On the day named by Herbert, and only an hour before dinner, Mr. Prendergast did arrive at Castle Richmond. The Great Southern and Western Railway was not then open as far as Mallow, and the journey from Dublin was long and tedious. “I’ll see him of course,” said Sir Thomas to Lady Fitzgerald; “but I’ll put off this business till tomorrow.” This he said in a tone of distress and agony, which showed too plainly how he dreaded the work which he had before him. “But you’ll come in to dinner,” Lady Fitzgerald had said. “No,” he answered, “not to day, love; I have to think about this.” And he put his hand up to his head, as though this thinking about it had already been too much for him.
Mr. Prendergast was a man over sixty years of age, being, in fact, considerably senior to Sir Thomas himself. But no one would have dreamed of calling Mr. Prendergast an old man. He was short of stature, well made, and in good proportion; he was wiry, strong, and almost robust. He walked as though in putting his foot to the earth he always wished to proclaim that he was afraid of no man and no thing. His hair was grizzled, and his whiskers were grey, and round about his mouth his face was wrinkled; but with him even these things hardly seemed to be signs of old age. He was said by many who knew him to be a stern man, and there was that in his face which seemed to warrant such a character. But he had also the reputation of being a very just man; and those who knew him best could tell tales of him which proved that his sternness was at any rate compatible with a wide benevolence. He was a man who himself had known but little mental suffering, and who owned no mental weakness; and it might be, therefore, that he was impatient of such weakness in others. To chance acquaintances his manners were not soft, or perhaps palatable; but to his old friends his very brusqueness was pleasing. He was a bachelor, well off in the world, and, to a certain extent, fond of society. He was a solicitor by profession, having his office somewhere in the purlieus of Lincoln’s Inn, and living in an old-fashioned house not far distant from that classic spot. I have said that he owned no mental weakness. When I say further that he was slightly afflicted with personal vanity, and thought a good deal about the set of his hair, the shape of his coat, the fit of his boots, the whiteness of his hands, and the external trim of his umbrella, perhaps I may be considered to have contradicted myself. But such was the case. He was a handsome man too, with clear, bright, gray eyes, a well-defined nose, and expressive mouth — of which the lips, however, were somewhat too thin. No man with thin lips ever seems to me to be genially human at all points.
Such was Mr. Prendergast; and my readers will, I trust, feel for Sir Thomas, and pity him, in that he was about to place his wounds in the hands of so ruthless a surgeon. But a surgeon, to be of use, should be ruthless in one sense. He should have the power of cutting and cauterizing, of phlebotomy and bone-handling without effect on his own nerves. This power Mr. Prendergast possessed, and therefore it may be said that Sir Thomas had chosen his surgeon judiciously. None of the Castle Richmond family, except Sir Thomas himself, had ever seen this gentleman, nor had Sir Thomas often come across him of late years. But he was what we in England call an old family friend; and I doubt whether we in England have any more valuable English characteristic than that of having old family friends. Old family feuds are not common with us now-a-days — not so common as with some other people. Sons who now hated their father’s enemies would have but a bad chance before a commission of lunacy; but an old family friend is supposed to stick to one from generation to generation.
On his arrival at Castle Richmond he was taken in to Sir Thomas before dinner. “You find me but in a poor state,” said Sir Thomas, shaking in his fear of what was before him, as the poor wretch does before an iron-wristed dentist who is about to operate. “You will be better soon,” Mr. Prendergast had said, as a man always does say under such circumstances. What other remark was possible to him? “Sir Thomas thinks that he had better not trouble you with business to-night,” said Lady Fitzgerald. To this also Mr. Prendergast agreed willingly. “We shall both of us be fresher tomorrow, after breakfast,” he remarked, as if any time made any difference to him — as though he were not always fresh, and ready for any work that might turn up.
That evening was not passed very pleasantly by the family at Castle Richmond. To all of them Mr. Prendergast was absolutely a stranger, and was hardly the man to ingratiate himself with strangers at the first interview. And then, too, they were all somewhat afraid of him. He had come down thither on some business which was to them altogether mysterious, and, as far as they knew, he, and he alone, was to be intrusted with the mystery. He of course said nothing to them on the subject, but he looked in their eyes as though he were conscious of being replete with secret importance; and on this very account they were afraid of him. And then poor Lady Fitzgerald, though she bore up against the weight of her misery better than did her husband, was herself very wretched. She could not bring herself to believe that all this would end in nothing; that Mr. Prendergast would put everything right, and that after his departure they would go on as happily as ever. This was the doctrine of the younger part of the family, who would not think that anything was radically wrong. But Lady Fitzgerald had always at her heart the memory of her early marriage troubles, and she feared greatly, though she feared she knew not what.
