Volume 2, Chapter 12
Volume 2, Chapter 12
I was now nearly forty-five years of age. Traveling on some factitious occasion near the Lakes of Westmorland and Cumberland, and listening, as my custom was, after whatever was extraordinary and interesting (I listened, as the reader has by this time perceived, with vain hope; what was called extraordinary, had scarcely the power to excite my attention; what interested others, moved not me), - I was told of a gentleman, by name Macneil, that had resided much in foreign countries, and was supposed particularly to have possessed the confidence of the celebrated Jean Jacques Rousseau, who had been some years an inhabitant of the banks of the Windermere. - He had a family of daughters, to the forming whose manners and mind he and his wife had devoted themselves; so that this man, who had traveled so much, and whose understanding was so highly cultivated and refined, seemed to have no further business remaining in life, except to provide the children, the offspring of his marriage, with the motives and means of a virtuous and happy existence.
The history of his wife was somewhat uncommon. She had been born on English ground, but he met with her in the Ecclesiastical Territory in Italy. She had eloped to her present consort, not from her parents, but from a man calling himself her husband. This man, an Italian by birth, had been her instructor in music; he was old, deformed, avaricious, and profligate. The father of the lady had considered his exterior as a sufficient security against any injury to which his daughter might be exposed, and, pleased with his visitor's conversation and professional talents, had, without scruple, invited him to spend month after month under his roof. This repulsive baboon, however, soon conceived the plan of robbing his benefactor of his only child; and he succeeded in the attempt. He talked the language of love to a blooming and inexperienced girl, to whom that language had never before been addressed; his voice was harmony, and his manners specious, gentle, and insinuating. He won her regard, and, before she had completed her sixteenth year, prevailed on her to desert her paternal roof.
No sooner had he conveyed her to his native country, than he threw off the mask toward her. Her fortune was entirely dependent on her father, except a small portion, which was disputed with the worthy bridegroom in the English courts, and which he soon found reason to believe he should never obtain. He made her a prisoner in a dismantled and unwholesome castle which he had inherited from his father, and set over her his sister, as ugly as himself, but who, having obtained no advantages either from education or example, was in a singular degree vulgar, insolent, and brutal.
In this situation she lived when, about twelve months after the period in which she left her father's house, Mr. Macneil, on his travels, heard something of her story, and, like a true knight errant, was prompted to besiege her castle. He had seen her twice under her father's roof; he had lamented, like every other friend of the family, the vile artifices by which she had been trepanned; and, being now informed that she was shut up as a prisoner, and kept from the sight of every human being, except her betrayer, and the hag, his sister, be determined to offer her deliverance. By means of a bribe to one of the servants, he contrived to have a letter conveyed to her hands. The young lady had had leisure to repent of her rashness, and to recollect with infinite remorse the endearments of her natal roof. To receive a line from her countryman, a gentleman whom she remembered to have seen at her father's table, afforded her indescribable pleasure. She knew that the character of Mr. Macneil had always been spoken of as the model of integrity and honor. In her perilous situation, which she regarded with infinite loathing, she judged that some risk was indispensable. She wrote an answer, inquiring respecting her father; mother she had none in existence. Being informed that he still lived, but was inconsolable for her loss, she became not less earnest than her correspondent, that he should provide the means of her escape. She trembled to think whether her father would receive her: sometimes she represented him to herself as a stern judge, refusing her entreaties; at others, as the victim of offended love, reproaching her with eyes of death and despair: she desired, however, to cast herself at his feet, though that moment were to be her last.
Mr. Macneil concerted every thing with the utmost delicacy and honor. He provided an Italian, a woman of character, and of some rank, to be the companion of his protégée in her journey; he himself observed the strictest ceremony toward them, and attended them no more than was necessary for safety and indispensable accommodation; and he had the satisfaction to deliver this interesting female into the hands of her aged parent.
The reconciliation was easily made, and was scarcely more affecting to the parties themselves, than to the person who had been the happy means of their restoration to each other. Mr. Macneil became the declared lover of the lady he had rescued from slavery. Her marriage with her Italian seducer was speedily dissolved; and, fortunately, no child had been the issue of this ill-omened connection. Still, however, there was a difficulty. The beautiful penitent dwelt, with all the bitterness of remorse, upon her youthful offense, and a thousand times protested that, as she had rendered herself unworthy, she would never consent to become the wife of an honorable man. Beside which, she continually recollected with agony the cruel manner in which she had fled from an indulgent father, and almost broken his heart; and vowed that, so long as he lived, she would never again quit the paternal roof. These objections, the impassioned dictates of a well-constituted mind dwelling with exquisiteness upon an offense so early committed, and so exemplarily atoned, were at length got over; and, after eighteen months of struggle and sorrow, she gave her hand in second and happy marriage to the man of her father's choice, as well as of her own.
