Life is not dated merely by years. Events are sometimes the best calendars. There are epochs in our existence which cannot be ascertained by a formal appeal to the registry. The arrival of the Cadurcis family at their old abbey, their consequent intimacy at Cherbury, the death of the mother, and the departure of the son: these were events which had been crowded into a space of less than two years; but those two years were not only the most eventful in the life of Venetia Herbert, but in their influence upon the development of her mind, and the formation of her character, far exceeded the effects of all her previous existence.
Venetia once more found herself with no companion but her mother, but in vain she attempted to recall the feelings she had before experienced under such circumstances, and to revert to the resources she had before commanded. No longer could she wander in imaginary kingdoms, or transform the limited world of her experience into a boundless region of enchanted amusement. Her play-pleasure hours were fled for ever. She sighed for her faithful and sympathising companion. The empire of fancy yielded without a struggle to the conquering sway of memory.
For the first few weeks Venetia was restless and dispirited, and when she was alone she often wept. A mysterious instinct prompted her, however, not to exhibit such emotion before her mother. Yet she loved to hear Lady Annabel talk of Plantagenet, and a visit to the abbey was ever her favourite walk. Sometimes, too, a letter arrived from Lord Cadurcis, and this was great joy; but such communications were rare. Nothing is more difficult than for a junior boy at a public school to maintain a correspondence; yet his letters were most affectionate, and always dwelt upon the prospect of his return. The period for this hoped-for return at length arrived, but it brought no Plantagenet. His guardian wished that the holidays should be spent under his roof. Still at intervals Cadurcis wrote to Cherbury, to which, as time flew on, it seemed destined he never was to return. Vacation followed vacation, alike passed with his guardian, either in London, or at a country seat still more remote from Cherbury, until at length it became so much a matter of course that his guardian’s house should be esteemed his home, that Plantagenet ceased to allude even to the prospect of return. In time his letters became rarer and rarer, until, at length, they altogether ceased. Meanwhile Venetia had overcome the original pang of separation; if not as gay as in old days, she was serene and very studious; delighting less in her flowers and birds, but much more in her books, and pursuing her studies with an earnestness and assiduity which her mother was rather fain to check than to encourage. Venetia Herbert, indeed, promised to become a most accomplished woman. She had a fine ear for music, a ready tongue for languages; already she emulated her mother’s skill in the arts; while the library of Cherbury afforded welcome and inexhaustible resources to a girl whose genius deserved the richest and most sedulous cultivation, and whose peculiar situation, independent of her studious predisposition, rendered reading a pastime to her rather than a task. Lady Annabel watched the progress of her daughter with lively interest, and spared no efforts to assist the formation of her principles and her taste. That deep religious feeling which was the characteristic of the mother had been carefully and early cherished in the heart of the child, and in time the unrivalled writings of the great divines of our Church became a principal portion of her reading. Order, method, severe study, strict religious exercise, with no amusement or relaxation but of the most simple and natural character, and with a complete seclusion from society, altogether formed a system, which, acting upon a singularly susceptible and gifted nature, secured the promise in Venetia Herbert, at fourteen years of age, of an extraordinary woman; a system, however, against which her lively and somewhat restless mind might probably have rebelled, had not that system been so thoroughly imbued with all the melting spell of maternal affection. It was the inspiration of this sacred love that hovered like a guardian angel over the life of Venetia. It roused her from her morning slumbers with an embrace, it sanctified her evening pillow with a blessing; it anticipated the difficulty of the student’s page, and guided the faltering hand of the hesitating artist; it refreshed her memory, it modulated her voice; it accompanied her in the cottage, and knelt by her at the altar. Marvellous and beautiful is a mother’s love. And when Venetia, with her strong feelings and enthusiastic spirit, would look around and mark that a graceful form and a bright eye were for ever watching over her wants and wishes, instructing with sweetness, and soft even with advice, her whole soul rose to her mother, all thoughts and feelings were concentrated in that sole existence, and she desired no happier destiny than to pass through life living in the light of her mother’s smiles, and clinging with passionate trust to that beneficent and guardian form.
But with all her quick and profound feelings Venetia was thoughtful and even shrewd, and when she was alone her very love for her mother, and her gratitude for such an ineffable treasure as parental affection, would force her mind to a subject which at intervals had haunted her even from her earliest childhood. Why had she only one parent? What mystery was this that enveloped that great tie? For that there was a mystery Venetia felt as assured as that she was a daughter. By a process which she could not analyse, her father had become a forbidden subject. True, Lady Annabel had placed no formal prohibition upon its mention; nor at her present age was Venetia one who would be influenced in her conduct by the bygone and arbitrary intimations of a menial; nevertheless, that the mention of her father would afford pain to the being she loved best in the world, was a conviction which had grown with her years and strengthened with her strength. Pardonable, natural, even laudable as was the anxiety of the daughter upon such a subject, an instinct with which she could not struggle closed the lips of Venetia for ever upon this topic. His name was never mentioned, his past existence was never alluded to. Who was he? That he was of noble family and great position her name betokened, and the state in which they lived. He must have died very early; perhaps even before her mother gave her birth. A dreadful lot indeed; and yet was the grief that even such a dispensation might occasion, so keen, so overwhelming, that after fourteen long years his name might not be permitted, even for an instant, to pass the lips of his bereaved wife? Was his child to be deprived of the only solace for his loss, the consolation of cherishing his memory? Strange, passing strange indeed, and bitter! At Cherbury the family of Herbert were honoured only from tradition. Until the arrival of Lady Annabel, as we have before mentioned, they had not resided at the hall for more than half a century. There were no old retainers there from whom Venetia might glean, without suspicion, the information for which she panted. Slight, too, as was Venetia’s experience of society, there were times when she could not resist the impression that her mother was not happy; that there was some secret sorrow that weighed upon her spirit, some grief that gnawed at her heart. Could it be still the recollection of her lost sire? Could one so religious, so resigned, so assured of meeting the lost one in a better world, brood with a repining soul over the will of her Creator? Such conduct was entirely at variance with all the tenets of Lady Annabel. It was not thus she consoled the bereaved, that she comforted the widow, and solaced the orphan. Venetia, too, observed everything and forgot nothing. Not an incident of her earliest childhood that was not as fresh in her memory as if it had occurred yesterday. Her memory was naturally keen; living in solitude, with nothing to distract it, its impressions never faded away. She had never forgotten her mother’s tears the day that she and Plantagenet had visited Marringhurst. Somehow or other Dr. Masham seemed connected with this sorrow. Whenever Lady Annabel was most dispirited it was after an interview with that gentleman; yet the presence of the Doctor always gave her pleasure, and he was the most kind-hearted and cheerful of men. Perhaps, after all, it was only her illusion; perhaps, after all, it was the memory of her father to which her mother was devoted, and which occasionally overcame her; perhaps she ventured to speak of him to Dr. Masham, though not to her daughter, and this might account for that occasional agitation which Venetia had observed at his visits. And yet, and yet, and yet; in vain she reasoned. There is a strange sympathy which whispers convictions that no evidence can authorise, and no arguments dispel. Venetia Herbert, particularly as she grew older, could not refrain at times from yielding to the irresistible belief that her existence was enveloped in some mystery. Mystery too often presupposes the idea of guilt. Guilt! Who was guilty? Venetia shuddered at the current of her own thoughts. She started from the garden seat in which she had fallen into this dangerous and painful reverie; flew to her mother, who received her with smiles; and buried her face in the bosom of Lady Annabel.
We have indicated in a few pages the progress of three years. How differently passed to the two preceding ones, when the Cadurcis family were settled at the abbey! For during this latter period it seemed that not a single incident had occurred. They had glided away in one unbroken course of study, religion, and domestic love, the enjoyment of nature, and the pursuits of charity; like a long summer sabbath-day, sweet and serene and still, undisturbed by a single passion, hallowed and hallowing.
If the Cadurcis family were now not absolutely forgotten at Cherbury, they were at least only occasionally remembered. These last three years so completely harmonised with the life of Venetia before their arrival, that, taking a general view of her existence, their residence at the abbey figured only as an episode in her career; active indeed and stirring, and one that had left some impressions not easily discarded; but, on the whole, mellowed by the magic of time, Venetia looked back to her youthful friendship as an event that was only an exception in her lot, and she viewed herself as a being born and bred up in a seclusion which she was never to quit, with no aspirations beyond the little world in which she moved, and where she was to die in peace, as she had lived in purity.
One Sunday, the conversation after dinner fell upon Lord Cadurcis. Doctor Masham had recently met a young Etonian, and had made some inquiries about their friend of old days. The information he had obtained was not very satisfactory. It seemed that Cadurcis was a more popular boy with his companions than his tutors; he had been rather unruly, and had only escaped expulsion by the influence of his guardian, who was not only a great noble, but a powerful minister.
This conversation recalled old times. They talked over the arrival of Mrs. Cadurcis at the abbey, her strange character, her untimely end. Lady Annabel expressed her conviction of the natural excellence of Plantagenet’s disposition, and her regret of the many disadvantages under which he laboured; it gratified Venetia to listen to his praise.
‘He has quite forgotten us, mamma,’ said Venetia.
‘My love, he was very young when he quitted us,’ replied Lady Annabel; ‘and you must remember the influence of a change of life at so tender an age. He lives now in a busy world.’
‘I wish that he had not forgotten to write to us sometimes,’ said Venetia.
‘Writing a letter is a great achievement for a schoolboy,’ said the Doctor; ‘it is a duty which even grown-up persons too often forget to fulfil, and, when postponed, it is generally deferred for ever. However, I agree with Lady Annabel, Cadurcis was a fine fellow, and had he been properly brought up, I cannot help thinking, might have turned out something.’
‘Poor Plantagenet!’ said Venetia, ‘how I pity him. His was a terrible lot, to lose both his parents! Whatever were the errors of Mrs. Cadurcis, she was his mother, and, in spite of every mortification, he clung to her. Ah! I shall never forget when Pauncefort met him coming out of her room the night before the burial, when he said, with streaming eyes, “I only had one friend in the world, and now she is gone.” I could not love Mrs. Cadurcis, and yet, when I heard of these words, I cried as much as he.’
‘Poor fellow!’ said the Doctor, filling his glass.
‘If there be any person in the world whom I pity,’ said Venetia, ”tis an orphan. Oh! what should I be without mamma? And Plantagenet, poor Plantagenet! he has no mother, no father.’ Venetia added, with a faltering voice: ‘I can sympathise with him in some degree; I, I, I know, I feel the misfortune, the misery;’ her face became crimson, yet she could not restrain the irresistible words, ‘the misery of never having known a father,’ she added.
There was a dead pause, a most solemn silence. In vain Venetia struggled to look calm and unconcerned; every instant she felt the blood mantling in her cheek with a more lively and spreading agitation. She dared not look up; it was not possible to utter a word to turn the conversation. She felt utterly confounded and absolutely mute. At length, Lady Annabel spoke. Her tone was severe and choking, very different to her usual silvery voice.
‘I am sorry that my daughter should feel so keenly the want of a parent’s love,’ said her ladyship.
