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The Black Baronet; or, The Chronicles Of Ballytrain, a novel by William Carleton

Chapter 4. An Anonymous Letter

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_ CHAPTER IV. An Anonymous Letter

--Lucy Gourlay avows a previous Attachment

Whilst Fenton was thus sketching for the stranger a few of the public characters of Ballytrain, a scene, which we must interrupt them to describe, was taking place in the coffee-room of the "Mitre." As everything, however, has an origin, it is necessary, before we raise the curtain, which, for the present, excludes us from that scene, to enable the reader to become acquainted with the cause of it. That morning, after breakfast, Sir Thomas Gourlay went to his study, where, as usual, he began to read his letters and endorse them--for he happened to be one of those orderly and exact men who cannot bear to see even a trifle out of its place. Having despatched three or four, he took up one--the last--and on opening it read, much to his astonishment and dismay, as follows;

"Sir Thomas Gourlay,--There is an adventurer in disguise near you. Beware of your daughter, and watch her well, otherwise she may give you the slip. I write this, that you may prevent her from throwing herself away upon an impostor and profligate. I am a friend to her, but none to you; and it is on her account, as well as for the sake of another, that you are now warned."

On perusing this uncomfortable document, his whole frame became moved with a most vehement fit of indignation. He rose from his seat, and began to traverse the floor with lengthy and solemn strides, as a man usually does who knows not exactly on whom to vent his rage. There hung a large mirror before him, and, as he approached it from time to time, he could not help being struck by the repulsive expression of his own features. He was a tall, weighty man, of large bones and muscles; his complexion was sallow, on a black ground; his face firm, but angular; and his forehead, which was low, projected a good deal over a pair of black eyes, in one of which there was a fearful squint. His eyebrows, which met, were black, fierce-looking, and bushy, and, when agitated, as now, with passion, they presented, taken in connection with his hard, irascible lips, short irregular teeth and whole complexion, an expression singularly stern and malignant.

On looking at his own image, he could not help feeling the conviction, that the visage which presented itself to him was not such a one as was calculated to diminish the unpopularity which accompanied him wherever he went, and the obloquy which hung over his name.

Sir Thomas Gourlay, however, although an exceedingly forbidding and ugly man, was neither a fool nor novice in the ways of the world. No man could look upon his plotting forehead, and sunken eyes closely placed, without feeling at once that he was naturally cunning and circumventive. Nor was this all; along with being deep and designing, he was also subject to sudden bursts of passion, which, although usual in such a temperament, did not suddenly pass away. On the contrary, they were sometimes at once so tempestuous and abiding, that he had been rendered ill by their fury, and forced to take to his bed for days together. On the present occasion, a considerable portion of his indignation was caused by the fact, that he knew not the individual against whom to direct it. His daughter, as a daughter, had been to him an object of perfect indifference, from the day of her birth up to that moment; that is to say, he was utterly devoid of all personal love and tenderness for her, whilst, at the same time, he experienced, in its full force, a cold, conventional ambition, which, although without honor, principle, or affection, yet occasioned him to devote all his efforts and energies to her proper establishment in the world. In her early youth, for instance, she had suffered much from delicate health, so much, indeed, that she was more than once on the very verge of death; yet, on no occasion, was he ever known to manifest the slightest parental sorrow for her illness. Society, however, is filled with such fathers, and with too many mothers of a like stamp. So far, however, as Lucy Gourlay was concerned, this proud, unprincipled spirit of the world supplied to her, to a certain extent at least, the possession of that which affection ought to have given. Her education was attended to with the most solicitous anxiety--not in order to furnish her mind with that healthy description of knowledge which strengthens principle and elevates the heart, but that she might become a perfect mistress of all the necessary and fashionable accomplishments, and shine, at a future day, an object of attraction on that account. A long and expensive array of masters, mistresses, and finishers, from almost every climate and country of Europe, were engaged in her education, and the consequence was, that few young persons of her age and sex were more highly accomplished. If his daughter's head ached, her father never suffered that circumstance to disturb the cold, stern tenor of his ambitious way; but, at the same time, two or three of the most eminent physicians were sent for, as a matter of course, and then there were nothing but consultations until she recovered. Had she died, Sir Thomas Gourlay would not have shed one tear, but he would have had all the pomp and ceremony due to her station in life solemnly paraded at her funeral, and it is very likely that one or other of our eminent countrymen, Hogan or M'Dowall, had they then existed, would have been engaged to erect her a monument.

