Alice, or the Mysteries — Book 10

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BOOK X.

“A dream!”—HOMER, I, 3.

CHAPTER I.

  QUALIS ubi in lucem coluber

  . . . Mala gramina pastus.*—VIRGIL.

Pars minima est ipsa puella sui.**—OVID.

* “As when a snake glides into light, having fed on pernicious
pastures.”

** “The girl is the least part of himself.”

IT would be superfluous, and, perhaps, a sickening task, to detail at
length the mode and manner in which Vargrave coiled his snares round the
unfortunate girl whom his destiny had marked out for his prey. He was
right in foreseeing that, after the first amazement caused by the letter
of Maltravers, Evelyn would feel resentment crushed beneath her certainty
of his affection her incredulity at his self-accusations, and her secret
conviction that some reverse, some misfortune he was unwilling she should
share, was the occasion of his farewell and flight. Vargrave therefore
very soon communicated to Evelyn the tale he had suggested to Maltravers.
He reminded her of the habitual sorrow, the evidence of which was so
visible in Lady Vargrave; of her indifference to the pleasures of the
world; of her sensitive shrinking from all recurrence to her early fate.
“The secret of this,” said he, “is in a youthful and most fervent
attachment; your mother loved a young stranger above her in rank, who
(his head being full of German romance) was then roaming about the
country on pedestrian and adventurous excursions, under the assumed name
of Butler. By him she was most ardently beloved in return. Her father,
perhaps, suspected the rank of her lover, and was fearful of her honour
being compromised. He was a strange man, that father! and I know not his
real character and motives; but he suddenly withdrew his daughter from
the suit and search of her lover,—they saw each other no more; her lover
mourned her as one dead. In process of time your mother was constrained
by her father to marry Mr. Cameron, and was left a widow with an only
child,—yourself: she was poor;—very poor! and her love and anxiety for
you at last induced her to listen to the addresses of my late uncle; for
your sake she married again; again death dissolved the tie! But still,
unceasingly and faithfully, she recalled that first love, the memory of
which darkened and embittered all her life, and still she lived upon the
hope to meet with the lost again. At last, and most recently, it was my
fate to discover that the object of this unconquerable affection
lived,—was still free in hand if not in heart: you behold the lover of
your mother in Ernest Maltravers! It devolved on me (an invidious—a
reluctant duty) to inform Maltravers of the identity of Lady Vargrave
with the Alice of his boyish passion; to prove to him her suffering,
patient, unsubdued affection; to convince him that the sole hope left to
her in life was that of one day or other beholding him once again. You
know Maltravers,—his high-wrought, sensitive, noble character; he
recoiled in terror from the thought of making his love to the daughter
the last and bitterest affliction to the mother he had so loved; knowing
too how completely that mother had entwined herself round your
affections, he shuddered at the pain and self-reproach that would be
yours when you should discover to whom you had been the rival, and whose
the fond hopes and dreams that your fatal beauty had destroyed.
Tortured, despairing, and half beside himself, he has fled from this
ill-omened passion, and in solitude he now seeks to subdue that passion.
Touched by the woe, the grief, of the Alice of his youth, it is his
intention, as soon as he can know you restored to happiness and content,
to hasten to your mother, and offer his future devotion as the fulfilment
of former vows. On you, and you alone, it depends to restore Maltravers
to the world,—on you alone it depends to bless the remaining years of
the mother who so dearly loves you!”

It may be easily conceived with what sensations of wonder, compassion,
and dismay, Evelyn listened to this tale, the progress of which her
exclamations, her sobs, often interrupted. She would write instantly to
her mother, to Maltravers. Oh, how gladly she would relinquish his suit:
How cheerfully promise to rejoice in that desertion which brought
happiness to the mother she had so loved!

“Nay,” said Vargrave, “your mother must not know, till the intelligence
can be breathed by his lips, and softened by his protestations of
returning affection, that the mysterious object of her early romance is
that Maltravers whose vows have been so lately offered to her own child.
Would not such intelligence shock all pride, and destroy all hope? How
could she then consent to the sacrifice which Maltravers is prepared to
make? No! not till you are another’s—not (to use the words of
Maltravers) till you are a happy and beloved wife—must your mother
receive the returning homage of Maltravers; not till then can she know
where that homage has been recently rendered; not till then can
Maltravers feel justified in the atonement he meditates. He is willing
to sacrifice himself; he trembles at the thought of sacrificing you! Say
nothing to your mother, till from her own lips she tells you that she has
learned all.”

