Anna Jane Vardill

MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE

SECOND HISTORY

Continued

Our second brother, better known among us by his customary surname, the Stoic, addressed us gravely in these words:—“As I speak for the information of my auditors, not for my own delight or their applause, I shall endeavour to avoid egotism. Your erring brother will be easily recognized among the persons in his narrative.

“Man is sufficient for himself;” said the oracle of a solitary inn as he finished the contents of his bowl, and departed without paying for it—“Man is sufficient for himself!” repeated a pale lean boy, taking up the well-laden basket he had already carried some miles; and this sublime sentence consoled him a little for the various rents and deficiencies in his apparel—“It is very odd (continued he) that Dame Giles cannot suffice for herself too; but when I am older she shall send me no more errands.”—By the dim light of a rising moon, the young reasoner saw in the lane he was traversing, a horse without a rider, and a man stretched near it among some shrubs. After a moment’s pause, Maurice remembered the sentence he had heard of man’s all-sufficiency, and ventured to approach the stranger whose groans expressed anguish. He was a man of stern countenance with good attire:—“Child, (said he) I am a traveller without friends in this country—assist me to rise and walk, or bring help,”—“With all my heart, sir !” answered Maurice; “but you must wait while I carry my basket home.”—“Do you not see that my leg is broken?” —“Yes, Sir, but the poor dame at the lane’s end is dying, and I must carry her the wine in my basket, because she is old and poor.”—“May’st thou live to be old thyself!" said the stranger in a broken voice: “Go to her, and then bring me help.”

“Man is not sufficient for himself, then!” whispered Maurice, as he ran to the dying woman’s hut, and from thence to the parsonage where he usually lived. The inhabitant of that solitary and half-ruined house accompanied him back to the forlorn stranger, who accepted his offered hospitality. There is, it has been said, a certain signal by which honest men ascertain each other, and this is, perhaps, the true secret of freemasonry. The curate’s countenance bore this signet, and the stranger entered his house as if it had been a brother’s. In addition to his holy office, the good pastor possessed some skill in casual ailments, and his guest’s limb was not sufficiently injured to require more. Maurice was the attendant of his bed-chamber; for he would allow no female to approach him. When he had resided three weeks at the parsonage, he suddenly desired the curate to speak with him alone. “Sir, (said he) we must be better known to each other. You have not asked my name, nor have I questioned you, but I perceive we can exchange benefits. We are both, perhaps, equally poor; I in friends, you in the opinion of the world. Give me this boy whom you have taught to respect and serve distressed age: he will live, I think, to deserve an old man's blessing, and I shall grow happier by bestowing it.”

The curate of Rochdale was silent a few moments, and seemed struggling with sudden pain; but be recovered himself, and replied—“You have not chosen unwisely; I have children, but I honour my nephew’s talents more than theirs. If he consents to leave me”—“Stop!” exclaimed his abrupt guest—“you have a wife, I know, whom you wish to consult—go and shew your domestic deference to her opinion, but let me hear nothing of it—I abhor whatever indicates the influence of a woman.”

Mordaunt, the benevolent curate, retired with a full heart into his wife’s apartment—“I was not mistaken (said he), your father has fixed his stern heart on our young nephew—whether he has forgotten or disdains to recognize me, I cannot discover; but we ought to bless the fortunate chance which has introduced a deserted relative to his notice.”

The meek wife had all the noble integrity of a husband, but a mother’s feelings prevailed—“If he could have seen our daughters or our infant boy, he would love them as he loves Maurice—Is it possible that he can adopt this boy without a single thought of us?”

“I am not certain (replied her husband) that he knows under whose roof he is a guest. But if he is unconscious, let us not, for a selfish purpose, risque the welfare of an unfortunate child whom we cannot indemnify for the loss of such a patron. We have deserved your father’s anger by our rash marriage, and I rather chuse to bear his silent indifference, than to sue for pardon and be repulsed.”

