One morning about the middle of October, Robert Bolton walked out from Cambridge to Puritan Grange with a letter in his pocket — a very long and a very serious letter. The day was that on which the Secretary of State was closeted with the barrister, and on the evening of which he at length determined that Caldigate should be allowed to go free. There had, therefore, been no pardon granted — as yet. But in the letter the writer stated that such pardon would, almost certainly, be awarded.
It was from William Bolton, in London, to his brother the attorney, and was written with the view of proving to all the Boltons at Cambridge, that it was their duty to acknowledge Hester as the undoubted wife of John Caldigate; and recommended also that, for Hester’s sake, they should receive him as her husband. The letter had been written with very great care, and had been powerful enough to persuade Robert Bolton of the truth of the first proposition.
It was very long, and as it repeated all the details of the evidence for and against the verdict, it shall not be repeated here at its full length. Its intention was to show that, looking at probabilities, and judging from all that was known, there was much more reason to suppose that there had been no marriage at Ahalala than that there had been one. The writer acknowledged that, while the verdict stood confirmed against the man, Hester’s family were bound to regard it, and to act as though they did not doubt its justice; — but that when that verdict should be set aside — as far as any criminal verdict can be set aside — by the Queen’s pardon, then the family would be bound to suppose that they who advised her Majesty had exercised a sound discretion.
‘I am sure you will all agree with me,’ he said, ‘that no personal feeling in regard to Caldigate should influence your judgment. For myself, I like the man. But that, I think, has had nothing to do with my opinion. If it had been the case that, having a wife living, he had betrayed my sister into all the misery of a false marriage, and had made her the mother of a nameless child, I should have felt myself bound to punish him to every extent within my power. I do not think it unchristian to say that in such a case I could not have forgiven him. But presuming it to be otherwise — as we all shall be bound to do if he be pardoned — then, for Hester’s sake, we should receive the man with whom her lot in life is so closely connected. She, poor dear, has suffered enough, and should not be subjected to the further trouble of our estrangement.
‘Nor, if we acknowledge the charge against him to be untrue, is there any reason for a quarrel. If he has not been bad to our sister in that matter, he has been altogether good to her. She has for him that devotion which is the best evidence that a marriage has been well chosen. Presuming him to be innocent, we must confess, as to her, that she has been simply loyal to her husband — with such loyalty as every married man would desire. For this she should be rewarded rather than punished.
‘I write to you thinking that in this way I may best reach my father and Mrs. Bolton. I would go down and see them did I not know that your words would be more efficacious with them than my own. And I do it as a duty to my sister, which I feel myself bound to perform. Pray forgive me if I remind you that in this respect she has a peculiar right to a performance of your duty in the matter. You counselled and carried out the marriage — not at all unfortunately if the man be, as I think, innocent. But you are bound at any rate to sift the evidence very closely, and not to mar her happiness by refusing to acknowledge him if there be reasonable ground for supposing the verdict to have been incorrect.’
Sift the evidence, indeed! Robert Bolton had done that already very closely. Bagwax and the stamps had not moved him, nor the direct assurance of Dick Shand. But the incarceration by Government of Crinkett and Euphemia Smith had shaken him, and the fact that they had endeavoured to escape the moment they heard of Shand’s arrival. But not the less had he hated Caldigate. The feeling which had been impressed on his mind when the first facts were made known to him remained. Caldigate had been engaged to marry the woman, and had lived with her, and had addressed her as his wife! The man had in a way got the better of him. And then the twenty thousand pounds! And then, again, Caldigate’s manner to himself! He could not get over his personal aversion, and therefore unconsciously wished that his brother-in-law should be guilty — wished at any rate that he should be kept in prison. Gradually had fallen upon him the conviction that Caldigate would be pardoned. And then of course there had come much consideration as to his sister’s condition. He, too, was a conscientious and an affectionate man. He was well aware of his duty to his sister. While he was able to assure himself that Caldigate was not her husband, he could satisfy himself by a conviction that it was his duty to keep them apart. Thus he could hate the man, advocate all severity against the man, and believe the while that he was doing his duty to his sister as an affectionate brother. But now there was a revulsion. It was three weeks since he and his brother had parted, not with the kindest feelings, up in London, and during that time the sifting of the evidence had been going on within his own breast from hour to hour. And now this letter had come — a letter which he could not put away in anger, a letter which he could not ignore. To quarrel permanently with his brother William was quite out of the question. He knew the value of such a friend too well, and had been too often guided by his advice. So he sifted the evidence once again, and then walked off to Puritan Grange with the letter in his pocket.
