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[-235-] 

CHAPTER CCVII.

 THE HUSBAND, THE WIFE, AND THE UNFORTUNATE WOMAN.

    "MERCY! mercy!" were the words that burst from the lips of the affrighted lady, ere she paused to reflect whether the preceding conversation had been overheard or not.
    "Rise," said Lord Ravensworth, his quivering lip, flashing eye, hectic cheek, heaving chest and clenched hand denoting a more powerful excitement than he had experienced for a long, long time. "Rise, madam: this is a subject which cannot be disposed of in passionate ejaculations;  it requires a calmer deliberation  for the honour of two noble families is now at stake!"
    "Then you know all!" cried Adeline, in an agonising tone, as she embraced her husband's knees.
    "Yes  I overheard enough to enable me to comprehend the whole truth," returned the nobleman who for the time being seemed to have altogether thrown off the apathetic lethargy which had characterised him lately with such few intermissions.
    Then, as he was yet speaking, he forcibly raised his wife from her suppliant position, and placed her upon the ottoman.
    Taking a chair near her, he pointed to another, and, glancing towards Lydia, said in a tone rather mournful than angry, "Young woman, be seated."
    Lydia obeyed mechanically; for she herself was alarmed at the serious turn which the affair had taken.
    "Adeline," said the nobleman, after a short pause, during which he evidently endeavoured to compose his feelings as much as possible," before we enter upon this sad topic, I must in justice to myself observe that I did not seek your chamber to play the eaves-dropper. I felt unwell in the drawing-room ere now, and I retired to my own cabinet to solace myself in the usual manner with the meerschaum. But it struck me that I had been better during all the early part of the morning than for some weeks past; and, after a long struggle with myself, I resolved to renounce the pipe. On my return to the drawing-room, I heard that you were suddenly indisposed; and I came hither to inquire after you. But at the moment I reached your door, I overheard words which struck me as with a thunderbolt. Then I listened  and overheard much  too much!"
    "And now you hate  you despise .me!" cried Adeline, wildly: "you will thrust me forth from your dwelling  you will cover me with shame! No  no," she added hysterically, "death  death before such a fate!"
    "Calm yourself, Adeline," said Lord Ravensworth, who evidently suppressed his own feelings with great difficulty: "I before observed that there is the honour of two families to preserve  that of Rossville and of Ravensworth. Give me your Bible."
    "My Bible!" exclaimed Adeline, in astonishment mingled with alarm.
    "Yes  your Bible. Where is it?"
    "There  there!" said Adeline in a faint tone  for she was at a loss to divine the meaning or intention of her husband; and that mysterious uncertainty filled her with vague fears.
    Lydia rose, and taking the Bible from a small book-case to which Lady Ravensworth pointed, handed it to the nobleman.
    "Will you swear, Adeline," he said, in a solemn and impressive tone,  "will you swear upon this volume which contains the Word of God, that the child you now bear in your bosom is mine, and that since your marriage you have never forgotten the fidelity due to a husband? Will you swear this, Adeline!"
    "I will  I will!" she exclaimed, in almost a joyful tone, as if she were satisfied that her conjugal faith should be put to such a test.
    "Swear, then," said Lord Ravensworth; "and invoke God to cast you dead  dead this minute at my feet  if you swear falsely."
    "I do  I do!" cried Lady Ravensworth: then, taking the holy volume in her hand, she said in a calmer and more measured tone, "I swear, as I hope for future salvation, that I have never been unfaithful, even in thought, to my marriage vow, and that the child I bear in my bosom is my husband's. This I swear by every thing sacred and holy; and if I have sworn falsely, may the great God cast me dead at your feet."
    She then kissed the book.
    There was a solemn pause:  Lady Ravensworth was now perhaps the most composed of the three, for she saw that her husband was satisfied in all that concerned his own honour since the day he had led her to the altar.
    As for Lydia  she was overawed and even alarmed at that imposing ceremony of a husband administering an oath to his wife; and Lord Ravensworth remained for some moments absorbed in deep thought.
