I have tied myself down to thirteen years ago as the time of my story; but I must go back a little beyond this for its first scenes, and work my way up as quickly as may be to the period indicated. I have spoken of a winter in which Herbert Fitzgerald was at home at Castle Richmond, having then completed his Oxford doings; but I must say something of two years previous to that, of a time when Herbert was not so well known in the country as was his cousin of Hap House.
It was a thousand pities that a bad word should ever have been spoken of Owen Fitzgerald; ten thousand pities that he should ever have given occasion for such bad word. He was a fine, high-spirited, handsome fellow, with a loving heart within his breast, and bright thoughts within his brain. It was utterly wrong that a man constituted as he was should commence life by living alone in a large country-house. But those who spoke ill of him should have remembered that this was his misfortune rather than his fault. Some greater endeavour might perhaps have been made to rescue him from evil ways. Very little such endeavour was made at all. Sir Thomas once or twice spoke to him; but Sir Thomas was not an energetic man; and as for Lady Fitzgerald, though she was in many things all that was excellent, she was far too diffident to attempt the reformation of a headstrong young man, who after all was only distantly connected with her.
And thus there was no such attempt, and poor Owen became the subject of ill report without any substantial effort having been made to save him. He was a very handsome man — tall, being somewhat over six feet in height — athletic, almost more than in proportion — with short, light chestnut-tinted hair, blue eyes, and a mouth perfect as that of Phoebus. He was clever, too, though perhaps not educated as carefully as might have been: his speech was usually rapid, hearty, and short, and not seldom caustic and pointed. Had he fallen among good hands, he might have done very well in the world’s fight; but with such a character, and lacking such advantages, it was quite as open to him to do ill. Alas! the latter chance seemed to have fallen to him.
For the first year of his residence at Hap House, he was popular enough among his neighbours. The Hap House orgies were not commenced at once, nor when commenced did they immediately become a subject of scandal; and even during the second year he was tolerated; — tolerated by all, and still flattered by some.
Among the different houses in the country at which he had become intimate was that of the Countess of Desmond. The Countess of Desmond did not receive much company at Desmond Court. She had not the means, nor perhaps the will, to fill the huge old house with parties of her Irish neighbours — for she herself was English to the backbone. Ladies of course made morning calls, and gentlemen too, occasionally; but society at Desmond Court was for some years pretty much confined to this cold formal mode of visiting. Owen Fitzgerald, however, did obtain admittance into the precincts of the Desmond barracks.
He went there first with the young earl, who, then quite a boy, had had an ugly tumble from his pony in the hunting-field. The countess had expressed herself as very grateful for young Fitzgerald’s care, and thus an intimacy had sprung up. Owen had gone there once or twice to see the lad, and on those occasions had dined there; and on one occasion, at the young earl’s urgent request, had stayed and slept.
And then the good-natured people of Muskerry, Duhallow, and Desmond began, of course, to say that the widow was going to marry the young man. And why not? she was still a beautiful woman; not yet forty by a good deal, said the few who took her part; or at any rate, not much over, as was admitted by the many who condemned her. We, who have been admitted to her secrets, know that she was then in truth only thirty-eight. She was beautiful, proud, and clever; and if it would suit her to marry a handsome young fellow with a good house and an unembarrassed income of eight hundred a-year, why should she not do so? As for him, would it not be a great thing for him to have a countess for his wife, and an earl for his stepson?
What ideas the countess had on this subject we will not just now trouble ourselves to inquire. But as to young Owen Fitzgerald, we may declare at once that no thought of such a wretched alliance ever entered his head. He was sinful in many things, and foolish in many things. But he had not that vile sin, that unmanly folly, which would have made a marriage with a widowed countess eligible in his eyes, merely because she was a countess, and not more than fifteen years his senior. In a matter of love he would as soon have thought of paying his devotions to his far-away cousin, old Miss Barbara Beamish, of Ballyclahassan, of whom it was said that she had set her cap at every unmarried man that had come into the west riding of the county for the last forty years. No; it may at any rate be said of Owen Fitzgerald, that he was not the man to make up to a widowed countess for the sake of the reflected glitter which might fall on him from her coronet.