Maurice heard some part of this conversation without understanding its import. He was only astonished that a rich and powerful nobleman should deem a poor boy’s society desirable; and began to doubt whether man can always be sufficient for himself. He wondered why his kind aunt, as he was accustomed to call the curate’s wife, never ventured into Lord De Grey’s presence, or passed his chamber-door, without tears. One day he stole in himself, leading his favourite playmate her eldest daughter, to look at the important stranger when they thought him sleeping. “Take her out of my sight, wretched boy!” said Lord De Grey, starting from his pillow; but he soon forgot the offence, and on the following morning his equipage arrived to convey him with his new favorite from the parsonage. Lord De Grey entered it with a firm step and an unmoved countenance, while the curate stood on his threshold without bending his head; but the peer suddenly held out his hand—“I know you, Mordaunt, and I know this boy’s claims on my protection—your disinterested zeal for him shall be repaid to your own children—Do not ask me to see the daughter who deceived me, but I pardon and honour her husband.”

The carriage instantly moved away, while Maurice wept in silence for the loss of his young companions, whom he was not allowed to name. His patron presented him to a graceful boy, a year younger than himself, whose education he was ordered to partake. This boy, the only acknowledged grandson of Lord De Grey and heir of his family’s honours, had a heart and talents formed to embellish them. But his grandfather, soured by disappointed pride, endeavoured to believe that all the miseries of life proceed from men’s dependence on each other, and he constantly repeated, “Man ought to be sufficient for himself.”—“Friendship (he said to his two young pupils) is a mere interchange of benefits; love is only an extension of one’s self;—there is no disguise necessary for that great principle of human nature, self-interest; and no man, therefore, should be required to depend on another.” Perhaps he did not perceive how easily his pupils inferred from this doctrine that they owed him no obedience beyond their own pleasure. Taught to ascribe every act to a selfish motive, they saw no merit in his bounty, and no motive for their occasional submission, except their present advantage. Man, says Lord Bacon, and every noble animal, is improved by dependence on a superior Being; but these young cynics were deprived of that sense of support which is inspired by filial love, and carried to its highest perfection by our ideas of a Creator. As forbearance and forgiveness made no part of their moral code, their disputes often rose to violence when their wishes clashed. On one of these occasions, Lord De Grey exclaimed, addressing himself to his grandson—“Since hatred and revenge are the most painful of all sensations, I require you for your own sake, not for mine, to renounce them.”—“I am the best judge, Sir (replied he) of my own feelings, and I know none so painful as equality with a nameless intruder, the foster son of a mendicant.”

“Man is sufficient for himself”—repeated Maurice; and before the dawn of the next morning, he quitted his benefactor’s house with only a few pounds in his purse, and one change of linen in his pocket. But when he stood on the edge of the shore from whence, in the desperation of insulted pride, he had resolved to embark as a common soldier, some thoughts of his early home returned, and he remembered the kind curate of Rochdale with those grateful feelings which meek benevolence is sure to create. Instead of presenting himself to the recruiting officer, he took his seat on a northern mail, and soon reached the obscure valley where his infancy had been spent. Mordaunt, the curate, received him with a silent embrace, and led him to his fireside, where his first inquiry was for the lovely blue-eyed girl he had once attempted to introduce to Lord De Grey. The curate, without answering, seated him at his supper-table; and when Maurice had refreshed himself, said sternly “I would give bread even to a felon who trusts me—read that letter!”—It was the handwriting of Lord De Grey, and contained these words.

“The boy I received from you has robbed me. By an exact imitation of my signature, he has obtained four thousand pounds, which have been traced into his hands. I pardon the theft and fraud, but not the ingratitude. Bid him fly, if he ventures to seek shelter near you. It is too late to save him by other means.”

Maurice’s eyes stiffened as they dwelt on these terrible words, and his lips were palsied. Mordaunt pointed to the only horse which fed on his little glebe, and urged him to depart while the darkness of night remained.—“Ah, Sir!” said Maurice, with a sudden light in his countenance, “you were my first teacher—can you believe me guilty?” The old man wept, and pressed his hand to his bosom; but at that instant, the bell of his gate was rung violently.—“You have held an innocent hand!” cried Maurice, as he ran himself to open the gate, at which a stranger stood with a sealed parcel, which he gave and disappeared. It was addressed to the curate, who opened and found within it bank-notes to the amount of five hundred pounds.—“See, Maurice, (said he) the provision made for your flight by your benefactor—take it and shelter yourself in another country. But do not hope to avoid dependence on your fellow creatures: their good opinion is necessary to your welfare, and you have given force to accusation by neglecting it. Go and create for yourself that sanctuary which is enjoyed by men who live for the benefit of society. Compare the solitary obelisk with those clustered pillars which support the roofs of our noblest institutions, and then determine which is the most useful and dignified.”— Thus gently intimating hope rather than censure, the good pastor led his guest again to his threshold, urged speed, and gave a farewell blessing. Maurice felt the tenderness of his bounty, but also felt that his own guilt seemed undoubted. Fire ran through his veins at the thought; and plunging his spurs into his horse, he turned it, not towards the nearest sea-port, according to Mordaunt’s command, but into the high-road to London.

