“But, Mr. Herbert, yer honor, you’re wet through and through — surely,” said the butler, as soon as Fitzgerald was well inside the hall. Herbert muttered something about his being only damp, and that it did not signify. But it did signify — very much — in the butler’s estimation. Whose being wet through could signify more; for was not Mr. Herbert to be a baronet, and to have the spending of twelve thousand a-year; and would he not be the future husband of Lady Clara? not signify indeed!
“An’ shure, Mr. Herbert, you haven’t walked to Desmond Court this blessed morning. Tare an’ ages! Well; there’s no knowing what you young gentlemen won’t do. But I’ll see and get a pair of trousers of my Lord’s ready for you in two minutes. Faix, and he’s nearly as big as yourself, now, Mr. Herbert.”
But Herbert would hardly speak to him, and gave no assent whatever as to his proposition for borrowing the Earl’s clothes. “I’ll go in as I am,” said he. And the old man looking into his face saw that there was something wrong. “Shure an’ he ain’t going to sthrike off now,” said this Irish Caleb Balderstone to himself. He also as well as some others about Desmond Court had feared greatly that Lady Clara would throw herself away upon a poor lover.
It was now past noon, and Fitzgerald pressed forward into the room in which Lady Clara usually sat. It was the same in which she had received Owen’s visit, and here of a morning she was usually to be found alone; but on this occasion when he opened the door he found that her mother was with her. Since the day on which Clara had disposed of herself so excellently, the mother had spent more of her time with her daughter. Looking at Clara now through Herbert Fitzgerald’s eyes, the Countess had began to confess to herself that her child did possess beauty and charm.
She got up to greet her future son-inlaw with a sweet smile and that charming quiet welcome with which a woman so well knows how to make her house pleasant to a man that is welcome to it. And Clara, not rising, but turning her head round and looking at him. greeted him also. He came forward and took both their hands, and it was not till he had held Clara’s for half a minute in his own that they both saw that he was more than ordinarily serious. “I hope Sir Thomas is not worse,” said Lady Desmond, with that voice of feigned interest which is so common. After all, if anything should happen to the poor old weak gentleman, might it not be as well?
“My father has not been very well these last two days,” he said.
“I am so sorry,” said Clara. “And your mother, Herbert?”
“But, Herbert, how wet you are. You must have walked,” said the Countess.
Herbert, in a few dull words, said that he had walked. He had thought that the walk would be good for him, and he had not expected that it would be so wet. And then Lady Desmond, looking carefully into his face, saw that in truth he was very serious; — so much so that she knew that he had come there on account of his seriousness. But still his sorrow did not in any degree go to her heart. He was grieving doubtless for his father — or his mother. The house at Castle Richmond was probably sad, because sickness and fear of death were there; — nay, perhaps death itself now hanging over some loved head. But what was this to her? She had had her own sorrows; — enough of them perhaps to account for her being selfish. So with a solemn face, but with nothing amiss about her heart, she again asked for tidings from Castle Richmond.
“Do tell us,” said Clara, getting up. “I am afraid Sir Thomas is very ill.” The old baronet had been kind to her, and she did regard him. To her it was a sorrow to think that there should be any sorrow at Castle Richmond.
“Yes; he is ill,” said Herbert. “We have had a gentleman from London with us for the last few days — a friend of my father’s. His name is Mr. Prendergast.”
“Is he a doctor?” asked the Countess.
“No, not a doctor,” said Herbert. “He is a lawyer.”
It was very hard for him to begin his story; and perhaps the more so in that he was wet through and covered with mud. He now felt cold and clammy, and began to have an idea that he should not be seated there in that room in such a guise. Clara, too, had instinctively learned from his face, and tone, and general bearirg that something truly was the matter. At other times when he had been there, since that day on which he had been accepted, he had been completely master of himself. Perhaps it had almost been deemed a fault in him that he had had none of the timidity or hesitation of a lover. He had seemed to feel, no doubt, that he, with his fortune and position at his back, need feel no scruple in accepting as his own the fair hand for which he had asked. But now — nothing could be more different from this than his manner was now.
Lady Desmond was now surprised, though probably not as yet frightened. Why should a lawyer have come from London to visit Sir Thomas at a period of such illness? and why should Herbert have walked over to Desmond Court to tell them of this illness? There must be something in this lawyer’s coming which was intended to bear in some way on her daughter’s marriage. “But, Herbert,” she said, “you are quite wet. Will you not put on some of Patrick’s things?”
“No, thank you,” said he; “I shall not stay long. I shall soon have said what I have got to say.”
“But do, Herbert,” said Clara. “I cannot bear to see you so uncomfortable. And then you will not be in such a hurry to go back.”
“Ill as my father is,” said he, “I cannot stay long; but I have thought it my duty to come over and tell you — tell you what has happened at Castle Richmond.”
