NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
I attended on horseback the chaise which conveyed Mary, and the young lady, her companion, to London. Having fixed her there, I was obliged to set out on an excursion of a few weeks into Wales, to inspect some affairs which required my presence. It was on the twentieth of September that the Macneils sailed from England; and the weather had proved squally and uncertain almost from the hour we parted. On that day week from the time we quitted Falmouth, I slept at Shrewsbury; and never in my life do I recollect a night so tremendously stormy. My thoughts were of course wholly on the Romney, the vessel on board which these dear friends were embarked. I could not refrain from anticipating every thing dreadful. How curiously is the human mind affected by circumstances! I have often listened to a storm, without almost recollecting that the globe of earth contained the element of water within its frame; I have felt entranced with the hollow sound, and the furious blasts, that sung round and shook the roof that sheltered me; I have got astride in imagination upon the horses of the element, and plunged with fearful delight into the vast abyss. Now every blast of wind went to my soul. Every thought was crowded with dismal images of piercing shrieks, of cracking masts, of the last despair, of dying clasps, and a watery grave. It is in vain to endeavour to give an idea of what this night I endured. It was not fancy or loose conjecture; it was firm persuasion; I saw my friends perish; when the morning dawned, I rose with a perfect conviction that they were no more.
So deep was the suffering I endured, that I had not spirit the next morning to leave Shrewsbury, and proceed on my destined journey. I could think of nothing but the sad fate of Macneil, and affairs of business appeared wholly unworthy of attention. What a long and melancholy day did it seem! A calm had succeeded; the sun shone, and nature was cheerful; to what purpose? The sun no longer shone on Macneil!— By the evening however, the monotony of rest became more intolerable to me than travelling; I ordered a chaise; I drove all night; and in the morning arrived at my paternal abode.
The day after my arrival I received a letter from my adored Mary. The sole topic of the letter was the storm of the twenty-seventh. She wrote in broken sentences, with grief, with terror, with distraction. "My all," said she, "is embarked in one venture! father, mother, sisters! What infatuation prevailed upon me to separate myself from them? It is a crime, no less deep and terrible than parricide! What shall I do alone in the world? Ye wild and raging winds! Ye merciless and all-devouring waves! Ye have made me tenfold a vagabond and a beggar upon the earth! The remembrance of last Saturday is distraction to me! Would that total distraction would come, and drive all remembrance from my brain for ever!" She continued in a style no less incoherent, and seemed to be as fully impressed as myself, with the conviction that the late storm had proved fatal to her whole family.
I no sooner read the letter of Mary, than I lost no time in setting out for London, that I might afford her every consolation in my power. It was particularly since this fatal prognostic had struck her, that she felt how forlorn was her situation in the family where she resided.
She had met one of the daughters upon a visit in Staffordshire; they two had been the only individuals of the party, who had not reached a demure and sober age; and for a month they had been sole companions to each other. They had sung and danced to each other; they had strolled through the meadows and reclined in the shade together; Mary had instructed her friend in botany, and her friend had been eager to learn, because she was told that botany was a fashionable accomplishment; she had in return been copious and animated in her description of the town-amusements. All this ended in the two young ladies, with that ardour and levity which is perhaps inseparable from youth, swearing to each other an everlasting friendship. Mary was a total stranger to every member of the family except this young lady; and the seniors complied in this point with their daughter's wishes, in inviting the youngest miss Macneil to pass the winter with them. Mr. Macneil wished for my sake to leave Mary in England, and easily turned the balance of her mind toward accepting the invitation.
For the first two or three days Mary had been delighted with the metropolis; and no doubt would have continued to be delighted for as many months, had not anxiety for the safety of her family gradually driven all other thoughts out of her mind.
At first she had conceived of a voyage at sea no otherwise, than of a journey by land; her father had been a great traveller; her mother had been in Italy; yet tempests and shipwrecks had made no part of the little histories she had heard them relate of their past adventures. The ocean occupied no distinct region of her fancy; she had devoted no part of her thoughts to meditate the natural history of the world of waters. In the past years of her life she had had no interest, giving to her ideas that particular direction; she had committed no rich freightage to the mercy of the unfaithful element. Now the case was altered. She had parted with her friends in a gentle and prosperous gale; but the late squally weather had given being and substance in her mind to the phenomena of the sea. What occupied her thoughts became the theme of her tongue; but she soon found that her fashionable friend lent an idle ear to the monotonous topic. Miss Matilda Rancliffe was what is well expressed by the phrase, a fair-weather friend; she loved no dismals; her step was airy; the tone of her voice was frolic and cheerful; and she owned that her sensibilities were so overpowering, as to make the impulse in her to fly from the presence of distress irresistible.
