The Absentee, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 16.

In what words of polite circumlocution, or of cautious diplomacy, shall we say, or hint, that the deceased ambassador’s papers were found in shameful disorder. His excellency’s executor, Sir James Brooke, however, was indefatigable in his researches. He and Lord Colambre spent two whole days in looking over portfolios of letters, and memorials, and manifestoes, and bundles of paper of the most heterogeneous sorts; some of them without any docket or direction to lead to a knowledge of their contents; others written upon in such a manner as to give an erroneous notion of their nature; so that it was necessary to untie every paper separately. At last, when they had opened, as they thought, every paper, and, wearied and in despair, were just on the point of giving up the search, Lord Colambre spied a bundle of old newspapers at the bottom of a trunk.

“They are only old Vienna Gazettes; I looked at them,” said Sir James.

Lord Colambre, upon this assurance, was going to throw them into the trunk again; but observing that the bundle had not been untied, he opened it, and withinside of the newspapers he found a rough copy of the ambassador’s journal, and with it the packet directed to Ralph Reynolds, sen., Esq., Old Court, Suffolk, per favour of his excellency Earl ——— a note on the cover, signed O’Halloran, stating when received by him, and, the date of the day when delivered to the ambassador — seals unbroken. Our hero was in such a transport of joy at the sight of this packet, and his friend Sir James Brooke so full of his congratulations, that they forgot to curse the ambassador’s carelessness, which had been the cause of so much evil.

The next thing to be done was to deliver the packet to Ralph Reynolds, Old Court, Suffolk. But when Lord Colambre arrived at Old Court, Suffolk, he found all the gates locked, and no admittance to be had. At last an old woman came out of the porter’s lodge, who said Mr. Reynolds was not there, and she could not say where he was. After our hero had opened her heart by the present of half a guinea, she explained, that she “could not justly say where he was, because that he never let any body of his own people know where he was any day; he had several different houses and places in different parts, and far off counties, and other shires, as she heard, and by times he was at one, and by times at another. The names of two of the places, Toddrington and Little Wrestham, she knew; but there were others to which she could give no direction. He had houses in odd parts of London, too, that he let; and sometimes, when the lodgers’ time was out, he would go, and be never heard of for a month, may be, in one of them. In short, there was no telling or saying where he was or would be one day of the week, by where he had been the last.”

When Lord Colambre expressed some surprise that an old gentleman, as he conceived Mr. Ralph Reynolds to be, should change places so frequently, the old woman answered, “that though her master was a deal on the wrong side of seventy, and though, to look at him, you’d think he was glued to his chair, and would fall to pieces if he should stir out of it, yet he was as alert, and thought no more of going about, than if he was as young as the gentleman who was now speaking to her. It was old Mr. Reynolds’ delight to come down and surprise his people at his different places, and see that they were keeping all tight.”

“What sort of a man is he? — Is he a miser?” said Lord Colambre.

“He is a miser, and he is not a miser,” said the woman. “Now he’d think as much of the waste of a penny as another man would of a hundred pounds, and yet he would give a hundred pounds easier than another would give a penny, when he’s in the humour. But his humour is very odd, and there’s no knowing where to have him; he’s cross-grained, and more positiver-like than a mule; and his deafness made him worse in this, because he never heard what nobody said, but would say on his own way — he was very odd, but not cracked— no, he was as clear-headed, when he took a thing the right way, as any man could be, and as clever, and could talk as well as any member of parliament — and good-natured, and kind-hearted, where he would take a fancy — but then, may be, it would be to a dog (he was remarkably fond of dogs), or a cat, or a rat even, that he would take a fancy, and think more of ’em than he would of a Christian. But, poor gentleman, there’s great allowance,” said she, “to be made for him, that lost his son and heir — that would have been heir to all, and a fine youth that he doted upon. But,” continued the old woman, in whose mind the transitions from great to little, from serious to trivial, were ludicrously abrupt, “that was no reason why the old gentleman should scold me last time he was here, as he did, for as long as ever he could stand over me, only because I killed a mouse who was eating my cheese; and, before night, he beat a boy for stealing a piece of that same cheese; and he would never, when down here, let me set a mouse-trap.”

“Well, my good woman,” interrupted Lord Colambre, who was little interested in this affair of the mouse-trap, and nowise curious to learn more of Mr. Reynolds’ domestic economy, “I’ll not trouble you any farther, if you can be so good as to tell me the road to Toddrington, or to Little Wickham, I think you call it.”

“Little Wickham!” repeated the woman, laughing —“Bless you, sir, where do you come from? It’s Little Wrestham: sure every body knows, near Lantry; and keep the pike till you come to the turn at Rotherford, and then you strike off into the by-road to the left, and then turn again at the ford to the right. But, if you are going to Toddrington, you don’t go the road to market, which is at the first turn to the left, and the cross country road, where there’s no quarter, and Toddrington lies — but for Wrestham, you take the road to market.”