Lord De Grey was seated musing in his library at midnight, when Maurice suddenly stood before him, pale and gasping for breath. “You have placed my life and honour at stake, my lord!—and I have come to redeem them. Do not expect me to seal your accusation by flight. If I am guilty, I do not deserve shelter; if you believe me innocent, let me prove it.”

“Unhappy boy!” said his patron, starting as if he had felt himself all the shame and penalty of the crime—“what avails your innocence against a host of circumstances? How can you confront the world after the infamy of such a trial?”—“Man is not sufficient for himself, then!” said Maurice, with a bitter smile—“how often have you taught me to live as if I stood alone in the world, without loving, fearing, or trusting any one except myself—Could you censure me even if I had made your property my own, in defiance of public opinion;—and by what right do you now expect me to surrender my feelings to yours?— But, my lord, I have not robbed you. An instinct, truer and better than your reason, forbade me to injure my benefactor, though he licensed me by his lessons.”

Lord De Grey grew pale, and his very vitals seemed crushed by this reproach. Truth has a tone and attitude which cannot be borrowed:—he felt them, and snatching up his roquelaure, threw it on Maurice's shoulders—“Begone, (said he) save yourself, lest I execrate my existence. My doors are beset with spies, but in this you may escape. Why do you linger, Maurice?—What is it you desire more from me?”—“Only your blessing (he replied), such as a father would give his repenting son.”—De Grey fell upon his neck, and groaned in the bit throes of anguish: then covering his face, closed the door upon him. At the foot of the most private staircase stood young De Grey, listening to his grandfather’s movements—“Whither are you going, Maurice? (he exclaimed, as the unwilling fugitive rushed past him) for what purpose do you come?”—“Not for a base one!” answered Maurice hastily, throwing off his protector’s cloak—“I go to challenge and extort justice.”—He ran on, but found himself forcibly held ; and looking back, saw Edward De Grey upon his knees. “You are the culprit, then!” said he, in a faltering voice, for his pure heart felt no triumph in the fall of his enemy.—“I’m utterly undone,” replied Edward, “if you provoke inquiry. Only absent yourself a few months—submit to leave the affair ambiguous, and you will bind me to you for ever. I have unlimited credit now on my grandfather's banker, and my purse shall be your’s.”—All the pride of a generous heart, all the force of the blow levelled at his honour, was felt by Maurice at that instant. “This is too much, Edward! you have robbed me of my fair fame where I valued it more than life, and you dare to offer me a price!”—“I am more miserable than you can guess!” returned young De Grey, wringing his hand—“for I cannot confide all even to you—but I will go with you to prison, if you will not pity my grandfather’s old age, and save our family’s honour.”—Maurice stood a few steps beyond the outer gate of Lord De Grey’s mansion, undetermined and in an agony of doubt, when two officers of justice suddenly sprang upon him. He surrendered himself without resistance, and was led to the usual auditory, where he learned that the forged paper ascribed to him had heen presented to Lord De Grey’s banker by a man who professed to have received it from his hand, and had brought witnesses to prove that they had seen Maurice affix his signature. Maurice, in silent consternation, saw his own name accurately endorsed on the forged bill, and now remembered having signed a list of subscribers to a charitable plan brought to him by an unknown petitioner of imposing appearance in a public room on the day mentioned by the witnesses. A facsimile of his hand-writing might have been thus obtained, but his examiners informed him that a search of his person was indispensable. Even the presiding magistrate’s countenance expressed surprise and grief when the bank-notes found upon him were recognized by the banker’s clerk as part of those paid to the bearer of the forgery. Maurice, with the spirit and simplicity of truth, could only state the fact of their conveyance to his fosterfather’s house; and the presence of the curate was accordingly required to attest it. But the chief actor in this plot had disappeared: the utterer of the fabricated note could no where be found; and though Maurice’s guilt seemed substantiated without him, his innocence could not be made perfectly clear until his accuser's conviction. Mordaunt, his first and firm friend, arrived in town, and urged the most rigorous inquiry for the absent witness. He was found. Crouds of strangers assembled at the place of examination; and Lord De Grey, whose utmost power had been strained to stifle an affair which his hasty anger had exposed, was compelled to attend among the witnesses. No inducement could tempt his grandson to enter the court, but his absence was ascribed to generous feelings, and applauded. The accused was brought forward, and his accuser, turning aside his eyes as if dazzled by the intense light in Maurice’s, stood before him. He was a man beyond the middle age, with deep lines in his forehead, and a lurking smile about his lip which seemed to mock his sordid apparel. Lord De Grey fearfully and slowly looked towards him, and fell from his place in a swoon. The stranger fixed his large hollow eye sternly on the old man as he sunk, and turned towards his examiners. To their close inquiries he refused to give any farther replies than he had already given, and referring to the evidence adduced against Maurice, appealed to facts. A long inquisition afforded no new light: the prisoners were dismissed to separate chambers, and before the close of day Mordaunt entered the stranger’s, both viewed each other with cold and austere glances; but after a long pause, the curate said—“I am a minister of the religion which would redeem you even now. Have you forgotten both?”—“No,” returned the prisoner fiercely, “nor need you remind me who I am.— Tell Lord De Grey, if he sent you, that I am still his only son; and though he has renounced and abandoned me, his precepts are not forgotten. He taught me to seek pleasure as the only purpose of existence, to idolize myself, and to reverence no law. Let him not be surprised if I have employed his name to regain a small part of that birthright which he seems disposed to squander upon beggars—upon that nameless boy who has crept into his favour.”—“That nameless boy!” repeated Mordaunt, shuddering—“Was it to rend him from his place under your father’s roof that you covered your fraud with his name, and contrived to make even me an accomplice by putting those fatal notes into his hands!”—“Are not the means justified by the end?” said the culprit, with a sullen sneer—“So, at least, your philosophic patron told me. He thought that all morality depended upon circumstance, and was framed by men only to guard their own convenience. Why should his family be exempt from this rule? I have but committed a civil trespass for the just purpose of attaining what his bounty ought to have given me, and of removing a dangerous rival from the way of my only son—the legal and natural heir of Lord De Grey’s possessions.”