    "Yes," he suddenly exclaimed, as if continuing aloud the thread of his silent thoughts,  "the honour of two families must be preserved! And, after all,  perhaps I am rightly served! A man of my years should have sought a partner of a fitting age; but it is the fault  the error  the curse of elderly men to believe that their rank and wealth warrant them in seeking some young girl who may thus become as it were a victim. Then mothers take advantage of that longing to obtain a wife of comparatively tender years; and those worldly-minded parents  "
    "My lord  my lord, spare my feelings!" ejaculated Adeline, now painfully excited. "My mother knew not of her daughter's frailty  "
    "Well  enough on that head!" said Lord Ravensworth, somewhat impatiently. "The past cannot be recalled: let us secure the honour of the future. You have erred in your girlhood, Adeline! and there," he added, indicating Lydia, "is one who knows that sad secret. You have been ungrateful to her  by her accusations and your acknowledgment; and she holds you in her power. Not you alone:  but she holds your family and mine  for an exposure would create a scandal that must redound upon us all!"
    "I have no wish to avail myself of the possession of that secret for such an object," said Lydia. "I have two motives for desiring to remain at least a year in her ladyship's service."
    "Never!" cried Adeline, emphatically. "It is you who have made all this mischief!"
    "Silence, Adeline," said Lord Ravensworth, [-236-] sternly; then, turning towards Lydia, he added, "Young woman, proceed  and speak frankly."
    "I stated that I had two objects to serve in being anxious to remain in her ladyship's service for one year," continued Lydia. "In the first place I have been so unfortunate  so very, very miserable, that I wish to calm my livelihood by servitude, and it is my hope to remain here until her ladyship can conscientiously give me such a character as will ensure me a good situation elsewhere."
    "That is naturally understood," observed Lord Ravensworth. "What is your second motive?"
    "My second motive!" repeated Lydia, with the least accent of bitterness: "oh! that I will explain to her ladyship in private  and she will be satisfied!"
    "Now listen to me," said the nobleman. "Lady Ravensworth dislikes the idea that you should remain here. I will give you the means of settling yourself comfortably for life, if you will leave forthwith, and promise solemnly to preserve that fatal secret which you possess."
    "My lord," answered Lydia, respectfully but firmly, "I return you my most sincere thanks for that bounteous offer which I am compelled to decline. Were I to accept your lordship's conditions, my aims would not be answered. In respect to my first object, I have determined to earn a character that may to some extent retrieve the past;  for, as your lordship must have gathered from the conversation which you overheard, I have been unfortunate  very unfortunate!"
    "Merciful heavens!" exclaimed Adeline; "how can I retain you in my service? You have belonged to a class  oh! no  it is impossible  impossible!"
    "I do not wish to insult your feelings, young woman," said Lord Ravensworth; "especially since you manifest so praiseworthy a desire to retrieve your character. But you must perceive the impossibility, as her ladyship observes, of retaining you in our service. You might be known  recognised."
    "I understand your lordship," interrupted Lydia, bitterly; "I might be recognised as an unhappy creature who had once earned a livelihood by parading the public streets. That is scarcely probable:  I am much changed since then. The kindness of an excellent lady has enabled me to recruit my strength and to recover a healthy appearance. Yes  I must be altered; for your lordship does not perceive in me the poor miserable starving wretch who some few months since accosted her ladyship in Saint James's Street."
    Ah! I recollect," exclaimed the nobleman, as the incident flashed to his mind. "I only observed you for a moment on that occasion; but still  so miserable was your appearance  it made an impression on my mind. Yes  you are indeed changed! Nevertheless, those who saw you in an unhappy career, before you became so reduced as you were on the occasion which you have mentioned, might recognise you. And  pardon my frankness, young woman; but the subject admits not of the measurement of words  what would be thought of me  of my wife  of all the other members of my household  "
    "If I were seen in your establishment, your lordship would add," exclaimed Lydia. "I admit the truth of all your lordship states: still my wish to remain a member of that establishment is unchanged. For  as your lordship may have ere now gathered from our conversation  it was her ladyship who first placed me in those paths which led to my ruin and it must be her ladyship who shall aid me in earning an honourable character once more."
    "But this punishment is too severe!" exclaimed Adeline, almost wringing her hands; for she perceived how completely the honour of two families was in Lydia's power.
    "Consider, I implore you, the position of my wife," said the nobleman: "in a few weeks she will become a mother!"
