by William Maginn
Dear North, — I shall be obliged by your sinking scruples, and giving a place in your next number to the enclosed paper, entitled " The Last Words of Charles Edwards, Esq." The production will of itself sufficiently explain who the writer was. I knew him in the Peninsula as a dashing fellow; and, notwithstanding all he says, he was a great favourite with his mess. Bad as he was, he did not want some good points: he was not a scoundrel to the core. He is gone! May the history of his errors do good to one young and unhardened sinner! I think it may well be expected to do good to hundreds of them.
Some people will say you act wrongly in giving publicity to such a record. Don't mind this; it is mere cant. The paper is a transcript — -I have no doubt a faithful one — of the feelings of a man who had strong passions himself, who understood human passion, who understood the world, and who lived miserably, and died most miserably, because he could not, or would not, understand himself; and therefore derived no benefits from his acute perceptions as to others. Is not this a lesson? I think it is not only a lesson, but a lesson of lessons; and I request you to print the thing as it stands.
I received the paper from an old friend of mine, who at one time served in the same troop with Edwards. The packet was left at his house on Christmas night, 1822. He was home at the time, and did not reach London until a week had elapsed. The handwriting was disguised, but he recognised it notwithstanding; and the newspapers of the day sufficiently confirmed the import. — Yours truly, Morgan Odoherty.
I am, or, more properly speaking, I have been, a man of pleasure. I am now forty years, less some few months, of age; and I shall depart this life at twelve o'clock to-night. About that hour it is that I propose to shoot myself through the head. Let this letter be evidence that I do the act advisedly. I should be sorry to have that resolution confounded with madness, which is founded upon the coolest and maturest consideration. Men are coxcombs even in death; and I will not affect to disguise my weakness. I would not forfeit the glory of triumphing over broken-spirited drunkards and half-crazy opium-chewers — of being able to die grateful for the joys I have experienced, and of disdaining to calumniate pleasures after they have ceased to be within my reach. I do assure you, Mr.*******, that I should wait personally upon you with this epistle; but that I think the mere reasonableness of my suicide must carry conviction with it of my sanity; but that I trust to lay before you such facts, and such arguments, as shall approve me not only justifiable, but most philosophic, in destroying myself. Hear what I have done; weigh what I mean to do; and judge if I deserve the name of madman.
I was born of a family rather ancient than rich; and inherited, with something like the handsome person of my father, his disposition to expend money rather than to acquire it. To my own recollection, at eighteen I was of a determined temper rather than of a violent one; ardent in the prosecution of objects rather than sudden to undertake them; not very hasty either in love or in quarrel. I had faculty enough to write bad verses, — not industry enough to write anything else; and an aptitude for billiards and horse-riding to a miracle.
Now I desire to have this considered not as a confession, but as a statement. As I plead guilty to no fault, I make a declaration, not an acknowledgment. I am not lamenting anything that is past. If I had to begin again to-morrow, I would begin again in the same way. I should vary my course, perhaps, something, with the advantage of my present experience; but take it in the main, and it would be the race that I have run already.
At eighteen, with an education, as Lord Foppington has it, "rather at large;" for (like Swift's captain of horse) my tutors were the last people who expected any good of me — at eighteen, it became necessary for me to think of a profession. My first attempt in life was in the Navy. I was anxious to go, and cared very little whither; and a schoolboy midshipman of my acquaintance cajoled me into a Mediterranean voyage by promises of prize-money and descriptions of Plymouth harbour.
If I were to speak from my feelings at the present moment, I should say that the life of a sailor has its charms. I am bankrupt in appetite as well as in estate; if I have nothing left to enjoy, I have little capacity left for enjoyment; and I now know how to appreciate that exuberance of spirit with which a man dashes into dissipation on shore after six weeks' restraint from it at sea. But I know also that these are the feelings of situation and of circumstance. The past seems delightful where no hope lives for the future. I am cherishing most fondly the recollection of those sensations which are now the most completely lost to me for ever. But it is the act of the moment which forms the index to the true impression. A ship of war may seem abstract liberty to him who pines in the dungeons of the Inquisition. But confinement, monotony, coarse society, and personal privation — the simple fact is worth all the argument. After a cruise of two months I quitted the navy for ever.
Charmed almost as much with my change of society as with my change of dress, I quitted the sea-service, and entered a regiment of light dragoons; and for two years from the time of my joining the army I led the life which lads commonly lead in the outset of a military career. And even to the occurrences of those two years, rude and unintellectual as they were, my memory still clings with pleasure and with regret. Toys then, however trifling, pleased; the most refined enjoyments could have done no more. Is there a man living, past thirty, who does not sometimes give a sigh to those days of delicious inexperience and imperception, when the heart could rest content with the mere gratification of the senses ; when the intimacies of the dinner-table passed current for friendship; when the woman who smiled on all was to all, nevertheless, charming; and when life, so long as health and money lasted, was one uninterrupted course of impulse and intoxication?
It was my fate, however, to continue but a short time a mere follower of opera figurantes, and imbiber of strong potations. Just before I was one-and-twenty, a woman eight years older than myself in great measure fixed my destiny, and entirely formed my character.
Boys who run riot commonly attach themselves, I think, to married women. Wives, where by ill fortune they incline to irregularity, are more understanding, and more accessible, than girls; and hope is your only food for an incipient passion. Many a woman becomes an object of desire, when there seems to be a probability of success; upon whom, but for such foreknowledge or suspicion, we should not perhaps bestow a thought.
Louisa Salvini was eight-and-twenty years of age, a Sicilian by birth, full of the climate of her country. Hers was the Spanish, or Italian, style of beauty; small rather as to figure, yet of exquisite proportion. She had a shape which but to behold was passion; — a carriage, such as nothing but the pride of her own loveliness could have suggested. Her eyes! Their glance of encouragement was fascination. Her lips confused the sense to look upon them. And her voice! — If there be (passing attraction either of face or form) one charm about a woman more irresistible than every other, it is that soft — that mild, sweet, liquid tone, which soothes even in offending and, when it asks, commands; which shakes conviction with its weakest word, and can make falsehood (ay, though known for such) so sweet that we regard the truth with loathing. O Heaven! I have hearkened to the delicious accents of such a voice till, had my soul's hope been asked from me, it would have been surrendered without a struggle!— To-night, at midnight, I shall hear such a voice for the last time! I shall hear it while I gaze upon features of loveliness; while my soul is lulled with music, and when my brain is hot with wine; and the mere melody of that voice will go farther to raise the delirium I look for than . . . . . . .
But enough of this now. My tale should be of that which was. Let that which shall come hereafter give some other historian material.
My acquaintance with Lousia Salvini was of her seeking rather than of mine. Accident threw me, under favourable circumstances, in her way; but it so happened that, at the moment, I did not perceive I had excited her attention. The manner of our subsequent introduction was whimsical. I was not a man (at twenty) to decline an adventure blindfold; a well played upon old lady carried me, as a visitor, to Salvini's house; and my fate was decided from the first moment that I entered it.
Gracious Heaven! When I reflect that the woman of whom I speak; — whom I recollect one of the loveliest creatures that Nature ever formed; — whose smile I have watched, for its mere beauty, even in the absence of passion; — at whose feet I have sat for hour after hour, intoxicating myself with that flattery which is the only flattery true manhood can endure; — when I reflect that this woman, at the moment while I write, is a withered, blasted, aged creature of fifty! Madness, annihilation, is refuge from such a thought. I met her, scarce a month since, after an absence of years. Those eyes, which once discoursed with every rising emotion, retained still something of their original brightness; but it now only added horror to their expression. That hand, which I had pressed for hours in mine, was now grown bony, shrunken, and discoloured. Her once cloudless complexion reeked with paint, through which the black furrow of Time showed but more deep and ghastly. Her lips, Oh! they were the same lips which — The voice too — more dreadful than all! — that voice which had once been sweetest music to my soul; that voice which memory still is sounding in my ears; that voice which I had loved, had worshipped; that voice was gone; it was no more; and what remained was harsh, tremulous, broken, discordant! And this is the woman whom I so adored? It is she, and she is unconscious of change! And I shall be, must be, the thing that she now is! Hold, brain! The blow of this night saves me from such a fate!
My love for Louisa Salvini endured two years without satiety. An attachment of equal duration has never befallen me since. But, at the time to which I refer, all circumstances were in my favour. I was glowing with all the fervour of youth, and with all the vigour of unwasted constitution. My mistress's beauty delighted my senses; her avowed preference gratified my vanity; she was charming to me (love apart), taken merely as a companion; and, what conduced still farther to the keeping alive our passion, she was not (being another's) constantly in my presence.