Herbert Fitzgerald and Aunt Letty did endeavour to keep up some conversation with Mr. Prendergast; and the Irish famine was, of course, the subject. But this did not go on pleasantly. Mr. Prendergast was desirous of information; but the statements which were made to him one moment by young Fitzgerald were contradicted in the next by his aunt. He would declare that the better educated of the Roman Catholics were prepared to do their duty by their country, whereas Aunt Letty would consider herself bound both by party feeling and religious duty, to prove that the Roman Catholics were bad in everything.
“Oh, Herbert, to hear you say so!” she exclaimed at one time, “it makes me tremble in my shoes. It is dreadful to think that those people should have got such a hold over you.”
“I really think that the Roman Catholic priests are liberal in their ideas and moral in their conduct.” This was the speech which had made Aunt Letty tremble in her shoes, and it may, therefore, be conceived that Mr. Prendergast did not find himself able to form any firm opinion from the statements then made to him. Instead of doing so, he set them both down as “Wild Irish,” whom it would be insane to trust, and of whom it was absurd to make inquiries. It may, however, be possibly the case that Mr. Prendergast himself had his own prejudices as well as Aunt Letty and Herbert Fitzgerald.
On the following morning they were still more mute at breakfast. The time was coming in which Mr. Prendergast was to go to work and even he, gifted though he was with iron nerves, began to feel somewhat unpleasantly the nature of the task which he had undertaken. Lady Fitzgerald did not appear at all. Indeed during the whole of breakfast-time and up to the moment at which Mr. Prendergast was summoned, she was sitting with her husband, holding his hand in hers, and looking tenderly but painfully into his face. She so sat with him for above an hour, but he spoke to her no word of this revelation he was about to make. Herbert and the girls, and even Aunt Letty, sat solemn and silent, as though it was known by them all that something dreadful was to be said and done. At last Herbert, who had left the room, returned to it. “My father will see you now, Mr. Prendergast, if you will step up to him,” said he; and then he ran to his mother and told her that he should leave the house till dinner-time.
“But if he sends for you, Herbert, should you not be in the way?”
“It is more likely that he should send for you; and, were I to remain here, I should be going into his room when he did not want me.” And then he mounted his horse and rode off.
Mr. Prendergast, with serious air and slow steps, and solemn resolve to do what he had to do at any rate with justice, walked away from the dining-room to the baronet’s study. The task of an old friend is not always a pleasant one, and Mr. Prendergast felt that it was not so at the present moment. “Be gentle with him,” said Aunt Letty, catching hold of his arm as he went through the passage. He merely moved his head twice, in token of assent, and then passed on into the room.
The reader will have learnt by this time, with tolerable accuracy, what was the nature of the revelation which Sir Thomas was called upon to make, and he will be tolerably certain as to the advice which Mr. Prendergast, as an honest man, would give. In that respect there was no difficulty. The laws of meum and tuum are sufficiently clear if a man will open his eyes to look at them. In this case they were altogether clear. These broad acres of Castle Richmond did belong to Sir Thomas — for his life. But after his death they could not belong to his son Herbert. It was a matter which admitted of no doubt. No question as to whether the Molletts would or would not hold their tongue could bear upon it in the least. Justice in this case must be done, even though the heavens should fall. It was sad and piteous. Stern and hard as was the man who pronounced this doom, nevertheless the salt tear collected in his eyes and blinded him as he looked upon the anguish which his judgment had occasioned.
Yes, Herbert must be told that he in the world was nobody; that he must earn his bread, and set about doing so right soon. Who could say that his father’s life was worth a twelve-month’s purchase? He must be told that he was nobody in the world, and instructed also to tell her whom he loved, an Earl’s daughter, the same tidings; that he was nobody, that he would come to possess no property, and that in the law’s eyes did not possess even a name. How would his young heart suffice for the endurance of so terrible a calamity? And those pretty girls, so softly brought up — so tenderly nurtured; it must be explained to them too that they must no longer be proud of their father’s lineage and their mother’s fame. And that other Fitzgerald must be summoned and told of all this; he on whom they had looked down, whom the young heir had robbed of his love, whom they had cast out from among them as unworthy. Notice must be sent to him that he was the heir to Castle Richmond, that he would reign as the future baronet in those gracious chambers. It was he who could now make a great county lady of the daughter of the countess.