It was some time before our hero could persuade the old woman to stick to Little Wrestham, or to Toddrington, and not to mix the directions for the different roads together — he took patience, for his impatience only confused his director the more. In process of time he made out, and wrote down, the various turns that he was to follow, to reach Little Wrestham; but no human power could get her from Little Wrestham to Toddrington, though she knew the road perfectly well; but she had, for the seventeen last years, been used to go “the other road,” and all the carriers went that way, and passed the door, and that was all she could certify.

Little Wrestham, after turning to the left and right as often as his directory required, our hero happily reached: but, unhappily, he found no Mr. Reynolds there; only a steward, who gave nearly the same account of his master as had been given by the old woman, and could not guess even where the gentleman might now be. Toddrington was as likely as any place — but he could not say.

“Perseverance against fortune.” To Toddrington our hero proceeded, through cross country roads — such roads! — very different from the Irish roads. Waggon ruts, into which the carriage wheels sunk nearly to the nave — and, from time to time, “sloughs of despond,” through which it seemed impossible to drag, walk, wade, or swim, and all the time with a sulky postilion. “Oh, how unlike my Larry!” thought Lord Colambre.

At length, in a very narrow lane, going up a hill, said to be two miles of ascent, they overtook a heavy laden waggon, and they were obliged to go step by step behind it, whilst, enjoying the gentleman’s impatience much, and the postilion’s sulkiness more, the waggoner, in his embroidered frock, walked in state, with his long sceptre in his hand.

The postilion muttered “curses not loud, but deep.” Deep or loud, no purpose would they have answered; the waggoner’s temper was proof against curse in or out of the English language; and from their snail’s pace neither Dickens, nor devil, nor any postilion in England could make him put his horses. Lord Colambre jumped out of the chaise, and, walking beside him, began to talk to him; and spoke of his horses, their bells, their trappings; the beauty and strength of the thill-horse — the value of the whole team, which his lordship happening to guess right within ten pounds, and showing, moreover, some skill about road-making and waggon-wheels, and being fortunately of the waggoner’s own opinion in the great question about conical and cylindrical rims, he was pleased with the young chap of a gentleman; and, in spite of the chuffiness of his appearance and churlishness of his speech, this waggoner’s bosom being “made of penetrable stuff,” he determined to let the gentleman pass. Accordingly, when half way up the hill, and the head of the fore-horse came near an open gate, the waggoner, without saying one word or turning his head, touched the horse with his long whip — and the horse turned in at the gate, and then came, “Dobbin! — Jeho!” and strange calls and sounds, which all the other horses of the team obeyed; and the waggon turned into the farm-yard.

“Now, master! while I turn, you may pass.”

The covering of the waggon caught in the hedge as the waggon turned in; and as the sacking was drawn back, some of the packages were disturbed — a cheese was just rolling off on the side next Lord Colambre; he stopped it from falling: the direction caught his quick eye —“To Ralph Reynolds, Esq.”—“Toddrington” scratched out; “Red Lion Square, London,” written in another hand below.

“Now I have found him! And surely I know that hand!” said Lord Colambre to himself, looking more closely at the direction.

The original direction was certainly in a hand-writing well known to him — it was Lady Dashfort’s.

“That there cheese, that you’re looking at so cur’ously,” said the waggoner, “has been a great traveller; for it came all the way down from Lon’on, and now its going all the way up again back, on account of not finding the gentleman at home; and the man that booked it told me as how it came from foreign parts.”

Lord Colambre took down the direction, tossed the honest waggoner a guinea, wished him good night, passed, and went on. As soon as he could, he turned into the London road — at the first town, got a place in the mail — reached London — saw his father — went directly to his friend, Count O’Halloran, who was delighted when he beheld the packet. Lord Colambre was extremely eager to go immediately to old Reynolds, fatigued as he was; for he had travelled night and day, and had scarcely allowed himself, mind or body, one moment’s repose.

“Heroes must sleep, and lovers too; or they soon will cease to be heroes or lovers!” said the count. “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit! this night; and to-morrow morning we’ll finish the adventures in Red Lion Square, or I will accompany you when and where you will; if necessary, to earth’s remotest bounds.”

The next morning Lord Colambre went to breakfast with the count. The count, who was not in love, was not up, for our hero was half an hour earlier than the time appointed. The old servant Ulick, who had attended his master to England, was very glad to see Lord Colambre again, and, showing him into the breakfast parlour, could not help saying, in defence of his master’s punctuality, “Your clocks, I suppose, my lord, are half an hour faster than ours: my master will be ready to the moment.”

