In an easy-chair of the spacious and handsome library of his town-house, sat William, Earl of Mount Severn. His hair was gray, the smoothness of his expansive brow was defaced by premature wrinkles, and his once attractive face bore the pale, unmistakable look of dissipation. One of his feet was cased in folds of linen, as it rested on the soft velvet ottoman, speaking of gout as plainly as any foot ever spoke yet. It would seem — to look at the man as he sat there — that he had grown old before his time. And so he had. His years were barely nine and forty, yet in all save years, he was an aged man.
A noted character had been the Earl of Mount Severn. Not that he had been a renowned politician, or a great general, or an eminent statesman, or even an active member in the Upper House; not for any of these had the earl’s name been in the mouths of men. But for the most reckless among the reckless, for the spendthrift among spendthrifts, for the gamester above all gamesters, and for a gay man outstripping the gay — by these characteristics did the world know Lord Mount Severn. It was said his faults were those of his head; that a better heart or a more generous spirit never beat in human form; and there was much truth in this. It had been well for him had he lived and died plain William Vane. Up to his five and twentieth year, he had been industrious and steady, had kept his terms in the Temple, and studied late and early. The sober application of William Vane had been a by word with the embryo barristers around; Judge Vane, they ironically called him; and they strove ineffectually to allure him away to idleness and pleasure. But young Vane was ambitious, and he knew that on his own talents and exertions must depend his own rising in the world. He was of excellent family, but poor, counting a relative in the old Earl of Mount Severn. The possibility of his succeeding to the earldom never occurred to him, for three healthy lives, two of them young, stood between him and the title. Yet those have died off, one of apoplexy, one of fever, in Africa, the third boating at Oxford; and the young Temple student, William Vane, suddenly found himself Earl of Mount Severn, and the lawful possessor of sixty thousand a year.
His first idea was, that he should never be able to spend the money; that such a sum, year by year, could not be spent. It was a wonder his head was not turned by adulation at the onset, for he was courted, flattered and caressed by all classes, from a royal duke downward. He became the most attractive man of his day, the lion in society; for independent of his newly-acquired wealth and title, he was of distinguished appearance and fascinating manners. But unfortunately, the prudence which had sustained William Vane, the poor law student, in his solitary Temple chambers entirely forsook William Vane, the young Earl of Mount Severn, and he commenced his career on a scale of speed so great, that all staid people said he was going to ruin and the deuce headlong.
But a peer of the realm, and one whose rent-roll is sixty thousand per annum, does not go to ruin in a day. There sat the earl, in his library now, in his nine-and-fortieth year, and ruin had not come yet — that is, it had not overwhelmed him. But the embarrassments which had clung to him, and been the destruction of his tranquility, the bane of his existence, who shall describe them? The public knew them pretty well, his private friends knew better, his creditors best; but none, save himself knew, or could ever know, the worrying torment that was his portion, wellnigh driving him to distraction. Years ago, by dint of looking things steadily in the face, and by economizing, he might have retrieved his position; but he had done what most people do in such cases — put off the evil day sine die, and gone on increasing his enormous list of debts. The hour of exposure and ruin was now advancing fast.
Perhaps the earl himself was thinking so, as he sat there before an enormous mass of papers which strewed the library table. His thoughts were back in the past. That was a foolish match of his, that Gretna Green match for love, foolish so far as prudence went; but the countess had been an affectionate wife to him, had borne with his follies and his neglect, had been an admirable mother to their only child. One child alone had been theirs, and in her thirteenth year the countess had died. If they had but been blessed with a son — the earl moaned over the long-continued disappointment still — he might have seen a way out of his difficulties. The boy, as soon as he was of age, would have joined with him in cutting off the entail, and ——
“My lord,” said a servant entering the room and interrupting the earl’s castles in the air, “a gentleman is asking to see you.”
“Who?” cried the earl, sharply, not perceiving the card the man was bringing. No unknown person, although wearing the externals of a foreign ambassador, was ever admitted unceremoniously to the presence of Lord Mount Severn. Years of duns had taught the servants caution.
“His card is here, my lord. It is Mr. Carlyle, of West Lynne.”