I know not whether this story will be found so striking in the repetition, as it was to me when I first heard it. But I felt an uncommon desire to visit the family which I heard thus described. My desire was increased by a conversation respecting the character of Mrs. Macneil, between two ladies, within the walls of one of the most elegant mansions on the lakes, at which I happened to be present. One of them was her opponent, and the other her admirer. The latter spoke, in terms of the highest applause, of the qualifications and accomplishments of the young ladies, the daughters.
This drew from the gentlewoman of severer temper a pathetic lamentation over their unfortunate situation. 'No woman,' she said, 'who respected her own character, could afford them countenance; no man, who was not dead to all the decencies of human life, could offer them his hand in marriage, They were devoted to misery and dishonor by the very circumstance of their birth; and she held the father no less culpable in marrying a woman under Mrs. Macneil's unfortunate predicament, and making her the mother of his children, than if he had married a person on whom was entailed the most loathsome hereditary disease. What could be thought, as a matron, of a girl who at sixteen had run away with an Italian fiddler? How many clandestine provocatives to depravity must she have listened to from him, before she could have been prevailed upon to take so outrageous a step? When he had conveyed her into Italy, he introduced her to his own friends, and no doubt her principal associates or two or three years had been sharpers and prostitutes. The consequence was, that she impudently eloped with a stranger from the husband of her choice, as she had before eloped from her misguided father. Poor, wretched Miss Macneils, sealed to perdition! What lessons could they receive from such a mother, but lessons of debauchery! So impure a mind could not instill into them sentiments of virtue, if she would; and would not, if she could. She remembered,' the gentlewoman added, 'to have seen the young ladies at Kendal' theater: they were fine girls; the more was the pity!'
The partizan of Mrs. Macneil put no less warmth into her reply, than her adversary had given to her invective. 'She knew little of the lady herself, in consequence of the rules of society, by which she was excluded from the visiting circles of the neighborhood. Once, however, she had chanced to be her fellow-traveler in a public vehicle from York to London; and she had heard much more of her, than she had then had an opportunity to observe. From every thing she had seen, and every thing she could collect, she was persuaded it was impossible for any thing in the form of a woman to exceed the present correctness of Mrs. Macneil's conversation and conduct. Why should it be supposed that an error committed before the age of sixteen could never be atoned? How much was a young person, at so immature an age, exposed to the stratagems and wiles of an experienced seducer! A better judge of morals than she could pretend to be, had pronounced, that deep and exemplary penitence for an unwary fault was a fuller security for rectitude than innocence itself.* Mrs. Macneil,' her advocate added, 'had been distinguished, when a child, for the strength of her judgment and the delicacy of her sentiments; once she had fallen; but she had speedily recovered; and malice itself could not discover a blemish in her since that period. Might she not, if her present character was such as it was represented, be a more perfect monitor for the young, in proportion as she understood more of the evils against which she warned them, and had felt the calamity?' The lady who maintained this side of the argument said, that she did not pretend to dispute the propriety of me rule by which Mrs. Macneil was given up almost exclusively to the society of the other sex, but added, that a humane judge would often drop a tear of pity over the severity of the sentence he was compelled to pronounce. Why, though Mrs. Macneil could never atone to the rules of established decorum, should we refuse to believe that she had atoned to God, and to the principles of rectitude? Why, though she was forbidden the society of her sex, should the same prohibition be extended to her daughters? Indeed, most of the ladies in the neighborhood of the lakes had felt the propriety of the distinction, and had been eager to afford them every countenance in their power. She understood, from the most undoubted authority, that they were brought up with a refinement and rigidness of sentiment, in every point with which modesty was concerned, beyond what was furnished by any other living example of female education. Their father was the most faultless and unexceptionable in his habits, of any gentleman in all the northern counties; and, if propriety of character in young women could be secured by the diligence, discernment, and rectitude of both their parents, there were no persons of their age who bid fairer to be an ornament to their sex than the Miss Macneils.
