THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE (1798)
ELEANOR SLEATH (fl. 17981810)
Virtually nothing is known about Eleanor Sleath beyond her six novels, which include Who’s the Murderer? or, The Mysteries of the Forest (1802), The Bristol Heiress; or, The Errors of Education (1809) (which combines a serious discussion of women’s education and a haunted castle) and The Nocturnal Minstrel; or, The Spirit of the Wood (1810), all published by the Minerva Press. Her first novel, The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) is one of the seven ‘horrid’ novels listed in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Mrs Sleath competently works her way through the major set pieces of each of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, sometimes plagiarizing whole passages. Even the numerous poems that the heroine composes are imitations of her mentor’s, and every chapter is headed by a verse epigraph. Several inset tales seem to be expanded versions of half-told tales alluded to by Radcliffe. The novel has a dual heroine: Julie de Rubine (whose name is a transparent reference to Henry Mackenzie’s popular sentimental novel Julia de Roubigné (1777)) and Laurette, the ‘orphan’ of the title, whom she has adopted in mysterious circumstances. Julie is tricked into a ‘marriage’ performed by a pretended priest, then abandoned by her ‘husband’ after he tires of her. She takes on the name ‘Madame Chamont’ and decides on a life of seclusion with her child Enrico and another child whom she has been asked to adopt, for which she receives payments from a mysterious benefactor.
Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton
Now o’er the braid from fancy’s loom,
The rich tints breathe a deeper gloom,
While consecrated domes beneath,
Midst hoary shrines and caves of death,
Secluded from the eye of day,
She bids her pensive vot’ry stray;
Brooding o’er monumental cells,
Where awe diffusing silence dwells,
Save when along the lofly fane,
Devotion wakes her hallow’d strain.
La Roque, having concluded his narration, was conducted by Madame Chamont, agreeable to the appointment of the Monk, to the end of the eastern rampart.
Though she had ill succeeded in the endeavour of concealing her emotions during this pathetic recital; yet that Madame Chamont, by which name only she was known to him, was Julie de Rubine, that unfortunate beauty who was the innocent cause of the death of Signor Vescolini, was a suspicion that never occurred to the agitated mind of La Roque. And as she prudently avoided mentioning any thing relative to her knowledge of the Marchese, he had no reason to suppose, even had his mind been sufficiently tranquillized to have reflected, that her story was in the least connected with his own.
Father Benedicta, who was faithful to the hour he had proposed, was in readiness to receive them; and, the better to disguise the object of his compassion from the gaze of curiosity, had conveyed a habit of his order.
As La Roque advanced towards the Monk, with a mournful yet dignified air, the benevolent Father sprung forward to receive him, who, after regarding him for a moment with a look of silent interrogation, threw back his hood upon his shoulders; whilst La Roque, who instantly recognized a long lost friend disguised under the habit of a Carthusian, rushed into his arms.
Surprise and joy for some time deprived them of utterance, till the name of De Pietro escaping the lips of La Roque, convinced Madame Chamont that the penitent Father, who was now become eminent for that meekness, piety, and virtuous resignation which dignify the Christian character, was no other than the once brilliant Italian, whose dangerous example and seductive accomplishments had ensnared the affectionate, the once noble Della Croisse, and had finally annihilated his happiness.
When the first transports of joy, grief, and astonishment, which were alternately expressed in the countenances of La Roque and the Monk, were in some degree subsided, the former was arrayed in the holy vestment of a Carthusian; and after taking an affectionate adieu of Madame Chamont, which was accompanied with an expression of gratitude which words could not have conveyed, he put himself under the protection of his newly discovered friend, and repaired to the monastery.
Pensive, thoughtful, and dejected, Madame Chamont continued on her way towards the castle; musing as she went upon this singular adventure, which now engrossed all her attention.
Having entered the gate leading into the outer court, she missed a bracelet from her arm. It was one which contained the portrait of her father, and she felt distressed and chagrined at the loss.
Thinking it probable that she might have dropped it in her way from the tower, with hurried steps and a perturbed air she returned again towards the forest.
After walking along the whole extent of the battlements, and through the deep recesses of the wood which secreted the turret, without success, she began to lose all hopes of recovering it, till recollecting that she might have lost it when liberating La Roque from his fetters, she descended once more into the dungeon.
The dim and nearly extinguished lamp that glimmered from a remote corner of the abyss, throwing a melancholy gleam upon the dark and mouldering walls, just served as a guide for her steps; having raised it from the ground, she looked carefully around, but not discovering the object of her search, she replaced the light, meaning to examine those parts of the castle where she remembered to have been in the morning.
