The evening before he was to sail for the Downs, where the Middlesex lay ready to weigh anchor, the new lieutenant was summoned by Winter to attend him to the General’s residence, for the purpose of being introduced to his patron, to thank him at once, and to bid him farewell. On the road, the old man took the liberty of schooling his companion concerning the respect which he ought to pay to his master, “who was, though a kind and generous man as ever came from Northumberland, extremely rigid in punctiliously exacting the degree of honour which was his due.”
While they were advancing towards the house, the General and his wife expected their arrival with breathless anxiety. They were seated in a superb drawing-room, the General behind a large chandelier, which, shaded opposite to his face, threw all the light to the other side of the table, so that he could observe any person placed there, without becoming the subject of observation in turn. On a heap of cushions, wrapped in a glittering drapery of gold and silver muslins, mingled with shawls, a luxury which was then a novelty in Europe, sate, or rather reclined, his lady, who, past the full meridian of beauty, retained charms enough to distinguish her as one who had been formerly a very fine woman, though her mind seemed occupied by the deepest emotion.
“Zilia,” said her husband, “you are unable for what you have undertaken — take my advice — retire — you shall know all and everything that passes — but retire. To what purpose should you cling to the idle wish of beholding for a moment a being whom you can never again look upon?”
“Alas,” answered the lady, “and is not your declaration that I shall never see him more, a sufficient reason that I should wish to see him now — should wish to imprint on my memory the features and the form which I am never again to behold while we are in the body? Do not, my Richard, be more cruel than was my poor father, even when his wrath was in its bitterness. He let me look upon my infant, and its cherub face dwelt with me, and was my comfort among the years of unutterable sorrow in which my youth wore away.”
“It is enough, Zilia — you have desired this boon — I have granted it — and, at whatever risk, my promise shall be kept. But think how much depends on this fatal secret — your rank and estimation in society — my honour interested that that estimation should remain uninjured. Zilia, the moment that the promulgation of such a secret gives prudes and scandalmongers a right to treat you with scorn, will be fraught with unutterable misery, perhaps with bloodshed and death, should a man dare to take up the rumour.”
“You shall be obeyed, my husband,” answered Zilia, “in all that the frailness of nature will permit. But oh, God of my fathers, of what clay hast thou fashioned us poor mortals, who dread so much the shame which follows sin, yet repent so little for the sin itself!” In a minute afterwards steps were heard — the door opened — Winter announced Lieutenant Middlemas, and the unconscious son stood before his parents.
Witherington started involuntarily up, but immediately constrained himself to assume the easy deportment with which a superior receives a dependent, and which, in his own case, was usually mingled with a certain degree of hauteur. The mother had less command of herself. She, too, sprung up, as if with the intention of throwing herself on the neck of her son, for whom she had travailed and sorrowed. But the warning glance of her husband arrested her as if by magic, and she remained standing, with her beautiful head and neck somewhat advanced, her hands clasped together, and extended forward in the attitude of motion, but motionless, nevertheless, as a marble statue, to which the sculptor has given all the appearance of life, but cannot impart its powers. So strange a gesture and posture might have excited the young officer’s surprise; but the lady stood in the shade, and he was so intent in looking upon his patron, that he was scarce even conscious of Mrs. Witherington’s presence.
“I am happy in this opportunity,” said Middlemas, observing that the General did not speak, “to return my thanks to General Witherington, to whom they never can be sufficiently paid.”
The sound of his voice, though uttering words so indifferent, seemed to dissolve the charm which kept his mother motionless. She sighed deeply, relaxed the rigidity of her posture, and sunk back on the cushions from which she had started up. Middlemas turned a look towards her at the sound of the sigh, and the rustling of her drapery. The General hastened to speak.
“My wife, Mr. Middlemas, has been unwell of late — your friend, Mr. Hartley, might mention it to you — an affection of the nerves.”
Mr. Middlemas was, of course, sorry and concerned.
“We have had distress in our family, Mr. Middlemas, from the ultimate and heart-breaking consequences of which we have escaped by the skill of your friend, Mr. Hartley. We will be happy if it is in our power to repay a part of our obligations in service to his friend and protege, Mr. Middlemas.”
“I am only acknowledged as his protege, then,” thought Richard; but he said, “Every one must envy his friend in having had the distinguished good fortune to be of use to General Witherington and his family.”
“You have received your commission, I presume. Have you any particular wish or desire respecting your destination?”