What would not Venetia have given for the power or speech! but it seemed to have deserted her for ever. There she sat mute and motionless, with her eyes fixed on the table, and with a burning cheek, as if she were conscious of having committed some act of shame, as if she had been detected in some base and degrading deed. Yet, what had she done? A daughter had delicately alluded to her grief at the loss of a parent, and expressed her keen sense of the deprivation.
It was an autumnal afternoon: Doctor Masham looked at the sky, and, after a long pause, made an observation about the weather, and then requested permission to order his horses, as the evening came on apace, and he had some distance to ride. Lady Annabel rose; the Doctor, with a countenance unusually serious, offered her his arm; and Venetia followed them like a criminal. In a few minutes the horses appeared; Lady Annabel bid adieu to her friend in her usual kind tone, and with her usual sweet smile; and then, without noticing Venetia, instantly retired to her own chamber.
And this was her mother; her mother who never before quitted her for an instant without some sign and symbol of affection, some playful word of love, a winning smile, a passing embrace, that seemed to acknowledge that the pang of even momentary separation could only be alleviated by this graceful homage to the heart. What had she done? Venetia was about to follow Lady Annabel, but she checked herself. Agony at having offended her mother, and, for the first time, was blended with a strange curiosity as to the cause, and some hesitating indignation at her treatment. Venetia remained anxiously awaiting the return of Lady Annabel; but her ladyship did not reappear. Every instant, the astonishment and the grief of Venetia increased. It was the first domestic difference that had occurred between them. It shocked her much. She thought of Plantagenet and Mrs. Cadurcis. There was a mortifying resemblance, however slight, between the respective situations of the two families. Venetia, too, had quarrelled with her mother; that mother who, for fourteen years, had only looked upon her with fondness and joy; who had been ever kind, without being ever weak, and had rendered her child happy by making her good; that mother whose beneficent wisdom had transformed duty into delight; that superior, yet gentle being, so indulgent yet so just, so gifted yet so condescending, who dedicated all her knowledge, and time, and care, and intellect to her daughter.
Venetia threw herself upon a couch and wept. They were the first tears of unmixed pain that she had ever shed. It was said by the household of Venetia when a child, that she had never cried; not a single tear had ever sullied that sunny face. Surrounded by scenes of innocence, and images of happiness and content, Venetia smiled on a world that smiled on her, the radiant heroine of a golden age. She had, indeed, wept over the sorrows and the departure of Cadurcis; but those were soft showers of sympathy and affection sent from a warm heart, like drops from a summer sky. But now this grief was agony: her brow throbbed, her hand was clenched, her heart beat with tumultuous palpitation; the streaming torrent came scalding down her cheek like fire rather than tears, and instead of assuaging her emotion, seemed, on the contrary, to increase its fierce and fervid power.
The sun had set, the red autumnal twilight had died away, the shadows of night were brooding over the halls of Cherbury. The moan of the rising wind might be distinctly heard, and ever and anon the branches of neighbouring trees swung with a sudden yet melancholy sound against the windows of the apartment, of which the curtains had remained undrawn. Venetia looked up; the room would have been in perfect darkness but for a glimmer which just indicated the site of the expiring fire, and an uncertain light, or rather modified darkness, that seemed the sky. Alone and desolate! Alone and desolate and unhappy! Alone and desolate and unhappy, and for the first time! Was it a sigh, or a groan, that issued from the stifling heart of Venetia Herbert? That child of innocence, that bright emanation of love and beauty, that airy creature of grace and gentleness, who had never said an unkind word or done an unkind thing in her whole career, but had glanced and glided through existence, scattering happiness and joy, and receiving the pleasure which she herself imparted, how overwhelming was her first struggle with that dark stranger, Sorrow!
Some one entered the room; it was Mistress Pauncefort. She held a taper in her hand, and came tripping gingerly in, with a new cap streaming with ribands, and scarcely, as it were, condescending to execute the mission with which she was intrusted, which was no greater than fetching her lady’s reticule. She glanced at the table, but it was not there; she turned up her nose at a chair or two, which she even condescended to propel a little with a saucy foot, as if the reticule might be hid under the hanging drapery, and then, unable to find the object of her search, Mistress Pauncefort settled herself before the glass, elevating the taper above her head, that she might observe what indeed she had been examining the whole day, the effect of her new cap. With a complacent simper, Mistress Pauncefort then turned from pleasure to business, and, approaching the couch, gave a faint shriek, half genuine, half affected, as she recognised the recumbent form of her young mistress. ‘Well to be sure,’ exclaimed Mistress Pauncefort, ‘was the like ever seen! Miss Venetia, as I live! La! Miss Venetia, what can be the matter? I declare I am all of a palpitation.’
Venetia, affecting composure, said she was rather unwell; that she had a headache, and, rising, murmured that she would go to bed. ‘A headache!’ exclaimed Mistress Pauncefort, ‘I hope no worse, for there is my lady, and she is as out of sorts as possible. She has a headache too; and when I shut the door just now, I am sure as quiet as a lamb, she told me not to make so much noise when I left the room. “Noise!” says I; “why really, my lady, I don’t pretend to be a spirit; but if it comes to noise —” “Never answer me, Pauncefort,” says my lady. “No, my lady,” says I, “I never do, and, I am sure, when I have a headache myself, I don’t like to be answered.” But, to be sure, if you have a headache, and my lady has a headache too, I only hope we have not got the epidemy. I vow, Miss Venetia, that your eyes are as red as if you had been running against the wind. Well, to be sure, if you have not been crying! I must go and tell my lady immediately.’
‘Light me to my room,’ said Venetia; ‘I will not disturb my mother, as she is unwell.’
Venetia rose, and Mistress Pauncefort followed her to her chamber, and lit her candles. Venetia desired her not to remain; and when she had quitted the chamber, Venetia threw herself in her chair and sighed.
To sleep, it was impossible; it seemed to Venetia that she could never rest again. She wept no more, but her distress was very great. She felt it impossible to exist through the night without being reconciled to her mother; but she refrained from going to her room, from the fear of again meeting her troublesome attendant. She resolved, therefore, to wait until she heard Mistress Pauncefort retire for the night, and she listened with restless anxiety for the sign of her departure in the sound of her footsteps along the vestibule on which the doors of Lady Annabel’s and her daughter’s apartments opened.
An hour elapsed, and at length the sound was heard. Convinced that Pauncefort had now quitted her mother for the night, Venetia ventured forth, and stopping before the door of her mother’s room, she knocked gently. There was no reply, and in a few minutes Venetia knocked again, and rather louder. Still no answer. ‘Mamma,’ said Venetia, in a faltering tone, but no sound replied. Venetia then tried the door, and found it fastened. Then she gave up the effort in despair, and retreating to her own chamber, she threw herself on her bed, and wept bitterly.
Some time elapsed before she looked up again; the candles were flaring in their sockets. It was a wild windy night; Venetia rose, and withdrew the curtain of her window. The black clouds were scudding along the sky, revealing, in their occasional but transient rifts, some glimpses of the moon, that seemed unusually bright, or of a star that trembled with supernatural brilliancy. She stood a while gazing on the outward scene that harmonised with her own internal agitation: her grief was like the storm, her love like the light of that bright moon and star. There came over her a desire to see her mother, which she felt irresistible; she was resolved that no difficulty, no impediment, should prevent her instantly from throwing herself on her bosom. It seemed to her that her brain would burn, that this awful night could never end without such an interview. She opened her door, went forth again into the vestibule, and approached with a nervous but desperate step her mother’s chamber. To her astonishment the door was ajar, but there was a light within. With trembling step and downcast eyes, Venetia entered the chamber, scarcely daring to advance, or to look up.
‘Mother,’ she said, but no one answered; she heard the tick of the clock; it was the only sound. ‘Mother,’ she repeated, and she dared to look up, but the bed was empty. There was no mother. Lady Annabel was not in the room. Following an irresistible impulse, Venetia knelt by the side of her mother’s bed and prayed. She addressed, in audible and agitated tones, that Almighty and Beneficent Being of whom she was so faithful and pure a follower. With sanctified simplicity, she communicated to her Creator and her Saviour all her distress, all her sorrow, all the agony of her perplexed and wounded spirit. If she had sinned, she prayed for forgiveness, and declared in solitude, to One whom she could not deceive, how unintentional was the trespass; if she were only misapprehended, she supplicated for comfort and consolation, for support under the heaviest visitation she had yet experienced, the displeasure of that earthly parent whom she revered only second to her heavenly Father.
‘For thou art my Father,’ said Venetia, ‘I have no other father but thee, O God! Forgive me, then, my heavenly parent, if in my wilfulness, if in my thoughtless and sinful blindness, I have sighed for a father on earth, as well as in heaven! Great have thy mercies been to me, O God! in a mother’s love. Turn, then, again to me the heart of that mother whom I have offended! Let her look upon her child as before; let her continue to me a double parent, and let me pay to her the duty and the devotion that might otherwise have been divided!’
‘Amen!’ said a sweet and solemn voice; and Venetia was clasped in her mother’s arms.
If the love of Lady Annabel for her child were capable of increase, it might have been believed that it absolutely became more profound and ardent after that short-lived but painful estrangement which we have related in the last chapter. With all Lady Annabel’s fascinating qualities and noble virtues, a fine observer of human nature enjoying opportunities of intimately studying her character, might have suspected that an occasion only was wanted to display or develop in that lady’s conduct no trifling evidence of a haughty, proud, and even inexorable spirit. Circumstanced as she was at Cherbury, with no one capable or desirous of disputing her will, the more gracious and exalted qualities of her nature were alone apparent. Entertaining a severe, even a sublime sense of the paramount claims of duty in all conditions and circumstances of life, her own conduct afforded an invariable and consistent example of her tenet; from those around her she required little, and that was cheerfully granted; while, on the other hand, her more eminent situation alike multiplied her own obligations and enabled her to fulfil them; she appeared, therefore, to pass her life in conferring happiness and in receiving gratitude. Strictly religious, of immaculate reputation, rigidly just, systematically charitable, dignified in her manners, yet more than courteous to her inferiors, and gifted at the same time with great self-control and great decision, she was looked up to by all within her sphere with a sentiment of affectionate veneration. Perhaps there was only one person within her little world who, both by disposition and relative situation, was qualified in any way to question her undoubted sway, or to cross by independence of opinion the tenour of the discipline she had established, and this was her child. Venetia, with one of the most affectionate and benevolent natures in the world, was gifted with a shrewd, inquiring mind, and a restless imagination. She was capable of forming her own opinions, and had both reason and feeling at command to gauge their worth. But to gain an influence over this child had been the sole object of Lady Annabel’s life, and she had hitherto met that success which usually awaits in this world the strong purpose of a determined spirit. Lady Annabel herself was far too acute a person not to have detected early in life the talents of her child, and she was proud of them. She had cultivated them with exemplary devotion and with admirable profit. But Lady Annabel had not less discovered that, in the ardent and susceptible temperament of Venetia, means were offered by which the heart might be trained not only to cope with but overpower the intellect. With great powers of pleasing, beauty, accomplishments, a sweet voice, a soft manner, a sympathetic heart, Lady Annabel was qualified to charm the world; she had contrived to fascinate her daughter. She had inspired Venetia with the most romantic attachment for her: such as rather subsists between two female friends of the same age and hearts, than between individuals in the relative situations which they bore to each other. Yet while Venetia thus loved her mother, she could not but also respect and revere the superior being whose knowledge was her guide on all subjects, and whose various accomplishments deprived her secluded education of all its disadvantages; and when she felt that one so gifted had devoted her life to the benefit of her child, and that this beautiful and peerless lady had no other ambition but to be her guardian and attendant spirit; gratitude, fervent and profound, mingled with admiring reverence and passionate affection, and together formed a spell that encircled the mind of Venetia with talismanic sway.
