Nearly a week passed over their heads at Puritan Grange before anything further was either done or said, or even written, as to the return of John Caldigate to his own home and to his own wife. In the meantime, both Mrs. Robert and Mrs. Daniel had gone out to Folking and made visits of ceremony — visits which were intended to signify their acknowledgment that Mrs. John Caldigate was Mrs. John Caldigate. With Mrs. Daniel the matter was quite ceremonious and short. Mrs. Robert suggested something as to a visit into Cambridge, saying that her husband would be delighted if Hester and Mr. Caldigate would come and dine and sleep. Hester immediately felt that something had been gained, but she declined the proposed visit for the present. ‘We have both of us,’ she said, ‘gone through so much, that we are not quite fit to go out anywhere yet.’ Mrs. Robert had hardly expected them to come, but she had observed her husband’s behests. So far there had been a family reconciliation during the first few days after the prisoner’s release; but no sign came from Mrs. Bolton; and Mr. Bolton, though he had given his orders, was not at first urgent in requiring obedience to them. Then she received a letter from Hester.
‘DEAREST, DEAREST MAMMA — Of course you know that my darling husband has come back to me. All I want now to make me quite happy is to have you once again as my own, own mother. Will you not send me a line to say that it shall all be as though these last long dreary months had never been; — so that I may go to you and show you my baby once again? And, dear mamma, say one word to me to let me know that you know that he is my husband. Tell papa to say so also. — Your most affectionate daughter,
Mrs. Bolton found this letter on the breakfast-table lying, as was usual with her letters, close to her plate, and she read it without saying a word to her husband. Then she put it in her pocket, and still did not say a word. Before the middle of the day she had almost made up her mind that she would keep the letter entirely to herself. It was well, she thought, that he had not seen it, and no good could be done by showing it to him. But he had been in the breakfast-parlour before her, had seen the envelope, and had recognised the handwriting. They were sitting together after lunch, and she was just about to open the book of sermons with which, at that time, she was regaling him, when he stopped her with a question. ‘What did Hester say in her letter?’
Even those who intend to be truthful are sometimes surprised into a lie. ‘What letter?’ she said. But she remembered herself at once, and knew that she could not afford to be detected in a falsehood. ‘That note from Hester? Yes; — I had a note this morning.’
‘I know you had a note. What does she say?’
‘She tells me that he — he has come back.’
‘And what else? She was well aware that we knew that without her telling us.’
‘She wants to come here.’
‘Bid her come.’
‘Of course she shall come.’
‘And him.’ To this she made no answer, except with the muscles of her face, which involuntarily showed her antagonism to the order she had received. ‘Bid her bring her husband with her,’ said the banker.
‘He would not come — though I were to ask him.’
‘Then let it be on his own head.’
‘I will not ask him,’ she said at last, looking away across the room at the blank wall. ‘I will not belie my own heart. I do not want to see him here. He has so far got the better of me; but I will not put my neck beneath his feet for him to tread on me.’
Then there was a pause; — not that he intended to allow her disobedience to pass, but that he was driven to bethink himself how he might best oppose her. ‘Woman,’ he said, ‘you can neither forgive nor forget.’
‘He has got my child from me — my only child.’
‘Does he persecute your child? Is she not happy in his love? Even if he have trespassed against you, who are you that you should not forgive a trespass? I say that he shall be asked to come here, that men may know that in her own father’s house she is regarded as his true and honest wife.’
‘Men!’ she murmured. ‘That men may know!’ But she did not again tell him that she would not obey his command.
She sat all the remainder of the day alone in her room, hardly touching the work which she had beside her, not opening the book which lay by her hand on the table. She was thinking of the letter which she knew that she must write, but she did not rise to get pen and ink, nor did she even propose to herself that the letter should be written then. Not a word was said about it all the evening. On the next morning the banker pronounced his intention of going into town, but before he started he referred to the order he had given. ‘Have you written to Hester?’ he asked. She merely shook her head. ‘Then write to-day.’ So saying, he tottered down the steps with his stick and got into the fly.
About noon she did get her paper and ink, and very slowly wrote her letter. Though her heart was, in truth, yearning towards her daughter — though at that moment she could have made any possible sacrifice for her child had her child been apart from the man she hated — she could not in her sullenness force her words into a form of affection.
‘DEAR HESTER,’ she said. ‘Of course I shall be glad to see you and your boy. On what day would it suit you to come, and how long would you like to stay? I fear you will find me and your father but dull companions after the life you are now used to. If Mr. Caldigate would like to come with you, your father bids me say that he will be glad to see him. — Your loving mother,
She endeavoured, in writing her letter, to obey the commands that had been left with her, but she could not go nearer to it than this. She could not so far belie her heart as to tell her daughter that she herself would be glad to see the man. Then it took her long to write the address. She did write it at last;
$ Mrs. JOHN CALDIGATE, FOLKING. $
But as she wrote it she told herself that she believed it to be a lie.
