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A short story by Nathaniel Ames

The Rivals

Title:     The Rivals
Author: Nathaniel Ames [More Titles by Ames]

In the neighborhood of Genoa, there lived some years since an old gardner, who, by dint of most unwearied industry and great skill in his vocation, had acquired sufficient property to enable him to purchase the farm that he had hitherto occupied as a tenant. His name was Pietro Morelli. He had no family but an only child, his daughter Bianca, at the time of our story in her nineteenth year, and who assisted her father in such branches of his occupation as were not inconsistent with her sex.

Bianca Morelli possessed all that peculiar beauty for which her countrywomen are celebrated; namely, regular Grecian features, a clear brunette complexion, a profusion of raven black tresses, and soft, languishing, and most intelligent black eyes. Her form was tall, slender, and graceful, while her disposition was amiable and gentle as her face was lovely. The beautiful Bianca was well known, and admired by most of the inhabitants of Genoa; and her sweet face and modest deportment were always, with them, irresistible inducements to purchase her fruits and flowers, when she accompanied her father to market, or visited the city alone.

It so chanced one day, that a party of Austrian officers, who had recently been quartered in Genoa, rode out to old Morelli's house, to enjoy what was to them both a luxury and a novelty;--eating fruit fresh gathered from the trees and vines.--Old Morelli was by no means ambitious of this honor; he was too firm a friend to his degraded, but still redeemable country, to desire any intimacy with the military myrmidons of her Austrian despot; so that, notwithstanding the grave and correct moral deportment which is said to be the general characteristic of the Austrian officers, and of which he was aware, he saw their approach to his humble dwelling with a vague feeling of distrust and anxiety.

Among his military visitors was General Baron Plindorf, one of those "gallant militarists" that abound in all standing armies; whose sole employment, during the "piping times of peace," and in the course of a soldier's unsettled and rambling life from quarters to quarters, seems to be, to abuse the rights of hospitality, by carrying disgrace and infamy into every domestic circle to which they can by any means obtain admittance. It ought to be a source of pride to my countrymen, that they are more of a marrying people than the English or French, and do not regard women in the same degraded light as a gambler does a pack of cards, that are to be shuffled and played with for a while, and then thrown away. Our naval and military officers are rather remarkable for their readiness to form matrimonial connexions; while on the other hand, our young men who are educated to the law, physic, or divinity, never think of "setting up for themselves," till they are "accommodated," as Bardolph says, with a wife, whom the three learned professions regard as indispensable as Starkie on Evidence to the first; a pocket case of instruments, or Dawes' Midwifery, to the second; or a Brown's Concordance, or Calmet's Dictionary, to the third.

Such characters as I have alluded to, it would seem, are extremely common in the British army; and it is to be presumed that they are not less plentiful in the armies of the European powers; though it does not appear that the community at large gain wisdom and caution from the mournful experience of their neighbors, but rather the reverse; for, if we may believe their own writers, the footsteps of a regiment, moving about through different country quarters, are marked by more incurable evils, and more true horrors, than the march of an invading army through a hostile, and resisting country. It has been said of the Turkish army, that they are far more formidable to their friends, than to their foes; if any dependence can be placed in those numerous writings, professing to be descriptions of English manners, that find their way across the Atlantic, the same may be said of that portion of the British army that is on the "home station."

Baron Plindorf was an unprincipled libertine, cold, selfish, and unfeeling. He was eminently successful too in his diabolical enterprise, although there was nothing prepossessing in his person or in his manners; but he had the reputation of being irresistible, and of course he was so; for, whatever may be the reason, it is a most lamentable fact, that to be called a professed rake, and reputed father of some half dozen illegitimate children, is a man's most irresistible passport, and powerful recommendation to the good graces and smiles of the fair sex at large; every woman is instantly eager to call into exercise that fascinating treachery that ought to doom its possessor to public infamy and detestation. The next most powerful introduction to female favor, is to be a widower or a foreigner; though the latter is almost uniformly "brought to bay," in a few months after marrying in this country, by a wife and some eight or nine children from "over the water;" the very next foreigner that comes over alone, is snapped up in the same way--but enough of this.