The count soon appeared — breakfast was soon over, and the carriage at the door; for the count sympathized in his young friend’s impatience. As they were setting out, the count’s large Irish dog pushed out of the house-door to follow them; and his master would have forbidden him, but Lord Colambre begged that he might be permitted to accompany them; for his lordship recollected the old woman’s having mentioned that Mr. Reynolds was fond of dogs.

They arrived in Red Lion Square, found the house of Mr. Reynolds, and, contrary to the count’s prognostics, found the old gentleman up, and they saw him in his red night-cap at his parlour window. After some minutes’ running backwards and forwards of a boy in the passage, and two or three peeps taken over the blinds by the old gentleman, they were admitted.

The boy could not master their names; so they were obliged reciprocally to announce themselves —“Count O’Halloran and Lord Colambre.” The names seemed to make no impression on the old gentleman; but he deliberately looked at the count and his lordship, as if studying what rather than who they were. In spite of the red night-cap, and a flowered dressing-gown, Mr. Reynolds looked like a gentleman, an odd gentleman — but still a gentleman.

As Count O’Halloran came into the room, and as his large dog attempted to follow, the count’s look expressed —

“Say, shall I let him in, or shut the door?”

“Oh, let him in, by all means, sir, if you please! I am fond of dogs; and a finer one I never saw: pray, gentlemen, be seated,” said he — a portion of the complacency, inspired by the sight of the dog, diffusing itself over his manner towards the master of so fine an animal, and even extending to the master’s companion, though in an inferior degree. Whilst Mr. Reynolds stroked the dog, the count told him that “the dog was of a curious breed, now almost extinct — the Irish greyhound; only one nobleman in Ireland, it is said, has a few of the species remaining in his possession — Now, lie down, Hannibal,” said the count. “Mr. Reynolds, we have taken the liberty, though strangers, of waiting upon you —”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” interrupted Mr. Reynolds; “but did I understand you rightly, that a few of the same species are still to be had from one nobleman in Ireland? Pray, what is his name?” said he, taking out his pencil.

The count wrote the name for him, but observed, that “he had asserted only that a few of these dogs remained in the possession of that nobleman; he could not answer for it that they were to be had.”

“Oh, I have ways and means,” said old Reynolds; and, rapping his snuff-box, and talking, as it was his custom, loud to himself, “Lady Dashfort knows all those Irish lords: she shall get one for me — ay! ay!”

Count O’Halloran replied, as if the words had been addressed to him, “Lady Dashfort is in England.”

“I know it, sir; she is in London,” said Mr. Reynolds, hastily. “What do you know of her?”

“I know, sir, that she is not likely to return to Ireland, and that I am; and so is my young friend here: and if the thing can be accomplished, we will get it done for you.”

Lord Colambre joined in this promise, and added, that, “if the dog could be obtained, he would undertake to have him safely sent over to England.”

“Sir — gentlemen! I’m much obliged; that is, when you have done the thing I shall be much obliged. But, may be, you are only making me civil speeches!”

“Of that, sir,” said the count, smiling with much temper, “your own sagacity and knowledge of the world must enable you to judge.”

“For my own part, I can only say,” cried Lord Colambre, “that I am not in the habit of being reproached with saying one thing and meaning another.”

“Hot! I see,” said old Reynolds, nodding as he looked at Lord Colambre: “Cool!” added he, nodding at the count. “But a time for every thing; I was hot once: both answers good for their ages.”

This speech Lord Colambre and the count tacitly agreed to consider as another apart, which they were not to hear, or seem to hear. The count began again on the business of their visit, as he saw that Lord Colambre was boiling with impatience, and feared that he should boil over, and spoil all. The count commenced with, “Mr. Reynolds, your name sounds to me like the name of a friend; for I had once a friend of that name: I once had the pleasure (and a very great pleasure it was to me) to be intimately acquainted abroad, on the continent, with a very amiable and gallant youth — your son!”

“Take care, sir,” said the old man, starting up from his chair, and instantly sinking down again, “take care! Don’t mention him to me — unless you would strike me dead on the spot!”

The convulsed motions of his fingers and face worked for some moments; whilst the count and Lord Colambre, much shocked and alarmed, stood in silence.

The convulsed motions ceased; and the old man unbuttoned his waistcoat, as if to relieve some sense of oppression; uncovered his gray hairs; and, after leaning back to rest himself, with his eyes fixed, and in reverie for a few moments, he sat upright again in his chair, and exclaimed, as he looked round, “Son! — Did not somebody say that word? Who is so cruel to say that word before me? Nobody has ever spoken of him to me — but once, since his death! Do you know, sir,” said he, fixing his eyes on Count O’Halloran, and laying his cold hand on him, “do you know where he was buried, I ask you, sir? do you remember how he died?”

“Too well! too well!” cried the count, so much affected as to be scarcely able to pronounce the words; “he died in my arms: I buried him myself!”