But the Countess of Desmond was not the only lady at Desmond Court. I have before said that she had a daughter, the Lady Clara, the heroine of this coming story; and it may be now right that I should attempt some short description of her; her virtues and faults, her merits and defects. It shall be very short; for let an author describe as he will, he cannot by such course paint the characters of his personages on the minds of his readers. It is by gradual, earnest efforts that this must be done — if it be done. Ten, nay, twenty pages of the finest descriptive writing that ever fell from the pen of a novelist will not do it.
Clara Desmond, when young Fitzgerald first saw her, had hardly attained that incipient stage of womanhood which justifies a mother in taking her out into the gaieties of the world. She was then only sixteen; and had not in her manner and appearance so much of the woman as is the case with many girls of that age. She was shy and diffident in manner, thin and tall in person. If I were to say that she was angular and bony, I should disgust my readers, who, disliking the term, would not stop to consider how many sweetest girls are at that age truly subject to those epithets. Their undeveloped but active limbs are long and fleshless, the contour of their face is the same, their elbows and shoulders are pointed, their feet and hands seem to possess length without breadth. Birth and breeding have given them the frame of beauty, to which coming years will add the soft roundness of form, and the rich glory of colour. The plump, rosy girl of fourteen, though she also is very sweet, never rises to such celestial power of feminine grace as she who is angular and bony, whose limbs are long, and whose joints are sharp.
Such was Clara Desmond at sixteen. But still, even then, to those who were gifted with the power of seeing, she gave promise of great loveliness. Her eyes were long and large, and wonderfully clear. There was a liquid depth in them which enabled the gazer to look down into them as he would into the green, pellucid transparency of still ocean water. And then they said so much — those young eyes of hers: from her mouth in those early years words came but scantily, but from her eyes questions rained quicker than any other eyes could answer them. Questions of wonder at what the world contained — of wonder as to what men thought and did; questions as to the inmost heart, and truth, and purpose of the person questioned. And all this was asked by a glance now and again; by a glance of those long, shy, liquid eyes, which were ever falling on the face of him she questioned, and then ever as quickly falling from it.
Her face, as I have said, was long and thin, but it was the longness and thinness of growing youth. The natural lines of it were full of beauty, of pale silent beauty, too proud in itself to boast itself much before the world, to make itself common among many. Her hair was already long and rich, but was light in colour, much lighter than it grew to be when some four or five more years had passed over her head. At the time of which I speak she wore it in simple braids brushed back from her forehead, not having as yet learned that majestic mode of sweeping it from her face which has in subsequent years so generally prevailed.
And what then of her virtues and her faults — of her merits and defects? Will it not be better to leave them all to time and the coming pages? That she was proud of her birth, proud of being an Irish Desmond, proud even of her poverty, so much I may say of her, even at that early age. In that she was careless of the world’s esteem, fond to a fault of romance, poetic in her temperament, and tender in her heart, she shared the ordinary — shall I say foibles or virtues? — of so many of her sex. She was passionately fond of her brother, but not nearly equally so of her mother, of whom the brother was too evidently the favoured child.
She had lived much alone; alone, that is, with her governess and with servants at Desmond Court. Not that she had been neglected by her mother, but she had hardly found herself to be her mother’s companion; and other companions there she had had none. When she was sixteen her governess was still with her; but a year later than that she was left quite alone, except inasmuch as she was with her mother.
She was sixteen when she first began to ask questions of Owen Fitzgerald’s face with those large eyes of hers; and she saw much of him and he of her, for the twelve months immediately after that. Much of him, that is, as much goes in this country of ours, where four or five interviews in as many months between friends is supposed to signify that they are often together. But this much-seeing occurred chiefly during the young earl’s holidays. Now and again he did ride over in the long intervals, and when he did do so was not frowned upon by the countess; and so, at the end of the winter holidays subsequent to that former winter in which the earl had had his tumble, people through the county began to say that he and the countess were about to become man and wife.
