« PreviousContinue »
FROM THE NOVEL OF “NATURE AND ART," BY MRS. INCHBALD.
ELIZABETH INCHBALD, an amusing dramatist, a writer of stories of the highest order for sentiment and passion, and a beautiful woman, admirable for attractiveness of almost every kind, especially candour and self-denial, was daughter of a farmer in Suffolk, of the name of Simpson. She married an actor, a very worthy man, who died not long after their union. She performed on the stage herself for some years, in spite of an impediment in her speech, which seems to have been generally under control; and then settled down into a successful authoress, court-, ed by high and low, often with a view to marriage. In one or two instances offers would evidently have been accepted had they been made, but she was superior to all that were unconnected with the heart. She maintained some relatives at the expense of personal sacrifices that sometimes left her without a fire in winter; and she died at a respectable lodging-house in Kensington, where she was buried in the churchyard. She wrote the dramas of The Midnight Hour, The Mogul Tale, Such Things Are, &c.; and, besides the novel from which the following incident is taken, was authoress of The Simple Story, one of the deepest-felt and best-written tales in the language. We had not the honor of knowing Mrs. Inch bald; but we love her memory for many reasons one of which is, that a mother who possessed similar virtues was fond of those novels, particularly Nature and Art, and recommended it strongly to us in our boyhood. Passages more beautiful and pathetic than those which we have selected are not to be found in the whole circle of English prose.
The reader will observe that the warning is not aimed at lawyers in particular. The writer would have done nothing so unjust. A Jawyer is only selected for the more striking illustration of it; and as the profession, generally speaking, has been as free in its way of life as most others, however admirable for the final wisdom and virtue in which its many-thoughted experience tends to settle it, the dreadful circumstances imagined in this story are but too possible—perhaps have often occurred in spirit, though not in letter. The exclamation “Oh, not from you!” may rank with the finest bursts of emotion in the tragic poets; and it comes more dreadfully home to the bosom of society.
THE day at length is come on which Agnes shall have
a sight of her beloved William ! She who has watched for hours near his door, to procure a glimpse of him going out or returning home; who has walked miles to see his chariot pass; she now will behold him, and he will see her, by command of the laws of his country. Those laws, which will deal with rigour towards her, are in this one instance still indulgent.
The time of the assizes at the county town in which she is imprisoned, is arrived—the prisoners are demanded at the shire-hall--the jail doors are opened-they go in sad procession. The trumpet sounds-it speaks the arrival of the judge--and that judge is William.
The day previous to her trial, Agnes had read, in the printed calendar of the prisoners, his name as the learned judge before whom she was to appear.
For a moment she forgot her perilous state in the excess of joy which the still unconquerable love she bore to him permitted her to taste, even on the brink of the grave! After reflection made her check these worldly transports, as unfit for the present solemn occasion. But, alas ! to her, earth and William were so closely united, that, till she forsook the one, she could never cease to think, without the contending passions of hope, of fear, of love, of shame, and of despair, on the other.
Now fear took place of her first immoderate joy; she feared that, although much changed in person since he had seen her, and her real name now added to many an aliasyet she feared that some well-known glance of the eye,
turn of the action, or accent of speech, might recall her to his remembrance; and at that idea, shame overcame all her other sensations—for still she retained pride, in respect to his opinion, to wish bim not to know Agnes was that wretch she felt she was ! Once a ray of hope beamed on her, that if he knew her—if he recognised her—he might possibly befriend her cause; and life, bestowed through William's friendship, seemed a precious object! But, again, that rigorous honour she had often heard him boast, that firmness to his word, of which she had fatal experience, taught her to know he would not, for any improper compassion, any unmanly weakness, forfeit his oath of impartial justice.
In meditations such as these she passed the sleepless night.
When, in the morning, she was brought to the bar, and her guilty hand held up before the righteous judgment-seat of William, imagination could not form two figures, or two situations more incompatible with the existence of former familiarity than the judge and the culprit; and yet, these very persons had passed together the most blissful moments that either ever tasted! Those hours of tender dalliance were now present to her mind—his thoughts were more nobly employed in his high office; nor could the haggard face, hollow eye, desponding countenance, and meagre person of the poor prisoner, once call to his memory, though her name was uttered among a list of others which she had assumed, his former youthful, lovely Agnes !
She heard herself arraigned, with trembling limbs and downcast looks, and many witnesses had appeared against
her, before she ventured to lift her eyes up to her awful judge; she then gave one fearful glance, and discovered William, unpitying but beloved William, in every feature ! It was a face she had been used to look on with delight, and a kind of absent smile of gladness now beamed on her poor wan visage. When every
witness on the part of the prosecutor had been examined, the judge addressed himself to her
“ What defence have you to make ?"
It was William spoke to Agnes! The sound was sweet; the voice was mild, was soft, compassionate, encouraging. It almost charmed her to a love of life ! Not such a voice as when William last addressed her; when he left her undone and pregnant, vowing never to see or speak to her
She would have hung upon the present word for ever. She did not call to mind that this gentleness was the effect of practice, the art of his occupation; which, at times, is but a copy, by the unfeeling, of the benevolent brethren of the bench. In the present judge, tenderness was not designed for consolation of the culprit, but for the approbation of the auditors.
There were no spectators, Agnes, by your side when last he parted from you ;-if there had, the awful William would have been awed to marks of pity.
Stunned with the enchantment of that.well-known tongue directed to her, she stood like one just petrified—all vital power seemed suspended.
Again he put the question, and with these additional sentences, tenderly and emphatically delivered :-“Recollect yourself; have you no witnesses ? no proof on your behalf ?"
A dead silence followed these questions.
He then mildly but forcibly added
45 What have you to say ?"
Here a flood of tears burst from her eyes, which she fixed earnestly upon him, as if pleading for mercy, while she faintly articulated
“ Nothing, my lord.”
After a short pause, he asked her in the same forcible, but benevolent tone
“ Have you no one to speak to your character ?"
A second gush of tears followed this reply, for she called to mind by whom her character had first been blasted.
He summed up the evidence, and every time he was obliged to press hard upon the proofs against her, she shrunk, and seemed to stagger with the deadly blowwrithed under the weight of his minute justice, more than from the prospect of a shameful death.
The jury consulted but a few minutes, the verdict was “ Guilty."
She heard it with composure.
But when William placed the fatal velvet on his head, and rose to pronounce the fatal sentence, she started with a kind of convulsive motion, retreated a step or two back, and lifting up her hands, with a scream exclaimed
“ Oh, not from you
The piercing shriek which accompanied these words, prevented their being heard by part of the audience ; and those who heard them thought little of their meaning, more than that they expressed her fear of dying.
Serene and dignified, as if no such exclamation had been uttered, William delivered the final speech ending with “ Dead, dead, dead."