“Impossible!” cried Mr. Reynolds. “Why do you say so, sir?” said he, studying the count’s face with a sort of bewildered earnestness. “Impossible! His body was sent over to me in a lead coffin; and I saw it — and I was asked — and I answered, ‘In the family vault.’ But the shock is over,” said he: “and, gentlemen, if the business of your visit relates to that subject, I trust I am now sufficiently composed to attend to you. Indeed, I ought to be prepared; for I had reason, for years, to expect the stroke; and yet, when it came, it seemed sudden! — it stunned me — put an end to all my worldly prospects — left me childless, without a single descendant, or relation near enough to be dear to me! I am an insulated being!”

“No, sir, you are not an insulated being,” said Lord Colambre: “You have a near relation, who will, who must, be dear to you; who will make you amends for all you have lost, all you have suffered — who will bring peace and joy to your heart: you have a grand-daughter.”

“No, sir; I have no grand-daughter,” said old Reynolds, his face and whole form becoming rigid with the expression of obstinacy. “Rather have no descendant than be forced to acknowledge an illegitimate child.”

“My lord, I entreat as a friend — I command you to be patient,” said the count, who saw Lord Colambre’s indignation suddenly rise.

“So, then, this is the purpose of your visit,” continued old Reynolds: “and you come from my enemies, from the St. Omars, and you are in a league with them,” continued old Reynolds: “and all this time it is of my eldest son you have been talking.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the count; “of Captain Reynolds, who fell in battle, in the Austrian service, about nineteen years ago — a more gallant and amiable youth never lived.”

Pleasure revived through the dull look of obstinacy in the father’s eyes.

“He was, as you say, sir, a gallant, an amiable youth, once — and he was my pride, and I loved him, too, once — but did not you know I had another?”

“No, sir, we did not — we are, you may perceive, totally ignorant of your family and of your affairs — we have no connexion whatever or knowledge of any of the St. Omars.”

“I detest the sound of the name,” cried Lord Colambre.

“Oh, good! good! — Well! well! I beg your pardon, gentlemen, a thousand times — I am a hasty, very hasty old man; but I have been harassed, persecuted, hunted by wretches, who got a scent of my gold; often in my rage I longed to throw my treasure-bags to my pursuers, and bid them leave me to die in peace. You have feelings, I see, both of you, gentlemen; excuse, and bear with my temper.”

“Bear with you! Much enforced, the best tempers will emit a hasty spark,” said the count, looking at Lord Colambre, who was now cool again; and who, with a countenance full of compassion, sat with his eyes fixed upon the poor — no, not the poor, but the unhappy old man.

“Yes, I had another son,” continued Mr. Reynolds, “and on him all my affections concentrated when I lost my eldest, and for him I desired to preserve the estate which his mother brought into the family. Since you know nothing of my affairs, let me explain to you: that estate was so settled, that it would have gone to the child, even the daughter of my eldest son, if there had been a legitimate child. But I knew there was no marriage, and I held out firm to my opinion. ‘If there was a marriage,’ said I, ‘show me the marriage certificate, and I will acknowledge the marriage, and acknowledge the child:’ but they could not, and I knew they could not; and I kept the estate for my darling boy,” cried the old gentleman, with the exultation of successful positiveness again appearing strong in his physiognomy: but, suddenly changing and relaxing, his countenance fell, and he added, “but now I have no darling boy. What use all! — all must go to the heir at law, or I must will it to a stranger — a lady of quality, who has just found out she is my relation — God knows how! I’m no genealogist — and sends me Irish cheese, and Iceland moss, for my breakfast, and her waiting gentlewoman to namby-pamby me. Oh, I’m sick of it all — see through it — wish I was blind — wish I had a hiding-place, where flatterers could not find me — pursued, chased — must change my lodgings again to-morrow — will, will — I beg your pardon, gentlemen, again: you were going to tell me, sir, something more of my eldest son; and how I was led away from the subject, I don’t know; but I meant only to have assured you that his memory was dear to me, till I was so tormented about that unfortunate affair of his pretended marriage, that at length I hated to hear him named; but the heir at law, at last, will triumph over me.”

“No, my good sir, not if you triumph over yourself, and do justice,” cried Lord Colambre; “if you listen to the truth, which my friend will tell you, and if you will read and believe the confirmation of it, under your son’s own hand, in this packet.”

“His own hand indeed! His seal — unbroken. But how — when — where — why was it kept so long, and how came it into your hands?”

Count O’Halloran told Mr. Reynolds that the packet had been given to him by Captain Reynolds on his death-bed; related the dying acknowledgment which Captain Reynolds had made of his marriage; and gave an account of the delivery of the packet to the ambassador, who had promised to transmit it faithfully. Lord Colambre told the manner in which it had been mislaid, and at last recovered from among the deceased ambassador’s papers. The father still gazed at the direction, and re-examined the seals.

