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[-262-] 

CHAPTER CCXVI

THE PROGRESS OF LYDIA HUTCHINSON'S VENGEANCE.

    "WHAT means this new device, terrible woman!" cried Adeline, advancing towards Lydia Hutchinson, and giving vent to the question which was uppermost in her mind.
    "Ah! you have already detected my handiwork in the new source of torment which is now open against you!" said Lydia, with a smile of triumphant contempt.
    "I know that you have forged a letter in imitation of my writing  " began Adeline.
    "And that letter has already produced the desired effect," interrupted Lydia, coolly; "for five minutes have scarcely elapsed since Colonel Cholmondeley stole from the private door opening upon the garden."
    "Then you were watching the results of your detestable scheme," cried Lady Ravensworth, in a tone bitter with rage.
    "Not only I  but half a dozen of the other dependants of the household," returned Lydia.
    "Merciful God! you have done this, vile woman!" screamed Lady Ravensworth. "No  no: you surely could not have been so wicked!"
    "I have done it," replied Lydia, in her calm, impassive manner.
    "Then it is now for me to think of vengeance!" said Adeline, conquering the turbulent emotions of passion which agitated within her, and flinging herself once more upon the sofa, while her thoughts wandered to the address concealed in the casket of jewels.
    "You think of vengeance!" repeated Lydia, scornfully. "Oh! I should rejoice if you were to meet me with my own weapons  for such conduct on your part would afford me scope and excuse for augmenting the means of punishment which I employ. And now listen to the details of that scheme by which I have this evening so successfully degraded you."
    "Wretch!" muttered Adeline, hoarsely between her teeth.
    "Hard names break no bones, my lady," said Lydia. "But again I enjoin you to listen to what I have to tell you. I knew your handwriting well  and it was no difficult thing to imitate it. I penned that letter which the Colonel ere now showed you  and I enclosed the key. In the note I desired that no allusion might be made by him to that letter, because I wished the interview to be a long one, and I suspected that the suddenness and boldness of his unexpected intrusion would cause a protracted conversation ere any question on your part would elicit from him the means by which he had obtained access to your privacy. Nor was I mistaken."
    "Then you listened  you overheard all that passed between us!" cried Adeline.
    "Nearly every word," answered Lydia: "I only quitted the door of this chamber when he was about to leave it."
    "And therefore you are well aware that he received no criminal encouragement on my part?"
    "Oh! Is there nothing criminal in the fact of a lady accepting her seducer  her former lover  the father of her first child, as her friend! And such a friend as Cholmondeley would prove!" continued Lydia, in a tone of the most mordent sarcasm: "such a friend! Good heavens! does your ladyship suppose that that man who is so selfish in his pleasure  so unprincipled in his adoption of means to procure the gratification of his wishes  would content himself with the cold title and small privileges of a friend! No  no! Were you to encourage his visits to this boudoir, ere the third were passed, you would become criminal again!"
    "And was it to render me criminal again that you inveigled him hither by an atrocious forgery! exclaimed Adeline.
    "Such was not my object," replied Lydia; "although I have no interest in protecting your virtue! Your virtue  the virtue of Adeline Enfield  the virtue of Lady Ravensworth! Where was ever virtue so immaculate!"
    "Beware lest you destroy every particle of virtue  that is, of forbearance  remaining within me," cried Adeline, her thoughts again reverting to the address which she had concealed in her jewel-casket.
    "Could you kill me, I believe you capable of laying violent hands upon me," returned Lydia; "for I know how you must hate me  even as sincerely as I loathe you! But I have before told you that I am stronger than you!"
    Adeline made no answer: her mind now dwelt with less horror than before upon the possible use which she might be driven to make of the address in the casket.
    "Oh! brood  brood over plans of vengeance," exclaimed Lydia; "and remember that I defy you! All the dark malignity which is now expressed in your lowering countenance, does not terrify me. But listen to the conclusion of the narrative which I ere now began. My object in effecting the prolongation of the interview between Cholmondeley and yourself, was to afford me leisure to warn those of your servants to whom I had already hinted my suspicions of your infidelity."
    Adeline started convulsively, but checked the reply which rose to her lips.
    "I stationed myself in the garden, accompanied by the housekeeper," continued Lydia; "for I suspected that your Colonel would not allow one evening to elapse ere he availed himself of the invitation which be supposed to have come from you. Nor was I mistaken. We saw him creep stealthily along towards the private door: we saw him enter. Then, while I flew hither to listen in the passage to what might pass between you, the housekeeper hastened to fetch Quentin  "
    "Quentin!" cried Adeline, with a shudder.
