The Naval Officer/Chapter XXVI
You will proceed in pleasure and in pride,
Beloved, and loving many; all is o'er
For me on earth, except some years to hide
My shame and sorrow deep in my heart's core.
I paid little attention to the performance; for the moment I came to the house, my eyes were rivetted on an object from which I found it impossible to remove them. "It is," said I, "and yet it cannot be; and yet why should it not?" A young lady sat in one of the boxes; she was elegantly attired, and seemed to occupy the united attentions of many Frenchmen, who eagerly caught her smiles.
"Either that is Eugenia," thought I, "or I have fallen asleep in the ruins of St Jago, and am dreaming of her. That is Eugenia, or I am not Frank. It is her, or it is her ghost." Still I had not that moral certainty of the identity, as to enable me to go at once to her, and address her. Indeed, had I been certain, all things considered, the situation we were in would have rendered such a step highly improper.
"If that be Eugenia," thought I, again, "she has improved both in manner and person. She has a becoming embonpoint, and an air de bon societé which, when we parted, she had not."
The more intensely I gazed, the more convinced was I that I was right; the immovable devotion of my eyes attracted the attention of a French officer, who sat near me.
"C'est une jolie femme, n'est-ce pas, monsieur?"
"Vraiment" said I. "Do you know her name?"
"Elle s'appelle Madame de Rosenberg."
"Then I am wrong, after all," said I to myself. "Has she a husband, Sir?"
"Pardonnez-moi, elle est veuve, mais elle a un petit garçon de cinq ans, beau comme un ange."
"That is her," said I again, reviving. "Is she a Frenchwoman?"
"Du tout, Monsieur, elle est une de vos compatriottes; c'est un fort joli exemplaire."
She had only been three months at Bordeaux, and had refused many very good offers in marriage. Such was the information I obtained from my obliging neighbour; and I was now convinced that Madame de Rosenberg could be no other than Eugenia. Every endeavour to catch her eye proved abortive. My only hope was to follow the carriage.
When the play was over, I waited with an impatience like that of a spirited hunter who hears the hounds. At last, the infernal squalling of the vocalists ceased, but not before I had devoutly wished that all the wax candles in the house were down their throats and burning there. I saw one of the gentlemen in the box placing the shawl over her shoulders, with the most careful attention, while the bystanders seemed ready to tear him in pieces, from envy. I hurried to the door, and saw her handed into her carriage, which drove off at a great pace. I ran after it, jumped up behind, and took my station by the side of the footman.
"Descendez donc, Monsieur," said the man.
"I'll be d—d if I do," said I.
"Comment donc?" said the man.
"Tais-toi bête" said I, "ou je te brulerai la cervelle."
"Vous f—e," said the man, who behaved very well, and instantly began to remove me, vi et armis; but I planted a stomacher in his fifth button, which I knew would put him hors de combat for a few minutes, and by that time, at the rate the carriage was driving, my purpose would have been answered. The fellow lost his breath—could not hold on or speak—so tumbled off and lay in the middle of the road.
As he fell on dry ground and was not an English sailor, I did not jump after him, but left him to his own ease, and we saw no more of him, for we were going ten knots, while he lay becalmed without a breath of wind. This was one of the most successful acts of usurpation recorded in modern history. It has its parallels, I know; but I cannot now stop to comment on them, or on my own folly and precipitation. I was as firmly fixed behind the carriage, as Bonaparte was on the throne of France after the battle of Eylau.
We stopped at a large porte cochère, being the entrance to a very grand house, with lamps at the door, within a spacious court yard; we drove in and drew up. I was down in a moment, opened the carriage door, and let down the steps. The lady descended, laid her hand on my arm without perceiving that she had changed her footman, and tripped lightly up the stairs. I followed her into a handsome saloon, where another servant in livery had placed lights on the table. She turned round, saw me, and fainted in my arms.
It was, indeed, Eugenia, herself; and with all due respect to my dear Emily, I borrowed a thousand kisses while she lay in a state of torpor, in a fauteuil to which I carried her. It was some few minutes before she opened her eyes; the man-servant, who had brought the lights, very properly never quitted the room, but was perfectly respectful in his manner, rightly conceiving that I had some authority for my proceedings.
"My dearest Frank," said Eugenia, "what an unexpected meeting! What, in the name of fortune, could have brought you here?"
"That," said I, "is a story too long, Eugenia, for a moment so interesting as this. I also might ask you the same question; but it is now one o'clock in the morning, and, therefore, too late to begin with inquiry. This one question, however, I must ask—are you a mother?"
