|It happened one day about noon, going to my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand.|
We were sitting together in the library. Miss Vernon, in turning over a copy of the Orlando Furioso, which belonged to me, shook a piece of writing paper from between the leaves. I hastened to lift it, but she prevented me.—“It is verse,” she said, on glancing at the paper; and then unfolding it, but as if to wait my answer before proceeding—“May I take the liberty?—Nay, nay, if you blush and stammer, I must do violence to your modesty, and suppose that permission is granted.”
“It is not worthy your perusal—a scrap of a translation—My dear Miss Vernon, it would be too severe a trial, that you, who understand the original so well, should sit in judgment.”
“Mine honest friend,” replied Diana, “do not, if you will be guided by my advice, bait your hook with too much humility; for, ten to one, it will not catch a single compliment. You know I belong to the unpopular family of Tell-truths, and would not flatter Apollo for his lyre.”
She proceeded to read the first stanza, which was nearly to the following purpose:—
“Ladies, and knights, and arms, and love’s fair flame,|
Deeds of emprize and courtesy, I sing;
What time the Moors from sultry Africk came,
Led on by Agramant, their youthful king—
He whom revenge and hasty ire did bring
O’er the broad wave, in France to waste and war;
Such ills from old Trojano’s death did spring,
Which to avenge he came from realms afar,
And menaced Christian Charles, the Roman Emperor.
“Of dauntless Roland, too, my strain shall sound,
“There is a great deal of it,” said she, glancing along the paper, and interrupting the sweetest sounds which mortal ears can drink in,—those of a youthful poet’s verses, namely, read by the lips which are dearest to him.
“Much more than ought to engage your attention, Miss Vernon,” I replied, something mortified; and I took the verses from her unreluctant hand— “And yet,” I continued, “shut up as I am in this retired situation, I have felt sometimes I could not amuse myself better than by carrying on—merely for my own amusement, you will of course understand—the version of this fascinating author, which I began some months since when I was on the banks of the Garonne.”
“The question would only be,” said Diana, gravely, “whether you could not spend your time to better purpose?”
“You mean in original composition?” said I, greatly flattered—“But, to say truth, my genius rather lies in finding words and rhymes than ideas; and therefore I am happy to use those which Ariosto has prepared to my hand. However, Miss Vernon, with the encouragement you give”—
“Pardon me, Frank—it is encouragement not of my giving, but of your taking. I meant neither original composition nor translation, since I think you might employ your time to far better purpose than in either. You are mortified,” she continued, “and I am sorry to be the cause.”
“Not mortified,—certainly not mortified,” said I, with the best grace I could muster, and it was but indifferently assumed; “I am too much obliged by the interest you take in me.”
“Nay, but,” resumed the relentless Diana, “there is both mortification and a little grain of anger in that constrained tone of voice; do not be angry if I probe your feelings to the bottom—perhaps what I am about to say will affect them still more.”
I felt the childishness of my own conduct, and the superior manliness of Miss Vernon’s, and assured her, that she need not fear my wincing under criticism which I knew to be kindly meant.
“That was honestly meant and said,” she replied; “I knew full well that the fiend of poetical irritability flew away with the little preluding cough which ushered in the declaration. And now I must be serious—Have you heard from your father lately?”
“Not a word,” I replied; “he has not honoured me with a single line during the several months of my residence here.”
“That is strange!—you are a singular race, you bold Osbaldistones. Then you are not aware that he has gone to Holland, to arrange some pressing affairs which required his own immediate presence?”
“I never heard a word of it until this moment.”
“And farther, it must be news to you, and I presume scarcely the most agreeable, that he has left Rashleigh in the almost uncontrolled management of his affairs until his return.”
I started, and could not suppress my surprise and apprehension.
“You have reason for alarm,” said Miss Vernon, very gravely; “and were I you, I would endeavour to meet and obviate the dangers which arise from so undesirable an arrangement.”
“And how is it possible for me to do so?”
“Everything is possible for him who possesses courage and activity,” she said, with a look resembling one of those heroines of the age of chivalry, whose encouragement was wont to give champions double valour at the hour of need; “and to the timid and hesitating, everything is impossible, because it seems so.”
“And what would you advise, Miss Vernon?” I replied, wishing, yet dreading, to hear her answer.
She paused a moment, then answered firmly—“That you instantly leave Osbaldistone Hall, and return to London. You have perhaps already,” she continued, in a softer tone, “been here too long; that fault was not yours. Every succeeding moment you waste here will be a crime. Yes, a crime: for I tell you plainly, that if Rashleigh long manages your father’s affairs, you may consider his ruin as consummated.”
“How is this possible?”
“Ask no questions,” she said; “but believe me, Rashleigh’s views extend far beyond the possession or increase of commercial wealth: he will only make the command of Mr. Osbaldistone’s revenues and property the means of putting in motion his own ambitious and extensive schemes. While your father was in Britain this was impossible; during his absence, Rashleigh will possess many opportunities, and he will not neglect to use them.”
“But how can I, in disgrace with my father, and divested of all control over his affairs, prevent this danger by my mere presence in London?”