Contentment, however, is not the lot of man. Give a Mahometan his paradise, and in six weeks he would be disgusted with it. My affection for my charming mistress was just beginning to be endangered, when the regiment to which I belonged was ordered to the Continent. The fact was that I met in Louisa's society a variety of women of principles as free as her own, and the very jealousy which each lady entertained of her friends made success with herself the more easy and certain. A little while longer, and Louisa and I had severed; my embarkation, parting us by necessity, saved us probably from a parting by consent.
I left England very poor as to pecuniary means, but rich in every other advantage which (to me) made life desirable. Youth, O youth! could I but recall the years that I have lived! I would rather stand now upon the barrenest plain in Europe, naked, friendless, penniless, but again sixteen, than possess, as the thing I am, the empire of the world.
Is there a fool so besotted as to trust the cant he utters, to believe that money can really purchase all the blessings of this life? Money can buy nothing; it is worth nothing. I have rioted in its abundance; I have felt its total deprivation; and I have enjoyed more, I believe, of happiness in the last state than in the first.
Shall I forget the first event of my career on the Continent — that event which, in the end, led to its premature termination? Shall I forget the insolent superiority with which I looked down upon my brother officers, men to whom play, excess of wine, and mercenary women seemed, and indeed were, delights sufficient?
Wine, until after thirty, from choice, I seldom tasted. My spirits, when sober, were too vivid for control; wine only troubled their serenity, without heightening their level. Of play, I touched it once; and I shall speak of it hereafter. But women? such women as these men could admire? Even my more cultivated sense rejected them; two years of intimacy with Salvini and her companions had chastened my taste, and made delicate my perceptions. Can I ever, I repeat, forget that exquisite moment, that moment which secured to me at least one enemy for life, when I, the poorest cornet in our regiment, defeated my colonel in the favour of the first beauty in Lisbon? By Heaven, the recollection of that single hour past warms my spirits to high pitch for the hour that is to come! The envy, the hate — the burning hate — which my success engendered in the bosoms of half my acquaintance! The sensation of hating is one which I have never fully experienced; but the pleasure of being hated — oh, it is almost equal to the pleasure of being beloved!
To a man of habits and temperament like mine the Peninsula was a delightful residence in 1808. I remember the gay appearance of the capital; which, taken by moonlight from the river, is perhaps one of the most imposing in the world. I remember the striking panoramic coup-d'oeuil of its church and convent spires innumerable; its marble fountains, its palaces, its towers, and its gardens; its streets and squares of white and yellow buildings, each gaudily appointed from the basement to the roof, with jalouse lattices, balconies, and verandahs; the whole city, too, throwing itself (from the irregular site upon which it rises) full, at a single glance, upon the eye; and every feature in the prospect seeming, like an object in a picture, disposed artfully with a view to the general beauty of the scene.
Then the free spirits of the women; their passions concentrated, almost to madness, by the restraint under which they live! Honour, for aiding the hopes of a lover, be to systems of restriction, severity, and espionage! Opportunity to an English woman wants the piquancy of novelty. As it is constantly recurring, it is constantly neglected. In Spain they seize it when it does present itself; for, once rejected, it may never be found again.
But beyond the beauty of Lisbon as a city, beyond even the brightness of those souls that inhabited it, there was a laxity of law and manner in it at the period to which I speak— a license inseparable from the presence of a foreign force in a prostrate, shackled, and dependent country — an absence as much of moral as of physical police which, to a disposition such as mine, was peculiarly acceptable. Add to this the further fact, that I was fresh in a strange capital; among a people to whose manners, and almost to whose language, I was a stranger; where, little being fully understood, all had credit for being as it ought to be; and where the mere novelty of my situation was a charm almost inexhaustible. Such allurements considered, could I fail to be charmed with the Peninsula?
My stay in this land of delight, then, was something short of three years. I was present at the famous battle of Talavera; and, afterwards, at the desperate contest of Albuera, under Beresford, where the Polish lancers first tried their strength against our English cavalry. I was a sharer, too, in the more partial affair of Busaco, and took part in the duty of covering the retreat that followed— a retreat in which the whole of the southern line of Portugal, from the Spanish frontier to Lisbon, was depopulated and laid waste; in which convents were deserted, cities consumed by fire, and women born to rank and affluence compelled to seek protection from the meanest followers of the British army.
The evacuation of Coimbra (the Bath, if I may so call it, of Portugal) is present to me now, as though it had occurred but yesterday. I see the immense population, men, women, and children, of all ranks and of all ages, pouring out, at an hour's notice, through the Lisbon gate of the city; and rushing upon a journey which not one in five of them could hope to accomplish. It was little to have abandoned home and property; to have set forth on foot (for the army had seized all conveyance) — on foot, and unprovided, in a long and rapid march, through a distracted, ravaged, lawless tract of country. If to have suffered this was much, the trial was still to come. I saw these multitudes, spent with travel and with hunger, reach towns in which every hovel, every shed was filled with troops. I saw families upon families yet new upon their pilgrimage, — not yet so tamed and beaten down by suffering as willingly to carry their daughters into the guardrooms of an infuriated soldiery; I saw them lying (for even the churches were filled with our sick and wounded) — lying unsheltered all night in the fields and open squares; waiting, with feverish restlessness, the appearance of morning, as though new light (repose apart) would to them be an accession of new strength.
The vast column rolled forward on the high road to the capital, collecting the population of the country over which it passed. Behind were left the weak, the aged, and the dying; and some few wretches, of profession, who, tempted by the hope of gain, took their chance (and lost it) of mercy from the enemy. But, though every step over which the mass advanced gave addition to its numbers, there were drains at work, and fearful ones, to counteract the reinforcement. Cold dews at midnight, burning suns by day, scanty provisions, and fatigue unwonted — these ministers did their work, and especially among the females. Towards the close of the second day's march, the women began to fail rapidly. At first, when a girl grew faint, and unable to proceed, her sister would stay by her. This feeling, however, was not fated to last long: soon the sister dashed desperately forward; to sink herself, and meet her own fate, some few leagues farther on.
I saw one company halted between Leiria and Pombal, which must have consisted of eight hundred or a thousand individuals. These people came from the neighbourhoods of Coimbra and Condeixa; some of them from as far up as Mongoalde and Vizeu. There were girls of fourteen or fifteen, clad in their gayest apparel, their only means of carrying or, as they said, of "saving" it. There were old men, and grandames; peasants, male and female; friars, artisans, servants and religieuses. After travelling, most of them, more than fifty miles on foot, and passing two or three nights in the open air, they were lying upon the banks of a river, waiting for the sunrise, as I rode past them. I never can forget this scene; and yet I feel that it is impossible for me to describe it. The stream (I believe it was a branch of the Mondego) was dark and swollen, from the effect of recent rains; and it rushed along between the willows which grew on either bank, as though sharing in the hasty spirit which animated every object about it. On the road, which lay to the right of the river, troops and fugitives were already in motion. It was just dawn when I came up. A light breeze was half clearing off the fog from the surface of the water. I saw the living figures imperfectly as I approached; all white and shrouded, like spectres, in the mist. The light dresses of the girls were saturated with wet. Their flowers and feathers were soiled, drooping, broken. Their hair— (the Spanish women are remarkable for the beauty of that feature) — their dark long hair hung neglected and dishevelled.
Their feet, which cardinals might have kissed, were, in many instances, naked, wounded, bleeding. And, worse than all, their spirit and their strength was gone. Of those whom I saw lying on the banks of that water, a fearful proportion lay there to rise no more. And yet many had gold and jewels ; but gold could not help them. And their loveliness remained; and they looked in eloquent, though in mute, despair upon British officers who passed by; and yet those men, who would have fought knee-deep for the worst of them, they could not help them. I overtook, after this, a beautiful girl of fifteen, travelling alone, out of the high road, from apprehension of insult. This girl had been separated from her friends in the general confusion. She had money and diamonds to a considerable amount about her; and had accomplished half her journey, but felt unable to proceed farther. She begged on her knees for a horse, for any conveyance; to be allowed to travel near me, with my servants, anywhere, anyhow, to be protected, and to get on. I had not the means of aiding that girl. I could not help her. Every Englishman had already done his utmost. I had then three women under my protection. I see the figure, the countenance, the tears of that girl at this moment. I thought at one time that I must have stayed and been made prisoner along with her. I could not carry her away in my arms. I could not leave her— no man could have left her to her fate. Fortunately an officer came up, who was less encumbered than myself, and she was provided for. And in such way (and in ways a thousand times more dreadful) great numbers of women got on to the capital. They escaped for a time the lot of their friends and relatives; but, eventually, what was to be their fate? What was their fate? What if I saw these women afterwards— women born to affluence— reared in the very lap of luxury and softness— what if I saw many of them begging in the public streets of Lisbon? I did see them in that state; but it is a subject that I must not dwell upon.
