In such political disputes Waverley usually opposed the common arguments of his party, with which it is unnecessary to trouble the reader. But he had little to say when the Colonel urged him to compare the strength by which they had undertaken to overthrow the government with that which was now assembling very rapidly for its support. To this statement Waverley had but one answer: ‘If the cause I have undertaken be perilous, there would be the greater disgrace in abandoning it.’ And in his turn he generally silenced Colonel Talbot, and succeeded in changing the subject.
One night, when, after a long dispute of this nature, the friends had separated and our hero had retired to bed, he was awakened about midnight by a suppressed groan. He started up and listened; it came from the apartment of Colonel Talbot, which was divided from his own by a wainscotted partition, with a door of communication. Waverley approached this door and distinctly heard one or two deep-drawn sighs. What could be the matter? The Colonel had parted from him apparently in his usual state of spirits. He must have been taken suddenly ill. Under this impression he opened the door of communication very gently, and perceived the Colonel, in his night-gown, seated by a table, on which lay a letter and a picture. He raised his head hastily, as Edward stood uncertain whether to advance or retire, and Waverley perceived that his cheeks were stained with tears.
As if ashamed at being found giving way to such emotion, Colonel Talbot rose with apparent displeasure and said, with some sternness, ‘I think, Mr. Waverley, my own apartment and the hour might have secured even a prisoner against—’
‘Do not say intrusion, Colonel Talbot; I heard you breathe hard and feared you were ill; that alone could have induced me to break in upon you.’
‘I am well,’ said the Colonel, ‘perfectly well.’
‘But you are distressed,’ said Edward; ‘is there anything can be done?’
‘Nothing, Mr. Waverley; I was only thinking of home, and some unpleasant occurrences there.’
‘Good God, my uncle!’ exclaimed Waverley.
‘No, it is a grief entirely my own. I am ashamed you should have seen it disarm me so much; but it must have its course at times, that it may be at others more decently supported. I would have kept it secret from you; for I think it will grieve you, and yet you can administer no consolation. But you have surprised me,—I see you are surprised yourself,—and I hate mystery. Read that letter.’
The letter was from Colonel Talbot’s sister, and in these words:—
‘I received yours, my dearest brother, by Hodges. Sir E. W. and Mr. R. are still at large, but are not permitted to leave London. I wish to Heaven I could give you as good an account of matters in the square. But the news of the unhappy affair at Preston came upon us, with the dreadful addition that you were among the fallen. You know Lady Emily’s state of health, when your friendship for Sir E. induced you to leave her. She was much harassed with the sad accounts from Scotland of the rebellion having broken out; but kept up her spirits, as, she said, it became your wife, and for the sake of the future heir, so long hoped for in vain. Alas, my dear brother, these hopes are now ended! Notwithstanding all my watchful care, this unhappy rumour reached her without preparation. She was taken ill immediately; and the poor infant scarce survived its birth. Would to God this were all! But although the contradiction of the horrible report by your own letter has greatly revived her spirits, yet Dr. —— apprehends, I grieve to say, serious, and even dangerous, consequences to her health, especially from the uncertainty in which she must necessarily remain for some time, aggravated by the ideas she has formed of the ferocity of those with whom you are a prisoner.
‘Do therefore, my dear brother, as soon as this reaches you, endeavour to gain your release, by parole, by ransom, or any way that is practicable. I do not exaggerate Lady Emily’s state of health; but I must not—dare not—suppress the truth. Ever, my dear Philip, your most affectionate sister,
Edward stood motionless when he had perused this letter; for the conclusion was inevitable, that, by the Colonel’s journey in quest of him, he had incurred this heavy calamity. It was severe enough, even in its irremediable part; for Colonel Talbot and Lady Emily, long without a family, had fondly exulted in the hopes which were now blasted. But this disappointment was nothing to the extent of the threatened evil; and Edward, with horror, regarded himself as the original cause of both.
Ere he could collect himself sufficiently to speak, Colonel Talbot had recovered his usual composure of manner, though his troubled eye denoted his mental agony.
‘She is a woman, my young friend, who may justify even a soldier’s tears.’ He reached him the miniature, exhibiting features which fully justified the eulogium; ‘and yet, God knows, what you see of her there is the least of the charms she possesses—possessed, I should perhaps say—but God’s will be done.’
‘ You must fly—you must fly instantly to her relief. It is not—it shall not be too late.’
‘Fly? how is it possible? I am a prisoner, upon parole.’
‘I am your keeper; I restore your parole; I am to answer for you.’
‘You cannot do so consistently with your duty; nor can I accept a discharge from you, with due regard to my own honour; you would be made responsible.’
‘I will answer it with my head, if necessary,’ said Waverley impetuously. ‘I have been the unhappy cause of the loss of your child, make me not the murderer of your wife.’
‘No, my dear Edward,’ said Talbot, taking him kindly by the hand, ‘you are in no respect to blame; and if I concealed this domestic distress for two days, it was lest your sensibility should view it in that light. You could not think of me, hardly knew of my existence, when I left England in quest of you. It is a responsibility, Heaven knows, sufficiently heavy for mortality, that we must answer for the foreseen and direct result of our actions; for their indirect and consequential operation the great and good Being, who alone can foresee the dependence of human events on each other, hath not pronounced his frail creatures liable.’
‘But that you should have left Lady Emily,’ said Waverley, with much emotion, ‘in the situation of all others the most interesting to a husband, to seek a—’
‘I only did my duty,’ answered Colonel Talbot, calmly, ‘and I do not, ought not, to regret it. If the path of gratitude and honour were always smooth and easy, there would be little merit in following it; but it moves often in contradiction to our interest and passions, and sometimes to our better affections. These are the trials of life, and this, though not the least bitter’ (the tears came unbidden to his eyes), ‘is not the first which it has been my fate to encounter. But we will talk of this to-morrow,’ he said, wringing Waverley’s hands. ‘Good-night; strive to forget it for a few hours. It will dawn, I think, by six, and it is now past two. Good-night.’
Edward retired, without trusting his voice with a reply.