“That presence alone will do much. Your claim to interfere is a part of your birthright, and it is inalienable. You will have the countenance, doubtless, of your father’s head-clerk, and confidential friends and partners. Above all, Rashleigh’s schemes are of a nature that”—(she stopped abruptly, as if fearful of saying too much)—“are, in short,” she resumed, “of the nature of all selfish and unconscientious plans, which are speedily abandoned as soon as those who frame them perceive their arts are discovered and watched. Therefore, in the language of your favourite poet—
A feeling, irresistible in its impulse, induced me to reply—“Ah! Diana, can you give me advice to leave Osbaldistone Hall?—then indeed I have already been a resident here too long!”
Miss Vernon coloured, but proceeded with great firmness—“Indeed, I do give you this advice—not only to quit Osbaldistone Hall, but never to return to it more. You have only one friend to regret here,” she continued, forcing a smile, “and she has been long accustomed to sacrifice her friendships and her comforts to the welfare of others. In the world you will meet a hundred whose friendship will be as disinterested—more useful—less encumbered by untoward circumstances—less influenced by evil tongues and evil times.”
“Never!” I exclaimed, “never!—the world can afford me nothing to repay what I must leave behind me.” Here I took her hand, and pressed it to my lips.
“This is folly!” she exclaimed—“this is madness!” and she struggled to withdraw her hand from my grasp, but not so stubbornly as actually to succeed until I had held it for nearly a minute. “Hear me, sir!” she said, “and curb this unmanly burst of passion. I am, by a solemn contract, the bride of Heaven, unless I could prefer being wedded to villany in the person of Rashleigh Osbaldistone, or brutality in that of his brother. I am, therefore, the bride of Heaven,—betrothed to the convent from the cradle. To me, therefore, these raptures are misapplied—they only serve to prove a farther necessity for your departure, and that without delay.” At these words she broke suddenly off, and said, but in a suppressed tone of voice, “Leave me instantly—we will meet here again, but it must be for the last time.”
My eyes followed the direction of hers as she spoke, and I thought I saw the tapestry shake, which covered the door of the secret passage from Rashleigh’s room to the library. I conceived we were observed, and turned an inquiring glance on Miss Vernon.
“It is nothing,” said she, faintly; “a rat behind the arras.”
“Dead for a ducat,” would have been my reply, had I dared to give way to the feelings which rose indignant at the idea of being subjected to an eaves-dropper on such an occasion. Prudence, and the necessity of suppressing my passion, and obeying Diana’s reiterated command of “Leave me! leave me!” came in time to prevent my rash action. I left the apartment in a wild whirl and giddiness of mind, which I in vain attempted to compose when I returned to my own.
A chaos of thoughts intruded themselves on me at once, passing hastily through my brain, intercepting and overshadowing each other, and resembling those fogs which in mountainous countries are wont to descend in obscure volumes, and disfigure or obliterate the usual marks by which the traveller steers his course through the wilds. The dark and undefined idea of danger arising to my father from the machinations of such a man as Rashleigh Osbaldistone—the half declaration of love that I had offered to Miss Vernon’s acceptance—the acknowledged difficulties of her situation, bound by a previous contract to sacrifice herself to a cloister or to an ill-assorted marriage,—all pressed themselves at once upon my recollection, while my judgment was unable deliberately to consider any of them in their just light and bearings. But chiefly and above all the rest, I was perplexed by the manner in which Miss Vernon had received my tender of affection, and by her manner, which, fluctuating betwixt sympathy and firmness, seemed to intimate that I possessed an interest in her bosom, but not of force sufficient to counterbalance the obstacles to her avowing a mutual affection. The glance of fear, rather than surprise, with which she had watched the motion of the tapestry over the concealed door, implied an apprehension of danger which I could not but suppose well grounded; for Diana Vernon was little subject to the nervous emotions of her sex, and totally unapt to fear without actual and rational cause. Of what nature could those mysteries be, with which she was surrounded as with an enchanter’s spell, and which seemed continually to exert an active influence over her thoughts and actions, though their agents were never visible? On this subject of doubt my mind finally rested, as if glad to shake itself free from investigating the propriety or prudence of my own conduct, by transferring the inquiry to what concerned Miss Vernon. I will be resolved, I concluded, ere I leave Osbaldistone Hall, concerning the light in which I must in future regard this fascinating being, over whose life frankness and mystery seem to have divided their reign,—the former inspiring her words and sentiments—the latter spreading in misty influence over all her actions.
Joined to the obvious interests which arose from curiosity and anxious passion, there mingled in my feelings a strong, though unavowed and undefined, infusion of jealousy. This sentiment, which springs up with love as naturally as the tares with the wheat, was excited by the degree of influence which Diana appeared to concede to those unseen beings by whom her actions were limited. The more I reflected upon her character, the more I was internally though unwillingly convinced, that she was formed to set at defiance all control, excepting that which arose from affection; and I felt a strong, bitter, and gnawing suspicion, that such was the foundation of that influence by which she was overawed.
These tormenting doubts strengthened my desire to penetrate into the secret of Miss Vernon’s conduct, and in the prosecution of this sage adventure, I formed a resolution, of which, if you are not weary of these details, you will find the result in the next chapter.