The Naval Officer/Chapter IX
How happy could I be with either,
Were t'other dear charmer away!
Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. If so, it has a much better pavement than it deserves; for the "trail of the serpent is over us all." Then why send to hell the greatest proof of our perfection before the fall, and of weakness subsequent to it? Honest and sincere professions of amendment must carry with them to the Throne of Grace a strong recommendation, even if we are again led astray by the allurements of sense and the snares of the world. At least, our tears of contrition and repentance, our sorrow for the past, and our firm resolves for the future, must have given "joy in heaven," and consequently cannot have been converted into pavement for the infernal regions.
Pleasure and pain, in youth, are, for the most part, transient impressions, whether they arise from possession or loss of worldly enjoyment, or from a sense of having done well or ill in our career. The excitement, though strong, is not durable; and thus it was with me. I had not been more than four days on board the ship of the line in which I took my passage to England, when I felt my spirits buoyant, and my levity almost amounting to delirium. The hours of reflection were at first shortened, and then dismissed entirely. The general mirth of my new shipmates at the thoughts of once more revisiting their dear native land—the anticipation of indulging in the sensual worship of Bacchus and Venus, the constant theme of discourse among the midshipmen; the loud and senseless applause bestowed on the coarsest ribaldry—these all had their share in destroying that religious frame of mind in which I had parted with my first captain, and seemed to awaken me to a sense of the folly I had been guilty of in quitting a ship, where I was not only at the head of my mess, but in a fair way for promotion. I considered that I had acted the part of a madman, and had again begun to renew my career of sin and of folly, a little, and but a little, sobered by the recent event.
We arrived in England after the usual passage from the Rock. I consented to pass two days at Portsmouth, with my new companions, to revisit our old haunts, and to commit those excesses which fools and knaves applauded and partook of, at my expense, leaving me full leisure to repent, after we separated. I, however, did muster resolution enough to pack my trunk; and, after an extravagant supper at the Fountain, retired to bed intoxicated, and the next morning, with an aching head, threw myself into the coach and drove off for London. A day of much hilarity is generally succeeded by one of depression. This is fair and natural; we draw too largely on our stock, and squander our enjoyment like our money, leaving us the next day with low spirits and a lower purse.
A stupid dejection succeeded the boisterous mirth of the overnight. I slumbered in a corner of the coach till about one o'clock, when we reached Godalming, where I alighted, took a slight refreshment, and resumed my seat. As we drove along, I had more leisure, and was in a fitter frame of mind to review my past conduct since I had quitted my ship at Gibraltar. My self-examination, as usual, produced no satisfactory results. I perceived that the example of bad company had swept away every trace of good resolution which I had made on the death of my mother. I saw, with grief, that I had no dependence on myself; I had forgotten all my good intentions, and the firm vows of amendment with which I had bound myself, and had yielded to the first temptation which came in my way.
In vain did I call up every black and threatening cloud of domestic sorrow, which was to meet me on my return home—the dreadful vacuum occasioned by my mother's death—the grief of my father—my brother and my sisters in deep mourning, and the couch on which I had left the best of parents, when I turned away my thoughtless head from her in the anguish of her grief. I renewed my promise of amendment, and felt some secret consolation in doing so.
When I arrived at my father's door, the servant who let me in, greeted me with a loud and hearty welcome. I ran into the drawing-room, where I found that my brother and sisters had a party of children to spend the evening with them. They were dancing to the music of a piano, played on by my aunt, while my father sat in his arm-chair, in high good-humour.
This was a very different scene from what I had expected. I was prepared for a sentimental and affecting meeting; and my feelings were all worked up to their full bearing for the occasion. Judge, then, of the sudden revulsion in my mind, when I found mirth and good humour where I expected tears and lamentations. It had escaped my recollection, that although the death of my mother was an event new to me, it had happened six months before I had heard of it; and, consequently, with them grief had given way to time. I was astonished at their apparent want of feeling; while they gazed with surprise at the sight of me, and the symbols of woe displayed in my equipment.