When passing by the door of the chapel, it occurred to her that she might have dropped it on assembling with the rest of the family at matins; and that the surprising incidents of the day, which had so strangely affected her mind, had prevented her from discovering her loss before. But afraid lest Laurette should be alarmed at her long absence, she determined first to partake of some refreshment with her, and to endeavour at least to revive her deeply depressed spirits, and then to explore the chapel.
The ill assumed appearance of serenity with which Madame Chamont attempted to conceal the grief La Roque’s adventures had revived, and which the recent loss of the picture had increased, appeared too unnatural to escape the notice of Laurette, who watched every movement of her countenance with an earnest anxiety.
The inexorable cruelty of the Marchese, the heart rending sorrows of La Roque, the murder of Vescolini, herself the primary cause, flashed upon her mind in spite of every effort to the contrary, and heaved her bosom with convulsive throbbings.
As soon as dinner was removed, she repaired to her apartment; and, as was her custom when any new griefs or misfortunes assailed her, bowed her knee before a small altar that was erected for the purpose, and addressed herself to Heaven, in the hope that, with the divine assistance, she might be enabled to triumph over the severest attacks of human misery.
With spirits somewhat more composed she descended the stairs, and proceeded, with a slow and measured step, towards the chapel.
It was a fine and cloudless evening, and no sound but the sighing of the wind amongst the trees, broke the stillness that prevailed. The sun was just quitting the hemisphere; its appearance was at once sublime and beautiful, which induced her to pause for a moment to survey it: now richly illuminating the western canopy with a crimson glow, and then trembling awhile at the extremity of the horizon, and at last sinking from the sight beyond the summits of the mountains.
Having opened the door of the chapel, she fixed her eyes upon the ground, and walked slowly through the aisles, in hopes of discovering the bracelet; but being still unsuccessful in the pursuit, and believing it to be irrecoverably gone, she began to reconcile herself to the loss.
At the corner of the chapel was a door which she had before frequently observed, but without any hopes of being able to ascertain whither it led, as it was always fastened whenever she had attempted to open it; from which circumstance it appeared probable that it belonged to the burial vault, in which the ancient inhabitants of the castle were entombed.
As she passed this door, which terminated one of the eastern aisles, she perceived that it was not entirely closed, and curiosity induced her to examine it.
Having opened it without difficulty, she descended a winding flight of steps, and proceeding through a stone arch, whose strength seemed to defy the arm of Time, entered a spacious building, which, instead of being merely a receptacle for coffins, as her imagination had suggested, appeared to have been originally used as a chapel; as the monuments which it contained were more costly and ornamented than those in the place which had latterly been appropriated to purposes of devotion, and were evidently much more ancient. This surmise seemed still more probable, when she considered that the part of the edifice which was used as a chapel, was more modern than the rest of the structure; and that neither the doors nor the windows were strictly gothic, like those belonging to the other parts of the castle. A small grated window at the farther end of the place, which dimly admitted the light, discovered to her the last abode of man, and spoke of the vanity of human greatness.
It was dreary and of vast extent; the walls, which were once white, were now discoloured with the damps, and were mouldering fast into decay.
At the upper end of the abyss were erected two statues, now headless, which though not sufficiently entire to betray the original design, gave additional melancholy to the scene.
Having lingered for some time amid the graves, whose proud arches contained all that remained of former greatness, and whose inscriptions were too much effaced to convey the intended lesson to mortality; she felt herself impressed with a solemn awe, and an emotion of fear, which she could neither account for, nor subdue, directed towards the grated aperture.
The sky was clear and serene, and nothing but the light trembling of the leaves, heard at intervals in the breeze, disturbed the silence of the place. It was a moment sacred to meditation, and wrapped in sublime contemplations, she beheld the deepening veil of the twilight, which had just shaded the meek blue of the heavens, stealing upon the surrounding scenery. As she gazed, the first pale star trembled in the eastern sky, and the moon rising slowly above the tops of the trees, sailed majestically through the concave; all lower objects the height of the window had excluded, except the foliage of the trees that waved mournfully over the place, and replied to the moaning of the rising blast.
Unwilling to quit a scene so congenial to her feelings, and anxious to examine the stately monuments that arose above the remains of former greatness, she determined to convey a light to the place, since it was now too dark to distinguish them, and another opportunity of satisfying her curiosity she considered might not speedily occur.
This design was no sooner formed than executed; having procured a lamp, unobserved by any of the family she again returned to the chapel, and descending the stairs, as before, entered the vaulted building.