    "Yes  your husband's principal valet and four of the other servants, that they might watch your [-263-] supposed lover's departure," continued Lydia. "But fear not that the tidings will reach your husband. No: my vengeance does not seek to wound him:  I pity him too much for that! My sole object was to degrade you in the eyes of your domestics, as I have been degraded in the eyes of the world; for I must reduce your situation as nearly as I can to the level of what mine so lately was  that you may understand how much I have suffered, and how strong is my justification in avenging myself on the one whose bad example and ungrateful heart threw me into the ways of vice and sorrow."
    "And how can you, detestable woman, prevent my servants from circulating this terrible scandal?" cried Lady Ravensworth, trembling as she beheld ruin and disgrace yawning like a black precipice at her feet, ready to engulph her: "how can you seal the lips of Quentin, so that this same scandal shall not reach the ears of my husband?"
    "I have enjoined them all to secresy on many grounds," answered Lydia: "I have pointed out to them the necessity of waiting for ampler proofs of your guilt  I have represented to them the propriety of sparing you in your present position, so near the time of becoming a mother as you are  and I have also conjured them to exercise forbearance on account of their lord, for whom they all feel deeply."
    "Oh! how kind  how considerate were you in my behalf!" exclaimed Adeline, bitterly: "and yet  were I already a mother  you would not hesitate, doubtless, to wreak your fiend-like vengeance upon my poor innocent babe."
    "God forbid!" tried Lydia, emphatically: "no  it is enough that I punish you."
    "And yet every taunt you throw in my teeth  every indignity you compel me to undergo  every torture you inflict upon me, redound in their terrible effects upon the child which I bear in my bosom," said Lady Ravensworth, pressing her clasped hands convulsively to her heart.
    "I know it  and I regret it," returned Lydia coldly: "but I cannot consent to forego one tittle of all the tortures which my mind suggests as a punishment for such a bad and heartless creature as yourself. I shall now leave you; for I have more work in hand. I have undertaken to sit up during the first half of the night, in the chamber of the wounded Lord Dunstable. The housekeeper will relieve me for the second half."
    "Heavens! have you found another object whereunto wreak your vengeance?" exclaimed Adeline. "Then may God have mercy upon the unhappy man!"
    "Yes  pray for him, Adeline: he will have need of all your sympathy!"
    With these words Lydia Hutchinson left the boudoir.
    it was now nine o'clock in the evening: Mr Graham had been left to dine alone; and Adeline felt the necessity of proceeding to the drawing-room, to join her guest in partaking of coffee.
    A plea of indisposition was offered for her absence from the dinner-table; and to her questions concerning his patient, Mr. Graham replied favourably.
    The evening dragged its slow length wearily along; for Adeline was too much depressed in spirits to prove a very agreeable companion. She moreover fancied she beheld an impudent leer upon the countenances of the domestics who served the coffee; and this circumstance, although in reality imaginary, only tended to complete her confusion and paralyse her powers of conversation.
    Were it not that she now dreamt of vengeance in her turn,  were it not that she beheld a chance of speedily ridding herself for ever of the torturess whom circumstances had inflicted upon her,  she could not possibly have endured the weight of the last indignity forced upon her.
    To be made the object, as she deemed herself to be, of her very servants' scandalous talk and insulting looks, was a position so utterly debasing, that she would have fled from it by means of suicide, had she not consoled herself by the idea that a terrible vengeance on the authoress of her degradation was within her reach.
    Crime is like an object of terror seen dimly through the obscurity of night. When afar off from it, the appearance of that object is so vaguely horrible  so shapelessly appalling, that it makes the hair stand on end; but the more the eye contemplates it  the more familiar the beholder grows with its aspect  and the nearer he advances towards it, the less terrible does it become; until at length, when he goes close up to it, and touches it, he wonders that he was ever so weak as to be alarmed by it.
    We have seen Lady Ravensworth recoiling with horror from the bare idea of perpetrating the crime which the possession of the self-vaunted bravo's address suggested to her imagination:  the next time it entered her thoughts, she was less terrified;  a few hours passed  and she was now wondering calmly and coldly upon the subject.
    O God! what is the cause of this! Is there implanted in the heart of man a natural tendency towards even the blackest crimes  a tendency which only requires the influence of particular circumstances to develop it to its dark and terrible extreme?
    ***
    We may here explain the motives which had induced Colonel Cholmondeley to endeavour to renew his connexion with Adeline.
    Of love remaining to her he had none  even if he had ever experienced any at all. But his interests might have been probably served by the restoration of his former influence over her.
