Wilton Brown was now once more moving at ease. He had his horses and his servant, and his small convenient apartments at no great distance from the Earl of Byerdale's. He could enjoy the various objects which the metropolis presented from time to time to satisfy the taste or the curiosity of the public, and he could mingle in his leisure hours with the few amongst the acquaintances he had made in passing through a public school, or residing at the University, whom he had learned to love or to esteem. He sought them not, indeed, and he courted no great society; for there was not, perhaps, one amongst those he knew whose taste, and thoughts, and feelings, were altogether congenial with his own. Indeed, when any one has found such, in one or two instances, throughout the course of life, he may sit himself down, saying, "Oh! happy that I am, in the wide universe of matter and of spirit I am not alone! There are beings of kindred sympathies linked to myself by ties of love which it never can be the will of Almighty Beneficence that death itself should break!"
If Wilton felt thus towards any one, it was towards the Earl of Sunbury; but yet there was a difference between his sensations towards that kind friend and those of which we have spoken, on which we need not pause in this place. Except in his society, however, Wilton's thoughts were nearly alone. There were one or two young noblemen and others, for whom he felt a great regard, a high esteem, a certain degree of habitual affection, but that was all, and thus his time in general passed solitarily enough.
With the Earl of Byerdale he did not perhaps interchange ten words in three months, although when he was writing in the same room with him he had more than once remarked the eyes of the Earl fixed stern and intent upon him from beneath their overhanging brows, as if he would have asked him some dark and important question, or proposed to him some dangerous and terrible act which he dared hardly name.
"Were he some Italian minister," thought Wilton, sometimes, "and I, as at present, his poor secretary, I should expect him every moment to commend the assassination of some enemy to my convenient skill in such affairs."
At length one morning when he arrived at the house of the Earl to pursue his daily task, he saw a travelling carriage at the door with two servants, English and foreign, disencumbering it from the trunks which were thereunto attached in somewhat less convenient guise than in the present day. He took no note, however, and entered as usual, proceeding at once to the cabinet, where he usually found the Earl at that hour. He was there and alone, nor did the entrance of Wilton create any farther change in his proceedings than merely to point to another table, saying, "Three letters to answer there, Mr. Brown—the corners are turned down, with directions."
Wilton sat down and proceeded as usual; but he had scarcely ended the first letter and begun a second, when the door of the apartment was thrown unceremoniously open, and a young gentleman entered the room, slightly, but very gracefully made, extremely handsome in features, but pale in complexion, and with a quick, wandering, and yet marking eye, which seemed to bespeak much of intelligence, but no great steadiness of character. He was dressed strangely enough, in a silk dressing-gown of the richest-flowered embroidery, slippers of crimson velvet embroidered with gold upon his feet, and a crimson velvet nightcap with gold tassels on his head.
"Why, my dear sir, this is really cruel," cried he, advancing towards the Earl, and speaking in a tone of light reproach, "to go away and leave me, when I come back from twelve or fourteen hundred miles' distance, without even waiting to see my most beautiful dressing-gown. Really you fathers are becoming excessively undutiful towards your children! You have wanted some one so long to keep you in order, my lord, that I see evidently, I shall be obliged to hold a tight hand over you. But tell me, in pity tell me, did you ever see anything so exquisite as this dressing-gown? Its beauty would be nothing without its superbness, and its splendour nothing without its delicacy. The richness of the silk would be lost without the radiant colours of the flowers, and the miraculous taste of the embroidery would be entirely thrown away upon any other stuff than that. In short, one might write a catechism upon it, my lord. There is nothing on all the earth equal to it. No man has, or has had, or will have, anything that can compete with it. Gold could not buy it. I was obliged to seduce the girl that worked it; and then, like Ulysses with Circe, I bound her to perform what task I liked. 'Produce me,' I exclaimed, 'a dressing-gown!' and, lo! it stands before you."
Wilton Brown turned his eyes for an instant to the countenance of the Earl of Byerdale, when, to his surprise, he beheld there, for the first time, something that might be called a good-humoured smile. The change of Wilton's position, slight as it was, seemed to call the attention of the young gentleman, who instantly approached the table where he sat, exclaiming, "Who is this? I don't know him. What do you mean, sir," he continued, in the same light tone—"what do you mean, by suffering my father to run riot in this way, while I am gone? Why, sir, I find he has addicted himself to courtierism, and to cringing, and to sitting in cabinets, and to making long speeches in the House of Lords; and to all sorts of vices of the same kind, so as nearly to have fallen into prime ministerism. All this is very bad—very bad, indeed—"
"My dear boy," said the Earl, "you will gain the character of a madman without deserving it."
"Pray, papa, let me alone," replied the young man, affecting a boyish tone; "you only interrupt me: may I ask, sir, what is your name?" he continued, still addressing Wilton.
"My name, sir," replied the other, slightly colouring at such an abrupt demand, "is Wilton Brown."
"Then, Wilton, I am very glad to see you," replied the other, holding out his hand—"you are the very person I wanted to see; for it so happens, that my wise, prudent, and statesmanlike friend, the Earl of Sunbury, having far greater confidence in the security of my noddle than has my worthy parent here, has entrusted to me for your behoof one long letter, and innumerable long messages, together with a strong recommendation to you, to take me to your bosom, and cherish me as any old man would do his grandson; namely, with the most doting, short-sighted, and depraving affection, which can be shown towards a wayward, whimsical, tiresome, capricious boy; and now, if you don't like my own account of myself, or the specimen you have had this morning, you had better lay down your pen, and come and take a walk with me, in order to shake off your dislike; for it must be shaken off, and the sooner it is done the better."
The Earl's brow had by this time gathered into a very ominous sort of frown, and he informed his son in a stern tone, that his clerk, Mr. Brown, was engaged in business of importance, and would not be free from it, he feared, till three o'clock.
"Well, my lord, I will even go and sleep till three," replied the young man. "At that hour, Mr. Brown, I will come and seek you. I have an immensity to say to you, all about nothing in the world, and therefore it is absolutely necessary that I should disgorge myself as soon as possible."
Thus saying, he turned gaily on his heel, and left the Earl's cabinet.
"You must excuse him, Mr. Brown," said the Earl, as soon as he was gone; "he is wild with spirits and youth, but he will soon, I trust, demean himself more properly." Wilton made no reply, but thought that if the demeanour of the son was not altogether pleasant, the demeanour of the father was ten times worse. When the three letters were written, Lord Byerdale immediately informed Wilton that he should have no farther occupation for him that day, although the clock had not much passed the first hour after noon; and as it was evident that he had no inclination to encourage any intimacy between him and his son, the young gentleman retired to his own lodgings, and ordering his horse to be brought round quickly, prepared to take a lengthened ride into the country.
Before the horse could be saddled, however, a servant announced Lord Sherbrooke, and the next moment the son of the Earl of Byerdale entered the room. There was something in the name that sounded familiar in the ears of Wilton Brown, he could not tell why. Ile almost expected to see a familiar face present itself at the open door; for so little had been the communication between himself and the Earl of Byerdale, that he had never known till that morning that the Earl had a son, nor ever heard the second title of the family before. He received his visitor, however, with pleasure, not exactly for the young nobleman's own sake, but rather on account of the letters and messages which he had promised from the Earl of Sunbury.
Lord Sherbrooke was now dressed as might well become a man of rank in his day; with a certain spice of foppery in his apparel, indeed, and with a slight difference in the fashion and materials of his clothes from those ordinarily worn in England, which might just mark, to an observing eye, that they had been made in a foreign country.
His demeanour was much more calm and sedate than it had been in the morning; and sitting down, he began by a reproach to Wilton, for having gone away without waiting to see him again.
"The fact is, my lord," replied Wilton, "that the Earl, though he did not absolutely send me away, gave me such an intimation to depart, that I could not well avoid it."
"It strikes me, Wilton," said Lord Sherbrooke, familiarly, "that my father is treating you extremely ill; Lord Sunbury gave me a hint of the kind, when I saw him in Rome; and I see that he said even less than the truth."
"I have no right to complain, my lord," answered Wilton, after pausing for a moment to master some very painful emotions—"I have no reason to complain, my lord, of conduct that I voluntarily endure."
"Very well answered, Wilton!" replied the young lord, "but not logically, my good friend. Every gentleman has a right to expect gentlemanly treatment. He has a right to complain if he does not meet with that which he has a right to expect; and he does not bar himself of that right of complaint, because any circumstances render it expedient or right for him not to resist the ill-treatment at which he murmurs. However, it is more to your honour that you do not complain; but I know my father well, and, of course, amongst a great many high qualities, there are some not quite so pleasant. We must mend this matter for you, however, and what I wish to say to you now, is, that you must not spoil all I do, by any pride of that kind which will make you hold back when I pull forward."
"Indeed, my lord," replied Wilton, "you would particularly oblige me by making no effort to change the position in which I am placed. All the communication which takes place between your lordship's father and myself is quite sufficient for the transaction of business, and we can never stand in any other relation towards each other than that of minister and private secretary."
"Or CLERK, as he called you to me to-day," said Lord Sherbrooke, drily.
"The name matters very little, my lord," replied Wilton; "he calls me SECRETARY to myself, and such he stated me to be in the little memorandum of my appointment, which he gave me, but if it please him better to call me clerk, why, let him do it."