Under the despotic influence of these enchanted feelings, Venetia was fast growing into womanhood, without a single cloud having ever disturbed or sullied the pure and splendid heaven of her domestic life. Suddenly the horizon had become clouded, a storm had gathered and burst, and an eclipse could scarcely have occasioned more terror to the untutored roamer of the wilderness, than this unexpected catastrophe to one so inexperienced in the power of the passions as our heroine. Her heaven was again serene; but such was the effect of this ebullition on her character, so keen was her dread of again encountering the agony of another misunderstanding with her mother, that she recoiled with trembling from that subject which had so often and so deeply engaged her secret thoughts; and the idea of her father, associated as it now was with pain, mortification, and misery, never rose to her imagination but instantly to be shunned as some unhallowed image, of which the bitter contemplation was fraught with not less disastrous consequences than the denounced idolatry of the holy people.
Whatever, therefore, might be the secret reasons which impelled Lady Annabel to shroud the memory of the lost parent of her child in such inviolate gloom, it is certain that the hitherto restless though concealed curiosity of Venetia upon the subject, the rash demonstration to which it led, and the consequence of her boldness, instead of threatening to destroy in an instant the deep and matured system of her mother, had, on the whole, greatly contributed to the fulfilment of the very purpose for which Lady Annabel had so long laboured. That lady spared no pains in following up the advantage which her acuteness and knowledge of her daughter’s character assured her that she had secured. She hovered round her child more like an enamoured lover than a fond mother; she hung upon her looks, she read her thoughts, she anticipated every want and wish; her dulcet tones seemed even sweeter than before; her soft and elegant manners even more tender and refined. Though even in her childhood Lady Annabel had rather guided than commanded Venetia; now she rather consulted than guided her. She seized advantage of the advanced character and mature appearance of Venetia to treat her as a woman rather than a child, and as a friend rather than a daughter. Venetia yielded herself up to this flattering and fascinating condescension. Her love for her mother amounted to passion; she had no other earthly object or desire but to pass her entire life in her sole and sweet society; she could conceive no sympathy deeper or more delightful; the only unhappiness she had ever known had been occasioned by a moment trenching upon its exclusive privilege; Venetia could not picture to herself that such a pure and entrancing existence could ever experience a change.
And this mother, this devoted yet mysterious mother, jealous of her child’s regret for a father that she had lost, and whom she had never known! shall we ever penetrate the secret of her heart?
It was in the enjoyment of these exquisite feelings that a year, and more than another year, elapsed at our lone hall of Cherbury. Happiness and content seemed at least the blessed destiny of the Herberts. Venetia grew in years, and grace, and loveliness; each day apparently more her mother’s joy, and each day bound to that mother by, if possible, more ardent love. She had never again experienced those uneasy thoughts which at times had haunted her from her infancy; separated from her mother, indeed, scarcely for an hour together, she had no time to muse. Her studies each day becoming more various and interesting, and pursued with so gifted and charming a companion, entirely engrossed her; even the exercise that was her relaxation was participated by Lady Annabel; and the mother and daughter, bounding together on their steeds, were fanned by the same breeze, and freshened by the same graceful and healthy exertion.
One day the post, that seldom arrived at Cherbury, brought a letter to Lady Annabel, the perusal of which evidently greatly agitated her. Her countenance changed as her eye glanced over the pages; her hand trembled as she held it. But she made no remark; and succeeded in subduing her emotion so quickly that Venetia, although she watched her mother with anxiety, did not feel justified in interfering with inquiring sympathy. But while Lady Annabel resumed her usual calm demeanour, she relapsed into unaccustomed silence, and, soon rising from the breakfast table, moved to the window, and continued apparently gazing on the garden, with her face averted from Venetia for some time. At length she turned to her, and said, ‘I think, Venetia, of calling on the Doctor today; there is business on which I wish to consult him, but I will not trouble you, dearest, to accompany me. I must take the carriage, and it is a long and tiring drive.’
There was a tone of decision even in the slightest observations of Lady Annabel, which, however sweet might be the voice in which they were uttered, scarcely encouraged their propriety to be canvassed. Now Venetia was far from desirous of being separated from her mother this morning. It was not a vain and idle curiosity, prompted by the receipt of the letter and its consequent effects, both in the emotion of her mother and the visit which it had rendered necessary, that swayed her breast. The native dignity of a well-disciplined mind exempted Venetia from such feminine weakness. But some consideration might be due to the quick sympathy of an affectionate spirit that had witnessed, with corresponding feeling, the disturbance of the being to whom she was devoted. Why this occasional and painful mystery that ever and anon clouded the heaven of their love, and flung a frigid shadow over the path of a sunshiny life? Why was not Venetia to share the sorrow or the care of her only friend, as well as participate in her joy and her content? There were other claims, too, to this confidence, besides those of the heart. Lady Annabel was not merely her only friend; she was her parent, her only parent, almost, for aught she had ever heard or learnt, her only relative. For her mother’s family, though she was aware of their existence by the freedom with which Lady Annabel ever mentioned them, and though Venetia was conscious that an occasional correspondence was maintained between them and Cherbury, occupied no station in Venetia’s heart, scarcely in her memory. That noble family were nullities to her; far distant, apparently estranged from her hearth, except in form she had never seen them; they were associated in her recollection with none of the sweet ties of kindred. Her grandfather was dead without her ever having received his blessing; his successor, her uncle, was an ambassador, long absent from his country; her only aunt married to a soldier, and established at a foreign station. Venetia envied Dr. Masham the confidence which was extended to him; it seemed to her, even leaving out of sight the intimate feelings that subsisted between her and her mother, that the claims of blood to this confidence were at least as strong as those of friendship. But Venetia stifled these emotions; she parted from her mother with a kind, yet somewhat mournful expression. Lady Annabel might have read a slight sentiment of affectionate reproach in the demeanour of her daughter when she bade her farewell. Whatever might be the consciousness of the mother, she was successful in concealing her impression. Very kind, but calm and inscrutable, Lady Annabel, having given directions for postponing the dinner-hour, embraced her child and entered the chariot.
Venetia, from the terrace, watched her mother’s progress through the park. After gazing for some minutes, a tear stole down her cheek. She started, as if surprised at her own emotion. And now the carriage was out of sight, and Venetia would have recurred to some of those resources which were ever at hand for the employment or amusement of her secluded life. But the favourite volume ceased to interest this morning, and almost fell from her hand. She tried her spinet, but her ear seemed to have lost its music; she looked at her easel, but the cunning had fled from her touch.
Restless and disquieted, she knew not why, Venetia went forth again into the garden. All nature smiled around her; the flitting birds were throwing their soft shadows over the sunny lawns, and rustling amid the blossoms of the variegated groves. The golden wreaths of the laburnum and the silver knots of the chestnut streamed and glittered around; the bees were as busy as the birds, and the whole scene was suffused and penetrated with brilliancy and odour. It still was spring, and yet the gorgeous approach of summer, like the advancing procession of some triumphant king, might almost be detected amid the lingering freshness of the year; a lively and yet magnificent period, blending, as it were, Attic grace with Roman splendour; a time when hope and fruition for once meet, when existence is most full of delight, alike delicate and voluptuous, and when the human frame is most sensible to the gaiety and grandeur of nature.
And why was not the spirit of the beautiful and innocent Venetia as bright as the surrounding scene? There are moods of mind that baffle analysis, that arise from a mysterious sympathy we cannot penetrate. At this moment the idea of her father irresistibly recurred to the imagination of Venetia. She could not withstand the conviction that the receipt of the mysterious letter and her mother’s agitation were by some inexplicable connexion linked with that forbidden subject. Strange incidents of her life flitted across her memory: her mother weeping on the day they visited Marringhurst; the mysterious chambers; the nocturnal visit of Lady Annabel that Cadurcis had witnessed; her unexpected absence from her apartment when Venetia, in her despair, had visited her some months ago. What was the secret that enveloped her existence? Alone, which was unusual; dispirited, she knew not why; and brooding over thoughts which haunted her like evil spirits, Venetia at length yielded to a degree of nervous excitement which amazed her. She looked up to the uninhabited wing of the mansion with an almost fierce desire to penetrate its mysteries. It seemed to her that a strange voice came whispering on the breeze, urging her to the fulfilment of a mystical mission. With a vague, yet wild, purpose she entered the house, and took her way to her mother’s chamber. Mistress Pauncefort was there. Venetia endeavoured to assume her accustomed serenity. The waiting-woman bustled about, arranging the toilet-table, which had been for a moment discomposed, putting away a cap, folding up a shawl, and indulging in a multitude of inane observations which little harmonised with the high-strung tension of Venetia’s mind. Mistress Pauncefort opened a casket with a spring lock, in which she placed some trinkets of her mistress. Venetia stood by her in silence; her eye, vacant and wandering, beheld the interior of the casket. There must have been something in it, the sight of which greatly agitated her, for Venetia turned pale, and in a moment left the chamber and retired to her own room.
She locked her door, threw herself in a chair; almost gasping for breath, she covered her face with her hands. It was some minutes before she recovered comparative composure; she rose and looked in the mirror; her face was quite white, but her eyes glittering with excitement. She walked up and down her room with a troubled step, and a scarlet flush alternately returned to and retired from her changing cheek. Then she leaned against a cabinet in thought. She was disturbed from her musings by the sound of Pauncefort’s step along the vestibule, as she quitted her mother’s chamber. In a few minutes Venetia herself stepped forth into the vestibule and listened. All was silent. The golden morning had summoned the whole household to its enjoyment. Not a voice, not a domestic sound, broke the complete stillness. Venetia again repaired to the apartment of Lady Annabel. Her step was light, but agitated; it seemed that she scarcely dared to breathe. She opened the door, rushed to the cabinet, pressed the spring lock, caught at something that it contained, and hurried again to her own chamber.
And what is this prize that the trembling Venetia holds almost convulsively in her grasp, apparently without daring even to examine it? Is this the serene and light-hearted girl, whose face was like the cloudless splendour of a sunny day? Why is she so pallid and perturbed? What strong impulse fills her frame? She clutches in her hand a key!
On that tempestuous night of passionate sorrow which succeeded the first misunderstanding between Venetia and her mother, when the voice of Lady Annabel had suddenly blended with that of her kneeling child, and had ratified with her devotional concurrence her wailing supplications; even at the moment when Venetia, in a rapture of love and duty, felt herself pressed to her mother’s reconciled heart, it had not escaped her that Lady Annabel held in her hand a key; and though the feelings which that night had so forcibly developed, and which the subsequent conduct of Lady Annabel had so carefully and skilfully cherished, had impelled Venetia to banish and erase from her thought and memory all the associations which that spectacle, however slight, was calculated to awaken, still, in her present mood, the unexpected vision of the same instrument, identical she could not doubt, had triumphed in an instant over all the long discipline of her mind and conduct, in an instant had baffled and dispersed her self-control, and been hailed as the providential means by which she might at length penetrate that mystery which she now felt no longer supportable.
