FERDINAND VON WALTER. The former.
FERDINAND (with a slight bow). I hope I do not interrupt your ladyship?
LADY MILFORD (with visible emotion). Not at all, baron—not in the least.
FERDINAND. I wait on your ladyship, at the command of my father.
LADY MILFORD. Therein I am his debtor.
FERDINAND. And I am charged to announce to you that our marriage is determined on. Thus far I fulfil the commission of my father.
LADY MILFORD (changing color and trembling). And not of your own heart?
FERDINAND. Ministers and panders have no concern with hearts.
LADY MILFORD (almost speechless with emotion). And you yourself—have you nothing to add?
FERDINAND (looking at SOPHY). Much! my lady, much!
LADY MILFORD (motions to SOPHY to withdraw). May I beg you to take a seat by my side?
FERDINAND. I will be brief, lady.
LADY MILFORD. Well!
FERDINAND. I am a man of honor!
LADY MILFORD. Whose worth I know how to appreciate.
FERDINAND. I am of noble birth!
LADY MILFORD. Noble as any in the land!
FERDINAND. A soldier!
LADY MILFORD (in a soft, affectionate manner). Thus far you have only enumerated advantages which you share in common with many others. Why are you so silent regarding those noble qualities which are peculiarly your own?
FERDINAND (coldly). Here they would be out of place.
LADY MILFORD (with increasing agitation). In what light am I to understand this prelude?
FERDINAND (slowly, and with emphasis). As the protest of the voice of honor—should you think proper to enforce the possession of my hand!
LADY MILFORD (starting with indignation). Major von Walter! What language is this?
FERDINAND (calmly). The language of my heart—of my unspotted name—and of this true sword.
LADY MILFORD. Your sword was given to you by the prince.
FERDINAND. 'Twas the state which gave it, by the hands of the prince. God bestowed on me an honest heart. My nobility is derived from a line of ancestry extending through centuries.
LADY MILFORD. But the authority of the prince——
FERDINAND (with warmth). Can he subvert the laws of humanity, or stamp glory on our actions as easily as he stamps value on the coin of his realm? He himself is not raised above the laws of honor, although he may stifle its whispers with gold—and shroud his infamy in robes of ermine! But enough of this, lady!—it is too late now to talk of blasted prospects—or of the desecration of ancestry—or of that nice sense of honor—girded on with my sword—or of the world's opinion. All these I am ready to trample under foot as soon as you have proved to me that the reward is not inferior to the sacrifice.
LADY MILFORD (in extreme distress turning away). Major! I have not deserved this!
FERDINAND (taking her hand). Pardon me, lady—we are without witnesses. The circumstance which brings us together to-day—and only to-day— justifies me, nay, compels me, to reveal to you my most secret feelings. I cannot comprehend, lady, how a being gifted with so much beauty and spirit—qualities which a man cannot fail to admire—could throw herself away on a prince incapable of valuing aught beyond her mere person—and yet not feel some visitings of shame, when she steps forth to offer her heart to a man of honor!
LADY MILFORD (looking at him with an air of pride). Say on, sir, without reserve.
FERDINAND. You call yourself an Englishwoman—pardon me, lady, I can hardly believe you. The free-born daughter of the freest people under heaven—a people too proud to imitate even foreign virtues—would surely never have sold herself to foreign vices! It is not possible, lady, that you should be a native of Britain, unless indeed your heart be as much below as the sons of Britannia vaunt theirs to be above all others!
LADY MILFORD. Have you done, sir?
FERDINAND. Womanly vanity—passions—temperament—a natural appetite for pleasure—all these might, perhaps, be pleaded in extenuation—for virtue often survives honor—and many who once trod the paths of infamy have subsequently reconciled themselves to society by the performance of noble deeds, and have thus thrown a halo of glory round their evil doings—but if this were so, whence comes the monstrous extortion that now oppresses the people with a weight never before known? This I would ask in the name of my fatherland—and now, lady, I have done!
LADY MILFORD (with gentleness and dignity). This is the first time, Baron von Walter, that words such as these have been addressed to me—and you are the only man to whom I would in return have vouchsafed an answer. Your rejection of my hand commands my esteem. Your invectives against my heart have my full forgiveness, for I will not believe you sincere, since he who dares hold such language to a woman, that could ruin him in an instant—must either believe that she possesses a great and noble heart— or must be the most desperate of madmen. That you ascribe the misery of this land to me may He forgive, before whose throne you, and I, and the prince shall one day meet! But, as in my person you have insulted the daughter of Britain, so in vindication of my country's honor you must hear my exculpation.
