MRS MASON had no sooner entered the gate leading up to Gowan Brae than her kind friends were at the door ready to receive her. ' You are very good,' said Mr Stewart, as he conducted her to the parlour, 'you are very good in coming to us after our apparent neglect of you, in circumstances that called for a double portion of attention; but when you know all that has happened, you will forgive us.'
' I do know all, my good sir,' returned Mrs Mason; ' your trusty old Donald has told me enough to show me how fully your time has been occupied. I feel for the vexation you have suffered, but it is past, and I trust all may yet go well.'
Mr Stewart shook his head. ' We had better not speak of it,' said he, in a melancholy voice.
'Well, we shall not speak of it, then,' said Mrs Mason; I had rather speak of the boys. When did you hear of them? When are they to have a holiday at Gowan Brae?'
Having thus given a turn to the conversation, she endeavoured to keep it up with cheerfulness; and so far succeeded, that a stranger would have thought all the party in excellent spirits.
After dinner, as soon as the servant who attended them had left the room, Mr Stewart became absent and thoughtful. A pause ensued in the conversation, during which Mary kept her eyes anxiously fixed upon her father. Starting at length from his reverie, he turned to Mrs Mason, and said it was now time to give her a full account of all that had taken place, but that he found he must leave the task to Mary. ' I have not patience to go over it,' said he; ' but I wish for your advice, and you must therefore know all. I shall be back by the time Mary has finished the recital, and in the meantime must speak to my labourers.'
'My dear father!' said Mary, looking wistfully after him as he left the room; ' my dear good father will never be happy again !'
'With such a daughter as you, how can he be unhappy?' said Mrs Mason. 'Your duty and affection will soon make him forget the disappointment he has had in ycrur sister, and perhaps this match of hers may not turn out so bad as he apprehends.'
'Oh, it cannot turn out well,' said Mary. ' How can any match turn out well that begins as this has done, by wounding the heart of so good, so kind a father ?'
'Young women seldom argue in this way now-a-days,' returned Mrs Mason. ' Love is, in the creed of sentiment, and of plays and novels, a sufficient excuse for the breach of every duty, both before marriage and after it.'
'I believe I am as capable of a strong attachment as my sister is,' said Mary; ' but I could not love a man without first esteeming him, and I could not esteem the man who, in pursuance of his own selfish purposes, led me into the guilt of ingratitude, falsehood, and dissimulation.'
'But you know, my dear, that in every clandestine correspondence, art and dissimulation are absolutely indispensable,' said Mrs Mason.
'And therefore,' cried Mary, ' I abhor every thing clandestine. But perhaps I think worse of Mr Mollins than he deserves. You shall read my sister's letters, and judge for yourself.'
'I shall read them afterwards,' said Mrs Mason; 'but wish you in the meantime to give me some account of what has happened, that I may be prepared to speak upon it with your father. Where did your sister meet with Captain Mollins? who is he? what do you know of his character, or what did she know of it? It is of those particulars that I long to be informed.'
'It is,' replied Mary, 'in her intimacy with Mrs Flinders that all our vexations have originated. Yet Mrs Flinders meant no harm to Bell, but the contrary. She is a vain, showy woman, and liked to have a young person of Bell's appearance in her train • for you know that my sister has naturally a genteel air, and such a taste in dress as sets it off to the best advantage. She was much admired by all the gentlemen who visited at Mount Flinders; but though taken notice of when there by many of the first people in the country, I know not how it was, but no one endeavoured to keep up the acquaintance, except officers and students from Edinburgh, and such sort of people who were in the country only by chance. Still every one spoke of the great advantage and happiness of her being honoured with the friendship of so fine a lady as Mrs Flinders; for, excepting my father, I do not know a person in the country that makes such a distinction between being genteel and being respectable, as would lead them to decline for their children an introduction to whatever was beyond their station. I confess I thought my father's objections the effects of prejudice, and entertained a hope that Bell would make a conquest of some man of fortune. With this view, I rejoiced in the prospect of her being seen to such advantage at the races. I did not know that Captain Mollins was to be of the party; for though he was much at Mount Flinders, his acquaintance with the family was so merely accidental, that it did not warrant his being treated as an intimate.