“It will be very soon, very soon,” sobbed forth the poor victim. And indeed, to look at him one might say that it would be soon. There were moments when Mr. Prendergast hardly thought that he would live through that frightful day.
But all of which we have yet spoken hardly operated upon the baronet’s mind in creating that stupor of sorrow which now weighed him to the earth. It was none of these things that utterly broke him down and crushed him like a mangled reed. He had hardly mind left to remember his children. It was for the wife of his bosom that he sorrowed.
The wife of his bosom! He persisted in so calling her through the whole interview, and, even in his weakness, obliged the strong man before him so to name her also. She was his wife before God, and should be his to the end. Ah! for how short a time was that! “Is she to leave me?” he once said, turning to his friend, with his hands clasped together, praying that some mercy might be shown to his wretchedness. “Is she to leave me?” he repeated, and then sank on his knees upon the floor.
And how was Mr. Prendergast to answer this question? How was he to decide whether or no this man and woman might still live together as husband and wife? Oh, my reader, think of it if you can, and put yourself for a moment in the place of that old family friend! “Tell me, tell me; is she to leave me?” repeated the poor victim of all this misery.
The sternness and justice of the man at last gave way. “No,” said he, “that cannot, I should think, be necessary. They cannot demand that.” “But you won’t desert me?” said Sir Thomas, when this crumb of comfort was handed to him. And he remembered as he spoke, the bloodshot eyes of the miscreant who had dared to tell him that the wife of his bosom might be legally torn from him by the hands of another man. “You won’t desert me?” said Sir Thomas; meaning by that, to bind his friend to an obligation that, at any rate, his wife should not be taken from him.
“No,” said Mr. Prendergast, “I will not desert you; certainly not that; certainly not that.” Just then it was in his heart to promise almost anything that he was asked. Who could have refused such solace as this to a man so terribly overburthened?
But there was another point of view at which Mr. Prendergast had looked from the commencement, but at which he could not get Sir Thomas to look at all. It certainly was necessary that the whole truth in this matter should be made known and declared openly. This fair inheritance must go to the right owner and not to the wrong. Though the affliction on Sir Thomas was very heavy, and would be equally so on all the family, he would not on that account, for the sake of saving him and them from that affliction, be justified in robbing another person of what was legally and actually that other person’s property. It was a matter of astonishment to Mr. Prendergast that a conscientious man, as Sir Thomas certainly was, should have been able to look at the matter in any other light; that he should ever have brought himself to have dealings in the matter with Mr. Mollett. Justice in the case was clear, and the truth must be declared. But then they must take good care to find out absolutely what the truth was. Having heard all that Sir Thomas had to say, and having sifted all that he did hear, Mr. Prendergast thoroughly believed, in his heart of hearts, that that wretched miscreant was the actual and true husband of the poor lady whom he would have to see. But it was necessary that this should be proved. Castle Richmond for the family, and all earthly peace of mind for that unfortunate lady and gentleman, were not to be given up on the bare word of a scheming scoundrel, for whom no crime would be too black, and no cruelty too monstrous. The proofs must be looked into before anything was done, and they must be looked into before anything was said — to Lady Fitzgerald. We surely may give her that name as yet.
But then, how were they to get at the proofs — at the proofs one way or the other? That Mollett himself had his marriage certificate Sir Thomas declared. That evidence had been brought home to his own mind of the identity of the man — though what was the nature of that evidence he could not now describe — as to that he was quite explicit. Indeed, as I have said above, he almost refused to consider the question as admitting of a doubt. That Mollett was the man to whom his wife had been married he thoroughly believed; and, to tell the truth, Mr. Prendergast was afraid to urge him to look for much comfort in this direction. The whole manner of the man, Mollett, had been such as to show that he himself was sure of his ground. Mr. Prendergast could hardly doubt that he was the man, although he felt himself bound to remark that nothing should be said to Lady Fitzgerald till inquiry had been made. Mr. Mollett himself would be at Castle Richmond on the next day but one, in accordance with the appointment made by himself; and, if necessary, he could be kept in custody till he had been identified as being the man, or as not being the man, who had married Miss Wainwright.
