Chapter 7

By the preceding letter the heart of her to whom it was addressed was wrung, while her mind seemed to experience an electrical shock. Restless, disquieted, unsatisfied with herself, she was yet lingering, when the remonstrances of her sincere and tender monitress roused her to activity. She determined, though late, to fulfil to the man to whom she had voluntarily pledged her faith the last duty that remained; and to plunge at once into scenes so distasteful to her apprehensions, to her imagination so apalling.

She reached the house of her husband [132] but a few days before he expired: she shuddered as she entered the chamber of death, as she gazed on the wan and sunken countenance of the dying man, and beheld herself surrounded by the melancholy apparatus of sickness and mortality. All was alike shocking to her spirits and to her feelings: she tried to make herself useful; but, unaccustomed to a sick room, and inexperienced in the tender charities that seem more peculiarly to belong to her sex, she, by her officiousness, rather interrupted than aided the cares of the more practised and skilful.

The dying man manifested no emotion at her presence, his faculties were torpid, and he looked on her with a glazed and vacant eye. Perceiving herself to be useless, or worse than useless; revolted, disgusted, horror-struck by the objects that encompassed her, she retreated to the solitude of her chamber, where she remained motionless, in sad abstraction, without power to compose or to arrange her bewildered and [133] tumultuous thoughts. Self-accusation, regret, dread of the future, and remorse for the past, rent her heart by turns; or rather, struggling together, produced a frightful chaos in her mind.

In this dreadful state, with little variation, a week passed away, during which she slept not and took little sustenance. At the termination of this period death closed the scene; and complicated and deranged affairs now roused the still youthful widow from sensations by which she had been, not afflicted, but stunned.

Extravagance, losses, unfortunate speculations, had ruined the once ample fortune of the deceased. Disappointed in his ill-assorted marriage, and perplexed in his affairs, he had recourse to inebriation to drown reflection; and a constitution which early dissipation had enfeebled, and later anxieties broken, soon yielded to this pernicious habit. Nothing remained from the [134] wreck of his fortune but the settlement made on his marriage upon his bride. This was only double the small portion she brought to him of three thousand pounds. Her father, hurt at the sentiments which had prompted her to court so unequal an alliance, declined a larger jointure, lest, considering herself independent of the man to whom she sacrificed her youth, her conduct should have no check; and, on the principles of a young woman who could thus feel, and thus act, he dared form no reliance.

The interest of six thousand pounds, (three hundred pounds per annum,) was therefore now all that remained to her; an income, which, though sufficient amply to supply the temperate wants and wishes of a rational, virtuous, well regulated mind, was to her to whom it appertained, her expensive tastes, and profuse habits, but little apportioned. Some personal debts, also, thoughtlessly incurred, which she [135] shrunk from bringing forward, and which she had yet sufficient rectitude to deem it indispensable to discharge, would, for the first year, involve nearly the whole of her scanty stipend.

In the privacy of a house, over which the gloom of death still seemed to impend, she deeply meditated: the errors of her past conduct glared upon her in strong colouring; while the powers of her understanding asserted over the prejudices and sophistries by which they had been obscured their natural force. She believed, that they would in future direct her aright, and that the experience would prove their auxiliary. She felt as if shaking off a slough that had clogged her efforts, and impeded her progress, in the path that now plainly appeared to her the direct road to all that was valuable and good, and which she determined should be henceforth her straight forward course. Her mind had received a severe shock, her [136] nerves were unstrung, her spirits depressed, temptation was absent, and she had not yet fully weighed and estimated the imperious power, and almost resistless sway of habit long unused to opposition or controul.

Her thoughts, at this crisis, turned naturally towards her sister, her now more than ever respected monitress, her beloved and sympathising friend. She wisely resolved to pass at least the year of her mourning beneath the roof of Mr. and Mrs. Neville, however humble she might find that asylum, and thus at once to strengthen her resolutions, form new occupations and sentiments, and, by a strict economy, relieve herself from pecuniary embarrassments. She had, in a few lines, announced to her sister the death of Mr. Wycherly, and the derangement of his affairs. She resumed her pen to detail more at large her present situation and circumstances, to develope her plans, and to unfold with candour the state of her mind. [137]

But a letter from Ellen anticipated her purposed communication, revived her drooping spirits, and accelerated the settlement of all that, on her part, remained to be done. The cloud that hung over her prospects appeared to disperse, she breathed freely once more, she dared to look forward, and the sanguine character of her mind again beamed in her eyes, and shed a lustre over the sables and trappings of woe.