In these latter days old Mr. Bolton did not go often into Cambridge. Men said that his daughter’s misfortune had broken him very much. It was perhaps the violence of his wife’s religion rather than the weight of his daughter’s sufferings which cowed him. Since Hester’s awful obstinacy had become hopeless to Mrs. Bolton, an atmosphere of sackcloth and ashes had made itself more than ever predominant at Puritan Grange. If any one hated papistry Mrs. Bolton did so; but from a similar action of religious fanaticism she had fallen into worse that papistical self-persecution. That men and women were all worms to be trodden under foot, and grass of the field to be thrown into the oven, was borne in so often on poor Mr. Bolton that he had not strength left to go to the bank. And they were nearer akin to worms and more like grass of the field than ever, because Hester would stay at Folking instead of returning to her own home.
She was in this frame of mind when Robert Bolton was shown into the morning sitting-room. She was sitting with the Bible before her, but with some domestic needlework in her lap. He was doing nothing even having a book ready to his hand. Thus he would sit the greater part of the day, listening to her when she would read to him, but much preferring to be left alone. His life had been active and prosperous, but the evening of his days was certainly not happy.
His son Robert had been anxious to discuss the matter with him first, but found himself unable to separate them without an amount of ceremony which would have filled her with suspicion. ‘I have received a letter this morning from William,’ he said, addressing himself to his father.
‘William Bolton is, I fear, of the world worldly,’ said the step-mother. ‘His words always savour to me of the huge ungodly city in which he dwells.’
But that this was not a time for such an exercise he would have endeavoured to expose the prejudice of the lady. As it was he was very gentle. ‘William is a man who understands his duty well,’ he said.
‘Many do that, but few act up to their understanding she rejoined.
‘I think, sir, I had better read his letter to you. It has been written with that intention, and I am bound to let you know the contents. Perhaps Mrs. Bolton will let me go to the end so that we may discuss it afterwards.’
But Mrs. Bolton would not let him go to the end. He had not probably expected such forbearance. At every point as to the evidence she interrupted him, striving to show that the arguments used were of no real weight. She was altogether irrational, but still she argued her case well. She withered Bagwax and Dick with her scorn; she ridiculed the quarrels of the male and female witnesses; she reviled the Secretary of State, and declared it to be a shame that the Queen should have no better advisers. But when William Bolton spoke of Hester’s happiness, and of the concessions which should be made to secure that, she burst out into eloquence. What did he know of her happiness? Was it not manifest that he was alluding to this world without a thought of the next? ‘Not a reflection as to her soul’s welfare has once come across his mind,’ she said; —‘not an idea as to the sin with which her soul would be laden were she to continue to live with the man when knowing that he was not her husband.’
‘She would know nothing of the kind,’ said the attorney.
“She ought to know it,” said Mrs. Bolton, again begging the whole question.
But he persevered, as he had resolved to do when he left his house upon this difficult mission. ‘I am sure my father will acknowledge,’ he said, ‘that however strong our own feelings have been, we should bow to the conviction of others who —’
But he was promulgating a doctrine which her conscience required her to stop at once. ‘The conviction of others shall never have weight with me when the welfare of my eternal soul is at stake.’
‘I am speaking of those who have had better means of getting at the truth than have come within our reach. The Secretary of State can have no bias of his own in the matter.’
‘He is, I fear, a godless man, living and dealing with the godless. Did I not hear the other day that the great Ministers of State will not even give a moment to attend to the short meaningless prayers which are read in the House of Commons?’
‘No one,’ continued Robert Bolton, trying to get away from sentiment into real argument — ‘no one can have been more intent on separating them than William was when he thought that the evidence was against him. Now he thinks the evidence in his favour. I know no man whose head is clearer than my brother’s. I am not very fond of John Caldigate.’
‘Nor am I,’ said the woman with an energy which betrayed much of her true feeling.
‘But if it be the case that they are in truth man and wife —’
‘In the sight of God they are not so,’ she said.
‘Then,’ he continued, trying to put aside her interruption, and to go on with the assertion he had commenced, ‘it must be our duty to acknowledge him for her sake. Were we not to do so, we should stand condemned in the opinion of all the world.’
‘Who cares for the opinion of the world?’
‘And we should destroy her happiness.’
‘Her happiness here on earth! What does that matter? There is no such happiness.’