"I am," said Eugenia, "of the most lovely boy that ever blessed the eyes of a parent; he is now in perfect health and fast asleep—come to-morrow, at ten o'clock, and you shall see him."
"To-morrow," said I, with surprise, "to-morrow, Eugenia? why am I to quit your house?"
"That also you shall know, to-morrow," said she; "but now you must do as you are desired. To-morrow, I will be at home to no one but you."
Knowing Eugenia as I did, it was sufficient that she had decided. There was no appeal; so, kissing her again, I wished her a good night, quitted her, and retired to my hotel. What a night of tumult did I pass! I was tossed from Emily to Eugenia, like a shuttlecock between two battledores. The latter never looked so lovely; and to the natural loveliness of her person, was added a grace and a polish, which gave a lustre to her charms, which almost served Emily as I had served the footman. I never once closed my eyes during the night—dressed early the next morning, walked about, looked at Château Trompette and the Roman ruins—thought the hour of ten would never strike, and when it did, I struck the same moment at her door.
The man who opened it to me was the same whom I had treated so ill the night before; the moment he saw me, he put himself into an attitude at once of attack, defence, remonstrance, and revenge, all connected with the affair of the preceding evening.
"Ah, ah, vous voilà donc! ce n'étoit pas bienfait, Monsieur."
"Oui," said I, "très nettement fait, et voilà encore," slipping a Napoleon into his hand.
"Ca s'arrange très-joliment, Monsieur," said the man, grinning from ear to ear, and bowing to the ground.
"C'est Madame, que vous voulez donc?"
"Oui," said I.
He led, I followed; he opened the door of a breakfast parlour—"tenez, Madame, voici le Monsieur que m'a renversé hier au soi."
Eugenia was seated on a sofa, with her boy by her side, the loveliest little fellow I had ever beheld. His face was one often described, but rarely seen; it was shaded with dark curling ringlets, his mouth, eyes, and complexion had much of his mother, and, vanity whispered me, much more of myself. I took a seat on the sofa, and with the boy on my knee, and Eugenia by my side, held her hand, while she narrated the events of her life since the time of our separation.
"A few days," said she, "after your departure for the Flushing expedition, I read in the public prints, that 'if the nearest relation of my mother would call at ——, in London, they would hear of something to their advantage.' I wrote to the agent, from whom I learned, after proving my identity, that the two sisters of my mother, who, you may remember, had like sums left them by the will of their relative, had continued to live in a state of single blessedness; that, about four years previous, one of them had died, leaving every thing to the other, and that the other had died only two months before, bequeathing all her property to my mother, or her next heir; or, in default of that, to some distant relation. I, therefore, immediately came into a fortune of ten thousand pounds, with interest; and I was further informed that a great-uncle of mine was still living, without heirs, and was most anxious that my mother or her heirs should be discovered. An invitation was therefore sent to me to go down to him, and to make his house my future residence.
"At that time, the effects of my indiscretion were but too apparent, and rendered, as I thought, deception justifiable. I put on widow's weeds, and gave out that my husband was a young officer, who had fallen a victim to the fatal Walcheren fever; that our marriage had been clandestine, and unknown to any of his friends: such was my story and appearance before the agent, who believed me. The same fabrication was put upon my grand-uncle, with equal success. I was received into his house with parental affection; and in that house I gave birth to the dear child you now hold in your arms—to your child, my Frank—to the only child I shall ever have. Yes, dear Eugenio," continued she, pressing her rosy lips on the broad white neck of the child, "you shall be my only care, my solace, my comfort, and my joy. Heaven, in its mercy, sent the cherub to console its wretched mother in the double pangs of guilt and separation from all she loved; and Heaven shall be repaid, by my return to its slighted, its insulted laws. I feel that my sin is forgiven; for I have besought forgiveness night and day, with bitter tears, and Heaven has heard my prayer. 'Go, and sin no more,' was said to me; and upon these terms I have received forgiveness.
"You will no doubt ask, why did I not let you know all this? and why I so carefully secreted myself from you? My reasons were founded on the known impetuosity of your character. You, my beloved, who could brave death, and all the military consequences of desertion from a ship lying at Spithead, were not likely to listen to the suggestions of prudence when Eugenia was to be found; and, having once given out that I was a widow, I resolved to preserve the consistency of my character for my own sake—for your sake, and for the sake of this blessed child, the only drop that has sweetened my cup of affliction. Had you by any means discovered my place of abode, the peace of my uncle's house, and the prospects of my child had been for ever blasted.
