Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Wormwood

WORMWOOD.


Some—not a great many—years since, I was visiting at a country-house, the host and hostess of which were old family friends. The establishment consisted of a widower, his daughter, and thirteen servants. The father was a plain, quiet country gentleman, neither in mind nor in habits a man of mark; the daughter alone lifted the family out of mediocrity.

Electra Fitz-Arden was a stylish girl about the middle height, with a black piercing eye and proudly formed mouth, both full of energy and mind. Still though she possessed an elegant figure and a countenance of intellectual beauty, she was too bold and masculine for genuine female loveliness. Possessing an inclination for raillery at the mediocrities and conventionalities of society, and great powers of sarcasm, united with a highly-garnished and superior mind, she was no favourite with the gentlemen. But there was an indescribable something about her appearance and manners which always compelled them to inquire who she was. No person ever talked with her without remembering what she said; and every one criticised what they could not forget. Yet it was not intellect that made her unpopular. Had she chosen to affect restless misanthropy, maudlin sensibility, or any other foppery, whereby to distinguish herself, she would have found plenty of admirers and imitators, but in her mind genius was checked by manly philosophy, and she could ill-conceal her contempt for those who knew talent only by its common diseases. The consciousness of mental power that lighted up her eye with such a burning spark of pride, and the expression of scorn for ever dancing on her lip ready to embody itself into sarcasm, was unquestionably the true reason why this splendid creature became the pariah of the ball-room. She was a strange sort of Di Vernon—no, she was not a Di Vernon either; and, as I now remember her, I cannot think of a single character living, or imaginary, whom she did resemble. She fascinated her enemies, but never pleased her friends. Power! power! and above all intellectual power was the constant dream of her wild ambition. To have been sure of a Madame de Staël’s reputation, a Queen Christina’s reputed powers, the intellectual fame of an Olympia Morata, she would have renounced human sympathy for ever, and lived unloving and unloved by the world,—there was a daring desire to send her genius abroad like an electric force to become eternally active,—and this desire might have been attained under more favouring circumstances, but she had no certain foundation for her antagonism and her pride.

Sometimes I talked of love, and reminded her how even all her three heroines were its reluctant victims. On this subject she often philosophised and always laughed.

“Who,” said she scornfully, “who that has felt the gush and the thrill attendant upon fame would be weak enough to exchange dominion over many for the despotism of one?”

Thus Electra Fitz-Arden reasoned superior to the De Staëls, the Christinas and the Olympias, and thus she actually thought, but I knew her better than she knew herself. Her affections were as rich and overflowing as her mental energies; and her craving for human sympathy was in direct proportion to that intense love of beauty which, in her, amounted to an intellectual passion. That she would love exclusively and extravagantly, I had no doubt; and my penetration soon singled out an object.

At a large party I first saw her with the Hon. Charles Loring, the second son of Lord Burton, then in the full flush of manly beauty. I saw in the carriage of his neck his high lineage and his Patrician pride; and the hauteur with which he received adulation, attracted my attention as the pawing of a high-mettled horse would have done. His conversation with Electra seemed at first to be of a sober and learned cast, but on her part it soon became petulant and took the lead. Now and then I heard some remark which seemed to relate to a transmigration of souls, and a continual rise in intellectual existence.

“Oh!” exclaimed Electra, “how that idea savours of English housekeeping. How can a patrician patronise a theory so levelling and so economical?”

At that moment a very lovely girl with Eastern features, but with manners of European polish, entered the room, and the young man did not answer Miss Fitz-Arden’s question.

“Ah, there is the beautiful young Greek,” said he, “freshly imported from Albania by the Greek prime minister from Turkey.”

“She is beautiful,” said Electra with unaffected warmth. “Her full dark eyes are magnificent. What a pity it is they are not lighted from within; that expression alone is wanting to fill the measure of her glory!”

The remark was made to a reluctant listener, for Loring’s whole interest was that instant absorbed by the new comer. A slight shade passed over Electra’s face; but it was too transient to define the emotion in which it originated, and she smiled and said:

“You had better go and fascinate your powerful beauty,—the body should be where the spirit is.”

“That reproach is too severe,” replied Loring.

“I meant no reproach,” she answered, “I have observed that beauty is your idol, and I should wish you to worship it.”

“Close observer that you are, I do not think that you can have noticed my character sufficiently to form any conclusion with regard to my taste.”