It was just then that people in the county were also beginning to talk of the Hay House orgies; and the double scandal reached Owen’s ears, one shortly after the other. That orgies scandal did not hurt him much. It is, alas! too true that consciousness of such a reputation does not often hurt a young man’s feelings. But the other rumour did wound him. What! he sell himself to a widowed countess almost old enough to be his mother; or bestow himself rather — for what was there in return that could be reckoned as a price? At any rate, he had given no one cause to utter such falsehood, such calumny as that. No; it certainly was not probable that he should marry the countess.
But this set him to ask himself whether it might or might not be possible that he should marry some one else. Might it not be well for him if he could find a younger bride at Desmond Court? Not for nothing had he ridden over there through those bleak mountains; not for nothing, nor yet solely with the view of tying flies for the young earl’s summer fishing, or preparing the new nag for his winter’s hunting. Those large bright eyes had asked him many questions. Would it not be well that he should answer them?
For many months of that year Clara Desmond had hardly spoken to him. Then, in the summer evening, as he and her brother would lie sprawling together on the banks of the little Desmond river, while the lad was talking of his fish, and his school, and his cricket club, she would stand by and listen, and so gradually she learned to speak.
And the mother also would sometimes be there; or else she would welcome Fitzgerald in to tea, and let him stay there talking as though they were all at home, till he would have to make a midnight ride of it before he reached Hap House. It seemed that no fear as to he daughter had ever crossed the mother’s mind; that no idea had ever come upon her that her favoured visitor might learn to love the young girl with whom he was allowed to associate on so intimate a footing. Once or twice he had caught himself calling her Clara, and had done so even before her mother; but no notice had been taken of it. In truth, Lady Desmond did not know her daughter, for the mother took her absolutely to be a child, when in fact she was a child no longer.
“You take Clara round by the bridge,” said the earl to his friend one August evening, as they were standing together on the banks of the river, about a quarter of a mile distant from the sombre old pile in which the family lived. “You take Clara round by the bridge, and I will get over the stepping-stones.” And so the lad, with his rod in his hand, began to descend the steep bank.
“I can get over the stepping-stones, too, Patrick,” said she.
“Can you though, my gay young woman? You’ll be over your ankles if you do. That rain didn’t come down yesterday for nothing.”
Clara as she spoke had come up to the bank, and now looked wistfully down at the stepping-stones. She had crossed them scores of times, sometimes with her brother, and often by herself. Why was it that she was so anxious to cross them now?
“It’s no use your trying,” said her brother who was now half across, and who spoke from the middle of the river. “Don’t you let her, Owen. She’ll slip in, and then there will be no end of a row up at the house.”
“You had better come round by the bridge,” said Fitzgerald. “It is not only that the stones are nearly under water, but they are wet, and you would slip.”
So cautioned, Lady Clara allowed herself to be persuaded, and turned upwards along the river by a little path that led to a foot bridge. It was some quarter of a mile thither, and it would be the same distance down the river again before she regained her brother.
“I needn’t bring you with me, you know,” she said to Fitzgerald. “You can get over the stones easily, and I can go very well by myself.”
But it was not probable that he would let her do so. “Why should I not go with you?” he said. “When I get there I have nothing to do but see him fish. Only if we were to leave him by himself he would not be happy.”
“Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald, how very kind you are are! I do so often think of it. How dull his holidays would be in this place if it were not for you!”
“And what a godsend his holidays are to me!” said Owen. “When they come round I can ride over here and see him, and you — and your mother. Do you think that I am not dull also, living alone at Hap House, and that this is not an infinite blessing to me?”
He had named them all — son, daughter, and mother; but there had been a something in his voice, an almost inappreciable something in his tone, which had seemed to mark to Clara’s hearing that she herself was not the least prized of the three attractions. She had felt this rather than realized it, and the feeling was not unpleasant.