My father welcomed me with surprise; asked where my ship was, and what had brought her home. The fact was, that in my sudden determination to return to England, I had spared myself the trouble of writing to make known my intentions; and, indeed, if I had written, I should have arrived as soon as my letter, unless (which I ought to have done) I had written on my arrival at Portsmouth, instead of throwing away my time in the very worst species of dissipation. Unable, therefore, in the presence of many witnesses, to give my father that explanation which he had a right to expect, I suffered greatly for a time in his opinion. He very naturally supposed that some disgraceful conduct on my part was the cause of my sudden return. His brow became clouded and his mind seemed occupied with deep reflection.
This behaviour of my father, together with the continued noisy mirth of my brother and sisters, gave me considerable pain. I felt as if, in the sad news of my mother's death, I had over-acted my part in the feeling I had shown, and the sacrifice I had made in quitting my ship. On explaining to my father, in private, the motives of my conduct, I was not successful. He could not believe that my mother's death was the sole cause of my return to England. I stood many firm and angry interrogations as to the possible good which could accrue to me by quitting my ship. I showed him the captain's handsome certificate, which only mortified him the more. In vain did I plead my excess of feeling. He replied with an argument that I feel to have been unanswerable—that I had quitted my ship when on the very pinnacle of favour, and in the road to fortune. "And what," said he, "is to become of the navy and the country, if every officer is to return home when he receives the news of the death of a relation?"
In proportion as my father's arguments carried conviction, they did away, at the same time, all the good impressions of my mother's dying injunction. If her death was a matter of so little importance, her last words were equally so; and from that moment I ceased to think of either. My father's treatment of me was now very different from what it had ever been during my mother's lifetime. My requests were harshly refused, and I was lectured more as a child than as a lad of eighteen, who had seen much of the world.
Coldness on his part was met by a spirit of resistance on mine. Pride came in to my assistance. A dispute arose one evening, at the finale of which I gave him to understand that if I could not live quietly under his roof, I would quit it. He calmly recommended me to do so, little supposing that I should have taken his advice. I left the room, banging the door after me, packed up a few changes of linen, and took my departure, unperceived by any one, with my bundle on my shoulder, and about sixteen shillings in my pocket.
Here was a great mismanagement on the part of my father, and still greater on mine. He was anxious to get me afloat again, and I had no sort of objection to going; but his impatience and my pride spoiled all. Reflection soon came to me, but came too late. Night was fast approaching: I had no house over my head, and my exchequer was in no very flourishing condition.
I had walked six miles from my father's house, when I began to tire. It became dark, and I had no fixed plan. A gentleman's carriage came by; I took up a position in the rear of it, and had ridden four miles, when, as the carriage was slowly dragging up a hill, I was discovered by the parties inside; and the postilion, who had dismounted and been informed of it, saluted me with two or three smart cuts of his whip, intimating that I was of no use, but rather an incumbrance which could be dispensed with.
My readers know that I had long since adopted the motto of our northern neighbours, Nemo me, &c.; so waiting very quietly till the driver had mounted his horses, at the top of the hill, that he might be more at my mercy, I discharged a stone at his head which caused him to vacate his seat, and fall under his horse's belly. The animals, frightened at his fall, turned short round to the right, or they would have gone over him, and ran furiously down the hill. The post-boy, recovering his legs, followed his horses without bestowing a thought on the author of the mischief; and I made all the haste I could in the opposite direction, perfectly indifferent as to the fate of the parties inside of the carriage, for I still smarted with the blows I had received.
"Fools and unkind," muttered I, looking back, as they disappeared at the bottom of the hill, with frightful velocity, "you are rightly served. I was a trespasser, 'tis true, but a civil request would have had all the effect you required—that of inducing me to get down; but a whip to me—" And with my blood still boiling at the recollection, I hastily pursued my journey.
In a few minutes I reached the little town of ——, the lights of which were visible at the time the horses had turned down the hill and run away. Entering the first inn I came to, I found the large room below occupied by a set of strolling players, who had just returned from a successful performance of "Romeo and Juliet;" and, from the excitement among them, it was easy to perceive that their success had been fully equal to their expectations. They were fourteen in number, seated round a table, not indifferently covered with the good things of this life; they were clad in theatrical costume, which, with the rapid circulation of the bottle, gave the whole scene an air of romantic freedom, calculated to interest the mind of a thoughtless half-pay midshipman.