“Mr. Carlyle, of West Lynne,” groaned the earl, whose foot just then had an awful twinge, “what does he want? Show him up.”
The servant did as he was bid, and introduced Mr. Carlyle. Look at the visitor well, reader, for he will play his part in this history. He was a very tall man of seven and twenty, of remarkably noble presence. He was somewhat given to stooping his head when he spoke to any one shorter than himself; it was a peculiar habit, almost to be called a bowing habit, and his father had possessed it before him. When told of it he would laugh, and say he was unconscious of doing it. His features were good, his complexion was pale and clear, his hair dark, and his full eyelids drooped over his deep gray eyes. Altogether it was a countenance that both men and women liked to look upon — the index of an honorable, sincere nature — not that it would have been called a handsome face, so much as a pleasing and a distinguished one. Though but the son of a country lawyer, and destined to be a lawyer himself, he had received the training of a gentleman, had been educated at Rugby, and taken his degree at Oxford. He advanced at once to the earl, in the straightforward way of a man of business — of a man who has come on business.
“Mr. Carlyle,” said the latter, holding out his hand — he was always deemed the most affable peer of the age —“I am happy to see you. You perceive I cannot rise, at least without great pain and inconvenience. My enemy, the gout, has possession of me again. Take a seat. Are you staying in town?”
“I have just arrived from West Lynne. The chief object of my journey was to see your lordship.”
“What can I do for you?” asked the earl, uneasily; for a suspicion had crossed his mind that Mr. Carlyle might be acting for some one of his many troublesome creditors.
Mr. Carlyle drew his chair nearer to the earl, and spoke in a low tone —
“A rumor came to my ears, my lord, that East Lynne was in the market.”
“A moment, sir,” exclaimed the earl, with reserve, not to say hauteur in his tone, for his suspicions were gaining ground; “are we to converse confidentially together, as men of honor, or is there something concealed behind?”
“I do not understand you,” said Mr. Carlyle.
“In a word — excuse my speaking plainly, but I must feel my ground — are you here on the part of some of my rascally creditors, to pump information out of me, that otherwise they would not get?”
“My lord,” uttered the visitor, “I should be incapable of so dishonorable an action. I know that a lawyer gets credit for possessing but lax notions on the score of honor, but you can scarcely suspect that I should be guilty of underhand work toward you. I never was guilty of a mean trick in my life, to my recollection, and I do not think I ever shall be.”
“Pardon me, Mr. Carlyle. If you knew half the tricks and ruses played upon me, you would not wonder at my suspecting all the world. Proceed with your business.”
“I heard that East Lynne was for private sale; your agent dropped half a word to me in confidence. If so, I should wish to be the purchaser.”
“For whom?” inquired the earl.
“You!” laughed the earl. “Egad! Lawyering can’t be such bad work, Carlyle.”
“Nor is it,” rejoined Mr. Carlyle, “with an extensive, first-class connection, such as ours. But you must remember that a good fortune was left me by my uncle, and a large one by my father.”
“I know. The proceeds of lawyering also.”
“Not altogether. My mother brought a fortune on her marriage, and it enabled my father to speculate successfully. I have been looking out for an eligible property to invest my money upon, and East Lynne will suit me well, provided I can have the refusal of it, and we can agree about the terms.”
Lord Mount Severn mused for a few moments before he spoke. “Mr. Carlyle,” he began, “my affairs are very bad, and ready money I must find somewhere. Now East Lynne is not entailed, neither is it mortgaged to anything like its value, though the latter fact, as you may imagine, is not patent to the world. When I bought it at a bargain, eighteen years ago, you were the lawyer on the other side, I remember.”
“My father,” smiled Mr. Carlyle. “I was a child at the time.”
“Of course, I ought to have said your father. By selling East Lynne, a few thousands will come into my hands, after claims on it are settled; I have no other means of raising the wind, and that is why I have resolved to part with it. But now, understand, if it were known abroad that East Lynne is going from me, I should have a hornet’s nest about my ears; so that it must be disposed of privately. Do you comprehend?”
“Perfectly,” replied Mr. Carlyle.
“I would as soon you bought it as anyone else, if, as you say, we can agree about terms.”
