From the height at which he might have been happy as the husband of a noble woman, he fell into the depths of a secret adulterous intrigue with a blood relation, so near in consanguinity that discovery must have been utter ruin and expulsion from civilized society.
From henceforth, this damning guilty secret became the ruling force in his life, holding him with a morbid fascination, yet filling him with remorse and anguish and insane dread of detection. Two years after his refusal by Miss Milbanke, his various friends, seeing that for some cause he was wretched, pressed marriage upon him.
Marriage has often been represented as the proper goal and terminus of a wild and dissipated career, and it has been supposed to be the appointed mission of good women to receive wandering prodigals, with all the rags and disgraces of their old life upon them, and put rings on their hands and shoes on their feet, and introduce them, clothed and in their right minds, to an honorable career in society.
Marriage was therefore universally recommended to Lord Byron by his numerous friends and well-wishers; and so he determined to marry, and, in an hour of reckless desperation, sat down and wrote proposals to two ladies. One was declined. The other, which was accepted, was to Miss Milbanke. The world knows well that he had the gift of expression, and will not be surprised that he wrote a very beautiful letter, and that the woman who had already learned to love him fell at once into the snare.
Her answer was a frank, outspoken avowal of her love for him, giving herself to him heart and hand. The good in Lord Byron was not so utterly obliterated that he could receive such a letter without emotion, or practice such unfairness on a loving, trusting heart without pangs of remorse. He had sent the letter in mere recklessness; he had not seriously expected to be accepted, and the discovery of the treasure of affection which he had secured was like a vision of lost heaven to a soul in hell.
But, nevertheless, in his letters written about the engagement, there are sufficient evidences that his self-love was flattered at the preference accorded him by so superior a woman and one who had been so much sought. He mentions with an air of complacency that she has employed the last two years in refusing five or six of his acquaintance; that he had no idea she loved him, admitting that it was an old attachment on his part; he dwells on her virtues with a sort of pride of ownership. There is a sort of childish levity about the frankness of these letters, very characteristic of the man who skimmed over the deepest abysses with the lightest jests. Before the world, and to his intimates, he was acting the part of the successful fiancé conscious all the while of the deadly secret that lay cold at the bottom of his heart.
When he went to visit Miss Mubanke's parents, as her accepted lover, she was struck with his manner and appearance; she saw him moody and gloomy, evidently wrestling with dark and desperate thoughts, and anything but what a happy and accepted lover should be. She sought an interview with him alone, and told him that she had observed that he was not happy in the engagement, and magnanimously added that, if on review he found he had been mistaken in the nature of his feelings, she would immediately release him, and they should remain only friends.
Overcome with the conflict of his feelings, Lord Byron fainted away. Miss Milbanke was convinced that his heart must really be deeply involved in an attachment with reference to which he showed such strength of emotion, and she spoke no more of a dissolution of the engagement.
There is no reason to doubt that Byron was, as he relates in his Dream, profoundly agonized and agitated, when he stood before God's altar, with the trusting young creature whom he was leading to a fate so awfully tragic; yet it was not the memory of Mary Chaworth, but another guiltier and more damning memory that overshadowed that hour.
The moment the carriage doors were shut upon the bridegroom and the bride, the paroxysm of remorse and despair—unrepentant remorse and angry despair—broke forth upon her gentle head.
"You might have saved me from this, madam! you had all in your own power when I offered myself to you first. Then you might have made me what you pleased; but now you will find that you have married a devil!"
In Miss Martineau's Sketches, recently published, is an account of the termination of this wedding journey, which brought them to one of Lady Byron's ancestral country-seats, where they were to spend the honeymoon.
Miss Martineau says:—
"At the altar she did not know that she was a sacrifice; but before sunset of that winter day she knew it, if a judgment may be formed from her face and attitude of despair when she alighted from the carriage on the afternoon of her marriage-day. It was not the traces of tears which won the sympathy of the old butler who stood at the open door. The bridegroom jumped out of the carriage and walked away. The bride alighted, and came up the steps alone, with a countenance and frame agonized and listless with evident horror and despair. The old servant longed to offer his arm to the young, lonely creature, as an assurance of sympathy and protection. From this shock she certainly rallied, and soon. The pecuniary difficulties of her new home were exactly what a devoted spirit like hers was fitted to encounter. Her husband bore testimony, after the catastrophe, that a brighter being, a more sympathizing and agreeable companion, never blessed any man's home. When he afterward called her cold and mathematical, and over-pious, and so forth, it was when public opinion had gone against him, and when he had discovered that her fidelity and mercy, her silence and magnanimity, might be relied on, so that he was at full liberty to make his part good, as far as she was concerned.
"Silent she was even to her own parents, whose feelings she magnanimously spared. She did not act rashly in leaving him, though she had been most rash in marrying him."