“There is nobody living with you now who knew Lady Fitzgerald at ——?” asked Mr. Prendergast.
“Yes,” said Sir Thomas, “there is one maid servant.” And then he explained how Mrs. Jones had lived with his wife before her first marriage, during those few months in which she had been called Mrs. Talbot, and from that day even up to the present hour.
“Then she must have known this man,” said Mr. Prendergast.
But Sir Thomas was not in a frame of mind at all suited to the sifting of evidence. He did not care to say anything about Mrs. Jones; he got no crumb of comfort out of that view of the matter. Things had come out, unwittingly for the most part, in his conversations with Mollett, which made him quite certain as to the truth of the main part of the story. All those Dorsetshire localities were well known to the man, the bearings of the house, the circumstances of Mr. Wainwright’s parsonage, the whole history of those months; so that on this subject Sir Thomas had no doubt; and we may as well know at once that there was no room for doubt. Our friend of the Kanturk Hotel, South Main Street, Cork, was the man who, thirty years before, had married the child-daughter of the Dorsetshire parson.
Mr. Prendergast, however, stood awhile before the fire balancing the evidence. “The woman must have known him,” he said to himself, “and surely she could tell us whether he be like the man. And Lady Fitzgerald herself would know; but then, who would have the hardness of heart to ask Lady Fitzgerald to confront that man?”
He remained with Sir Thomas that day for hours. The long winter evening had begun to make itself felt by its increasing gloom before he left him. Wine and biscuits were sent in to them, but neither of them even noticed the man who brought them. Twice in the day, however, Mr. Prendergast gave the baronet a glass of sherry, which the latter swallowed unconsciously; and then, at about four, the lawyer prepared to take his leave. “I will see you early tomorrow,” said he, “immediately after breakfast.”
“You are going then?” said Sir Thomas, who greatly dreaded being left alone.
“Not away, you know,” said Mr. Prendergast. “I am not going to leave the house.”
“No,” said Sir Thomas; “no, of course not, “but —” and then he paused.
“Eh!” said Mr. Prendergast, “you were saying something.”
“They will be coming in to me now,” said Sir Thomas, wailing like a child; “now, when you are gone; and what am I to say to them?”
“I would say nothing at present; nothing today.”
“And my wife?” he asked, again. Through this interview he studiously called her his wife. “Is — is she to know it?”
“When we are assured that this man’s story is true, Sir Thomas, she must know it. That will probably be very soon — in a day or two. Till then I think you had better tell her nothing.”
“And what shall I say to her?”
“Say nothing. I think it probable that she will not ask any questions. If she does, tell her that the business between you and me is not yet over. I will tell your son that at present he had better not speak to you on the subject of my visit here.” And then he again took the hand of the unfortunate gentleman, and having pressed it with more tenderness than seemed to belong to him, he left the room.
He left the room, and hurried into the hall and out of the house; but as he did so he could see that he was watched by Lady Fitzgerald. She was on the alert to go to her husband as soon as she should know that he was alone. Of what then took place between those two we need say nothing, but will wander forth for a while with Mr. Prendergast into the wide-spreading park.
Mr. Prendergast had been used to hard work all his life, but he had never undergone a day of severer toil than that through which he had just passed. Nor was it yet over. He had laid it down in a broad way as his opinion that the whole truth in this matter should be declared to the world, let the consequences be what they might; and to this opinion Sir Thomas had acceded without a word of expostulation. But in this was by no means included all that portion of the burden which now fell upon Mr. Prendergast’s shoulders. It would be for him to look into the evidence, and then it would be for him also — heavy and worst task of all — to break the matter to Lady Fitzgerald.
As he sauntered out into the park, to wander about for half an hour in the dusk of the evening, his head was throbbing with pain. The family friend in this instance had certainly been severely taxed in the exercise of his friendship. And what was he to do next? How was he to conduct himself that evening in the family circle, knowing, as he so well did, that his coming there was to bring destruction upon them all? “Be tender to him,” Aunt Letty had said, little knowing how great a call there would be on his tenderness of heart, and how little scope for any tenderness of purpose.
