Ormond, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 8.

It is said that the Turks have a very convenient recording angel, who, without dropping a tear to blot out that which might be wished unsaid or undone, fairly shuts his eyes, and forbears to record whatever is said or done by man in three circumstances: when he is drunk, when he is in a passion, and while he is under age. What the under age, or what the years of discretion of a Turk may be, we do not at this moment recollect. We only know that our own hero is not yet twenty. Without being quite as accommodating as the Mahometan angel, we should wish to obliterate from our record some months of Ormond’s existence. He felt and was ashamed of his own degradation; but, after having lost, or worse than lost, a winter of his life, it was in vain to lament; or rather, it was not enough to weep over the loss — how to repair it was the question.

Whenever Ormond returned to his better self, whenever he thought of improving, he remembered Lady Annaly; and he now recollected with shame, that he had never had the grace to answer or to thank her for her letter. He had often thought of writing, but he had put it off from day to day, and now months had passed; he wrote a sad scrawling hand, and he had always been ashamed that Lady Annaly should see it; but now the larger shame got the better of the lesser, and he determined he would write. He looked for her letter, to read it over again before he answered it — the letter was very safe, for he considered it as his greatest treasure.

On recurring to the letter, he found that she had mentioned a present of books which she intended for him: a set of books which belonged to her son, Sir Herbert Annaly, and of which she found they had duplicates in their library. She had ordered the box containing them to be sent to Annaly, and had desired her agent there to forward it; but in case any delay should occur, she begged Mr. Ormond would take the trouble to inquire for them himself. This whole affair about the books had escaped Ormond’s memory: he felt himself blush all over when he read the letter again; and sent off a messenger immediately to the agent at Annaly, who had kept the box till it was inquired for. It was too heavy for the boy to carry, and he returned, saying that two men would not carry it, nor four — a slight exaggeration! A car was sent for it, and at last Harry obtained possession of the books. It was an excellent collection of what may be called the English and French classics: the French books were, at this time, quite useless to him, for he could not read French. Lady Annaly, however, sent these books on purpose to induce him to learn a language, which, if he should go into the army, as he seemed inclined to do, would be particularly useful to him. Lady Annaly observed that Mr. Ormond, wherever he might be in Ireland, would probably find even the priest of the parish a person who could assist him sufficiently in learning French; as most of the Irish parish priests were, at that time, educated at St. Omer’s or Louvain.

Father Jos had been at St. Omer’s, and Harry resolved to attack him with a French grammar and dictionary; but the French that Father Jos had learnt at St. Omer’s was merely from ear — he could not bear the sight of a French grammar. Harry was obliged to work on by himself. He again put off writing to thank Lady Annaly, till he could tell her that he had obeyed her commands; and that he could read at least a page of Gil Blas. Before this was accomplished, he learnt from the agent that Lady Annaly was in great affliction about her son, who had broken a blood-vessel. He could not think of intruding upon her at such a time — and, in short, he put it off till it seemed too late to write at all.

Among the English books was one in many volumes, which did not seize his attention forcibly, like Tom Jones, at once, but which won upon him by degrees, drew him on against his will, and against his taste. He hated moralizing and reflections; and there was here an abundance both of reflections and morality; these he skipped over, however, and went on. The hero and the heroine too were of a stiff fashion, which did not suit his taste; yet still there was something in the book that, in spite of the terrible array of good people, captivated his attention. The heroine’s perpetual egotism disgusted him — she was always too good and too full of herself — and she wrote dreadfully long letters. The hero’s dress and manner were too splendid, too formal, for every day use: at first he detested Sir Charles Grandison, who was so different from the friends he loved in real life, or the heroes he had admired in books; just as in old portraits, we are at first struck with the costume, but soon, if the picture be really by a master hand, our attention is fixed on the expression of the features and the life of the figure.

Sensible as Ormond was of the power of humour and ridicule, he was still more susceptible, as all noble natures are, of sympathy with elevated sentiments and with generous character. The character of Sir Charles Grandison, in spite of his ceremonious bowing on the hand, touched the nobler feelings of our young hero’s mind, inspired him with virtuous emulation, and made him ambitious to be a gentleman in the best and highest sense of the word: in short, it completely counteracted in his mind the effects of his late study. All the generous feelings which were so congenial to his own nature, and which he had seen combined in Tom Jones, as if necessarily, with the habits of an adventurer, a spendthrift, and a rake, he now saw united with high moral and religious principles, in the character of a man of virtue, as well as a man of honour; a man of cultivated Understanding, and accomplished manners. In Sir Charles Grandison’s history, he read that of a gentleman, who, fulfilling every duty of his station in society, eminently useful, respected and beloved, as brother, friend, master of a family, guardian, and head of a large estate, was admired by his own sex, and, what struck Ormond far more forcibly, was loved, passionately loved, by women — not by the low and profligate, but by the highest and most accomplished of the sex. Indeed, to him it appeared no fiction, while he was reading it; his imagination was so full of Clementina, and the whole Porretta family, that he saw them in his sleeping and waking dreams. The deep pathos so affected him, that he could scarcely recall his mind to the low concerns of life. Once, when King Corny called him to go out shooting — he found him with red eyes. Harry was ashamed to tell him the cause, lest he should laugh at him. But Corny was susceptible of the same kind of enthusiasm himself; and though he had, as he said, never been regularly what is called a reading man, yet the books he had read left ineffaceable traces in his memory. Fictions, if they touched him at all, struck him with all the force of reality; and he never spoke of the characters as in a book, but as if they had lived and acted. Harry was glad to find that here again, as in most things, they sympathized, and suited each other.