“My son’s hand-writing — my son’s seals! But where is the certificate of the marriage?” repeated he; “if it is withinside of this packet, I have done great in— but I am convinced it never was a marriage. Yet I wish now it could be proved — only, in that case, I have for years done great —”

“Won’t you open the packet, sir?” said Lord Colambre.

Mr. Reynolds looked up at him with a look that said, “I don’t clearly know what interest you have in all this.” But, unable to speak, and his hands trembling so that he could scarcely break the seals, he tore off the cover, laid the papers before him, sat down, and took breath. Lord Colambre, however impatient, had now too much humanity to hurry the old gentleman: he only ran for the spectacles, which he espied on the chimney-piece, rubbed them bright, and held them ready. Mr. Reynolds stretched his hand out for them, put them on, and the first paper he opened was the certificate of the marriage: he read it aloud, and, putting it down, said, “Now I acknowledge the marriage. I always said, if there is a marriage there must be a certificate. And you see now there is a certificate — I acknowledge the marriage.”

“And now,” cried Lord Colambre, “I am happy, positively happy. Acknowledge your grand-daughter, sir — acknowledge Miss Nugent.”

“Acknowledge whom, sir?”

“Acknowledge Miss Reynolds — your grand-daughter; I ask no more — do what you will with your fortune.”

“Oh, now I understand — I begin to understand, this young gentleman is in love — but where is my grand-daughter? how shall I know she is my grand-daughter? I have not heard of her since she was an infant — I forgot her existence — I have done her great injustice.”

“She knows nothing of it, sir,” said Lord Colambre, who now entered into a full explanation of Miss Nugent’s history, and of her connexion with his family, and of his own attachment to her; concluding the whole by assuring Mr. Reynolds that his grand-daughter had every virtue under heaven. “And as to your fortune, sir, I know that she will, as I do, say —”

“No matter what she will say,” interrupted old Reynolds; “where is she? When I see her, I shall hear what she says. Tell me where she is — let me see her. I long to see whether there is any likeness to her poor father. Where is she? Let me see her immediately.”

“She is one hundred and sixty miles off, sir, at Buxton.”

“Well, my lord, and what is a hundred and sixty miles? I suppose you think I can’t stir from my chair, but you are mistaken. I think nothing of a journey of a hundred and sixty miles — I am ready to set off to-morrow — this instant.”

Lord Colambre said, that he was sure Miss Reynolds would obey her grandfather’s slightest summons, as it was her duty to do, and would be with him as soon as possible, if this would be more agreeable to him. “I will write to her instantly,” said his lordship, “if you will commission me.”

“No, my lord, I do not commission — I will go — I think nothing, I say, of a journey of a hundred and sixty miles — I’ll go — and set out to-morrow morning.”

Lord Colambre and the count, perfectly satisfied with the result of their visit, now thought it best to leave old Reynolds at liberty to rest himself, after so many strong and varied feelings. They paid their parting compliments, settled the time for the next day’s journey, and were just going to quit the room, when Lord Colambre heard in the passage a well-known voice — the voice of Mrs. Petito.

“Oh, no, my Lady Dashfort’s best compliments, and I will call again.”

“No, no,” cried old Reynolds, pulling his bell; “I’ll have no calling again — I’ll be hanged if I do! Let her in now, and I’ll see her — Jack! let in that woman now or never.”

“The lady’s gone, sir, out of the street door.”

“After her, then — now or never, tell her.”

“Sir, she was in a hackney coach.”

Old Reynolds jumped up, and went to the window himself, and, seeing the hackney coachman just turning, beckoned at the window, and Mrs. Petito was set down again, and ushered in by Jack, who announced her as, “the lady, sir.” The only lady he had seen in that house.

“My dear Mr. Reynolds, I’m so obliged to you for letting me in,” cried Mrs. Petito, adjusting her shawl in the passage, and speaking in a voice and manner well mimicked after her betters. “You are so very good and kind, and I am so much obliged to you.”

“You are not obliged to me, and I am neither good nor kind,” said old Reynolds.

“You strange man,” said Mrs. Petito, advancing graceful in shawl drapery; but she stopped short. “My Lord Colambre and Count O’Halloran, as I hope to be saved!”

“I did not know Mrs. Petito was an acquaintance of yours, gentlemen,” said Mr. Reynolds, smiling shrewdly.