Being hungry after my walk, I determined to join the party at supper, which, being a table d'hôte was easily effected. One of the actresses, a sweet little, well-proportioned creature, with large black eyes, was receiving, with apparent indifference, the compliments of the better sort of bumpkins and young farmers of the neighbourhood. In her momentary and occasional smiles, she discovered a beautiful set of small, white teeth; but when she resumed her pensive attitude, I was sensible of an enchanting air of melancholy, which deeply interested me in favour of this poor girl, who was evidently in a lower situation in life than that for which she had been educated. The person who sat nearest to her vacated his seat as soon as he found his attentions were thrown away. I instantly took possession of the place, and, observing the greatest respect, entered at once into conversation with her.
Whether she was pleased with my address and language, as being superior to what she was usually compelled to listen to, or whether she was flattered by my assiduous attention, I know not; but she gradually unbent, and became more animated; showing great natural talent and a highly-cultivated mind; so that I was every moment more astonished to find her in such a situation.
Our conversation had lasted a considerable time; and I had just made a remark to which she had not replied, apparently struggling with concealed emotion, when we were interrupted by a carriage driving up to the door, and cries of "Help! help!" I instantly quitted the side of my new acquaintance, and flew to answer the signal of distress.
A gentleman in the carriage was supporting a young lady in his arms, to all appearance lifeless. With my assistance, she was speedily removed into the house, and conveyed to a bedroom. A surgeon was sent for, but none was to be had; the only practitioner of the town being at that moment gone to attend one of those cases which, according to Mr Malthus, are much too frequent for the good of the country. I discovered that the carriage had been overturned, and that the young lady had been insensible ever since.
There was no time to be lost; I knew that immediate bleeding was absolutely necessary. I had acquired thus much of surgical knowledge in the course of my professional duties. I stated my opinion to the gentleman; and although my practice had been very slight, offered my services to perform the operation. This offer was accepted with thanks by the grateful father, for such I found he was. With my sharp penknife I opened a vein in one of the whitest arms I ever beheld. After a few moments' chafing, the blood flowed more freely; the pulse indicated returning animation; a pair of large blue eyes opened suddenly upon me like a masked battery; and so alarmingly susceptible was I of the tender passion, that I quite forgot the little actress whom I had left at the supper-table, and who, a few minutes before, had occupied my whole thoughts and attention.
Having succeeded in restoring the fair patient to consciousness, I prescribed a warm bed, some tea, and careful watching. My orders were punctually obeyed; I then quitted the apartment of my patient, and began to ruminate over the hurried and singular events of the day.
I had scarcely had time to decide in my own mind on the respective merits of my two rival beauties when the surgeon arrived; and, being ushered into the sick-room, declared that the patient had been treated with skill, and that in all probability she owed her life to my presence of mind. "But, give me leave to ask," said the doctor, addressing the father, "how the accident happened?" The gentleman replied that a scoundrel having got up behind the carriage, had been flogged off by the postilion; and, in revenge, had thrown a stone, which knocked the driver off his horse: they took fright, turned round, and ran away down the hill towards their own stables; and after running five miles, upset the carriage against a post, "by which accident," said he, "my poor daughter was nearly killed."
"What a villain!" said the doctor.
"Villain, indeed," echoed I; and so I felt I was. I turned sick at the thought of what my ungoverned passion had done; and my regret was not a little increased by the charms of my lovely victim; but I soon recovered from the shock, particularly when I saw that no suspicion attached to me. I therefore received the praises of the father and the doctor with a becoming modest diffidence; and, with a hearty shake of the hand from the grateful parent, was wished a good night and retired to my bed.
As I stood before the looking-glass, laying my watch and exhausted purse on the dressing-table, and leisurely untying my cravat, I could not forbear a glance of approbation at what I thought a very handsome and a very impudent face: I soliloquised on the events of the day, and, as usual, found the summing-up very much against me. "This, then, sir," said I, "is your road to repentance and reform. You insult your father; quit his house; get up, like a vagabond, behind a gentleman's carriage; are flogged off, break the ribs of an honest man, who has a wife and family to support out of his hard earnings—are the occasion of a carriage being overturned, and very nearly cause the death of an amiable girl! And all this mischief in the short space of six hours, not to say a word of your intentions towards the little actress, which I presume are none of the most honourable. Where is all this to end?"