And now the countess was frightened. There was that in Herbert’s tone of voice and the form of his countenance which was enough to frighten any woman. What had happened at Castle Richmond? what could have happened there to make necessary the presence of a lawyer, and at the same time thus to sadden her future son-inlaw? And Clara also was frightened, though she knew not why. His manner was so different from that which was usual; he was so cold, and serious, and awe-struck, that she could not but be unhappy.
“And what is it?” said the countess.
Herbert then sat for a few minutes silent, thinking how best he should tell them his story. He had been all the morning resolving to tell it, but he had in nowise as yet fixed upon any method. It was all so terribly tragic, so frightful in the extent of its reality, that he hardly knew how it would be possible for him to get through his task.
“I hope that no misfortune has come upon any of the family,” said Lady Desmond, now beginning to think that there might be misfortunes which would affect her own daughter more nearly than the illness either of the baronet or of his wife.
“Oh, I hope not!” said Clara, getting up and clasping her hands. “What is it, Herbert? why don’t you speak?” And coming round to him, she took hold of his arm.
“Dearest Clara,” he said, looking at her with more tenderness than had ever been usual with him, “I think that you had better leave us. I could tell it better to your mother alone.”
“Do, Clara, love. Go, dearest, and we will call you by-and-by.”
Clara moved away very slowly toward the door, and then she turned round. “If it is anything that makes you unhappy, Herbert,” she said, “I must know it before you leave me.”
“Yes, yes; either I or your mother —. You shall be told, certainly.”
“Yes, yes, you shall be told,” said the countess. “And now go, my darling.” Thus dismissed, Clara did go, and betook herself to her own chamber. Had Owen had sorrows to tell her, he would have told them to herself; of that she was quite sure. “And now, Herbert, for heaven’s sake what is it?” said the countess, pale with terror. She was fully certain now that something was to be spoken which would be calculated to interfere with her daughter’s prospects.
We all know the story which Herbert had to tell, and we need not therefore again be present at the telling of it. Sitting there, wet through, in Lady Desmond’s drawing-room, he did contrive to utter it all — the whole of it from the beginning to the end, making it clearly to be understood that he was no longer Fitzgerald of Castle Richmond, but a nameless, pennyless outcast, without the hope of portion or position, doomed from henceforth to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow — if only he could be fortunate enough to find the means of earning it.
Nor did Lady Desmond once interrupt him in his story. She sat perfectly still, listening to him almost with unmoved face. She was too wise to let him know what the instant working of her mind might be before she had made her own fixed resolve; and she had conceived the truth much before he had completed the telling of it. We generally use three times the number of words which are necessary for the purpose which we have in hand; but had he used six times the number, she would not have interrupted him. It was good in him to give her this time to determine in what tone and with what words she would speak, when speaking on her part should become absolutely necessary. “And now,” he concluded by saying — and at this time he was standing up on the rug —“you know it all, Lady Desmond. It will perhaps be best that Clara should learn it from you.”
He had said not a word of giving up his pretensions to Lady Clara’s hand; but then neither had he in any way hinted that the match should, in his opinion, be regarded as unbroken. He had not spoken of his sorrow at bringing down all this poverty on his wife: and surely he would have so spoken had he thought their engagement was still valid; but then he had not himself pointed out that the engagement must necessarily be broken, as, in Lady Desmond’s opinion, he certainly should have done.
“Yes,” said she, in a cold, low, meaningless voice — in a voice that told nothing by its tones —“Lady Clara had better hear it from me.” But in the title which she gave her daughter, Herbert instantly read his doom. He, however, remained silent. It was for the countess now to speak.
“But it is possible it may not be true,” she said, speaking almost in a whisper, looking not into his face, but by him, at the fire.
“It is possible, but so barely possible, that I did not think it right to keep the matter from you any longer.”
“It would have been very wrong — very wicked, I may say,” said the countess.
“It is only two days since I knew anything of it myself,” said he, vindicating himself.
“You were of course bound to let me know immediately,” she said, harshly.
“And I have let you know immediately, Lady Desmond.” And then they were both again silent for a while.
“And Mr. Prendergast thinks there is no doubt?” she asked.
“None,” said Herbert, very decidedly.
“And he has told your cousin Owen?”
“He did so yesterday, and by this time my poor mother knows it also.” And then there was another period of silence.
During the whole time Lady Desmond had uttered no one word of condolence — not a syllable of commiseration for all the sufferings that had come upon Herbert and his family; and he was beginning to hate her for her harshness. The tenor of her countenance had become hard, and she received all his words as a judge might have taken them, merely wanting evidence before he pronounced his verdict. The evidence she was beginning to think sufficient, and there could be no doubt as to her verdict. After what she had heard, a match between Herbert Fitzgerald and her daughter would be out of the question. “It is very dreadful,” she said, thinking only of her own child, and absolutely shivering at the danger which had been incurred.