“No, may it please your Excellency,” answered Middlemas. “I suppose Hartley would tell your Excellency my unhappy state — that I am an orphan, deserted by the parents who cast me on the wide world, an outcast about whom nobody knows or cares, except to desire that I should wander far enough, and live obscurely enough, not to disgrace them by their connexion with me.”
Zilia wrung her hands as he spoke, and drew her muslin veil closely around her head as if to exclude the sounds which excited her mental agony.
“Mr. Hartley was not particularly communicative about your affairs,” said the General; “nor do I wish to give you the pain of entering into them. What I desire to know is, if you are pleased with your destination to Madras?”
“Perfectly, please your Excellency — anywhere, so that there is no chance of meeting the villain Hillary.”
“Oh! Hillary’s services are too necessary in the purlieus of St. Giles’s, the Lowlights of Newcastle, and such like places, where human carrion can be picked up, to be permitted to go to India. However, to show you the knave has some grace, there are the notes of which you were robbed. You will find them the very same paper which you lost, except a small sum which the rogue had spent, but which a friend has made up, in compassion for your sufferings.” Richard Middlemas sunk on one knee, and kissed the hand which restored him to independence.
“Pshaw!” said the General, “you are a silly young man;” but he withdrew not his hand from his caresses. This was one of the occasions on which Dick Middlemas could be oratorical.
“O, my more than father,” he said, “how much greater a debt do I owe to you than to the unnatural parents, who brought me into this world by their sin, and deserted me through their cruelty!”
Zilia, as she heard these cutting words, flung back her veil, raising it on both hands till it floated behind her like a mist, and then giving a faint groan, sunk down in a swoon. Pushing Middlemas from him with a hasty movement, General Witherington flew to his lady’s assistance, and carried her in his arms, as if she had been a child, into the anteroom, where an old servant waited with the means of restoring suspended animation, which the unhappy husband too truly anticipated might be useful. These were hastily employed, and succeeded in calling the sufferer to life, but in a state of mental emotion that was dreadful.
Her mind was obviously impressed by the last words which her son had uttered. —“Did you hear him, Richard,” she exclaimed, in accents terribly loud, considering the exhausted state of her strength —“Did you hear the words? It was Heaven speaking our condemnation by the voice of our own child. But do not fear, my Richard, do not weep! I will answer the thunder of Heaven with its own music.”
She flew to a harpsichord which stood in the room, and, while the servant and master gazed on each other, as if doubting whether her senses were about to leave her entirely, she wandered over the keys, producing a wilderness of harmony, composed of passages recalled by memory, or combined by her own musical talent, until at length her voice and instrument united in one of those magnificent hymns in which her youth had praised her Maker, with voice and harp, like the Royal Hebrew who composed it. The tear ebbed insensibly from the eyes which she turned upwards — her vocal tones, combining with those of the instrument, rose to a pitch of brilliancy seldom attained by the most distinguished performers, and then sunk into a dying cadence, which fell, never again to rise — for the songstress had died with her strain.
The horror of the distracted husband may be conceived, when all efforts to restore life proved totally ineffectual. Servants were despatched for medical men — Hartley, and every other who could be found. The General precipitated himself into the apartment they had so lately left, and in his haste ran, against Middlemas, who, at the sound of the music from the adjoining apartment, had naturally approached nearer to the door, and surprised and startled by the sort of clamour, hasty steps, and confused voices which ensued, had remained standing there, endeavouring to ascertain the cause of so much disorder.
The sight of the unfortunate young man wakened the General’s stormy passions to frenzy. He seemed to recognise his son only as the cause of his wife’s death. He seized him by the collar, and shook him violently as he dragged him into the chamber of mortality.
“Come hither,” he said, “thou for whom a life of lowest obscurity was too mean a fate — come hither, and look on the parents whom thou hast so much envied — whom thou hast so often cursed. Look at that pale emaciated form, a figure of wax, rather than flesh and blood — that is thy mother — that is the unhappy Zilia Moncada, to whom thy birth was the source of shame and misery, and to whom thy ill-omened presence has now brought death itself. And behold me”— he pushed the lad from him, and stood up erect, looking wellnigh in gesture and figure the apostate spirit he described —“Behold me,” he said; “see you not my hair streaming with sulphur, my brow scathed with lightning? I am the Arch-Fiend — I am the father whom you seek — I am the accursed Richard Tresham, the seducer of Zilia, and the father of her murderer!”
Hartley entered while this horrid scene was passing. All attention to the deceased, he instantly saw, would be thrown away; and understanding, partly from Winter, partly from the tenor of the General’s frantic discourse, the nature of the disclosure which had occurred, he hastened to put an end, if possible, to the frightful and scandalous scene which had taken place. Aware how delicately the General felt on the subject of reputation, he assailed him with remonstrances on such conduct, in presence of so many witnesses. But the mind had ceased to answer to that once powerful keynote.