He saw and admired Bianca, as Milton's devil saw and admired Paradise, with the prospective determination of destroying its calm happiness forever.

There was one of old Morelli's visitors, how ever, upon whom the lovely Bianca's beauty, modesty and grace, had made an impression of a far different kind. This was the young Count Altenberg, acknowledged on all hands to be the most accomplished gentleman, and most amiable and estimable young man, in that division of the Grand Duke's army. Frederic Count Altenberg, was the son of Rudolf, of Altenberg, an officer of high rank, who had served his country faithfully, but ineffectually, in opposing the headlong progress of the blood-stained Corsican. The old Count had, within two years, been gathered to his fathers, and his title and estates had descended to his only son, then in his twenty-third year. At an early age Frederic had received a commission as captain of cavalry, but as every body knows that promotion is slower in the army of his Tuscan highness than in that of any other European power, he still remained a captain of cavalry, and probably would do so unto his dying day. It was his determination, as soon as he returned to Florence, to resign his commission, and retire to his paternal estates in Germany, but "diis aliter visum est," the fates had decreed otherwise. An indulgent and fond father had spared no pains nor expense in educating this his only child, and that child had amply repaid his care.

Educated most carefully in the strictest principles of the Christian religion and morality, generous, brave, and humane, he was, when he arrived to man's estate, the beau ideal of a man of honor, and a gentleman. By neither of these terms, do I mean that fashionable personage whose god is himself, who would seduce his friend's wife or sister, or strip him of his last farthing at a gaming table, and then shoot him through the head, by way of making amends; or who scrupulously discharges all gambling and betting debts; utterly neglecting those of the poor tradesman, or industrious mechanic, but the "justum et tenacem propositi virum," of the Roman satirist, the man of strict integrity, and immoveable principles. Frederic had long since formed a determination, that as soon as he could clear himself from the army, he would most seriously incline himself to the search of a wife. Although considered by his fair-haired countrywomen as lawful game, and moreover as one who was well worth securing, he had hitherto escaped any very serious affection of the heart. The beauty of Bianca, so unlike what he had been accustomed to, had charmed him; her unaffected modesty had commanded his respect; and when he left her father's house, he determined that it was absolutely necessary to his comfort, to see her again. Accordingly the next evening, and the next, and many succeeding evenings, saw him riding towards old Morelli's cottage; and he had long been convinced, from what he saw of Bianca, that he had at last found the woman who only of all her sex could make him happy; which is precisely what every man thinks when in love for the first time, and alters his mind in less than a twelvemonth. Nor was the gentle Bianca insensible to his evident partiality for her society; she detected herself repeatedly, without being willing to acknowledge it, wishing for evening--disappointed, if the sky was overcast, or the weather rainy--fluttering with hope, and joy, and indescribable emotion, at the sight of every distant cavalier, or at the sound of every horse's hoof upon the road towards the city. The warm blush, the speaking smile, the sparkling eyes, of both the lovely Bianca and the young soldier, would have been sufficient to convince the most casual observer that there existed the most decided case of a serious affection of the heart. Of course old Morelli's eyes had long before seen and made due report to his mind, as to what was the true state of his daughter's and the young nobleman's affection. Ever anxious for Bianca's happiness and welfare, and still more so now that she had attained that age when female beauty is both mature and fully developed, while at the same time it has all the freshness and rosiness of youth, he became exceedingly alarmed and agitated at the too obvious state of the lover's sentiments. He sought and soon obtained an opportunity of speaking to him, and Frederic was at that moment anxious to see the old man, and putting to him that question, which, whether addressed to the fair one in person, or to her pa and ma, is always embarrassing; always makes a man look, and feel, and act, very much like a fool; and when answered in the affirmative, is not unfrequently the forerunner of most sincere and hearty repentance. In fact, repentance being so often the consequence of marriage, (it is gravely asserted by some of the old fathers,) is in our mind reason why Catholics regard it (that is, the marriage, not the repentance) a sacrament, "because it produces repentance, which is a step towards grace." I am so far a Catholic, as to admit most cheerfully, that it is a holy state, and that there is no text in scripture more true, than that "it is not good for man to be alone;" still if I was about entering that holy state, I am sadly afraid that my feelings would be wholly uninfluenced by any hopes of approaching any nearer towards a state of grace, not even over the thorny path of the consequent repentance.

