Ormond, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 20.

New circumstances arose, which unexpectedly changed the course of our hero’s mind. There was a certain Lady Millicent, whose name Lady Norton had read from her memorandum-book among the list of guests expected at Castle Hermitage. Sir Ulick, as Ormond recollected, had pronounced her to be a charming, elegant, fascinating creature. Sir Ulick’s praise was sometimes exaggerated, and often lavished from party motives, or given half in jest and half in earnest, against his conscience. But when he did speak sincerely, no man’s taste or judgment as to female beauty, manners, and character, could be more safely trusted.

He was sincere in all he said of Lady Millicent’s appearance and manners; but as to the rest, he did not think himself bound to tell all he knew about her.

Her ladyship arrived at Castle Hermitage. Ormond saw her, and thought that his guardian had not in the least exaggerated as to her beauty, grace, or elegance.

She was a very young widow, still in mourning for her husband, a gallant officer, who had fallen the preceding year at a siege in Flanders.

Lady Millicent, as Lady Norton said, had not recovered, and she feared never would recover from the shock her health had received at the time of her husband’s death. This account interested Ormond exceedingly for the young widow.

There was something peculiarly engaging in the pensive softness and modesty of her manner. It appeared free from affectation. Far from making any display of her feelings, she seemed as much as possible to repress them, and to endeavour to be cheerful, that she might not damp the gaiety of others. Her natural disposition, Lady Norton said, was very sprightly; and however passive and subdued she might appear at present, she was of a high independent spirit, that would, on any great occasion, think and act for itself. Better and better — each trait suited Ormond’s character more and more: his own observation confirmed the high opinion which the praises of her friend tended to inspire. Ormond was particularly pleased with the indulgent manner in which Lady Millicent spoke of her own sex; she was free from that propensity to detraction which had so disgusted him in his last love. Even of those by whom, as it had been hinted to him, she had been hardly treated, she spoke with gentleness and candour. Recollecting Miss Lardner’s assertion, that “Lady Annaly had used Lady Millicent barbarously,” he purposely mentioned Lady Annaly, to hear what she would say. “Lady Annaly,” said she, “is a most respectable woman — she has her prejudices — who is there that has not? — It is unfortunate for me that she has been prepossessed against me. She is one of my nearest connexions by marriage — one to whom I might have looked in difficulty and distress — one of the few persons whose assistance and interference I would willingly have accepted, and would even have stooped to ask; but unhappily — I can tell you no more,” said she, checking herself: “it is every way an unfortunate affair; and,” added she, after a deep sigh, “the most unfortunate part of it is, that it is my own fault.”

That Ormond could hardly believe; and whether it were or not, whatever the unfortunate affair might be, the candour, the gentleness, with which she spoke, even when her feelings were obviously touched and warm, interested him deeply in her favour. He had heard that the Annalys were just returning to Ireland, and he determined to go as soon as possible to see them: he hoped they would come to Castle Hermitage, and that this coolness might be made up. Meantime the more he saw of Lady Millicent, the more he was charmed with her. Sir Ulick was much engaged with various business in the mornings, and Lady Norton, Lady Millicent, and Ormond, spent their time together: walking, driving in the sociable, or boating on the lake, they were continually together. Lady Norton, a very good kind of well-bred little woman, was a nonentity in conversation; but she never interrupted it, nor laid the slightest restraint on any one by her presence, which, indeed, was usually forgotten by Ormond. His conversation with Lady Millicent generally took a sentimental turn. She did not always speak sense, but she talked elegant nonsense with a sweet persuasive voice and eloquent eyes: hers was a kind of exalted sentimental morality, referring every thing to feeling, and to the notion of sacrifice, rather than to a sense of duty, principle, or reason. She was all for sensibility and enthusiasm — enthusiasm in particular — with her there was no virtue without it. Acting from the hope of making yourself or others happy, or from any view of utility, was acting merely from low selfish motives. Her “point of virtue was so high, that ordinary mortals might well console themselves by perceiving the impossibility of ever reaching it.” Exalted to the clouds, she managed matters as she pleased there, and made charming confusion. When she condescended to return to earth, and attempted to define — no, not to define — definitions were death to her imagination! — but to describe her notions, she was nearly unintelligible. She declared, however, that she understood herself perfectly well; and Ormond, deceived by eloquence, of which he was a passionate admirer, thought that he understood when he only felt. Her ideas of virtue were carried to such extremes, that they touched the opposite vices — in truth, there was nothing to prevent them; for the line between right and wrong, that line which should be strongly marked, was effaced: so delicately had sentiment shaded off its boundaries. These female metaphysics, this character of exalted imagination and sensitive softness, was not quite so cheap and common some years ago, as it has lately become. The consequences to which it practically leads were not then fully foreseen and understood. At all times a man experienced in female character, who had any knowledge of the world, even supposing he had no skill in metaphysics, would easily have seen to what all this tends, and where it usually terminates; and such a man would never have thought of marrying Lady Millicent. But Ormond was inexperienced: the whole, matter and manner, was new to him; he was struck with the delicacy and sensibility of the fair sophist, and with all that was ingenious and plausible in the doctrine, instead of being alarmed by its dangerous tendency. It should be observed, in justice to Lady Millicent, that she was perfectly sincere — if we may use the expression of good faith in absurdities. She did not use this sentimental sophistry, as it has since been too often employed by many, to veil from themselves the criminality of passion, or to mark the deformity of vice: there was, perhaps, the more immediate hazard of her erring from ignorance and rashness; but there was also, in her youth and innocence, a chance that she might instinctively start back the moment she should see the precipice.