'You will find by my sister's letters how much she was intoxicated by the gay and brilliant scene to which she was introduced at Edinburgh. The attention she met with was indeed sufficient to turn a wiser head; for she danced at the balls with lords and baronets, and was constantly in the parties of a fine lady, a Mrs Spurton, whose equipage was described in the newspapers as the finest that had ever appeared. Bell spoke of this lady as the intimate friend of Mrs Flinders, and the most charming of human beings. Her husband too was a delightful man : intimately acquainted with the first nobility, and quite regardless of expense. Mr and Mrs Flinders were thrown entirely into the back ground by this still more brilliant pair; but Captain Mollins, who was a prime favourite of Mr Spurton's, gained not a little in Bell's opinion, from the avowed friendship of so great a man.
'As my sister had no one but me to whom she could communicate the overflowings of her heart, she gave me a full description of the events of each successive day; and from the delight with which she dwelt on the compliments paid to her beauty by men of superior rank, I had no suspicion of Mollins being all the time a favoured lover. Nor do I believe he would have proved so at the last, had any of the lords she danced with stepped forward as declared admirers. But, alas! they one by one took leave; and in ten days after the last of the races, their own party was the only one that remained in Edinburgh. .It was then that Bell for the first time communicated to me an account of the embarrassment in which she had involved herself, by contracting debts for articles of dress, which she said it was absolutely impossible to do without; and which, by Mrs Flinders' advice, she had taken from the most fashionable milliner and mantua-maker in town. Mrs Flinders, indeed, told her that genteel people never paid in ready money, and that many young ladies never paid their bills at all, or entertained a thought of paying them, till they were married; but Bell's early prejudices upon this subject had been so strongly impressed, that she could not easily reconcile herself to this new doctrine. Her pride was mortified at being obliged to implore the forbearance of tradespeople, at whose expense her vanity had been fed; but the dread of exposing to her father the extent of her extravagance, compelled her to submit to the mortification. Her gay friend laughed at her scruples, and reminding her of the independent fortune of which she was to come into possession at her marriage, advised her by all means to hasten the period of her emancipation. The independent fortune to which Mrs Flinders alluded, and which, in the zeal of her friendship, she always represented as very considerable, is in fact no more than fifteen hundred pounds. I always considered the exaggerated reports which Mrs Flinders spread of it as ill-judged kindness; but my sister viewed it in a different light, and was evidently pleased with the fiction, from which she derived a momentary addition to her consequence. How far Mr Mollins was deceived by these representations I know not; but his attentions, which seemed during the race-week to have rather slackened, became now more assiduous than ever. This you will perceive, from the hints incidentally scattered through these letters; but nothing they contain would lead one to suspect that they had then formed any serious engagement. I was the less suspicious of this, because I was persuaded that Bell would be too proud of having made a conquest of a man of rank and fortune to conceal a circumstance so flattering. At length, in a few hasty lines, written to inform me that she was next day to set off on a jaunt to the Highlands, with the Spurtons, Flinders, and Mr Mollins, she so far let me into the secret as to say that " she approached the crisis of her fate, and that she would soon be either the most miserable or the happiest of human beings."
'I could not conceal this circumstance from my father, who was far from partaking of the sanguine hopes I entertained of the result. He did not doubt that Mollins was a man of fortune; but he thought the match unsuitable; and declared that, in his experience, he had never seen any unions so productive of happiness as those that were cemented by a correspondence in circumstances and views, not only between the parties themselves, but extended to their friends and connections. While we were still debating this point, as we sat at breakfast the following morning, my father received a letter, which he read with such marks of agitation and dismay as quite appalled me. He threw it to me when he had finished, and hiding his face with both his hands, burst into tears. I eagerly looked at the signature, but the name was unknown to me. The contents briefly stated that respect for my father's character induced the writer to inform him that his daughter was on the brink of ruin. That, by the vain and foolish pair under whose protection he had unfortunately placed her, she had been introduced to society the most contemptible; a gambler of the name of Spurton, and his wife, the kept-mistress of a man of quality; and that these worthless people had betrayed her to a needy adventurer, to whom even her small fortune was a consideration sufficient to tempt him to the darkest deed of villany, that of sacrificing a young woman's happiness, and a worthy father's peace.'
'On reading this letter,' continued Mary, 11 boldly pronounced it the work of an incendiary, and entreated my father to be comforted, as I could prove it to be, at least, partly false. " That the Spurtons are persons of irreproachable character, I can have no doubt," said I. " How 3lse could they get into the society of people of rank and fortune? Were he a gambler, and she a woman of doubtful reputation, do you think that ladies and gentlemen of undoubted character would have gone to their balls, or been partakers of their splendid festivals? Yet that they did so I can prove, for at one of these balls Mr Spurton introduced a lord to my sister, and called him his particular friend ! This of itself is conclusive testimony in their favour." I then endeavoured to persuade him that all the information given concerning Mr Mollins was equally false and malicious; and that, though he might be vain and extravagant, and have a thousand faults, he was doubtless a man of fortune, and well received by the world.'