“Come to us, dear Charlotte (said the letter of Ellen,) hasten to our embraces, our arms and our hearts will expand to receive you. Your accommodations, under our humble roof, will be simple, but a cordial welcome, tender sympathy, will, in this sweet season of the year, when the whole country is a garden, when nature wantons in her prime, supply, we trust, all other privations and defects. Pass with us your first year of widowhood, (though we should fail in attractions to detain you longer,) during which decorum would enforce retirement [138] from gayer scenes; and who can tell but within that period, new tastes and new habits, less perilous than the past, may be acquired and formed.

“You will not find yourself among savages, or uninformed rustics; we have already gained several valuable friends to enliven, and to afford variety, to our domestic circle. A gentleman of polished manners and cultivated mind, a baronet, possessing large landed property in our neighbourhood, has discovered the worth of my Neville, through the obscurity that narrow circumstances had thrown around him, has delicately courted his acquaintance, and is our frequent visitor. He would have introduced to me his lady and family, but this I for the present declined, though report speaks to their advantage. When you are with us, I will, however, seek that enlargement to my little circle, which domestic avocations, and retired tastes, have hitherto made me avoid. [139]

“A son of our new friend, a fine lad, eleven years of age, has been, at the earnest request of his father, placed under the care and tuition of my husband. His acceptance of the trust was solicited as a favor, accompanied by an offer of pecuniary remuneration so liberal as to distress the delicacy of him to whom it was tendered, and prove for some time an impediment to the arrangement of the affair.

“Thus has our before straightened income been rendered amply commensurate to our wants and comforts, and even a surplus offered to add to the savings which our encreasing family renders it prudent to lay by.

“In the rector of the village, his wife and sister, we have likewise respectable and agreeable neighbours. The former is a man of learning and of worth; the latter affords an example of the fulfilment of all her duties, without the stimulant and the [140] recompence which your more favoured Ellen has enjoyed. An early disappointment of a tender kind had thrown a gloom over her youth: her marriage took place many years afterwards upon principles of a less seductive kind. Without that impassioned tenderness which, as you justly observe, is, though a sweet, a perilous charm, perfect esteem and friendship appear to unite this respectable pair. Animated by the same principles, their duties form their occupation and reward. Peace and order preside over their family and their affairs: a sort of patriarchal simplicity breathes around them: their example, their precepts, and their assistance, have produced among the neighbouring hamlets a realization of the fictitious golden age.

“The sister of this worthy pastor, to whom an aunt hath bequeathed a moderate independence, was, by an infirm and sickly youth, determined to renounce the ties of marriage, and to fix herself near, though [141] in a separate residence, the house of her brother and his wife. This respectable and amiable woman unites with the family at the rectory in all their benevolent plans for meliorating the condition of the village poor; and in active occupation for the benefit of others; the best preservative from selfish anxieties and cares, by which she has acquired, with cheerfulness, a mind at peace with itself, and a more vigorous tone of health.

“My Neville and myself give to the projects and institutions of these excellent people the little aid that is in our power. A village school, a bank well secured for the savings of the labouring poor, loans for the assistance of their temporary exigencies, a fund for the aged and infirm, rewards for the sober and industrious, reproofs and privations for the refractory and wilful, instruction for the ignorant and council for the humble and diligent, are among the means of reformation employed. The good baronet, [142] as magistrate for the district, lends to us occasionally his weight and his purse. The results are more than was expected, and nearly all that could be wished.

“With so many delightful occupations, ‘All various nature pressing on our hearts!’ can we be in want of objects for our faculties, can we be in dread of weariness? Early hours and long summer days scarcely suffice for our enjoyments and pursuits; and our moments of leisure are delicious because they are few.

“Come to us, dear sister, and learn how to be happy! it is not among the works of art, of fictitious cravings, of fleeting and exhausting pleasures, that Happiness, fair fugitive, is to be found: she must be sought, if we hope to obtain her, in the consciousness of duties performed, in benevolent and pure affections, in a well governed temper and mind, and in sympathies that carry us out of ourselves. [143]

“Hasten to us, dear Charlotte; my beloved husband unites cordially in the invitation; leave painful retrospections behind, and add to the joys of your Ellen all that was wanting!” [144]