And yet the feeling which he experienced, and which regulated his life, was, after all, but a poor pitiful parody upon true ambition. The latter is a great and glorious principle, because, where it exists, it never fails to expand the heart, and to prompt it to the performance of all those actions that elevate our condition and dignify our nature. Had he experienced anything like such a feeling as this, or even the beautiful instincts of parental affection, he would not have neglected, as he did, the inculcation of all those virtues and principles which render education valuable, and prevent it from degenerating into an empty parade of mere accomplishments.

It is true, Sir Thomas Gourlay enjoyed the reputation of being an admirable father, and, indeed, from mere worldly principle he was so, and we presume gave himself credit for being so. In the mean time, our readers are to learn that earth scarcely contained a man who possessed a greedier or more rapacious spirit; and, if ever the demon of envy, especially with respect to the possession of wealth and property, tortured the soul of a human being, it did that of our baronet. His whole spirit, in fact, was dark, mean, and intensely selfish; and for this reason, it was a fearful thing for any one to stand in his way when in the execution of his sordid projects, much less to attempt his defeat in their attainment. Reckless and unscrupulous, he left no means unattempted, however odious and wicked, to crush those who offended him, or such as stood in the way of his love of wealth and ambition.

For some minutes after the perusal of the anonymous letter, one would have imagined that the image which met his gaze, from time to time, in the looking-glass, was that of his worst and deadliest enemy, so fierce and menacing were the glances which he cast on it as he paced the floor. At length he took up the document, and, having read it again, exclaimed:

"Perhaps, after all, I'm angry to no purpose; certainly to no purpose, in one sense, I am, inasmuch as I know not who this anonymous person is. But stay, let me be cautious--is there such a person? May this communication not be a false one--written to mislead or provoke me? Lucy knows that I am determined she shall marry Lord Dunroe, and I am not aware that she entertains any peculiar objection to him. In the mean time, I will have some conversation with her, in order to ascertain what her present and immediate feeling on the subject is. It is right that I should see my way in this."

He accordingly rang the bell, when a well-powdered footman, in rich livery, entered.

"Let Miss Gourlay understand that I wish to see her."

This he uttered in a loud, sharp tone of voice, for it was in such he uniformly addressed his dependents.

The lackey bowed and withdrew, and, in the course of a few minutes, his daughter entered the study, and stood before him. At the first glance, she saw that something had discomposed him, and felt a kind of instinctive impression that it was more or less connected with herself.

Seldom, indeed, was such a contrast between man and woman ever witnessed, as that which presented itself on this occasion. There stood the large, ungainly, almost misshapen father, with a countenance distorted, by the consequences of ill-suppressed passion, into a deeper deformity--a deformity that was rendered ludicrously hideous, by a squint that gave, as we have said, to one of his eyes, as he looked at her, the almost literal expression of a dagger. Before him, on the other hand, stood a girl, whose stature was above the middle height, with a form that breathed of elegance, ease, and that exquisite grace which marks every look, and word, and motion of the high-minded and accomplished lady. Indeed, one would imagine that her appearance would have soothed and tranquillized the anger of any parent capable of feeling that glowing and prideful tenderness, with which such an exquisitely beautiful creature was calculated to fill a parent's heart. Lucy Gourlay was a dark beauty--a brunette so richly tinted, that the glow of her cheek was only surpassed by the flashing brilliancy of her large, dark eyes, that seemed, in those glorious manifestations, to kindle with inspiration. Her forehead was eminently intellectual, and her general temperament--Celtic by the mother's side--was remarkable for those fascinating transitions of spirit which passed over her countenance like the gloom and sunshine of the early summer. Nothing could be more delightful, nor, at the same time, more dangerous, than to watch that countenance whilst moving under the influence of melancholy, and to observe how quickly the depths of feeling, or the impulses of tenderness, threw their delicious shadows into its expression--unless, indeed, to watch the same face when lit up by humor, and animated into radiance by mirth. Such is a faint outline of Lucy Gourlay, who, whether in shadow or whether in light, was equally captivating and irresistible.