When the letter reached Hester there was a consultation over it, to which old Mr. Caldigate was admitted. It was acknowledged on all sides that anything would be better than a family quarrel. The spirit in which the invitation had been written was to be found in every word of it. There was not a word to show that Mrs. Bolton had herself accepted the decision to which everyone else had come in the matter; — everything, rather, to show that she had not done so. But, as the squire said, it does not do to inquire too closely into all people’s inner beliefs. ‘If everybody were to say what he thinks about everybody, nobody would ever go to see anybody.’ It was soon decided that Hester, with her baby, should go on an early day to Puritan Grange, and should stay there for a couple of nights. But there was a difficulty as to Caldigate himself. He was naturally enough anxious to send Hester without him, but she was as anxious to take him. ‘It isn’t for my own sake,’ she said — ‘because I shall like to have you there with me. Of course it will be very dull for you, but it will be so much better that we should all be reconciled, and that everyone should know that we are so.’
‘It would only be a pretence,’ said he.
‘People must pretend sometimes, John,’ she answered. At last it was decided that he should take her, reaching the place about the hour of lunch, so that he might again break bread in her father’s house — that he should then leave her there, and that at the end of the two days she should return to Folking.
On the day named they reached Puritan Grange at the hour fixed. Both Caldigate and Hester were very nervous as to their reception, and got out of the carriage almost without a word to each other. The old gardener, who had been so busy during Hester’s imprisonment, was there to take the luggage; and Hester’s maid carried the child as Caldigate, with his wife behind him, walked up the steps and rang the bell. There was no coming out to meet them, no greeting them even in the hall. Mr. Bolton was perhaps too old and too infirm for such running out, and it was hardly within his nature to do so. They were shown into the well-known morning sitting-room, and there they found Hester’s father in his chair, and Mrs. Bolton standing up to receive them.
Hester, after kissing her father, threw herself into her mother’s arms before a word had been said to Caldigate. Then the banker addressed him with a set speech, which no doubt had been prepared in the old man’s mind. ‘I am very glad,’ he said, ‘that you have brought this unhappy matter to so good a conclusion, Mr. Caldigate.’
‘It has been a great trouble — worse almost for Hester than for me.’
‘Yes, it has been sad enough for Hester — and the more so because it was natural that others should believe that which the jury and the judge declared to have been proved. How should any one know otherwise?’
‘Just so, Mr. Bolton. If they will accept the truth now, I shall be satisfied.’
‘It will come, but perhaps slowly to some folk. You should in justice remember that your own early follies have tended to bring this all about.’
It was a grim welcome, and the last speech was one which Caldigate found it difficult to answer. It was so absolutely true that it admitted of no answer. He thought that it might have been spared, and shrugged his shoulders as though to say that that part of the subject was one which he did not care to discuss. Hester heard it, and quivered with anger even in her mother’s arms. Mrs. Bolton heard it, and in the midst of her kisses made an inward protest against the word used. Follies indeed! Why had he not spoken out the truth as he knew it, and told the man of his vices?
But it was necessary that she too should address him. ‘I hope I see you quite well, Mr. Caldigate,’ she said, giving him her hand.
‘The prison has not disagreed with me,’ he said, with an attempt at a smile, ‘though it was not an agreeable residence.’
‘If you used your leisure there to meditate on your soul’s welfare, it may have been of service to you.’
It was very grim. But the banker having made his one severe speech, became kind in his manner, and almost genial. He asked after his son-in-law’s future intentions, and when he was told that they thought of spending some months abroad so as to rid themselves in that way of the immediate record of their past misery, he was gracious enough to express his approval of the plan; and then when the lunch was announced, and the two ladies had passed out of the room, he said a word to his son-in-law in private. ‘As I was convinced, Mr. Caldigate, when I first heard the evidence, that that other woman was your wife, and was therefore very anxious to separate my daughter from you, so am I satisfied now that the whole thing was a wicked plot.’
‘I am very glad to hear you say that, sir.’
‘Now, if you please, we will go in to lunch.’
As long as Caldigate remained in the house Mrs. Bolton was almost silent. The duties of a hostess she performed in a stiff ungainly way. She asked him whether he would have hashed mutton or cold beef, and allowed him to pour a little sherry into her wine-glass. But beyond this there was not much conversation. Mr. Bolton had said what he had to say, and sat leaning forward with his chin over his plate perfectly silent. It is to be supposed that he had some pleasure in having his daughter once more beneath his roof, especially as he had implored his wife not to deprive him of that happiness during the small remainder of his days. But he sat there with no look of joy upon his face. That she should be stern, sullen, and black-browed was to be expected. She had been compelled to entertain their guest; and was not at all the woman to bear such compulsion meekly.