'"But may he not be a villain to seduce my daughter's affections, and bring her to ruin and disgrace?" said my father.
'"Of that," I replied, " I had no apprehensions ; I too well knew my sister, to fear that her affections would ever be seduced by love. On the contrary, I was convinced that the man who could most certainly gratify her ambition would still have in her heart the decided preference."
'By these arguments I in some degree tranquillised my father's mind; but his anxiety to prevent my sister from taking any irretrievable step, induced him to set off for Edinburgh without delay. Learning, on his arrival there, that the Flinders' had set out with the intention of going by Perth to Blair in Athole, he took the same route. At every inn on the road, he, in answer to his inquiries, received such intelligence as left no room to doubt that he should speedily overtake them; but by the time he reached Perth, he was too much fatigued to pursue the journey on horseback. He therefore was obliged to order a chaise, and as soon as it could be got ready, proceeded by Dunkeld to Blair, and from Blair onward all the way to Inverness. There, at the door of the head inn, he saw the three carriages, whose route he had so diligently traced; but what was his disappointment on finding that they were filled by strangers !
'The strangers were not destitute of humanity, and perceiving how deeply he was chagrined, endeavoured to soothe and tranquillise his spirits. In this they were kinder than his own child, whom, soon after he entered Perth, on his return, he saw talking from the window of the inn to a gentleman who stood in the street below. As the chaise drew up, she caught the glance of her father's eye and retreated, uttering a screaming exclamation; Mollins, to whom she had been talking, running at the same time into the house. You may imagine how my father was agitated. He involuntarily pursued his way up stairs to the room where Bell was. As he entered, she threw herself into a chair by the window, and either fainted or pretended to faint. "In the name of goodness, what is the meaning of all this?" said my father, addressing himself to Mrs Flinders, who was holding her smelling-bottle to my sister, who was supported by Captain Mollins.
'"Why, Miss Stewart," cried Mrs Flinders, "what can be the matter with you? It is only your father ! Bless me, poor dear, what weak nerves you have! Pray, sir, speak to her; tell her you are not angry. Indeed, Miss, your papa is not displeased with you. Your papa is-"
"She best knows whether I have cause to be displeased with her," said my father gravely. My sister, opening her eyes, looked expressively at Mollins, who seemed in great confusion, and as if undetermined what to do. At length, holding up Bell's hand, which was folded in his, and turning towards my father, he stammered out, " You see, sir—you perceive, sir—this lady, sir—this lady is my wife."
'"And who are you, sir ?" cried my father, indignantly.
'"I, I, I, sir, am a gentleman," returned Mollins.
"O yes, sir," cried Mrs Flinders, " we all know that Captain Mollins is quite a gentleman ; a man of fortune too. Miss Stewart has had great luck, I assure you ; but it was very sly of her to get married without telling me."
'My father, without taking any notice of Mrs Flinders, advanced towards Bell, and taking her hand in a solemn manner—" Isabel," said he, " infatuated girl that you are, listen to me, I conjure you. By the laws of this country, you have it now in your power, by acknowledging a marriage with this man, to fix yourself upon him as his wife. But think, I beseech you, before you ratify the sentence of your own misery. For what but misery can be the consequences of a union, which substitutes a falsehood for the marriage vow; and which, by the manner of it, proclaims to the world that the woman had ceased to respect herself!"
'Mollins here began to bluster; but my father silenced him, and proceeded while Bell wept and sobbed aloud. " My Isabel, my dear child, have I then been so unkind a father, that you should thus break from my arms, to rush into the arms of—you know not whom ? But I mean not to upraid you. I only mean to tell you, that however faulty, nay, however guilty you may have been, your father's arms are still open to receive you, and that peace still waits you in your father's house."
'"Pray, sir," cried Mr Flinders interrupting him; " Pray think of your daughter's character; after Mol-lin's declaration, it would be ruined, absolutely ruined."
'"And will such a marriage as this wipe out the stain ?" returned my father. "Is it not saying to the world, that after having sacrificed delicacy and modesty at the shrine of folly, she stooped to solder her reputation by a falsehood. No, no. If she is thus sunk, thus degraded, let her, by humility and penitence, purify her own heart, and mine shall be open to receive her. Come, my child, my Isabel; come to that home where no upbraidings-"
'"Sir," interrupted Mollins, to whom Mr Flinders had been all this time making signals to speak, " Sir, I claim this lady as my wife. Heaven and earth shall nut separate us ; for am I not her husband? Say, my love, my dearest, fairest creature, are you not mine in the eye of heaven?"