    "My lord, her ladyship never had any consideration for me, from the first moment that I ceased to be useful to her," returned Lydia, with inexorable firmness; "and I cannot consent to sacrifice what I consider to be my own interests to her ladyship's wishes now."
    Then Lydia Hutchinson rose, as if to intimate that her determination was unchangeable; and that obscure girl was enabled to dictate her own terms to the noble peer and the proud peeress.
    "It must be so, then  it must be so," said Lord Ravensworth, with a vexation of manner which he could not conceal. "You shall have an apartment in my establishment and handsome wages:  all I exact is that you do not force your attentions on her ladyship save when she demands them."
    "If I remain here, it must be in the capacity of her ladyship's principal attendant," returned Lydia: "otherwise I could not fairly earn a good character in the eyes of the other dependants of your lordship."
    "Perdition! young woman," exclaimed the nobleman; "you demand too much!"
    "More than I will ever concede," added Lady Ravensworth, unable to restrain a glance of malignity and desperate hate towards Lydia Hutchinson.
    "Then your lordship will permit me to take my departure," said she, calmly; and she moved towards the door.
    "My God! she will reveal every thing!" almost shrieked Lady Ravensworth.
    "Yes  every thing," said Lydia, returning the look which Adeline had cast on her a few moments before.
    "Stay, young woman  this may not be!" ejaculated Lord Ravensworth. "You exercise your power with a fearful despotism."
    "The world has been a fearful despot towards me, my lord," was the firm but calm reply.
    "And with your tyranny in this respect you will kill my wife  kill my yet unborn child!" exclaimed the nobleman, rising from his seat and pacing the room in a state of desperate excitement. "But the honour of the Rossvilles and the Ravensworths must be preserved  at any sacrifice  at any risk!  Yes  though you bring misery into this house, here must you remain  since such is your inflexible will. Were an exposure to take place, the consequences  my God! would be awful  crushing! The finger of ridicule and scorn would point at me  the elderly man who espoused the young and beautiful girl, and who was so proud that he had won her for a wife! And then  should the child of which she is so soon to become a mother, prove a son  although the law would recognise him as the heir to my name and fortune, yet the scandalous world would throw doubts, perhaps, on his legitimacy. Ah! the thought is maddening! And my brother  my brother too  "
    Lord Ravensworth checked himself in the midst of those musings, into the audible expression of which the agitation of his mind had hurried him:  [-237-] he checked himself, for the convulsive sobs which came from his wife's lips suddenly reminded him that every word he was uttering pierced like a dagger into her soul.
    "Oh! God have mercy upon me!" she exclaimed, in a voice scarcely audible through the convulsions of her grief: "how dearly  dearly am I now paying for the errors of my youth!"
    "Does that sight not move you, woman?" muttered the nobleman between his grinding teeth, as he accosted Lydia, and pointed to the lamentable condition of his wife.
    "My lord, I lost all by serving the interests of her who is now Lady Ravensworth; and it is time that I should think only of my own."
    This reply was given with a frigid  stern  and inexorable calmness, that struck despair to the heart of the unhappy nobleman and his still more wretched wife.
    "Then be it all as you say  be it all as you wish, despotic woman!" cried Lord Ravensworth. "Remain here  command us all  drive us to despair  for our honour is unhappily in your remorseless hands."
    With these words, the nobleman rushed from the room in a state bordering on distraction.
    A few minutes of profound silence elapsed.
    Lydia remained standing near the mantel, gazing with joyful triumph on Adeline, whose head was buried in her hands, and whose bosom gave vent to convulsive sobs.
    Suddenly Lady Ravensworth looked up, and gazed wildly around her.
    "He's gone  and you are still there!" she said, in a low and hoarse voice. "Now we are alone together  and doubtless I am to look upon you as one determined to drive me to despair. What other motive had you for insisting upon remaining here?"
    "Lady, I will now explain myself," returned Lydia, speaking slowly and solemnly. "It pierced me to the heart to cause so much grief to that good nobleman, of whom you are so utterly unworthy; but for you I have no kind consideration  no mercy. Adeline, I hate you  I loathe you  I detest you!"
    "Merciful heavens!" exclaimed Lady" Ravensworth: "and you are to be constantly about my person!"
    "Yes: and my second motive for remaining here to enjoy that privilege," continued Lydia, bitterly, "is vengeance!"