"Signior Count," began old Morelli, as soon as he had ascertained that they were alone, "you cannot suppose me ignorant of the cause of your frequent visits to my poor house, or that as a father I am so indifferent to my daughter's happiness as to see it without extreme anxiety."

"I was about speaking to you on the same subject," said Frederic, hesitatingly, "I have already told you that it is my fixed determination to leave the army, and retire to peaceful life on my own estate. But although my fortune is princely, I feel it would be valueless without your lovely daughter. Signior Morelli, I love Bianca; I have made no attempt to conceal it from you; were my intentions dishonorable, do you not think that I would endeavor to hide them from a father's eye? Do you take me for the bold, hardened libertine that would trample under foot a father's hospitality to accomplish his daughter's infamy? You wrong me, Signior, if you do; but I cannot believe that in your dislike to my country, you believe all her children base and unprincipled."

"Nay, my young friend, I believe nothing of that detestable character can be laid to your charge. But consider for a moment the immense distance between you. You are an Austrian nobleman of high rank and of ancient family, and Bianca, on the other hand, can boast of nothing but her good name and unsullied character."

"And does not virtue outweigh all worldly titles and distinctions in the estimation of every rational and virtuous mind? Your lovely daughter's virtues are far superior to my empty titles or immense wealth. In accepting me as a husband, she would confer honor, not receive it. She descends to my level; I do not and cannot rise to hers--the gain, the honor, the advantage, of such an alliance would be mine."

"You are an enthusiast, Count; your passion has gotten the better of your judgment; that you love my daughter now I am perfectly willing to admit, but that your affection for her will sustain the shock of the ridicule of your associates, or the contempt and neglect with which your proud and titled kindred and countrymen will treat such a wife, whom they regard so infinitely beneath them, I very much doubt. Matches between people so widely separated by difference of rank, however arbitrary and absurd those distinctions may be, can never produce aught but unhappiness."

The Count was, notwithstanding the reasonableness of old Morelli's objections, as politely obstinate as young lovers are to old fathers, when those old fathers condescend to reason with them instead of resorting to the more usual and summary process of turning them out of doors, and forbidding their daughters to hold any farther communication with the dear rejected. In a subsequent conversation with his daughter he found that both parties were nearly in the same situation; Bianca with many tears confessing her love for Count Altenberg. There seemed then but two chances to escape from this state of embarrassment, namely, either to consent to Frederic's offer of his hand, or to send his daughter to an aged relative at Padua; which last plan was liable to so many objections that, after ruminating upon it for two days, he gave it up, and permitted the lovers to enjoy each other's society, though without giving a direct consent to their union.

In the mean time the libertine Plindorf was plotting destruction to the fair Bianca. He well knew that such a woman was not to be carried by the usual attacks of flattery and money; which last, whether administered in the form of rich and dazzling presents, or simply by itself, is almost uniformly found irresistible by old and young women, according to their tastes or situations; his plan was therefore necessarily more deeply laid than any he had heretofore practised. It was accordingly with a mingled emotion of pleasure and anxiety that he watched the progress of the attachment between the two lovers. Although he feared that her attachment might prove too strong to be easily shaken, he still hoped to be able to involve them in embarrassments, and then, under the guise of friendship and pretence of assisting them, further his own unprincipled views. The impetuosity of the young nobleman, and certain circumstances that he could not foresee, brought the affair to a crisis both unexpected and disastrous.

The Baron walked out one afternoon towards old Morelli's cottage, without any fixed object, for the unequivocal dislike that Bianca always manifested towards him, had determined him to cease his visits to her father's house, and make his approaches with the utmost caution. He approached a retired spot near the house, where the lovers frequently strolled to enjoy each other's society. Bianca had also wandered there in the hope of meeting Frederic. She was occupied gathering flowers, and arranging them in a nosegay, when a rustling among the bushes attracted her attention. She hastily advanced towards the spot, exclaiming "Frederic!" when the Baron, the man whom of all others she most hated, and, for some undefinable reason or other, feared, stood before her.