One evening Sir Ulick was talking of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, a book at that time much in vogue, but which the good sense and virtue of England soon cast into disrepute; and which, in spite of the charms of wit and style, in spite of many sparkling and some valuable observations mixed with its corruption, has since sunk, fortunately for the nation, almost into oblivion. But when these private letters were first published, and when my lord, who now appears so stiff and awkward, was in the fashion of the day, there was no withstanding it. The book was a manual of education — with the vain hope of getting cheaply second-hand knowledge of the world, it was read universally by every young man entering life, from the nobleman’s son, while his hair was powdering, to the ‘prentice thumbing it surreptitiously behind the counter. Sir Ulick O’Shane, of course, recommended it to his ward: to Lady Millicent’s credit, she inveighed against it with honest indignation.

“What!” said Sir Ulick, smiling, “you are shocked at the idea of Lord Chesterfield’s advising his pupil at Paris to prefer a reputable affair with a married woman, to a disreputable intrigue with an opera girl! Well, I believe you are right as an Englishwoman, my dear Lady Millicent; and I am clear, at all events, that you are right, as a woman, to blush so eloquently with virtuous indignation:— Lady Annaly herself could not have spoken and looked the thing better.”

“So I was just thinking,” said Ormond.

“Only the difference, Harry, between a young and an elderly woman,” said Sir Ulick. “Truths divine come mended from the lips of youth and beauty.”

His compliment was lost upon Lady Millicent. At the first mention of Lady Annaly’s name she had sighed deeply, and had fallen into reverie — and Ormond, as he looked at her, fell into raptures at the tender expression of her countenance. Sir Ulick tapped him on the shoulder, and drawing him a little on one side, “Take care of your heart, young man,” whispered he: “no serious attachment here — remember, I warn you.” Lady Norton joined them, and nothing more was said.

“Take care of my heart,” thought Ormond: “why should I guard it against such a woman? — what better can I do with it than offer it to such a woman?”

A thought had crossed Ormond’s mind which recurred at this instant. From the great admiration Sir Ulick expressed for Lady Millicent, and the constant attention — more than gallant — tender attention, which Sir Ulick paid her, Ormond was persuaded that, but for that half of the broken chain of matrimony which still encumbered him whom it could not bind, Sir Ulick would be very glad to offer Lady Millicent not only his heart but his hand. Suspecting this partiality, and imagining a latent jealousy, Ormond did not quite like to consult his guardian about his own sentiments and proceedings. He wished previously to consult his impartial and most safe friend, Dr. Cambray. But Dr. Cambray had been absent from home ever since the arrival of Lady Millicent. The doctor and his family had been on a visit to a relation at a distance. Ormond, impatient for their return, had every day questioned the curate; and at last, in reply to his regular question of “When do you expect the doctor, sir?” he heard the glad tidings of “We expect him to-morrow, or next day, sir, positively.”

The next day, Ormond, who was now master of a very elegant phaeton and beautiful gray horses, and, having for some time been under the tuition of that knowing whip Tom Darrell, could now drive to admiration, prevailed upon Lady Millicent to trust herself with him in his phaeton — Sir Ulick came up just as Ormond had handed Lady Millicent into the carriage, and, pressing on his ward’s shoulder, said, “Have you the reins safe?”

“Yes.”

“That’s well — remember now, Harry Ormond,” said he, with a look which gave a double meaning to his words, “remember, I charge you, the warning I gave you last niwht — drive carefully — pray, young sir, look before you — no rashness! — young horses these,” added he, patting the horses —“pray be careful, Harry.”

Ormond promised to be very careful, and drove off.

“I suppose,” thought he, “my guardian must have some good reason for this reiterated caution; I will not let her see my sentiments till I know his reasons; besides, as Dr. Cambray returns to-morrow, I can wait another day.”

Accordingly, though not without putting considerable restraint upon himself, Ormond talked of the beauties of nature, and of indifferent matters. The conversation rather nagged, and sometimes on her ladyship’s side as well as on his. He fancied that she was more reserved than usual, and a little embarrassed. He exerted himself to entertain her — that was but common civility; — he succeeded, was pleased to see her spirits rise, and her embarrassment wear off. When she revived, her manner was this day so peculiarly engaging, and the tones of her voice so soft and winning, that it required all Ormond’s resolution to refrain from declaring his passion. Now, for the first time, he conceived a hope that he might make himself agreeable to her; that he might, in time, soothe her grief, and restore her to happiness. Her expressions were all delicately careful to imply nothing but friendship — but a woman’s friendship insensibly leads to love. As they were returning home after a delightful drive, they entered upon this subject, so favourable to the nice casuistry of sentiment, and to the enthusiastic eloquence of passion — when, at an opening in the road, a carriage crossed them so suddenly, that Ormond had but just time to pull up his horses.

