton, an English gentleman, could have been base enough to—"
"What?" interrupted Levy, "to deceive your friend L'Estrange? Did not she know that?"
"Sir!" exclaimed Egerton, turning white.
"Don't be angry,—all's fair in love as in war; and L'Estrange will live yet to thank you for saving him from such a misalliance. But you are seriously angry: pray, forgive me."
With some difficulty and much fawning, the usurer appeased the storm he had raised in Audley's conscience. And he then heard, as if with surprise, the true purport of Nora's letter.
"It is beneath me to answer, much less to satisfy, such a doubt," said Audley. "I could have seen her, and a look of reproach would have sufficed; but to put my hand to paper, and condescend to write, 'I am not a villain, and I will give you the proofs that I am not'—never!"
"You are quite right; but let us see if we cannot reconcile matters between your pride and her feelings. Write simply this: 'All that you ask me to say or to explain, I have instructed Levy, as my solicitor, to say and explain for me; and you may believe him as you would myself.'"
"Well, the poor fool, she deserves to be punished; and I suppose that answer will punish her more than a lengthier rebuke.—My mind is so distracted, I cannot judge of these trumpery woman-fears and whims; there, I have written as you suggest. Give her all the proof she needs, and tell her that in six months at furthest, come what will, she shall bear the name of Egerton, as henceforth she must share his fate."
"Why say six months?"
"Parliament must be dissolved, and there must be a general election before then. I shall either obtain a seat, be secure from a jail, have won field for my energies, or—"
"I shall renounce ambition altogether, ask my brother to assist me towards whatever debts remain when all my property is fairly sold—they cannot be much. He has a living in his gift; the incumbent is old, and, I hear, very ill. I can take orders."
"Sink into a country parson!"
"And learn content. I have tasted it already. She was then by my side. Explain all to her. This letter, I fear, is too unkind—But to doubt me thus!"
Levy hastily placed the letter in his pocketbook; and, for fear it should be withdrawn, took his leave.
And of that letter he made such use, that the day after he had given it to Nora, she had left the house, the neighbourhood; fled, and not a trace! Of all the agonies in life, that which is most poignant and harrowing, that which for the time most annihilates reason, and leaves our whole organization one lacerated, mangled heart, is the conviction that we have been deceived where we placed all the trust of love. The moment the anchor snaps, the storm comes on, the stars vanish behind the cloud.
When Levy returned, filled with the infamous hope which had stimulated his revenge,—the hope that if he could succeed in changing into scorn and indignation Nora's love for Audley, he might succeed also in replacing that broken and degraded idol,—his amaze and dismay were great on hearing of her departure. For several days he sought her traces in vain. He went to Lady Jane Horton's,—Nora had not been there. He trembled to go back to Egerton. Surely Nora would have written to her husband, and in spite of her promise, revealed his own falsehood; but as days passed, and not a clew was found, he had no option but to repair to Egerton Hall, taking care that the bailiffs still surrounded it. Audley had received no line from Nora. The young husband was surprised, perplexed, uneasy, but had no suspicion of the truth.
At length Levy was forced to break to Audley the intelligence of Nora's flight. He gave his own colour to it. Doubtless she had gone to seek her own relations, and, by their advice, take steps to make her marriage publicly known. This idea changed Audley's first shock into deep and stern resentment. His mind so little comprehended Nora's, and was ever so disposed to what is called the common-sense view of things, that he saw no other mode to account for her flight and her silence. Odious to Egerton as such a proceeding would be, he was far too proud to take any steps to guard against it. "Let her do her worst," said he, coldly, masking emotion with his usual self-command; "it will be but a nine days' wonder to the world, a fiercer rush of my creditors on their hunted prey"
"And a challenge from Lord L'Estrange."
"So be it," answered Egerton, suddenly placing his hand at his heart.
"What is the matter? Are you ill?"
"A strange sensation here. My father died of a complaint of the heart, and I myself was once told to guard, through life, against excess of emotion. I smiled at such a warning then. Let us sit down to business."
But when Levy had gone, and solitude reclosed round that Man of the Iron Mask, there grew upon him more and more the sense of a mighty loss. Nora's sweet loving face started from the shadows of the forlorn walls. Her docile, yielding temper, her generous, self-immolating spirit, came back to his memory, to refute the idea that wronged her. His love, that had been suspended for awhile by busy cares, but which, if without much refining sentiment, was still the master passion of his soul, flowed back into all his thoughts,—circumfused the very atmosphere with a fearful, softening charm. He escaped under cover of the night from the watch of the bailiffs. He arrived in London. He himself sought everywhere he could think of for his missing bride. Lady Jane Horton was confined to her bed, dying fast, incapable even to receive and reply to his letter. He secretly sent down to Lansmere to ascertain if Nora had gone to her parents. She was not there. The Avenels believed her still with Lady Jane Horton.
He now grew most seriously alarmed; and in the midst of that alarm, Levy secretly contrived that he should be arrested for debt; but he was not detained in confinement many days. Before the disgrace got wind, the writs were discharged, Levy baffled. He was free. Lord L'Estrange had learned from Audley's servant what Audley would have concealed from him out of all the world. And the generous boy, who, besides the munificent allowance he received from the earl, was heir to an independent and considerable fortune of his own, when he should attain his majority, hastened to borrow the money and discharge all the obligations of his friend. The benefit was conferred before Audley knew of it, or could prevent. Then a new emotion, and perhaps scarce less stinging than the loss of Nora, tortured the man who had smiled at the warning of science; and the strange sensation at the heart was felt again and again.