All that I heard of Mr. Macneil and his family inspired in me the wish not to quit Westmorland till had seen them. The father of the family was represented as extremely attached to his wife; and, as her unfortunate history rendered her liable to little slights and affronts, he shrunk from all intercourse with his provincial neighbors. He would nor accept any privilege from the males of a house, which might only serve to remind him of tile severe law dealt out to the partner of his life. He fell too intimately for her honor, her pleasures, and her pains, to be capable of being persuaded of the justice of the treatment she received. In truth, as I understood from the most exact information, it was no great sacrifice he made in giving up the conversation of his rural neighbors. He had resources enough in himself and the inmates of his own roof. They were far the most polished and elegant family, if politeness consists in intellectual refinement, in the circuit of the lakes. He had accumulated from the living society of men of genius, the materials and the principles of thinking. The young ladies excelled in the arts of music and design. The mother had paid dear for her progress in the former of these; but her progress was conspicuous. They frequently made little concerts under their own roof. They read together, and compared the impressions they received from, and the judgments they formed upon, what they read. They spent solitary hours enough in the sobriety of the morning, to inspire them with a zest for each other's society in the latter part of the day. Mr. Macneil, as I have said, had no object which he had at present so earnestly at heart as his children's improvement. He shut up, therefore, no knowledge, no tasteful feeling, no moral sentiment, no speculation or deduction which his sagacity inspired, in his own bosom. All his treasures of this sort were brought into the common stock. In this happy family there were no discordant opinions, no one ready to say, 'This is rash; that is singular; this is contrary to the judgment of the world; you must learn to think like others, or you must expect to be disliked'; and thus to chill the opening blossoms of reflection and of mind. They needed not to be told, that he who is afraid to think unlike others, will soon learn, in every honorable sense of the word, not to think at all.
Mr. Macneil, after he had withdrawn from the conversation of the gentlemen of the neighborhood, had found himself intruded upon by stragglers, whom the fashion of an excursion to the lakes had brought to his door. Some came with letters of recommendation, and some without. Some were induced by curiosity to see the mend of Jean Jacques Rousseau; and some to see the lady who had two husbands, both of them living. With the improper conduct and indelicacy of one or two of these wanderers, Mr. Macneil had been highly displeased. He had desired his friends to yield no more letters of introduction to the mere importunities of the idle. He saw no reason why he should suffer his time to be intruded upon, and his serenity I to be ruffled, by the curiosity of indolent travelers who did not know how to dispose of themselves. The lady, the advocate of Mrs. Macneil, to whom I communicated my wish, did not fail therefore to assure me, that I should not gain entrance over the threshold of their house. This unfavorable prediction, perhaps, piqued me the more; and I sat down, and addressed the following letter to the gentleman whose acquaintance I was so desirous to obtain:
I have heard your character described in a way so peculiarly conformable to my notions and predilections, that Tam desirous to be indulged with an hour of your conversation.
'You have been intruded upon, I am told, by the idle and the frivolous; you are a lover of solitude; you are happy in the bosom of your family: these are the reasons which have been alleged to me, why I ought not to expect to obtain the favor I solicit. I shall at least weaken the objections which have been urged, if I can satisfy you that I am not of the class of the persons who have occasioned your displeasure.
'I am no curious man: what have I to be curious about? I am nearly forty-five years of age. I have seen the world, through all its gradations, and in most of the countries of Europe. In my youth I was a wild rose among the mountains of Wales: as I grew up, I entered upon that: scenes of active life, foolishly, not criminally. I contracted an early distaste for the practices and the society of the world. I have lived much alone -I have nor been happy. When I have gone into company, mere acquaintance have not interested me; a friend (a friend, in the perhaps romantic sense of the word) I never found. I am, no doubt, a very weak creature; I am not like Solomon's good man, 'satisfied from myself.' Such is my history; am I one of those persons whose intrusion you would wish to forbid?
Why am I desirous to pay one visit to the roof of Mr. Macneil? I know not whether the answer I can give to this question, will be or ought to be satisfactory. I am not idle enough to imagine that our interview will improve into acquaintance, far less into friendship. We dwell in different and remote parts of the island; we cannot be acquaintance. My habits and temper (it is a million chances to one) will not suit you; in those indescribable minutiae which do not affect the essentials of a character, but which make each man an individual by himself, and which divide you from the rest of your species, you will probably not be approved by me: we cannot be friends. What then? You are, I believe, a good and a wise man (two qualities much more inseparable than the world is willing to allow): I have found so few of these, as sometimes to be almost tempted to think that the race is growing extinct; and I would not willingly miss an opportunity of seeing so extraordinary a creature. Your family is happy - (Oh, happiness! thou perpetual object of pursuit! always showing thyself in prospect! always cut off from our attainment by insurmountable precipices and impassable torrents!) -do not refuse me the sight of a happy family! I ask only for a transient and momentary pleasure! I ask only for something to stock my memory with -the recollection of which I may call up from time to time, and with the image of which I may gild my solitude!
'I am, sir,
'Your very humble servant,
'Lowood Inn, 'Casimir Fleetwood
Ambleside.' of Merionethshire.'
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