Volume 2, Chapter 18
Volume 2, Chapter 18
I was now poor Mary's only visitor. I shall not undertake to detail the progress of our amour under these tragical circumstances. For a long time, though our courtship substantially proceeded, no word of love, or hope, or of prospect to the future, fell from my lips. If I had attempted to utter such a word, I should have felt it like sacrilege; and I am sure the pure and affectionate heart of Mary would have sustained such a shock, as must ultimately have proved a bar to our union for ever. No; she regarded me merely as a zealous guardian, and a faithful protector. She saw in me her father's friend; and, as I seemed busy in performing the functions of that friend to his surviving representative, she honored me for my fidelity, she felt toward me an increasing reverence, and had no thought nearer her heart than the gratifying my wishes, and anticipating my requests. The passion of the sexes will perhaps infallibly grow up between male and female, wherever they are much together, and feel much mutual approbation, provided they are impressed with no adverse prepossessions, and there is nothing in the discipline and decorums of society that forbids and sets a brand on its completion. The melancholy too that hung over our interviews, softened our minds, and prepared them for tender and passionate feelings.
One further misfortune impended over my ward; for such by the most sacred obligations she was now become. Her father, as I have said, had converted his whole property into money, which he lodged, previously to his embarkation, in a banking-house in Genoa. He of course received, in the due forms practiced on such occasions, two complete duplicates of the titles or instruments by which he or his representative might claim the property at Genoa on producing the said titles or instruments. These duplicates were enclosed in two boxes of ebony, in figure and appearance perfectly similar. One of them mr. Macneil designed to take with him on board the Romney, that he might employ his fortune in the purchases he meditated, with the least possible delay; the other was to be left in my hands, with a view to any possible accident or miscarriage. I was present with my friend, when he closed and sealed his different packages, the last day but two before he left the Windermere. We read over on that occasion the papers received from the Genoese banker. The room in which we sat was crowded with trunks and boxes, some already locked, others waiting for their last complement. In the middle of the room was a large table, covered with valuable trinkets, bank-notes, money, books of accounts, and packets of papers of a thousand denominations. Suddenly Macneil was summoned out of the room, to speak to a land-bailiff or tradesman of some sort, who had come for the second time upon some trifling and vexatious question. Before he left the room, my friend hastened to put away his most important papers. He closed the two boxes of ebony, and carefully placed some other papers in a trunk which was near him. His seal lay on the table; and, taking it in his hand, he requested me to affix it where it was wanting. In all this he seemed to proceed so cautiously, as to leave my mind entirely free from suspicion; while at the same time his attention was really engaged by another subject. This is the only account I can give of the affair. The trunks were opened no more. One of the ebony-boxes, together with the rest of the packages, was finally conveyed on board the Romney: the other, as was previously determined, remained in my possession. When, in consequence of the shipwreck in which Macneil perished (for he had placed a will he had lately made in my hands, and had appointed me, in conjunction with an eminent barrister at law, his executor), I broke the seal, and opened the box which was supposed to contain the title and instruments of his fortune, now become the fortune of his surviving child, I found it entirely empty.
I was thunderstruck with this circumstance. I entered into a correspondence with the banker at Genoa; I afterwards commenced a law-suit against him. His answers to my letters were cautiously and artfully expressed; they avoided saying any thing directly, respecting the sum of sixty thousand pounds sterling which I stated mr. Macneil to have remitted; the writer entrenched himself in the forms and language of business; he said that he should be glad to see the titles and instruments on which I founded so considerable a claim; but, till he saw them, he could deliver no opinion on the matter. As this detestable correspondence proceeded, and in proportion as he felt himself more secure of his ground, he assumed a loftier and more insolent tone. He was astonished that I should trouble him with repeated applications in an affair which he knew nothing of, and required that I should desist from such extraordinary and discreditable importunities. This may well appear to the reader somewhat wonderful: the banker who committed this enormous fraud had hitherto borne an unimpeachable character: all I can say is, that the temptation was probably too large for his sentiments of integrity. I may be permitted, as a misanthrope, to remark, that the integrity of too many men has its limits, and that it is to be feared there have been bankers, even in England, who would have sold themselves to the devil for sixty thousand pounds. — The fact is however, in a word, that the property of the Macneils was never recovered.
