« PreviousContinue »
spring, she had sat deliciously wasting the hours in vague anticipation of all the joys she was about to taste. And now again she placed herself on the self-same bench, beneath the shelter of the self-same tree, and once more felt the delicious but dangerous sensation produced by bright yet uncertain hope. There was, however, something sad in the difference between her situation now and what it had been then. She felt this, and sighed. "And all my own fault too!" she murmured. "Had I consulted Penelope-had I looked on the scene around me with a little decent humility, and without at once venturing to take a part in it-I could not have failed to see-oh! to see while it was yet time-all that became so sensibly perceptible to me afterwards! But it is too late now. It matters not whether he-whether Fitzosborne comes or not-nay, it matters little whether he comes because he wishes again to meet me. How is it possible that I should now venture to pass judgment on any man-even on him? And if I did-if his excellence defied all the efforts of this late growth of modesty-if I were ready to acknowledge to myself that in him, at least, I could not be mistaken-that he was, indeed, all that is noblest and best in human nature-all that is most captivating, all that is most calculated to inspire love, admiration, and esteem-and, having acknowledged all this, should I see him kneeling at my feet, and hear him offer me that noble heart, and the companionship for life of such a mind as his-could I accept him? O no, no, no, it is impossible! Should he say to me, Constance, I love you-will you be my wife?' shall I answer him, 'Fair sir, I was engaged on Wednesday last to Mr. Mortimer, having fallen desperately in love with him on Monday; but as he would not have me, and you will, I am your debtor, and for this courtesy am ready to forget all that has gone before, and swear to love you to the end of time, even as I sware to him before?'—no ! this will I never do."
Poor Constance! As this bitter gibing smote upon her heart, a sear and yellow leaf" fell from the tree above her on her lap, and seemed to bring more melancholy with it. "When I sat under this same tree," thought she, "before my most unhappy expedition, this leaf was bright, firm on its stalk, and with all the gorgeous promise of its summer life before it—and now! there is not much greater difference between what it has been and what it is, than there is in me ;there is no second spring for either of us !"
Had Constance possessed the advantage of having at her feet such a fountain as that wherein Eve saw herself, she might perhaps have found her resemblance to the withered leaf less striking; but as it was, the thought actually brought a tear to her eye, and for a few moments she mourned over herself, as if the whole of her life had passed away, leaving nothing but regret and self-reproach at the close of it. But
And then, by gentle degrees, a sensation which she did not and would not recognize as hope, again crept into her heart, and as she
became conscious that she did not feel altogether so sad as she fancied she ought to do, she accounted for it by thinking that it was very natural she should experience some satisfaction at the idea of again seeing a person to whom she owed the happiness of Penelope, and all the additional delight of feeling that it was her own work. Besides, she had really and truly made up her mind to believe that there was not the slightest chance of her ever seeing Mr. Fitzosborne more, and to d was mistaken in this might well, as she very justly thought, occasion her a sensation of pleasure. So at last Constance turned her steps back to the house, a little less miserable than when she first decided that even if Mr. Fitzosborne were actually coming into Devonshire with the intention of calling upon her, it could make no difference whatever; but still firm as a rock in her determination of neither again running the risk of getting into such a scrape as she had just escaped from, or of giving Mr. Fitzosborne reason to believe that she was one who could again and again be lightly won.
Notwithstanding the undeniable weakness of which Constance had most certainly given proof in accepting a man of whom she literally knew nothing but his verses, she was nevertheless not without considerable strength of mind, and possessed a degree of self-command which enabled her effectually to conceal from Penelope the state of her feelings respecting the visitor who was about to arrive among them. In fact, Mrs. John Markham could by no means make up her mind, either as to the object of Fitzosborne in coming, or the answer he was likely to receive, if that object were to ask Constance Ridley to become his wife. Frequent as had been her opportunities of seeing them together in London, the fact of Constance's well-known engagement to Mortimer had prevented her from fancying it possible that any other could engage her attention, or venture to indulge any serious thoughts concerning her. It is true, that the instant and decisive effect of her friend's interposition in Markham's favour had forcibly convinced her that she could scarcely be an object of perfect indifference to Fitzosborne; and since their return to the country it had more than once happened that his name had appeared to cause a degree of emotion in Constance, which could hardly be accounted for by the fact of his having served her friend. When, therefore, his letter arrived announcing his intention of becoming the inhabitant of the village in which she resided, a very strong hope and persuasion that "something would come of it," took possession of her. Nevertheless, so well did Constance play the part she had assigned to herself, that during the week which elapsed before Mr. Fitzosborne's arrival Penelope became pretty tolerably convinced, whatever might be the case as respected him, that Constance was " fancy free."