"Oh! I shall not remonstrate," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "I never argue with my father. In the first place, it would be undutiful and disrespectful, and I am the most dutiful of all sons; and in the next place, he generally somehow gets the better of me in argument—the more completely the more wrong he is. But, nevertheless, I can find means to drive him, if not to persuade him; to lead him, if not to convince him; and having had my own way from childhood up to the present hour—alas! that I should say it, after having taken the way that I have taken—I do not intend to give it up just now, so I will soon drive him to a different way with you, while you have no share in the matter, but that of merely suffering me to assume, at once, the character of an old friend, and not an insincere one. On the latter point, indeed, you must believe me to be just as sincere as my father is insincere, for you very well know, Wilton, that, in this world of ours, it is much more by avoiding the faults than by following the virtues of our parents, that we get on in life. Every fool can see where his father is a fool, and can take care not to be foolish in the same way; but it is a much more difficult thing to appreciate a father's wisdom, and learn to be wise like him."
"The latter, my lord, I should think, would be the nobler endeavour," replied Wilton; "though I cannot say what would have been my own case, if I had ever had the happiness of knowing a father's care."
Lord Sherbrooke for a moment or two made no reply, but looked down upon the ground, apparently struck by the tone in which Wilton spoke. He answered at length, however, raising his eyes with one of his gay looks, "After all, we are but mortals, my dear Wilton, and we must have our little follies and vices. I would not be an angel for the world, for my part; and besides—for so staid and sober a young man as you are—you forget that I have a duty to perform towards my father, to check him when I see him going wrong, and to put him in the right way; to afford him, now and then, a little filial correction, and take care of his morals and his education. Why, if he had not me to look after him, I do not know what would become of him. However, I see," he added in a graver tone, "that I must not jest with you, until you know me and understand me better. What I mean is, that we are to be friends, remember. It is all arranged between the Earl of Sunbury and myself. We are to be friends, then; and such being the case, I will take care that my lord of Byerdale does not call my friend his clerk, nor treat him in any other manner than as my friend. And now, Wilton, set about the matter as fast as ever you can. There is my letter of recommendation from the Earl of Sunbury, which I hope will break down some barriers, the rest I must do for myself. You will find me full of faults, full of follies, and full of vices; for though it may be a difficult thing to be full of three things at once, yet the faults, follies, and vices within me seem to fill me altogether, each in turn, and yet altogether. In fact, they put me in mind of two liquids with which I once saw an Italian conjurer perform a curious trick. He filled a glass with a certain liquid, which looked like water, up to the very brim, and then poured in a considerable quantity of another liquid without increasing the liquid in the glass by a drop. Now sometimes my folly seems to fill me so completely, that I should think there was no room for vices, but those vices find some means to slip in, without incommoding me in the least. However, I will leave you now to read your letters, and to wonder at your sage and prudent friend, the Earl of Sunbury, having introduced to your acquaintance, and recommended to your friendship, one who has made half the capitals of Europe ring with his pranks. The secret is, Wilton, that the Earl knows both me and you. He pays you the high compliment of thinking you can be the companion of a very faulty man, without acquiring his faults; and he knows that, though I cannot cure myself of my own errors, I hate them too much to wish any one to imitate them. When you have done reading," he added, "come and join me at Monsieur Faubert's Riding School, in the lane going up to the Oxford Road: I see your horse at the door—I will get one there, and we will have a ride in the country. By heavens, what a beautiful picture! It is quite a little gem. That child's head must be a Correggio."
"I believe it is," replied Wilton: "I saw it accidentally at an auction, and bought it for a mere trifle."
"You have the eye of a judge," replied his companion.
"Do not be long ere you join me;" and looking at every little object of ornament or luxury that the room contained, standing a minute or two before another picture, taking up, and examining all over, a small bronze urn, that stood on one of the tables, and criticising the hilts of two or three of Wilton's swords, that stood in the corner of the room, he made his way out, like Hamlet, "without his eyes," and left his new acquaintance to read his letter in peace.
In that letter, which was in every respect most kind, Wilton found that the Earl gave a detailed account of the character of the young nobleman who had just left him. He represented him, very much as he had represented himself, full of follies, and, unfortunately, but too much addicted to let those follies run into vices. "Though he neither gambled nor drank for pleasure," the Earl said, "yet, as if for variety, he would sometimes do both to excess. In other respects, he had lived a life of great profligacy, seeming utterly careless of the reproaches of any one, and rather taking means to make any fresh act of licence generally known, than to conceal it. Nor is this," continued the Earl, "from that worst of all vanities, which attaches fame to what is infamous, and confounds notoriety with renown, but rather from a sort of daringness of disposition, which prompts him to avow openly any act to which there may be risk attached. With all these bad qualities," the Earl proceeded, "there are many good ones. To be bold as a lion is but a corporeal endowment, but he adds to that the most perfect sincerity and frankness.
"He would neither falsify his word nor deny an act that he has committed for the world. His mind is sufficiently acute, and his heart sufficiently good, to see distinctly the evils of unbridled licence, and to condemn it in his own case; and he is the last man in the world who would lead or encourage any one in that course which he has pursued himself. In short, his own passions are as the bonds cast around the Hebrew giant when he slept, to give him over into the hands of any one who chooses to lead him into wrong. The consecrated locks of the Nazarite—I mean, purity and innocence of heart—have been shorn away completely in the lap of one Delilah or another; and though he hates those who hold him captive, he is constrained to follow where they lead. I think you may do him good, Wilton; I am certain he can do you no harm: I believe that he is capable, and I am certain that he is willing, to make your abode in London more pleasant to you, and to open that path for your advancement, which his father would have put you in, if he had fulfilled the promises that he made to me."
A few weeks made a considerable change in the progress of the life of Wilton Brown. He found the young Lord Sherbrooke all that he had been represented to be in every good point of character, and less in every evil point. He did not, it is true, studiously veil from his new friend his libertine habits, or his light and reckless character; but it so happened, that when in society with Wilton, his mind seemed to find food and occupation of a higher sort, and, on almost all occasions, when conversing with him, he showed himself, as he might always have appeared, a high-bred and well-informed gentleman, who, though somewhat wild and rash, possessed a cultivated mind, a rich and playful fancy, and a kind and honourable heart.
Wilton soon discovered that he could become attached to him, and ere long he found a new point of interest in the character of his young companion, which was a sort of dark and solemn gloom that fell upon him from time to time, and would seize him in the midst of his gayest moments, leaving him, for the time, plunged in deep and sombre meditations. This strange fit was very often succeeded by bursts of gaiety and merriment, to the full as wild and joyous as those that went before; and Wilton's curiosity and sympathy were both excited by a state of mind which he marked attentively, and which, though he did not comprehend it entirely, showed him that there was some grief hidden but not vanquished in the heart.
Lord Sherbrooke did not see the inquiring eyes of his friend fixed upon him without notice; and one day he said,
"Do not look at me in these fits, Wilton; and ask me no questions. It is the evil spirit upon me, and he must have his hour."
As the time passed on, Wilton and the young lord became daily companions, and the Earl could not avoid showing, at all events, some civility to the constant associate of his son. He gradually began to converse with him more frequently. He even ventured, every now and then, upon a smile. He talked for an instant, sometimes, upon the passing events of the day; and, once or twice, asked him to dine, when he and his son would otherwise have been tete-a-tete. All this was pleasant to Wilton; for Lord Sherbrooke managed it so well, by merely marking a particular preference for his society, that there was no restraint or force in the matter, and the change worked itself gradually without any words or remonstrance. In the midst of all this, however, one little event occurred, which, though twenty other things might have been of much more importance and much more disagreeable in their consequences, pained Wilton in a greater degree than anything he had endured.
One day, when the Earl was confined to his drawing-room by a slight fit of gout, Wilton had visited him for a moment, to obtain more particular directions in regard to something which he had been directed to write. Just as he had received those directions, and was about to retire, the Duke of Gaveston was announced; and in passing through a second room beyond, into which the Earl could see, Wilton came suddenly upon the Duke, and in him at once recognised the nobleman whom he had aided in delivering from the clutches of some gentlemen practitioners on the King's Highway. Their meeting was so sudden, that the Duke, though he evidently recollected instantly the face of Wilton Brown, could not connect it with the circumstances in which he had seen it. Wilton, on his part, merely bowed and passed on; and the Duke, advancing to Lord Byerdale, asked at once, "Who is that young gentleman?—his face is quite familiar to me."
"It is only my clerk," replied the Earl, in a careless tone. "I hope your grace received my letter."
Wilton had not yet quitted the room, and heard it all; but he went out without pause. When the door was closed behind him, however, he stood for a moment gazing sternly upon the ground, and summoning every good and firm feeling to his aid. Nor was he unsuccessful: he once more conquered the strong temptation to throw up his employment instantly; and, asking himself, "What have I to do with pride?" he proceeded with his daily task as if nothing had occurred.
No consequences followed at the moment; but before we proceed to the more active business of our story, we must pause upon one other incident, of no great apparent importance, but which the reader will connect aright with the other events of the tale.
Two mornings after that of which we have spoken, the Earl came suddenly into the room where Wilton was writing, and interrupted him in what he was abort, by saying, "I wish, Mr. Brown, you would have the goodness to write, under my dictation, a letter, which is of some importance."