It was a very hard fight, but perhaps not harder than he had expected. He had known that she would not listen to reason — that she would not even attempt to understand it. And he had learned before this how impregnable was that will of fanaticism in which she would entrench herself — how improbable it was that she would capitulate under the force of any argument. But he thought it possible that he might move his father to assert himself. He was well aware that, in the midst of that apparent lethargy, his father’s mind was at work with much of its old energy. He understood the physical infirmities and religious vacillation which, combined, had brought the old man into his present state of apparent submission It was hardly two years since the same thing had been done in regard to Hester’s marriage. Then Mr. Bolton had asserted himself, and declared his will in opposition to his wife. There had indeed been much change in him since that time, but still something of the old fire remained. ‘I have thought it to be my duty, sir,’ he said, ‘to make known to you William’s opinion and my own. I say nothing as to social intercourse. That must be left to yourself. But if this pardon be granted, you will, I think, be bound to acknowledge John Caldigate to be your son-in-law.’
‘Your father agrees with me,’ said Mrs. Bolton, rising from her chair, and speaking in an angry tone. ‘I hope you both will agree with me. As soon as tidings of the pardon reach you, you should, I think, intimate to Hester that you accept her marriage as having been true and legal. I shall do so, even though I should never see him in my house again.’
‘You of course will do as you please.’
‘And you, sir?’ he said, appealing to the old man.
‘You have no right to dictate to your father,’ said the wife angrily.
‘He has always encouraged me to offer him my advice.’ Then Mr. Bolton shuffled in his chair, as though collecting himself for an effort — and at last sat up, with his head, however, bent forward, and with both his arms resting on the arms of his chair. Though he looked to be old, much older than he was, still there was a gleam of fire in his eye. He was thin, almost emaciated, and his head hung forward as though there were not strength left in his spine for him to sit erect. ‘I hope, sir, you do not think that I have gone beyond my duty in what I have said.’
‘She shall come here,’ muttered the old man.
‘Certainly, she shall,’ said Mrs. Bolton, ‘if she will. Do you suppose that I do not long to have my own child in my arms?’
‘She shall come here, and be called by her name,’ said the father.
‘She shall be Hester — my own Hester,’ said the mother, not feeling herself as yet called upon to contradict her husband.
‘And John Caldigate shall come,’ he said.
‘Never!’ exclaimed Mrs. Bolton.
‘He shall be asked to come. I say he shall. Am I to be harder on my own child than are all the others? Shall I call her a castaway, when others say that she is an honest married woman?’
‘Who has called her a castaway?’
‘I took the verdict of the jury, though it broke my heart,’ he continued. ‘It broke my heart to be told that my girl and her child were nameless — but I believed it because the jury said so, and because the judge declared it. When they tell me the contrary, why shall I not believe that? I do believe it; and she shall come here, if she will, and he shall come.’ Then he got up and slowly moved out of the room, so that there might be no further argument on the subject.
She had reseated herself with her arms crossed, and there sat perfectly mute. Robert Bolton stood up and repeated all his arguments, appealing even to her maternal love — but she answered him never a word. She had not even yet succeeded in making the companion of her life submissive to her! That was the feeling which was now uppermost in her mind. He had said that Caldigate should be asked to the house, and should be acknowledged throughout all Cambridge as his son-in-law. And having said it, he would be as good as his word. She was sure of that. Of what avail had been all the labour of her life with such a result?
‘I hope you will think that I have done no more than my duty,’ said Robert Bolton, offering her his hand. But there she sat perfectly silent, with her arms still folded, and would take no notice of him. ‘Good-bye,’ said he, striving to put something of the softness of affection into his voice. But she would not even bend her head to him; — and thus he left her.
She remained motionless for the best part of an hour. Then she got up, and according to her daily custom walked a certain number of times round the garden. Her mind was so full that she did not as usual observe every twig, almost every leaf, as she passed. Nor, now that she was alone, was that religious bias, which had so much to do with her daily life, very strong within her. There was no taint of hypocrisy in her character; but yet, with the force of human disappointment heavy upon her, her heart was now hot with human anger, and mutinous with human resolves. She had proposed to herself to revenge herself upon the men of her husband’s family — upon the men who had contrived that marriage for her daughter — by devoting herself to the care of that daughter and her nameless grandson, and by letting it be known to all that the misery of their condition would have been spared had her word prevailed. That they should live together a stern, dark, but still sympathetic life, secluded within the high walls of that lonely abode, and that she should thus be able to prove how right she had been, how wicked and calamitous their interference with her child — that had been the scheme of her life. And now her scheme was knocked on the head, and Hester was to become a prosperous ordinary married woman amidst the fatness of the land at Folking! It was all wormwood to her. But still, as she walked, she acknowledged to herself, that as that old man had said so — so it must be. With all her labour, with all her care, and with all her strength, she had not succeeded in becoming the master of that weak old man.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01