"Fairest Bianca!" said Plindorf, advancing, "let me not alarm you, although I am not the person you seemed to expect; let me hope that the presence of a friend and well-wisher to both parties is not disagreeable or terrifying."

Bianca, exceedingly alarmed at the sudden apparition of one so odious to her, had sunk down upon a rude seat. The Baron approached, and taking her passive hand, seated himself by her side. Mistaking the cause of her quietness, he ventured to press her trembling hand to his lips, and attempted to pass his arm around her waist. The terrified girl suddenly sprang from him with a loud shriek, and attempted to fly; the Baron again caught her hand, and endeavored forcibly to detain her. At that moment the Count Altenberg suddenly stood before them, his eyes flashing with rage.

"Villain," he exclaimed, as soon as his passion would give him utterance, "deceitful, cowardly scoundrel! take that"--striking him a violent blow, and at the same time unsheathing his sword.

The Baron was ready in an instant, but as soon as the Count felt his weapon clashing against that of his antagonist, he became at once cool and composed. Not so Plindorf, he dashed at his more youthful opponent with a fury that had well nigh brought the combat to a speedy and fatal issue, and compelled Frederic to exert his utmost skill. The peculiar danger of his situation, and almost certain death or remediless disgrace that awaited him, even if victorious, for having struck his superior officer, were present to the mind of the young officer in gloomy and terrible colors; but it was too late to retract. The fury of the Baron threw him off his guard--he received a mortal wound, and fell dead. The unhappy survivor stood for some seconds gazing upon the inanimate form before him; and as the features, after being convulsed for a little, settled into the iron stiffness of everlasting sleep, he uttered a deep sigh, and unconsciously moved away from the spot. At this moment Bianca, recovering from the stupor into which the terrible scene had thrown her, earnestly enjoined him to fly.

"There is no time to be lost," said the agonized girl; "fly at once to the sea-side--go on board any vessel that is about sailing--in a few days, I doubt not, this unhappy business will be hushed up."

"And where shall I fly?" said the Count; "where shall I go from him?"--indicating the slain nobleman by a movement of his hand--"do you know what I have done? I have in one moment sentenced myself to death; or, what is worse, to disgraceful and infamous privation of all my honors and rank."

"No, no--there is yet time--go immediately on board the American man-of-war in the harbor--they dare not search for you there."

With many entreaties and tears, she prevailed upon him to take measures for his safety; and with a lightened heart saw him, from the windows of her father's house, reach the water-side uninterrupted; saw him leave the shore in a little skiff, when the intervention of other objects hid him from her sight.

The two officers were missed that evening. The dead body of the ill-fated Baron was soon discovered; for many had seen him going towards old Morelli's cottage; but no traces of Count Altenberg have ever been discovered. Morelli and his daughter underwent a rigid examination; the former could throw no light upon the mysterious disappearance of Frederic, but Bianca, the pure-minded Bianca, unreservedly related all the circumstances. The examining officers forwarded an elaborate and circumstantial report of the case to Vienna, accompanied by an earnest petition in behalf of the absent Count. The Emperor laid the affair before a select council of old and experienced officers, who, after due deliberation, and weighing the excellence of Altenberg's character against the depravity of his slain antagonist, suggested the expediency of pardoning the offender. Proclamation was accordingly made to that effect, but without success.

The unhappy Bianca lived to experience, in all its bitterness, that "hope deferred that maketh the heart sick" and eventually breaks it. She died in less than two years after the flight of Frederic, a victim to a disorder that has no place in the catalogue of nosologists, and is not recognised as a malady; though it is as incurable and consigns almost as many victims to an untimely grave as consumption, with which it is very frequently confounded--I mean a broken heart. She was buried, according to her dying request, in the little arbor that Frederic had assisted her to erect and adorn, and where she had passed those most delightful moments in human existence, the days of the first love, and first courtship, of two young, affectionate, and virtuous beings. Blessed moments! that occur but once in the dreary threescore years and ten, and fade away before we have time to enjoy them, and we only become conscious of their existence from the certainty that they are gone for ever.