Brown bowed his head, and taking fresh paper, proceeded to write down the Earl's words, as follows:—
"Sir,—Immediately upon the receipt of this, you will be pleased to proceed to the village of ———, in the county of ———, and make immediate inquiries, once more, in regard to the personages concerning whom you instituted an investigation some ten or twelve years ago. Any additional documents you may procure, concerning Colonel Sherbrooke, Colonel Lennard Sherbrooke, or any of the other parties concerned in the transactions which you know of as taking place at that time, you will be pleased to send to me forthwith."
Wilton perceiving that the Earl did not proceed, looked up, as if to see whether he had concluded or not. The Earl's eyes were fixed upon him with a stern, intense gaze, as if he would have read his very soul. Wilton's looks, on the contrary, were so perfectly unconscious, so innocent of all knowledge that he was doing anything more than writing an ordinary letter of business, that—if the Earl's gaze was intended to interpret his feelings by any of those external marks, which betray the secrets of the heart, by slight and transitory characters written on nature's record book, the face—he was convinced at once that there was nothing concealed below. His brow relaxed, and he went on dictating, while the young gentleman proceeded calmly to write.
"You will be particular," the letter went on, "to inquire what became of the boy, as his name was not down in the list found upon the captain's person; and you will endeavour to discover what became of the boat that carried Lennard Sherbrooke and the boy to the ship, and whether all on board it perished in the storm, or not."
The Earl still watched Wilton's countenance with some degree of earnestness; and, to say the truth, if his young companion had not been put upon his guard, by detecting the first stern, dark glance the minister had given him, some emotion might have been visible in his countenance, some degree of thoughtful inquiry in his manner, as he asked, "To whom am I to address it, my lord?"
The words of the Earl, in directing an inquiry about the fisherman, the boy, the boat, and the wreck, seemed to connect themselves with strange figures in the past—figures which appeared before his mind's eye vague and misty, such as we are told the shadows always appear at first which are conjured up by the cabalistic words of a necromancer. He felt that there was some connecting link between himself and the subject of the Earl's investigation; what, he could not tell: but whatever it was, his curiosity was stimulated to tax his memory to the utmost, and to try by any means to lead her to a right conclusion, through the intricate ways of the past.
That first gaze of the Earl, however, had excited in his bosom not exactly suspicion, but that inclination to conceal his feelings, which we all experience when we see that some one whom we neither love nor trust is endeavouring to unveil them. He therefore would not suffer his mind to rest upon any inquiry in regard to the past, till the emotions which it might produce could be indulged unwatched; and, applying to the mechanical business of the pen, he wrote on to the conclusion, and then demanded, simply, "To whom am I to address it?"
"To Mr. Shea," replied the Earl, "my agent in Waterford, to whom you have written before;" and there the conversation dropped.
The Earl took the letter to sign it; but now that it was done, he seemed indifferent about its going, and put it into a portfolio, where it remained several days before it was sent.
As soon as he could escape, Wilton Brown retired to his own dwelling, and there gave himself up to thought; but the facts, which seemed floating about in the dark gulf of the past, still eluded the grasp of memory, as she strove to catch them. There was something, indeed, which he recollected of a boat, and a storm at sea, and a fisherman's cabin, and still the name of Sherbrooke rang in his ears, as something known in other days. But it came not upon him with the same freshness which it had done when first he heard the title of the Earl of Byerdale's soil; and he could recall no more than the particulars we have mentioned, though the name of Lennard seemed familiar to him also.
While he was in this meditative mood, pondering thoughtfully over the past, and extracting little to satisfy him from a record which time, unfortunately, had effaced, he was interrupted by the coming of the young Lord Sherbrooke, who now was accustomed to enter familiarly without any announcement. On the present occasion his step was more rapid than usual, his manner more than commonly excited, and the moment he had cast himself into a chair he burst into a long loud peal of laughter. "In the name of Heaven," he exclaimed, "what piece of foolery do you think my worthy father has concocted now? On my honour, I believe that he is mad, and only fear that he has transmitted a part of his madness to me. Think of everything that is ridiculous, Wilton, that you can conceive; let your mind run free over every absurd combination that it is possible to fancy; think of all that is stupid or mad-like in times present or past, and then tell me what it is that my father intends to do."
"I really do not know, Sherbrooke," replied his friend "but nothing, I dare say, half so bad as you would have me believe. Your father is much too prudent and careful a man to do anything that is absurd."
"You don't know him—Wilton, you don't know him," replied Lord Sherbrooke; "for the sake of power or of wealth he has the courage to do anything on earth that is absurd, and for revenge he has the courage to do a great deal more. In regard to revenge, indeed, I don't mind: he is quite right there; for surely if we are bound to be grateful to a man that does good to us, we are bound to revenge ourselves upon him who does us wrong. Besides, revenge is a gentlemanlike passion; but avarice and ambition are certainly the two most ungentlemanlike propensities in human nature."
"Not ambition, surely," exclaimed Wilton.
"The worst of all!" cried his friend—"the worst of all! Avarice is a gentleman to ambition! Avarice is merely a tinker, a dealer in old metal; but ambition is a chimney-sweep of a passion: a mere climbing-boy, who will go through any dirty hole in all Christendom only to get out at the top of the chimney. But you have not guessed, Wilton—you have not guessed. To it; and tell me, what is the absurd thing my father proposes to do?"
Wilton shook his head, and said that he could in no way divine.
"To marry me, Wilton—to marry me to a lady rich and fair," replied the young lord: "what think you of that, Wilton?—you who know me, what think you of that?"
"Why, if I must really say the truth," replied Wilton, "I think the Earl has very naturally considered your happiness before that of the lady."
"As well gilded a sarcasm that," replied Lord Sherbrooke, "as if it had come from my father's own lips. However, what you say is very true: the poor unfortunate girl little knows what the slave merchants are devising for her. My father has dealt with hers, and her father has dealt with mine, and settled all affairs between them, it seems, without our knowledge or participation in any shape. I was the first of the two parties concerned who received the word of command to march and be married, and as yet the unfortunate victim is unacquainted with the designs against her peace and happiness for life."
"Nay, nay," replied Wilton, almost sorrowfully, "speak not so lightly of it. What have you done, Sherbrooke? for Heaven's sake, what have you done? If you have consented to marry, let me hope and trust that you have determined firmly to change your conduct, and not indeed, as you say, to ruin the poor girl's peace and happiness for life."
"Oh! I have consented," replied Lord Sherbrooke, in the same gay laughing tone; "you do not suppose that I would refuse beauty, and sweetness, and twenty thousand a year. I am not as mad as my father. Oh! I consented directly. I understand, she is the great beauty of the day. She will see very little of me, and I shall see very little of her, so we shall not weary of one another. Oh! I am a very wise man, indeed. I only wanted what our friend Launcelot calls 'a trifle of wives' to be King Solomon himself. Why you know that for the other cattle which distinguished that great monarch I am pretty well provided."
Wilton looked down upon the ground with a look of very great pain, while imagination pictured what the future life of some young and innocent girl might be, bound to one so wild, so heedless, and dissolute as Lord Sherbrooke. He remained silent, however, for he did not dare to trust himself with any farther observations; and when he looked up again, he found his friend gazing at him with an expression on his countenance in some degree sorrowful, in some degree reproachful, but with a look of playful meaning flickering through the whole.
"Now does your solemnity, and your gravity," said Lord Sherbrooke, "and your not yet understanding me, almost tempt me, Wilton, to play some wild and inconceivable trick, just for the purpose of opening your eyes, and letting you see, that your friend is not such an unfeeling rascal as the world gives out."
"I know you are not, my dear Sherbrooke—I am sure you are not," replied Wilton, grasping warmly the hand which Lord Sherbrooke held out to him; "I was wrong for not seeing that you were in jest, and for not discovering at once that you had not consented. But how does the Earl bear your refusal?"
"You are as wrong as ever, my dear Wilton," replied his friend, in a more serious tone—"I have consented; for if I had not, it must have made an irreparable breach between my father and myself, which you well know I should not consider desirable—I must obey him sometimes, you know, Wilton—He had pledged himself, too, that I should consent. However, to set your mind at rest, I will tell you the loophole at which I creep out. Her father, it seems, is not near so sanguine as my father, in regard to his child's obedience, and he is, moreover, an odd old gentleman, who has got into his head a strange antiquated notion, that the inclinations of the people to be married have something to do with such transactions. He therefore bargained, that his consent should be dependent upon the young lady's approbation of me when she sees me. In fact, I am bound to court, and she to be courted. My father is bound that I shall marry her if she likes me, her father is bound to give her to me if she likes to be given. Now what I intend, Wilton, is, that she should not like me. So this very evening you must come with me to the theatre, and there we shall see her together, for I know where she is to be. To-morrow, I shall be presented to her in form, and if she likes to have me, after all I have to say to her, why it is her fault, for I will take care she shall not have ignorance to plead in regard to my worshipful character."
Wilton would fain have declined going to the theatre that night, for, to say the truth, his heart was somewhat heavy; but Lord Sherbrooke would take no denial, jokingly saying that he required some support under the emotions and agitating circumstances which he was about to endure. As soon as this was settled, Lord Sherbrooke left him, agreeing to call for him in his carriage at the early hour of a quarter before five o'clock; for such, however, were the more rational times and seasons of our ancestors, that one could enjoy the high intellectual treat of seeing a good play performed from beginning to end, without either changing one's dinner hour, or going with the certainty of indigestion and headache.