“What does your lordship expect for it — at a rough estimate?”
“For particulars I must refer you to my men of business, Warburton & Ware. Not less than seventy thousand pounds.”
“Too much, my lord,” cried Mr. Carlyle, decisively.
“And that’s not its value,” returned the earl.
“These forced sales never do fetch their value,” answered the plain-speaking lawyer. “Until this hint was given me by Beauchamp, I had thought East Lynne was settled upon your lordship’s daughter.”
“There’s nothing settled on her,” rejoined the earl, the contraction on his brow standing out more plainly. “That comes of your thoughtless runaway marriages. I fell in love with General Conway’s daughter, and she ran away with me, like a fool; that is, we were both fools together for our pains. The general objected to me and said I must sow my wild oats before he would give me Mary; so I took her to Gretna Green, and she became Countess of Mount Severn, without a settlement. It was an unfortunate affair, taking one thing with another. When her elopement was made known to the general, it killed him.”
“Killed him!” interrupted Mr. Carlyle.
“It did. He had disease of the heart, and the excitement brought on the crisis. My poor wife never was happy from that hour; she blamed herself for her father’s death, and I believe it led to her own. She was ill for years; the doctors called it consumption; but it was more like a wasting insensibly away, and consumption never had been in her family. No luck ever attends runaway marriages; I have noticed it since, in many, many instances; something bad is sure to turn up from it.”
“There might have been a settlement executed after the marriage,” observed Mr. Carlyle, for the earl had stopped, and seemed lost in thought.
“I know there might; but there was not. My wife had possessed no fortune; I was already deep in my career of extravagance, and neither of us thought of making provision for our future children; or, if we thought of it, we did not do it. There is an old saying, Mr. Carlyle, that what may be done at any time is never done.”
Mr. Carlyle bowed.
“So my child is portionless,” resumed the earl, with a suppressed sigh. “The thought that it may be an embarrassing thing for her, were I to die before she is settled in life, crosses my mind when I am in a serious mood. That she will marry well, there is little doubt, for she possesses beauty in a rare degree, and has been reared as an English girl should be, not to frivolity and foppery. She was trained by her mother, who save for the mad act she was persuaded into by me, was all goodness and refinement, for the first twelve years of her life, and since then by an admirable governess. No fear that she will be decamping to Gretna Green.”
“She was a very lovely child,” observed the lawyer; “I remember that.”
“Ay; you have seen her at East Lynne, in her mother’s lifetime. But, to return to business. If you become the purchaser of the East Lynne estate, Mr. Carlyle, it must be under the rose. The money that it brings, after paying off the mortgage, I must have, as I tell you, for my private use; and you know I should not be able to touch a farthing of it if the confounded public got an inkling of the transfer. In the eyes of the world, the proprietor of East Lynne must be Lord Mount Severn — at least for some little time afterwards. Perhaps you will not object to that.”
Mr. Carlyle considered before replying; and then the conversation was resumed, when it was decided that he should see Warburton and Ware the first thing in the morning, and confer with them. It was growing late when he rose to leave.
“Stay and dine with me,” said the earl.
Mr. Carlyle hesitated, and looked down at his dress — a plain, gentlemanly, morning attire, but certainly not a dinner costume for a peer’s table.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said the earl; “we shall be quite alone, except my daughter. Mrs. Vane, of Castle Marling, is staying with us. She came up to present my child at the last drawing-room, but I think I heard something about her dining out today. If not, we will have it by ourselves here. Oblige me by touching the bell, Mr. Carlyle.”
The servant entered.
“Inquire whether Mrs. Vane dines at home,” said the earl.
“Mrs. Vane dines out, my lord,” was the man’s immediate reply. “The carriage is at the door now.”
“Very well. Mr. Carlyle remains.”
At seven o’clock the dinner was announced, and the earl wheeled into the adjoining room. As he and Mr. Carlyle entered it at one door, some one else came in by the opposite one. Who — what — was it? Mr. Carlyle looked, not quite sure whether it was a human being — he almost thought it more like an angel.