    "Vengeance!" repeated Adeline, recoiling as it were from the terrible word, and clasping her hands franticly together.
    "Vengeance  vengeance!" continued Lydia Hutchinson. "Before the rest of the world I shall appear the humble and respectful dependant  yes, even in the presence of your husband. But when alone with you, I shall prove a very demon, whose weapons are galling reproaches, ignominies, insults, and indignities."
    "Oh! this is terrible!" cried Adeline, as if her senses were leaving her. "You cannot be such a fiend."
    "I can  I will!" returned Lydia. "Have I not undergone enough to make me so? And all was occasioned by you! When I was your wretched tool, you promised me the affection of a sister; and how did you fulfil your pledge? You came to me at a house where I was a governess, and whence I was anxious to remove from the importunities of the master; and there you threw off the mask. I then saw the hollowness of your soul. My father died of a broken heart, and my brother perished in a duel, in consequence of my iniquity. But who had made me criminal? You! I called upon you at Rossville House at a time when a little sympathy on your part might have still saved me; for I should have felt that I had one friend still left. But you scorned me  you even menaced me; and I then warned you that I was absolved from all motives of secrecy on your account. Your black ingratitude drove me to despair; and I immediately afterwards fell to the lowest grade in the social sphere  that of a prostitute! Yes  for I need use no nice language with you. All the miseries I endured in my wretched career I charge upon your head. And ere now you menaced me again: you threatened to accuse me falsely of a crime that would render me amenable to the criminal tribunals of the country. It only required that to fill the cup of your base ingratitude to the very brim. And think you that your malignant  your spiteful glances,  your looks of bitter, burning hate,  were lost upon me? No  you would doubtless assassinate me, if you dared! Oh! I have long detested you  long loathed your very name! But, never  never, until we met in this room etc now, did I believe that my hatred against you was so virulent as it is. And never  never until this hour did I appreciate the sweets of vengeance. At present I can revel in those feelings:  I can wreak upon you  and I will  that revenge which my own miseries and the death of those whom I held dear have excited in my heart! Your ladyship now knows the terms of our connexion, for one year; and at the expiration of that period you will be glad  Oh! too glad to rid yourself of me by giving me a character that will never fail to procure for me in place in future."
    With these words Lydia Hutchinson left the room.
    Lady Ravensworth sank back in convulsions of anguish upon the ottoman.
    And Lord Ravensworth,  who throughout the morning had experienced so much lightness of heart and mental calmness that he resolved to wrestle in future with that apathy and gloom which drove him to his pipe,  had shut himself up in his private cabinet, to seek solace once more in the fatal attractions of the oriental tobacco.
    Thus had the presence of Lydia Hutchinson,  once despised, scorned, and trampled on,  brought desolation and misery into that lordly dwelling.
    O Adeline, Adeline! thou wast now taught a bitter lesson illustrative of the terrible consequences of ingratitude!
    The aristocracy conceives that it may insult the democracy with impunity. The high-born and the wealthy never stop to consider, when they put an affront upon the lowly and the poor, whether a day of retribution may not sooner or later come. The peer cannot see the necessity of conciliating the peasant: the daughter of the nobility knows not the use of making a friend of the daughter of the people.
    But the meanest thing that crawls upon the earth may some day be in a position to avenge the injuries it has received from a powerful oppressor; and the mightiest lord or the noblest lady may be placed in that situation when even the friendship of the humblest son or the most obscure daughter of industry [-238-] would be welcome as the drop of water to the lost wanderer of the desert.
    Yes! Most solemnly do I proclaim to you, O suffering millions of these islands, that ye shall not always languish beneath the yoke of your oppressors! Individually ye shall each see the day when your tyrant shall crouch at your feet; and as a mass ye shall triumph over that proud oligarchy which now grinds you to the dust!
    That day  that great day cannot be far distant; and then shall ye rise  not to wreak a savage vengeance on those who have so long coerced you, but to prove to them that ye know how to exercise a mercy which they never manifested towards you;  ye shall rise, not to convulse the State with a disastrous civil war, nor to hurry the nation on to the deplorable catastrophe of social anarchy, confusion, and bloodshed;  but ye shall rise to vindicate usurped rights, and to recover delegated and misused power, that ye may triumphantly assert the aristocracy of mind, and the aristocracy of virtue!    

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