Far more punctual than was usual with him. Lord Sherbrooke was at the door of Wilton Brown exactly at the hour he had appointed; and, getting into his carriage, they speedily rolled on from the neighbourhood of St. James's-street, then one of the most fashionable parts of the metropolis, to Russell-street, C however, though evidently anxious to be early at the theatre, could not resist his inclination to take a look into the Rose, and, finding several persons whom he knew there, he lingered for a considerable time, introducing Wilton to a number of the wits and celebrated men of the day.
The play had thus begun before they entered the theatre, and the house was filled so completely that it was scarcely possible to obtain a seat.
As if with a knowledge that his young companion was anxious to see the ill-fated lady destined by her friends to be the bride of a wild and reckless libertine, Lord Sherbrooke affected to pay no attention whatsoever to anything but what was passing on the stage. During the first act Wilton was indeed as much occupied as himself with the magic of the scene: but when the brief pause between the acts took place, his eyes wandered round those boxes in which the high nobility of the land usually were found, to see if he could discover the victim of the Earl of Byerdale's ambition.
There were two boxes on the opposite side of the house, towards one or the other of which almost all eyes were turned, and to the occupants of which all the distinguished young men in the house seemed anxious to pay their homage. In one of those boxes was a very lovely woman of about seven or eight and twenty, sitting with a queenly air to receive the humble adoration of the gay and fluttering admirers who crowded round her. Her brow was high and broad, but slightly contracted, so that a certain haughtiness of air in her whole figure and person was fully kept in tone by the expression of her face. For a moment or two, Wilton looked at her with a slight smile, as he said in his own heart, "if that be the lady destined for Sherbrooke, I pity her less than I expected, for she seems the very person either to rule him or care little about him."
The next moment, however, a more perfect recollection of all that Lord Sherbrooke had said, led him to conclude that she could not be the person to whom he alluded. He had spoken of her as a girl, as of one younger than himself; whereas the lady who was reigning in the stage-box was evidently older, and had more the appearance of a married than a single woman.
Wilton then turned his eyes to the other box of which we have spoken; and in it there was also to be seen a female figure seated near the front with another lady; while somewhat further back, appeared the form of an elderly gentleman with a star upon the left breast. Towards that box, as we have before said, many eyes were turned; and from the space* below, as well as from other parts of the house, the beaux of the day were gazing in evident expectation of a bow, or a smile, or a mark of recognition. Nevertheless, in neither of the ladies which that box contained was there, as far as Wilton could see, any of those little arts but too often used for the purpose of attracting attention, and which, to say the truth, were displayed in a remarkable manner by the lady in the other box we have mentioned. There was no fair hand stretched out over the cushions; no fringed glove cast negligently down; no fan waved gracefully to give emphasis to that was said; but, on the contrary, the whole figure of the lady in front remained tranquil and calm, with much grace and beauty in the attitude, but none even of that flutter of consciousness which often betrays the secrets of vanity. The expression of the face, indeed, Wilton could not see, for the head was turned towards the stage; and though the lady looked round more than once during the interval between the acts to speak to those behind her in the box, the effect was only to turn her face still farther from his gaze.
[*Footnote: I have not said "the pit," because the intruders of fashion had not then been driven from the STAGE itself, especially between the acts.]
At length, the play went on, and at the end of the second act a slight movement enabled Lord Sherbrooke and Wilton to advance further towards the stage, so that the latter was now nearly opposite to the box in which one of the beauties of the day was seated. He immediately turned in that direction, as did Lord Sherbrooke at the same moment; and Wilton, with a feeling of pain that can scarcely be described, beheld in the fair girl who seemed to be the unwilling object of so much admiration, no other than the young lady whom he had aided in rescuing when attacked, as we have before described, by the gentry who in those days frequented so commonly the King's Highway.
Though now dressed with splendour, as became her rank and station, there was in her whole countenance the same simple unaffected look of tranquil modesty which Wilton had remarked there before, and in which he had fancied he read the story of a noble mind and a fine heart, rather undervaluing than otherwise the external advantages of beauty and station, but dignified and raised by the consciousness of purity, cultivation, and high thoughts. The same look was there, modest yet dignified, diffident yet self-possessed; and while he became convinced that there sat the bride selected by the Earl of Byerdale for his son, he was equally convinced that she was the person of all others whose fate would be the most miserable in such an union.
At the same moment, too, his heart was moved by sensations that may be very difficult accurately to describe. To talk of his being in love with the fair girl before him would, in those days as in the present, have been absurd; to say that he had remembered her with anything like hope, would not be true, for he had not hoped in the slightest degree, nor even dreamed of hope. But what he had done was this—he had thought of her often and long; he had recollected the few hours spent in her society with greater pleasure than any he had known in life; he had remembered her as the most beautiful person he had ever seen—and indeed to him she was so; for not only were her features, and her form, and her complexion, all beautiful according to the rules of art, but they were beautiful also according to that modification of beauty which best suited his own taste. The expression, too, of her countenance—and she had much expression of countenance when conversing with any one she liked—was beautiful and varying; and the grace of her movements and the calm quietness of her carriage were of the kind which is always most pleasing to a high and cultivated mind.
He had recollected her, then, as the most beautiful creature he had ever seen; but there was also a good deal of imaginative interest attached to the circumstances in which they had first met; and he often thought over them with pleasure, as forming a little bright spot in the midst of a somewhat dull and monotonous existence. In short, all these memories made it impossible for him to feel towards her as he did towards other women. There was admiration, and interest, and high esteem.—It wanted, surely, but a little of being love. One thing is very certain: Wilton would have heard that she was about to be married to any one with no inconsiderable degree of pain. It would have cost him a sigh; it would have made him feel a deep regret. He would not have been in the slightest degree disappointed, for hope being out of the question he expected nothing; but still he might regret.
Now, however, when he thought that she was about to be importuned to marry one for whom he might himself feel very deep and sincere regard, on account of some high and noble qualities of the heart, but whose wild and reckless libertinism could but make her miserable for ever, the pain that he experienced caused him to turn very pale. The next moment the blood rushed up again into his cheek, seeing Lord Sherbrooke glance his eyes rapidly from the box in which she sat to his countenance, and then to the box again.
At that very same moment, the Duke, who was the gentleman sitting on the opposite side of the box, bent forward and whispered a few words to his daughter: the blood suddenly rushed up into her cheek; and with a look rather of anxiety and apprehension than anything else, she turned her eyes instantly towards the spot where Wilton stood. Her look was changed in a moment; for though she became quite pale, a bright smile beamed forth from her lip; and though she put her hand to her heart, she bowed markedly and graciously towards her young acquaintance, directing instantly towards that spot the looks of all the admirers who surrounded the box.
The words which the Duke spoke to her were very simple, but led to an extraordinary mistake. He had in the morning communicated to her the proposal which had been made for her marriage with Lord Sherbrooke, and she, who had heard something of his character, had shrunk with alarm from the very idea. When her father, however, now said to her, "There is Lord Sherbrooke just opposite," and directed her attention to the precise spot, her eyes instantly fell upon Wilton.
She recollected her father's observation in regard to the name he had given at the inn being an assumed one: his fine commanding person, his noble countenance, his lordly look, and the taste and fashion of his dress, all made her for the moment believe that in him she beheld the person proposed for her future husband. At the same time she could not forget that he had rendered her an essential service. He had displayed before her several of those qualities which peculiarly draw forth the admiration of women—courage, promptitude, daring, and skill; his conversation had delighted and surprised her; and to say truth, he had created in her bosom during the short interview, such prepossessions in his favour, that to her he was the person who now solicited her hand, instead of the creature which her imagination had portrayed as Lord Sherbrooke, was no small relief to her heart. It seemed as if a load was taken off her bosom; and such was the cause of those emotions, the expression of which upon her countenance we have already told.
It was not, indeed, that she believed herself the least in love with Wilton Brown, but she felt that she COULD love him, and that feeling was quite enough. It was enough, while she fancied that he was Lord Sherbrooke, to agitate her with joy and hope; and, though the mistake lasted but a short time, the feelings that it produced were sufficient to effect a change in all her sensations towards him through life. During the brief space that the mistake lasted, she looked upon him, she thought of him, as the man who was to be her husband. Had it not been for that misunderstanding, the idea of such an union between herself and him would most likely never have entered her mind; but once having looked upon him in that light, even for five minutes, she never could see him or speak to him without a recollection of the fact, without a reference, however vague, ill-defined, and repressed in her own mind, to the feelings and thoughts which she had then entertained.
Lord Sherbrooke remarked the changing colour, the look of recognition on both parts, the glad smile, and the inclination of the head.
"Why, Wilton," he said in a low voice—"Wilton! it seems you are already a great deal better acquainted with my future wife than I am myself; and glad to see you does she seem! and most gracious is her notice of you! Why, there are half of those gilded fools on the other side of the house ready to cut your throat at this moment, when it is mine they would seek to cut if they knew all; but pray come and introduce me to my lovely bride, I had no idea she was so pretty. I'm sure I am delighted to have some other introduction than that of my father, and so unexpected a one."