'"Speak at once," cried my father, " are you that man's wife?"
"Yes," returned Bell, in a voice scarcely audible ; and giving her hand to Mollins as she spoke.
'"Poor misguided child !" said my father, "may you never have cause to repent of the rash act, though it sends a knell to your father's heart."'
He then turned to go, but was surrounded by the Flinders, and the other people, all calling out that he must not leave them in ill-will, but stay and be reconciled, and dine with them comfortably. Mrs Flinders was flippantly urgent, saying that she was sure it would be very hard if he bore any resentment against her, that she had treated his daughter like a sister.
'I can have no resentment,' he returned, ' against any of this party; for I never feel resentment where I have not previously felt respect.' So saying, he quitted them, and went to another room.
In the evening he received a note from my sister, entreating to be admitted. I shall at some other time give you a particular account of all that passed; it is enough at present to say that they consented to remain with him at Perth until they could be regularly married, which they were on the following Monday ; after which they came all together to Edinburgh, where my father had scarcely arrived before he was seized with a return of what we here call a rose fever; a disorder to which he has been often subject. I set off for Edinburgh immediately on hearing of his illness, and found him much distressed in spirits, but not, the physician assured me, in any danger. My father told me that Mr Mollins had been very attentve to him ; and that from all he had seen he thought him a good-natured, vain, silly fellow. I was glad to find him thus far reconciled, and said all in my power to persuade him that all might yet turn out better than he expected. He assured me that he was as willing to hope as I was, but that he could as yet find nothing to rest his hopes upon. 'As yet,' said he, ' I neither know what, nor who he is : but as he never, upon any occasion, gives a direct and explicit answer to any question, I am at a loss to determine whether the ambiguity of his expressions arises from a confused intellect, or from a desire of concealment. The behaviour of your sister too, gives me great uneasiness. She keeps aloof from me as if I were her enemy. Alas ! how little have I deserved this of her!'
'The first time I was alone with my sister,' continued Mary, ' I endeavoured to expostulate with her on the impropriety of keeping at such a distance from her father, and treating him with such reserve, but she immediately flew into a passion, and said that her father had used both her and Mr Mollins extremely ill, and that if Mr Mollins had taken her advice he would never have spoken to him again, after the vile aspersions he had thrown upon his character, by seeming to doubt whether he was a gentleman. Mr Mollins, she said, despised such base insinuations; and as his friend Lord Dashmore justly observed, he knew too much of the world to be surprised at the mean and vulgar notions of those who knew nothing of life or manners. For her share, she expected to meet with a great deal of envy and ill-nature, and she saw she should not be disappointed.
'"My dear sister ! how thoughtlessly you spenk !" returned I. " Were you married to the greatest lord in Christendom, I should not envy you your good luck.
But is it not natural that your father should wish to know the real circumstances and situation of your husband, and does it not seem strange that either of you should wish to conceal them from him?"
'"Mr Mollins has a right to act just as he pleases," cried my sister. 'I hope no one will dispute that! but I can tell you he has not so little spirit as to submit to be questioned. He despises such meanness. No wonder, living, as he has done all his life, in the first of company."
'A great deal more passed to as little purpose; my sister getting more and more angry as she spoke. We were interrupted by Mr Mollins, who entered holding two open letters in his hand, which he presented to my sister with a careless air, though vexation was visibly painted on his countenance.
'"You must give them to our father, my love!" said he, forcing a smile, 'for you know these are his business, not mine."
'"Ah dear Mollins," cried Bell, looking at the contents of the letters, 'you know not how you would oblige me by settling these trifles. I will rather want the diamond ear-rings, indeed I will. I will rather do anything than speak to my father now, he is so peevish and so cross."
'"But I tell you I can't—upon my faith, my love, I can't," returned Mollins; my steward has run off, and I know not when I may get a remittance. I would not tell you before for fear of vexing you, though it is of very little consequence; for I shall not lose more than a few hundreds by the rascal. But it puts me to present inconvenience. Pray ask the old gentleman for a hundred pounds at once. It will oblige me. Pray do, and these bills shall be paid directly."
'"A hundred pounds !" cried Bell; " why, ray dear Mollins, I imagine you believe my father thinks as little of a hundred pounds as you do."
'"O the old curmudgeon !" cried Mollins, " I forgot what a close hunks he is ; but your sister here will coax him into it 3 I know he can refuse her nothing."