Mordaunt paused, and his whole soul gathered itself into his fixed eye. “Wretched man!” be exclaimed. “learn the fallacy of your system from its fruits!—Maurice is your eldest son—the fruit of your first rash marriage. I received him from the death-bed of his forsaken mother, whom your disavowal left to perish in poverty. But your father knows his claims, and received him from my hands. See to what misery and shame you have doomed a beneficent father and the children he cherished for your sake!”

Even a heart hardened by systematic selfishness shrinks from the deserved hatred of a son. The self-convicted father, in the stubborn silence of despair, fixed his eyes upon the earth, and raised them no more. After many hours spent in prayer beside him, Mordaunt departed without obtaining either word or sign of hope. Before the following day his sudden death was announced. The innocent son he had so nearly sacrificed soon obtained acquittal; but Edward De Grey, driven to madness by his father’s ignominy, and by pangs of humbled self-love which no principle ever balanced or corrected, remained a victim to the gloomiest visionary terrors.—Maurice, half consoled for unmerited sufferings by his own pure and benevolent spirit, took refuge in the church, where he learned those truths which saved him from the errors of his brother. He lives happy in the secluded parsonage in which his kind uncle Mordaunt once presided; but no comfort remains for the desolate and despairing grandfather. Lord De Grey still exists, deploring the fate of a son misled by his precepts, and a grandson plunged by his example into the darkness of false philosophy. He has seen the retributive hand of the Providence he doubted, and felt the well proportioned punishment due to self-worshipping pride and unrelenting obduracy. Concealed in this retirement he endeavours to meliorate his sorrows; and is learning those precepts of patient resignation, hope, and charity, which render Man sufficient for himself.”

V.

(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 70, September 1816, pp. 204-208