The Black Dwarf, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter 14

He brings Earl Osmond to receive my vows.

O dreadful change! for Tancred, haughty Osmond.

Tancred and Sigismunda.

Mr. Vere, whom long practice of dissimulation had enabled to model his very gait and footsteps to aid the purposes of deception, walked along the stone passage, and up the first flight of steps towards Miss Vere’s apartment, with the alert, firm, and steady pace of one who is bound, indeed, upon important business, but who entertains no doubt he can terminate his affairs satisfactorily. But when out of hearing of the gentlemen whom he had left, his step became so slow and irresolute, as to correspond with his doubts and his fears. At length he paused in an antechamber to collect his ideas, and form his plan of argument, before approaching his daughter.

“In what more hopeless and inextricable dilemma was ever an unfortunate man involved!” Such was the tenor of his reflections. —“If we now fall to pieces by disunion, there can be little doubt that the government will take my life as the prime agitator of the insurrection. Or, grant I could stoop to save myself by a hasty submission, am I not, even in that case, utterly ruined? I have broken irreconcilably with Ratcliffe, and can have nothing to expect from that quarter but insult and persecution. I must wander forth an impoverished and dishonoured man, without even the means of sustaining life, far less wealth sufficient to counterbalance the infamy which my countrymen, both those whom I desert and those whom I join, will attach to the name of the political renegade. It is not to be thought of. And yet, what choice remains between this lot and the ignominious scaffold? Nothing can save me but reconciliation with these men; and, to accomplish this, I have promised to Langley that Isabella shall marry him ere midnight, and to Mareschal, that she shall do so without compulsion. I have but one remedy betwixt me and ruin — her consent to take a suitor whom she dislikes, upon such short notice as would disgust her, even were he a favoured lover — But I must trust to the romantic generosity of her disposition; and let me paint the necessity of her obedience ever so strongly, I cannot overcharge its reality.”

Having finished this sad chain of reflections upon his perilous condition, he entered his daughter’s apartment with every nerve bent up to the support of the argument which he was about to sustain. Though a deceitful and ambitious man, he was not so devoid of natural affection but that he was shocked at the part he was about to act, in practising on the feelings of a dutiful and affectionate child; but the recollections, that, if he succeeded, his daughter would only be trepanned into an advantageous match, and that, if he failed, he himself was a lost man, were quite sufficient to drown all scruples.

He found Miss Vere seated by the window of her dressing-room, her head reclining on her hand, and either sunk in slumber, or so deeply engaged in meditation, that she did not hear the noise he made at his entrance. He approached with his features composed to a deep expression of sorrow and sympathy, and, sitting down beside her, solicited her attention by quietly taking her hand, a motion which he did not fail to accompany with a deep sigh.

“My father!” said Isabella, with a sort of start, which expressed at least as much fear, as joy or affection.

“Yes, Isabella,” said Vere, “your unhappy father, who comes now as a penitent to crave forgiveness of his daughter for an injury done to her in the excess of his affection, and then to take leave of her for ever.”

“Sir? Offence to me take leave for ever? What does all this mean?” said Miss Vere.

“Yes, Isabella, I am serious. But first let me ask you, have you no suspicion that I may have been privy to the strange chance which befell you yesterday morning?”

“You, sir?” answered Isabella, stammering between a consciousness that he had guessed her thoughts justly, and the shame as well as fear which forbade her to acknowledge a suspicion so degrading and so unnatural.

“Yes!” he continued, “your hesitation confesses that you entertained such an opinion, and I have now the painful task of acknowledging that your suspicions have done me no injustice. But listen to my motives. In an evil hour I countenanced the addresses of Sir Frederick Langley, conceiving it impossible that you could have any permanent objections to a match where the advantages were, in most respects, on your side. In a worse, I entered with him into measures calculated to restore our banished monarch, and the independence of my country. He has taken advantage of my unguarded confidence, and now has my life at his disposal.”

“Your life, sir?” said Isabella, faintly.