I have often thought it was fortunate for me, that I and my good friend, the Genoese banker, were not inhabitants of the same country. It was certainly in some measure an issue of character that was tried between us. I do believe that, if the Genoese had not entertained the hope of keeping his reputation as well as the money, he would have paid Mary her fortune. What applause would he have obtained, if he had disbursed out of his coffers sixty thousand pounds, which, as every one who repeated the story would have been forward to remark, he was not obliged to pay! On the other hand, what a villain was I, if, on false or uncertain grounds, I charged him with fraudulently detaining so enormous a sum! I must take care, as he observed to me in some of his letters, how I advanced an accusation against him, tending to subvert the whole basis of his transactions, without having in my possession documents by which it could be supported. The good Genoese, as I afterwards learned, made out a plausible and even pathetic story, to his acquaintance and friends, of the injury he sustained. It might, he said, have been the intention of the unhappy gentleman who was lost at sea, to have vested this property in his hands; the more was his misfortune that he never received it! Sixty thousand pounds however was a large sum; he had never in the whole course of his business held cash to that amount, at one time, for any one individual; and he took upon him to doubt from every thing he had heard, whether the deceased had ever been worth half the sum. It was a hard thing indeed, to be made accountable for money he never saw, and to be called a cheat and a villain unless he would give away half his estate; and, though he trusted in the equity of the laws of Genoa to protect his fortune, and in the candor of his countrymen to vindicate his character, yet the uneasiness which the rashness of this Englishman, to say the least of it, had given his mind, was such as no vindication could ever compensate. — I am not sure, if I had gone at this time to Genoa, whether I should not have been publicly hooted, as I passed along the streets.
Yet, in reality, spite of the loss of these important instruments, I had documents left, sufficient to justify me in the mind of every impartial observer. The amount of mr. Macneil's fortune was of course a matter that had been sufficiently obvious to many. This fortune could not suddenly be annihilated. The Milanese friend of Macneil was ready to attest that it had been his purpose to lodge his property in this house, and that he certainly believed, he had done so. He produced a letter in which the fact was strongly implied, though it was not affirmed in words that admitted not of debate. In his will my friend described the receipt of the sum as being acknowledged by the banker, and entered into some detail as to the number and titles of the instruments under which he claimed.
But all this was not sufficient to procure a decree in my favor before the Genoese magistrates. The Italian lawyers observed, that a description of property in a man's will, was the most unlike thing in the world to a title to an estate; and that, if such a doctrine, as this claim turned on, were admitted, which they well knew the equity of the bench before which they pleaded would reject with indignation, every man who pleased, in every country of Europe, might bequeath his daughter sixty thousand pounds, not only from their client, but from every banking, and even considerable mercantile, house within the limits of the republic. They dwelt at great length upon the high character for integrity, which had ever been preserved by the commercial class of the citizens of Genoa, a class, which was well known to consist principally of the most ancient and honorable nobility in the world; they expatiated pathetically upon the virtues, the charities, the devotion, and the unblemished life of their client, and the agonies his pure and uncorrupted mind had suffered from so foul an imputation; and they earnestly called on the court by their present decree to vindicate, not the defendant only, whose character in this case had been grievously aspersed, but the whole state, from the suspicion that such a crime could have been so much as conceived by one of her citizens. — Their exertions and eloquence were crowned with the most entire success.
