LADY MILFORD, LOUISA.
LOUISA enters timidly, and remains standing at a great distance from LADY MILFORD, who has turned her back towards her, and for some time watches her attentively in the opposite looking-glass. After a pause——-
LOUISA. Noble lady, I await your commands.
LADY MILFORD (turning towards LOUISA, and making a slight and distant motion with her head.) Oh! Are you there? I presume the young lady—a certain——. Pray what is your name?
LOUISA (somewhat sensitively). My father's name is Miller. Your ladyship expressed a wish to see his daughter.
LADY MILFORD. True, true! I remember. The poor musician's daughter, of whom we were speaking the other day. (Aside, after a pause.) Very interesting, but no beauty! (To LOUISA.) Come nearer, my child. (Again aside.) Eyes well practised in weeping. Oh! How I love those eyes! (Aloud.) Nearer—come nearer! Quite close! I really think, my good child, that you are afraid of me!
LOUISA (with firmness and dignity). No, my lady—I despise the opinion of the multitude!
LADY MILFORD (aside). Well, to be sure! She has learnt this boldness from him. (To LOUISA.) You have been recommended to me, miss! I am told that you have been decently educated, and are well disposed. I can readily believe it; besides, I would not, for the world, doubt the word of so warm an advocate.
LOUISA. And yet I remember no one, my lady, who would be at the trouble to seek your ladyship's patronage for me!
LADY MILFORD (significantly). Does that imply my unworthiness, or your humility?
LOUISA. Your words are beyond my comprehension, lady.
LADY MILFORD. More cunning than I should have expected from that open countenance. (To LOUISA.) Your name is Louisa, I believe? May I inquire your age?
LOUISA. Sixteen, just turned.
LADY MILFORD (starting up). Ha! There it is! Sixteen! The first pulsation of love! The first sweet vibration upon the yet unsounded harp! Nothing is more fascinating. (To LOUISA.) Be seated, lovely girl—I am anxious about you. (To herself.) And he, too, loves for the first time! What wonder, if the ruddy morning beams should meet and blend? (To LOUISA, taking her hand affectionately.) 'Tis settled: I will make your fortune. (To herself.) Oh! there is nothing in it: nothing, but the sweet transient vision of youth! (To LOUISA, patting her on the cheek.) My Sophy is on the point of leaving me to be married: you shall have her place. But just sixteen? Oh! it can never last.
LOUISA (kissing her hand respectfully). Receive my thanks, lady, for your intended favors, and believe me not the less grateful though I may decline to accept them.
LADY MILFORD (relapsing into disdain and anger). Only hear the great lady! Girls of your station generally think themselves fortunate to obtain such promotion. What is your dependence, my dainty one? Are these fingers too delicate for work?—or is it your pretty baby-face that makes you give yourself these airs?
LOUISA. My face, lady, is as little of my own choice as my station!
LADY MILFORD. Perhaps you believe that your beauty will last forever? Poor creature! Whoever put that into your head—be he who he may—has deceived both you and himself! The colors of those cheeks are not burnt in with fire: what your mirror passes off upon you as solid and enduring is but a slight tinselling, which, sooner or later, will rub off in the hands of the purchaser. What then, will you do?
LOUISA. Pity the purchaser, lady, who bought a diamond because it appeared to be set in gold.
LADY MILFORD (affecting not to hear her). A damsel of your age has ever two mirrors, the real one, and her admirer. The flattering complaisance of the latter counterbalances the rough honesty of the former. What the one proclaims frightful pock-marks, the other declares to be dimples that would adorn the Graces. The credulous maid believes only so much of the former as is confirmed by the latter, and hies from one to the other till she confounds their testimonies, and concludes by fancying them to be both of one opinion. Why do you stare at me so?
LOUISA. Pardon me, lady! I was just then pitying those gorgeous sparkling brilliants, which are unconscious that their possessor is so strenuous a foe to vanity.
LADY MILFORD (reddening). No evasion, miss. Were it not that you depend upon personal attractions, what in the world could induce you to reject a situation, the only one where you can acquire polish of manners and divest yourself of your plebeian prejudices?
LOUISA. And with them, I presume, my plebeian innocence!
LADY MILFORD. Preposterous objection! The most dissolute libertine dares not to disrespect our sex, unless we ourselves encourage him by advances. Prove what you are; make manifest your virtue and honor, and I will guarantee your innocence from danger.
LOUISA. Of that, lady, permit me to entertain a doubt! The palaces of certain ladies are but too often made a theatre for the most unbridled licentiousness. Who will believe that a poor musician's daughter could have the heroism to plunge into the midst of contagion and yet preserve herself untainted? Who will believe that Lady Milford would perpetually hold a scorpion to her breast, and lavish her wealth to purchase the advantage of every moment feeling her cheeks dyed with the crimson blush of shame? I will be frank, lady!—while I adorned you for some assignation, could you meet my eye unabashed? Could you endure my glance when you returned? Oh! better, far better, would it be that oceans should roll between us—that we should inhabit different climes! Beware, my lady!—hours of temperance, moments of satiety might intrude; the gnawing worm of remorse might plant its sting in your bosom, and then what a torment would it be for you to read in the countenance of your handmaid that calm serenity with which virtue ever rewards an uncorrupted heart! (Retiring a few steps.) Once more, gracious lady, I entreat your pardon!