All this was said in a bantering tone, but not without a shrewd examination of Wilton's countenance while it was spoken. What were the feelings of the young nobleman it was impossible for Wilton to divine; but he answered quite calmly, the first emotion being by this time passed—"My acquaintance with her is so slight, that I certainly could not venture to introduce any one, far less one who has so much better an introduction ready prepared."
"By heavens, Wilton," replied his friend, "by the look she gave you and the look you returned, one would not have judged the acquaintance to be slight; but as you will not introduce me, I will introduce you; for, I suppose, in common civility, I must go and speak to her father, as the old gentleman's eye is upon me. There! He secures his point by a bow. Dearly beloved, I come, I come!"
Thus saying, he turned to proceed to the box, making a sign to Wilton to follow, which he did, though at the time he did it, he censured his own weakness for yielding to the temptation.
"I am but going," he thought, "to augment feelings of regret at a destiny I cannot change—I only go to increase my own pain, and in no degree to avert from that sweet girl a fate but too dark and sorrowful."
As he thus thought, he felt disposed, even then, to make some excuse for not going to the Duke's box; but by the time they were half way thither, they were met by several persons coming the other way, amongst whom was a gentleman richly but not gaudily dressed, who immediately addressed Lord Sherbrooke, saying, that the Duke of Gaveston requested the honour of his company in his box, and Wilton immediately recognised his old companion of the road, Sir John Fenwick. Sir John bowed to him but distantly; and Wilton was more than ever hesitating whether he should go on or not, when some one touched him on the arm, and turning round he beheld his somewhat doubtful acquaintance, who had given himself the name of Green.
Sir John Fenwick and the stranger looked in each other's faces without the slightest sign of recognition: but to Wilton himself Green smiled pleasantly, saying, "I very much wish to speak a word with you, Mr. Wilton Brown. Will you just step aside with me to the lobby for a moment?"
The recollection of what had passed when last they met, together with the wish of avoiding an interview with the Duke and his daughter, from which he augured nought but pain, overcame Wilton's repugnance to hold any private communication with one whom he had certainly seen in a situation at the least very equivocal; and merely saying to Lord Sherbrooke, "I must speak with this gentleman for a moment, and therefore cannot come with you," he left the young lord to follow Sir John Fenwick, and turned with the stranger into the lobby. There was no one there at the moment, for at that time the licensed abomination, of which it has since been the scene, would not have been tolerated in any country calling itself Christian. Wilton was indeed rather glad that it was vacant, for he was not anxious to be observed by many people in conversation with his present companion. Not that anything in his appearance or manner was calculated to call up the blush of idle pride. The stranger's dress was as rich and tasteful as any in the house, his manner was easy and free, his look, though not particularly striking, distinguished and gentlemanly.
The stranger was the first to speak. "Do not alarm yourself, Mr. Brown," he said: "Mr. Green is a safe companion here, whatever he might be in Maidenhead Thicket. But I wanted to speak a word to you yourself, and to give you a hint that may be beneficial to others. As to yourself, I told you when last we met that I could bring you into company with some of your old friends. I thought your curiosity would have carried you to the Green Dragon long ago. As, however, you do not seem to wish to see your old friends, I have now to tell you that they wish to see you, and therefore I have to beg you to meet me there to-morrow at six o'clock."
"You are mistaken entirely," replied Wilton, "in regard to my not wishing to see my old friends. I very much wish it. I wish to hear more of my early history, about which there seems to me to be some mystery."
"Is there?" said the stranger, in a careless tone. "Whether anything will be explained to you or not, I cannot say. At all events, you must meet me there; and, in the meantime tell me, have you seen Sir John Fenwick since last we met?"
"No, I have not," replied Wilton. "Why do you ask?"
"Because," replied the other, "Sir John Fenwick is a dangerous companion, and it were better that you did not consort with him."
"That I certainly shall not do," replied Wilton, "knowing his character sufficiently already."
"Indeed!" replied the other. "You have grown learned in people's characters of late, Master Brown: perhaps you know mine also; and if you do, of course you will give me the meeting to-morrow at the Green Dragon."
He spoke with a smile; and Wilton replied, "I am by no means sure that I shall do so, unless I have a better cause assigned, and a clearer knowledge of what I am going there for."
"Prudent! Prudent!" said the stranger. "Quite right to be prudent, Master Wilton. Nevertheless, you must come, for the matter is now one of some moment. Therefore, without asking you to answer at present, I shall expect you. At six of the clock, remember—precisely."
"I by no means promise to come," replied Wilton, "though I do not say that I will not. But you said that you wished to tell me something which might be useful to others. Pray what may that be?"
"Why," answered the stranger, "I wish you to give a little warning to your acquaintance, the Duke of Gaveston, regarding this very Sir John Fenwick and his character."
"Nay," said Wilton, "nay—that I can hardly do. My acquaintance with the Duke himself is extremely small. The Duke is a man of the world sufficiently old to judge for himself, and with sufficient experience to know the character of Sir John Fenwick without my explaining it to him."
"The Duke," replied the other, "is a grown baby, with right wishes and good intentions, as well as kind feelings; but a coral and bells would lure him almost anywhere, and he has got into the hands of one who will not fail to lead him into mischief. I thought you knew him well; but nevertheless, well or ill, you must give him the warning."
"I beg your pardon," replied Wilton, drawing himself up coldly: "but in one or two points you have been mistaken. My knowledge of the Duke is confined to one interview. I shall most probably never exchange another word with him in my life; and even if I were to do so, I should not think of assailing, to a mere common acquaintance, the character of a gentleman whom I may not like or trust myself, but who seems to be the intimate friend of the very person in whose good opinion you wish me to ruin him."
"Pshaw!" replied the stranger—"you will see the Duke again this very night, or I am much mistaken. As to Sir John Fenwick, I am a great deal more intimately his friend than the Duke is, and I may wish to keep him from rash acts, which he has neither courage nor skill to carry through, and will not dare to undertake, if he be not supported by others. I am, in fact, doing Sir John himself a friendly act, for I know his purposes, which are both rash and wrong; and if I cannot. stop them by fair means, I must stop them by others."
"In that," replied Wilton, "you must act as you think fit. I know nothing of Sir John Fenwick from my own personal observation; and therefore will not be made a tool of, to injure his reputation with others."
"Well, well," replied his companion—"in those circumstances you are right; and, as they say in that beggarly assemblage of pettifogging rogues and traitors called the House of Commons, I must shape my motion in another way. The manner in which I will beg you to deal with the Duke, is this. Find an opportunity, before this night be over, of entreating him earnestly not to go to-morrow to the meeting at the Old King's Head, in Leadenhall-street. This is clear and specific, and at the same time you assail the character of no one."
Wilton thought for a moment or two, and then replied, "I cannot even promise you absolutely to do this; but, if I can, I will. If I see the Duke, and have the means of giving him the message, I will tell him that I received it from a stranger, who seemed anxious for his welfare."
"That will do," answered the other—"that will do. But you must tell him without Sir John Fenwick's hearing you. As to your seeing him again, you will, I suppose, take care of that; for surely the bow, and the smile, and the blush, that came across the house to you, were too marked an invitation to the box, for such a gallant and a courteous youth not to take advantage of at once."
Wilton felt himself inclined to be a little angry at the familiarity with which his companion treated him, and which was certainly more than their acquaintance warranted. Curiosity, however, is powerful to repress all feelings, that contend with it; and if ever curiosity was fully justifiable, it surely was that of Wilton to know his own early history. Thus, although he might have felt inclined to quarrel with any other person who treated him so lightly, on the present occasion he smothered his anger, and merely replied that the stranger was mistaken in supposing that there was any such acquaintance between him and Lady Laura as to justify him in visiting her box.
Even while he was in the act of speaking, however, Lord Sherbrooke entered the lobby in haste, and advanced immediately towards him, saying, "Why, Wilton, I have been seeking you all over the house. Where, in Fortune's name, have you been? The Duke and Lady Laura have both been inquiring after you most tenderly, and wondering that you have not been to see them in their box."
The stranger, whom we shall in future call Green, turned away with a smile, saying merely, "Good evening, Mr. Brown; I won't detain you longer."
"Why, who the devil have you got there, Wilton?" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke: "I think I have seen his face before."
"His name is Green," replied Wilton, not choosing to enter into particulars; "but I am ready now to go with you at once, and make my apologies for not accompanying you before."
"Come then, come," replied Lord Sherbrooke; and, leading the way towards the Duke's box, he added, laughingly, "If there had been any doubt before, my good Wilton, as to my future fate, this night has been enough to settle it."
"In what way?" said Wilton; but ere the young nobleman could answer, otherwise than by a smile, they had reached the box, and the door was thrown open.
Wilton's heart beat, it must be confessed; but he had sufficient command over himself to guard against the slightest emotion being perceptible upon his countenance; and he bowed to the Duke and to Lady Laura, with that ceremonious politeness which he judged that his situation required. Lady Laura at once, however, held out her hand to him, and expressed briefly, how glad she was of another opportunity to thank him for the great service which he had rendered her some time before. The Duke also spoke of it kindly and politely; and the other persons in the box, who were several in number, began to inquire into the circumstances thus publicly mentioned, so that the conversation took a more general turn, till the curtain again arose.