The clock of the belfry of Cherbury at this moment struck, and Venetia instantly sprang from her seat. It reminded her of the preciousness of the present morning. Her mother was indeed absent, but her mother would return. Before that event a great fulfilment was to occur. Venetia, still grasping the key, as if it were the talisman of her existence, looked up to Heaven as if she required for her allotted task an immediate and special protection; her lips seemed to move, and then she again quitted her apartment. As she passed through an oriel in her way towards the gallery, she observed Pauncefort in the avenue of the park, moving in the direction of the keeper’s lodge. This emboldened her. With a hurried step she advanced along the gallery, and at length stood before the long-sealed door that had so often excited her strange curiosity. Once she looked around; but no one was near, not a sound was heard. With a faltering hand she touched the lock; but her powers deserted her: for a minute she believed that the key, after all, would not solve the mystery. And yet the difficulty arose only from her own agitation. She rallied her courage; once more she made the trial; the key fitted with completeness, and the lock opened with ease, and Venetia found herself in a small and scantily-furnished ante-chamber. Closing the door with noiseless care, Venetia stood trembling in the mysterious chamber, where apparently there was nothing to excite wonder. The chamber into which the ante-room opened was still closed, and it was some minutes before the adventurous daughter of Lady Annabel could summon courage for the enterprise which awaited her.
The door yielded without an effort. Venetia stepped into a spacious and lofty chamber. For a moment she paused almost upon the threshold, and looked around her with a vague and misty vision. Anon she distinguished something of the character of the apartment. In the recess of a large oriel window that looked upon the park, and of which the blinds were nearly drawn, was an old-fashioned yet sumptuous toilet-table of considerable size, arranged as if for use. Opposite this window, in a corresponding recess, was what might be deemed a bridal bed, its furniture being of white satin richly embroidered; the curtains half closed; and suspended from the canopy was a wreath of roses that had once emulated, or rather excelled, the lustrous purity of the hangings, but now were wan and withered. The centre of the inlaid and polished floor of the apartment was covered with a Tournay carpet of brilliant yet tasteful decoration. An old cabinet of fanciful workmanship, some chairs of ebony, and some girandoles of silver completed the furniture of the room, save that at its extreme end, exactly opposite to the door by which Venetia entered, covered with a curtain of green velvet, was what she concluded must be a picture.
An awful stillness pervaded the apartment: Venetia herself, with a face paler even than the hangings of the mysterious bed, stood motionless with suppressed breath, gazing on the distant curtain with a painful glance of agitated fascination. At length, summoning her energies as if for the achievement of some terrible yet inevitable enterprise, she crossed the room, and averting her face, and closing her eyes in a paroxysm of nervous excitement, she stretched forth her arm, and with a rapid motion withdrew the curtain. The harsh sound of the brass rings drawn quickly over the rod, the only noise that had yet met her ear in this mystical chamber, made her start and tremble. She looked up, she beheld, in a broad and massy frame, the full-length portrait of a man.
A man in the very spring of sunny youth, and of radiant beauty. Above the middle height, yet with a form that displayed exquisite grace, he was habited in a green tunic that enveloped his figure to advantage, and became the scene in which he was placed: a park, with a castle in the distance; while a groom at hand held a noble steed, that seemed impatient for the chase. The countenance of its intended rider met fully the gaze of the spectator. It was a countenance of singular loveliness and power. The lips and the moulding of the chin resembled the eager and impassioned tenderness of the shape of Antinous; but instead of the effeminate sullenness of the eye, and the narrow smoothness of the forehead, shone an expression of profound and piercing thought. On each side of the clear and open brow descended, even to the shoulders, the clustering locks of golden hair; while the eyes, large and yet deep, beamed with a spiritual energy, and shone like two wells of crystalline water that reflect the all-beholding heavens.
Now when Venetia Herbert beheld this countenance a change came over her. It seemed that when her eyes met the eyes of the portrait, some mutual interchange of sympathy occurred between them. She freed herself in an instant from the apprehension and timidity that before oppressed her. Whatever might ensue, a vague conviction of having achieved a great object pervaded, as it were, her being. Some great end, vast though indefinite, had been fulfilled. Abstract and fearless, she gazed upon the dazzling visage with a prophetic heart. Her soul was in a tumult, oppressed with thick-coming fancies too big for words, panting for expression. There was a word which must be spoken: it trembled on her convulsive lip, and would not sound. She looked around her with an eye glittering with unnatural fire, as if to supplicate some invisible and hovering spirit to her rescue, or that some floating and angelic chorus might warble the thrilling word whose expression seemed absolutely necessary to her existence. Her cheek is flushed, her eye wild and tremulous, the broad blue veins of her immaculate brow quivering and distended; her waving hair falls back over her forehead, and rustles like a wood before the storm. She seems a priestess in the convulsive throes of inspiration, and about to breathe the oracle. The picture, as we have mentioned, was hung in a broad and massy frame. In the centre of its base was worked an escutcheon, and beneath the shield this inscription:
MARMION HERBERT, AET. XX.
Yet there needed not these letters to guide the agitated spirit of Venetia, for, before her eye had reached them, the word was spoken; and falling on her knees before the portrait, the daughter of Lady Annabel had exclaimed, ‘My father!’
The daughter still kneels before the form of the father, of whom she had heard for the first time in her life. He is at length discovered. It was, then, an irresistible destiny that, after the wild musings and baffled aspirations of so many years, had guided her to this chamber. She is the child of Marmion Herbert; she beholds her lost parent. That being of supernatural beauty, on whom she gazes with a look of blended reverence and love, is her father. What a revelation! Its reality exceeded the wildest dreams of her romance; her brightest visions of grace and loveliness and genius seemed personified in this form; the form of one to whom she was bound by the strongest of all earthly ties, of one on whose heart she had a claim second only to that of the being by whose lips his name was never mentioned. Was he, then, no more? Ah! could she doubt that bitterest calamity? Ah! was it, was it any longer a marvel, that one who had lived in the light of those seraphic eyes, and had watched them until their terrestrial splendour had been for ever extinguished, should shrink from the converse that could remind her of the catastrophe of all her earthly hopes! This chamber, then, was the temple of her mother’s woe, the tomb of her baffled affections and bleeding heart. No wonder that Lady Annabel, the desolate Lady Annabel, that almost the same spring must have witnessed the most favoured and the most disconsolate of women, should have fled from the world that had awarded her at the same time a lot so dazzling and so full of despair. Venetia felt that the existence of her mother’s child, her own fragile being, could have been that mother’s sole link to life. The heart of the young widow of Marmion Herbert must have broken but for Venetia; and the consciousness of that remaining tie, and the duties that it involved, could alone have sustained the victim under a lot of such unparalleled bitterness. The tears streamed down her cheek as she thought of her mother’s misery, and her mother’s gentle love; the misery that she had been so cautious her child should never share; the vigilant affection that, with all her own hopes blighted, had still laboured to compensate to her child for a deprivation the fulness of which Venetia could only now comprehend.
When, where, why did he die? Oh that she might talk of him to her mother for ever! It seemed that life might pass away in listening to his praises. Marmion Herbert! and who was Marmion Herbert? Young as he was, command and genius, the pride of noble passions, all the glory of a creative mind, seemed stamped upon his brow. With all his marvellous beauty, he seemed a being born for greatness. Dead! in the very burst of his spring, a spring so sweet and splendid; could he be dead? Why, then, was he ever born? It seemed to her that he could not be dead; there was an animated look about the form, that seemed as if it could not die without leaving mankind a prodigal legacy of fame.
Venetia turned and looked upon her parents’ bridal bed. Now that she had discovered her father’s portrait, every article in the room interested her, for her imagination connected everything with him. She touched the wreath of withered roses, and one instantly broke away from the circle, and fell; she knelt down, and gathered up the scattered leaves, and placed them in her bosom. She approached the table in the oriel: in its centre was a volume, on which reposed a dagger of curious workmanship; the volume bound in velvet, and the word ‘ANNABEL’ embroidered upon it in gold. Venetia unclasped it. The volume was his; in a fly-leaf were written these words:
‘TO THE LADY OF MY LOVE, FROM HER MARMION HERBERT.’
With a fluttering heart, yet sparkling eye, Venetia sank into a chair, which was placed before the table, with all her soul concentred in the contents of this volume. Leaning on her right hand, which shaded her agitated brow, she turned a page of the volume with a trembling hand. It contained a sonnet, delineating the feelings of a lover at the first sight of his beloved, a being to him yet unknown. Venetia perused with breathless interest the graceful and passionate picture of her mother’s beauty. A series of similar compositions detailed the history of the poet’s heart, and all the thrilling adventures of his enchanted life. Not an incident, not a word, not a glance, in that spell-bound prime of existence, that was not commemorated by his lyre in strains as sweet and as witching! Now he poured forth his passion; now his doubts; now his hopes; now came the glowing hour when he was first assured of his felicity; the next page celebrated her visit to the castle of his fathers; and another led her to the altar.
With a flushed cheek and an excited eye, Venetia had rapidly pored over these ardent annals of the heart from whose blood she had sprung. She turns the page; she starts; the colour deserts her countenance; a mist glides over her vision; she clasps her hands with convulsive energy; she sinks back in her chair. In a few moments she extends one hand, as if fearful again to touch the book that had excited so much emotion, raises herself in her seat, looks around her with a vacant and perplexed gaze, apparently succeeds in collecting herself, and then seizes, with an eager grasp, the volume, and throwing herself on her, knees before the chair, her long locks hanging on each side over a cheek crimson as the sunset, loses her whole soul in the lines which the next page reveals.
Within our heaven of love, the new-born star
We long devoutly watched, like shepherd kings,
Steals into light, and, floating from afar,
Methinks some bright transcendent seraph sings,
Waving with flashing light her radiant wings,
Immortal welcome to the stranger fair:
To us a child is born. With transport clings
The mother to the babe she sighed to bear;
Of all our treasured loves the long-expected heir!
My daughter! can it be a daughter now
Shall greet my being with her infant smile?
And shall I press that fair and taintless brow
With my fond lips, and tempt, with many a wile
Of playful love, those features to beguile
A parent with their mirth? In the wild sea
Of this dark life, behold a little isle
Rises amid the waters, bright and free,
A haven for my hopes of fond security!
And thou shalt bear a name my line has loved,
And their fair daughters owned for many an age,
Since first our fiery blood a wanderer roved,
And made in sunnier lands his pilgrimage,
Where proud defiance with the waters wage
The sea-born city’s walls; the graceful towers
Loved by the bard and honoured by the sage!
My own VENETIA now shall gild our bowers,
And with her spell enchain our life’s enchanted hours!