The hour at last wore itself away, and the carriage which was to take Caldigate back to Folking was again at the door. It was a Tuesday. ‘You will send for me on Thursday,’ she said to him in a whisper.
‘Early? After breakfast, you know. I suppose you will not come yourself.’
‘Not here, I think. I have done all the good that I can do, and it is pleasant to no one. But you shall pick me up in the town. I shall go in and see your brother Robert.’ Then he went, and Hester was left with her parents.
As she turned back from the hall-door she found her mother standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting for her. ‘Shall I come with you, mamma?’ she said. Holding each other’s arms they went up, and so passed into Hester’s room, where the nurse was sitting with the boy. ‘Let her go into my room,’ said the elder lady. So the nurse took the baby away, and they were alone together. ‘Oh, Hester, Hester, my child!’ said the mother, flinging her arms wildly round her daughter.
The whole tenor of her face was changed at that moment. Even to Hester she had been stern, forbidding, and sullen. There had not been a gracious movement about her lips or eyes since the visitors had come. A stranger, could a stranger have seen it all, would have said that the mother did not love her child, that there was no touch of tenderness about the woman’s heart. But now, when she was alone, with the one thing on earth that was dear to her, she melted at once. In a moment Hester found herself seated on the sofa, with her mother kneeling before her, sobbing, and burying her face in the loved one’s lap. ‘You love me, Hester — still.’
‘Love you, mamma! You know I love you.’
‘Not as it used to be. I am nothing to you now. I can do nothing for you now. You turn away from me, because — because — because —’
‘I have never turned away from you, mamma.’
‘Because I could not bear that you should be taken away from me and given to him.’
‘He is good, mamma. If you would only believe that he is good!’
‘He is not good. God only is good, my child.’
‘He is good to me.’
‘Ah, yes; — he has taken you from me. When I thought you were coming back, in trouble, in disgrace from the world, nameless, a poor injured thing, with your nameless babe, then I comforted myself because I thought that I could be all and everything to you. I would have poured balm into the hurt wounds. I would have prayed with you, and you and I would have been as one before the Lord.’
‘You are not sorry, mamma, that I have got my husband again?’
‘Oh, I have tried — I have tried not to be sorry.’
‘You do not believe now that that woman was his wife?’
Then the old colour came back upon her face, and something of the old look, and the tenderness was quenched in her eyes, and the softness of her voice was gone. ‘I do not know,’ she said.
‘Mamma, you must know. Get up and sit by me till I tell you. You must teach yourself to know this — to be quite sure of it. You must not think that your daughter is — is living in adultery with the husband of another woman. To me who knew him there has never been a shadow of a doubt, not a taint of fear to darken the certainty of my faith. It could not have been so, perhaps, with you who have not known his nature. But now, now, when all of them, from the Queen downwards, have declared that this charge has been a libel, when even the miscreants themselves have told against themselves, when the very judge has gone back from the word in which he was so confident, shall my mother — and my mother only — think that I am a wretched, miserable, nameless outcast, with a poor nameless, fatherless baby? I am John Caldigate’s wife before God’s throne, and my child is his child, and his lawful heir, and owns his father’s name. My husband is to me before all the world — first, best, dearest — my king, my man, my master, and my lover. Above all things, he is my husband.’ She had got up, and was standing before her mother with her arms folded before her breast, and the fire glanced from her eyes as she spoke. ‘But, mamma, because I love him more, I do not love you less.’
‘Oh yes, oh yes; so much less.’
‘No, mamma. It is given to us, of God, so to love our husband; “For the husband is head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the Church.” You would not have me forget such teaching as that?’
‘No — my child; no.’
‘When I went out and had him given to me for my husband, of course I loved him best. The Lord do so to me and more also if aught but death part him and me! But shall that make my mother think that her girl’s heart is turned away from her? Mamma, say that he is my husband.’ The frown came back, and the woman sat silent and sullen, but there was something of vacillating indecision in her face. ‘Mamma,’ repeated Hester, ‘say that he is my husband.’
‘I suppose so,’ said the woman, very slowly.
‘Mamma, say that it is so, and bless your child.’
‘God bless you, my child.’
‘And you know that it is so?’
‘Yes.’ The word was hardly spoken, but the lips of the one were close to the ear of the other, and the sound was heard, and the assent was acknowledged.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14