The pride of the proudest girl in Christendom was roused, and there was something indescribably provoking in her manner as she added:

“I assure you that I consider you a magnificent specimen in your way. Society is a bag of polished marbles, and anything odd or superior is as valuable a study as the specimens of auric quartz, Sir Roderick Murchison shows us.”

“Really, Miss Fitz-Arden!”

“Your modesty,” continued she, “has led you into a mistake. I have really taken the trouble to observe you.”

“Candidly, Miss Fitz-Arden, you are the most remarkable girl I ever met,” said the offended young man.

“You elevate me to your own Olympian height, my dear sir.”

“No, indeed, you never did,—said or thought anything so common-place as to reduce you to my level.”

“When a compliment is doubtful, Lord Chesterfield says, one should always take it; therefore I am obliged to you, sir,” replied Electra, bowing with queenly dignity. And so saying, she turned rather abruptly from him and directed her attention to me.

During the remainder of the evening I saw no indications of a reconciliation. Electra danced but once. Loring and the fair Greek were near her in the set, and they met frequently. The extreme nonchalance with which she now and then exchanged some casual remark led me to suspect that he had obtained more influence over her extraordinary mind than any other individual had ever possessed; but Electra was no trifler, and I did not venture to prophesy.

Time passed on, and with it nearly passed away the remembrance of this skirmish of words and the thoughts they suggested. My unmanageable friend seldom alluded to the fascinating acquaintance she had formed; and when she did, it was done naturally and briefly. Soon after this I was obliged to be absent for some time, and when again the snorting steam-engine had returned me to the little station adjoining Castle Fitz-Arden, four months had elapsed. Soon after my arrival Electra informed me that there were to be private theatricals at the castle that evening, and that Loring was to take the leading part.

“You must go to the rehearsal this afternoon; he is a consummate actor, and his friends expect everything from him.”

“But I thought you considered private theatricals very stupid things,” said I.

“So I do; you know I always said that life itself was a very stupid thing. There is no originality above ground. Everything that is true is dull, and everything new is false and superficial. But there is no use in quarrelling with the world, for it is a pretty good world, after all.”

“What does your friend, Loring, think of it?”

“You must ask him, yourself. I am sure he will express his opinion very eloquently, as he is a Bacon in learning, and a Demosthenes in speech.”

“Then you are on good terms, now,” said I.

She blushed painfully, excessively, for a moment, and as instantaneously recovered self-command enough, carelessly to reply.

“I always thought highly of him.”

I do not know whether my looks expressed the warning voice my heart was yearning to utter; but I am sure the tone of my assent was reluctant and melancholy.

Loring shone most brilliantly on that memorable evening. Graceful and dignified, handsome and talented, he sent a thrill to every heart alive to grandeur of thought, or beauty of language, when vivified with the fervour and purity of an actor of genius. During this scene of triumph, I watched the countenance of my friend with the keenest interest, and I felt that never before had I seen a human face through which the soul beamed with such intensity. Genius, and pride, and joy, and love were there! I then thought she was intellectually beautiful, beyond anything I had ever seen. Poor girl! it was the brightest moment in her life, and I love to remember it.

The large double drawing-room in the western face of the castle, which had been furnished and adapted to the purposes of a theatre, and the other apartments were thronged with fashionable people and the compliments which the accomplished actor received were intoxicating. But in the midst of it all I imagined I could see the sparkle of his eyes melt into softness when he met a glance from Electra. Her looks betrayed nothing to my anxious observation, but once I observed she called him Charles, and suddenly corrected herself with an air of extraordinary confusion. Had my friend indulged in habits of girlish trifling, I should have playfully alluded to this circumstance, but there was something in her character and manners which forbade such officiousness. I watched her with the anxiety of sincere friendship. I knew when she once selected an object for veneration, her whole soul would be concentrated; and I could not believe that the proud aristocrat, knowing the views of his prouder family in his behalf, with all his high hopes and his love of dazzling loveliness would ever marry her. I knew he was a very constant visitor, and I frequently observed lights later than had been usual in Mr. Fitz-Arden’s hitherto retired and quiet mansion. But the time for separation came. Loring’s other engagements called him away, and when he came to me to take his leave, the deep gloom on his countenance led me to think that the apparent indifference of my intellectual friend might have surprised him into love.