And was it absolutely necessary that that blow should fall in all its severity? He asked himself this question over and over again, and always had to acknowledge that it was necessary. There could be no possible mitigation. The son must be told that he was no son — no son in the eye of the law; the wife must be told that she was no wife, and the distant relative must be made acquainted with his golden prospects. The position of Herbert and Clara, and of their promised marriage, had been explained to him — and all that too must be shivered into fragments. How was it possible that the penniless daughter of an earl should give herself in marriage to a youth, who was not only penniless also, but illegitimate and without a profession? Look at it in which way he would, it was all misery and ruin, and it had fallen upon him to pronounce the doom!
He could not himself believe that there was any doubt as to the general truth of Mollett’s statement. He would of course inquire. He would hear what the man had to say and see what he had to adduce. He would also examine that old servant, and, if necessary — and if possible also — he would induce Lady Fitzgerald to see the man. But he did feel convinced that on this point there was no doubt. And then he lifted up his hands in astonishment at the folly which had been committed by a marriage under such circumstances — as wise men will do in the decline of years, when young people in the heyday of youth have not been wise. “If they had waited for a term of years,” he said, “and if he then had not presented himself!” A term of years, such as Jacob served for Rachel, seems so light an affair to old bachelors looking back at the loves of their young friends.
And so he walked about in the dusk by no means a happy man, nor in any way satisfied with the work which was still before him. How was he to face Lady Fitzgerald, or tell her of her fate? In what words must he describe to Herbert Fitzgerald the position which in future he must fill? The past had been dreadful to him, and the future would be no less so, in spite of his character as a hard, stern man.
When he returned to the house he met young Fitzgerald in the hall. “Have you been to your father?” he asked immediately. Herbert, in a low voice, and with a saddened face, said that he had just come from his father’s room, but Mr. Prendergast at once knew that nothing of the truth had been told to him. “You found him very weak,” said Mr. Prendergast. “Oh, very weak,” said Herbert. “More than weak, utterly prostrate. He was lying on the sofa almost unable to speak. My mother was with him, and is still there.”
“And she?” He was painfully anxious to know whether Sir Thomas had been weak enough — or strong enough — to tell his wife any of the story which that morning had been told to him.
“She is doing what she can to comfort him,” said Herbert; “but it is very hard for her to be left so utterly in the dark.”
Mr. Prendergast was passing on to his room, but at the foot of the stairs Herbert stopped him again, going up the stairs with him, and almost whispering into his ear —
“I trust, Mr. Prendergast,” said he, “that things are not to go on in this way.”
“No, no,” said Mr. Prendergast.
“Because it is unbearable — unbearable for my mother and for me, and for us all. My mother thinks that some terrible thing has happened to the property; but if so, why should I not be told?”
“Of anything that really has happened, or does happen, you will be told.”
“I don’t know whether you are aware of it, Mr. Prendergast, but I am engaged to be married. And I have been given to understand — that is, I thought that this might take place very soon. My mother seems to think that your coming here may — may defer it. If so, I think I have a right to expect that something shall be told to me.”
“Certainly you have a right, my dear young friend. But, Mr. Fitzgerald, for your own sake, for all our sakes, wait patiently for a few hours.”
“I have waited patiently.”
“Yes, I know it. You have behaved admirably. But I cannot speak to you now. This time the day after tomorrow, I will tell you everything that I know. But do not speak of this to your mother. I make this promise only to you.” And then he passed on into his bed-room.
With this Herbert was obliged to be content. That evening he again saw his father and mother, but he told them nothing of what had passed between him and Mr. Prendergast. Lady Fitzgerald remained in the study with Sir Thomas the whole evening, nay, almost the whole night, and the slow hours as they passed there were very dreadful. No one came to table but Aunt Letty, Mr. Prendergast, and Herbert, and between them hardly a word was spoken. The poor girls had found themselves utterly unable to appear. They were dissolved in tears, and crouching over the fire in their own room. And the moment that Aunt Letty left the table Mr. Prendergast arose also. He was suffering, he said, cruelly from headache, and would ask permission to go to his chamber. It would have been impossible for him to have sat there pretending to sip his wine with Herbert Fitzgerald.
After this Herbert again went to his father, and then, in the gloom of the evening, he found Mr. Somers in the office, a little magistrate’s room, that was used both by him and by Sir Thomas. But nothing passed between them. Herbert had nothing to tell. And then at about nine he also went up to his bedroom. A more melancholy day than that had never shed its gloom upon Castle Richmond.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55