* * * * *

Several years ago, and, if I am not much mistaken, just after the peace of 1815, an officer, in full Austrian uniform, came on board one of our frigates then lying in the harbor of Genoa. From the richness of his regimentals, and a cross and ribbon in his button-hole, it was evident that the stranger was of high ancestral and military rank.

It so happened that he came on board just at "grog time," (four o'clock) in the afternoon; and during the interesting moment that sailors are discussing their whiskey--the whole Holy Alliance, with aids and prime ministers and protocols, might come on board, and balance Europe, or upset the scales, just as unto them seemed good, expedient, or politic, without attracting any attention from these short-jacketed philosophers; unless indeed some straggler from the upper deck might come below, and casually inform his messmates, that "there was a whole raft of soger officers on the quarter-deck;" for be it known to all concerned, that the word number is seldom or never used by nautical philologists to designate things numerable, it is always "a raft of women," "a raft of marines," &c.; I could easily go on to show that the word "raft" is a good phrase, and peculiarly applicable to women and marines; but I must resist the temptation of convincing the public, that sailors are as deeply versed in the mysteries of their mother-tongue, as many of those who stay ashore all their life-times, and make dictionaries.

The day after the arrival of this military stranger, it was ascertained by the crew, that there was a supernumerary on board by the name of Williams; for it is as impossible for the commander and officers of a man-of-war to keep a secret in the cabin, as it is for twelve "good men and true," locked up in a jury-room. The new-comer seemed to have free access to the cabin, and was treated with much respect by the officers, but it was soon observed, by the seamen, that he never went on shore. In the course of a few months, he was put on board a homeward-bound ship: and when the crew of the frigate returned to America, they saw him again in New York, abandoned to intemperance.

When on a cruise in the Pacific, the crew of one of the light vessels of the squadron were transferred to the frigate that I was on board of; their time of service having expired. Among them was Williams; and from his shipmates I learned the above particulars. In person, he was about five feet eight or nine inches high, and extremely well made. With the rest of the schooner's people, he had been on shore on liberty, where he had been continually intoxicated; his face was in consequence bloated, and his eyes bloodshot and swollen.

I further understood, that he would get drunk whenever he had an opportunity, and when intoxicated he was completely insane. He was also subject to fits of temporary derangement, independent of the insanity produced by excessive drinking, when he was both furious and dangerous; and it was always necessary, on such occasions, to confine him in irons. He was also represented as being extremely reserved, and refusing to answer any questions respecting himself, whether addressed to him by officers or seamen; that he spoke with fluency all European languages, on which account, he was extremely useful as an interpreter, both on the coast of Peru and Chili, and on that of Brazil; that he was a first rate swordsman, either with the small-sword or sabre, and a dead shot with pistol or musket.

During his short stay on board the frigate, he had one of his temporary fits of insanity, probably induced by excessive intemperance, if intemperance admits of superlatives, while on shore. He suddenly started up from a gloomy, stupid reverie, and ran about the decks like a wild beast, striking and knocking down, every one he met; then all at once plunging down the main-hatchway, he attempted to get possession of one of the boarding cutlasses, but fortunately they were well secured in the racks over the guns, to prevent them from falling down with the motion of the ship. Before he could make a second and more regular attempt, he was secured, put in irons, and placed under charge of a sentry. Had he succeeded in arming himself, he would have made bloody work on the quarter-deck, towards which it seemed evident he was steering his course; the uniforms of the officers, and marine guard, probably calling up to his diseased imagination, and memory, scenes of by-gone days connected with or the remote cause of his present insanity. The officers seemed to be so far acquainted with his history, as to feel compassion for his most wretched situation; for, as he manifested no symptoms of derangement the next morning, except his usual deep melancholy, he was discharged from confinement, to the great astonishment of the ship's company; for though the discipline on board was as mild as it could be consistent with the preservation of good order, and perfectly free from that tyranny that but too many of our navy officers think indispensable, they certainly were not accustomed to seeing such quiet jail deliveries.

Williams afterwards re-entered on board the same vessel that he came from, and I lost sight of him of course, as our frigate was on the point of quitting the station to return home. He has, in all probability, long ere this, reached the grave towards which he seemed to be hurrying, with all the speed of intemperance and insanity combined.

[The end]
Nathaniel Ames's short story: The Rivals