"Now then say, Frank, have I, or have I not, acted the part of a Roman mother? My grand-uncle having declared his intention of making me heir to his property, for his sake, and yours, and for my child, I have preserved the strict line of duty, from which God, in his infinite mercy, grant that I may never depart.
"I first resolved upon not seeing you until I could be more my own mistress; and when, at the death of my respected relative, I was not only released from any restraint on account of his feelings, but also became still more independent in my circumstances, you might be surprised that I did not immediately impart to you the change of fortune which would have enabled us to have enjoyed the comfort of unrestricted communication. But time, reflection, the conversation and society of my uncle and his select friends, the care of my infant, and the reading of many excellent books had wrought a great change in my sentiments. Having once tasted the pleasures of society among virtuous women, I vowed to Heaven that no future act of mine should ever drive me from it. The past could not be recalled; but the future was my own.
"I took the sacrament after a long and serious course of reading; and, having made my vows at the altar, with the help of God, they are unchangeable. Dramatic works, the pernicious study and poison of my youthful ardent mind, I have long since discarded; and I had resolved never to see you again, until after your marriage with Miss Somerville had been solemnised. Start not! By the simplest and easiest means I have known all your movements—your dangers, your escapes, your undaunted acts of bravery and self-devotion for the sake of others.
"'Shall I then,' said I to myself, 'blast the prospects of the man I love—the father of my boy? Shall I, to gratify the poor, pitiful ambition of becoming the wife of him, to whom I once was the mistress, sacrifice thus the hopes and fortune of himself and family, the reward of a virtuous maiden?' In all this I hope you will perceive a proper share of self-denial. Many, many floods of bitter tears of repentance and regret have I shed over my past conduct; and I trust, that what I have suffered and what I shall suffer, will be received as my atonement at the Throne of Grace. True, I once looked forward to the happy period of our union, when I might have offered myself to you, not as a portionless bride; but I was checked by one maddening, burning, inextingishable thought. I could not be received into that society to which you were entitled. I felt that I loved you, Frank; loved you too well to betray you. The woman that had so little respect for herself, was unfit to be the wife of Francis Mildmay.
"Besides, how could I do my sweet boy the injustice to allow him to have brothers and sisters possessing legitimate advantages over him? I felt that our union never could be one of happiness, even if you consented to take me as your wife, of which I had my doubts; and when I discovered, through my emissaries, that you were on the point of marriage with Miss Somerville, I felt that it was all for the best; that I had no right to complain; the more so as it was I who (I blush to say it) had seduced you.
"But, Frank, if I cannot be your wife—and alas! I know too well that that is impossible—will you allow me to be your friend, your dear friend, as the mother of your child, or, if you please, as your sister? But there the sacred line is drawn; it is a compact between my God and myself. You know my firmness and decision; once maturely deliberated, my resolution formed, it is not, I think, in man to turn me. Do not, therefore, make the attempt; it will only end in your certain defeat and shame, and in my withdrawing from your sight for ever. You will not, I am sure, pay me so bad a compliment as to wish me to renew the follies of my youth. If you love me, respect me; promise, by the love you bear to Miss Somerville, and your affection for this poor boy, that you will do as I wish you. Your honour and peace of mind, as well as mine, demand it."
This severe rebuke, from a quarter, whence I least expected it, threw me back with shame and confusion. As if a mirror had been held up to me, I saw my own deformity. I saw that Eugenia was not only the guardian of her own honour, but of mine, and of the happiness of Miss Somerville, against whom I now stood convicted of foul deceit and shameful wrong. I acknowledged my fault, I assured Eugenia that I was bound to her, by every tie of honour, esteem, and love; and that her boy and mine should be our mutual care.
"Thank you, dearest," said she: "you have taken a heavy load from my mind: henceforth remember we are brother and sister. I shall now be able to enjoy the pleasure of your society; and now, as that point is settled, let me know what has occurred to you since we parted—the particulars I mean, for the outline I have had before."
I related to her everything which had happened to me, from the hour of our separation to the moment I saw her so unexpectedly in the theatre. She was alternately affected with terror, surprise, and laughter. She took a hearty crying spell over the motionless bodies of Clara and Emily, as they lay on the floor; but recovered from that, and went into hysterics of laughter, when I described the footman's mistake, and the slap on the face bestowed on him by the housemaid.
My mind was not naturally corrupt. It was only so at times, and from peculiar circumstances; but I was always generous, and easily recalled to a sense of my duty, when reminded of my fault. Not for an empire would I have persuaded Eugenia to break her vow. I loved and respected the mother of my child; the more when I reflected that she had been the means of preserving my fidelity to Emily. I rejoiced to think that my friendship for the one, and love for the other, were not incompatible. I wrote immediately to Emily, announcing my speedy return to England.