The conclusion of my peninsular campaign was not favourable to my fortunes. As a soldier, I did my duty in the field; but opportunity for a man to distinguish himself cannot always be commanded. I had a project once, with a few fellows as desperate or as careless as myself, for dashing at the enemy's military chest; but our scheme fell to the ground, for we never got a chance of carrying it into execution. In the meantime, as regarded promotion, my general conduct was not such as to make friends. Repeated successes, in one peculiar pursuit, inspired me with an excessive confidence in myself, and with a very contemptuous estimate of most other persons. I saw men, whom at all points I ranked far below myself, graced with the favour of superiors, and rich in the gifts of fortune. When a chance did occur for making such usurpers feel their proper place, was it in human nature to resist the temptation? All hope of patronage under such a regime was of course out of the question. I interfered with everybody; and, at last, began to take a pride in doing so. The recompense of these good offices was in due time to be paid.
A Spanish officer, with whom I was associated in the convoy of certain treasure, proposed to me one night, after our halt upon the march, to take a trip down the Tagus, and bring his wife upon the journey. I had met this lady, a short time before, in Lisbon, and (according to my invariable custom in such cases) fancied that she had a liking for my person. It was a fine moonlight evening when we left Villa Nova, and we ran down with the tide to the Quinta of my friend; but no sooner had we taken the Signora on board than the aspect of the weather suddenly changed, and we were exposed, during the whole night, to considerable danger.
From the moment almost that we left Silveira's house the weather began to be unfavourable. The darkness, after the moon had gone down, was extreme. The wind, which set in squalls across a rapid and contrary tide, seemed to acquire greater force at every successive gust, and was accompanied, from time to time, with heavy showers of rain. Our boat, though capacious enough, was undecked and slightly rigged, evidently unfit for rough treatment of any kind; and, to make matters worse, our sailors became alarmed, and Silveira, who knew the river, was ill from seasickness. How curiously, in the arrangement of the human heart and mind, do our passions balance and compensate each other! A man might reasonably, perhaps, be expected to keep his wits about him in such a dilemma as this. For myself, I had some little nautical experience; and, besides, my companions were afraid; and it helps a man's valour greatly to see other people frightened. But Silveira's wife, who was as little of a heroine as any woman I ever met with — I was compelled to support her during almost the whole of the night; for the sea kept dashing into our open boat, and her husband, from illness, could scarcely take care of himself; and yet, under these circumstances, while she expected, I believe, to be washed overboard every half minute, I could perceive that I had not been quite mistaken in my suspicion of her good opinion of me.
Whatever interest, however, I might have felt in the progress of this little excursion, its termination was such as I certainly had not contemplated. With the utmost exertions both of the Spaniard and myself, we did not get back to our halting-place until evening on the day after we had started. At daybreak (twelve hours before) a treacherous quartermaster had marched forward with our escort; my friend the colonel did not let slip so favourable an opportunity to get rid of a man whom he doubtless considered as a troublesome coxcomb; and, to avoid the inevitable result of a court-martial, I asked and obtained permission to resign.
Upon home service my affairs, in a pecuniary point of view, would have been very little affected by the loss of my commission. On service abroad, however, the consequence was different. As a soldier, I enjoyed many advantages and immunities which a civil individual could scarcely even for money procure. Besides, though no discredit attached to my fault (for Silveira, indeed, had never been brought to any account), still I was, up to a certain point, a man placed in the shade. I had not lost my rank dishonourably; but still I had lost it, and the military world felt that I had. I missed the visits of some men with whom I had been upon terms of intimacy, and received advances from others of whose acquaintance I was not ambitious. One friend asked casually when I intended to go to England; another mentioned some new Spanish levies, in which commissions were easily to be obtained. One fellow, to whom I had never spoken in my life, and who had been dismissed from the navy for gross insubordination and misconduct, had the presumption to write to me about "jobs" in "high quarters," "favouritism," "injustice," and "public appeal;" but I horsewhipped him in an open coffee-room, while the waiter read his letter to the company. These, however, were teazing, not to say distressing, circumstances; and, to avoid seeming at a loss (particularly as I was very much at a loss indeed), it became necessary to do something, and with the least possible delay.
I could have married Portuguese ladies; but their means were in supposition. Ready money, in Portugal, there was little; rents, in the existing state of the country, were hopeless; and I had not much reliance upon a title to land, which to-day was in our possession, to-morrow perhaps in that of the enemy. Misfortunes, as the adage declares, are gregarious. Meditating which course, out of many, I should adopt, I fell into a course which I had never meditated at all.
The Peninsula, during the war, was the scene of a good deal of high play. In quarters distant from the capital the difficulty of killing time drove all but professed drinkers to gaming; and the universal employment of specie, for paper was used only in commercial transactions, gave an aspect peculiarly tempting to the table. Silver, in dollars and Portuguese crowns, was the common run of currency; the army was paid entirely in that metal; and it was no unusual thing to see an officer come down to a gaming-house absolutely bending under the weight of a couple of hundred pounds which he had to risk; or sending for a servant (hackney coaches were scarce), in case of a run of luck, to carry away his winnings.
Hazard and faro were the favourite games. Of billiards people were shy— people commonly dread faculty in any shape. There was some danger in going home, after being very successful, at night; but the games of chance were in general very fairly played. The bank, of course, had a certain, and a considerable, advantage; but as all the houses were public and open, there was little, if any, opportunity for fraud. And it was not by the assumed advantage of the table, or by any process so tedious, that my stripping was effected. In luck I was unfortunate. I lost at my first sitting more money than I could afford to part with, and in hope of recovering it was compelled to persevere. I have heard, among many dogmas as to the seductiveness of play (a passion, by the way, no more invincible, though perhaps more rapidly destructive, than most of the other passions to which the human mind is subject), that a losing gamester may stop, but that a winning one never can. Perhaps this axiom is meant to apply peculiarly to your gamester de coeur; and possibly (though de tete would be the more "germane" illustration) — possibly, as Gall or Spurzheim would say, the "'organ" of winning and losing was not in me strongly developed. As far as my own feeling goes, it certainly negatives the principle. Had I at any time regained my own, I think I should have stopped. I lost every shilling I possessed; horses, jewels, and even pistols, in the attempt.
I have stated, I think, that I was an only child; but, up to this point, I have said very little about my parents. Thank Heaven (for their sakes) they no longer exist. My father died in my arms about seven years since, exhorting me, with his last breath, against the habits he had lived in all his life. I can understand this. My father died what is called "a natural death." Sickness had enervated his mind; terrors, the mere weakness of nerve, oppressed him. The ague of a month effected that change to which the argument of years had been unequal; after fifty years of infidelity he fancied he died a believer. Were I to live ten years longer, I should probably die as he did.
But I name my relatives in this place, merely for the sake of observing that, at the time to which I refer, I was very much estranged from them. My father held himself pretty well relieved from anxiety as to the fate of a man over whose conduct he had no control; and it was a draft only for fifty pounds which I received from him in Lisbon after the loss of my commission, accompanied by a letter, which determined me never to apply to him again.
So, with twenty guineas only in my pockets, and with experience enough to know how little twenty guineas would do for me, I again landed in England in the year 1812; but I have not time, nor would the world have patience, for the adventures which, in three months, conducted me to my last shilling. I wrote a novel, I recollect, which no bookseller would look at; — a play, which is still lying at one of the winter theatres. Then I sent proposals to the commander-in-chief for altering the taste of our cavalry accoutrements and harness; next, drew a plan (and seriously too) for the invasion of China; and after these, and a variety of other strange efforts, each suggested by my poverty, and all tending to increase it, the clocks were striking twelve on a dreary November night, as I walked along Piccadilly without a penny in the world.
It is at twelve o'clock this night that my earthly career must terminate; and, looking back to the various changes with which my life has been chequered, I find crisis after crisis connecting itself with the same hour. On the evening to which I allude, I wandered for hours through the streets ; but it was not until midnight that I thought very intently on my situation. There is something, perhaps, of appalling in the aspect of London at that hour;— in the gradual desertion of the streets by reputable passengers; and in the rising, as it were from their depths of earth, of forms repulsive, horrible, and obscene. This change of object and association is sometimes peculiarly striking in the Parks. As the evening draws in, the walking parties and well-dressed persons disappear one by one, and the benches become peopled with an array of fearful creatures, who seem to glide from behind the trees, — to be embodied, as it were, out of the air. I have myself turned round suddenly, and seen a squalid shape beside me, which had not been there but the moment before. And I knew not how it came, nor from what quarter it approached; but it came on through the dark like some pale meteor, or unwholesome exhalation, which was not visible till the good light was gone. The closing, too (in the town), of the shops, one after the other, — the honester and safer houses first, and so on until the haunts even of guilt and infamy shut up their doors, as seeing no farther prospect through the gloom. And the few animated objects which break the general stillness, more revolting and fearful even than that stillness itself! Starving wretches, huddled together in holes and corners, seeking concealment from the eye of the police; thief-takers making their stealthy rounds, and eyeing every casual wanderer with suspicious and half-threatening glances. Then the associations which present themselves to the mind in such a situation. Thoughts of burglars, murderers, wretches who violate the sanctity of the grave, and lurking criminals of still darker dye ; — the horror being less of injury from such creatures than of possible approximation to them; — the kind of dread which a man feels, he can scarcely tell why, of being touched by a rat, a spider, or a toad.