I hesitated long to disclose to the unfortunate Mary the new calamity which hung over her. One consideration at length decided me to make her of council in the controversy that was going on. I found her mind dwelling with incessant anguish on the image of her departed kindred. She refused all amusement and avocations. The employments, which had lately been so dear, were now loathsome to her. The fields and the garden had no charms. Her spirits and her appetite deserted her. I saw that there was no chance of recalling her to life, but by giving her some object to which she could not refuse to attend. I believe the loss of her fortune of sixty thousand pounds, was the direct means by which she was preserved from the grave.
At first she declared in the most peremptory manner, that she would listen to nothing that related to the goods of life. What were the means of life to her, when she was already bereaved of every thing that made life worth having! It was a pleasure to her to conceive, that, when she lost parents and sisters, she had nothing left! There was something soothing in the idea, that the same billows which had devoured her dearest relatives, had swallowed up their wealth, and left her a helpless beggar in the world!
By degrees I recalled her to a sounder mind. I represented to her the importance of wealth, and the duty which prescribed the preservation and right disposition of it. With the fortune which had thus devolved to her, how respectable might she become! She might maintain a houshold of temperate and happy individuals. She might relieve the wants of multitudes, might unfold talent, encourage industry, and multiply around her the class of sober and honorable citizens in the state. Even the inherent qualities which she or any other individual possessed, were illustrated, when they appeared in conjunction with the goods of fortune. The merits of the poor man were always clouded, undervalued, and baffled of their utility; while those of the rich were illuminated with the beams of applause, and enabled to appear with tenfold effect upon the theater of society. I further reminded her of the guilt she would incur, if, instead of endeavoring to make a proper use of the wealth which had devolved to her, she suffered it, by any negligence of hers, to become the prize of profligacy and fraud, and to be administered in the depraved manner which such dispositions would dictate.
I prevailed on the sorrowing maid to suffer me to bring to her the barrister, who was the joint executor of her father's will. We read together, in her presence, the letters which had relation to the subject. We canvased the evidence, nuncupatory and scriptory, which might be made useful in the cause. We brought together in her apartments a consultation of English lawyers, with whom we thought it necessary to advise as to the measures to be pursued. Add to this, that the letters, which from time to time reached us from the Genoese banker, and from the lawyers it was necessary for us to retain in that city, both when they were expected, and when they arrived, kept alive our interest, and furnished topics for our conversation. A law-suit is like an adventure in a gaming transaction; the mind is continually upon the stretch, the affair from day to day assumes a new face, hope and fear dance an alternate measure before the eyes, and we are now sanguine with expectation, and now speechless and dejected with intolerable despair. How many waking and anxious nights may he expect to pass, who, from choice or necessity, is obliged to commit his property to the discussions of the wrangling bar! — The degree of uneasiness, which is inseparable from an affair of this sort, was, as I have already said, salutary to Mary, and served by imperceptible degrees to bring her back to the considerations of the world.
Here then was a strange series of vicissitudes in the pecuniary fortune of my destined bride. When I had first contemplated marriage with her, she was one of three coheiresses merely, of a man of a given fortune, who might expect on the day of her marriage to receive a certain portion, and, after the death of her parents, to divide in equal allotments the property which they possessed. In the few days that clapsed between the melancholy intelligence of the loss of her family, and the period when it became necessary to look into the affairs of my deceased friend, she stood forth the undoubted successor to his ample property. I never had been, in any occurrence of my life, a mercenary character; and I doubt whether, in any moment of these few days, the idea of Mary's accession of property offered itself to my thoughts; certainly it was very far from being among the early suggestions inspired by this melancholy catastrophe. But, after this, there was a long time, nearly a year, before the question was finally set at rest (the action indeed was not dismissed by the Italian courts under two years; but I had, before that, resolutely driven the expectation of any advantage to result, from my thoughts); and during this period, amid the various fluctuations of our cause, and the sanguine hopes which were occasionally held out to me, the successive images of my mistress, as the possessor of an ample property, and a beggar, could not but forcibly present themselves to my apprehension.