At length Betsy and Mary Markham made their appearance at Appleby Hut one evening about eight o'clock, bringing the interesting intelligence that the eagerly-expected guest was arrived, that he was certainly the handsomest man in the whole world, and that they hoped he would stay a great while, because he seemed so very good-natured, and so very glad to see John and Penelope.
"And John and Penelope must, I suppose, be equally glad to see
him," said Mrs. Ridley in reply. "He has been the best friend they ever had."
"No, dear Mrs. Ridley, not their best friend," said Mary, venturing unceremoniously to contradict her venerable friend. "Constance is their best friend, because it was she who asked Mr. Fitzosborne for his interest."
"Nonsense, child," returned the old lady, "you may as well tell me that my tabby cat asked for his interest. What influence, I should like to know, could Constance have upon such a subject with a man who was perfectly a stranger to her?"
"I am sure I don't know," replied Mary; "but I have heard both John and Penelope say so."
"If this be true, Constance, tell me all about it," said the old lady, turning sharply round to her granddaughter. "How did it happen, Miss Constance, that you obtained this extraordinary power of patronage? I really must desire to have it all explained to me."
This was a very trying question for Constance, and it required all her command over herself to reply to it. Mrs. Ridley had, in fact, touched on the very point which had first suggested to her granddaughter the idea that Fitzosborne felt more than a common degree of interest for her.
If it be true that women are naturally artful, it is because they are are perpetually called upon naturally to conceal feelings, which, though pure as the light of heaven, are of a nature that would hide themselves from every eye, and that, not from false shame, but from true delicacy. Was it possible for Constance to answer sincerely to the question thus asked? Was it possible for her to avow that she
Idid believe Mr. Fitzosborne's interest for John Markham was the
consequence of her application to him? O no! All she could do was to laugh off her grandmother's attack, by saying that it was very unkind of her to rob her of the honour and glory which her friends seemed so ready to bestow.
"If they really think that because I introduced the gentleman to each other I ought to have the credit of all that followed, pray do not try to persuade them that they are mistaken, grandmamma," she carelessly replied; and this mode of treating the subject answered perfectly; the old lady was entirely satisfied, and immediately changed the conversation by saying, "I hope I shall see this Mr. Fitzosborne. Did your brother say anything about bringing him here, Betsy ?"
No, ma'am," was the reply, " I do not think he did.” "Then do you please to tell your mother, my dear, when you go home to-morrow morning," said Mrs. Ridley, "that I hope to see you all to dinner here on the following day. The whole party, remember -I will not have one of you left at home; and, excepting Captain Salmon, I shall ask nobody else."
The following day ?-that was the day after to-morrow-and would the morrow pass without her seeing him? Constance thought not; nevertheless she came down to breakfast with a countenance of perfect tranquillity, and conversed with the two Markham girls comme si rien n'eut été.” But when, upon their preparing to depart after the
morning meal, they both with one accord earnestly entreated her to walk a little way with them, there was something of agitation, perhaps, in the manner of her declining it. After they were gone, however, and she sat down to pursue her usual occupations, she became a perfect model of placid indifference; she looked, perhaps, a trifle paler than usual, but began to work upon her man in armour with a degree of concentrated attention that was quite exemplary. The old lady was in excellent spirits. She loved to give a dinner when her heart had something to do with it. Lieutenant Markham and his family were among those whom she most delighted to honour, and to display this feeling to their distinguished guest was exactly the sort of thing she delighted to do; not to mention the additional pleasure of receiving a man who had shown himself so effectively the friend of her friends. Under these agreeable impressions she chatted away so gaily and so briskly, that Constance was not called upon to contribute more than a smile and a nod, which suited her greatly better than being obliged to talk.
