TSW Chapter 3.2


The Villainess Foiled!

Excerpt from “The Mother-In-Law” 1851

By E.D.E.N. Southworth

 

     The bishop opened his book.

     A dead silence fell upon the crowd. Their eyes were riveted upon the group. Many noticed the fearful paleness of the bride’s face, and saw her lean heavily upon the arm of the bridegroom. The bishop, in a deep and earnest voice, thus commenced the impressive marriage ceremony.

     “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is commended by St. Paul to be honorable among all men, and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God. Into this holy state these two people come now to be joined. If any man can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter hold his peace.”

     “I can!” shouted a clear, high, imperious voice, and the doors flew open and Gertrude Lion burst, “a beautiful embodied storm,“ among them. She, too, in festal garments, a shining dark-blue satin studded with glittering sapphires, and her magnificent hair rolling in a golden glory to her feet. Her commanding statue, her glowing color, her blazing eyes, the glory of imperious brow, might have made the guilty in that crowd deem that an avenging angel stood among them.

     Struck statue-still, less by the interruption than by the splendidly beautiful Amazon that made it, the assembled company was held in a spell of silence while they gazed at her.

     There she stood in her sublime beauty, radiating a cold splendor, like a sun-struck iceberg.

     Only one instant was the crowd held in that spell of wonder-stricken silence and then a hum of many voices rolled through the crowd, as they exclaimed or inquired of one another, “Who is this?” “What does this mean?” “Ha!” “What”!” “How?” “Who is she?”

     “Silence, every one of you!” thundered the Amazon, bringing the loaded end of her riding-whip down upon the table with a resounding ring.

     “Who is this woman?” asked the bishop, in a low whisper, of Mrs. Armstrong.

     “Oh, a lunatic, a mad woman of the mountains! Arrest her!”

     “Hold your tongue, Mrs. Armstrong!” shouted the giantess, raising the end of her riding-whip and making a step toward her. “I am Gertrude Lion, and you know me, and so does James Frobisher, Earl of Clonmachnois!” said she, fixing her eyes upon the bridegroom.

     James Frobisher, Earl of Clonmachnois, was standing there, giving his whole attention to the half-fainting bride.

     “Leave that man, come to me, Louise.” said Gertrude, in a voice full of commanding tenderness, opening her arms and holding them out to the poor bride, who with an instinctive bound cleared the circle and fell upon the broad and sheltering breast of the Amazon.

     “There, there, there, there, be a good girl!” dove-like cooed the Falcon, gently caressing her.

     “Young lady,” begun the bishop, “will you please to --.

     “Shut up!” snapped the giantess, and then gave her attention to her charge. “There, there, don’t weep, Louise, or I shall.”

     “Madam, the assembled company are amazed, confounded at your singular conduct! In their name I demand the meaning of this. Upon what pretense have you arrested this marriage?” said the bishop, advancing and standing before her in all the venerableness of his age and office. “I insist instantly upon hearing from your lips from whet cause and to what end you have arrested this marriage.”

     The Amazon raised her imperious brow, end, looking him steadily in the eyes, answered: “Because the would-be bride is the wife of another man!”

     “How -- what!” exclaimed the bishop.

     A thrill of exclamatory astonishment ran through the crowd.

     “Madam, yon should be very sure of what you advance!” exclaimed the bishop, with solemnity.

     “Ask the bride herself. Louise, answer, I command you! Are-you the wife of Louis Stuart-Gordon or not?"

     “Oh, I am! I am! Indeed I am the wife of Louis Stuart-Gordon!”

     “You hear her?” said Gertrude, triumphantly.

     “She is mad -- mad, I say!” exclaimed Mrs. Armstrong, striding forward. “Gentlemen, will none of you arrest this mad woman?”

     Gertrude threw a glance of mingled triumph and defiance over the astounded crowd. Her eye lighted in its rovings upon a new-comer.

     Louis Stuart-Gordon, pale, travel-stained, and dusty, stood among them.

     “Take her, Louis,” exclaimed she, tossing her charge into his arms. “Take her, Louis, as my free gift, and swear by the name of Gertrude Lion henceforth and for evermore, amen! Take her and hear her hence, for I have the devil’s own work to do!”

     “An avenging angel’s tather!” replied Louis, receiving the fainting form of Louise in his arm, “An avenging angel’s rather!”

     “It amounts to about the same thing.” replied Gertrude.

     And terrible was the brow that the Gerfalcon now turned toward the assembled company.

     “Arrest her, she is mad!” exclaimed Mrs. Armstrong, terror stricken by the appalling look of the Amazon.

     Gertrude raised one hand up as though appealing to Heaven.

     “Hear me all who are gathered in this house. I denounce Hortense Armstrong as the murderer of Genevieve, the first wife of Doctor Armstrong! I denounce her as having abandoned the eldest child of her husband, and as having concealed and suppressed the will by which that child was acknowledged and constituted the heiress of the half of the Mount Crystal estate! I denounce her as having conspired against the liberty of that child, in having her procured to be sold as a slave! And I appeal to Heaven to confute or corroborate my testimony!” and the avenger raised her hand reverently. “Behold! Look to Mrs. Armstrong! She is falling.”