"At the gallows," said I, in reply to myself,—"the more probably, too, as my finances have no means of improvement, except by a miracle or highway robbery. I am in love with two girls, and have only two clean shirts; consequently there is no proportion between the demand and the supply."
With this medley of reflections I fell asleep. I was awoke early by the swallows twittering at the windows; and the first question which was agitated in my brain was what account I should give of myself to the father of the young lady, when interrogated by him, as I most certainly should be. I had my choice between truth and falsehood: the latter (such is the force of habit), I think, carried it hollow; but I determined to leave that point to the spur of the moment, and act according to circumstances.
My meditations were interrupted by the chambermaid, who, tapping at my door, said she came to tell me "that the gentleman that belonged to the young lady that I was so kind to, was waiting breakfast for me."
The thought of sitting at table with the dear creature whose brains I had so nearly spilled upon the road the night before quite overcame me; and leaving the fabric of my history to chance or to inspiration, I darted from my bedroom to the parlour, where the stranger awaited me. He received me with great cordiality, again expressed his obligations, and informed me that his name was Somerville, of ——.
I had some faint recollection of having heard the name mentioned by my father, and was endeavouring to recall to mind on what occasion, when Mr Somerville interrupted me by saying, that he hoped he should have the pleasure of knowing the name of the young gentleman who had conferred such an obligation upon him. I answered that my name was Mildmay; for I had no time to tell a lie.
"I should be happy to think," said he, "that you were the son of my old friend and school-fellow, Mr Mildmay, of ——; but that cannot well be," said he, "for he had only two sons—one at college, the other as brave a sailor as ever lived, and now in the Mediterranean: but perhaps you are some relation of his?"
He had just concluded this speech, and before I had time to reply to it, the door opened, and Miss Somerville entered. We have all heard a great deal about "love at first sight;" but I contend that the man who would not, at the very first glimpse of Emily Somerville, have fallen desperately in love with her, could have had neither heart nor soul. If I thought her lovely when she lay in a state of insensibility, what did I think of her when her form had assumed its wonted animation, and her cheeks their natural colour? To describe a perfect beauty never was my forte. I can only say, that Miss Somerville, as far as I am a judge, united in her person all the component parts of the finest specimen of her sex in England; and these were joined in such harmony by the skilful hand of Nature, that I was ready to kneel down and adore her.
As she extended her white hand to me, and thanked me for my kindness, I was so taken aback with the sudden appearance and address of this beautiful vision, that I knew not what to say. I stammered out something, but have no recollection whether it was French or English. I lost my presence of mind, and the blushes of conscious guilt on my face at that moment, might have been mistaken for those of unsophisticated innocence. That these external demonstrations are often confounded, and that such was the case on the present occasion, there can be no doubt. My embarrassment was ascribed to that modesty ever attendant on real worth.
It has been said that true merit blushes at being discovered; but I have lived to see merit that could not blush, and the want of it that could, while the latter has marched off with all the honours due to the former. The blush that burned on my cheek, at that moment, would have gone far to have condemned a criminal at the Old Bailey; but in the countenance of a handsome young man was received as the unfailing marks of "a pure ingenuous soul."
I had been too long at school to be ashamed of wearing laurels I had never won; and, having often received a flogging which I did not deserve, I thought myself equally well entitled to any advantages which the chances of war might throw in my way; so having set my tender conscience at rest, I sat myself down between my new mistress and her father, and made a most delightful breakfast. Miss Somerville, although declared out of danger by the doctor, was still languid, but able to continue her journey; and as they had not many miles further to go, Mr Somerville proposed a delay of an hour or two.