Count O’Halloran was too polite to deny his acquaintance with a lady who challenged it by thus naming him; but he had not the slightest recollection of her, though it seems he had met her on the stairs when he visited Lady Dashfort at Killpatricks-town. Lord Colambre was “indeed undeniably an old acquaintance:” and as soon as she had recovered from her first natural start and vulgar exclamation, she with very easy familiarity hoped “my Lady Clonbrony, and my Lord, and Miss Nugent, and all her friends in the family, were well;” and said, “she did not know whether she was to congratulate his lordship or not upon Miss Broadhurst, my Lady Berryl’s marriage, but she should soon have to hope for his lordship’s congratulations for another marriage in her present family — Lady Isabel to Colonel Heathcock, who was come in for a large portion, and they are buying the wedding clothes — sights of clothes — and the di’monds, this day; and Lady Dashfort and my Lady Isabel sent me especially, sir, to you, Mr. Reynolds, and to tell you, sir, before any body else; and to hope the cheese come safe up again at last; and to ask whether the Iceland moss agrees with your chocolate, and is palatable? it’s the most diluent thing upon the universal earth, and the most tonic and fashionable — the Duchess of Torcaster takes it always for breakfast, and Lady St. James too is quite a convert, and I hear the Duke of V—— takes it too.”

“And the devil may take it too, for any thing that I care,” said old Reynolds.

“Oh, my dear, dear sir! you are so refractory a patient.”

“I am no patient at all, ma’am, and have no patience either: I am as well as you are, or my Lady Dashfort either, and hope, God willing, long to continue so.”

Mrs. Petito smiled aside at Lord Colambre, to mark her perception of the man’s strangeness. Then, in a cajoling voice, addressing herself to the old gentleman, “Long, long, I hope, to continue so, if Heaven grants my daily and nightly prayers, and my Lady Dashfort’s also. So, Mr. Reynolds, if the ladies’ prayers are of any avail, you ought to be purely, and I suppose ladies’ prayers have the precedence in efficacy. But it was not of prayers and death-bed affairs I came commissioned to treat — but of weddings my diplomacy was to speak: and to premise my Lady Dashfort would have come herself in her carriage, but is hurried out of her senses, and my Lady Isabel could not in proper modesty; so they sent me as their double, to hope you, my dear Mr. Reynolds, who is one of the family relations, will honour the wedding with your presence.”

“It would be no honour, and they know that as well as I do,” said the intractable Mr. Reynolds. “It will be no advantage, either; but that they do not know as well as I do. Mrs. Petito, to save you and your lady all trouble about me in future, please to let my Lady Dashfort know that I have just received and read the certificate of my son Captain Reynolds’ marriage with Miss St. Omar. I have acknowledged the marriage. Better late than never; and to-morrow morning, God willing, shall set out with this young nobleman for Buxton, where I hope to see, and intend publicly to acknowledge, my grand-daughter — provided she will acknowledge me.”

Crimini!” exclaimed Mrs. Petito, “what new turns are here? Well, sir, I shall tell my lady of the metamorphoses that have taken place, though by what magic I can’t guess. But, since it seems annoying and inopportune, I shall make my finale, and shall thus leave a verbal P.P.C. — as you are leaving town, it seems, for Buxton so early in the morning. My Lord Colambre, if I see rightly into a millstone, as I hope and believe I do on the present occasion, I have to congratulate your lordship (haven’t I?) upon something like a succession, or a windfall, in this denewment. And I beg you’ll make my humble respects acceptable to the ci-devant Miss Grace Nugent that was; and I won’t derrogate her by any other name in the interregnum, as I am persuaded it will only be a temporary name, scarce worth assuming, except for the honour of the public adoption; and that will, I’m confident, be soon exchanged for a viscount’s title, or I have no sagacity or sympathy. I hope I don’t (pray don’t let me) put you to the blush, my lord.”

Lord Colambre would not have let her, if he could have helped it.

“Count O’Halloran, your most obedient! I had the honour of meeting you at Killpatricks-town,” said Mrs. Petito, backing to the door, and twitching her shawl. She stumbled, nearly fell down, over the large dog — caught by the door, and recovered herself — Hannibal rose and shook his ears. “Poor fellow! you are of my acquaintance, too.” She would have stroked his head; but Hannibal walked off indignant, and so did she.

Thus ended certain hopes: for Mrs. Petito had conceived that her diplomacy might be turned to account; that in her character of an ambassadress, as Lady Dashfort’s double, by the aid of Iceland moss in chocolate, of flattery properly administered, and of bearing with all her dear Mr. Reynolds’ oddnesses and rough-nesses, she might in time — that is to say, before he made a new will — become his dear Mrs. Petito; or (for stranger things have happened and do happen every day), his dear Mrs. Reynolds! Mrs. Petito, however, was good at a retreat; and she flattered herself that at least nothing of this underplot had appeared: and at all events she secured, by her services in this embassy, the long looked-for object of her ambition, Lady Dashfort’s scarlet velvet gown —“not yet a thread the worse for the wear!” One cordial look at this comforted her for the loss of her expected octogenaire; and she proceeded to discomfit her lady, by repeating the message with which strange old Mr. Reynolds had charged her. So ended all Lady Dashfort’s hopes of his fortune.