Oh! if the blessing of a father’s heart
Hath aught of sacred in its deep-breath’d prayer,
Skilled to thy gentle being to impart,
As thy bright form itself, a fate as fair;
On thee I breathe that blessing! Let me share,
O God! her joys; and if the dark behest
Of woe resistless, and avoidless care,
Hath, not gone forth, oh! spare this gentle guest.
And wreak thy needful wrath on my resigned breast!
An hour elapsed, and Venetia did not move. Over and over again she conned the only address from the lips of her father that had ever reached her ear. A strange inspiration seconded the exertion of an exercised memory. The duty was fulfilled, the task completed. Then a sound was heard without. The thought that her mother had returned occurred to her; she looked up, the big tears streaming down her face; she listened, like a young hind just roused by the still-distant huntsman, quivering and wild: she listened, and she sprang up, replaced the volume, arranged the chair, cast one long, lingering, feverish glance at the portrait, skimmed through the room, hesitated one moment in the ante-chamber; opened, as all was silent, the no longer mysterious door, turned the noiseless lock, tripped lightly along the vestibule; glided into her mother’s empty apartment, reposited the key that had opened so many wonders in the casket; and, then, having hurried to her own chamber, threw herself on her bed in a paroxysm of contending emotions, that left her no power of pondering over the strange discovery that had already given a new colour to her existence.
Her mother had not returned; it was a false alarm; but Venetia could not quit her bed. There she remained, repeating to herself her father’s verses. Then one thought alone filled her being. Was he dead? Was this fond father, who had breathed this fervent blessing over her birth, and invoked on his own head all the woe and misfortunes of her destiny, was he, indeed, no more? How swiftly must the arrow have sped after he received the announcement that a child was given to him,
Of all his treasured loves the long-expected heir!
He could scarcely have embraced her ere the great Being, to whom he had offered his prayer, summoned him to his presence! Of that father she had not the slightest recollection; she had ascertained that she had reached Cherbury a child, even in arms, and she knew that her father had never lived under the roof. What an awful bereavement! Was it wonderful that her mother was inconsolable? Was it wonderful that she could not endure even his name to be mentioned in her presence; that not the slightest allusion to his existence could be tolerated by a wife who had been united to such a peerless being, only to behold him torn away from her embraces? Oh! could he, indeed, be dead? That inspired countenance that seemed immortal, had it in a moment been dimmed? and all the symmetry of that matchless form, had it indeed been long mouldering in the dust? Why should she doubt it? Ah! why, indeed? How could she doubt it? Why, ever and anon, amid the tumult of her excited mind, came there an unearthly whisper to her ear, mocking her with the belief that he still lived? But he was dead; he must be dead; and why did she live? Could she survive what she had seen and learnt this day? Did she wish to survive it? But her mother, her mother with all her sealed-up sorrows, had survived him. Why? For her sake; for her child; for ‘his own Venetia!’ His own!
She clenched her feverish hand, her temples beat with violent palpitations, her brow was burning hot. Time flew on, and every minute Venetia was more sensible of the impossibility of rising to welcome her mother. That mother at length returned; Venetia could not again mistake the wheels of the returning carriage. Some minutes passed, and there was a knock at her door. With a choking voice Venetia bade them enter. It was Pauncefort.
‘Well, Miss,’ she exclaimed, ‘if you ayn’t here, after all! I told my lady, “My lady,” says I, “I am sure Miss Venetia must be in the park, for I saw her go out myself, and I have never seen her come home.” And, after all, you are here. My lady has come home, you know, Miss, and has been inquiring for you several times.’
‘Tell mamma that I am not very well,’ said Venetia, in a low voice, ‘and that I have been obliged to lie down.’
‘Not well, Miss,’ exclaimed Pauncefort; ‘and what can be the matter with you? I am afraid you have walked too much; overdone it, I dare say; or, mayhap, you have caught cold; it is an easterly wind: for I was saying to John this morning, “John,” says I, “if Miss Venetia will walk about with only a handkerchief tied round her head, why, what can be expected?”’
‘I have only a headache, a very bad headache, Pauncefort; I wish to be quiet,’ said Venetia.
Pauncefort left the room accordingly, and straightway proceeded to Lady Annabel, when she communicated the information that Miss Venetia was in the house, after all, though she had never seen her return, and that she was lying down because she had a very bad headache. Lady Annabel, of course, did not lose a moment in visiting her darling. She entered the room softly, so softly that she was not heard; Venetia was lying on her bed, with her back to the door. Lady Annabel stood by her bedside for some moments unnoticed. At length Venetia heaved a deep sigh. Her mother then said in a soft voice, ‘Are you in pain, darling?’
‘Is that mamma?’ said Venetia, turning with quickness.
‘You are ill, dear,’ said Lady Annabel, taking her hand. ‘Your hand is hot; you are feverish. How long has my Venetia felt ill?’
Venetia could not answer; she did nothing but sigh. Her strange manner excited her mother’s wonder. Lady Annabel sat by the bedside, still holding her daughter’s hand in hers, watching her with a glance of great anxiety.
‘Answer me, my love,’ she repeated in a voice of tenderness. ‘What do you feel?’
‘My head, my head,’ murmured Venetia.
Her mother pressed her own hand to her daughter’s brow; it was very hot. ‘Does that pain you?’ inquired Lady Annabel; but Venetia did not reply; her look was wild and abstracted. Her mother gently withdrew her hand, and then summoned Pauncefort, with whom she communicated without permitting her to enter the room.
‘Miss Herbert is very ill,’ said Lady Annabel, pale, but in a firm tone. ‘I am alarmed about her. She appears to me to have fever; send instantly to Southport for Mr. Hawkins; and let the messenger use and urge all possible expedition. Be in attendance in the vestibule, Pauncefort; I shall not quit her room, but she must be kept perfectly quiet.’
Lady Annabel then drew her chair to the bedside of her daughter, and bathed her temples at intervals with rose-water; but none of these attentions apparently attracted the notice of the sufferer. She was, it would seem, utterly unconscious of all that was occurring. She now lay with her face turned towards her mother, but did not exchange even looks with her. She was restless, and occasionally she sighed deeply.
Once, by way of experiment, Lady Annabel again addressed her, but Venetia gave no answer. Then the mother concluded what, indeed, had before attracted her suspicion, that Venetia’s head was affected. But then, what was this strange, this sudden attack, which appeared to have prostrated her daughter’s faculties in an instant? A few hours back, and Lady Annabel had parted from Venetia in all the glow of health and beauty. The season was most genial; her exercise had doubtless been moderate; as for her general health, so complete was her constitution, and so calm the tenour of her life, that Venetia had scarcely experienced in her whole career a single hour of indisposition. It was an anxious period of suspense until the medical attendant arrived from Southport. Fortunately he was one in whom, from reputation, Lady Annabel was disposed to place great trust; and his matured years, his thoughtful manner, and acute inquiries, confirmed her favourable opinion of him. All that Mr. Hawkins could say, however, was, that Miss Herbert had a great deal of fever, but the cause was concealed, and the suddenness of the attack perplexed him. He administered one of the usual remedies; and after an hour had elapsed, and no favourable change occurring, he blooded her. He quitted Cherbury, with the promise of returning late in the evening, having several patients whom he was obliged to visit.
The night drew on; the chamber was now quite closed, but Lady Annabel never quitted it. She sat reading, removed from her daughter, that her presence might not disturb her, for Venetia seemed inclined to sleep. Suddenly Venetia spoke; but she said only one word, ‘Father!’
Lady Annabel started; her book nearly fell from her hand; she grew very pale. Quite breathless, she listened, and again Venetia spoke, and again called upon her father. Now, with a great effort, Lady Annabel stole on tiptoe to the bedside of her daughter. Venetia was lying on her back, her eyes were closed, her lips still as it were quivering with the strange word they had dared to pronounce. Again her voice sounded; she chanted, in an unearthly voice, verses. The perspiration stood in large drops on the pallid forehead of the mother as she listened. Still Venetia proceeded; and Lady Annabel, throwing herself on her knees, held up her hands to Heaven in an agony of astonishment, terror, and devotion.
Now there was again silence; but her mother remained apparently buried in prayer. Again Venetia spoke; again she repeated the mysterious stanzas. With convulsive agony her mother listened to every fatal line that she unconsciously pronounced.
The secret was then discovered. Yes! Venetia must have penetrated the long-closed chamber; all the labours of years had in a moment been subverted; Venetia had discovered her parent, and the effects of the discovery might, perhaps, be her death. Then it was that Lady Annabel, in the torture of her mind, poured forth her supplications that the life or the heart of her child might never be lost to her, ‘Grant, O merciful God!’ she exclaimed, ‘that this sole hope of my being may be spared to me. Grant, if she be spared, that she may never desert her mother! And for him, of whom she has heard this day for the first time, let him be to her as if he were no more! May she never learn that he lives! May she never comprehend the secret agony of her mother’s life! Save her, O God! save her from his fatal, his irresistible influence! May she remain pure and virtuous as she has yet lived! May she remain true to thee, and true to thy servant, who now bows before thee! Look down upon me at this moment with gracious mercy; turn to me my daughter’s heart; and, if it be my dark doom to be in this world a widow, though a wife, add not to this bitterness that I shall prove a mother without a child!’
At this moment the surgeon returned. It was absolutely necessary that Lady Annabel should compose herself. She exerted all that strength of character for which she was remarkable. From this moment she resolved, if her life were the forfeit, not to quit for an instant the bedside of Venetia until she was declared out of danger; and feeling conscious that if she once indulged her own feelings, she might herself soon be in a situation scarcely less hazardous than her daughter’s, she controlled herself with a mighty effort. Calm as a statue, she received the medical attendant, who took the hand of the unconscious Venetia with apprehension too visibly impressed upon his grave countenance. As he took her hand, Venetia opened her eyes, stared at her mother and her attendant, and then immediately closed them.
‘She has slept?’ inquired Lady Annabel.
‘No,’ said the surgeon, ‘no: this is not sleep; it is a feverish trance that brings her no refreshment.’ He took out his watch, and marked her pulse with great attention; then he placed his hand on her brow, and shook his head. ‘These beautiful curls must come off,’ he said. Lady Annabel glided to the table, and instantly brought the scissors, as if the delay of an instant might be fatal. The surgeon cut off those long golden locks. Venetia raised her hand to her head, and said, in a low voice, ‘They are for my father.’ Lady Annabel leant upon the surgeon’s arm and shook.
Now he led the mother to the window, and spoke in a hushed tone.
‘Is it possible that there is anything on your daughter’s mind, Lady Annabel?’ he inquired.
The agitated mother looked at the inquirer, and then at her daughter; and then for a moment she raised her hand to her eyes; then she replied, in a low but firm voice, ‘Yes.’
‘Your ladyship must judge whether you wish me to be acquainted with it,’ said Mr. Hawkins, calmly.
‘My daughter has suddenly become acquainted, sir, with some family incidents of a painful nature, and the knowledge of which I have hitherto spared her. They are events long past, and their consequences are now beyond all control.’
‘She knows, then, the worst?’
‘Without her mind, I cannot answer that question,’ said Lady Annabel.
‘It is my duty to tell you that Miss Herbert is in imminent danger; she has every appearance of a fever of a malignant character. I cannot answer for her life.’