“Yes, Isabella,” continued her father, “the life of him who gave life to you. So soon as I foresaw the excesses into which his headlong passion (for, to do him justice, I believe his unreasonable conduct arises from excess of attachment to you) was likely to hurry him, I endeavoured, by finding a plausible pretext for your absence for some weeks, to extricate myself from the dilemma in which I am placed. For this purpose I wished, in case your objections to the match continued insurmountable, to have sent you privately for a few months to the convent of your maternal aunt at Paris. By a series of mistakes you have been brought from the place of secrecy and security which I had destined for your temporary abode. Fate has baffled my last chance of escape, and I have only to give you my blessing, and send you from the castle with Mr. Ratcliffe, who now leaves it; my own fate will soon be decided.”

“Good Heaven, sir! can this be possible?” exclaimed Isabella. “O, why was I freed from the restraint in which you placed me? or why did you not impart your pleasure to me?”

“Think an instant, Isabella. Would you have had me prejudice in your opinion the friend I was most desirous of serving, by communicating to you the injurious eagerness with which he pursued his object? Could I do so honourably, having promised to assist his suit? — But it is all over, I and Mareschal have made up our minds to die like men; it only remains to send you from hence under a safe escort.”

“Great powers! and is there no remedy?” said the terrified young woman.

“None, my child,” answered Vere, gently, “unless one which you would not advise your father to adopt — to be the first to betray his friends.”

“O, no! no!” she answered, abhorrently yet hastily, as if to reject the temptation which the alternative presented to her. “But is there no other hope — through flight — through mediation — through supplication? — I will bend my knee to Sir Frederick!”

“It would be a fruitless degradation; he is determined on his course, and I am equally resolved to stand the hazard of my fate. On one condition only he will turn aside from his purpose, and that condition my lips shall never utter to you.”

“Name it, I conjure you, my dear father!” exclaimed Isabella. “What can he ask that we ought not to grant, to prevent the hideous catastrophe with which you are threatened?”

“That, Isabella,” said Vere, solemnly, “you shall never know, until your father’s head has rolled on the bloody scaffold; then, indeed, you will learn there was one sacrifice by which he might have been saved.”

“And why not speak it now?” said Isabella; “do you fear I would flinch from the sacrifice of fortune for your preservation? or would you bequeath me the bitter legacy of life-long remorse, so oft as I shall think that you perished, while there remained one mode of preventing the dreadful misfortune that overhangs you?”

“Then, my child,” said Vere, “since you press me to name what I would a thousand times rather leave in silence, I must inform you that he will accept for ransom nothing but your hand in marriage, and that conferred before midnight this very evening!”

“This evening, sir?” said the young lady, struck with horror at the proposal —“and to such a man! — A man? — a monster, who could wish to win the daughter by threatening the life of the father — it is impossible!”

“You say right, my child,” answered her father, “it is indeed impossible; nor have I either the right or the wish to exact such a sacrifice — It is the course of nature that the old should die and be forgot, and the young should live and be happy.”

“My father die, and his child can save him! — but no — no — my dear father, pardon me, it is impossible; you only wish to guide me to your wishes. I know your object is what you think my happiness, and this dreadful tale is only told to influence my conduct and subdue my scruples.”

“My daughter,” replied Ellieslaw, in a tone where offended authority seemed to struggle with parental affection, “my child suspects me of inventing a false tale to work upon her feelings! Even this I must bear, and even from this unworthy suspicion I must descend to vindicate myself. You know the stainless honour of your cousin Mareschal — mark what I shall write to him, and judge from his answer, if the danger in which we stand is not real, and whether I have not used every means to avert it.”

He sate down, wrote a few lines hastily, and handed them to Isabella, who, after repeated and painful efforts, cleared her eyes and head sufficiently to discern their purport.

“Dear cousin,” said the billet, “I find my daughter, as I expected, in despair at the untimely and premature urgency of Sir Frederick Langley. She cannot even comprehend the peril in which we stand, or how much we are in his power — Use your influence with him, for Heaven’s sake, to modify proposals, to the acceptance of which I cannot, and will not, urge my child against all her own feelings, as well as those of delicacy and propriety, and oblige your loving cousin — R. V.”