Could Evelyn hesitate; could Evelyn doubt? To allay the fears, to fulfil
the prayers of the man whose conduct appeared so generous, to restore him
to peace and the world; above all, to pluck from the heart of that
beloved and gentle mother the rankling dart, to shed happiness over her
fate, to reunite her with the loved and lost,—what sacrifice too great
for this?

Ah, why was Legard absent? Why did she believe him capricious, light,
and false? Why had she shut her softest thoughts from her soul? But
he—the true lover—was afar, and his true love unknown! and Vargrave,
the watchful serpent, was at hand.

In a fatal hour, and in the transport of that enthusiasm which inspires
alike our more rash and our more sublime deeds, which makes us alike
dupes and martyrs,—the enthusiasm that tramples upon self, that forfeits
all things to a high-wrought zeal for others, Evelyn consented to become
the wife of Vargrave! Nor was she at first sensible of the
sacrifice,—sensible of anything but the glow of a noble spirit and an
approving conscience. Yes, thus, and thus alone, did she obey both
duties,—that, which she had well-nigh abandoned, to her dead benefactor,
and that to the living mother. Afterwards came a dread reaction; and
then, at last, that passive and sleep-like resignation, which is Despair
under a milder name. Yes,—such a lot had been predestined from the
first; in vain had she sought to fly it: Fate had overtaken her, and she
must submit to the decree!

She was most anxious that the intelligence of the new bond might be
transmitted instantly to Maltravers. Vargrave promised, but took care
not to perform. He was too acute not to know that in so sudden a step
Evelyn’s motives would be apparent, and his own suit indelicate and
ungenerous. He was desirous that Maltravers should learn nothing till
the vows had been spoken, and the indissoluble chain forged. Afraid to
leave Evelyn, even for a day, afraid to trust her in England to an
interview with her mother,—he remained at Paris, and hurried on all the
requisite preparations. He sent to Douce, who came in person, with the
deeds necessary for the transfer of the money for the purchase of Lisle
Court, which was now to be immediately completed. The money was to be
lodged in Mr. Douce’s bank till the lawyers had completed their
operations; and in a few weeks, when Evelyn had attained the allotted
age, Vargrave trusted to see himself lord alike of the betrothed bride,
and the hereditary lands of the crushed Maltravers. He refrained from
stating to Evelyn who was the present proprietor of the estate to become
hers; he foresaw all the objections she would form;—and, indeed, she was
unable to think, to talk, of such matters. One favour she had asked, and
it had been granted,—that she was to be left unmolested to her solitude
till the fatal day. Shut up in her lonely room, condemned not to confide
her thoughts, to seek for sympathy even in her mother,—the poor girl in
vain endeavoured to keep up to the tenor of her first enthusiasm, and
reconcile herself to a step, which, however, she was heroine enough not
to retract or to repent, even while she recoiled from its contemplation.

Lady Doltimore, amazed at what had passed,—at the flight of Maltravers,
the success of Lumley,—unable to account for it, to extort explanation
from Vargrave or from Evelyn, was distracted by the fear of some
villanous deceit which she could not fathom. To escape herself she
plunged yet more eagerly into the gay vortex. Vargrave, suspicious, and
fearful of trusting to what she might say in her nervous and excited
temper if removed from his watchful eye, deemed himself compelled to
hover round her. His manner, his conduct, were most guarded; but
Caroline herself, jealous, irritated, unsettled, evinced at times a right
both to familiarity and anger, which drew upon her and himself the sly
vigilance of slander. Meanwhile Lord Doltimore, though too cold and
proud openly to notice what passed around him, seemed disturbed and
anxious. His manner to Vargrave was distant; he shunned all
tete-a-tetes with his wife. Little, however, of this did Lumley heed.
A few weeks more, and all would be well and safe. Vargrave did not
publish his engagement with Evelyn: he sought carefully to conceal it
till the very day was near at hand; but it was whispered abroad; some
laughed, some believed. Evelyn herself was seen nowhere. De Montaigne
had, at first, been indignantly incredulous at the report that Maltravers
had broken off a connection he had so desired from a motive so weak and
unworthy as that of mere family pride. A letter from Maltravers, who
confided to him and Vargrave alone the secret of his retreat, reluctantly
convinced him that the wise are but pompous fools; he was angry and
disgusted; and still more so when Valerie and Teresa (for female friends
stand by us right or wrong) hinted at excuses, or surmised that other
causes lurked behind the one alleged. But his thoughts were much drawn
from this subject by increasing anxiety for Cesarini, whose abode and
fate still remained an alarming mystery.