But I wandered on till St. James's bell tolled twelve; and the sound awakened some curious recollections in my memory. A mistress of mine had lived in Sackville Street once, and twelve o'clock (at noon) was my permitted hour to visit her. I had walked up and down a hundred times in front of St. James's Church waiting impatiently to hear that clock strike twelve, which now struck twelve upon my ruin, my degradation. The sound of the bell fell upon my ear like the voice of an old acquaintance. My friend yet held his standing; my estate had something changed.
I did wander on, however, after St James's clock told twelve, and while the rain, falling in torrents, drove even beggars to their shelter. I had neither home nor money. There were acquaintances upon whom I might have called, and from whom a supper and a bed would have been matters of course; but I felt that my spirits were rapidly rising to the right pitch for considering the situation in which I stood. Nothing sharpens the perceptions like the pressure of immediate danger. Had I slept and awoke at daylight, I must again have waited for the hour of darkness. Men succeed over and over again, upon the spur of emergency, in enterprises which, viewed calmly, they would never have undertaken.
I strolled onwards down Piccadilly through the wet dark night (to avoid the hackney-coachmen, who kept teasing me with offers of their services), and leaned against one of those splendid houses which stand fronting the Green Park. The strong bright glare of the door-lamps below showed the princely proportion of the building. Night was now growing fast into morning, but lights were still visible in the show-apartments of the mansion. Presently I heard the sound of a pianoforte, and a voice which I thought was familiar to me. I listened; and in a moment the singer went on:
The setting sun with crimson beam
Now gilds the twilight sky;
And evening comes with sportive mien,
And cares of daylight fly;
Then deck the board with flowers, and fill
My glass with racy wine;
And let those snowy arms, my love,
Once more thy harp entwine.
Oh! strike the harp, my dark-haired love,
And swell that strain so dear.
Thine angel form shall charm mine eye,
Thy voice delight mine ear.
Surely, said I, I have heard these words before; but the song continued:
The glasses shine upon the board
But brighter shines thine eye;
The claret pales its ruby tint,
When lips like thine are nigh;
The tapers dim their virgin white
Beside thy bosom's hue;
And the flame they shed burns not so bright
As that I feel for you.
Then strike the harp!
Each note, my love,
Shall kindle fresh desire;
Thy melting breath shall fan that flame,
Thy glowing charms inspire.
It was the voice of a man whom I had known intimately for years. I cast my eye upon the door, and read the name of his family. My old companion, — my friend, — was standing almost within the touch of my hand. I thought on the scene in which he was an actor; on the gaiety, the vivacity, the splendour and the sparkle, the intrigues and the fierce passions, from which a few feet of space divided me. I was cold, wet, and penniless; and I had to choose.
It may be asked, why did not suicide then present itself as a rallying point? It did present itself at once; and, on the instant, I rejected it. Destitute as I was, I had still a confidence in my own powers — I may almost say, in my own fortune. I felt that, wealth apart, I had a hundred pleasurable capabilities which it would be folly to cast away. Besides, there were relatives, whose deaths might make me rich. I decided not to die. My next supplies, however, were to arise out of my own personal exertions; and, in the meantime, the approach of light reminded me that I was still wet and in the street. I had no fastidious apprehensions about degrading myself. If I could have held a plough, or digged in a mine, I should not have hesitated to have performed either of those duties. But, for holding a plough, I had not the skill; and, for the mines, there were none in the neighbourhood of London. One calling, however, there was, for which I was qualified. Within four-and-twenty hours after my dark walk through Piccadilly, I was a private dragoon in the 31st regiment, and quartered at Lymington Barracks.
I have denied, I do still deny, the overpowering influence commonly attributed to rank and fortune; and let me not be accused of offering opinions, without at least having had some opportunities for judgment. If there be a situation in which, beyond all others, a man is shut out from all probability of advancement, it is the situation of a private soldier. But the free undaunted spirit which sinks not in extremity can draw even from peculiar difficulty peculiar advantage; where lead only is hoped for grains of gold excite surprise; a slender light shows far when all is dark around it.
Twelve months passed heavily with me in the 31st Dragoons. My apparently intuitive dexterity in military exercises saved me from annoyance or personal indignity, and might, in a certain way, have procured me promotion. But a halberd, as it happened, was not my object. I looked for deliverance from my existing bondage to the falling in with some wealthy and desirable woman. And in the strict performance of a soldier's duty — active, vigilant, obedient, and abstaining — I waited with patience for the arrival of opportunity.
I waited till my patience was exhausted half a dozen times over; but the interim certainly was not passed in idleness. He whose prospect lies straight forward is seldom content to look about him; but there was matter for analysis and curious investigation on every side of me. As an officer, I had seen little of the true character or condition of the soldiery; and a regiment of cavalry is really a machine of strange constitution— I say, "of cavalry," par preference, because there is generally about a dragoon regiment a more lofty, though perhaps not more just, style and feeling than belongs (from whatever cause) to our regiments of infantry.
The 31st Regiment was remarkable for the splendour of its uniform and appointments, an attribute rather anything than advantageous to the soldier; but which always, nevertheless, operates powerfully in the recruiting of a corps. We had men amongst us from almost every class of society. There were linen-weavers from Ireland, colliers from Warwickshire and Shropshire, ploughmen, gamekeepers, and poachers from every quarter and county. There were men too of higher rank, as regarded their previous condition; and that in a number very little imagined by the world. There were men of full age, who had run through fortunes — lads who had quarrelled with, or been deserted by, their families — ruined gamblers, cidevant fortune-hunters, ex-officers, and strolling players. In a company so heterogeneous it would have been difficult to keep the peace but for that law which visited the black eye as a breach of military discipline. As men, those who had been "gentlemen" were incomparably the worst characters. Some of them vapoured, or at least talked, about their origin, and so exposed themselves to the ridicule which waits upon fallen dignity. Others made use of their patrician acquirements to seduce the wives or daughters of their more plebeian comrades. They were dissipated in their habits, ribald in their discourse, and destitute even of any remnant of honest or decent principle.
The poachers among us were another party, almost of themselves; for the gamekeepers — the same animals domesticated — never cordially agreed with them. Idle in their habits, slovenly in their appearance, these fellows were calculated, nevertheless, to make admirable soldiers in the field. Their courage was peculiarly of the true English character; slow something to be excited, but, when excited, impossible to be overcome. I remember one of them well, for his anecdotes used to amuse me, who for two years had been the scourge of every preserve within ten miles of his parish; and who had, with difficulty, escaped transportation by enlisting as a soldier. He was a strong, muscular lad, about two or three and twenty; not of large stature, or of handsome appearance, but of a resolution, or rather of an obduracy, which nothing short of death could have subdued. I saw him once fight, after repeated provocation, with a fourteen-stone Irishman of the 18th, who was the lion of his troop. The battle lasted, without any etiquette of the prize-ring, in constant fighting, more than an hour. My acquaintance was knocked down in every round for the first thirty minutes, but the blows made no more impression upon him than they would have done upon a man of iron. That he had the worst of the battle never seemed to occur to him; he fell, and rose, fell, rose again, and struck on. Nothing but the loss of sight or of life could have subdued him; and I firmly believe he would have destroyed himself if he had been compelled to give up. At length his antagonist's confidence gave way before his obstinacy; and there was something almost staggering to the senses in the appearance of it. The man seemed to get no worse for a beating that might have destroyed half-a-dozen. He spoke very little, never broke his ground, and rose with a smile after such falls as might have crushed him to pieces. Both parties suffered severely, my friend rather the most; but, at the end of an hour's fighting, the Hibernian owned himself vanquished.
But whatever might be the qualities of these men individually, taken as a body they were amenable, reasonable beings. To have made them individually discontented would have been difficult, to have tampered with them en masse quite impossible. The sound of the word "discipline" had a sort of magical effect upon their minds. Their obedience (from its uniform enforcement) became perfectly mechanical; and severity excited little complaint, for it was understood to be the custom of the service.
We had three different commanding officers during the time of my stay at Lymington, but there was only one who ever disturbed the temper of the garrison, and even he failed to excite any feeling beyond great personal hatred to himself.