A light, graceful, girlish form; a face of surpassing beauty, beauty that is rarely seen, save from the imagination of a painter; dark shining curls falling on her neck and shoulders, smooth as a child’s; fair, delicate arms decorated with pearls, and a flowing dress of costly white lace. Altogether the vision did indeed look to the lawyer as one from a fairer world than this.
“My daughter, Mr. Carlyle, the Lady Isabel.”
They took their seats at the table, Lord Mount Severn at its head, in spite of his gout and his footstool. And the young lady and Mr. Carlyle opposite each other. Mr. Carlyle had not deemed himself a particular admirer of women’s beauty, but the extraordinary loveliness of the young girl before him nearly took away his senses and his self-possession. Yet it was not so much the perfect contour or the exquisite features that struck him, or the rich damask of the delicate cheek, or the luxuriant falling hair; no, it was the sweet expression of the soft dark eyes. Never in his life had he seen eyes so pleasing. He could not keep his gaze from her, and he became conscious, as he grew more familiar with her face, that there was in its character a sad, sorrowful look; only at times was it to be noticed, when the features were at repose, and it lay chiefly in the very eyes he was admiring. Never does this unconsciously mournful expression exist, but it is a sure index of sorrow and suffering; but Mr. Carlyle understood it not. And who could connect sorrow with the anticipated brilliant future of Isabel Vane?
“Isabel,” observed the earl, “you are dressed.”
“Yes, papa. Not to keep old Mrs. Levison waiting tea. She likes to take it early, and I know Mrs. Vane must have kept her waiting dinner. It was half-past six when she drove from here.”
“I hope you will not be late to-night, Isabel.”
“It depends upon Mrs. Vane.”
“Then I am sure you will be. When the young ladies in this fashionable world of ours turn night into day, it is a bad thing for their roses. What say you, Mr. Carlyle?”
Mr. Carlyle glanced at the roses on the cheeks opposite to him; they looked too fresh and bright to fade lightly.
At the conclusion of dinner a maid entered the room with a white cashmere mantle, placing it over the shoulders of her young lady, as she said the carriage was waiting.
Lady Isabel advanced to the earl. “Good-bye, papa.”
“Good-night, my love,” he answered, drawing her toward him, and kissing her sweet face. “Tell Mrs. Vane I will not have you kept out till morning hours. You are but a child yet. Mr. Carlyle, will you ring? I am debarred from seeing my daughter to the carriage.”
“If your lordship will allow me — if Lady Isabel will pardon the attendance of one little used to wait upon young ladies, I shall be proud to see her to her carriage,” was the somewhat confused answer of Mr. Carlyle as he touched the bell.
The earl thanked him, and the young lady smiled, and Mr. Carlyle conducted her down the broad, lighted staircase and stood bareheaded by the door of the luxurious chariot, and handed her in. She put out her hand in her frank, pleasant manner, as she wished him good night. The carriage rolled on its way, and Mr. Carlyle returned to the earl.
“Well, is she not a handsome girl?” he demanded.
“Handsome is not the word for beauty such as hers,” was Mr. Carlyle’s reply, in a low, warm tone. “I never saw a face half so beautiful.”
“She caused quite a sensation at the drawing-room last week — as I hear. This everlasting gout kept me indoors all day. And she is as good as she is beautiful.”
The earl was not partial. Lady Isabel was wondrously gifted by nature, not only in mind and person but in heart. She was as little like a fashionable young lady as it was well possible to be, partly because she had hitherto been secluded from the great world, partly from the care bestowed upon her training. During the lifetime of her mother, she had lived occasionally at East Lynne, but mostly at a larger seat of the earl’s in Wales, Mount Severn; since her mother’s death, she had remained entirely at Mount Severn, under the charge of a judicious governess, a very small establishment being kept for them, and the earl paying them impromptu and flying visits. Generous and benevolent she was, timid and sensitive to a degree, gentle, and considerate to all. Do not cavil at her being thus praised — admire and love her whilst you may, she is worthy of it now, in her innocent girlhood; the time will come when such praise would be misplaced. Could the fate that was to overtake his child have been foreseen by the earl, he would have struck her down to death, in his love, as she stood before him, rather than suffer her to enter upon it.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55