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Weeks and months passed on, and I seldom heard an allusion to the absent Loring. Electra’s character and manners seemed changing for the better. The perpetual effervescence of her spirit in some measure subsided, and the vagaries of her fancy became less various and startling; yet there was always a chastened cheerfulness of manner, and an unfailing flow of thought. By degrees her seriousness deepened, and at last she could not conceal from me that she was unhappy. I attributed it to the illness of her old father. Electra was motherless, and she bestowed on her only parent a double share of love. But when the old gentleman was evidently recovering, and her melancholy still increased, I knew there must be another and a deeper cause. One day, as I stood by her, watching her progress in an oil painting, into which she had thrown much of her early spirit and brilliancy, I placed my hand affectionately on her shoulder, and touching her forehead with my lips, spoke:—

“You have generally confided to me your troubles, Electra, why not tell me what makes you unhappy now?”

She continued to use her brush with a nervous and dashing movement, and I saw that her eyes were filling with tears. I ventured to speak again, and gently whispered in her ear—

“Is Loring the cause?”

She gave one shriek, which sounded as if it made a rent in her very soul, and then the torrent of her tears poured forth. It was long before I ventured to speak to her.

“Then it is as I feared? You love him, the Hon. Charles Loring?”

She looked in my face with a strange and fixed expression as she replied: “I ought to love and honour and obey him, for he is my husband.”

I started. “Your husband! How—when—where were you married?”

“At B——. Do you remember when I said to you that you must see Loring perform in our private theatricals, and you replied, ‘So then you are on good terms now?’—I had been three weeks his wife.”

“And your father—does he know of it?”

“Certainly,” she said; “I could not continue to deceive him.”

“Then why was so much secrecy necessary?”

“I now think it was not really necessary; at all events, that which needs to be concealed is wrong. But his father, you know, is poor for his rank, and his mother had made it a sine quâ non that their son should marry a rich heiress, and redeem thereby the family property. Loring feared to displease them. He has a moderate fortune of his own, which is independent of his parents, and of this he will soon come in possession. When he told my father of the event a month after, the latter was very angry, and forbade him the house—still, in his heart, my father has forgiven him.”

“Then why are you so unhappy?” I inquired. “You have no doubt that your husband will come and claim you?”

“Oh, no; the certificate is in my father’s hands, and if it were not, a sense of honour would lead him to do so. But oh! to have him come coldly and reluctantly! My heart will break! my heart will break!”

She pressed her hand hard against her forehead, and wept bitterly.

“How could I forget that they who listen to passion rather than to reason must always have a precarious influence over each other!”

I tried to console her. She said nothing, but took a packet of letters from her desk and handed them to me. Their contents proved the mournful prediction of her fears too true. At first, Loring wrote with impatient ardour, then his letters were filled with amusing accounts of Park Lane and Belgravian parties given to the noble and beautiful Greek. Then he filled his pages with excellent reasons for not seeing her as soon as he intended; and finally, when Electra bowed down her pride, and entreated him, if he valued her reputation, to come soon, he sent a cold laconic answer, merely stating the time when she might expect him. Heroic Electra, poor girl! It was too evident that she had thrown away all that made existence joyful. However, I tried to soothe her by the idea that patience and devoted love might regain the affection on which her happiness must now depend. She loved to listen to such words—they were a balm to her heart—though I feared they would be practically useless, for she was too spirited a girl to overlook indifference, and too proud a woman to conciliate after its manifestation.

The Hon. Charles Loring came at the time he had appointed, and publicly announced his marriage. His father was offended, his mother incensed, and both disappointed. Mr. Fitz-Arden in his turn became indignant also, and angry and hurt that he had been compromised by receiving first the confessions of the lovers. All parties, however, concurred that there was now no remedy. Lord and Lady Burton consoled themselves with the reflection that the Fitz Ardens were one of the oldest untitled families in England, and Mr. Fitz-Arden bottled his indignation on the approach of reconciliation. It was arranged that the young couple were to remain on a visit at the Castle whilst their house was being prepared for their reception. I did not see their meeting at Castle Fitz-Arden, but I observed afterwards that his manner towards her was uniformly kind, though frequently absent and constrained. An infant daughter formed a new bond of union, and seemed to be the herald of happier days. The young man watched over the little object with the most intense delight, and Electra’s half-subdued character seemed softened into womanhood in the doating fondness of a mother and the calm resignation of a wife. Loving, “but not beloved,” none would have recognised the proud, ambitious, learned, and sarcastic Electra Fitz-Arden.