    He was a man of ruined fortunes  having dissipated a large property; and although he still contrived to maintain appearances, the struggle was a severe one, and only kept up with the desperate view of "hooking an heiress."
    Thus, when he found the letter and the key in the carriage  naturally presuming that Adeline had herself thereby intimated her readiness to renew their former liaison,  he began to reflect that Lord Ravensworth was dying  that Lady Ravensworth might, should she have a son, be speedily left a wealthy widow  or that at all events she must acquire some fortune at her husband's decease,  and that he should be acting prudently to adopt all possible means to regain his ancient influence over her.
    This explanation will account for his readiness to act in accordance with the hint which he had fancied to have been conveyed by Adeline through the medium of the letter and the key: it will also show wherefore he humoured her, during their interview [-264-] in respect to accepting the colder denomination of friend, instead of the warmer one of lover.
    The reader may imagine his confusion, when an explanation took place relative to the letter and the key; nor need we describe the bitter feelings with which he beat his ignominious retreat.
    ***
    It was eleven o'clock at night.
    Mr. Graham had just left his patient in a profound sleep, and had retired to the bed-room allotted to him, Lydia Hutchinson having already come to keep the promised vigil by the couch of the wounded nobleman.
    The curtains were drawn around the bed: wax-lights burnt upon the mantel.
    A deep silence reigned throughout the mansion.
    Lydia Hutchinson threw herself back in the armchair, and gave way to her reflections.
    "Thus far has my vengeance progressed: but it is not yet near its termination. It must fall alike upon the woman who first taught me the ways of duplicity and vice, and on him who used the blackest treachery to rob me of my innocence. Oh! who would have ever thought that I  once so humane in disposition  once possessed of so kind a heart that I sacrificed myself to save a friend,  who would have thought that I could have become such a fiend in dealing forth retribution? But my heart is not yet completely hardened: it is only towards those at whose hands I have suffered, that my sympathies flow no longer. And even in respect to the hateful Adeline, how often  oh! how often am I forced to recall to mind all my wrongs  to ponder, to brood upon them  in order to nerve myself to execute my schemes of vengeance! When she spoke this evening of her unborn child, she touched my heart:  I could have wept  I could have wept,  but I dared not! I was compelled to take refuge in that freezing manner which I have so well studied to assume when I contemplate her sufferings. My God! thou knowest how great are my wrongs! A father's grey hairs brought down with sorrow to the grave impel me to revenge:  the voice of a brother's blood appeals to me also for revenge! Revenge  revenge  upon Adeline and on the perfidious nobleman sleeping here!"
    She had reached this point in her musings, when Lord Dunstable moved, and coughed gently.
    He was awake.
    "Graham," he murmured, in a faint tone: "for God's sake give me some drink  my throat is parched!"
    "Mr. Graham is not present," answered Lydia; "chance has brought me hither to attend upon you."
    Thus speaking, she drew aside the curtains.
    Lord Dunstable cast one glance up to that countenance which looked malignantly on him.
    "Lydia!" he said: "is that you? or is my imagination playing me false!"
    'It is Lydia Hutchinson, whom you betrayed.  whose brother fell by your hand  and who is now here to taunt you with all the infamy of your conduct towards her," was the calm and measured reply.
    "Ah! alone with you I  is there none else present!" asked Dunstable, in a tone of alarm.
    Lydia drew the curtains completely aside; and the nobleman cast a hasty look round the room.
    "You see that we are alone together," she said, "and you are in my power!"
    "What would you do to me, Lydia!" he exclaimed "you cannot be so wicked as to contemplate  "
    "I am wicked enough to contemplate any thing horrible in respect to you!" interrupted the avenging woman. 'But fear not for your life. No:  -although your hands be imbrued with the blood of my brother, I would not become a murderess because you are a murderer."
    "Did a man apply that name to me," said Dunstable, darting a savage glance towards Lydia's countenance, "he should repent his insolence sooner or later."
    "And are you not a murderer as well as a ravisher!" cried Lydia, in a taunting tone. "By means the most vile  the most cowardly  the most detestable  the most degrading to a man, you possessed yourself of my virtue. Afterwards, when my brother stood forth as the avenger of his sister's lost honour, you dared to point the murderous weapon at him whom you had already so grossly wronged in wronging me. Ravisher, you are a cowardly villain!  duellist, you are a cold-blooded murderer!"
    "Lydia  Lydia, what are you?" cried Lord Dunstable; "a fiend  thus to treat a wounded man who is so completely at your mercy!"