On entering the room, her father, incapable of appreciating even the natural graced and beauty of her person, looked at her with a gaze of sternness and inquiry for some moments, but seemed at a loss in what terms to address her. She, however, spoke first, simply saying:

"Has anything discomposed you, papa?"

"I have been discomposed, Miss Gourlay"--for he seldom addressed her as Lucy--"and I wish to have some serious conversation with you. Pray be seated."

Lucy sat.

"I trust, Miss Gourlay," he proceeded, in a style partly interrogatory and partly didactic--"I trust you are perfectly sensible that a child like you owes full and unlimited obedience to her parents."

"So long, at least, sir, as her parents exact no duties from her that are either unreasonable or unjust, or calculated to destroy her own happiness. With these limitations, I reply in the affirmative."

"A girl like you, Miss Gourlay, has no right to make exceptions. Your want of experience, which is only another name for your ignorance of life, renders you incompetent to form an estimate of what constitutes, or may constitute, your happiness."

"Happiness!--in what sense, sir?"

"In any sense, madam."

"Madam!" she replied, with much feeling. "Dear papa--if you will allow me to call you so--why address me in a tone of such coldness, if not of severity? All I ask of you is, that, when you do honor me by an interview, you will remember that I am your daughter, and not speak to me as you would to an utter stranger."

"The tone which I may assume toward you, Miss Gourlay, must be regulated by your own obedience."

"But in what have I ever failed in obedience to you, my dear papa?"

"Perhaps you compliment your obedience prematurely, Lucy--it has never yet been seriously tested."

Her beautiful face crimsoned at this assertion; for she well knew that many a severe imposition had been placed upon her during girlhood, and that, had she been any other girl than she was, her very youth would have been forced into opposition to commands that originated in whim, caprice, and selfishness. Even when countenanced, however, by the authority of her other parent, and absolutely urged against compliance with injunctions that were often cruel and oppressive, she preferred, at any risk, to accommodate herself to them rather than become the cause of estrangement or ill-feeling between him and her mother, or her mother's friends. Such a charge as this, then, was not only ungenerous, but, as he must have well known, utterly unfounded.

"I do not wish, sir," she replied, "to make any allusion to the past, unless simply to say, that, if severe and trying instances of obedience have been exacted from me, under very peculiar circumstances, I trust I have not been found wanting in my duty to you."

"That obedience, Miss Gourlay, which is reluctantly given, had better been forgotten."

"You have forced me to remember it in my own defence, papa; but I am not conscious that it was reluctant."

"You contradict me, madam."

"No, sir; I only take the liberty of setting you right. My obedience, if you recollect, was cheerful; for I did not wish to occasion ill-will between you and mamma--my dear mamma."

"I believe you considered that you had only one parent, Miss Gourlay?"

"That loved me, sir, you would add. But, papa, why should there be such a dialogue as this between you and your daughter--your orphan daughter, and your only child? It is not natural, Something, I see, has discomposed your temper; I am ignorant of it."

"I made you aware, some time ago, that the Earl of Cullamore and I had entered into a matrimonial arrangement between you and his son, Lord Dunroe."

A deadly paleness settled upon her countenance at these words--a paleness the more obvious, as it contrasted so strongly with the previous rich hue of her complexion, which had been already heightened by the wanton harshness of her father's manner. The baronet's eyes, or rather his eye, was fixed upon her with a severity which this incident rapidly increased.