"Having the most perfect reliance on your honour, I shall now," said Eugenia, "accept of your escort to London, where my presence is required. Pierre shall accompany us—he is a faithful creature, though you used him so ill."
"That," said I, "is all made up, and Pierre will be heartily glad of another tumble for the same price."
All our arrangements were speedily made. The house was given up—a roomy travelling barouche received all our trunks; and, seated by the side of Eugenia, with the child between us, we crossed the Gironde, and took our way through Poictiers, Tours, and Orleans, to Paris; here we remained but a short time. Neither of us were pleased with the manners and habits of the French; but as they have been so fully described by the swarms of English travellers who have infested that country with their presence, and this with the fruits of their labours, I shall pass as quietly through France, as I hope to do through the Thames Tunnel, when it is completed, but not before.
Eugenia consulted me as to her future residence; and here I own I committed a great error, but, I declare to Heaven, without any criminal intention. I ventured to suggest that she should live in a very pretty village a few miles from —— Hall, the residence of Mr Somerville, and where, after my marriage, it was intended that I should continue to reside with Emily. To this village, then, I directed her to go, assuring her that I should often ride over and visit her.
"Much as I should enjoy your company, Frank," said Eugenia, "this is a measure fraught with evil to all parties; nor is it fair dealing towards your future wife."
Unhappily for me, that turn for duplicity, which I had imbibed in early life, had not forsaken me, notwithstanding the warnings I had received, and the promises of amendment which I had made. Flattering myself that I intended no harm, I overruled all the scruples of the excellent Eugenia. She despatched a confidential person to the village; on the outskirts of which, he procured for her a commodious, and even elegant cottage ornée ready furnished. She went down with her child and Pierre to take possession; and I to my father's house, where my appearance was hailed as a signal for a grand jubilee.
Clara I found had entirely changed her unfavourable opinion of sea officers, induced thereto by the engaging manners of my friend Talbot, on whom I was delighted to learn she was about to bestow her very pretty little white hand at the altar. This was a great triumph to the navy, for I always told Clara, laughingly, that I never would forgive her if she quitted the service; and as I entertained the highest respect for Talbot, I considered the prospects of my sister were very bright and flattering, and that she had made a choice very likely to secure her happiness. "Rule Britannia," said I to Clara; "Blue for ever!"
The next morning I started for Mr Somerville's, where I was of course received with open arms; and the party, a few days after, having been increased by the arrival of my father with Clara and Talbot, I was as happy as a human being could be. Six weeks was the period assigned by my fair one as the very shortest in which she could get rigged, bend new sails, and prepare for the long and sometimes tedious voyage of matrimony. I remonstrated at the unconscionable delay.
"Long as it may appear," she said, "it is much less time than you took to fit out your fine frigate for North America."
"That frigate was not got ready even then by any hurry of mine," said I; "and if ever I come to be first lord of the Admiralty, I shall have a bright eye on the young lieutenants and their sweethearts at Blackheath, particularly when a ship is fitting in a hurry at Woolwich."
Much of this kind of sparring went on, to the great amusement of all parties; meanwhile, the ladies employed themselves in running up milliner's bills, and their papas employed themselves in discharging them. My father was particularly liberal to Emily in the articles of plate and jewellery, and Mr Somerville equally kind to Clara. Emily received a trinket box, so beautifully fitted and so well filled, that it required a cheque of no trifling magnitude to cry quits with the jeweller; indeed my father's kindness was so great, that I was forced to beg he would set some bounds to his liberality.
I was so busy and so happy, that I had let three weeks pass over my head without seeing Eugenia. I dreamed of her at last, and thought she upbraided me; and the next day, full of my dream, as soon as breakfast was over, I recommended the young ladies to the care of Talbot, and, mounting my horse, rode over to see Eugenia. She received me kindly, but she had suffered in her health, and was much out of spirits. I inquired the reason, and she burst into tears. "I shall be better, Frank," said she, "when all is over, but I must suffer now; and I suffer the more acutely from a conviction that I am only paying the penalty of my own crime. Perhaps," continued she, "had I never departed from virtue, I might at this moment have held in your heart the envied place of Miss Somerville; but as the righteous decrees of Providence having provided punishment to tread fast in the footsteps of guilt, I am now expiating my faults, and I have a presentiment that although the struggle is bitter, it will soon be over. God's will be done; and may you, my dear Frank, have many, many happy years in the society of one you are bound to love before the unhappy Eugenia."