The first commandant was a man who had himself been a private soldier, and who had risen by degrees to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Corporal punishment was his reliance. He punished seldom, but severely. And this man, though a strict disciplinarian, was universally popular.
Our second leader was a well-meaning man, but a theorist; and he seemed to have been sent as a punishment for the sins of the whole garrison. He was strongly opposed to the practice of corporal punishment, as tending to degrade and break the spirit of the soldier; and being puzzled, as a wiser head might be, in the substitution of other penalties, he actually put his men through a course of experiments upon the subject. For example, having heard that Alfred the Great made an arrangement by which every man became, to a certain degree, answerable for his neighbour, Major W_____ resolved to introduce the same system into his own depôt; and whenever, accordingly, any soldier was absent from barracks without leave — and, in a garrison of a thousand men, some one or other was pretty sure to be always absent — he confined the remaining nine hundred and ninety-nine to their barracks until he returned. Indeed without, I believe, the least feeling of cruelty or malice, this man passed half his time in devising inflictions, and the other half in practising them upon us. And, besides this, he fatigued us with eternal inspections; wasted more paper in writing rules and regulations than might have made cartridges for a whole battalion; and after compelling us, even in cold weather, to go through a tedious parade on a Sunday, was so merciless as always to make a long speech at the end of it.
Our third commandant, and the only one whom I ever dreaded — for the whims of the second hardly passed what might be called vexations — our third commandant was a fool; and, of course, being a soldier, a martinet. Quite incompetent to the discussion of any possible matter beyond the polish of a carbine-barrel, or the number of paces in which a regiment ought to cross the parade-ground, he gave his whole attention to what he termed the "military" appearance of his troops. A speck upon a man's uniform — a hair too much or too little in a whisker — a spot, or a drop of water, upon the floor of a room in which thirty men inhabited, ate, drank, and slept; these were crimes which never failed to call down heavy retribution. And perfection, with this gentleman, was almost as much a fault as negligence. He lived only upon orders, reprimands, and whippings. The man who could not do his duty was to be tortured, as a matter of course; the man who did it well was corrected as "a conceited fellow." Every process under his jurisdiction was conducted at the point of the "damme." He attempted to make his officers cut their hair in a particular shape. He forbad a staff-adjutant, who could not afford to give up his place, ever to quit the barrack-yard without stating where he was going to. I have known him set three hundred men to pick straw off a stable-yard, where every fresh puff of wind left them their labours to begin again. Eventually the fellow joined a regiment in India; and fell in a skirmish, by a ball, it was supposed, from one of his own soldiers.
But I was weary of examining characters and avoiding persecutions. I was tired of being a favourite among the nursery girls of Lymington, and even of enjoying the enmity of the young gentlemen of the neighbourhood. I had become weary of the honour and discomfort of endurance — I sighed, in the midst of exertion, for exertion's reward — I never doubted that talent must in time find its level; but I had begun to doubt whether man's life would be long enough to afford the waiting, when the chance that I was hoping and wishing for appeared.
How constantly do men ascribe to momentary impulse acts which really are founded in deep premeditation! Mistakes, surprises, jokes, and even quarrels pass current as accidental which are in truth matters of malice prepense. My object at Lymington was to introduce myself to persons of consideration; and with that view for months I carried my life, as it were, in my hand. Every moment that I could snatch from the routine of military duty was systematically devoted to searching after adventure. There was not a family of condition within five miles of the depot, but I had my eye upon their motions and arrangements. How often, while watching their gay parties on the river, did I pray for some dreadful accident which might give me an opportunity of distinguishing myself! How often have I wished, in riding night picquet or express, that some passing equipage would be attacked by robbers, that I might make my fortune by defeating them! I saw by chance one evening a mill on fire in the distance; and, making sure it was a nobleman's seat, swam through two rivers to arrive at it. At length, the commonplace incident — I had looked for it, though, a hundred times — the commonplace incident of two tipsy farmers, on a fair day, affronting an officer in Lymington market-place, who had a lady on his arm, gave me the chance I had so long sought. This affair gave me an opportunity of being useful to Captain and Mrs. Levine.
The Honourable Augustus Levine, who had joined the garrison but a few days when this accident befell him, was one of those men of fortune who seem born for no purpose than to put poor fellows in contentment with their destiny. He was an abject creature, both in heart and mind ; despicable (there be more such) in person as in principle. And yet the worm was brother to an earl — he was master of a fine estate — he commanded an hundred soldiers; and (a man may have too many blessings) he had a young and handsome wife.
When I declare that Lymington Barracks were full of stripling officers, who, in addition to wealth and station, possessed (many of them) all personal advantages, my venturing even to think of Mrs. Levine upon the credit of such a service as I had performed may appear to savour not a little of presumption. Setting the event apart, I should maintain a different opinion. A hundred qualifications, which would only have been of course in a man of rank, in a peasant would excite surprise, and, consequently, interest. My encounter in the market-place, though a vulgar one, had given me some opportunity for display; and a private soldier, who possessed figure, accomplishment, and deportment— who could make verses, make love, and, moreover, fight like a Turk — such a man would secure attention ; and love follows very easily. I cannot afford now to dwell upon details; but, whatever be the value of my general principle, consequences, in the particular instance, did approve my dream. Within six months I had disclosed my real name and rank — eloped with Mrs. Levine — fought a duel with her husband — and had a verdict entered against me in the Court of King's Bench, with damages by default to the amount of £10,000.
There is this circumstance, among a thousand others, to attach us to the female sex, that a man can scarce, in any case, whatever the degree of friendship, receive a favour from his fellow-man without some feeling of inferiority; while from a woman each new act of kindness, or of bounty, seems but a tribute to his merit, and a proof of her affection.
My encounter with Levine produced very trifling consequences. Both parties were slightly wounded at the first fire, and neither appeared anxious to try the fortune of a second. The penalty of £10,000 was a more serious matter to deal with. Mrs. Levine possessed, independent of her husband, an income exceeding £800-a-year; but that property formed no fund for the payment of a large sum in damages. Our only alternative was to quit England immediately.
I enter here with pain upon an epoch in my history which filled up sadly and wearily a period of five years. Isabella Levine was a woman whose personal charms were perhaps among the weakest of the attractions she possessed. If I had sought her in the beginning from interested motives, I did not long profess a passion without really entertaining it. That she had deserted such a husband as Levine seemed to me no stain upon her virtue. He had been forced upon her by the command of an uncle on whom she depended, and who himself had felt so little confidence in the man of his selection that, in giving his niece a large fortune, he reserved it principally within her own control. Was it a crime in Isabella that she quitted a being whom she could not love? Was she a companion for stupidity, for slovenliness, for brutality? Was she a subject for neglect and for coarse infidelity? Was it fit that her tenderness, her beauty, and her youth should be wasted upon a creature who could not appreciate what he was possessing? She did not sell herself to me for title or for fortune. She was not seduced by a fashion or a feather. If she loved me — and I think she did love me — it was for myself alone.
Impressed with these feelings, I left England a second time for Lisbon. The war had now been carried into the heart of France, and the Peninsula had a prospect of sufficient security. If by law I was prevented from marrying Isabella, by gratitude, as well as by affection, I held myself bound to her for ever. I took it as an admitted principle that every man must settle at some time, and deliberately formed my plan of lasting domestic happiness.
I had not then ascertained that the very thought of a set system is destruction to everything in the nature of enjoyment. I had yet to discover that it was better even to die at once than await in one fixed posture the wearing of unprofitable vacancy.
I set out with a wish as well as a resolution to act well. I had seen the errors of married men, and I determined to avoid them. I will treat a woman, said I, with that attention which she is entitled to demand : I will not render her miserable by my dissipations; I will not insult her by slighting her society; I will love none but Isabella, and with her my hours shall be passed. I now see ill omen in these my first resolutions. A man does not put himself upon the defensive unless he feels cause to apprehend attack. I suspect that, like the wolf in the fable, the sight of the collar already made me uneasy.
I shall never forget, for my time indeed is almost come, the torture which it cost me to carry my good resolutions into effect: the days, the weeks, the years that I suffered of satiety, weariness, indifference, disgust. I am convinced that the decline of my passion for Isabella was only hastened by my efforts to conceal and to resist it. The love of full liberty, which I had been used freely to indulge, acquired now tenfold force from the restraint to which I subjected myself. The company of the plainest woman of my acquaintance would have been delightful to me compared with the uniformity of beauty.
I bore up against these inclinations until my very brain became affected. My senses grew morbid from excess of inflammation. And withal I could perform but half the task I had imposed on myself. I might refuse to love other women, but I could not compel myself to love Isabella. My attentions continued; but they were the attentions of a prescribed duty. The feelings I had once entertained towards her, the letters I had written to her, for I chanced once by accident to fall on some of them, the whole seemed a dream, a delusion, a delirium from which I had recovered, and the remembrance of which excited wonder.