Since the death of his youngest son, she had been indefatigable in her attentions, and sanguine in her hopes: the disappointment affected both her interest and her pride, as an intrigante. It was necessary, however, to keep her feelings to herself; for if Heathcock should hear any thing of the matter before the articles were signed, he might “be off!”— so she put him and Lady Isabel into her coach directly — drove to Rundell and Bridges’, to make sure at all events of the jewels.

In the mean time Count O’Halloran and Lord Colambre, delighted with the result of their visit, took leave of Mr. Reynolds, after having arranged the journey, and appointed the hour for setting off the next day. Lord Colambre proposed to call upon Mr. Reynolds in the evening, and introduce his father, Lord Clonbrony; but Mr. Reynolds said, “No, no! I’m not ceremonious. I have given you proofs enough of that, I think, in the short time we’ve been already acquainted. Time enough to introduce your father to me when we are in a carriage, going our journey: then we can talk, and get acquainted: but merely to come this evening in a hurry, and say, ‘Lord Clonbrony, Mr. Reynolds; — Mr. Reynolds, Lord Clonbrony’— and then bob our two heads at one another, and scrape one foot back, and away! — where’s the use of that nonsense at my time of life, or at any time of life? No, no! we have enough to do without that, I dare say. — Good morning to you, Count O’Halloran! I thank you heartily. From the first moment I saw you, I liked you: lucky too, that you brought your dog with you! ’Twas Hannibal made me first let you in; I saw him over the top of the blind. Hannibal, my good fellow! I’m more obliged to you than you can guess.”

“So are we all,” said Lord Colambre.

Hannibal was well patted, and then they parted. In returning home they met Sir James Brooke.

“I told you,” said Sir James, “I should be in London almost as soon as you. Have you found old Reynolds?”

“Just come from him.”

“How does your business prosper? I hope as well as mine.”

A history of all that had passed up to the present moment was given, and hearty congratulations received.

“Where are you going now, Sir James? — cannot you come with us?” said Lord Colambre and the count.

“Impossible,” replied Sir James; —“but, perhaps, you can come with me — I’m going to Rundell and Bridges’, to give some old family diamonds either to be new set or exchanged. Count O’Halloran, I know you are a judge of these things; pray come and give me your opinion.”

“Better consult your bride elect!” said the count.

“No; she knows little of the matter — and cares less,” replied Sir James.

“Not so this bride elect, or I mistake her much,” said the count, as they passed by the window, at Rundell and Bridges’, and saw Lady Isabel, who, with Lady Dashfort, had been holding consultation deep with the jeweller; and Heathcock, playing personnage muet.

Lady Dashfort, who had always, as old Reynolds expressed it, “her head upon her shoulders,”— presence of mind where her interests were concerned, ran to the door before the count and Lord Colambre could enter, giving a hand to each — as if they had all parted the best friends in the world.

“How do? how do? — Give you joy! give me joy! and all that. But mind! not a word,” said she, laying her finger upon her lips, “not a word before Heathcock of old Reynolds, or of the best part of the old fool — his fortune!”

The gentlemen bowed, in sign of submission to her ladyship’s commands; and comprehended that she feared Heathcock might be off, if the best part of his bride (her fortune, or her expectations) were lowered in value or in prospect.

“How low is she reduced,” whispered Lord Colambre, “when such a husband is thought a prize — and to be secured by a manoeuvre!” He sighed.

“Spare that generous sigh!” said Sir James Brooke: “it is wasted.”

Lady Isabel, as they approached, turned from a mirror, at which she was trying on a diamond crescent. Her face clouded at the sight of Count O’Halloran and Lord Colambre, and grew dark as hatred when she saw Sir James Brooke. She walked away to the farther end of the shop, and asked one of the shopmen the price of a diamond necklace, which lay upon the counter.

The man said he really did not know; it belonged to Lady Oranmore; it had just been new set for one of her ladyship’s daughters, “who is going to be married to Sir James Brooke — one of the gentlemen, my lady, who are just come in.”

Then, calling to his master, he asked him the price of the necklace: he named the value, which was considerable.

“I really thought Lady Oranmore and her daughters were vastly too philosophical to think of diamonds,” said Lady Isabel to her mother, with a sort of sentimental sneer in her voice and countenance. “But it is some comfort to me to find, in these pattern-women, philosophy and love do not so wholly engross the heart, that they

“‘Feel every vanity in fondness lost.’”

“‘Twould be difficult, in some cases,” thought many present.

“‘Pon honour, di’monds are cursed expensive things, I know!” said Heathcock. “But, be that as it may,” whispered he to the lady, though loud enough to be heard by others, “I’ve laid a damned round wager, that no woman’s diamonds married this winter, under a countess, in Lon’on, shall eclipse Lady Isabel Heathcock’s! and Mr. Rundell here’s to be judge.”