Having observed with the most earnest attention the stately busts that adorned the niches, the heavy gloom of the impending monuments, and the cross bones, saints, crucifixes, and various other devices suitable to the nature of the place, which were once painted on the walls, but which time had now nearly obliterated, she felt an uneasy sensation stealing upon her mind; and, as the partial gleam of the lamp fell upon the ghastly countenances of the marble figures before her, she started involuntarily from the view. Ashamed of having given way to this moment of weakness, she seated herself upon a fallen stone near the entrance, and, setting down the lamp by her side, cast her eyes calmly around, as if determined to conquer the fears that assailed her, and then taking her pencil from her pocket, wrote the following lines:
Oh! thou, the maid, in sable weeds array’d,
Who haunt’st the darksome caverns, dreary shade,
Or wrapp’d in musing deep, mid charnels pale,
Meet’st in thy sunless realms the humid gale,
That sullen murmurs, and then loudly blows,
Disturbing Silence from her deep repose;
Whilst in the mournful, dreaded midnight hour,
The hermit owl screams from yon mould’ring tower,
Or flaps his boding wing, the death room nigh,
Waking grim Horror with his funeral cry.
Hence, horrid dame, with all thy spectre train,
And let Hope’s star illume this breast again;
Not with that dazzling, that delusive ray,
Which oft misleads the youthful Pilgrim’s way;
But that pure beam that burns serenely bright,
And leads to visions of eternal light.
Having raised the lamp from the steps, she arose, and perceiving that it was nearly extinguished, was retiring in haste; when casting her eyes over this extensive and gloomy abode, to take a last survey of the whole, she thought she distinguished, by the expiring gleam of the lamp, a tall white figure, who having emerged slowly from behind one of the gigantic statues at the remotest part of the building, glided into an obscure corner.
The alarm that this strange appearance, whether real or imaginary, occasioned, was so great that Madame Chamont was for some moments unable to move; but in a short time again collecting her spirits, yet at the same time not daring to turn her eyes to that part of the chapel where the phantom had appeared, she gained the steps she had descended; willing to persuade herself it was only an illusion, yet not daring to be convinced, when she thought she heard a faint rustling, as of garments, which was succeeded by the sound of distant footsteps. Fear added swiftness to her flight, but before she could reach the top of the stairs, the lamp, which had been some time glimmering in the socket, expired and left her in total darkness.
Having with much difficulty reached the door leading into the chapel, exhausted and almost sinking with terror, she paused for breath, and was for some moments unable to proceed, however dreadful her present situation.
The aspect being an eastern one, the moon shining full into the window partly dissipated her fears, and she again stopped to listen if all was still. In the same minute the rustling sound which she had heard upon the stairs returned; and, without closing the door which she had entered, with the swiftness of an arrow she darted through the aisles, not slackening her pace till she had reached that part of the building communicating with the chapel; then turning once more to be assured that no one was following her, she saw, by the partial beam of the moon, a tall stately figure moving slowly by the window without the chapel.
Having reached a door which was open to admit her, she stopped at the entrance, and following the phantom with her eyes, saw it sweep mournfully along the corner of the edifice, and then glide into the deep recesses of the wood.
This strange occurrence so much alarmed Madame Chamont, that it was some time before she could recompose her spirits; and being too much fatigued to endure conversation, she excused herself to Laurette, whose looks anxiously enquired the cause of these emotions, and retired to her bed. But her mind was not sufficiently tranquillized to admit of rest; the strange appearance she had seen, continually occurred to her memory, and when she sunk into forgetfulness, her dreams were confused, wild, and horrible. Sometimes the image of Vescolini would present itself to her fancy, covered with blood, and gasping in the agonies of death; at others, the ill fated La Roque loaded with chains, weak, pale, and emaciated, torn from his tenderest connections, and consigned to a dungeon as to his grave.
These terrible imaginations and dreadful realities worked too powerfully upon her mind not to occasion indisposition, and she awoke in the morning weak and unrefreshed. Her griefs were not of a nature to be softened by friendly participation; for prudence forbidding her to reveal them, condemned her to suffer in silence.
Laurette discovering that some hidden sorrow was preying upon the spirits of her revered protectress, exerted every effort she was mistress of to remove it; these gentle attentions were usually rewarded with a smile, but it was a smile that expressed more of melancholy than of pleasure, and which was frequently followed with a tear.
[SOURCE: Eleanor Sleath, The Orphan of the Rhine, 4 vols. (London: William Lane at the Minerva-Press, 1798)]
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