Fanshawe, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Chapter 6

“About her neck a packet-mail

Fraught with advice, some fresh, some stale,

Of men that walked when they were dead.”

HUDIBRAS.

Scarcely a word had passed between Dr. Melmoth and Ellen Langton, on their way home; for, though the former was aware that his duty towards his ward would compel him to inquire into the motives of her conduct, the tenderness of his heart prompted him to defer the scrutiny to the latest moment. The same tenderness induced him to connive at Ellen’s stealing secretly up to her chamber, unseen by Mrs. Melmoth; to render which measure practicable, he opened the house-door very softly, and stood before his half-sleeping spouse (who waited his arrival in the parlor) without any previous notice. This act of the doctor’s benevolence was not destitute of heroism; for he was well assured that, should the affair come to the lady’s knowledge through any other channel, her vengeance would descend not less heavily on him for concealing, than on Ellen for perpetrating, the elopement. That she had, thus far, no suspicion of the fact, was evident from her composure, as well as from the reply to a question, which, with more than his usual art, her husband put to her respecting the non-appearance of his ward. Mrs. Melmoth answered, that Ellen had complained of indisposition, and after drinking, by her prescription, a large cup of herb-tea, had retired to her chamber early in the evening. Thankful that all was yet safe, the doctor laid his head upon his pillow; but, late as was the hour, his many anxious thoughts long drove sleep from his eyelids.

The diminution in the quantity of his natural rest did not, however, prevent Dr. Melmoth from rising at his usual hour, which at all seasons of the year was an early one. He found, on descending to the parlor, that breakfast was nearly in readiness; for the lady of the house (and, as a corollary, her servant-girl) was not accustomed to await the rising of the sun in order to commence her domestic labors. Ellen Langton, however, who had heretofore assimilated her habits to those of the family, was this morning invisible — a circumstance imputed by Mrs. Melmoth to her indisposition of the preceding evening, and by the doctor, to mortification on account of her elopement and its discovery.

“I think I will step into Ellen’s bedchamber,” said Mrs. Melmoth, “and inquire how she feels herself. The morning is delightful after the storm, and the air will do her good.”

“Had we not better proceed with our breakfast? If the poor child is sleeping, it were a pity to disturb her,” observed the doctor; for, besides his sympathy with Ellen’s feelings, he was reluctant, as if he were the guilty one, to meet her face.

“Well, be it so. And now sit down, doctor; for the hot cakes are cooling fast. I suppose you will say they are not so good as those Ellen made yesterday morning. I know not how you will bear to part with her, though the thing must soon be.”

“It will be a sore trial, doubtless,” replied Dr. Melmoth — “like tearing away a branch that is grafted on an old tree. And yet there will be a satisfaction in delivering her safe into her father’s hands.”

“A satisfaction for which you may thank me, doctor,” observed the lady. “If there had been none but you to look after the poor thing’s doings, she would have been enticed away long ere this, for the sake of her money.”

Dr. Melmoth’s prudence could scarcely restrain a smile at the thought that an elopement, as he had reason to believe, had been plotted, and partly carried into execution, while Ellen was under the sole care of his lady, and had been frustrated only by his own despised agency. He was not accustomed, however — nor was this an eligible occasion — to dispute any of Mrs. Melmoth’s claims to superior wisdom.

The breakfast proceeded in silence, or, at least, without any conversation material to the tale. At its conclusion, Mrs. Melmoth was again meditating on the propriety of entering Ellen’s chamber; but she was now prevented by an incident that always excited much interest both in herself and her husband.