“I care not if the whole world hear my sin and my punishment,” said Witherington. “It shall not be again said of me, that I fear shame more than I repent sin. I feared shame only for Zilia, and Zilia is dead!”
“But her memory, General — spare the memory of your wife, in which the character of your children is involved.”
“I have no children!” said the desperate and violent man. “My Reuben is gone to Heaven, to prepare a lodging for the angel who has now escaped from the earth in a flood of harmony, which can only be equalled where she is gone. The other two cherubs will not survive their mother. I shall be, nay, I already feel myself, a childless man.”
“Yet I am your son,” replied Middlemas, in a tone sorrowful, but at the same time tinged with sullen resentment —“Your son by your wedded wife. Pale as she lies there, I call upon you both to acknowledge my rights, and all who are present to bear witness to them.”
“Wretch!” exclaimed the maniac father, “canst thou think of thine own sordid rights in the midst of death and frenzy? My son? — thou art the fiend who has occasioned my wretchedness in this world, and who will share my eternal misery in the next. Hence from my sight, and my curse go with thee!”
His eyes fixed on the ground, his arms folded on his breast, the haughty and dogged spirit of Middlemas yet seemed to meditate reply. But Hartley, Winter, and other bystanders interfered, and forced him from the apartment. As they endeavoured to remonstrate with him, he twisted himself out of their grasp, ran to the stables, and seizing the first saddled horse that he found, out of many that had been in haste got ready to seek for assistance, he threw himself on its back, and rode furiously off. Hartley was about to mount and follow him; but Winter and the other domestics threw themselves around him, and implored him not to desert their unfortunate master, at a time when the influence which he had acquired over him might be the only restraint on the violence of his passions.
“He had a coup de soleil in India,” whispered Winter, “and is capable of any thing in his fits. These cowards cannot control him, and I am old and feeble.”
Satisfied that General Witherington was a greater object of compassion than Middlemas, whom besides he had no hope of overtaking, and who he believed was safe in his own keeping, however violent might be his present emotions, Hartley returned where the greater emergency demanded his immediate care.
He found the unfortunate General contending with the domestics, who endeavoured to prevent his making his way to the apartment where his children slept, and exclaiming furiously —“Rejoice, my treasures — rejoice! — He has fled, who would proclaim your father’s crime, and your mother’s dishonour! — He has fled, never to return, whose life has been the death of one parent, and the ruin of another! — Courage, my children, your father is with you — he will make his way to you through a hundred obstacles!”
The domestics, intimidated and undecided, were giving way to him, when Adam Hartley approached, and placing himself before the unhappy man, fixed his eye firmly on the General’s, while he said in a low but stern voice —“Madman, would you kill your children?”
The General seemed staggered in his resolution, but still attempted to rush past him. But Hartley, seizing him by the collar of his coat on each side, “You are my prisoner,” he said; “I command you to follow me.”
“Ha! prisoner, and for high treason? Dog, thou hast met thy death!”
The distracted man drew a poniard from his bosom, and Hartley’s strength and resolution might not perhaps have saved his life, had not Winter mastered the General’s right hand, and contrived to disarm him.
“I am your prisoner, then,” he said; “use me civilly — and let me see my wife and children.”
“You shall see them tomorrow,” said Hartley; “follow us instantly, and without the least resistance.”
General Witherington followed like a child, with the air of one who is suffering for a cause in which he glories.
“I am not ashamed of my principles,” he said —“I am willing to die for my king.”
Without exciting his frenzy, by contradicting the fantastic idea which occupied his imagination, Hartley continued to maintain over his patient the ascendency he had acquired. He caused him to be led to his apartment, and beheld him suffer himself to be put to bed. Administering then a strong composing draught, and causing a servant to sleep in the room, he watched the unfortunate man till dawn of morning.
General Witherington awoke in his full senses, and apparently conscious of his real situation, which he testified by low groans, sobs, and tears. When Hartley drew near his bedside, he knew him perfectly, and said, “Do not fear me — the fit is over — leave me now, and see after yonder unfortunate. Let him leave Britain as soon as possible, and go where his fate calls him, and where we can never meet more. Winter knows my ways, and will take care of me.”
Winter gave the same advice. “I can answer,” he said, “for my master’s security at present; but in Heaven’s name, prevent his ever meeting again, with that obdurate young man!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00