“I only know that you are very goodnatured,” she continued, “and that Patrick is very fond of you. Sometimes I think he almost takes you for a brother.” And then a sudden thought flashed across her mind, and she said hardly a word more to him that evening.
This had been at the close of the summer holidays. After that he had been once or twice at Desmond Court, before the return of the boy from Eton; but on these occasions he had been more with the countess than with her daughter On the last of these visits, just before the holidays commenced, he had gone over respective a hunter he had bought for Lord Desmond, and on this occasion he did not even see Clara.
The countess, when she had thanked him for his trouble in the matter of the purchase, hesitated a moment, and then went on to speak of other matters.
“I understand, Mr. Fitzgerald,” said she. “that you have been very gay at Hap House since the hunting commenced.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Owen, half laughing and half blushing. “It’s a convenient place for some of the men, and one must be sociable.”
“Sociable! yes, one ought to be sociable certainly. But I am always afraid of the sociability of young men without ladies. Do not be angry with me if I venture as a friend to ask you not to be too sociable.”
“I know what you mean, Lady Desmond. People have been accusing us of — of being rakes. Isn’t that it?”
“Yes, Mr. Fitzgerald, that is it. But then I know that I have no right to speak to you on such a — such a subject.”
“Yes, yes; you have every right,” said he, warmly; “more right than any one else.”
“Oh no; Sir Thomas, you know ——”
“Well, yes, Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas is very ill, and so also is Lady Fitzgerald; but I do not feel the same interest about them that I do about you. And they are such humdrum, quiet-going people. As for Herbert, I’m afraid he’ll turn out a prig.”
“Well, Mr. Fitzgerald, if you give me the right I shall use it.” And getting up from her chair, and coming to him where he stood, she looked kindly into his face. It was a bonny, handsome face for a woman to gaze on, and there was much kindness in hers as she smiled on him. Nay, there was almost more than kindness, he thought, as he caught her eye. It was like — almost like the sweetness of motherly love. “And I shall scold you,” she continued. “People say that for two or three nights running men have been playing cards at Hap House till morning.”
“Yes, I had some men there for a week. I could not take their candles away, and put them to bed; could I, Lady Desmond?”
“And there were late suppers, and drinking of toasts, and headaches in the morning, and breakfast at three o’clock, and gentlemen with very pale faces when they appeared rather late at the meet — eh, Mr. Fitzgerald?” And she held up one finger at him, as she upbraided him with a smile. The smile was so sweet, so unlike her usual look; that, to tell the truth, was often too sad and careworn for her age.
“Such things do happen, Lady Desmond.”
“Ah, yes; they do happen. And with such a one as you, heaven knows I do not begrudge the pleasure, if it were but now and then — once again and then done with. But you are too bright and too good for such things to continue.” And she took his hand and pressed it, as a mother or a mother’s dearest friend might have done. “It would so grieve me to think that you should be even in danger of shipwreck.
“You will not be angry with me for taking this liberty?” she continued.
“Angry! how could any man be angry for such kindness?”
“And you will think of what I say. I would not have you unsociable, or morose, or inhospitable; but —”
“I understand, Lady Desmond; but when young men are together, one cannot always control them.”
“But you will try. Say that you will try because I have asked you.”
He promised that he would, and then went his way, proud in his heart at this solicitude. And how could he not be proud? was she not high in rank, proud in character, beautiful withal, and the mother of Clara Desmond? What sweeter friend could a man have; what counsellor more potent to avert those dangers which now hovered round his head?
And as he rode home he was half in love with the countess. Where is the young man who has not in his early years been half in love with some woman older, much older than himself, who has half conquered his heart by her solicitude for his welfare? — with some woman who has whispered to him while others were talking, who has told him in such gentle, loving tones of his boyish follies, whose tenderness and experience together have educated him and made him manly? Young men are so proud, proud in their inmost hearts, of such tenderness and solicitude, as long as it remains secret and wrapt, as it were, in a certain mystery. Such liaisons have the interests of intrigue, without — I was going to say without its dangers. Alas! it may be that it is not always so.