But Corny, if ready to give sympathy, was likewise imperious in requiring it; and Harry was often obliged to make sudden transitions from his own thoughts and employments, to those of his friend. These transitions, however difficult and provoking at the time, were useful discipline to his mind, giving him that versatility, in which persons of powerful imagination, accustomed to live in retirement, and to command their own time and occupations, are often most deficient. At this period, when our young hero was suddenly seized with a voracious appetite for books, it was trying to his patience to be frequently interrupted.

“Come, come — Harry Bookworm you are growing! — no good! — come out!” cried King Corny. “Lay down whatever you have in your hand, and come off this minute, till I show you a badger at bay, with half-a-dozen dogs.”

“Yes, sir — this minute — be kind enough to wait one minute.”

“It has been hiding and skulking this week from me — we have got it out of its snug hole at last. I bid them keep the dogs off till you came. Don’t be waiting any longer. Come off, Harry, come! Phoo! phoo! That book will keep cold, and what is it? Oh! the last volume of Sir Charles — not worth troubling your eyes with. The badger is worth a hundred of it — not a pin’s worth in that volume but worked stools and chairs, and China jugs and mugs. Oh! throw it from you. Come away.”

Another time, at the very death of Clarissa, King Corny would have Harry out to see a Solan goose.

“Oh! let Clarissa die another time; come now, you that never saw a Solan goose — it looks for all the world as if it wore spectacles; Moriarty says so.”

Harry was carried off to see the goose in spectacles, and was pressed into the service of King Corny for many hours afterwards, to assist in searching for its eggs. One of the Black Islands was a bare, high, pointed, desert rock, in which the sea-fowl built; and here, in the highest point of rock, this Solan goose had deposited some of her eggs, instead of leaving them in nests on the ground, as she usually does. The more dangerous it was to obtain the eggs, which the bird had hidden in this pinnacle of the rock, the more eager Corny was to have them; and he, and Ormond, and Moriarty, were at this perilous work for hours. King Corny directing and bawling, and Moriarty and Ormond with pole, net, and polehook, swinging and leaping from one ledge of rock to another, clambering, clinging, sliding, pushing, and pulling each other alternately, from hold to hold, with frightful precipices beneath them. As soon as Ormond had warmed to the business, he was delighted with the dangerous pursuit; but suddenly, just as he had laid his hand on the egg, and that King Corny shouted in triumph, Harry, leaping back across the cleft in the rock, missed his footing and fell, and must have been dashed to pieces, but for a sort of projecting landing-place, on which he was caught, where he lay for some minutes stunned. The terror of poor Corny was such that he could neither move nor look up, till Moriarty called out to him, that Master Harry was safe all to a sprained ankle. The fall, and the sprain, would not have been deemed worthy of a place in these memoirs of our hero but from their consequences — the consequences not on his body but on his mind. He could not for some weeks afterwards stir out, or take any bodily exercise; confined to the house, and forced to sit still, he was glad to read, during these long hours, to amuse himself. When he had read all the novels in the collection, which were very few, he went on to other books. Even those, which were not mere works of amusement, he found more entertaining than netting, fishing-nets, or playing backgammon with Father Jos, who was always cross when he did not win. Kind-hearted King Corny, considering always that Harry’s sprain was incurred in his service, would have sat with him all day long; but this Harry would not suffer, for he knew that it was the greatest punishment to Corny to stay within doors a whole day. When Corny in the evening returned from his various out-of-doors occupations and amusements, Harry was glad to talk to him of what he had been reading, and to hear his odd summary reflections.

“Well, Harry, my boy, now I’ve told you how it has been with me all day, let’s hear how you have been getting on with your bookmen:— has it been a good day with you to-day? — were you with Shakspeare — worth all the rest — all the world in him?”

Corny was no respecter of authorities in hooks; a great name went for nothing with him — it did not awe his understanding in the slightest degree.

If it were poetry, “did it touch the heart, or inflame the imagination?” If it were history, “was it true?” If it were philosophy, “was it sound reasoning?” These were the questions he asked. “No cramming any thing down his throat,” he said. This daring temper of mind, though it sometimes led him wrong, was advantageous to his young friend. It wakened Ormond’s powers, and prevented his taking upon trust the assertions, or the reputations, even of great writers.