A certain degree of restraint, which had at first affected both Wilton and the lady, soon wore off, and the evening went by most pleasantly. It was not strange—it was not surely at all strange—that a young heart should forget itself in such circumstances. Wilton gave himself up, not indeed to visions of joy, but to actual enjoyment. Perhaps Lady Laura did the same. At all events, she looked far happier than she had done before; and when at length the curtain fell, and the time for parting came, they both woke as from a dream, and the waking was certainly followed by a sigh on either part. It was then that Wilton first recollected the warning that he had promised to give, and he was considering how he should find the means of speaking with the Duke alone, when that nobleman paused for a moment, as the rest of the party went out of the box, and drawing Wilton aside, said in a hasty but kindly wanner, "Lord Sherbrooke informs me that you are his most intimate friend, Mr. Brown; and as it is very likely that we shall see him frequently, I hope you will sometimes do us the favour of accompanying him."
Wilton replied by one of those unmeaning speeches which commit a man to nothing; for though his own heart told him that he would really be but too happy, as he said to take advantage of the invitation, yet it told him, at the same time, that to do so would be dangerous to his peace. The Duke was then about to follow his party; but Wilton now in turn detained him, saying, "I have a message to deliver to you, my lord duke, from a stranger who stopped me as I was coming to your box."
"Ha!" said the Duke, with a somewhat important air, "this is strange; but still I have so many communications of different kinds—what may it be, Mr. Brown?"
"It was, my lord," replied Wilton, in a low voice, "a warning which I think it best to deliver, as, not knowing the gentleman's name who gave it to me, I cannot tell whether it may be a mere piece of impertinence from somebody who is perhaps a stranger to your grace, or an intimation from a sincere friend—"
"But the warning, the warning!" said the Duke, "pray, what was this warning?"
"It was," replied Wilton, "a warning not to go to a meeting which you proposed to attend in the course of tomorrow."
"Ha!" said the Duke, with a look of some surprise—"did he say what meeting?"
"Yes, my lord," replied Wilton—"he said it was a meeting at the old King's Head in Leadenhall Street, and he added that it would be dangerous for you to do so."
"I will never shrink from personal danger, Mr. Brown," said the Duke, holding up his head, and putting on a courageous look. But the moment after, something seemed to strike him, and he added with a certain degree of hesitation, "But let me ask you, Mr. Brown, does my lord of Byerdale know this?—You have not told Lord Sherbrooke?"
"Neither the one nor the other, my lord," replied Wilton—"I have mentioned the fact to nobody but yourself."
"Pray, then, do not," replied the Duke; "you will oblige me very much, Mr. Brown, by keeping this business secret. I must certainly attend the meeting at four to-morrow, because I have pledged my word to it; but I shall enter into nothing that is dangerous or criminal, depend upon it—"
The nobleman was going on; and it is impossible to say how much he might have told in regard to the meeting in question, if Wilton had not stopped him.
"I beg your pardon, my lord," he said; "but allow me to remind you that I have no knowledge whatsoever of the views and intentions with which this meeting is to be held. I shall certainly not mention the message I have brought your grace to any one, and having delivered it, must leave the rest to yourself, whose judgment in such matters must be far superior to mine."
The Duke looked gratified, but moved on without reply, as the rest of his party were waiting at a little distance. Wilton followed; and seeing the Duke and Lady Laura with Sir John and Lady Mary Fenwick into their carriages, he proceeded homeward with Lord Sherbrooke, neither of them interchanging a word till they had well nigh reached Wilton's lodgings. There, however, Lord Sherbrooke burst into a loud laugh, exclaiming—
"Lack-a-day, Wilton, lack-a-day! Here are you and I as silent and as meditative as two owls in a belfry: you looking as wise as if you were a minister of state, and I as sorrowful as an unhappy lover, when, to say the truth, I am thinking of some deep stroke of policy, and you are meditating upon a fair maid's bright eyes. Get you gone, Wilton; get you gone, for a sentimental, lack-a-daisical shepherd! Now could we but get poor old King James to come back, the way to a dukedom would be open before you in a fortnight."
"How so?" demanded Wilton, "how so? You do not suppose, Sherbrooke, that I would ever join in overturning the religion, and the laws, and the liberties of my country—how so, then?"
"As thus," replied Lord Sherbrooke—"I will answer you as if I had been born the grave-digger in Hamlet. King James comes over—well, marry go to, now—a certain duke that you wot of, who is a rank Jacobite, by the by, instantly joins the invader; then comes King William, drives me his fellow-king and father-in-law out of the kingdom in five days, takes me the duke prisoner, and chops me his head off in no time. This headless father leaves a sorrowful daughter, who at the time of his death is deeply and desperately in love, without daring to say it, her father's head being the only obstacle in the way of the daughter's heart. Then comes the lover to console the lady, and finding her without protection, offers to undertake that very needful duty. Now see you, Wilton? Now see you?—But there's the door of your dwelling. Get you in, man, get you in, and try if in your dreams you can get some means of bringing it about. By my faith, Wilton, you are in a perilous situation; but there's one thing for your comfort,—if I can get out of all the scrapes that at this moment surround me on every side, like the lines of a besieging enemy, you can surely make your escape out of your difficulties, when you have love, and youth, and hope, to befriend you."
"Hope?" said Wilton, in bitter sadness; but at the moment he spoke, the door of the house was opened, and, bidding Lord Sherbrooke "Good night," he went in.
During the greater part of the next day Wilton did not set eyes upon Lord Sherbrooke. The Earl of Byerdale, however, was peculiarly courteous and polite to his young secretary. There was much business, Earl was obliged to be very rapid in all his movements; but the terms in which he gave his directions were gentle and placable, and some letters received in the course of the day from Ireland seemed to please him well. He hinted even in a mysterious tone to Wilton that he had something of importance to say to him, but that he had not time to say it at the moment, and he ended by asking his secretary to dine at his house on the following day, when he said the Duke of Gaveston and Lady Laura were to be present, with a large party.
He went out about three o'clock: and Wilton had not long returned to his lodgings when Lord Sherbrooke joined him, and insisted on his accompanying him on horseback for a ride into the country.
Wilton was at that moment hesitating as to whether he should or should not go to the rendezvous given him by his strange acquaintance, Green. He had certainly left the theatre on the preceding night determined so to do; for the various feelings which at this time agitated his heart had changed the anxiety which he had always felt to know the circumstances of his birth and family into a burning thirst, which would have led him almost anywhere for satisfaction.
A night's thought, however—for we cannot say that he slept—had again revived all the doubts which had before prevented him from seeking the stranger, and had once more displayed before his eyes all the many reasons which in those days existed for holding no communication with persons whose characters were not known; or were in the least degree suspicious. Thus before Lord Sherbrooke joined him, he had fully convinced himself that the thing which he had so great an inclination to do was foolish, imprudent, and wrong. He had seen the man in a situation which left scarcely a doubt of his pursuits; he had seen him in close communication with a gentleman principally known as a virulent and unscrupulous enemy of the reigning dynasty; and he had not one cause for thinking well of him, except a certain off-hand frankness of manner which might easily be assumed.
All this he had repeated to himself twenty times, but yet he felt a strong inclination to go, when Lord Sherbrooke's sudden appearance, and invitation to ride out with him, cast an additional weight into the opposite scale, and determined his conduct at once. It is wonderful, indeed, how often those important acts, in regard to which we have hesitated and weighed every point with anxious deliberation, are ultimately determined by the most minute and trifling circumstance, totally unconnected with the thing itself. The truth is, under such circumstances we are like a man weighing fine gold dust, who does it to such a nicety that a hair falling into the scale turns it one way or the other.
In the present instance, our friend Wilton was not unwilling that something should come in aid of his better judgment; and ordering his horse t was soon beyond the precincts of London, and riding through the beautiful fields which at that time extended over ground where courtiers and ministers have now established their town dwellings.
From the whole demeanour of his companion, from the wild and excited spirits which he displayed, from the bursts of merriment to which he gave way, apparently without a sufficient cause, Wilton evidently saw that there was either some wild scheme working in Lord Sherbrooke's brain, or the knowledge of some happy event gladdening his heart. What it was, however, he could not divine, and the young nobleman was evidently determined on no account to explain. He laughed and jested with Wilton in regard to the gravity which he could not conquer, declared that he was the dullest companion that ever had been seen, and vowed that there could be no more stupid and tiresome companion for a long ride than a man in love, unless, indeed, it were a lame horse.
"Indeed, my dear Sherbrooke," replied Wilton, "you should prove, in the first place, that I am in love, which I can assure you is not the case, before you attempt to attribute my being grave to that reason. My very situation in life, and a thousand things connected therewith, are surely enough to make me sad at times."
"Why, what is there sad in your situation, my dear Wilton?" demanded Lord Sherbrooke, in the same tone of raillery: "here are you a wealthy young man—ay, wealthy, Wilton. Have you not yourself told me that your income exceeds your expenses; while I, on the other hand, have no income at all, and expenses in abundance? Well, I say you are here a wealthy young man, with the best prospects in the world, destined some day to be prime minister for aught I know."
"And who, at this present moment," interrupted Wilton, "has not a relation upon earth that he knows of; who has never enjoyed a father's care or a mother's tenderness; who can only guess that his birth was disgraceful to her whom man's heart is naturally bound to reverence, without knowing who or what was his father, or who even was the mother by whose shame he was brought into being."