‘O God!’ exclaimed Lady Annabel.
‘Yet you must compose yourself, my dear lady. Her chance of recovery greatly depends upon the vigilance of her attendants. I shall bleed her again, and place leeches on her temples. There is inflammation on the brain. There are other remedies also not less powerful. We must not despair; we have no cause to despair until we find these fail. I shall not leave her again; and, for your satisfaction, not for my own, I shall call in additional advice, the aid of a physician.’
A messenger accordingly was instantly despatched for the physician, who resided at a town more distant than Southport; the very town, by-the-bye, where Morgana, the gipsy, was arrested. They contrived, with the aid of Pauncefort, to undress Venetia, and place her in her bed, for hitherto they had refrained from this exertion. At this moment the withered leaves of a white rose fell from Venetia’s dress. A sofa-bed was then made for Lady Annabel, of which, however, she did not avail herself. The whole night she sat by her daughter’s side, watching every movement of Venetia, refreshing her hot brow and parched lips, or arranging, at every opportunity, her disordered pillows. About an hour past midnight the surgeon retired to rest, for a few hours, in the apartment prepared for him, and Pauncefort, by the desire of her mistress, also withdrew: Lady Annabel was alone with her child, and with those agitated thoughts which the strange occurrences of the day were well calculated to excite.
Early in the morning the physician arrived at Cherbury. It remained for him only to approve of the remedies which had been pursued. No material change, however, had occurred in the state of Venetia: she had not slept, and still she seemed unconscious of what was occurring. The gracious interposition of Nature seemed the only hope. When the medical men had withdrawn to consult in the terrace-room, Lady Annabel beckoned to Pauncefort, and led her to the window of Venetia’s apartment, which she would not quit.
‘Pauncefort,’ said Lady Annabel, ‘Venetia has been in her father’s room.’
‘Oh! impossible, my lady,’ burst forth Mistress Pauncefort; but Lady Annabel placed her finger on her lip, and checked her. ‘There is no doubt of it, there can be no doubt of it, Pauncefort; she entered it yesterday; she must have passed the morning there, when you believed she was in the park.’
‘But, my lady,’ said Pauncefort, ‘how could it be? For I scarcely left your la’ship’s room a second, and Miss Venetia, I am sure, never was near it. And the key, my lady, the key is in the casket. I saw it half an hour ago with my own eyes.’
‘There is no use arguing about it, Pauncefort,’ said Lady Annabel, with decision. ‘It is as I say. I fear great misfortunes are about to commence at Cherbury.’
‘Oh! my lady, don’t think of such things,’ said Pauncefort, herself not a little alarmed. ‘What can happen?’
‘I fear more than I know,’ said Lady Annabel; ‘but I do fear much. At present I can only think of her.’
‘Well! my lady,’ said poor Mistress Pauncefort, looking bewildered, ‘only to think of such a thing! and after all the pains I have taken! I am sure I have not opened my lips on the subject these fifteen years; and the many questions I have been asked too! I am sure there is not a servant in the house —’
‘Hush! hush!’ said Lady Annabel, ‘I do not blame you, and therefore you need not defend yourself. Go, Pauncefort, I must be alone.’ Pauncefort withdrew, and Lady Annabel resumed her seat by her daughter’s side.
On the fourth day of her attack the medical attendants observed a favourable change in their patient, and were not, of course, slow in communicating this joyful intelligence to her mother. The crisis had occurred and was past: Venetia had at length sunk into slumber. How different was her countenance from the still yet settled features they had before watched with such anxiety! She breathed lightly, the tension of the eyelids had disappeared, her mouth was slightly open. The physician and his colleague declared that immediate danger was past, and they counselled Lady Annabel to take repose. On condition that one of them should remain by the side of her daughter, the devoted yet miserable mother quitted, for the first time her child’s apartment. Pauncefort followed her to her room.
‘Oh! my lady,’ said Pauncefort, ‘I am so glad your la’ship is going to lie down a bit.’
‘I am not going to lie down, Pauncefort. Give me the key.’
And Lady Annabel proceeded alone to the forbidden chamber, that chamber which, after what has occurred, we may now enter with her, and where, with so much labour, she had created a room exactly imitative of their bridal apartment at her husband’s castle. With a slow but resolved step she entered the apartment, and proceeding immediately to the table, took up the book; it opened at the stanzas to Venetia. The pages had recently been bedewed with tears. Lady Annabel then looked at the bridal bed, and marked the missing rose in the garland: it was as she expected. She seated herself then in the chair opposite the portrait, on which she gazed with a glance rather stern than fond.
‘Marmion,’ she exclaimed, ‘for fifteen years, a solitary votary, I have mourned over, in this temple of baffled affections, the inevitable past. The daughter of our love has found her way, perhaps by an irresistible destiny, to a spot sacred to my long-concealed sorrows. At length she knows her father. May she never know more! May she never learn that the being, whose pictured form has commanded her adoration, is unworthy of those glorious gifts that a gracious Creator has bestowed upon him! Marmion, you seem to smile upon me; you seem to exult in your triumph over the heart of your child. But there is a power in a mother’s love that yet shall baffle you. Hitherto I have come here to deplore the past; hitherto I have come here to dwell upon the form that, in spite of all that has happened, I still was, perhaps, weak enough, to love. Those feelings are past for ever. Yes! you would rob me of my child, you would tear from my heart the only consolation you have left me. But Venetia shall still be mine; and I, I am no longer yours. Our love, our still lingering love, has vanished. You have been my enemy, now I am yours. I gaze upon your portrait for the last time; and thus I prevent the magical fascination of that face again appealing to the sympathies of my child. Thus and thus!’ She seized the ancient dagger that we have mentioned as lying on the volume, and, springing on the chair, she plunged it into the canvas; then, tearing with unflinching resolution the severed parts, she scattered the fragments over the chamber, shook into a thousand leaves the melancholy garland, tore up the volume of his enamoured Muse, and then quitting the chamber, and locking and double locking the door, she descended the staircase, and proceeding to the great well of Cherbury, hurled into it the fatal key.
‘Oh! my lady,’ said Mistress Pauncefort, as she met Lady Annabel returning in the vestibule, ‘Doctor Masham is here.’
‘Is he?’ said Lady Annabel, as calm as usual. ‘I will see him before I lie down. Do not go into Venetia’s room. She sleeps, and Mr. Hawkins has promised me to let me know when she wakes.’
As Lady Annabel entered the terrace-room, Doctor Masham came forward and grasped her hand.
‘You have heard of our sorrow!’ said her ladyship in a faint voice.
‘But this instant,’ replied the Doctor, in a tone of great anxiety.’ Immediate danger —’
‘Is past. She sleeps,’ replied Lady Annabel.
‘A most sudden and unaccountable attack,’ said the Doctor.
It is difficult to describe the contending emotions of the mother as her companion made this observation. At length she replied, ‘Sudden, certainly sudden; but not unaccountable. Oh! my friend,’ she added, after a moment’s pause, ‘they will not be content until they have torn my daughter from me.’
‘They tear your daughter from you!’ exclaimed Doctor Masham. ‘Who?’
‘He, he,’ muttered Lady Annabel; her speech was incoherent, her manner very disturbed.
‘My dear lady,’ said the Doctor, gazing on her with extreme anxiety, ‘you are yourself unwell.’
Lady Annabel heaved a deep sigh; the Doctor bore her to a seat. ‘Shall I send for any one, anything?’
‘No one, no one,’ quickly answered Lady Annabel. ‘With you, at least, there is no concealment necessary.’
She leant back in her chair, the Doctor holding her hand, and standing by her side.
Still Lady Annabel continued sighing deeply: at length she looked up and said, ‘Does she love me? Do you think, after all, she loves me?’
‘Venetia?’ inquired the Doctor, in a low and doubtful voice, for he was greatly perplexed.
‘She has seen him; she loves him; she has forgotten her mother.’
‘My dear lady, you require rest,’ said Doctor Masham. ‘You are overcome with strange fancies. Whom has your daughter seen?’
‘Impossible! you forget he is —’
‘Here also. He has spoken to her: she loves him: she will recover: she will fly to him; sooner let us both die!’
‘She knows everything. Fate has baffled me; we cannot struggle with fate. She is his child; she is like him; she is not like her mother. Oh! she hates me; I know she hates me.’
‘Hush! hush! hush!’ said the Doctor, himself very agitated. ‘Venetia loves you, only you. Why should she love any one else?’
‘Who can help it? I loved him. I saw him. I loved him. His voice was music. He has spoken to her, and she yielded: she yielded in a moment. I stood by her bedside. She would not speak to me; she would not know me; she shrank from me. Her heart is with her father: only with him.’
‘Where did she see him? How?’
‘His room: his picture. She knows all. I was away with you, and she entered his chamber.’
‘Oh! Doctor, you have influence with her. Speak to her. Make her love me! Tell her she has no father; tell her he is dead.’
‘We will do that which is well and wise,’ replied Doctor Masham: ‘at present let us be calm; if you give way, her life may be the forfeit. Now is the moment for a mother’s love.’
‘You are right. I should not have left her for an instant. I would not have her wake and find her mother not watching over her. But I was tempted. She slept; I left her for a moment; I went to destroy the spell. She cannot see him again. No one shall see him again. It was my weakness, the weakness of long years; and now I am its victim.’
‘Nay, nay, my sweet lady, all will be quite well. Be but calm; Venetia will recover.’
‘But will she love me? Oh! no, no, no! She will think only of him. She will not love her mother. She will yearn for her father now. She has seen him, and she will not rest until she is in his arms. She will desert me, I know it.’
‘And I know the contrary,’ said the Doctor, attempting to reassure her; ‘I will answer for Venetia’s devotion to you. Indeed she has no thought but your happiness, and can love only you. When there is a fitting time, I will speak to her; but now, now is the time for repose. And you must rest, you must indeed.’
‘Rest! I cannot. I slumbered in the chair last night by her bedside, and a voice roused me. It was her own. She was speaking to her father. She told him how she loved him; how long, how much she thought of him; that she would join him when she was well, for she knew he was not dead; and, if he were dead, she would die also. She never mentioned me.’
‘Nay! the light meaning of a delirious brain.’ ‘Truth, truth, bitter, inevitable truth. Oh! Doctor, I could bear all but this; but my child, my beautiful fond child, that made up for all my sorrows. My joy, my hope, my life! I knew it would be so; I knew he would have her heart. He said she never could be alienated from him; he said she never could be taught to hate him. I did not teach her to hate him. I said nothing. I deemed, fond, foolish mother, that the devotion of my life might bind her to me. But what is a mother’s love? I cannot contend with him. He gained the mother; he will gain the daughter too.’
‘God will guard over you,’ said Masham, with streaming eyes; ‘God will not desert a pious and virtuous woman.’
‘I must go,’ said Lady Annabel, attempting to rise, but the Doctor gently controlled her; ‘perhaps she is awake, and I am not at her side. She will not ask for me, she will ask for him; but I will be there; she will desert me, but she shall not say I ever deserted her.’
‘She will never desert you,’ said the Doctor; ‘my life on her pure heart. She has been a child of unbroken love and duty; still she will remain so. Her mind is for a moment overpowered by a marvellous discovery. She will recover, and be to you as she was before.’