     Mrs. Armstrong had suddenly dropped to the floor, her throat swollen, her face purple, her whole frame convulsed! She was lifted and borne from the room. And the company broke up in confusion.

 

     “A word with you, Gertrude the Destroyer?” commanded the Earl of Clonmachnois, beckoning the Amazon to the recess of a bay window. Gertrude still “vibrating with the thunder” she had spent, followed him, week as a fainting elephant.

     “Terrible denouncer! What have you done? Have you any proofs of what you charge this woman with?”

     “Proofs! Every proof that will satisfy my own mind! None, perhaps, that would convict her in a court of justice.”

     “Explain!”

     “That little girl, Zoe, the schoolmaster’s adopted child who was attached at The Lair as the property of Miss Somerville -- that same Zoe was the eldest daughter of Doctor Hector Armstrong and Genevieve Somerville, his first wife by a secret marriage. This marriage was concealed to avert the anger of his father and the disinheritance of the son. Genevieve had no proofs of her marriage in her own possession, and the birth of her child was concealed by Harriet, her foster-mother, to save the poor motherless girl from the terrible wrath of her father.”

     “This concealment was effected under circumstances inducing the suspicion that Zoe was the child of George and Harriet. By the machinations of Mrs. Armstrong these circumstances were long afterwards used to procure the attachment of Zoe as a slave, in order that she might be got out of the way! This, however, is in advance of my story. Soon after the birth of her child Genevieve Somerville died suddenly, and under suspicion of poison.”

     “Soon after that event, Miss Blackiston married Doctor Armstrong. He promised Harriet, who was in his confidence, to acknowledge and take home his daughter -- a promise that he deferred to perform from time to time in fact, he stood in awe of his wife. Finally he died without having performed his promise. Just before he was taken to his bed he saw Harriet and told her that he had made a will acknowledging his marriage with Miss Genevieve Somerville, acknowledging her daughter Zoe, and constituting her heiress to half his estates. He said that he was resolved to reveal the whole matter to his wife. We believe that he did. But he died, and no mention was ever made of a will, and no step was taken by his widow to restore his eldest daughter to her rights. If there was a will, as we firmly believe there was, Mrs. Armstrong probably destroyed it, with all that could have proved the parentage of Zoe.”

     “But the servant, then -- Harriet! Why did she not disclose the secret?”

     “Because it would have done every sort of harm and no good. It would have covered an honest family with shame and confusion without restoring Zoe to her rights.”

     “I do not see that.”

     “Do you not know, then, that, however honest and good they may be, the oath of a slave or other colored person will not pass in a slave state against a white person? The disclosure would have nearly killed the proud old Major Somerville because he could not prove the marriage. Therefore Harriet determined to keep the secret, at least until the death of Major Somerville. You know the events that followed that death. Harriet and George were taken for debt, Zoe was attached. It was two months before Harriet and George were redeemed from prison. When they came out, the first thing they heard, with astonishment, was that Zoe had been attached, but was now at liberty.”

     “The first thing they did then was to divulge to Miss Somerville and to Mrs. Stuart-Gordon and myself the secret of Zoe’s birth. Then General Stuart-Gordon was admitted to the confidence, and he busied himself in investigating the affair. Being unable to find the clew to any other proofs but those of George and Harriet, it was deemed prudent to take no rash step in the matter, but to watch the course of circumstances, and in the meantime to be as kind as possible to Zoe. And I suppose, with their rascally prudence, they would have ‘watched the course of circumstances’ to this day if I had not taken the matter up and trusted in God for the result.“

     “Gertrude the Avenger! But this other matter of Mrs. Louie Stuart-Gordon, explain that.”

     “Mrs. Armstrong, through her omnipotent influence over her daughter, separated her from her husband for no other reason than because General Stuart-Gordon married a second time. Afterwards she effected a divorce, and would have broken her-heart, and Louis’ heart, and drawn you into marriage with a woman whom you know very well you only pitied and did not love, Jamie, if it had not been for me.“

     “Gertrude the Preserver! Gertrude, I never admired you so much in all my life as this evening!”

 

     In the meantime a scene of death was transpiring above stairs. In a thickly curtained room, upon a stately bed, lay the wreck of the haughty and majestic Hortense Blackiston Armstrong, still in her robes of state -- a magnificent ruin! The bishop, still in his canonicals, and another clergyman of the Episcopal faith, stood on one side of the bed, a physician and surgeon on the other, Louis Stuart-Gordon stood supporting Louise at the foot of the bed. The bishop, summoned to the house to perform a marriage ceremony, was now reading the solemn service of the dying.

     Mrs. Armstrong had never spoken or given the slightest sign of intelligence from the moment of her fall. Her attack was apoplexy -- a disease to which her full habit of body rendered her peculiarly liable. Terrible was the struggle between death and the strong physical organization he had to conquer!

     All night long the swollen and purple face was contorted -- all night long that strong body was convulsed. It was the dawn of day before that haughty face was composed -- before that proud form was still in the rigidity of death -- before that imperious spirit had “Migrated to the great secret!”

     Peace be with her! We do not know whether or not she were guilty of the worst crimes laid to her charge, since nothing but strong circumstantial evidence rested against her. We heard her accusation -- we heard not her defense. She was struck speechless and powerless! Let us judge her leniently or leave her with her God!

 

 

 

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