The servant at mr. Rancliffe's showed me into the drawing-room, where the whole family, with one or two visitors, was assembled. Every one was cheerful and amused; the young ladies were busy talking of a party of pleasure, and anticipating the happiness they should reap from it. I looked round the circle, and could not at first discover the object of my search. The poor Mary had withdrawn into a corner, neglecting all, and by all neglected. Her cheeks were pale; her eyes were sunk; her attitude was the attitude of despair. As soon as she saw me, she hastened to me, and led me into another room.
"Oh, sir," said she, "tell me all that you know, and all that you guess, respecting my poor father and mother. You, mr. Fleetwood, are acquainted with these things; you no doubt have witnessed storms at sea, and know the different coasts near which they were to pass in their voyage. Are there any hopes? Whereabout was the vessel likely to be when this storm came on? Was there ever so dreadful a tempest?" I endeavoured to encourage the unhappy orphan; I sought to inspire courage, with as much skill as it could be communicated by one who had not a spark of hope existing in his mind.
"And how, Mary," said I, "do you find yourself situated in this worthy family?" "Ah, mr. Fleetwood," replied she, with a desponding voice, "this is a sad place for me! As long as I was gay, and could join in their amusements, we went on well enough; I was a sort of favourite. But now that my heart sinks within me, nobody cares for me; they are glad to pass me by, and crowd together in a laughing knot at the most distant part of the room. This whole family, father, mother, brothers, sisters, seem to live only for amusements. What a situation for me, who have spent my whole life in a family of love? a family, where no individual could suffer, without exciting the liveliest anxieties, and the tenderest attentions, in all the rest?"
A month longer elapsed, before we had any intelligence of the fate of the Romney. During this period, my visits to the amiable forlorn were unintermitted. If Mary had before conceived a nascent partiality to me, it now became much stronger. The sight of me was the only pleasure the day afforded. The contrast between my sympathy and affection, and the indifference of the Rancliffes, was extreme. Into my bosom only could she pour her sorrows; in my eye only did she meet the expression of humanity. On my part, the situation was no less favourable to the growth of attachment. The sweet and affectionate disposition of Mary was conspicuous. Her desolate situation rendered her tenfold more interesting. I now felt, for the first time in my life, how delightful a task it is to console distress, when the sufferer is a woman, beautiful and young. At the proper hour I always flew to the presence of my charming ward with the most eager impatience. In general, when the mind is engaged in the performance of virtuous actions, one of the sentiments which most palpably offers itself is an honest pride. It was not pride that I felt on the present occasion. My mind was too much softened to be able to entertain so erect and prosperous a passion. There was something deliciously languid in the tone of my spirits; it was sadness, but a sadness not without its gratifications. Sorrow brings two generous hearts nearer to each other, than joy. I was astonished, when I reflected on the ignorance in which I had lived of the most delicious emotions of the human breast, and how near I had been to going to the grave without once participating what is most precious and excellent in the life of man.
The melancholy news at length reached us, which with so sure a foresight we had anticipated. The vessel in which the family of my beloved had embarked, was tossed several days in the bay of Biscay, and at length dashed to pieces near cape Finisterre, upon the iron-fronted coast of the province of Galicia. The captain only, and a few of the officers and sailors, were saved in the long boat. They had proffered to receive two of the passengers into the boat. But this kindred of love refused to be separated; they could not endure to cast lots upon their lives; and, rather than submit to so dire an extremity, father, mother and daughters preferred to perish together. —How painfully are we apt to reflect afterward upon a project such as this of the voyage to Italy, as partaking of the nature of suicide! If the Macneils had been content to live in England, they might have enjoyed many years of pleasure, and have been long an ornament and advantage to their species. I never from this hour recollected the scene of their embarkation, without figuring them to myself as so many victims, robed in white, and crowned with chaplets, marching along the beach, as to be sacrificed.
When the melancholy event was ascertained, it was no longer possible for Mary to continue in the family of the Rancliffes. She hired a lodging to which she retired, with only one humble female friend to accompany her. The family who politely dismissed her, condoled with her upon her misfortune. It is impossible to conceive any thing more hard and unfeeling, than the condolences which politeness extorts on so terrible an occasion. If a man could observe, from a place of safety, the roarings of a tiger, as he tore the palpitating limbs of his own brother, they would scarcely jar more painfully on the sense. The adieux of the Rancliffes said but too plainly, As soon as we have shut the door on you and your woes, we purpose to forget that there is any such being in the world.
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