Lady Isabel paid for this promise one of her sweetest smiles; one of those smiles which she had formerly bestowed upon Lord Colambre, and which he had once fancied expressed so much sensibility — such discriminative and delicate penetration.

Our hero felt so much contempt, that he never wasted another sigh of pity for her degradation. Lady Dashfort came up to him as he was standing alone; and, whilst the count and Sir James were settling about the diamonds, “My Lord Colambre,” said she, in a low voice, “I know your thoughts, and I could moralize as well as you, if I did not prefer laughing — you are right enough; and so am I, and so is Isabel; we are all right. For look here: women have not always the liberty of choice, and therefore they can’t be expected to have always the power of refusal.”

The mother, satisfied with her convenient optimism, got into her carriage with her daughter, her daughter’s diamonds, and her precious son-in-law, her daughter’s companion for life.

“The more I see,” said Count O’Halloran to Lord Colambre, as they left the shop, “the more I find reason to congratulate you upon your escape, my dear lord.”

“I owe it not to my own wit or wisdom,” said Lord Colambre; “but much to love, and much to friendship,” added he, turning to Sir James Brooke: “here was the friend who early warned me against the siren’s voice; who, before I knew the Lady Isabel, told me what I have since found to be true, that

“‘Two passions alternately govern her fate — Her business is love, but her pleasure is hate,’”

“That is dreadfully severe, Sir James,” said Count O’Halloran; “but, I am afraid, is just.”

“I am sure it is just, or I would not have said it,” replied Sir James Brooke. “For the foibles of the sex, I hope, I have as much indulgence as any man, and for the errors of passion as much pity; but I cannot repress the indignation, the abhorrence I feel against women cold and vain, who use their wit and their charms only to make others miserable.”

Lord Colambre recollected at this moment Lady Isabel’s look and voice, when she declared that she would let her little finger be cut off to purchase the pleasure of inflicting on Lady De Cressy, for one hour, the torture of jealousy.

“Perhaps,” continued Sir James Brooke, “now that I am going to marry into an Irish family, I may feel, with peculiar energy, disapprobation of this mother and daughter on another account; but you, Lord Colambre, will do me the justice to recollect, that before I had any personal interest in the country, I expressed, as a general friend to Ireland, antipathy to those who return the hospitality they received from a warm-hearted people, by publicly setting the example of elegant sentimental hypocrisy, or daring disregard of decorum, by privately endeavouring to destroy the domestic peace of families, on which, at last, public as well as private virtue and happiness depend. I do rejoice, my dear Lord Colambre, to hear you say that I had any share in saving you from the siren; and now I will never speak of these ladies more. I am sorry you cannot stay in town to see — but why should I be sorry — we shall meet again, I trust, and I shall introduce you; and you, I hope, will introduce me to a very different charmer. Farewell! — you have my warm good wishes, wherever you go.”

Sir James turned off quickly to the street in which Lady Oranmore lived, and Lord Colambre had not time to tell him that he knew and admired his intended bride. Count O’Halloran promised to do this for him.

“And now,” said the good count, “I am to take leave of you; and I assure you I do it with so much reluctance, that nothing less than positive engagements to stay in town would prevent me from setting off with you to-morrow; but I shall be soon, very soon, at liberty to return to Ireland; and Clonbrony Castle, if you will give me leave, I will see before I see Halloran Castle.”

Lord Colambre joyfully thanked his friend for this promise.

“Nay, it is to indulge myself. I long to see you happy — long to behold the choice of such a heart as yours. Pray do not steal a march upon me — let me know in time. I will leave every thing — even my friend the minister’s secret expedition — for your wedding. But I trust I shall be in time.”

“Assuredly you will, my dear count; if ever that wedding —”

If,” repeated the count.

If,” repeated Lord Colambre. “Obstacles which, when we last parted, appeared to me invincible, prevented my having ever even attempted to make an impression on the heart of the woman I love: and if you knew her, count, as well as I do, you would know that her love could ‘not unsought be won.’”

“Of that I cannot doubt, or she would not be your choice; but when her love is sought, we have every reason to hope,” said the count, smiling, “that it may, because it ought to be, won by tried honour and affection. I only require to be left in hope.”

“Well, I leave you hope,” said Lord Colambre: “Miss Nugent — Miss Reynolds, I should say, has been in the habit of considering a union with me as impossible; my mother early instilled this idea into her mind. Miss Nugent thought that duty forbad her to think of me; she told me so: I have seen it in all her conduct and manners. The barriers of habit, the ideas of duty, cannot, ought not, to be thrown down, or suddenly changed, in a well-regulated female mind. And you, I am sure, know enough of the best female hearts, to be aware that time —”

“Well, well, let this dear good charmer take her own time, provided there’s none given to affectation, or prudery, or coquetry; and from all these, of course, she must be free; and of course I must be content. Adieu.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/edgeworth/maria/absentee/chapter16.html

Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:01