“Dr. Cambray, I declare: the very man I wished to see.”

The doctor, whose countenance had been full of affectionate pleasure at the first sight of his young friend, changed when he saw who was in the phaeton with him. The doctor looked panic-struck.

“Lady Millicent, Dr. Cambray,” Ormond began the introduction; but each bowing, said, in a constrained voice, “I have the honour of knowing —” “I have the pleasure of being acquainted —”

The pleasure and honour seemed to be painful and embarrassing to both.

“Don’t let us detain you,” said the doctor; “but I hope, Mr. Ormond, you will let me see you as soon as you can at Vicar’s Dale.”

“You would not doubt that, my dear doctor,” said Ormond, “if you knew how impatient I have been for your return — I will be with you before you are all out of the carriage.”

“The sooner the better,” said the doctor.

“The sooner the better,” echoed the friendly voices of Mrs. Cambray and her daughter.

Ormond drove on; but from this moment, till they reached Castle Hermitage, no more agreeable conversation passed between him and his fair companion. It was all constrained.

“I was not aware that Dr. Cambray had the honour of being acquainted with Lady Millicent,” said Ormond.

“O yes! I had the pleasure some time ago,” replied Lady Millicent, “when he was in Dublin — not lately — I was a great favourite of his once.”

“Once, and always, I should have thought.”

“Dr. Cambray’s a most amiable, respectable man,” said her ladyship: “he must be a great acquisition in this neighbourhood — a good clergyman is valuable every where; in Ireland most especially, where the spirit of conciliation is much wanted. ’Tis unknown how much a good clergyman may do in Ireland.”

“Very true — certainly.”

So with a repetition of truisms, interspersed with reflections on the state of Ireland, tithes, and the education of the poor, they reached Castle Hermitage.

“Lady Millicent, you look pale,” said Sir Ulick, as he handed her out.

“Oh, no, I have had a most delightful drive.”

Harry just stayed to say that Dr. Cambray was returned, and that he must run to see him, and off he went. He found the doctor in his study.

“Well, my dear doctor,” said Ormond, in breathless consternation, “what is the matter?”

“Nothing, I hope,” said the doctor, looking earnestly in Ormond’s face; “and yet your countenance tells me that my fears are well founded.”

“What is it you fear, sir?”

“The lady who was in the phaeton with you, Lady Millicent, I fear —”

“Why should you fear, sir? — Oh! tell me at once — what do you know of her?”

“At once, then, I know her to be a very imprudent, though hope she is still an innocent woman.”

“Innocent!” repeated Ormond. “Good Heavens! is it possible that there can be any doubt? Imprudent! My dear doctor, perhaps you have been misinformed.”

“All I know on the subject is this,” said Dr. Cambray: “during Lord Millicent’s absence on service, a gentleman of high rank and gallantry paid assiduous attention to Lady Millicent. Her relation and friend, Lady Annaly, advised her to break off all intercourse with this gentleman in such a decided manner, as to silence scandal. Lady Millicent followed but half the advice of her friend; she discountenanced the public attentions of her admirer, but she took opportunities of meeting him at private parties: Lady Annaly again interfered — Lady Millicent was offended: but the death of her husband saved her from farther danger, and opened her eyes to the views of a man, who thought her no longer worthy his pursuit, when he might have her for life.”

Ormond saw that there was no resource for him but immediately to quit Castle Hermitage; therefore, the moment he returned, he informed Sir Ulick of his determination, pointing out to him the impropriety of his remaining in the society of Lady Millicent, when his opinion of her character and the sentiments which had so strongly influenced his behaviour, were irrevocably changed. This was an unexpected blow upon Sir Ulick: he had his private reasons for wishing to detain Ormond at Castle Hermitage till he was of age, to dissipate his mind by amusement and variety, and to obtain over it an habitual guidance.

Ormond proposed immediately to visit the continent: by the time he should arrive at Paris, Dora would be settled there, and he should be introduced into the best company. The subtle Sir Ulick, perceiving that Ormond must change his quarters, advised him to see something of his own country before he went abroad. In the course of a few days, various letters of recommendation were procured for him from Sir Ulick and his connexions; and, what was of still more consequence, from Dr. Cambray and his friends.

During this interval, Ormond once more visited the Black Islands; scenes which recalled a thousand tender, and a few embittering, recollections. He was greeted with heartfelt affection by many of the inhabitants of the island, with whom he had passed some of his boyish days. Of some scenes he had to be ashamed, but of others he was justly proud; and from every tongue he heard the delightful praises of his departed friend and benefactor.

His little farm had been well managed during his absence; the trees he had planted began to make some appearance; and, upon the whole, his visit to the Black Islands revived his generous feelings, and refreshed those traces of early virtue which had been engraven on his heart.

At Castle Hermitage every thing had been prepared for his departure; and upon visiting his excellent friend at the vicarage, he found the whole family heartily interested in his welfare, and ready to assist him, by letters of introduction to the best people in every part of Ireland which Ormond intended to visit.

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:02