Steadily to pursue the course upon which I had determined was not to cheat myself of the conviction that that course was destroying me. In vain did I recollect what I owed to Isabella: her uniformly excellent conduct, the sacrifices she had made for me. These images refused to dwell upon my imagination. They were as shadows in the water, which eluded my grasp when I would have seized them. I found only a woman who now was in my way, who no doubt meant to bestow happiness upon me, but who in fact drove me to frenzy. I would again have been left destitute ; I would have returned to my ration and my broadsword; I would have submitted to anything to have been once more a free man; but to desert Isabella, or to be deserted by her; — I was not (Heaven be praised!) quite villain enough to take the first course; my pride could not have endured that she should take the second.
There are limits to the capacity of human endurance. We are none of us so far from insanity as we believe ourselves. My temper had suffered in the course of these conflicts a shock from which, I think, it never afterwards recovered, when a train of new circumstances, unforeseen and unexpected, broke, for good or ill, the trammels which entangled me.
We had been five years together, and I had been four years miserable, when a habitual depression which I had perceived but neglected to speak of, — for, in the fever of my own soul, I had no thought for the distress of others, — this terminated in the serious illness of Isabella. At first, supposing her indisposition to be transient, I treated it as an affair of domestic routine, taking every precaution for her safety rather as a matter of course than from any feeling of anxiety; but an intimation from my physician that she was in a state of real danger aroused me from that apathy with which I contemplated all passing events.
"Danger? What danger? There could be no danger; the man must be mistaken."
"He was not mistaken. My wife's complaint was low, nervous fever, brought on, as it seemed to him, by some cause operating upon the mind; and, if her spirits could not be kept up, her peril was immediate."
I never received any intelligence with greater discomposure in my life. A variety of recollections, very like accusations, crowded one after the other suddenly upon my memory. My heart awoke from that lethargy into which long suffering had plunged it. Still, I thought, the thing must be exaggerated. "Her spirits kept up?" Why, they must be kept up."What was to be done to keep them up?" That the adviser left to me.
I visited Isabella with feelings which I could scarce acknowledge even to myself. She sent for me as I was going to her chamber, and my purpose of going almost changed. I know not how to describe the sensation which her message produced. I was going to her at the very moment unsummoned, and yet the summons compelled me to turn back. It was not the feeling of a man who is detected in a crime, for that must suppose a previous consciousness that he was committing one ; it was the alarm rather of a child who plays with a forbidden bauble, and suddenly discovers that the last whirl has broken it.
I had seen Isabella on the preceding evening, but I found her much worse than I had expected. I leaned upon her bed; it was some time before she could gather firmness to express herself. At length she spoke, and I hear her accents at this moment.
She spoke with apparent confidence of her approaching death. "She regretted it for my sake, because her fortune would die with her." "Could she but have secured my future happiness and safety, as she had nothing left in life to hope for, so she would have had nothing to desire."
These are commonplace expressions, perhaps I shall be be told. The fact may be so. Death is very commonplace. But those who, in the midst of a course decidedly evil, have been cursed with sufficient perception to abhor the guilt they could not abstain from, such only can appreciate my feelings at that moment. The mere mention of Isabella's death as possible carried distraction to my soul. She told me that she had long seen the decline of my affection ;"her only wish was that it could have lasted while she lived!" I stood before her a convicted villain. I could not lie, I could not speak; at last I wept, or I had died.
I must not dwell upon the particulars of this interview. She thanked me for the uniform kindness I had shown her; for the effort with which I had avoided connections which she had but too plainly seen my desire to form." Could I pardon her for the pain that she had caused me? I should be happier after her death; for, if it left me poor, it would at least restore me to my liberty."
Let me do myself justice here as I have visited justice upon myself elsewhere. I was not quite a wretch. If my passions were habitually fierce and ungovernable, their impulse in the good cause was as powerful as in the cause of ill.
I knelt beside Isabella's bed. I confessed the truth of all she charged me with. I invoked curses on my restless temper ; swore that all my former love for her was rekindled; that I would not survive her death; that I should esteem myself her murderer! Nor did I at that moment, so help me Heaven, utter any sentiment which I did not feel. If I did not at that moment love Isabella passionately, I would have laid my life down with pleasure for her safety, for her happiness. And I trusted that I had in some measure restored her peace of mind; and I was seriously resolving to like a peaceful life, when a circumstance occurred well calculated again to put my resolution to the proof.
Had I been asked for which of my virtues I should ever have a fortune given me, I might have had some difficulty, and should have had, in answering the question. It was my fate, however, for once to be enriched by my irregularities. My grandfather, penetrated on a sudden with admiration of the man who had brought his family name so much into discussion, died, after making twenty wills in favour of twenty different people, and, passing over my father, bequeathed a property of £4000 a year to me.
I premised that, about this time, some unforeseen occurrences befell me. Two of these I have already described; the third was of all the most unexpected. While I was busy in preparations for returning to England, and devising schemes out of number for pleasures and splendour when I should arrive there, Isabella left me.
It was a blow for which, less than for a miracle, I was prepared. Returning one evening from shooting (we were then living at Condeixa), I found a letter in her hand lying sealed upon my table. The sight of the address alone paralysed me. What had happened flashed in an instant across my mind. The contents of the letter were these :—
"If I have used deception towards you, Charles, believe me, it is now for the first time. I wish to spare you the needless agony of bidding me farewell; I wish to secure myself against the danger of being diverted from a course which reflection has convinced me is the best. I cannot forget that you have ceased to love me; I have known the fact long, but circumstances have kept me silent. I acquit you— Heaven is my witness— of unkindness or ingratitude; esteem, affection, regard, compassion, I know you give me these; and love is not at our command. There are men from whom I could be satisfied with kindness and esteem; but I cannot fall so low as to accept pity, Charles, from you. You always will, you always must, love some woman. Can I know this, and yet live with you, and be conscious that you do not love me?
"For three years I have endured to see you wretched, and to feel myself the cause of your distress. Could I feel this, and yet be happy? What did I gain by depriving others of your heart when I knew that to me your heart was lost for ever? A thousand times have I wished that your scruples would give way, and that you would be happy in a course which could have added nothing to my misery. I have borne all this long, but my motive for bearing it is at an end. Your accession of fortune makes my presence no longer necessary. You have now open before you that career for which you have so long panted; I believe that you are capable of sacrificing it for me; but can I accept such a sacrifice from you, Charles? Can I exact it? Do you think I could value it?
"Farewell! I will no longer continue to hang upon you, interrupting enjoyments in which I am forbidden to participate. Farewell! My pen trembles as I write the word; but be assured that I write it irrevocably.
"Do not distract us both by vain endeavours to recall me. If love were yours to give, I know, I feel, that you would give it to me; but it is not, Charles, at your disposal. Farewell, once more ; for I had intended but to say, 'Farewell!' May you be happy, though my day of happiness is over. Thank Heaven, your impetuous temper is no longer likely to be excited by want of means to those enterprises which might not always be successful; but, if ever chance should place you again in such emergency as to make Isabella's fortune, her life, her love, worth your acceptance, then, and then only, will she consent again to hear from you."
She is living yet — I trust she is! If the last prayers of one who has prayed but too seldom; if those prayers may be heard which merit nor hearing nor value; if mercy for another can be granted to him who dares not, cannot, ask it for himself — then may every blessing she can wish for, every blessing which can wait on life, be hers! May she know that in my last hour my thoughts were upon her; that my latest wishes were breathed for her safety, for her happiness!
How merely is man the creature of events over which he has no control! When I kissed Isabella's forehead scarce six hours before she wrote that letter, how far was I from imagining that I then beheld her for the last time! And what a turn did our separation give probably to my destiny! I despise the pedantic dogma which says "No one can be missed." Ill as I think of human nature, I think that assertion is a libel upon it. Among creatures who have as little of discrimination as of feeling, to whom the newest fool is always the most welcome friend; by such beings it may be true that "no one can be missed;" but I deny that any man of common sensibility or perception can part for ever, even from a mere companion, without remembrance and regret.
I paused, for my brain was giddy after reading Isabella's letter. My first thought was to follow her, but, on reflection, I abandoned the design. I felt that I could not hope to overcome her fixed belief that the continuance of our connection would on my part be a sacrifice. She had retired into a convent, the Lady Superior of which had long been known to us, and I felt that she must be happier there or anywhere than with me. Should it seem that my decision was, under the circumstances, a convenient one, I swear that it was a decision in which my wishes had no part. No honourable or feeling man will doubt my candour in this statement. He will know, if not from experience, from instinct, that had I listened to my own wishes I should only have thought of recovering Isabella. He will know that her absence left a blank in my heart; that, spite of philosophy, axiom, or authority, I felt there was a something missing, wanting — a reliance, a consolation, a point d'appui to the mind which nothing but the society of woman could supply.