Not all at once did the full knowledge of the dreadful reality into which she had entered come upon the young wife. She knew vaguely, from the wild avowals of the first hours of their marriage, that there was a dreadful secret of guilt, that Byron's soul was torn with agonies of remorse, and that he had no love to give to her in return for a love which was ready to do and dare all for him. Yet bravely she addressed herself to the task of soothing and pleasing and calming the man whom she had taken "for better or for worse."
Young and gifted, with a peculiar air of refined and spiritual beauty; graceful in every movement, possessed of exquisite taste; a perfect companion to his mind in all the higher walks of literary culture, and with that infinite pliability to all his varying, capricious moods which true love alone can give; bearing in her hand a princely fortune, which with a woman's uncalculating generosity was thrown at his feet—there is no wonder that she might feel for a while as if she could enter the lists with the very Devil himself, and fight with a woman's weapons for the heart of her husband.
There are indications scattered through the letters of Lord Byron which, though brief indeed, showed that his young wife was making every effort to accommodate herself to him, and to give him a cheerful home. One of the poems that he sends to his publisher about this time, he speaks of as being copied by her. He had always the highest regard for her literary judgments and opinions, and this little incident shows that she was already associating herself in a wifely fashion with his aims as an author.
The poem copied by her, however, has a sad meaning which she afterwards learned to understand only too well.
"There's not a joy the world can give like that it
When the glow of early thought declines in feeling's
'T is not on youth's smooth cheek the blush alone
that fades so fast,
But the tender bloom of heart is gone e'er youth
itself be past.
"Then the few whose spirits float above the wreck
Are driven o'er the shoals of guilt or ocean of
The magnet of their course is gone, or only points
The shore to which their shivered sail shall never
Only a few days before she left him forever, Lord Byron sent Murray manuscripts, in Lady Byron's handwriting, of the Siege of Corinth and Parisina, and wrote:—
"I am very glad that the handwriting was a favorable omen of the morale of the piece; but you must not trust to that, for my copyist would write out anything I desired, in all the ignorance of innocence."
There were lucid intervals in which Lord Byron felt the charm of his wife's mind and the strength of her powers. "Bell, you could be a poet too, if you only thought so," he would say. There were summer hours in her stormy life, the memory of which never left her, when Byron was as gentle and tender as he was beautiful; when he seemed to be possessed by a good angel, and then for a little time all the ideal possibilities of his nature stood revealed.
The most dreadful men to live with are those who thus alternate between angel and devil. The buds of hope and love called out by a day or two of sunshine are frozen again and again till the tree is killed.
But there came an hour of revelation,—an hour when, in a manner which left no kind of room for doubt, Lady Byron saw the full depth of the abyss of infamy which her marriage was expected to cover, and understood that she was expected to be the cloak and the accomplice of this infamy.
Many women would have been utterly crushed by such a disclosure; some would have fled from him immediately, and exposed and denounced the crime. Lady Byron did neither. When all the hope of womanhood died out of her heart, there arose within her, stronger, purer, and brighter, that immortal kind of love such as God feels for the sinner,—the love of which Jesus spoke and which holds the one wanderer of more account than the ninety and nine that went not astray. She would neither leave her husband nor betray him, nor yet would she for one moment justify his sin; and hence came two years of convulsive struggle, in which sometimes, for a while, the good angel seemed to gain ground, and then the evil one returned with sevenfold vehemence.
Lord Byron argued his case with himself and with her, with all the sophistries of his powerful mind. He repudiated Christianity as authority, asserted the right of every human being to follow out what he called "the impulses of nature." Subsequently he introduced into one of his dramas the reasoning by which he justified himself in incest.
In the drama of Cain, Adah the sister and the wife of Cain thus addresses him:—
"Cain! walk not with this spirit,
Bear with what we have bornr, and love me—I
Lucifer. More than thy mother and thy sire?
Adah. I do. Is that a sin too?
Lucifer. No, not yet;
It one day will be in your children.
Must not my daughter love her brother Enoch?
Lucifer. Not as thou lovest Cain.
Adah. O, my God!
Shall they not love and bring forth things that love
Out of their love? have they not drawn their milk
Out of this bosom? was not he, their father,
Born of the same sole womb, in the same hour
With me? did we not love each other? and
In multiplying our being multiply
Things which will love each other as we love
Them ?—And as I love thee, my Cain! go not
Forth with this spirit, he is not of ours.
Lucifer. The sin I speak of is not of my making,
And cannot be a sin in you,—whateer
It seems in those who will replace ye in
Adah. What is the sin which is not
Sin in itself? can circumstance make sin
Of virtue? if it doth, we are the slaves
Lady Byron, though slight and almost infantine in her bodily presence, had the soul, not only of an angelic woman, but of a strong, reasoning man. It was the writer's lot to know her at a period when she formed the personal acquaintance of many of the very first minds of England; but, among all with whom this experience brought her in connection, there was none who impressed her so strongly as Lady Byron. There was an almost supernatural power of moral divination, a grasp of the very highest and most comprehensive things, that made her lightest opinions singularly impressive. No doubt this result was wrought out in a great degree from the anguish and conflict of these two years, when, with no one to help or counsel her but Almighty God, she wrestled and struggled with fiends of darkness for the redemption of her husband's soul.