What a strange thing is the human mind! Of what consequence was it to me, whether the amiable and accomplished woman I married, were, or were not, amply endowed with the goods of fortune? I had already enough for every honest and honorable purpose in life. Fortune could not make her more amiable and accomplished than she was: adversity could take nothing from her. I can safely declare that I never repined for a moment, that she gave me her hand, without bringing me a shilling. Yet I am formed like all other corporeal essences, and am affected by the adventitious and unmeriting circumstances of rank or riches with which my fellow-being is surrounded. Had Mary entered into my alliance a distinguished heiress, this, in spite of my philosophy, would have commanded from me a certain deference and homage. As she was, pennyless, a mere pensionary on my bounty, — I swear I did not value her less,— I felt more tenderness, more humanity, a more religious kind of forbearance toward her. But the sentiment was of a different sort; her first claim was upon my pity. I experienced this a hundred times, when I hastened to pay her my customary visit. When I waited upon her as an heiress, I approached with a certain submission; I looked at her as an independent being; my thoughts moved slow, and my tongue was apt to falter, if I suggested to her any idea of a freer and more unceremonious sort. When I visited her portionless, my mind moved freer; I breathed a thinner and more elastic atmosphere; my tongue assumed a tone of greater confidence; and, at the same time that I felt for her the deepest compassion and the most entire sympathy, my speech became more eloquent, and I caught myself talking with the condescension of a superior, — superior in the possession of that sordid dirt, which the system of human things much oftener bestows upon a driveler or a knave, than upon a being of genuine excellence and worth.
Another idea of a subtler nature offered itself to my thoughts, which I will state here, as calculated to illustrate the whimsical composition of the human mind. I felt that, in consequence of the heavy calamity which had overtaken this beautiful orphan, it was become doubly incumbent on me that I should marry her. She was left, by a deplorable and astonishing event, desolate upon the stage of the world; and she was in all moral and religious obligation entitled to the full benefit of my fortune. But this is not exactly the idea to which I refer. An ample property of sixty thousand pounds had unaccountably disappeared. What was become of it? I charged the malversation on the Genoese banker: he denied the charge. The question was at issue before the laws and lawyers of his country: it was probable that the accused would ultimately be acquitted. He would be acquitted, because I had no sufficient evidence to exhibit, to substantiate the assertion. Well then; here was a horrible fraud which had been perpetrated. As I charged it on the banker, might not another charge it on me? I had been trusted by Macneil in all his affairs; there was no apparent individual to whom the guilt could belong, but the Genoese or myself. He had no more visible temptation than I. His opulence was not less; and, like me, he was childless and a bachelor; it was generally believed that, when he died, he would bequeath his property to the church. But, if the fraud were mine, how much more complicated would be my guilt! I was the friend of the deceased, the Genoese a stranger; I had been fixed on by Macneil, as the select depositary of his interests. Then imagine for a moment, how inexpressible must be the height of my profligacy, if, conscious to myself that I alone was guilty of the embezzlement, I deliberately charged it upon another, and solemnly prosecuted the charge! Imagine what the guilt must be, of stripping a wealthy orphan, left in my guardianship, of her property, at the same moment that fate had robbed her of her natural protectors, and of thus turning her forth pennyless, to seek the means of a wretched subsistence!
These, it will be said, are but wild and air-drawn pictures. I had passed through the world with an unimpeached reputation: the integrity and liberality of my transactions were known to every one that had heard of my name; no creature would ever dream of suspecting me of so flagitious an action. Be it so. A man is diversely viewed by the variously circumstanced inhabitants of the globe. Milton is known to one man merely as the Latin translator to a secretary of state; and the nurse of La Fontaine interrupted his confessor, who was setting before him on his death-bed the terrors of another world, with the exclamation, "For Christ's sake, do not disturb the poor wretch; he is less knave than fool; God can never have the heart to damn him." Such was my temper, that I could not sleep tranquilly upon my pillow, while I thought it possible that a native of Genoa or Peru should regard me as a villain, pampering my own follies and depraved propensities with the purloined property of another.
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