LADY MILFORD (extremely agitated). Insupportable, that she should tell me this! Still more insupportable, that what she tells is true! (Turning to LOUISA, and looking at her steadfastly.) Girl! girl! this artifice does not blind me. Mere opinions do not speak out so warmly. Beneath the cloak of these sentiments lurks some far dearer interest. 'Tis that which makes my service particularly distasteful—which gives such energy to your language. (In a threatening voice.) What it is I am determined to discover.
LOUISA (with calm dignity). And what if you do discover it? Suppose the contemptuous trampling of your foot should rouse the injured worm, which its Creator has furnished with a sting to protect it against misusage. I fear not your vengeance, lady! The poor criminal extended on the rack can look unappalled even on the dissolution of the world. My misery is so exquisite that even sincerity cannot draw down upon me any further infliction! (After a pause.) You say that you would raise me from the obscurity of my station. I will not examine the motives of this suspicious favor. I will only ask, what could induce you to think me so foolish as to blush at my station? What could induce you to become the architect of my happiness, before you knew whether I was willing to receive that happiness at your hands? I had forever renounced all claims upon the pleasures of the world. I had forgiven fortune that she had dealt with me so niggardly. Ah! why do you remind me of all this. If the Almighty himself hides his glory from the eyes of his creatures, lest the highest seraph should be overwhelmed by a sense of his own insignificance, why should mortals be so cruelly compassionate? Lady, lady! why is your vaunted happiness so anxious to excite the envy and wonder of the wretched? Does your bliss stand in need of the exhibition of despair for entertainment? Oh! rather grant me that blindness which alone can reconcile me to my barbarous lot! The insect feels itself as happy in a drop of water as though that drop was a paradise: so happy, and so contented! till some one tells it of a world of water, where navies ride and whales disport themselves! But you wish to make me happy, say you? (After a pause, she advances towards LADY MILFORD, and asks her suddenly.) Are you happy, lady? (LADY MILFORD turns from her hastily, and overpowered. LOUISA follows her, and lays her hand upon her bosom.) Does this heart wear the smile of its station? Could we now exchange breast for breast, and fate for fate—were I, in childlike innocence, to ask you on your conscience—were I to ask you as a mother— would you really counsel me to make the exchange?
LADY MILFORD (greatly excited, throwing herself on the sofa). Intolerable! Incomprehensible! No, Louisa, no! This greatness of thought is not your own, and your conceptions are too fiery, too full of youth, to be inspired by your father. Deceive me not! I detect another teacher——
LOUISA (looking piercingly at her). I cannot but wonder, my lady, that you should have only just discovered that other teacher, and yet have previously shown so much anxiety to patronize me!
LADY MILFORD (starting up). 'Tis not to be borne! Well, then, since I cannot escape you, I know him—know everything—know more than I wish to know! (Suddenly restraining herself, then continuing with a violence which by degrees increases to frenzy.) But dare, unhappy one!—dare but still to love, or be beloved by him! What did I say? Dare but to think of him, or to be one of his thoughts! I am powerful, unhappy one!— dreadful in my vengeance! As sure as there is a God in heaven thou art lost forever!
LOUISA (undaunted). Past all redemption, my lady, the moment you succeed in compelling him to love you!
LADY MILFORD. I understand you—but I care not for his love! I will conquer this disgraceful passion. I will torture my own heart; but thine will I crush to atoms! Rocks and chasms will I hurl between you. I will rush, like a fury, into the heaven of your joys. My name shall affright your loves as a spectre scares an assassin. That young and blooming form in his embrace shall wither to a skeleton. I cannot be blest with him— neither shalt thou. Know, wretched girl; that to blast the happiness of others is in itself a happiness!
LOUISA. A happiness, my lady, which is already beyond your reach! Seek not to deceive your own heart! You are incapable of executing what you threaten! You are incapable of torturing a being who has done you no wrong—but whose misfortune it is that her feelings have been sensible to impressions like your own. But I love you for these transports, my lady!
LADY MILFORD (recovering herself). Where am I? What have I done? What sentiments have I betrayed? To whom have I betrayed them? Oh, Louisa, noble, great, divine soul, forgive the ravings of a maniac! Fear not, my child! I will not injure a hair of thy head! Name thy wishes! Ask what thou wilt! I will serve thee with all my power; I will be thy friend— thy sister! Thou art poor; look (taking off her brilliants), I will sell these jewels—sell my wardrobe—my carriages and horses—all shall be thine—grant me but Ferdinand!
LOUISA (draws back indignantly). Does she mock my despair?—or is she really innocent of participation in that cruel deed? Ha! then I may yet assume the heroine, and make my surrender of him pass for a sacrifice! (Remains for a while absorbed in thought, then approaches LADY MILFORD, seizes her hand, and gazes on her with a fixed and significant look.) Take him, lady! I here voluntarily resign the man whom hellish arts have torn from my bleeding bosom! Perchance you know it not, my lady! but you have destroyed the paradise of two lovers; you have torn asunder two hearts which God had linked together; you have crushed a creature not less dear to him than yourself, and no less created for happiness; one by whom he was worshipped as sincerely as by you; but who, henceforth, will worship him no more. But the Almighty is ever open to receive the last groan of the trampled worm. He will not look on with indifference when creatures in his keeping are murdered. Now Ferdinand is yours. Take him, lady, take him! Rush into his arms! Drag him with you to the altar! But forget not that the spectre of a suicide will rush between you and the bridal kiss. God be merciful! No choice is left me! (Rushes out of the chamber.)