She followed him through all his sophistical reasonings with a keener reason. She besought and implored, in the name of his better nature, and by all the glorious things that he was capable of being and doing; and she had just power enough to convulse and shake and agonize, but not power enough to subdue.
One of the first of living writers, in the novel of "Romola," has given, in her masterly sketch of the character of Tito, the whole history of the conflict of a woman like Lady Byron with a nature like that of her husband. She has described a being full of fascinations and sweetnesses, full of generosities and of good-natured impulses; a nature that could not bear to give pain, or to see it in others, but entirely destitute of any firm moral principle; she shows how such a being, merely by yielding step by step to the impulses of passion, and disregarding the claims of truth and right, becomes involved in a fatality of evil, in which deceit, crime, and cruelty are a necessity, forcing him to persist in the basest ingratitude to the father who has done all for him, and hard-hearted treachery to the high-minded wife who has given herself to him wholly.
There are few scenes in literature more fearfully tragic than the one between Romola and Tito, when he finally discovers that she knows him fully, and can be deceived by him no more. Some such hour always must come for strong, decided natures irrevocably pledged, one to the service of good and the other to the slavery of evil. The demoniac cried out: "What have I to do with thee, Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to torment me before the time?" The presence of all-pitying purity and love was a torture to the soul possessed by the demon of evil.
These two years, in which Lady Byron was with all her soul struggling to bring her husband back to his better self, were a series of passionate convulsions.
During this time, such was the disordered and desperate state of his worldly affairs, that there were ten executions for debt levied on their family establishment; and it was Lady Byron's fortune each time which settled the account.
Toward the last she and her husband saw less and less of each other, and he came more and more decidedly under evil influences and seemed to acquire a sort of hatred of her.
Lady Byron once said significantly to a friend who spoke of some causeless dislike in another: "My dear, I have known people to be hated for no other reason than because they impersonated conscience."
The biographers of Lord Byron and all his apologists are careful to narrate how sweet, and amiable, and obliging he was to everybody who approached him; and the saying of Fletcher, his man-servant, that "anybody could do anything with my Lord, except my Lady," has often been quoted.
The reason of all this will now be evident. "My Lady," was the only one fully understanding the deep and dreadful secrets of his life who had the courage resolutely and persistently and inflexibly to plant herself in his way and insist upon it that, if he went to destruction, it should be in spite of her best efforts.
He had tried his strength with her fully. The first attempt had been to make her an accomplice by sophistry; by destroying her faith in Christianity, and confusing her sense of right and wrong, to bring her into the ranks of those convenient women who regard the marriage tie only as a friendly alliance to cover license on both sides.
When her husband described to her the continental latitude,—the good-humored marriage, in which complaisant couples mutually agreed to form the cloak for each other's infidelities,—and gave her to understand that in this way alone she could have a peaceful and friendly life with him, she answered him simply: "I am too truly your friend to do this."
When Lord Byron found that he had to do with one who would not yield, who knew him fully, who could not be blinded and could not be deceived, he determined to rid himself of her altogether.
It was when the state of affairs between herself and her husband seemed darkest and most hopeless, that the only child of this union was born. Lord Byron's treatment of his wife during the sensitive period that preceded the birth of this child, and during her confinement, was marked by paroxysms of unmanly brutality, for which the only possible charity on her part was the supposition of insanity. Moore sheds a significant light on this period, by telling us that about this time Byron was often drunk day after day with Sheridan. There had been insanity in the family, and this was the plea which Lady Byron's love put in for him. She regarded him as, if not insane, at least so nearly approaching the boundaries of insanity as to be a subject of forbearance and tender pity and she loved him with that love resembling a mother's, which good wives often feel when they have lost all faith in their husbands' principles, and all hopes of their affections. Still she was in heart and soul his best friend, true to him with a truth which he himself could not shake.
In the verses addressed to his daughter, Lord Byron speaks of her as
"The child of love, though born in bitterness,
And nurtured in convulsion."
A day or two after the birth of this child, Lord Byron came suddenly into Lady Byron's room, and told her that her mother was dead. It was an utter falsehood, but it was only one of the many nameless injuries and cruelties by which he expressed his hatred of her. A short time after her confinement, she was informed by him, in a note, that as soon as she was able to travel she must go,—that he could not and would not longer have her about him; and, when her child was only five weeks old, he carried this threat of expulsion into effect.
Here we will insert briefly Lady Byron's own account—the only one she ever gave to the public—of this separation. The circumstances under which this brief story was written are affecting.
Lord Byron was dead. The whole account between him and her was closed forever in this world. Moore's "Life" had been prepared, containing simply and solely Lord Byron's own version of their story. Moore sent this version to Lady Byron, and requested to know if she had any remarks to make upon it. In reply, she sent a brief statement to him,—the first and only one that had come from her during all the years of the separation, and which appears to have mainly for its object the exculpation of her father and mother from the charge made by the poet of being the instigators of the separation.