    "And how did you treat me when I was at your mercy at the house of your equally abandoned friend Cholmondeley?" continued Lydia. "Was not the wine which I drank, drugged for an especial purpose! Or, even if it were not  and supposing that I was intemperate,  granting, I say, that the stupefaction into which I fell was the result of my own imprudence in drinking deeply of a liquor till then unknown to me,  did you act honourably in availing yourself of my powerlessness to rob me of the only jewel I possessed? I was poor, my lord  but I was still virtuous:  you plundered me of that chastity which gave me confidence in myself and was the element of my good name! No prowling  skulking  masked thief ever performed a more infernal part than did you on that foul night!"
    "And now that years have passed, you regret the loss of a bauble  call it a jewel, indeed!  which I certainly seized an opportunity to steal, but which you would have given me of your own accord a few days later, had I chosen to wait!" said Dunstable, speaking contemptuously, and yet with great difficulty.
    "It is false  it is false  it is false!" replied Lydia, in a hoarse voice that indicated the rage which these words excited in her bosom. "I never should have yielded to you: never  never! But when once I was lost, I became like all women in the same state  reckless, indifferent! Villain that you are, you make light of your crimes. Oh! I am well aware that seduction  rape, even, under such circumstances as those in which you ravished me  are not deemed enormities in the fashionable world[-:-] they are achievements at which profligates like yourself laugh over their wine, and which render them favourites with the ladies! You call seductions and rapes by the noble name of 'conquests! O glorious conqueror that you were, when you lay down by the side of a mere girl who was insensible, and rifled her of the only jewel that adorned her! how was your victory celebrated? By my tears! What have been its consequences? My ruin and [-265-] 

degradation! Detestable man, of what have you to boast? Of plunging a poor, defenceless woman into the depths of misery  of hurrying her father to the grave with a broken heart  of murdering her brother! Those are your conquests, monster that you are!"
    Weak as was the young nobleman's frame,  attenuated as was his mind by suffering and by prostration of the physical energies, it is not to be wondered at if those terrible reproaches produced a strange effect upon him,  uttered as they were, too, in a tone of. savage malignity, and by a woman with whom he found himself alone at an hour when all the other inmates of the mansion were probably rocked in slumber.
    That evanescent gleam of a naturally spirited disposition which had enabled him to meet her first taunts with a contemptuous reply, had disappeared; and he now found himself prostrated in mind and body  rapidly yielding to nervous feelings and vague alarms  and almost inclined to believe himself to be the black-hearted criminal which Lydia represented him.
    "And when such profligates as you appear in the fashionable world, after some new conquest," proceeded Lydia, "how triumphant  how proud are ye, if the iniquity have obtained notoriety! Ye are the objects of all conversation  of all interest! And what is your punishment at the hands of an outraged society? Ladies tap you with their fans, and say slyly, 'Oh, you naughty man!' And the naughty man smiles  displays his white teeth  and becomes the hero of the party! But all the while, how many bitter tears are shed elsewhere on his account! what hearts are breaking through his villany! Such has doubtless been your career, Lord Dunstable: and I do not envy you the feelings which must now possess you. For should that wound prove fatal  should mortification ensue  should this, in a word, be your death-bed, how ill-prepared are you to meet that all-seeing and avenging Judge who will punish you the more severely on account of the high station which you have held in the world!"
    "Water, Lydia  water!" murmured Lord Dunstable: "my throat is parched. Water  I implore you!"
    "How could I give you so poor a drink as water when you gave me wine?"
    [-266-] "Oh! spare those taunts! I am dying with thirst."
    "And I am happy in the thirst which now possesses me  but it is a thirst for vengeance!"
    "Water  water! I am fainting."
    "Great crimes demand great penance. Do you know in whose mansion you are? This is Ravensworth Hall," added Lydia; "and Lady Ravensworth is Adeline  Cholmondeley's late paramour."
    "I know all that," said Lord Dunstable, faintly, "but how came you here!"
    "It were too long to tell you now."
    "Water, Lydia,  Oh! give me water!"
    "Tell me that you are a vile seducer  and you repent."
    "Oh! give me water  and I will do all you tell me!"
    "Then repeat the words which I have dictated," said Lydia, imperiously.
    "I am a seducer  "
    "No: a vile seducer!"
    "A vile seducer  and I repent. Now give me water!"
    "Not yet. Confess that you are a ruthless murderer, and that you repent!"
    "No  never!" said Dunstable, writhing with the pangs of an intolerable thirst. "Water give me water!"
    "You implore in vain, unless you obey me. Confess  "
    "I do  I do!" exclaimed the miserable nobleman. "I confess that I am  I cannot say It!"
    "Then die of thirst!" returned Lydia, ferociously.