Lord Sherbrooke was immediately grave, for he saw that Wilton was hurt; and he replied frankly and kindly, "I beg your pardon, my dear Wilton—I did not intend to pain you, and had not the slightest idea of how you were circumstanced. To tell the truth, I took it for granted that you were the son of good Lord Sunbury; and thought that you were, of course, well aware of all the particulars."
"Of none, Sherbrooke, of none," replied Wilton. "Suspicions may have crossed my mind that it is as you supposed, but then many other things tend to make me believe that such is not the case. At all events, one thing is clear—I have no family, no kindred; or if I have relations, they are ashamed of the tie that binds me to them, and voluntarily disown it."
"Pshaw! Wilton," exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke—"family! What matters a family? Make yourself one, Wilton. The best of us can but trace his lineage back to some black-bearded Northman, or yellow-haired Saxon, no better than a savage of some cannibal island of the South Sea—a fellow who tore his roast meat with unwashed fingers, and never knew the luxury of a clean shirt. Make a family for yourself, I say; and let the hundredth generation down, if the world last so long, boast that the head of the house was a gentleman, and wore gold lace on his coat."
Wilton smiled, saying, "I fear the prospect of progeny, Sherbrooke, will never be held as an equivalent for the retrospect of ancestors."
"An axiom worthy of Aristotle!" exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke; "but here we are, my dear Wilton," he continued, pulling up his horse at the gates of a house enclosed within walls, situated about a quarter of a mile beyond Chelsea, and somewhat more from the house and grounds belonging at that time to the celebrated Earl of Peterborough.
"But what do you intend to do here?" exclaimed Wilton, at this pause.
"Oh! nothing but make a call," replied his companion.
"Shall I ride on, or wait till you come back?" demanded Wilton.
"Oh, no!—come in, come in," said Lord Sherbrooke—"I shall not be long, and I'll introduce you, if you are not acquainted."
While he was speaking he had rung the bell, and his own two servants with Wilton's rode up to take the horses. Almost at the same moment a porter threw open the gates, and to his companion's surprise, Lord Sherbrooke asked for the Duke of Gaveston. The servant answered that the Duke was out, but that his young lady was at home; and thus the hero of our tale found himself suddenly, and even most unwillingly, brought to the dwelling of one whose society he certainly liked better than that of any one else on earth.
Lord Sherbrooke looked in his face with a glance of malicious pleasure; and then, as nothing on earth ever stopped him in anything that he chose to do or say, he burst forth into a gay peal of laughter at the surprise which he saw depicted on the countenance of his friend.
"Take the horses," he continued, turning to his own servants—"take the horses round to the Green Dragon, in the lane behind the house, wet their noses, and give them a book to read till we come to them. Come, Wilton, come! It is quite fitting," he said, in a lower tone, "that in execution of my plan I should establish a character for insanity in the house. Now that fat porter with the mulberry nose will go and report to the kitchen-maid that I order my horses a book to read, and they will decide that I am mad in a minute. The news will fly from kitchen-maid to cook, and from cook to housekeeper, and from housekeeper to lady's maid, and from lady's maid to lady. There will be nothing else talked of in the house but my madness; and when they come to add madness to badness they will surely give me up, if they haven't a mind to add sadness to madness likewise."
While he spoke, they were following a sort of groom of the chambers, who, after looking into one of the rooms on the ground-floor, turned to Lord Sherbrooke, saying, in a sweet tone,
"Lady Laura is walking in the gardens I see, my lord. I will show your lordship the way."
"So you have the honour of knowing who my lordship is, Mr. Montgomery Styles?" said Lord Sherbrooke, looking him full in the face.
"I beg your lordship's pardon," said the man, in the same mincing manner—"my name is not Montgomery Styles—my name is Josiah Perkins."
"Well, Jos. Perkins," said the young nobleman, "I PRAE SEQUOR, which means, get on as fast as you can, Mr. Perkins, and I'll come after; though you may tell me as you go, how it was you discovered my lordliness."
"Oh! by your look, my lord: I should have discovered it at once," replied the groom of the chambers; "but his grace told me that your lordship was likely to call."
"Oh, ho!" cried Lord Sherbrooke, with a laughing look to Wilton. But the next moment the servant threw open a glass door, and they issued forth into the gardens, which were very beautiful, and extended down to the river, filled with fine old trees, and spread out in soft green terraces and gravel walks. Lord Sherbrooke gazed round at first, with a look of criticising inquiry, upon the gardens; but the eyes of Wilton had fixed immediately upon the figure of a lady who was walking slowly along on the terrace, some way beneath them, at the very edge of the river. She did not remark the opening of the glass door in the centre of the house, which was at the distance of about two hundred yards from the spot where she was at the time; but continued her walk with her eyes bent upon the ground, and one hand playing negligently with the bracelet which encircled the wrist of the other arm. Her thoughts were evidently deeply busied with matters of importance, at least to herself. She was walking slowly, as we have said—a thing that none but a high-bred woman can do with grace—and though the great beauty of her figure was, in some degree, hidden by the costume of the day, yet nothing could render its easy, gliding motion aught but exquisitely graceful, and (if I may use a far-fetched term, but, perhaps, the only one that will express my meaning clearly,) musical to the eye. It must not be understood that, though she was walking slowly, the grace with which she did so had anything of the cold and stately air which those who assume it call dignity. Oh no! it was all easy: quiet, but full of youth, and health, and life it was the mere movement of a form, perfect in the symmetry of every limb, under the will of a spirit harmonizing entirely with the fair frame that contained it. She walked slowly because she was full of deep thought; but no one who beheld her could doubt that bounding joy might in its turn call forth as much grace in that young form as the calmer mood now displayed.
Wilton turned his eyes from the lady to his young companion, and he saw that he was now gazing at her too, and that not a little admiration was painted in his countenance. Wilton was painfully situated, and felt all the awkwardness of the position in which Lord Sherbrooke had placed him fully. Yet how could he act? he asked himself—what means of escape did there exist? What was the motive, too? what the intentions of Lord Sherbrooke? for what purposes had he brought him there? in what situation might he place him next?
All these, and many another question, he asked his own heart as they advanced across the green slopes and little terraces towards that in which the young lady "walked in beauty." There was no means for him to escape, however; and though he never knew from one moment to another what would be the conduct of Lord Sherbrooke, he was obliged to go on, and take his chance of what that conduct might be.
When they were about fifty yards from Lady Laura, she turned at the end of the walk, and then, for the first time, saw them as they approached; but if the expression of her countenance might be believed, she saw them with no great pleasure. An expression of anxiety, nay, of pain, came into her beautiful eyes; and as they were turned both upon Lord Sherbrooke and Wilton, the latter came in for his share also of that vexed look.
"You see, Wilton," said Lord Sherbrooke in a low voice, "how angry she is to behold you here. It was for that I brought you. I want to tease her in all possible ways," and without waiting for any reply, he hurried his pace, and advanced towards the lady.
She received him with marked coldness and distance of manner; but now the difference in her demeanour towards him and towards Wilton was strongly marked—not that the smile with which she greeted the latter when he came up was anything but very faint, yet her lip did relax into a smile.
The colour, too, came up a little into her cheek; and her manner was a little agitated. In short—though without openly expressing any very great pleasure at seeing him—it was evident that she was not displeased; and the secret of the slight degree of embarrassment which she displayed was, that for the first moment or so after she saw him, she thought of her mistake of the night before, and of her feelings while she had imagined that the Duke had pointed him out to her as one who, if she thought fit, might be her future husband.
The lady soon conquered the momentary agitation, however; and the conversation went on, principally maintained, of course, between herself and Lord Sherbrooke. Wilton would have given worlds indeed to have escaped, but there was no possibility of so doing, Lady Laura signified no intention of returning to the house; and they continued walking up and down the broad gravelled terrace, which of all things on earth affords the least opportunity for lingering behind, or escaping the embarrassment of being the one too many.
Wilton had too much good taste to suffer his annoyance to appear; and though he strove to avoid taking any greater part in the conversation than he could help, still when he joined in, what he did say was said with ease and grace. Lord Sherbrooke forced him, indeed, to speak more than he was inclined, and, to Lady Laura, there seemed a strange contrast between the thoughts and language of the two. The young nobleman's conversation was light, witty, poignant, and irregular. It was like the flowing of a shallow stream amongst bright pebbles which it causes to sparkle, and from which it receives in return a thousand various shades and tints, but without depth or vigour; while that of Wilton was stronger, more profound, more vigorous both in thought and expression, and was like a deeper river flowing on without so much sunshine and light, but clear, deep, and powerful, and not unmusical either, between its banks.
It was towards the latter that Lady Laura turned and listened, though she could not but smile at many of the gay sallies of him who walked on the other side: but it seemed as if the conversation of Lord Sherbrooke rested in the ear, while that of Wilton sunk into the heart.
It would not be very interesting, even if we had times to detail all that took place upon that occasion; but it must be confessed that, though once or twice Lord Sherbrooke felt inclined to put forth all his powers of pleasing, out of pique at the marked preference which Lady Laura showed for Wilton, he in no degree concealed the worst points of his character. He said nothing, indeed, which could offend in mere expression: but every now and then he suffered some few words to escape him, which clearly announced that the ties of morality and religion were in no degree recognised by him amongst the principles by which he intended to guide his actions. He even forced the conversation into channels which afforded an opportunity of expressing opinions of worse than a dangerous character. Constancy, he said, was all very well for a turtledove, or an old man of seventy with a young wife; and as for religion, there were certain people paid for having it, and he should not trouble himself to have any unless he were paid likewise. This was not, indeed, all said at once, nor in such distinct terms as we have here used, but still the meaning was the same; and whether expressed in a jesting or more serious manner, that meaning could not be misunderstood.