And, if I have loved other women, Isabella has not been forgotten. In the maddest moments of gaiety, in the wildest hours of license, the doubt of her existence, the certainty of her wretchedness, has dashed across my mind and poisoned the cup of pleasure at my lips. Before I quitted Portugal I wrote her letter after letter, intreating, promising, imploring her return. If it was not for my love that I desired to change her resolution, I swear that for my mere quietude, for my peace of mind, I wished to do it Ah! what have I to regret in being compelled to quit a world where to possess feeling or reflection is to be eternally unhappy; where passion leaves its victim no choice but in his own wretchedness, or in the misery of those whom, at his soul's' hazard, he would shield from harm; and where the being who enjoys the most of gratification himself is the creature who is most callous to the sufferings of all around him!
It was not, however, until I had completed my dispositions as to Isabella's fortune, until I was about to embark for England, to place distance — seas — between us; I did not fully until that moment feel what it was to part from her for ever. I wrote to her once more, even while my vessel was under sail. Though I was sensible of the folly, I wrote the letter with my blood. I entreated that she would follow me, and follow me without delay. I declared that I should expect her, that I would take no denial, that I should wait for her at the first English port. With that strange confidence which men often have when their hopes are totally desperate, I went so far even as to appoint the hotel at which I should stay. I really did expect that Isabella would follow me to England. I wronged her firmness. The ship in which I had embarked met with contrary winds. A subsequently sailing vessel reached England before us. I found, on landing at Falmouth, a packet from Isabella; but it contained only her picture, and these words,— "Do not forget me."
That picture hangs about my neck at the moment while I write. I will die with it next my heart. As the magnet, catching eagerly each particle of iron, lets golden sands roll on unheeded by, so memory treasures up our moments of misfortune long after those of happiness and gaiety are forgotten. Isabella lost was to be remembered for ever.
But these are recollections which unhinge me for detail. I have a blow to strike, and almost within this hour, for which every corporal and mental agent must be nerved. And my senses rush along in tide as furious and rapid as my fate! I cannot dwell, amid this whirl of mind and fancy, upon the measures which in seven years dispossessed me of £70,000. I am not lamenting that which I have done. I began with a resolution to live while I did live. Uncertain of the next moment, the passing hour was all to me. What mattered it, since my course must cease, whether it ceased sooner or later; provided, while it lasted, I was in all things content? I scorned the confined views of men who, possessing means, submitted to let "I dare not" wait upon "I would;" and vowed when I put myself at the head of my fortune, that no expenditure of wealth, no exposure of person, should ever have weight to disappoint my inclination.
Yet my estate lasted longer than, under such a resolution, might be expected. The rich, for the most part, either lavish their money without enjoying it, or, to maintain what is called a certain "state," suffer dependents to lavish it for them. As it happened that I had no wish for commonplace distinctions, nor was very desirous of anything which money alone could buy, I escaped all those rapidly ruinous contests in which the longest purse is understood to carry the day. I saw something of the absurdities of fashion, but I entered very little into them. Curiosity, want of employment, and that natural desire which even the silliest man feels to laugh at the follies of those about him, made me associate sometimes with fine gentlemen; but I never became a fine gentleman myself.
And yet it was amusing, in the way of chasse ennui, to glide along with the frequenters of Bond Street and with the loungers at the opera; and to observe the excessive, the monstrous self-delusion of men who had been born to ample means, and were not encumbered much with understanding. Their talk was such feather, and yet even in what they uttered they were generally mistaken. If they were vicious, it was from thoughtlessness; if honest, from accident. Their conversation was so easy, and yet (to themselves) so entertaining; the jest so weak; the laugh so hilarious. Their belief, too, was so facile,— I did envy them that faculty! Not one of them ever doubted anything that he was at all interested in crediting. All about them was fudge, and yet they never seemed to be aware of it. Their Bond-Street dinners were not good. They would talk all day about the fancied merits of particular dishes, and yet at night be put off with such wine and cuisine as really was sad stuff, and could not have passed but upon men of fashion.
But the most striking feature in their characters was their utter want of self-respect. I have seen a young man literally begging for half-crowns, who but a few months before had driven his curricle, and been distinguished for his insolence. Another would borrow small sums, and never pay them, until not even a servant was left who would lend him a shilling. Others would endure to be insulted by their tradesmen; — to be poisoned at coffee-houses where they could not pay their bills;— to truck and barter their clothes and valuables for ready money with waiters at hotels;— and all this to obtain supplies which in reality they did not want, and because they knew no mode of dissipating time, but in dissipating a certain quantity of specie.
These were the people who went to fights— to races;— wore large hats, and garments of peculiar cut; with little of taste or fancy in their devices; and, of true conception of splendour or of elegance, none.
Then their hangers-on were a set of men fit to be classed per se in history. Fellows culled from all ranks and stations, but all rascals alike; — their avocations various, but all infamous. There were among them cashiered officers, or men who had left the army to avoid that infliction; fraudulent waiters, and markers from billiard tables; shopkeepers' sons, black-leg attorneys, and now and then the broken-down heir of a respectable name and family.
I recollect one or two of these fellows who were characters for posterity in their way. There was one Mr. M'Grath in particular, a native of the sister kingdom, with whose history in full it fell to my lot to be acquainted. I traced him back to his leaving Dublin, where he had acted as collecting clerk to a distiller, and from whence, on account of some trifling embezzlements, he had come over to England with about twenty pounds in his pocket This man on his arrival had not a friend nor a connection to back him; his address was bad; his person not prepossessing; and he had an unconquerable aversion to anything like honest labour; but he began with a little, and by industry rose.
His first step in London was into a second-floor lodging in Jermyn Street, Piccadilly, for he laid himself out as an appendage to men of fortune from the beginning. The woman of the house dwelt herself in a single apartment, waited upon her guests as a servant, and fleeced them, because her house was "in a situation!"
This woman had a hump-backed daughter who stood a grade above her mother. I saw her afterwards in a workhouse, to which I went for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of M'Grath's history. She did the better kind of labour, while her mother attended to the drudgery, and by parsimony and great exertion they had acquired near £2000.
M'Grath's second step in life, having heard of the £2000, was to marry his landlady's hump-backed daughter; and with part of the money he bought a commission in the Guards. Here he remained but a short time, his real character being discovered. Within twelve months he deserted his newly acquired wife. The furniture of the mother's house was next seized for his debts. The two miserable women then came for support upon the parish; and with the wreck of the £2000 M'Grath commenced gentleman.
And, with the appointments of respectable station about him, this fellow had gone on for more than twenty years when by accident I met with him, the most handy and universally applicable creature in the world. Latterly he had found it convenient to call himself a conveyancer, and undertook to act as an agent on all occasions. He was a money-lender, an assistant in borrowing money or in investing it. He bought or sold a horse; could obtain patronage (upon a deposit) for a curacy or a colonel's commission. Then he dealt among the bankrupts; could indorse a bill; get it cashed. He would arrange a provision for a distressed lady; wait upon a betrayer at the hazard of being kicked downstairs; threaten law proceedings; introduce a new face; in short, wherever there was distress and helplessness, there, as if by instinct, you were sure to find M'Grath.
I met with the gentleman under circumstances (for him) peculiarly unlucky. He had been settling with a certain peer the terms upon which he was to be freed from the importunity of a female from whom importunity ought not to have been necessary. I chanced shortly afterwards to fall in with the lady; and (she really had been unfortunate) to become interested for her. M'Grath in this case had gone to work with less than his usual prudence. He had received at the end of his negotiation £500 from the nobleman in question, upon a written promise that the applicant should trouble him no more; of which £500 he accounted for £200 in cash, giving his own note to his client as security for the rest. This was a safe £300 gained; but M'Grath was not content. Distress within a short time obliged the same woman to dispose of some jewels and other personal property which she possessed; and this property, with a fatuity apparently unaccountable even after what had happened, she employed M'Grath to find a purchaser for. The monstrous apparent folly of such an act made me doubt the truth of the whole story when I heard it. In Heaven's name, I asked, why had she trusted such a fellow as M'Grath even in the first transaction?" And who but such a man," was the answer, "would have undertaken such an office?"
M'Grath, however, probably had his necessities as well as other people, for on this occasion he took a measure of very questionable safety. Relying upon the lady's dread of public exposure, he pawned the whole of her jewels, and converted the money to his own use. I caused him merely to be arrested, although his offence was, I believe, a criminal one ; and eventually he was liberated from prison by the Insolvent Act, for he had judged rightly so far the exposure of a prosecution could not be borne; but, by a singular coincidence, I had afterwards to kick him out of my own house, on his calling for the particulars (he did not know upon whom) of a next presentation to a living advertised for sale.