‘We’ll tell her he is dead,’ said Lady Annabel, eagerly. ‘You must tell her. She will believe you. I cannot speak to her of him; no, not to secure her heart; never, never, never can I speak to Venetia of her father.’
‘I will speak,’ replied the Doctor, ‘at the just time. Now let us think of her recovery. She is no longer in danger. We should be grateful, we should be glad.’
‘Let us pray to God! Let us humble ourselves,’ said Lady Annabel. ‘Let us beseech him not to desert this house. We have been faithful to him, we have struggled to be faithful to him. Let us supplicate him to favour and support us!’
‘He will favour and support you,’ said the Doctor, in a solemn tone. ‘He has upheld you in many trials; he will uphold you still.’
‘Ah! why did I love him! Why did I continue to love him! How weak, how foolish, how mad I have been! I have alone been the cause of all this misery. Yes, I have destroyed my child.’
‘She lives, she will live. Nay, nay! you must reassure yourself. Come, let me send for your servant, and for a moment repose. Nay! take my arm. All depends upon you. We have great cares now; let us not conjure up fantastic fears.’
‘I must go to my daughter’s room. Perhaps by her side I might rest. Nowhere else. You will attend me to the door, my friend. Yes! it is something in this life to have a friend.’
Lady Annabel took the arm of the good Masham. They stopped at her daughter’s door.
‘Rest here a moment,’ she said, as she entered the room without a sound. In a moment she returned. ‘She still sleeps,’ said the mother; ‘I shall remain with her, and you —?’
‘I will not leave you,’ said the Doctor, ‘but think not of me. Nay! I will not leave you. I will remain under this roof. I have shared its serenity and joy; let me not avoid it in this time of trouble and tribulation.’
Venetia still slept: her mother alone in the chamber watched by her side. Some hours had elapsed since her interview with Dr. Masham; the medical attendant had departed for a few hours.
Suddenly Venetia moved, opened her eyes, and said in a faint voice, ‘Mamma!’
The blood rushed to Lady Annabel’s heart. That single word afforded her the most exquisite happiness.
‘I am here, dearest,’ she replied.
‘Mamma, what is all this?’ inquired Venetia.
‘You have not been well, my own, but now you are much better.’
‘I thought I had been dreaming,’ replied Venetia, ‘and that all was not right; somebody, I thought, struck me on my head. But all is right now, because you are here, my dear mamma.’
But Lady Annabel could not speak for weeping.
‘Are you sure, mamma, that nothing has been done to my head?’ continued Venetia. ‘Why, what is this?’ and she touched a light bandage on her brow.
‘My darling, you have been ill, and you have lost blood; but now you are getting quite well. I have been very unhappy about you; but now I am quite happy, my sweet, sweet child.’
‘How long have I been ill?’
‘You have been very ill indeed for four or five days; you have had a fever, Venetia; but now the fever is gone; and you are only a little weak, and you will soon be well.’
‘A fever! and how did I get the fever?’
‘Perhaps you caught cold, my child; but we must not talk too much.’
‘A fever! I never had a fever before. A fever is like a dream.’
‘Hush! sweet love. Indeed you must not speak.’
‘Give me your hand, mamma; I will not speak if you will let me hold your hand. I thought in the fever that we were parted.’
‘I have never left your side, my child, day or night,’ said Lady Annabel, not without agitation.
‘All this time! all these days and nights! No one would do that but you, mamma. You think only of me.’
‘You repay me by your love, Venetia,’ said Lady Annabel, feeling that her daughter ought not to speak, yet irresistibly impelled to lead out her thoughts.
‘How can I help loving you, my dear mamma?’
‘You do love me, you do love me very much; do you not, sweet child?’
‘Better than all the world,’ replied Venetia to her enraptured parent. ‘And yet, in the fever I seemed to love some one else: but fevers are like dreams; they are not true.’
Lady Annabel pressed her lips gently to her daughter’s, and whispered her that she must speak no more.
When Mr. Hawkins returned, he gave a favourable report of Venetia. He said that all danger was now past, and that all that was required for her recovery were time, care, and repose. He repeated to Lady Annabel alone that the attack was solely to be ascribed to some great mental shock which her daughter had received, and which suddenly had affected her circulation; leaving it, after this formal intimation, entirely to the mother to take those steps in reference to the cause, whatever it might be, which she should deem expedient.
In the evening, Lady Annabel stole down for a few moments to Dr. Masham, laden with joyful intelligence; assured of the safety of her child, and, what was still more precious, of her heart, and even voluntarily promising her friend that she should herself sleep this night in her daughter’s chamber, on the sofa-bed. The Doctor, therefore, now bade her adieu, and said that he should ride over from Marringhurst every day, to hear how their patient was proceeding.
From this time, the recovery of Venetia, though slow, was gradual. She experienced no relapse, and in a few weeks quitted her bed. She was rather surprised at her altered appearance when it first met her glance in the mirror, but scarcely made any observation on the loss of her locks. During this interval, the mind of Venetia had been quite dormant; the rage of the fever, and the violent remedies to which it had been necessary to have recourse, had so exhausted her, that she had not energy enough to think. All that she felt was a strange indefinite conviction that some occurrence had taken place with which her memory could not grapple. But as her strength returned, and as she gradually resumed her usual health, by proportionate though almost invisible degrees her memory returned to her, and her intelligence. She clearly recollected and comprehended what had taken place. She recalled the past, compared incidents, weighed circumstances, sifted and balanced the impressions that now crowded upon her consciousness. It is difficult to describe each link in the metaphysical chain which at length connected the mind of Venetia Herbert with her actual experience and precise situation. It was, however, at length perfect, and gradually formed as she sat in an invalid chair, apparently listless, not yet venturing on any occupation, or occasionally amused for a moment by her mother reading to her. But when her mind had thus resumed its natural tone, and in time its accustomed vigour, the past demanded all her solicitude. At length the mystery of her birth was revealed to her. She was the daughter of Marmion Herbert; and who was Marmion Herbert? The portrait rose before her. How distinct was the form, how definite the countenance! No common personage was Marmion Herbert, even had he not won his wife, and celebrated his daughter in such witching strains. Genius was stamped on his lofty brow, and spoke in his brilliant eye; nobility was in all his form. This chivalric poet was her father. She had read, she had dreamed of such beings, she had never seen them. If she quitted the solitude in which she lived, would she see men like her father? No other could ever satisfy her imagination; all beneath that standard would rank but as imperfect creations in her fancy. And this father, he was dead. No doubt. Ah! was there indeed no doubt? Eager as was her curiosity on this all-absorbing subject, Venetia could never summon courage to speak upon it to her mother. Her first disobedience, or rather her first deception of her mother, in reference to this very subject, had brought, and brought so swiftly on its retributive wings, such disastrous consequences, that any allusion to Lady Annabel was restrained by a species of superstitious fear, against which Venetia could not contend. Then her father was either dead or living. That was certain. If dead, it was clear that his memory, however cherished by his relict, was associated with feelings too keen to admit of any other but solitary indulgence. If living, there was a mystery connected with her parents, a mystery evidently of a painful character, and one which it was a prime object with her mother to conceal and to suppress. Could Venetia, then, in defiance of that mother, that fond devoted mother, that mother who had watched through long days and long nights over her sick bed, and who now, without a murmur, was a prisoner to this very room, only to comfort and console her child: could Venetia take any step which might occasion this matchless parent even a transient pang? No; it was impossible. To her mother she could never speak. And yet, to remain enveloped in the present mystery, she was sensible, was equally insufferable. All she asked, all she wanted to know, was he alive? If he were alive, then, although she could not see him, though she might never see him, she could exist upon his idea; she could conjure up romances of future existence with him; she could live upon the fond hope of some day calling him father, and receiving from his hands the fervid blessing he had already breathed to her in song.
In the meantime her remaining parent commanded all her affections. Even if he were no more, blessed was her lot with such a mother! Lady Annabel seemed only to exist to attend upon her daughter. No lover ever watched with such devotion the wants or even the caprices of his mistress. A thousand times every day Venetia found herself expressing her fondness and her gratitude. It seemed that the late dreadful contingency of losing her daughter had developed in Lady Annabel’s heart even additional powers of maternal devotion; and Venetia, the fond and grateful Venetia, ignorant of the strange past, which she believed she so perfectly comprehended, returned thanks to Heaven that her mother was at least spared the mortification of knowing that her daughter, in her absence, had surreptitiously invaded the sanctuary of her secret sorrow.
When Venetia had so far recovered that, leaning on her mother’s arm, she could resume her walks upon the terrace, Doctor Masham persuaded his friends, as a slight and not unpleasant change of scene, to pay him a visit at Marringhurst. Since the chamber scene, indeed, Lady Annabel’s tie to Cherbury was much weakened. There were certain feelings of pain, and fear, and mortification, now associated with that place which she could not bear to dwell upon, and which greatly balanced those sentiments of refuge and repose, of peace and love, with which the old hall, in her mind, was heretofore connected. Venetia ever adopted the slightest intimations of a wish on the part of her mother, and so she readily agreed to fall into the arrangement.
It was rather a long and rough journey to Marringhurst, for they were obliged to use the old chariot; but Venetia forgot her fatigues in the cordial welcome of their host, whose sparkling countenance well expressed the extreme gratification their arrival occasioned him. All that the tenderest solicitude could devise for the agreeable accommodation of the invalid had been zealously concerted; and the constant influence of Dr. Masham’s cheerful mind was as beneficial to Lady Annabel as to her daughter. The season was gay, the place was pleasant; and although they were only a few miles from home, in a house with which they were familiar, and their companion one whom they had known intimately all their lives, and of late almost daily seen; yet such is the magic of a change in our habits, however slight, and of the usual theatre of their custom, that this visit to Marringhurst assumed quite the air of an adventure, and seemed at first almost invested with the charm and novelty of travel.
The surrounding country, which, though verdant, was flat, was well adapted to the limited exertions and still feeble footsteps of an invalid, and Venetia began to study botany with the Doctor, who indeed was not very profound in his attainments in this respect, but knew quite enough to amuse his scholar. By degrees also, as her strength daily increased, they extended their walks; and at length she even mounted her pony, and was fast recovering her elasticity both of body and mind. There were also many pleasant books with which she was unacquainted; a cabinet of classic coins, prints, and pictures. She became, too, interested in the Doctor’s rural pursuits; would watch him with his angle, and already meditated a revolution in his garden. So time, on the whole, flew cheerfully on, certainly without any weariness; and the day seldom passed that they did not all congratulate themselves on the pleasant and profitable change.
In the meantime Venetia, when alone, still recurred to that idea that was now so firmly rooted in her mind, that it was quite out of the power of any social discipline to divert her attention from it. She was often the sole companion of the Doctor, and she had long resolved to seize a favourable opportunity to appeal to him on the subject of her father. It so happened that she was walking alone with him one morning in the neighbourhood of Marringhurst, having gone to visit the remains of a Roman encampment in the immediate vicinity. When they had arrived at the spot, and the Doctor had delivered his usual lecture on the locality, they sat down together on a mound, that Venetia might rest herself.