Owen Fitzgerald as he rode home was half in love with the countess. Not that his love was of a kind which made him in any way desirous of marrying her, or of kneeling at her feet and devoting himself to her for ever; not that it in any way interfered with the other love which he was beginning to feel for her daughter. But he thought with pleasure of the tone of her voice, of the pressure of her hand, of the tenderness which he had found in her eye.
It was after that time, as will be understood, that some goodnatured friend had told him that he was regarded in the county as the future husband of Lady Desmond. At first he laughed at this as being — as he himself said to himself — too good a joke. When the report first reached him, it seemed to be a joke which he could share so pleasantly with the countess. For men of three and twenty, though they are so fond of the society of women older than themselves, understand so little the hearts and feelings of such women. In his ideas there was an interval as of another generation between him and the countess. In her thoughts the interval was probably much less striking.
But the accusation was made to him again and again till it wounded him, and he gave up that notion of a mutual joke with his kind friend at Desmond Court. It did not occur to him that she could ever think of loving him as her lord and master; but it was brought home to him that other people thought so.
A year had now passed by since those winter holidays in which Clara Desmond had been sixteen, and during which she was described by epithets which will not, I fear, have pleased my readers. Those epithets were now somewhat less deserved, but still the necessity of them had not entirely passed away. Her limbs were still thin and long, and her shoulders pointed; but the growth of beauty had commenced, and in Owen’s eyes she was already very lovely.
At Christmas-time during that winter a ball was given at Castle Richmond, to celebrate the coming of age of the young heir. It was not a very gay affair, for the Castle Richmond folk, even in those days, were not very gay people. Sir Thomas, though only fifty, was an old man for his age; and Lady Fitzgerald, though known intimately by the poor all round her, was not known intimately by any but the poor. Mary and Emmeline Fitzgerald, with whom we shall become better acquainted as we advance in our story, were nice, good girls, and handsome withal; but they had not that special gift which enables some girls to make a party in their own house bright in spite of all obstacles.
We should have but little to do with this ball, were it not that Clara Desmond was here first brought out, as the term goes. It was the first large party to which she had been taken, and it was to her a matter of much wonder and inquiry with those wondering, speaking eyes.
And Owen Fitzgerald was there; — as a matter of course, the reader will say. By no means so. Previous to that ball Owen’s sins had been commented upon at Castle Richmond, and Sir Thomas had expostulated with him. These expostulations had not been received quite so graciously as those of the handsome countess, and there had been anger at Castle Richmond.
Now there was living in the house of Castle Richmond one Miss Letty Fitzgerald, a maiden sister of the baronet’s, older than her brother by full ten years. In her character there was more of energy, and also much more of harsh judgment, and of consequent ill-nature, than in that of her brother. When the letters of invitation were being sent out by the two girls, she had given a decided opinion that the reprobate should not be asked. But the reprobate’s cousins, with that partiality for a rake which is so common to young ladies, would not abide by their aunt’s command, and referred the matter both to mamma and papa. Mamma thought it very hard that their own cousin should be refused admittance to their house, and very dreadful that his sins should be considered to be of so deep a dye as to require so severe a sentence; and then papa, much balancing the matter, gave final orders that the prodigal cousin should be admitted.
He was admitted, and dangerously he used the privilege. The countess, who was there, stood up to dance twice, and twice only. She opened the ball with young Herbert Fitzgerald the heir; and in about an hour afterwards she danced again with Owen. He did not ask her twice; but he asked her daughter three or four times, and three or four times he asked her successfully.
“Clara,” whispered the mother to her child, after the last of these occasions, giving some little pull or twist to her girl’s frock as she did so, “you had better not dance with Owen Fitzgerald again to-night. People will remark about it.”
“Will they?” said Clara, and immediately sat down, checked in her young happiness.