It so happened that Lord Doltimore, who had always had a taste for the
antique, and who was greatly displeased with his own family-seat because
it was comfortable and modern, fell, from ennui, into a habit,
fashionable enough in Paris, of buying curiosities and cabinets,—
high-back chairs and oak-carvings; and with this habit returned the
desire and the affection for Burleigh. Understanding from Lumley that
Maltravers had probably left his native land forever, he imagined it
extremely probable that the latter would now consent to the sale,
and he begged Vargrave to forward a letter from him to that effect.

Vargrave made some excuse, for he felt that nothing could be more
indelicate than such an application forwarded through his hands at such a
time; and Doltimore, who had accidentally heard De Montaigne confess that
he knew the address of Maltravers, quietly sent his letter to the
Frenchman, and, without mentioning its contents, begged him to forward
it. De Montaigne did so. Now it is very strange how slight men and
slight incidents bear on the great events of life; but that simple letter
was instrumental to a new revolution in the strange history of
Maltravers.

CHAPTER II.

  QUID frustra simulacra fugacia captas?—

  Quod petis est nusquam.*—OVID: Met. iii. 432.

  * “Why, in vain, do you catch at fleeting shadows?

     That which you seek is nowhere.”

TO no clime dedicated to the indulgence of majestic griefs or to the soft
melancholy of regret—not to thy glaciers, or thy dark-blue lakes,
beautiful Switzerland, mother of many exiles; nor to thy fairer earth and
gentler heaven, sweet Italy,—fled the agonized Maltravers. Once, in his
wanderings, he had chanced to pass by a landscape so steeped in sullen
and desolate gloom, that it had made a powerful and uneffaced impression
upon his mind: it was amidst those swamps and morasses that formerly
surrounded the castle of Gil de Retz, the ambitious Lord, the dreaded
Necromancer, who perished at the stake, after a career of such power and
splendour as seemed almost to justify the dark belief in his
preternatural agencies.*

* See, for description of this scenery, and the fate of De Retz,
the high-wrought and glowing romance by Mr. Ritchie called
“The Magician.”

Here, in a lonely and wretched inn, remote from other habitations,
Maltravers fixed himself. In gentler griefs there is a sort of luxury in
bodily discomfort; in his inexorable and unmitigated anguish, bodily
discomfort was not felt. There is a kind of magnetism in extreme woe, by
which the body itself seems laid asleep, and knows no distinction between
the bed of Damiens and the rose-couch of the Sybarite. He left his
carriage and servants at a post-house some miles distant. He came to
this dreary abode alone; and in that wintry season, and that most
disconsolate scene, his gloomy soul found something congenial, something
that did not mock him, in the frowns of the haggard and dismal Nature.
Vain would it be to describe what he then felt, what he then endured.
Suffice it that, through all, the diviner strength of man was not wholly
crushed, and that daily, nightly, hourly, he prayed to the Great
Comforter to assist him in wrestling against a guilty love. No man
struggles so honestly, so ardently as he did, utterly in vain; for in us
all, if we would but cherish it, there is a spirit that must rise at
last—a crowned, if bleeding conqueror—over Fate and all the Demons!

One day after a prolonged silence from Vargrave, whose letters all
breathed comfort and assurance in Evelyn’s progressive recovery of spirit
and hope, his messenger returned from the post-town with a letter in the
hand of De Montaigne. It contained, in a blank envelope (De Montaigne’s
silence told him how much he had lost in the esteem of his friend), the
communication of Lord Doltimore. It ran thus:—

MY DEAR SIR,—As I hear that your plans are likely to make you a long
resident on the Continent, may I again inquire if you would be induced to
dispose of Burleigh? I am willing to give more than its real value, and
would raise a mortgage on my own property sufficient to pay off, at once,
the whole purchase-money. Perhaps you may be the more induced to the
sale from the circumstance of having an example in the head of your
family, Colonel Maltravers, as I learn through Lord Vargrave, having
resolved to dispose of Lisle Court. Waiting your answer,

I am, dear Sir, truly yours,

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