FERDINAND (leaning on his sword). Lady, I listen with interest.
LADY MILFORD. Hear, then, that which I have never yet breathed to mortal, and which none but yourself will ever learn from my lips. I am not the low adventurer you suppose me, sir! Nay! did I listen to the voice of pride, I might even boast myself to be of royal birth; I am descended from the unhappy Thomas Norfolk, who paid the penalty of his adherence to the cause of Mary, Queen of Scots, by a bloody death on the scaffold. My father, who, as royal chamberlain, had once enjoyed his sovereign's confidence, was accused of maintaining treasonable relations with France, and was condemned and executed by a decree of the Parliament of Great Britain. Our estates were confiscated, and our family banished from their native soil. My mother died on the day of my father's execution, and I—then a girl of fourteen—fled to Germany with one faithful attendant. A casket of jewels, and this crucifix, placed in my bosom by my dying mother, were all my fortune!
[FERDINAND, absorbed in thought, surveys LADY MILFORD with looks of
compassion and sympathy.
LADY MILFORD (continuing with increased emotion). Without a name— without protection or property—a foreigner and an orphan, I reached Hamburg. I had learnt nothing but a little French, and to run my fingers over the embroidery frame, or the keys of my harpsichord. But, though I was ignorant of all useful arts, I had learnt full well to feast off gold and silver, to sleep beneath silken hangings, to bid attendant pages obey my voice, and to listen to the honeyed words of flattery and adulation. Six years passed away in sorrow and in sadness—the remnant of my scanty means was fast melting away—my old and faithful nurse was no more—and— and then it was that fate brought your sovereign to Hamburg. I was walking beside the shores of the Elbe, wondering, as I gazed on its waters, whether they or my sorrows were the deeper, when the duke crossed my path. He followed me, traced me to my humble abode, and, casting himself at my feet, vowed that he loved me. (She pauses, and, after struggling with her emotion, continues in a voice choked by tears.) All the images of my happy childhood were revived in hues of delusive brightness—while the future lowered before me black as the grave. My heart panted for communion with another—and I sank into the arms opened to receive me! (Turning away.) And now you condemn me!
FERDINAND (greatly agitated, follows her and leads her back). Lady! heavens! what do I hear! What have I done? The guilt of my conduct is unveiled in all its deformity! It is impossible you should forgive me.
LADY MILFORD (endeavoring to overcome her emotion). Hear me on! The prince, it is true, overcame my unprotected youth, but the blood of the Howards still glowed within my veins, and never ceased to reproach me; that I, the descendant of royal ancestors, should stoop to be a prince's paramour! Pride and destiny still contended in my bosom, when the duke brought me hither, where SCENEs the most revolting burst upon my sight! The voluptuousness of the great is an insatiable hyena—the craving of whose appetite demands perpetual victims. Fearfully had it laid this country waste separating bridegroom and bride—and tearing asunder even the holy bonds of marriage. Here it had destroyed the tranquil happiness of a whole family—there the blighting pest had seized on a young and inexperienced heart, and expiring victims called down bitter imprecations on the heads of the undoers. It was then that I stepped forth between the lamb and the tiger, and, in a moment of dalliance, extorted from the duke his royal promise that this revolting licentiousness should cease.
FERDINAND (pacing the room in violent agitation). No more, lady! No more!
LADY MILFORD. This gloomy period was succeeded by one still more gloomy. The court swarmed with French and Italian adventurers—the royal sceptre became the plaything of Parisian harlots, and the people writhed and bled beneath their capricious rule. Each had her day. I saw them sink before me, one by one, for I was the most skilful coquette of all! It was then that I seized and wielded the tyrant's sceptre whilst he slumbered voluptuously in my embrace—then, Walter, thy country, for the first time, felt the hand of humanity, and reposed in confidence on my bosom. (A pause, during which she gazes upon him with tenderness.) Oh! 'that the man, by whom, of all others, I least wish to be misunderstood, should compel me to turn braggart and parade my unobtrusive virtues to the glare of admiration! Walter, I have burst open the doors of prisons—I have cancelled death-warrants and shortened many a frightful eternity upon the galleys. Into wounds beyond my power to heal I have at least poured soothing balsam. I have hurled mighty villains to the earth, and oft with the tears of a harlot saved the cause of innocence from impending ruin. Ah! young man, how sweet were then my feelings! How proudly did these actions teach my heart to support the reproaches of my noble blood! And now comes the man who alone can repay me for all that I have suffered—the man, whom perhaps my relenting destiny created as a compensation for former sorrows—the man, whom with ardent affection, I already clasped in my dreams.