Not many minutes afterwards, Owen came up to her again. “May we have another waltz together, I wonder?” he said.
“Not to-night, I think. I am rather tired already.” And so she did not waltz again all the evening, for fear she should offend him.
But the countess, though she had thus interdicted her daughter’s dancing with the master of Hap House, had not done so through absolute fear. To her, her girl was still a child; a child without a woman’s thoughts, or any of a woman’s charms. And then it was so natural that Clara should like to dance with almost the only gentleman who was not absolutely a stranger to her. Lady Desmond had been actuated rather by a feeling that it would be well that Clara should begin to know other persons.
By that feeling — and perhaps unconsciously by another, that it would be well that Owen Fitzgerald should be relieved from his attendance on the child, and enabled to give it to the mother. Whether Lady Desmond had at that time realized any ideas as to her own interest in this young man, it was at any rate true that she loved to have him near her. She had refused to dance a second time with Herbert Fitzgerald; she had refused to stand up with any other person who had asked her; but with Owen she would either have danced again, or have kept him by her side, while she explained to him with flattering frankness that she could not do so lest others should be offended.
And Owen was with her frequently through the evening. She was taken to and from supper by Sir Thomas, but any other takings that were incurred were done by him. He led her from one drawing-room to another; he took her empty coffee-cup; he stood behind her chair, and talked to her; and he brought her the scarf which she had left elsewhere; and finally, he put a shawl round her neck while old Sir Thomas was waiting to hand her to her carriage. Reader, good-natured, middle-aged reader, remember that she was only thirty-eight, and that hitherto she had known nothing of the delights of love. By the young, any such hallucination on her part, at her years, will be regarded as lunacy, or at least frenzy.
Owen Fitzgerald drove home from that ball in a state of mind that was hardly satisfactory. In the first place, Miss Letty had made a direct attack upon his morals, which he had not answered in the most courteous manner.
“I have heard a great deal of your doings. Master Owen,” she said to him. “A fine house you’re keeping.”
“Why don’t you come and join us, Aunt Letty?” he replied. “It would be just the thing for you.”
“God forbid!” said the old maid, turning up her eyes to heaven.
“Oh, you might do worse, you know. With us you’d only drink and play cards, and perhaps hear a little strong language now and again. But what’s that to slander, and calumny, and bearing false witness against one’s neighbour?” and so saying he ended that interview — not in a manner to ingratiate himself with his relative, Miss Letty Fitzgerald.
After that, in the supper-room, more than one wag of a fellow had congratulated him on his success with the widow. “She’s got some some sort of a jointure, I suppose,” said one. “She’s very young-looking, certainly, to be the mother of that girl,” declared another. “Upon my word, she’s a handsome woman still,” said a third. “And what title will you get when you marry her, Fitz?” asked a fourth, who was rather ignorant as to the phases under which the British peerage develops itself.
Fitzgerald pshawed, and pished, and poohed; and then, breaking away from them, rode home. He felt that he must at any rate put an end to this annoyance about the countess, and that he must put an end also to his state of doubt about the countess’s daughter. Clara had been kind and gracious to him in the first part of the evening; nay, almost more than gracious. Why had she been so cold when he went up to her on that last occasion? why had she gathered herself like a snail into its shell for the rest of the evening?
The young earl had also been at the party, and had exacted a promise from Owen that he would be over at Desmond Court on the next day. It had almost been on Owen’s lips to tell his friend, not only that he would be there, but what would be his intention when he got there. He knew that the lad loved him well; and almost fancied that, earl as he was, he would favour his friend’s suit. But a feeling that Lord Desmond was only a boy, restrained him. It would not be well to induce one so young to agree to an arrangement of which in after and more mature years he would so probably disapprove.
But not the less did Fitzgerald, as he drove home, determine that on the next day he would know something of his fate: and with this resolve he endeavoured to comfort himself as he drove up into his own avenue, and betook himself to his own solitary home.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01