In the agitation of the moment, when her swimming eyes and dizzy brain could hardly comprehend the sense of what she looked upon, it is not surprising that Miss Vere should have omitted to remark that this letter seemed to rest her scruples rather upon the form and time of the proposed union, than on a rooted dislike to the suitor proposed to her. Mr. Vere rang the bell, and gave the letter to a servant to be delivered to Mr. Mareschal, and, rising from his chair, continued to traverse the apartment in silence and in great agitation until the answer was returned. He glanced it over, and wrung the hand of his daughter as he gave it to her. The tenor was as follows:—

“My dear kinsman, I have already urged the knight on the point you mention, and I find him as fixed as Cheviot. I am truly sorry my fair cousin should be pressed to give up any of her maidenly rights. Sir Frederick consents, however, to leave the castle with me the instant the ceremony is performed, and we will raise our followers and begin the fray. Thus there is great hope the bridegroom may be knocked on the head before he and the bride can meet again, so Bell has a fair chance to be Lady Langley a tres bon marche. For the rest, I can only say, that if she can make up her mind to the alliance at all — it is no time for mere maiden ceremony — my pretty cousin must needs consent to marry in haste, or we shall all repent at leisure, or rather have very little leisure to repent; which is all at present from him who rests your affectionate kinsman — R. M.”

“P.S. — Tell Isabella that I would rather cut the knight’s throat after all, and end the dilemma that way, than see her constrained to marry him against her will.”

When Isabella had read this letter, it dropped from her hand, and she would, at the same time, have fallen from her chair, had she not been supported by her father.

“My God, my child will die!” exclaimed Vere, the feelings of nature overcoming, even in his breast, the sentiments of selfish policy; “look up, Isabella — look up, my child — come what will, you shall not be the sacrifice — I will fall myself with the consciousness I leave you happy — My child may weep on my grave, but she shall not — not in this instance — reproach my memory.” He called a servant. —“Go, bid Ratcliffe come hither directly.”

During this interval, Miss Vere became deadly pale, clenched her hands, pressing the palms strongly together, closed her eyes, and drew her lips with strong compression, as if the severe constraint which she put upon her internal feelings extended even to her muscular organization. Then raising her head, and drawing in her breath strongly ere she spoke, she said, with firmness, —“Father, I consent to the marriage.”

“You shall not — you shall not — my child — my dear child — you shall not embrace certain misery to free me from uncertain danger.”

So exclaimed Ellieslaw; and, strange and inconsistent beings that we are! he expressed the real though momentary feelings of his heart.

“Father,” repeated Isabella, “I will consent to this marriage.”

“No, my child, no — not now at least — we will humble ourselves to obtain delay from him; and yet, Isabella, could you overcome a dislike which has no real foundation, think, in other respects, what a match! — wealth — rank — importance.”

“Father!” reiterated Isabella, “I have consented.”

It seemed as if she had lost the power of saying anything else, or even of varying the phrase which, with such effort, she had compelled herself to utter.

“Heaven bless thee, my child! — Heaven bless thee! — And it will bless thee with riches, with pleasure, with power.”

Miss Vere faintly entreated to be left by herself for the rest of the evening.

“But will you not receive Sir Frederick?” said her father, anxiously.

“I will meet him,” she replied, “I will meet him — when I must, and where I must; but spare me now.”

“Be it so, my dearest; you shall know no restraint that I can save you from. Do not think too hardly of Sir Frederick for this — it is an excess of passion.”

Isabella waved her hand impatiently.

“Forgive me, my child — I go — Heaven bless thee. At eleven — if you call me not before — at eleven I come to seek you.”

“When he left Isabella she dropped upon her knees —“Heaven aid me to support the resolution I have taken — Heaven only can — O, poor Earnscliff! who shall comfort him? and with what contempt will he pronounce her name, who listened to him today and gave herself to another at night! But let him despise me — better so than that he should know the truth — let him despise me; if it will but lessen his grief, I should feel comfort in the loss of his esteem.”

She wept bitterly; attempting in vain, from time to time, to commence the prayer for which she had sunk on her knees, but unable to calm her spirits sufficiently for the exercise of devotion. As she remained in this agony of mind, the door of her apartment was slowly opened.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29