This was the entrance of the servant, bearing the letters and newspaper, with which, once a fortnight, the mail-carrier journeyed up the valley. Dr. Melmoth’s situation at the head of a respectable seminary, and his character as a scholar, had procured him an extensive correspondence among the learned men of his own country; and he had even exchanged epistles with one or two of the most distinguished dissenting clergymen of Great Britain. But, unless when some fond mother enclosed a one-pound note to defray the private expenses of her son at college, it was frequently the case that the packets addressed to the doctor were the sole contents of the mail-bag. In the present instance, his letters were very numerous, and, to judge from the one he chanced first to open, of an unconscionable length. While he was engaged in their perusal, Mrs. Melmoth amused herself with the newspaper — a little sheet of about twelve inches square, which had but one rival in the country. Commencing with the title, she labored on through advertisements old and new, through poetry lamentably deficient in rhythm and rhymes, through essays, the ideas of which had been trite since the first week of the creation, till she finally arrived at the department that, a fortnight before, had contained the latest news from all quarters. Making such remarks upon these items as to her seemed good, the dame’s notice was at length attracted by an article which her sudden exclamation proved to possess uncommon interest. Casting her eye hastily over it, she immediately began to read aloud to her husband; but he, deeply engaged in a long and learned letter, instead of listening to what she wished to communicate, exerted his own lungs in opposition to hers, as is the custom of abstracted men when disturbed. The result was as follows:—

“A brig just arrived in the outer harbor,” began Mrs. Melmoth, “reports, that on the morning of the 25th ult.”— Here the doctor broke in, “Wherefore I am compelled to differ from your exposition of the said passage, for those reasons, of the which I have given you a taste; provided”— The lady’s voice was now almost audible, “ship bottom upward, discovered by the name on her stern to be the Ellen of”—“and in the same opinion are Hooker, Cotton, and divers learned divines of a later date.”

The doctor’s lungs were deep and strong, and victory seemed to incline toward him; but Mrs. Melmoth now made use of a tone whose peculiar shrillness, as long experience had taught her husband, augured a mood of mind not to be trifled with.

“On my word, doctor,” she exclaimed, “this is most unfeeling and unchristian conduct! Here am I endeavoring to inform you of the death of an old friend, and you continue as deaf as a post.”

Dr. Melmoth, who had heard the sound, without receiving the sense, of these words, now laid aside the letter in despair, and submissively requested to be informed of her pleasure.

“There, read for yourself,” she replied, handing him the paper, and pointing to the passage containing the important intelligence — “read, and then finish your letter, if you have a mind.”

He took the paper, unable to conjecture how the dame could be so much interested in any part of its contents; but, before he had read many words, he grew pale as death. “Good Heavens! what is this?” he exclaimed. He then read on, “being the vessel wherein that eminent son of New England, John Langton, Esq., had taken passage for his native country, after an absence of many years.”

“Our poor Ellen, his orphan child!” said Dr. Melmoth, dropping the paper. “How shall we break the intelligence to her? Alas! her share of the affliction causes me to forget my own.”

“It is a heavy misfortune, doubtless; and Ellen will grieve as a daughter should,” replied Mrs. Melmoth, speaking with the good sense of which she had a competent share. “But she has never known her father; and her sorrow must arise from a sense of duty, more than from strong affection. I will go and inform her of her loss. It is late, and I wonder if she be still asleep.”

“Be cautious, dearest wife,” said the doctor. “Ellen has strong feelings, and a sudden shock might be dangerous.”

“I think I may be trusted, Dr. Melmoth,” replied the lady, who had a high opinion of her own abilities as a comforter, and was not averse to exercise them.

Her husband, after her departure, sat listlessly turning over the letters that yet remained unopened, feeling little curiosity, after such melancholy intelligence, respecting their contents. But, by the handwriting of the direction on one of them, his attention was gradually arrested, till he found himself gazing earnestly on those strong, firm, regular characters. They were perfectly familiar to his eye; but from what hand they came, he could not conjecture. Suddenly, however, the truth burst upon him; and after noticing the date, and reading a few lines, he rushed hastily in pursuit of his wife.

He had arrived at the top of his speed and at the middle of the staircase, when his course was arrested by the lady whom he sought, who came, with a velocity equal to his own, in an opposite direction. The consequence was a concussion between the two meeting masses, by which Mrs. Melmoth was seated securely on the stairs; while the doctor was only preserved from precipitation to the bottom by clinging desperately to the balustrade. As soon as the pair discovered that they had sustained no material injury by their contact, they began eagerly to explain the cause of their mutual haste, without those reproaches, which, on the lady’s part, would at another time have followed such an accident.

“You have not told her the bad news, I trust?” cried Dr. Melmoth, after each had communicated his and her intelligence, without obtaining audience of the other.