Wilton looked grave and sad when he heard such things said to a pure and high-minded girl; and Lady Laura herself turned a little pale, and cast her eyes down upon the ground without reply.
At length, after this had gone on for some time, Lord Sherbrooke inquired for Lady Mary Fenwick, saying that he had hoped to see her there, and to inquire after her health.
"Oh, she is here still," replied Lady Laura; "but she complained of headache this morning, and is sitting in the little library. I do not know whether she would be inclined to see any one or not."
"Oh, she will see me, beyond all doubt," exclaimed Lord Sherbrooke—"no lady ever refuses to see me. Besides, her great-grandmother, on old Lady Carlisle's side, was my great- grandfather's forty-fifth cousin; so that we are relations. I will go and find her out. Stay you, Wilton, and console Lady Laura, till I come back again. I shall not be five minutes."
Thus saying, away he darted, leaving Lady Laura and Wilton alone in the middle of the walk. The lady seemed to hesitate for a moment what she should do, whether she should follow to the house or not, and she paused for an instant in the walk; but inclination, if the truth must be said, got the better of what she might consider strictly decorous, and after that momentary pause, she walked on with Wilton by her side. In saying that it was inclination determined her conduct, I did not mean to say that it was solely the inclination to walk and converse with Wilton Brown, though that had some share in the business, but there was besides, an inclination to be freed from the presence of Lord Sherbrooke, who had succeeded to a miracle in making her thoroughly disgusted with him.
As they walked on, there was a certain degree of embarrassment hung over both Wilton and Laura; both felt, perhaps, that they could be very happy in each other's society, but both felt afraid of being too happy. With Wilton, there were a thousand causes to produce that slight embarrassment, and with Lady Laura several also. But one, and a very principal cause was, that there was something which she longed exceedingly to say, and yet doubted whether she ought to say it.
It does not unfrequently happen that a person of the highest rank and station, possessing every quality to secure friendship, with wealth and every gift of fortune at command, surrounded by numerous acquaintances, and mingling with a wide society, is nevertheless totally alone—alone in spirit and in heart—alone in thought and mind. Such was the case with Lady Laura. It is true she had yet but very little experience of the world, and her search for a congenial spirit had not been carried far or prosecuted long; but she was one of those who had learned to think and to feel early. Her mother, who had died three years before, had taught her to do so, not alone for her own sake, but also for that of her father; for the Duchess had early felt the conviction that her own life would be brief, and knew that the mind and character of her daughter must have a great effect upon the Duke, whom she loved much, though she could not venerate very highly.
With a heart, then, full of deep and pure feelings, with a mind not only originally bright and strong, not only highly cultivated and stored with fine tastes, but highly directed and fortified with strong principles, with an enthusiastic love of everything that was beautiful and graceful, generous, noble, and dignified—it is not to be wondered at that, in the wide society of the capital, or amongst all the acquaintances who thronged her father's house, Lady Laura had seen no spirit congenial to her own, no heart with the same feelings, no mind with the same objects. In every one she had met with, there had still been some apparent weakness, some worldliness, some selfishness; there had been coldness, or apathy, or want of principle, or want of feeling; and the bright enthusiasms of her young nature had been confined to the tabernacle of her own heart.
She had seen Wilton Brown but seldom, it is true, but nevertheless she felt differently towards him and other people. There were several causes which had produced this; and perhaps, as Lady Laura was not absolutely an angel, his personal appearance might have something to do with it, though less than might be supposed. His fine person, his noble carriage, his bright and intelligent countenance, the rapid variety of its expressions, the dignified character of the predominant one to which it always returned, after those more transient had passed away—all gave the idea of there being a high heart and mind beneath. In the next place, Wilton had, as we have told, commenced his acquaintance with her by an act of personal service, performed with gallantry, skill, and decision, at the risk of his own life. In the third place, in all his conversation, as far as she had ever known or remarked, there were those small casual traits of good feelings, fine tastes, and strong principles, expressed sometimes by a single word, sometimes by a look or gesture, which are a thousand-fold more convincing, in regard to the real character of the person, than the most laboured harangue, or essay, or declaration.
Thus it was that Laura hoped, and fancied, and believed, she had now seen one person upon earth whose feelings, thoughts, and character might assimilate with her own. Pray let the reader understand, that I do not mean to say Laura was in love with Wilton; but she did believe that he was one of those for whose eyes she might draw away a part of that customary veil with which all people hide the shrine of their deeper feelings from the sight of the coarse multitude.
There was something, then, as we have seen, that she wished to say—there was something that she believed she might say, without risk or wrong. But yet she hesitated; and she and Wilton went on nearly to the end of the walk in perfect silence. At length she cast a timid glance, first towards the house where Lord Sherbrooke was seen just entering one of the rooms from the upper terrace, and then to the face of Wilton Brown, whose eye chanced at that moment to be upon her with a look of inquiry. The look gave her courage, and she said—
"I am going to say a very odd thing, Mr. Brown, I believe; but your great intimacy with Lord Sherbrooke puzzles me. He told my father last night that you were his dearest and most intimate friend. I always thought that friendship must proceed from a similarity of feelings and pursuits, and I am sure, from what I have heard you say, at least I think I may be sure, that you entertain ideas the most opposite to those with which he has just pained us."
Wilton smiled somewhat sadly; but he did not dare deny that such opinions were Lord Sherbrooke's real ones; for his well-known conduct was too much in accordance with them.
"Would to Heaven, dear lady," he said, "that Sherbrooke would permit me to be as much his friend as I might be! I must not deny that he has many faults—faults, I am sure, of education and habit alone, for his heart is noble, honourable, and high"
"Nay," cried Lady Laura—"could a noble or an honourable heart entertain such sentiments as he has just expressed?"
"You do not know him, nor understand him yet, Lady Laura," replied Wilton. "Most men strive to make themselves appear better than they really are: Sherbrooke labours to make himself appear worse—not alone, Lady Laura, in his language—not alone in his account of himself, but even by his very actions. I am confident that he has committed more than one folly, for the sole purpose, if his motives were thoroughly sifted and investigated, of establishing a bad reputation."
"What a sad vanity!" exclaimed Lady Laura. "On such a man no reliance can be placed. But his plain declaration, a few minutes ago, is quite sufficient to mark his character, I mean his declaration, that he considers no vows taken to a woman at all binding on a man. Is that the principle of an honourable heart, Mr. Brown?"
Wilton was silent for a moment, but Lady Laura evidently looked for a reply; and he answered at length, "No, it is not, Lady Laura; but I fully believe, ere taking any such vows, Sherbrooke would openly acknowledge his view of them, and, having done so, would look upon them as mere empty air."
Lady Laura laughed, evidently applying her companion's words to her own situation with Lord Sherbrooke; and Wilton, unwilling that one word from his lips should have a tendency to thwart the purposes of the Earl of Byerdale, in a matter where he had no right to interfere, hastened to add, "Let me assure you, Lady Laura, however, at the same time that I make this acknowledgment with regard to Sherbrooke, that I am fully convinced, if he were to pledge his word of honour to keep those voles, he would die rather than violate that pledge."
"That is to say," replied Lady Laura, somewhat bitterly, "that he has erected an idol whose oracles he can interpret as he will, and calls it honour, denying that there is any other God. But let us speak of it no more, Mr. Brown; these things make one sad."
Wilton was glad to speak of something else; for he felt himself bound by every tie to say all that he could in favour of Lord Sherbrooke; and yet he could not find in his heart to aid, in the slightest degree, in forwarding a scheme which could end in nothing but misery to the sweet and innocent girl beside him. He changed the topic at once, then, and exerted himself to draw her mind away from the matter on which they had just been speaking.
Nevertheless, that subject, while they went on, remained in the mind of each; and Lady Laura might have discovered—if she had been at all apprehensive of her own feelings—that it is a dangerous thing to do as she had done, and raise, for any eye, even a corner of that veil which bides the heart, unless we are inclined to raise it altogether. Her subsequent conversation with Wilton took its tone throughout, entirely from what had gone before. Without knowing it, or rather, we should say, without perceiving it, they suffered it to be mingled with deep feelings; shadowed forth, perhaps, more than actually expressed. A softness, too, came over it—we insist not, though, perhaps, we might, call it a tenderness the ceremonious terms were soon dropped; and because the speakers would have been obliged to use those ceremonious terms, if they had spoken each other's names, they seemed by mutual consent to forget each other's names, and never spoke them at all. Lady Laura did not address him as Mr. Brown, and Wilton uttered not the words, "Lady Laura." From time to time, too, she gazed up in his face, to see if he understood what she meant but could not fully express; and he, while he poured forth any of the deep thoughts long treasured in his own bosom, looked often earnestly into her countenance, to discover by the expression the effect produced on her mind.
Lord Sherbrooke was absent for more than half an hour; and, during that half hour, Wilton and the lady had gone farther on the journey they were taking than ever they had gone yet.—What journey?