The spring was now returning, and Dora was to return with spring. He looked forward to her return as to a new era in his existence: then he should live in better company, he should see something better than he had seen of late — be something better. His chief, his best occupations during this winter, had been riding, leaping, and breaking in horses: he had broken in a beautiful mare for Dora. Dora, when a child, was very fond of riding, and constantly rode out with her father. At the time when Harry Ormond’s head was full of Tom Jones, Dora had always been his idea of Sophy Western, though nothing else that he could recollect in her person, mind, or manner, bore any resemblance to Sophia: and now that Tom Jones had been driven out of his head by Sir Charles Grandison; now that his taste for women was a little raised by the pictures which Richardson had left in his imagination, Dora, with equal facility, turned into his new idea of a heroine — not his heroine, for she was engaged to White Connal — merely a heroine in the abstract. Ormond had been warned that he was to consider Dora as a married woman — well, so he would, of course. She was to be Mrs. Connal — so much the better:— he should be quite at ease with her, and she should teach him French, and drawing, and dancing, and improve his manners. He was conscious that his manners had, since his coming to the Black Islands, rusticated sadly, and lost the little polish they had acquired at Castle Hermitage, and during one famous winter in Dublin. His language and dialect, he was afraid, had become somewhat vulgar; but Dora, who had been refined by her residence with her aunt, and by her dancing-master, would polish him, and set all to rights, in the most agreeable manner possible. In the course of these his speculations on his rapid improvements, and his reflections on the perfectibility of man’s nature under the tuition of woman, some idea of its fallibility did cross his imagination or his memory; but then he blamed, most unjustly, his imagination for the suggestion. The danger would prove, as he would have it, to be imaginary. What danger could there be, when he knew, as he began and ended by saying to himself, that he was to consider Dora as a married woman — Mrs. Connal?

Dora’s aunt, an aunt by the mother’s side, a maiden aunt, who had never before been at the Black Islands, and whom Ormond had never seen, was to accompany Dora on her return to Corny Castle: our young hero had settled it in his head that this aunt must be something like Aunt Ellenor in Sir Charles Grandison; a stiff-backed, prim, precise, old-fashioned looking aunt. Never was man’s astonishment more visible in his countenance than was that of Harry Ormond on the first sight of Dora’s aunt. His surprise was so great as to preclude the sight of Dora herself.

There was nothing surprising in the lady, but there was, indeed, an extraordinary difference between our hero’s preconceived notion, and the real person whom he now beheld. Mademoiselle— as Miss O’Faley was called, in honour of her French parentage and education, and in commemoration of her having at different periods spent above half her life in France, looking for an estate that could never he found — Mademoiselle was dressed in all the peculiarities of the French dress of that day; she was of that indefinable age, which the French describe by the happy phrase of “une femme d’un certain age,” and which Miss O’Faley happily translated, “a woman of no particular age.” Yet though of no particular age in the eye of politeness, to the vulgar eye she looked like what people, who knew no better, might call an elderly woman; but she was as alert and lively as a girl of fifteen: a little wrinkled, but withal in fine preservation. She wore abundance of rouge, obviously — still more obviously took superabundance of snuff — and without any obvious motive, continued to play unremittingly a pair of large black French eyes, in a manner impracticable to a mere Englishwoman, and which almost tempted the spectator to beg she would let them rest. Mademoiselle, or Miss O’Faley, was in fact half French and half Irish — born in France, she was the daughter of an officer of the Irish brigade, and of a French lady of good family. In her gestures, tones, and language, there was a striking mixture or rapid succession of French and Irish. When she spoke French, which she spoke well, and with a true Parisian accent, her voice, gestures, air, and ideas, were all French; and she looked and moved a well-born, well-bred woman: the moment she attempted to speak English, which she spoke with an inveterate brogue, her ideas, manner, air, voice, and gestures were Irish; she looked and moved a vulgar Irishwoman.

“What do you see so wonderful in Aunt O’Faley?” said Dora.

“Nothing — only —”

The sentence was never finished, and the young lady was satisfied; for she perceived that the course of his thoughts was interrupted, and all idea of her aunt effaced, the moment he turned his eyes upon herself. Dora, no longer a child and his playfellow, but grown and formed, was, and looked as if she expected to be treated as, a woman. She was exceedingly pretty, not regularly handsome, but with most brilliant eyes — there was besides a childishness in her face, and in her slight figure, which disarmed all criticism on her beauty, and which contrasted strikingly, yet as our hero thought agreeably, with her womanish airs and manner. Nothing but her external appearance could be seen this first evening — she was tired and went to bed early.

Ormond longed to see more of her, on whom so much of his happiness was to depend.

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