Whether, notwithstanding her philosophy, Constance might not have grown somewhat fidgety, had this state of things continued long, it is impossible to say, as the experiment upon her patience was not tried. Within less than an hour after Betsy and Mary Markham left the Hut, John Markham and his new friend arrived at it, and lucky was it for Constance that her grandmother's hospitality was sufficiently demonstrative to supply every deficiency in her own. It is very difficult to assume feelings which are not quite genuine, without overacting the part we wish to perform : Constance might have appeared a little more glad to see Mr. Fitzosborne, without the slightest impropriety, and perhaps, when the visit was over, she was better satisfied when she recalled the coldness of her manner than he was. It is certain that during his walk onward to Laurel Hill, and afterwards back again to the Cabin, he had been a less gay companion than beforebut he remembered the invitation for the morrow, and determined not to pass judgment upon his reception till that visit was over.
The invited party arrived, the dinner was served, and the guests were gay; but the important hours which were to decide whether Fitzosborne should become the inhabitant of Laurel Hill, or avoid its neighbourhood for ever, were passing meanwhile over the head of the unconscious Constance, in a manner as likely as possible to render the remainder of her life a blank. That she felt pleasure at Fitzosborne's being near her, is most certain; but she was infinitely less aware of this fact, than of the necessity of concealing every emotion of the kind; and he, who well remembered the animation, the spirit, the unaffected ease with which she used to converse with him, could only interpret the change, by supposing that all the study he had bestowed upon her character had been in vain-that Mortimer had never appeared to her in the light he had supposed-that her eyes had never been opened to the contemptible traits which he had fancied he had seen her shrink from-that her love for him was enduring still-and that the change he now remarked in her manner arose from her engagement with him having been broken-a fact known to all the world
though respecting the immediate cause and manner of it, he, in common with most others, knew nothing.
There was something in this persuasion as much calculated to call forth the resolution of Fitzosborne, as to wound his heart. proached himself severely for having indulged in hopes which he was now ready to declare had no other foundation than his own wishes, and with feelings not altogether unlike those of Constance herself, he gradually assumed a tone of greater coldness and ceremony, till the conversation he had sought to hold with her, after leaving the dinner-table, dwindled into the common-place of strangers, when accidentally brought together.
Mrs. Ridley's primitive dinner-hour of five o'clock left a long afternoon after the gentlemen quitted the dining-room, as Fitzosborne, in accordance with habits acquired by a long residence abroad, had almost immediately followed the ladies to the drawing-room. It chanced that night that the moon was at the full, and the weather such as to draw the whole party to the open glass door of the drawing-room, and then, through it, upon the lawn. Thither the coffee followed them; and so delightful was the air, and so tempting the beautiful walks that seemed to beckon them onward, that the whole party declared with one accord that they could not return to the house till they had enjoyed a moonlight walk. Had the scheme been more deliberately formed, it is highly probable that Mr. Fitzosborne would discreetly have contrived to find himself the walking companion of any individual of the party rather than of Constance; but there are times when accident seems to arrange everything for us, and accident having placed the greatlyestranged pair side by side, at the moment that, bonnets and shawls being adjusted, they all set off, side by side they continued to walk, notwithstanding their mutual reasons for intending to be asunder.
When either men, women, or children are under restraint of any kind, a large proportion of their efforts to "behave properly" are devoted to looking, and moving, according to the rule prescribed; but walking through thick shrubberies by moonlight naturally relaxes such efforts by rendering them unnecessary. Fitzosborne and Constance, therefore, walked on, still talking mere company talk," but not deeming it necessary to keep their eyes fixed upon the ground, or upon the trees; or in short upon anything in the world save each other. He remembered that he was beside the only woman who had ever profoundly touched his heart, and beside her, probably, for the last time; and while uttering the hackneyed words, "This seems to be a very beautiful country, Miss Ridley," he ventured to turn his eyes fully upon her, that, as far as the chequered and imperfect light would let him, he might look once more upon the face and form which, however much he might have been mistaken in other respects, he knew that he must ever consider as the perfection of loveliness.
Constance was, probably, meditating somewhat in the same manner, for she too, while she demurely replied, "It is generally considered to be so," raised her eyes once more to contemplate his noble figure. Just at this moment the path they were in suddenly turned round the corner formed by the termination of the shrubberies, and