Here she sank on a sofa, and again wept bitterly.
"I feel," said she, "now, but it is too late—I feel that I have acted wrongly in quitting Bordeaux. There I was loved and respected; and if not happy, at least I was composed. Too much dependence on my resolution, and the vanity of supposing myself superior in magnanimity to the rest of my sex, induced me to trust myself in your society. Dearly, alas! have I paid for it. My only chance of victory over myself was flight from you, after I had given the irrevocable sentence; by not doing so, the poison has again found its way to my heart. I feel that I love you; that I cannot have you; and that death, very shortly, must terminate my intolerable sufferings."
This affecting address pierced me to the soul; and now the consequences of my guilt and duplicity rushed upon me like a torrent through a bursting flood-gate. I would have resigned Emily, I would have fled with Eugenia to some distant country, and buried our sorrows in each other's bosoms; and, in a state of irrepressible emotion, I proposed this step to her.
"What do I hear, my beloved?" said she (starting up with horror from the couch on which she was sitting, with her face between her knees), "what! is it you that would resign home, friends, character, the possession of a virtuous woman, all, for the polluted smiles of an ——"
"Hold! hold! my Eugenia," said I; "do not, I beseech you, shock my ears with an epithet which you do not deserve! Mine, mine, is all the guilt; forget me, and you will still be happy."
She looked at me, then at her sweet boy, who was playing on the carpet—but she made no answer; and then a flood of tears succeeded.
It was, indeed, a case of singular calamity for a beautiful young creature to be placed in. She was only in her three-and-twentieth year—and, lovely as she was, nature had scarcely had time to finish the picture. The regrets which subdued my mind on that fatal morning may only be conceived by those who, like me, have led a licentious life—have, for a time, buried all moral and religious feeling, and have been suddenly called to a full sense of their guilt, and the misery they have entailed on the innocent. I sat down and groaned. I cannot say I wept, for I could not weep; but my forehead burned, and my heart was full of bitterness.
While I thus meditated, Eugenia sat with her hand on her forehead, in a musing attitude. Had she been reverting to her former studies, and thrown herself into the finest conceivable posture of the tragic muse, her appearance would not have been half so beautiful and affecting. I thought she was praying, and I think so still. The tears ran in silence down her face; I kissed them off, and almost forgot Emily.
"I am better now, Frank," said the poor, sorrowful woman; "do not come again until after the wedding. When will it take place?" she inquired, with a trembling and a faltering voice.
My heart almost burst within me, as I told her, for I felt as if I was signing a warrant for her execution. I took her in my arms, and, tenderly embracing her, endeavoured to divert her thoughts from the mournful fate that too evidently hung over her; she became tranquil, and I proposed taking a stroll in the adjoining park. I thought the fresh air would revive her.
She agreed to this; and, going to her room, returned in a few minutes. To her natural beauty was added on that fatal day a morning dress, which more than any other became her; it was white, richly trimmed, and fashionably made up by a celebrated French milliner. Her bonnet was white muslin, trimmed with light blue ribbons, and a sash of the same colour confined her slender waist. The little Eugenio ran before us, now at my side, and now at his mother's. We rambled about for some time, the burthen of our conversation being the future plans and mode of education to be adopted for the child; this was a subject on which she always dwelt with peculiar pleasure.
Tired with our walk, we sat down under a clump of beech trees, near a grassy ascent, winding among the thick foliage, contrived by the opulent owner to extend and diversify the rides in his noble domain. Eugenio was playing around us, picking the wild flowers, and running up to me to inquire their names.
The boy was close by my side, when, startled at a noise, he turned round and exclaimed—
"Oh! look, mamma, look, papa, there is a lady and a gentleman a-riding."
I turned round, and saw Mr Somerville and Emily on horseback, within six paces of me; so still they stood, so mute, I could have fancied Emily a wax-work figure. They neither breathed nor moved; even their very horses seemed to be of bronze, or, perhaps the unfortunate situation in which I found myself made me think them so. They had come as unexpectedly on us as we had discovered them. The soft turf had received the impression of their horses' feet, and returned no sound; and if they snorted, we had either not attended to them in the warmth of our conversation, or we had never heard them.
I rose up hastily—coloured deeply—stammered, and was about to speak. Perhaps it was better that I did not; but I had no opportunity. Like apparitions they came, and like apparitions they vanished. The avenue from whence they had so silently issued, received them again, and they were gone before Eugenia was sensible of their presence.