FERDINAND (interrupting her). Hold, lady, hold! You exceed the bounds of our conference! You undertook to clear yourself from reproach, and you make me a criminal! Spare me, I beseech you! Spare a heart already overwhelmed by confusion and remorse!
LADY MILFORD (grasping his hand). You must hear me, Walter! hear me now or never. Long enough has the heroine sustained me; now you must feel the whole weight of these tears! Mark me, Walter! Should an unfortunate—impetuously, irresistibly attracted towards you—clasp you to her bosom full of unutterable, inextinguishable love—should this unfortunate—bowed down with the consciousness of shame—disgusted with vicious pleasures—heroically exalted by the inspiration of virtue—throw herself—thus into your arms (embracing him in an eager and supplicating manner); should she do this, and you still pronounce the freezing word "Honor!" Should she pray that through you she might be saved—that through you she might be restored to her hopes of heaven! (Turning away her head, and speaking in a hollow, faltering voice.) Or should she, her prayer refused, listen to the voice of despair, and to escape from your image plunge herself into yet more fearful depths of infamy and vice——
FERDINAND (breaking from her in great emotion). No, by heaven! This is more than I can endure! Lady, I am compelled—Heaven and earth compels me—to make the honest avowal of my sentiments and situation.
LADY MILFORD (hastening from him). Oh! not now! By all that is holy I entreat you—spare me in this dreadful moment when my lacerated heart bleeds from a thousand wounds. Be your decision life or death—I dare not—I will not hear it!
FERDINAND. I entreat you, lady! I insist! What I have to say will mitigate my offence, and warmly plead your forgiveness for the past. I have been deceived in you, lady. I expected—nay, I wished to find you deserving my contempt. I came determined to insult you, and to make myself the object of your hate. Happy would it have been for us both had my purpose succeeded! (He pauses; then proceeds in a gentle and faltering voice.) Lady, I love!—I love a maid of humble birth—Louisa Miller is her name, the daughter of a music-master. (LADY MILFORD turns away pale and greatly agitated.) I know into what an abyss I plunge myself; but, though prudence bids me conceal my passion, honor overpowers its precepts. I am the criminal—I first destroyed the golden calm of Louisa's innocence—I lulled her heart with aspiring hopes, and surrendered it, like a betrayer, a prey to the wildest of passions. You will bid me remember my rank—my birth—my father—schemes of aggrandisement. But in vain—I love! My hopes become more fervent as the breach widens between nature and the mere conventions of society— between my resolution and worldly prejudices! We shall see whether love or interest is victorious. (LADY MILFORD during this has retired to the extreme end of the apartment, and covers her face with both hands. FERDINAND approaches her.) Have you aught to answer, lady?
LADY MILFORD (in a tone of intense suffering). Nothing! Nothing! but that you destroy yourself and me—and, with us yet a third.
FERDINAND. A third?
LADY MILFORD. Never can you marry Louisa; never can you be happy with me. We shall all be the victims of your father's rashness. I can never hope to possess the heart of a husband who has been forced to give me his hand.
FERDINAND. Forced, lady? Forced? And yet given? Will you enforce a hand without a heart? Will you tear from a maiden a man who is the whole world to her? Will you tear a maiden from a man who has centered all his hopes of happiness on her alone? Will you do this, lady? you who but a moment before were the lofty, noble-minded daughter of Britain?
LADY MILFORD. I will because I must! (earnestly and firmly). My passions, Walter, overcome my tenderness for you. My honor has no alternative. Our union is the talk of the whole city. Every eye, every shaft of ridicule is bent against me. 'Twere a stain which time could never efface should a subject of the prince reject my hand! Appease your father if you have the power! Defend yourself as you best may! my resolution is taken. The mine is fired and I abide the issue.
[Exit. FERDINAND remains in speechless astonishment for some moments; then rushes wildly out.