Women, however, of course, among the true spendthrifts of my acquaintance, were the principal objects of discourse and of attention. But their arrangements even upon this point were of so odd a description that the ridiculous overpowers every other feeling when I think of them. I forget the man's name who told a certain king that there was no royal road to the knowledge of mathematics. I doubt he would have failed to impress my acquaintances with that truth. On achete le tout seemed to be their conviction. One loved in order that he might be affirmed a person in the world; another for the fashion of a particular lady; a third because a mistress was a good point to show "style" in; and a fourth because it was necessary to have one. The nonchalance of this last set was the most exquisite thing in nature. They affected (and I believe felt) a perfect indifference towards their protegées; introduced all their acquaintance, without a jot of jealousy, at their houses; and I saw a letter from a peer to a French woman who transacted love affairs for him, stating that he meant to form an attachment of some duration when he came to town; and describing (as to person) the sort of lady upon whom he should wish to fix his affections.
The nature of such connections may well be imagined. No regard was ever dreamed of for the feelings of the women; the men were, of course, appreciated and abused. It was a sacrifice on both sides; but the sacrifice of the man was merely a sacrifice of money of which he did not know the value: and that sacrifice neither obtained nor deserved any gratitude, for the same individual who would ruin himself in keeping a splendid etat for his mistress would lavish nothing upon her that did not redound to his own "fashionable" notoriety.
For myself, if I did not enter into the spirit of what was called ton, it did not arise from any want of general good reception. As soon as it was found that I cared about no coterie, all coteries were open to me. But, if it was much to be one of the few, I thought it would be even more to stand alone. And therefore, although I kept fine horses, I did not race them to death. I had a handsomely furnished house; but I refused to have a taste; that is to say, I did not lie awake fourteen nights together imagining a new scroll pattern for the edge of a sofa, nor decide (still in doubt), after six weeks' perplexity, which was the properest tint of two-and-twenty for the lining of a window-curtain. In short, my private arrangements were no way guided by ambitious feeling; whether I rode, drove, drank, or dressed, I did the act merely because it was an act gratifying to myself, not because it had been done by Lord Such-a-one or was to be done by Mr. So-and-so; and although my fortune was small compared with the fortunes of some of my companions, yet, as it mattered not how soon the whole was expended, I generally seemed upon emergency to be the richest man of the circle I was moving in.
And a race for some to envy has my career been to this moment! If the last few months have shown note of coming evil, that evil could not terrify me when I was prepared to elude it. If I have not enjoyed, in the possession of riches, that absolute conviction (my solace under poverty) that what tribute I did receive was paid entirely to myself, yet the caution and experience which poverty taught me has preserved me from gross and degrading imposition. Let me keep up my spirits, even with egotism, in a moment like this. I have not been quite an object to court imposition. The same faculties and powers which availed me when I was without a guinea continued at my command throughout my high fortune. I have not been, as an old man, wasting property which I could not spend; I have not been a wretched pretender by purchase to place and to circumstance to which desert gave me no title; I have not been the thing that I am, to die, because I will not be.
Gold is worth something, inasmuch as it gives certain requisites for continued enjoyment which can be obtained from no other source. Apart from all pretension to severe moral principle, I had ever this feeling in its fullest extent — that the man was thrice a villain, a wretch thrice unfit to live, who could plunge any woman that trusted him into poverty, into disgrace. To this principle I would admit neither of exception nor evasion. I do not say that every man can command his passions, but every man can meet the consequences of them. Again and again, in my days of necessity, did I fly from connections which seemed to indicate such termination. Money, however, as society is constituted, can do much. My subsequent wealth relieved me from all obstacles.
Yet, let me redeem myself in one point— I shall not attempt it in many— my power was in no instance (as I believe) employed cruelly. For my fellow-men I had little consideration. I knew them merciless; I had felt them so. Still, upon man, if I recollect well, I never wantonly inflicted pain; and in no one instance, as Heaven shall judge me, did I ever sacrifice the feelings of a woman.
A portion of my wealth was given to relieve my father from debts which he had incurred in expectation of the whole. Another portion, I trust, will have placed in security beings whose happiness and safety form my latest wish on earth. A third portion, and a large one, has been consumed in idle dissipation; but if I have often thrown away a hundred guineas, I have sometimes given away ten.
The whole, however, at last is gone. Parks, lordships, manors, mansions, not a property is left. As my object was always rather pleasure than parade, this change in my circumstances is little known to the world. I am writing, and I shall die so, in elegant apartments, with liveried servants, splendid furniture— all the paraphernalia of luxury about me. The whole is disposed of and the produce consumed. To-morrow gives the new owner possession. A hundred persons make account to nod to me to-morrow. I have for to-morrow four invitations to dinner. I shall die to-night.
Let me not be charged with flying this world because I fear to meet the loss of fortune. Give me back the years that I have spent, and I can deem lightly of the money. But my place, my station among my fellow-men? It totters, it trembles. Youth, hope, and confidence, these are past; and the treasures of the unfathomed ocean could not buy them back.
Life of life, spirit of enjoyment, to what has it not fallen! Does it still spring in the heart, like the wild flower in the field, the native produce of a vigorous soil, which asks no tillage, defies eradication, and rears its head alike amid the zephyr and the storm? No; it is this no longer. It is an exotic now, a candle-light flower, the sensitive plant with the hue of the rose; love is its sunshine, wine the dew that cherishes it; it blossoms beneath the ray of the evening star, and blooms in the illuminated garden at midnight; but in the cool breeze of morning it droops and it withers; and day, which brings life to all else, destroys it for ever.
Then, if I had the Indies still in my grasp, would I endure to descend in the scale of creation? Would I join the class of respectable old men, and sit spectator of a conflict which I am no longer able to engage in? Would I choose the more disgusting course of some I see around me, and let the vices of manhood degenerate into the weaknesses of age? Would I struggle to maintain a field in which victory is past my hope; dispute a palm which, of necessity, must be wrested from my hand? Would I endure to have men whom I have been accustomed to see as children, push me insolently from the stage of life, and seize the post which I have occupied?
If I could not bear this, still less could I endure the probable, the inevitable, consequences of living to extreme old age. To be, if not distasteful to my own depraved and doting sense, conscious of being distasteful to all the world beside!— to die worn out with pains and aches! helpless in body, feebler still in mind!— the tottering victim of decrepitude and idiotcy, cowering from that fate which by no effort I can avoid!
I will not come to this. I will not make a shirking, ignominious end of life when I have the power within myself to die as may become a man. To this hour I have had strength to keep my station in the world. In a few moments it would be gone, but I shall go before it. And what do I lose by thus grappling with my fate? A few years at most of uncertainty or uneasiness. That man may die to-morrow I know afflicts him little; but let him reflect in his triumph that he must die on the next day. Let him remember that when he has borne to hear people inquire after his health, listen to his answer with impatience, and go to be happy out of his reach; when he has borne to close the eyes of the last friend of his youth, to lose all his old connections, and to find himself incapable of forming new ones; when he has endured to be a solitary, excommunicated wretch, and to read, in the general eye, that he is an intruder upon earth,— he is still but as a ball to which a certain impetus is given, which, moving in a fixed track, can neither deviate nor pause, and which has but (to an inch) a marked space to pass over, at the end of which comes that fall from which the world's worth cannot save it.
I can write no more. My hour is fast approaching. Now am I greater, in my own holding, than an emperor!
He would command the fate of others, but I command my own. This is in very choice the destiny which I would embrace. There is something sublime in thus looking in the face of Death; he sits over against me as I write, and I view him without terror. If I have a predominant feeling at this moment, it is a feeling of curiosity.
One full glass more and I am prepared. Wine is wanting only to aid the nerve, not to stimulate the courage or the will. My pistols lie loaded by my side. I will seal this packet, nevertheless, with a steady hand, and you who receive it shall bear witness that I have done so.
Now within this half hour I will forget even that care must be the lot of man. I will revel for a moment in the influence of wine and in the smile of beauty — I will live for one moment longer the being I could wish to live for ever.
The clock strikes eleven. Friend, whom I have selected to receive my parting words, I must conclude. I shall send this letter to you instantly. You will receive it while I still exist, and yet you will be unable — the world would be unable — to prevent the act I meditate. Do me justice, and farewell! When chimes tell twelve to-night I shall be uppermost in your mind. You will wonder, you will be troubled, you will doubt. And when you sit at breakfast to-morrow morning, some public newspaper, recording my death, will give you perhaps the real name of