I must not dwell minutely on particulars which I observed closely at the time, and which afterwards sunk deeply into my memory. The young husband departed once more to take possession of his estate, and prepare it for the reception of his wife and child.

His farewell was affectionate, and his frequent letters seemed to restore my imprudent friend to something of her former buoyancy of soul. The idea of separation from her father was now her principal source of unhappiness, but that trial was spared her. His late illness had left him so prostrated in strength that a relapse was fatal, and a few days before his daughter’s intended departure death relieved him from the expected loneliness, and deprived her of an affectionate father.

The young husband came as he had promised; but his manner was colder and his looks more stern than formerly, though none could charge him with neglect of his duty. Electra never spoke of any change: her manner towards him was obedient and affectionate, but never fond. Her romantic visions of human perfection, her proud confidence in her own strength were gone, and no doubt she wept bitterly over their mutual rashness, knowing, as she did, that she was a burden to him and an unpopular wife to his family. It is not wonderful her very smile had a mingled look of bitter pride and resignation. Their regrets were, however, kept carefully concealed: whatever might have been their feelings, both seemed resolved on a system of silent endurance. There was something in this course a thousand times more affecting than the most pathetic complaints. I shall never forget the anguish I felt when I saw Electra bid farewell to Castle Fitz-Arden, the home of her childhood, where she had ever been an idol and an oracle. The lingering preparation for departure, the heart-broken expression, the reluctant step, the drooping head, and the desperate resolution with which she at last seized the arm of a husband who loved her not, and who was about to convey her among strangers—they are all present to me now.

The steps were rolled up, the door banged to, and the old lumbering family travelling carriage-and-four of the Fitz-Ardens rattled in mournful tones down the centre avenue. The old family servants of twenty and fifty years’ standing, with breaking hearts watched the departure of the last of that old race whom their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers again had served and reverenced—the lords of Fitz-Arden. Electra’s letters soon spoke of declining health, and before three years had elapsed she implored me to come to her, if ever I wished to look upon her again in this world of shadows. I immediately obeyed the summons. Matters were worse than I expected. She was evidently very weak; and though she had everything that wealth and luxury could supply, the balm of kindness never refreshed her weary and sinking spirit. Loring never spoke harshly—indeed, he seldom spoke at all the little he was at home, but the attentions he paid were so obviously from a sense of duty, that they fell like ice-drops on the heart of his wounded wife. I heard no reproaches on either side; but a day seldom passed without some occurrence more or less painful to my friend. Once little Louie jumped into her father’s arms as he entered, and eagerly exclaimed:

“Do you love me, papa?”

He kissed her with much fondness, and replied:

“Yes, I do, my sweet one.”

“And mamma, too?” inquired the little creature, with a sort of half-entreating look, so graceful in childhood. He put her away from him, and answered coldly:

“Certainly, my child.”

I saw a slight convulsion in Electra’s face and in the motion of her hands; but it quickly passed. At another time, when we were searching in the library for a book we wanted, we discovered on a small open cabinet a likeness of the fair young Greek, and near it a newspaper, giving an account of her marriage with an Austrian nobleman. The surprise was so sudden that Electra lost the balance of feelings she had hitherto so well preserved. She rushed out of the room, and it was several hours before I was admitted to her bedside.

Fortunately for my friend this mental struggle was too fierce to be of long continuance. Neglected, forsaken, the closing scene of her life drew near; and to her it seemed welcome as sleep to the weary. Sometimes the movements of reluctant nature were visible in the intense look of love she cast upon her child, and the convulsive energy with which she would clasp the little one to her bosom. But otherwise all was stillness and heavenly hope.

Loring had been for some time past still less at home, and seldom returned till night was waking into morning, One day, when she had been unusually ill, and we all supposed she was about to die, she pressed my hand feebly, and whispered: “Will you ask Charles to see me once more?”

He had just come in from the club. I immediately repaired to the library, and told him the dying request of his wife. At first he made a motion towards the door, then suddenly checking himself, he sat down.

“I had better not. It will be painful to both. I will wait the event here.”

He spoke in a tone of such determination mingled with bitterness that I saw it would be useless to urge him. I returned to Electra, but I had not courage to say her request was refused. She listened eagerly to every sound for a while; and then looking up in my face mournfully—

“He will not come!”

My tears answered her. She looked upward for a moment with an expression of extreme agony, but never spoke again.

The old Castle was let, then sold, and so passed for ever, like Rogers’ house of Genevra, into the hands of strangers.

Vesper.