‘Were you ever in Italy, Doctor Masham?’ said Venetia.
‘I never was out of my native country,’ said the Doctor. ‘I once, indeed, was about making the grand tour with a pupil of mine at Oxford, but circumstances interfered which changed his plans, and so I remain a regular John Bull.’
‘Was my father at Oxford?’ said Venetia, quietly.
‘He was,’ replied the Doctor, looking confused.
‘I should like to see Oxford much,’ said Venetia.
‘It is a most interesting seat of learning,’ said the Doctor, quite delighted to change the subject. ‘Whether we consider its antiquity, its learning, the influence it has exercised upon the history of the country, its magnificent endowments, its splendid buildings, its great colleges, libraries, and museums, or that it is one of the principal head-quarters of all the hope of England, our youth, it is not too much to affirm that there is scarcely a spot on the face of the globe of equal interest and importance.’
‘It is not for its colleges, or libraries, or museums, or all its splendid buildings,’ observed Venetia, ‘that I should wish to see it. I wish to see it because my father was once there. I should like to see a place where I was quite certain my father had been.’
‘Still harping of her father,’ thought the Doctor to himself, and growing uneasy; yet, from his very anxiety to turn the subject, quite incapable of saying an appropriate word.
‘Do you remember my father at Oxford, Doctor Masham?’ said Venetia.
‘Yes! no, yes!’ said the Doctor, rather colouring; ‘that he must have been there in my time, I rather think.’
‘But you do not recollect him?’ said Venetia, pressing question.
‘Why,’ rejoined the Doctor, a little more collected, ‘when you remember that there are between two and three thousand young men at the university, you must not consider it very surprising that I might not recollect your father.’
‘No,’ said Venetia, ‘perhaps not: and yet I cannot help thinking that he must always have been a person who, if once seen, would not easily have been forgotten.’
‘Here is an Erica vagans,’ said the Doctor, picking a flower; ‘it is rather uncommon about here;’ and handing it at the same time to Venetia.
‘My father must have been very young when he died?’ said Venetia, scarcely looking at the flower.
‘Yes, your father was very young,’ he replied.
‘Where did he die?’
‘I cannot answer that question.’
‘Where was he buried?’
‘You know, my dear young lady, that the subject is too tender for any one to converse with your poor mother upon it. It is not in my power to give you the information you desire. Be satisfied, my dear Miss Herbert, that a gracious Providence has spared to you one parent, and one so inestimable.’
‘I trust I know how to appreciate so great a blessing,’ replied Venetia; ‘but I should be sorry if the natural interest which all children must take in those who have given them birth, should be looked upon as idle and unjustifiable curiosity.’
‘My dear young lady, you misapprehend me.’
‘No, Doctor Masham, indeed I do not,’ replied Venetia, with firmness. ‘I can easily conceive that the mention of my father may for various reasons be insupportable to my mother; it is enough for me that I am convinced such is the case: my lips are sealed to her for ever upon the subject; but I cannot recognise the necessity of this constraint to others. For a long time I was kept in ignorance whether I had a father or not. I have discovered, no matter how, who he was. I believe, pardon me, my dearest friend, I cannot help believing, that you were acquainted, or, at least, that you know something of him; and I entreat you! yes,’ repeated Venetia with great emphasis, laying her hand upon his arm, and looking with earnestness in his face, ‘I entreat you, by all your kind feelings to my mother and myself, by all that friendship we so prize, by the urgent solicitation of a daughter who is influenced in her curiosity by no light or unworthy feeling; yes! by all the claims of a child to information which ought not to be withheld from her, tell me, tell me all, tell me something! Speak, Dr. Masham, do speak!’
‘My dear young lady,’ said the Doctor, with a glistening eye, ‘it is better that we should both be silent.’
‘No, indeed,’ replied Venetia, ‘it is not better; it is not well that we should be silent. Candour is a great virtue. There is a charm, a healthy charm, in frankness. Why this mystery? Why these secrets? Have they worked good? Have they benefited us? O! my friend, I would not say so to my mother, I would not be tempted by any sufferings to pain for an instant her pure and affectionate heart; but indeed, Doctor Masham, indeed, indeed, what I tell you is true, all my late illness, my present state, all, all are attributable but to one cause, this mystery about my father!’
‘What can I tell you?’ said the unhappy Masham.
‘Tell me only one fact. I ask no more. Yes! I promise you, solemnly I promise you, I will ask no more. Tell me, does he live?’
‘He does!’ said the Doctor. Venetia sank upon his shoulder.
‘My dear young lady, my darling young lady!’ said the Doctor; ‘she has fainted. What can I do?’ The unfortunate Doctor placed Venetia in a reclining posture, and hurried to a brook that was nigh, and brought water in his hand to sprinkle on her. She revived; she made a struggle to restore herself.
‘It is nothing,’ she said, ‘I am resolved to be well. I am well. I am myself again. He lives; my father lives! I was confident of it! I will ask no more. I am true to my word. O! Doctor Masham, you have always been my kind friend, but you have never yet conferred on me a favour like the one you have just bestowed.’
‘But it is well,’ said the Doctor, ‘as you know so much, that you should know more.’
‘As we walk along,’ he continued, ‘we will converse, or at another time; there is no lack of opportunity.’
‘No, now, now!’ eagerly exclaimed Venetia, ‘I am quite well. It was not pain or illness that overcame me. Now let us walk, now let us talk of these things. He lives?’
‘I have little to add,’ said Dr. Masham, after a moment’s thought; ‘but this, however painful, it is necessary for you to know, that your father is unworthy of your mother, utterly; they are separated; they never can be reunited.’
‘Never?’ said Venetia.
‘Never,’ replied Dr. Masham; ‘and I now warn you; if, indeed, as I cannot doubt, you love your mother; if her peace of mind and happiness are, as I hesitate not to believe, the principal objects of your life, upon this subject with her be for ever silent. Seek to penetrate no mysteries, spare all allusions, banish, if possible, the idea of your father from your memory. Enough, you know he lives. We know no more. Your mother labours to forget him; her only consolation for sorrows such as few women ever experienced, is her child, yourself, your love. Now be no niggard with it. Cling to this unrivalled parent, who has dedicated her life to you. Soothe her sufferings, endeavour to make her share your happiness; but, of this be certain, that if you raise up the name and memory of your father between your mother and yourself, her life will be the forfeit!’
‘His name shall never pass my lips,’ said Venetia; ‘solemnly I vow it. That his image shall be banished from my heart is too much to ask, and more than it is in my power to grant. But I am my mother’s child. I will exist only for her; and if my love can console her, she shall never be without solace. I thank you, Doctor, for all your kindness. We will never talk again upon the subject; yet, believe me, you have acted wisely, you have done good.’
Venetia observed her promise to Doctor Masham with strictness. She never alluded to her father, and his name never escaped her mother’s lips. Whether Doctor Masham apprised Lady Annabel of the conversation that had taken place between himself and her daughter, it is not in our power to mention. The visit to Marringhurst was not a short one. It was a relief both to Lady Annabel and Venetia, after all that had occurred, to enjoy the constant society of their friend; and this change of life, though apparently so slight, proved highly beneficial to Venetia. She daily recovered her health, and a degree of mental composure which she had not for some time enjoyed. On the whole she was greatly satisfied with the discoveries which she had made. She had ascertained the name and the existence of her father: his very form and appearance were now no longer matter for conjecture; and in a degree she had even communicated with him. Time, she still believed, would develope even further wonders. She clung to an irresistible conviction that she should yet see him; that he might even again be united to her mother. She indulged in dreams as to his present pursuits and position; she repeated to herself his verses, and remembered his genius with pride and consolation.
They returned to Cherbury, they resumed the accustomed tenour of their lives, as if nothing had occurred to disturb it. The fondness between the mother and her daughter was unbroken and undiminished. They shared again the same studies and the same amusements. Lady Annabel perhaps indulged the conviction that Venetia had imbibed the belief that her father was no more, and yet in truth that father was the sole idea on which her child ever brooded. Venetia had her secret now; and often as she looked up at the windows of the uninhabited portion of the building, she remembered with concealed, but not less keen exultation, that she had penetrated their mystery. She could muse for hours over all that chamber had revealed to her, and indulge in a thousand visions, of which her father was the centre. She was his ‘own Venetia.’ Thus he had hailed her at her birth, and thus he might yet again acknowledge her. If she could only ascertain where he existed! What if she could, and she were to communicate with him? He must love her. Her heart assured her he must love her. She could not believe, if they were to meet, that his breast could resist the silent appeal which the sight merely of his only child would suffice to make. Oh! why had her parents parted? What could have been his fault? He was so young! But a few, few years older than herself, when her mother must have seen him for the last time. Yes! for the last time beheld that beautiful form, and that countenance that seemed breathing only with genius and love. He might have been imprudent, rash, violent; but she would not credit for an instant that a stain could attach to the honour or the spirit of Marmion Herbert.
The summer wore away. One morning, as Lady Annabel and Venetia were sitting together, Mistress Pauncefort bustled into the room with a countenance radiant with smiles and wonderment. Her ostensible business was to place upon the table a vase of flowers, but it was evident that her presence was occasioned by affairs of far greater urgency. The vase was safely deposited; Mistress Pauncefort gave the last touch to the arrangement of the flowers; she lingered about Lady Annabel. At length she said, ‘I suppose you have heard the news, my lady?’
‘Indeed, Pauncefort, I have not,’ replied Lady Annabel. ‘What news?’
‘My lord is coming to the abbey.’
‘Oh! yes, my lady,’ said Mistress Pauncefort; ‘I am not at all surprised your ladyship should be so astonished. Never to write, too! Well, I must say he might have given us a line. But he is coming, I am certain sure of that, my lady. My lord’s gentleman has been down these two days; and all his dogs and guns too, my lady. And the keeper is ordered to be quite ready, my lady, for the first. I wonder if there is going to be a party. I should not be at all surprised.’
‘Plantagenet returned!’ said Lady Annabel. ‘Well, I shall be very glad to see him again.’
‘So shall I, my lady,’ said Mistress Pauncefort; ‘but I dare say we shall hardly know him again, he must be so grown. Trimmer has been over to the abbey, my lady, and saw my lord’s valet. Quite the fine gentleman, Trimmer says. I was thinking of walking over myself this afternoon, to see poor Mrs. Quin, my lady; I dare say we might be of use, and neighbours should be handy, as they say. She is a very respectable woman, poor Mrs. Quin, and I am sure for my part, if your ladyship has no objection, I should be very glad to be of service to her.’
‘I have of course no objection, Pauncefort, to your being of service to the housekeeper, but has she required your assistance?’
‘Why no, my lady, but poor Mrs. Quin would hardly like to ask for anything, my lady; but I am sure we might be of very great use, for my lord’s gentleman seems very dissatisfied at his reception, Trimmer says. He has his hot breakfast every morning, my lady, and poor Mrs. Quin says —’
‘Well, Pauncefort, that will do,’ said Lady Annabel, and the functionary disappeared.
‘We have almost forgotten Plantagenet, Venetia,’ added Lady Annabel, addressing herself to her daughter.
‘He has forgotten us, I think, mamma,’ said Venetia.
END OF BOOK II
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