“Would you have me tell it to the bare walls?” inquired the lady in her shrillest tone. “Have I not just informed you that she has gone, fled, eloped? Her chamber is empty; and her bed has not been occupied.”

“Gone!” repeated the doctor. “And, when her father comes to demand his daughter of me, what answer shall I make?”

“Now, Heaven defend us from the visits of the dead and drowned!” cried Mrs. Melmoth. “This is a serious affair, doctor, but not, I trust, sufficient to raise a ghost.”

“Mr. Langton is yet no ghost,” answered he; “though this event will go near to make him one. He was fortunately prevented, after he had made every preparation, from taking passage in the vessel that was lost.”

“And where is he now?” she inquired.

“He is in New England. Perhaps he is at this moment on his way to us,” replied her husband. “His letter is dated nearly a fortnight back; and he expresses an intention of being with us in a few days.”

“Well, I thank Heaven for his safety,” said Mrs. Melmoth. “But truly the poor gentleman could not have chosen a better time to be drowned, nor a worse one to come to life, than this. What we shall do, doctor, I know not; but had you locked the doors, and fastened the windows, as I advised, the misfortune could not have happened.”

“Why, the whole country would have flouted us!” answered the doctor. “Is there a door in all the Province that is barred or bolted, night or day? Nevertheless it might have been advisable last night, had it occurred to me.”

“And why at that time more than at all times?” she inquired. “We had surely no reason to fear this event.”

Dr. Melmoth was silent; for his worldly wisdom was sufficient to deter him from giving his lady the opportunity, which she would not fail to use to the utmost, of laying the blame of the elopement at his door. He now proceeded, with a heavy heart, to Ellen’s chamber, to satisfy himself with his own eyes of the state of affairs. It was deserted too truly; and the wild-flowers with which it was the maiden’s custom daily to decorate her premises were drooping, as if in sorrow for her who had placed them there. Mrs. Melmoth, on this second visit, discovered on the table a note addressed to her husband, and containing a few words of gratitude from Ellen, but no explanation of her mysterious flight. The doctor gazed long on the tiny letters, which had evidently been traced with a trembling hand, and blotted with many tears.

“There is a mystery in this — a mystery that I cannot fathom,” he said. “And now I would I knew what measures it would be proper to take.”

“Get you on horseback, Dr. Melmoth, and proceed as speedily as may be down the valley to the town,” said the dame, the influence of whose firmer mind was sometimes, as in the present case, most beneficially exerted over his own. “You must not spare for trouble, no, nor for danger. Now — Oh, if I were a man!”—

“Oh, that you were!” murmured the doctor, in a perfectly inaudible voice, “Well — and when I reach the town, what then?”

“As I am a Christian woman, my patience cannot endure you!” exclaimed Mrs. Melmoth. “Oh, I love to see a man with the spirit of a man! but you”— And she turned away in utter scorn.

“But, dearest wife,” remonstrated the husband, who was really at a loss how to proceed, and anxious for her advice, “your worldly experience is greater than mine, and I desire to profit by it. What should be my next measure after arriving at the town?”

Mrs. Melmoth was appeased by the submission with which the doctor asked her counsel; though, if the truth must be told, she heartily despised him for needing it. She condescended, however, to instruct him in the proper method of pursuing the runaway maiden, and directed him, before his departure, to put strict inquiries to Hugh Crombie respecting any stranger who might lately have visited his inn. That there would be wisdom in this, Dr. Melmoth had his own reasons for believing; and still, without imparting them to his lady, he proceeded to do as he had been bid.

The veracious landlord acknowledged that a stranger had spent a night and day at his inn, and was missing that morning; but he utterly denied all acquaintance with his character, or privity to his purposes. Had Mrs. Melmoth, instead of her husband, conducted the examination, the result might have been different. As the case was, the doctor returned to his dwelling but little wiser than he went forth; and, ordering his steed to be saddled, he began a journey of which he knew not what would be the end.

In the mean time, the intelligence of Ellen’s disappearance circulated rapidly, and soon sent forth hunters more fit to follow the chase than Dr. Melmoth.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38