"You grow pale, Miss Gourlay; and there seems to be something in this allusion to Lord Dunroe that is painful to you. How is this, madam? I do not understand it."

"I am, indeed, pale, and I feel that I am; for what is there that could drive the hue of modesty from the cheek of a daughter, sooner than the fact of her own father purposing to unite her to a profligate? You seldom jest, papa; but I hope you do so now."

"I am not disposed to make a jest of your happiness, Miss Gourlay."

"Nor of my misery, papa. You surely cannot but know--nay, you cannot but feel--that a marriage between me and Lord Dunroe is impossible. His profligacy is so gross, that his very name is indelicate in the mouth of a modest woman. And is this the man to whom you would unite your only child and daughter? But I trust you still jest, sir. As a man, and a gentleman, much less as a parent, you would not think seriously of making such a proposal to me?"

"All very fine sentiment--very fine stuff and nonsense, madam; the young man is a little wild--somewhat lavish in expenditure--and for the present not very select in the company he keeps; but he is no fool, as they say, and we all know how marriage reforms a man, and thoroughly sobers him down."

"Often at the expense, papa," she replied with tears, "of many a broken heart. That surely, is not a happy argument; for, perhaps, after all, I should, like others, become but a victim to my ineffectual efforts at his reformation."

"There is one thing, Miss Gourlay, you are certain to become, and that is, Countess of Cullamore, at his father's death. Remember this; and. remember also, that, victim or no victim, I am determined you shall marry him. Yes, you shall marry him," he added, stamping with vehemence, "or be turned a beggar upon the world. Become a victim, indeed! Begone, madam, to your room, and prepare for that obedience which your mother never taught you."

She rose as he spoke, and with a graceful inclination of her head, silently withdrew.

This dialogue caused both father and daughter much pain. Certain portions of it, especially near the close, were calculated to force upon the memory of each, analogies that were as distressing to the warm-hearted girl, as they were embarrassing to her parent. The truth was, that her mother, then a year dead, had indeed become a victim to the moral profligacy of a man in whose character there existed nothing whatsoever to compensate her for the utter absence of domestic affection in all its phases. His principal vices, so far as they affected the peace of his family, were a brutal temper, and a most scandalous dishonesty in pecuniary transactions, especially in his intercourse with his own tenantry and tradesmen. Of moral obligation he seemed to possess no sense or impression whatever. A single day never occurred in which he was not guilty of some most dishonorable violation of his word to the poor, and those who were dependent on him. Ill-temper therefore toward herself, and the necessity of constantly witnessing a series of vile and unmanly frauds upon a miserable scale, together with her incessant efforts to instil into his mind some slight principle of common integrity, had, during an unhappy life, so completely harassed a mind naturally pure and gentle, and a constitution never strong, that, as her daughter hinted, and as every one intimate with the family knew, she literally fell a victim to the vices we have named, and the incessant anxiety they occasioned her. These analogies, then, when unconsciously alluded to by his daughter, brought tears to her eyes, and he felt that the very grief she evinced was an indirect reproach to himself.

"Now," he exclaimed, after she had gone, "it is clear, I think, that the girl entertains something more than a mere moral objection to this match. I would have taxed her with some previous engagement, but that I fear it would be premature to do so at present. Dunroe is wild, no doubt of it; but I cannot believe that women, who are naturally vain and fond of display, feel so much alarm at this as they pretend. I never did myself care much about the sex, and seldom had an opportunity of studying their general character, or testing their principles; but still I incline to the opinion, that, where there is not a previous engagement, rank and wealth will, for the most part, outweigh every other consideration. In the meantime I will ride into Ballytrain, and reconnoitre a little. Perhaps the contents, of this communication are true--perhaps not; but, at all events, it can be no harm to look about me in a quiet way."

He then read the letter a third time--examined the handwriting closely--locked it in a private drawer--rang the bell--ordered his horse--and in a few minutes was about to proceed to the "Mitre" inn, in order to make secret inquiries after such persons as he might find located in that or the other establishments of the town. At this moment, his daughter once more entered the apartment, her face glowing with deep agitation, and her large, mellow eyes lit up with a fixed, and, if one could judge, a lofty purpose. Her reception, we need hardly say, was severe and harsh.