    "No: do not leave me thus! Give me water  only one drop! I confess that I murdered your brother in a duel  and I deeply repent that deed! Now give me to drink!"
    "First swear that you will not complain to a living soul of my treatment towards you this night," said Lydia, holding a glass of lemonade at a short distance from his lips.
    "I swear to obey you," murmured Dunstable, almost driven to madness by the excruciating anguish of his burning thirst.
    "You swear by that God before whom you may so soon have to appear?" continued Lydia, advancing the glass still nearer to his parched mouth.
    "I swear  I swear! Give me the glass."
    Then Lydia allowed him to drink as much as he chose of the refreshing beverage.
    At that moment the time-piece struck, and a low knock was heard at the door.
    "I now leave you," said Lydia, in a whisper, as she leant over him. "Another will watch by your side during the remainder of the night. To-morrow evening I shall visit you again. Remember your oath not to utter a complaint that may induce the surgeon to prevent me from attending on you. If you perjure yourself in this respect, I shall find other means to punish you:  and then my vengeance would be terrible indeed!"
    Lord Dunstable groaned in anguish, and closed his eyes  as if against some horrific spectre.
    Lydia smiled triumphantly, and hastened to admit the housekeeper.
    "His mind wanders a little," she whispered to the person who thus came to relieve her in the vigil; "and he appeared to think that I wished to do him a mischief."
    "That is a common thing in delirium," answered the housekeeper, also in a low tone, inaudible to the invalid. "Good night."
    "Good night," returned Lydia.
    She then withdrew  satisfied at having adopted a precautionary measure in case the nobleman should utter a complaint against her.
    And she retired to her own chamber gloating over the vengeance which she had already taken upon the man who had ruined her, and happy in the hope of being enabled to renew those torments on the ensuing night.
    ***
    We must conclude this chapter with an incident which has an important bearing upon events that are to follow.
    Adeline arose early on the morning following that dread night of vengeance, and dressed herself before Lydia made her appearance in the boudoir.
    Hastening down stairs, Lady Ravensworth ordered breakfast to be immediately served, and the carriage to be got ready.
    When she returned to the boudoir to assume her travelling attire, Lydia was there.
    "You have risen betimes this morning, madam," she said "but if you think to escape the usual punishment, you are mistaken."
    I am going to London, Lydia, upon important business for Lord Ravensworth," answered Adeline; "and as you have frequently declared that you do not level your vengeance against him, I  "
    "Enough, madam: I will do nothing that may directly injure the interests of that nobleman, whom I sincerely pity. When shall you return!" she demanded in an authoritative manner.
    "This evening  or at latest to-morrow after-noon," was the reply, which Adeline gave meekly  for she had her own reasons not to waste time by irritating her torturess on this occasion.
    "'Tis well, Adeline," said Lydia: "I shall not accompany you. You are always in my power  but Dunstable may soon be far beyond my reach; and I would not miss the opportunity of passing the half of another night by his bedside."
    Adeline was now ready to depart; and Lydia attended her, for appearance' sake, to the carriage.
    Ere the door of the vehicle was closed, Lady Ravensworth said to Lydia, "You will prepare my room as usual for me this evening  and see that the fire be laid by eleven o'clock  as it is probable that I may return to-night."
    Lydia darted upon her mistress a glance which was intended to say  "You shall soon repent the authoritative voice in which you uttered that command;"  but she answered aloud, in an assumed tone of respect, "Yes, my lady."
    The footman closed the door-and the carriage drove rapidly away for the town-mansion at the West End.
    And as it rolled along, Adeline mused thus:  "Now, Lydia, for vengeance upon you! You have driven me to desperation  and one of us must die! Oh! I have overreached you at last! You think that I am bound upon business for my husband:  no, it is for you, And well did I divine that your schemes of vengeance against the poor wounded nobleman would retain you at the Hall: well was I convinced that you would not offer to accompany me! At length, Lydia, you are in my power!"
    [-267-] Then, as she smiled with demoniac triumph, Adeline took from her bosom and devoured with her eye, the address that she had picked up in the ruins of the gamekeeper's cottage.
    There was only an old housekeeper maintained at the town-mansion, to take care of the dwelling;  and thus Adeline was under no apprehension of having her motions watched.
    Immediately after her arrival, which was shortly before eleven in the forenoon, she repaired to a chamber, having given instructions that as she had many letters to write, she desired to remain uninterrupted.
    But scarcely had the housekeeper withdrawn, when Adeline enveloped herself in a large cloak, put on a common straw bonnet with a thick blank veil, and left the house by a private door of which she possessed the. key.

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