Breakfast ended, he quitted the room to arrange for their departure, and I found myself tête-à-tête with the young lady. During this short absence, I found out that she was an only daughter, and that her mother was dead; she again introduced the subject of my family name, and I found also that before Mrs Somerville's death, my father had been on terms of great intimacy with Emily's parents. I had not replied to Mr Somerville's question. A similar one was now asked by his daughter; and so closely was I interrogated by her coral lips and searching blue eyes, that I could not tell a lie. It would have been a horrid aggravation of guilt, so I honestly owned that I was the son of her father's friend, Mr Mildmay.
"Good heaven!" said she, "why had you not told my father so?"
"Because I must have said a great deal more; besides," added I, making her my confidante. "I am the midshipman whom Mr Somerville supposes to be in the Mediterranean, and I ran away from my father's house last night."
Although I was as concise as possible in my story, I had not finished before Mr Somerville came in.
"Oh, papa," said his daughter, "this young gentleman is Frank Mildmay, after all."
I gave her a reproachful glance for having betrayed my secret; her father was astonished—she looked confused, and so did I.
Nothing now remained for me but an open and candid confession, taking especial care, however, to conceal the part I had acted in throwing the stone. Mr Somerville reproved me very sharply, which I thought was taking a great liberty; but he softened it down by adding, "If you knew how dear the interests of your family are to me, you would not be surprised at my assuming the tone of a parent." I looked at Emily, and pocketed the affront.
"And, Frank," pursued he, "when I tell you, that, although the distance between your father's property and mine has in some measure interrupted our long intimacy, I have been watching your career in the service with interest, you will, perhaps, take my advice, and return home. Do not let me have to regret that one to whom I am under such obligations should be too proud to acknowledge a fault. I admire a high spirit in a good cause: but towards a parent it can never be justified. It may be unpleasant to you; but I will prepare the way by writing to your father: and do you stay here till you hear from me. I should wish for the pleasure of your company at —— Hall; but your father has prior claims; and I hardly need tell you, that once restored and reconciled to him, I expect as long a visit as you can afford to pay me. Think on what I have said; and, in the meantime, as I daresay your finances are not very flourishing"—(thinks I, you are a witch!)—"allow me to leave this ten-pound note in your hands." This part of his request was much more readily complied with than the other.
He left the room, as he said, to pay the bill; but I believe it was to give his fair daughter an opportunity of trying the effect of her eloquence on my proud spirit, which gave no great promise of concession. A few minutes with her, did more than both the fathers could have effected, the most powerful motive to submission being the certainty that I could not visit at her father's house until a reconciliation had taken place between me and mine. I therefore told her that, at her solicitation, I would submit to any liberal terms.
This being agreed to, her father observed that the carriage was at the door, shook hands with me, and led his lovely daughter away, whose last nod and parting look confirmed all my good resolutions.
Reader, whatever you may think of the trifling incidents of the last twenty-four hours, you will find that they involved consequences of vast importance to the writer of this memoir. Pride induced me to quit my father's house; revenge stimulated me to an act which brought the heroine of this story on the stage, for such will Emily Somerville prove to be. But, alas! by what fatal infatuation was Mr Somerville induced to leave me my own master at an inn, with ten pounds in my pocket, instead of taking me with him to his own residence, and keeping me till he had heard from my father? The wisest men often err in points which at first appear of trivial importance, but which prove in the sequel to have been fraught with evil.
Left to myself, I ruminated for some time on what had occurred; and the beautiful Emily Somerville having vanished from my sight, I recollected the little fascinating actress from whom I had so suddenly parted on the preceding night; still I must say, that I was so much occupied with the charms of her successor, that I sought the society of the youthful Melpomene more with a view to beguile the time, than from any serious prepossession.
I found her in the large room, where they were all assembled. She received me as a friend, and evinced a partiality which flattered my vanity. In three days, I received a letter from Mr Somerville, inclosing one from my father, whose only request was, that I would return home, and meet him as if nothing unpleasant had occurred. This I determined to do; but I had now been so long in the company of Eugenia (for that was the actress's name), that I could not very easily part with her. In fact, I was desperately in love, after my fashion; and though perhaps I could not with truth say the same of her, yet that she was partial to my company was evident. I had obtained from her the history of her life, which, in the following chapter, I shall give in her own words.