"How, madam," he exclaimed, "did I not order you to your room? Do you return to bandy undutiful hints and arguments with me?"

"Father," said she, "I am not ignorant, alas! of your stern and indomitable character; but, upon the subject of forced and unsuitable matches, I may and I do appeal directly to the experience of your own married life, and of that of my beloved mother. She was, unhappily for herself--"

"And for me, Miss Gourlay--"

"Well, perhaps so; but if ever woman was qualified to make a man happy, she was. At all events, sir, unhappily she was forced into marriage with you, and you deliberately took to your bosom a reluctant bride. She possessed extraordinary beauty, and a large fortune. I, however, am not about to enter into your heart, or analyze its motives; it is enough to say that, although she had no previous engagement or affection for any other, she was literally dragged by the force of parental authority into a union with you. The consequence was, that her whole life, owing to--to--the unsuitableness of your tempers, and the strongly-contrasted materials which formed your characters, was one of almost unexampled suffering and sorrow. With this example before my eyes, and with the memory of it brooding over and darkening your own heart--yes, papa--my dear papa, let me call you with the full and most distressing recollections connected with it strong upon both of us, let me entreat and implore that you will not urge nor force me into a union with this hateful and repulsive profligate. I go upon my knees to you, and entreat, as you regard my happiness, my honor, and my future peace of mind, that you will not attempt to unite me to this most unprincipled and dishonorable young man."

Her father's brow grew black as a thunder-cloud; the veins of his temples swelled up, as if they had been filled with ink, and, after a few hasty strides through the study, he turned upon her such a look of fury as we need not attempt to describe.

"Miss Gourlay," said he, in a voice dreadfully deep and stern, "there is not an allusion made in that undutiful harangue--for so I must call it--that does not determine me to accomplish my purpose in effecting this union. If your mother was unhappy, the fault lay in her own weak and morbid temper. As for me, I now tell you, once for all, that your destiny is either beggary or a coronet; on that I am resolved!"

She stood before him like one who had drawn strength from the full knowledge of her fate. Her face, it is true, had become pale, but it was the paleness of a calm but lofty spirit, and she replied, with a full and clear voice:

"I said, sir--for I had her own sacred assurance for it--that my mother, when she married you, had no previous engagement; it is not so with your daughter--my affections are fixed upon another."

There are some natures so essentially tyrannical, and to whom resistance is a matter of such extraordinary novelty, that its manifestation absolutely surprises them out of their natural character. In this manner Sir Thomas Gourlay was affected. Instead of flying into a fresh hurricane of rage, he felt so completely astounded, that he was only capable of turning round to her, and asking, in a voice unusually calm:

"Pray name him, Miss Gourlay."

"In that, sir, you will excuse me--for the present. The day may come, and I trust soon will, when I can do so with honor. And now, sir, having considered it my duty not to conceal this fact from your knowledge, I will, with your permission, withdraw to my own apartment."

She paid him, with her own peculiar grace, the usual obeisance, and left the room. The stem and overbearing Sir Thomas Gourlay now felt himself so completely taken aback by her extraordinary candor and firmness, that he was only able to stand and look after her in silent amazement.

"Well!" he exclaimed, "I have reason to thank her for this important piece of information. She has herself admitted a previous attachment. So far my doubts are cleared up, and I feel perfectly certain that the anonymous information is correct. It now remains for me to find out who the object of this attachment is. I have no doubt that he is in the neighborhood; and, if so, I shall know how to manage him."

He then mounted his horse, and rode into Ballytrain, with what purpose it is now unnecessary, we trust, to trouble the reader at farther length. _

Read next: Chapter 5. Sir Thomas Gourlay Fails In Unmasking The Stranger

Read previous: Chapter 3. Pauden Gair's Receipt How To Make A Bad Dinner A Good One

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