'It were in vain to attempt describing to you what I suffered, when, worn out by their teazing and urgent importunity, I at length was prevailed on to speak to my father on the subject of my sister's unpaid bills. I anticipated all that he would feel upon the occasion; for though I well knew that no one regards money less for its own sake than he does, I likewise knew that few consider extravagance in a light so serious as that in which he views it. He considers it as the parent of every vice, and the grave of every virtue; and has therefore laboured to impress a just abhorrence of it upon our minds. You may then imagine what an effect the knowledge of my sister's extravagance produced upon him. It instantly impressed him with an idea of her levity and want of principle, which it is impossible to eradicate, and from which he forbodes the most shocking consequences. Had she deigned to make proper concessions, she might, perhaps, have lessened the impression; but she affects to ascribe all he says to the meanest motives, and in return for all his tender anxiety for her honour and happiness, speaks to him with the haughty air of a person who has been deeply injured. In short, though my father paid all the expenses of their living with him in Edinburgh, and all the debts my sister had contracted, he got no thanks; but, on the contrary, seemed rather to have given offence than to have conferred obligation. I believe I have mentioned that, by the terms of my grandfather's will, the sum of fifteen hundred pounds was to be paid to her on the day of her marriage. Mr Mollins seems to despise this paltry fortune as scarcely worth his acceptance. Yet, would you believe it, he, on my father's speaking to him on the subject, the day after we returned home, absolutely refused to permit two-thirds of this to remain in trustees' hands for the benefit of my sister, and insists on having the whole paid down to him, on the terms of the will! This circumstance—but here comes my father, who will tell you all about it himself.'
'Well, Mrs Mason, Mary has by this time given you a full account of our vexation,' said Mr Stewart. ' It may be explained in a few words. My daughter will be one of the many victims to the epidemical frenzy which has of late spread through the country, the desire of shining in a sphere above our own. People who labour under this disease mistake show for splendour, and splendour for happiness ; and, while their pulses throb with the fever of vanity, think no sacrifice too great for procuring a momentary gratification to its insatiable thirst. From the palace to the cottage the fever rages with equal force, sweeping before it every worthy feeling and every solid virtue. O my friend ! could we but look into the interior of all the families in the kingdom, what scenes of domestic misery would present themselves to our view, all originating in this accursed passion for gentility !'
'I believe, indeed,' said Mrs Mason, ' that with regard to my own sex at least, the love of dress, and desire of admiration, have ruined hundreds for one that has been brought to misery through the strength of other passions.'
'True,' replied Mr Stewart. ' But it is not to that silly vanity alone that I allude; it is to that still sillier ambition of figuring in a higher station which destroys all notions of right and wrong, rendering vice and folly, if gilded by fashion, the objects of preference, nay, of high and first regard. What would my daughter Bell have thought of such a silly fellow as Mollins, if he had been the son of a neighbouring farmer?'
'Indeed, my good sir,' returned Mrs Mason,' there is no accounting for the fancies of young people—one sees such marriages. So—'
'Believe me,' interrupted Mr Stewart, 'such matches may always be accounted for. No unsuitable or incongruous marriage ever yet took place but where there was some wrong bias in the mind, some disease lurking in the imagination, which inflamed the vanity in that very way which the marriage promised to gratify. Had Bell's passion for wealth been born of avarice, she would have despised this Mollins ; but a man who lived among lords and ladies was, in her eye, irresistible. It is this propensity that will be her ruin. Yes, my good friend, I see it plainly. Their vanity is greater than their fortune can support. Mollins acknowledges that he is already embarrassed. He will soon be more so ; they will live beyond their income, in order to keep up with the gay and giddy fools whose steps they follow. Bell's beauty, her levity, her want of fixed and solid principle;—O, Mrs Mason, what a shocking view does it present! I see her ruin before me. Night and day it haunts my imagination. A foreboding voice incessantly whispers, that if she ever returns to her father's house, she will return dishonoured and disgraced. O may I ere then be laid beside her angel mother in the silent grave !'
After a considerable pause, Mrs Mason addressed herself to the afflicted father. She could not in conscience say that his fears were groundless; but she endeavoured to chequer them with hope, assuring hiin that the time would come when his daughter would learn to prize the blessings of domestic happiness, and that the good principles she had imbibed in youth would in the meantime prevent her from straying far from the path of duty. At Mr Stewart's request, she promised to remain at Gowan Brae until Mr and Mrs Mollins returned from Mount Flinders, and then to take an opportunity of speaking to Mrs Mollins on the subject of her future plans.