“It is very dreadful,” said Herbert, shivering also. It was almost incredible to him that his great sorrow should be received in such a way by one who had professed to be so dear a friend to him.
“And what do you propose to do, Mr. Fitzgerald?” said the countess.
“What do I propose?” he said, repeating her words. “Hitherto I have had neither time nor heart to propose anything. Such a misfortune as that which I have told you does not break upon a man without disturbing for a while his power of resolving. I have thought so much of my mother, and of Clara, since Mr. Prendergast told me all this, that — that — that —” And then a slight gurgling struggle fell upon his throat and hindered him from speaking. He did not quite sob out, and he determined that he would not do so. If she could be so harsh and strong, he would be harsh and strong also.
And again Lady Desmond sat silent, still thinking how she had better speak and act. After all she was not so cruel nor so bad as Herbert Fitzgerald thought her. What had the Fitzgeralds done for her that she should sorrow for their sorrows? She had lived there, in that old ugly barrack, long desolate, full of dreary wretchedness and poverty, and Lady Fitzgerald in her prosperity had never come to her to soften the hardness of her life. She had come over to Ireland a countess, and a countess she had been, proud enough at first in her little glory — too proud, no doubt; and proud enough afterwards in her loneliness and poverty; and there she had lived — alone. Whether the fault had been her own or no, she owed little to the kindness of any one; for no one had done aught to relieve her bitterness. And then her weak puny child had grown up in the same shade, and was now a lovely woman, gifted with high birth, and that special priceless beauty which high blood so often gives. There was a prize now within the walls of that old barrack — something to be won — something for which a man would strive, and a mother smile that her son might win it. And now Lady Fitzgerald had come to her. She had never complained of this, she said to herself. The bargain between Clara Desmond and Herbert Fitzgerald had been good for both of them, and let it be made and settled as a bargain. Young Herbert Fitzgerald had money and position; her daughter had beauty and high blood. Let it be a bargain. But in all this there was nothing to make her love that rich prosperous family at Castle Richmond. There are those whose nature it is to love new-found friends at a few hours’ warning, but the Countess of Desmond was not one of them. The bargain had been made, and her daughter would have been able to perform her part of it. She was still able to give that which she had stipulated to give. But Herbert Fitzgerald was now a bankrupt, and could give nothing! Would it not have been madness to suppose that the bargain should still hold good?
One person and one only had come to her at Desmond Court, whose coming had been a solace to her weariness. Of all those among whom she had lived in cold desolateness for so many years, one only had got near her heart. There had been but one Irish voice that she had cared to hear; and the owner of that voice had loved her child instead of loving her.
And she had borne that wretchedness too, if not well, at least bravely. True, she had separated that lover from her daughter; but the circumstances of both had made it right for her, as a mother, to do so. What mother, circumstanced as she had been, would have given her girl to Owen Fitzgerald? So she had banished from the house the only voice that sounded sweetly in her ears, and again she had been alone.
And then, perhaps, thoughts had come to her, when Herbert Fitzgerald was frequent about the place, a rich and thriving wooer, that Owen might come again to Desmond Court, when Clara had gone to Castle Richmond. Years were stealing over her. Ah, yes. She knew that full well. All her youth and the pride of her days she had given up for that countess-ship which she now wore so gloomily — given up for pieces of gold which had turned to stone and slate and dirt within her grasp. Years, alas! were fast stealing over her. But nevertheless she had something to give. Her woman’s beauty was not all faded; and she had a heart which was as yet virgin — which had hitherto loved no other man. Might not that suffice to cover a few years, seeing that in return she wanted nothing but love? And so she had thought, lingering over her hopes, while Herbert was there at his wooing.
It may be imagined with what feelings at her heart she had seen and listened to the frank attempt made by Owen to get back his childish love. But that too she had borne, bravely, if not well. It had not angered her that her child was loved by the only man she had ever loved herself. She had stroked her daughter’s hair that day, and kissed her cheek, and bade her be happy with her better, richer lover. And had she not been right in this? Nor had she been angry even with Owen. She could forgive him all, because she loved him. But might there not even yet be a chance for her when Clara should in very truth have gone to Castle Richmond?
But now! How was she to think about all this now? And thinking of these things, how was it possible that she should have heart left to feel for the miseries of Lady Fitzgerald? With all her miseries would not Lady Fitzgerald still be more fortunate than she? Let come what might, Lady Fitzgerald had had a life of prosperity and love. No; she could not think of Lady Fitzgerald, nor of Herbert: she could only think of Owen Fitzgerald, of her daughter, and of herself.
He, Owen, was now the heir to Castle Richmond, and would, as far as she could learn, soon become the actual possessor. He, who had been cast forth from Desmond Court as too poor and contemptible in the world’s eye to be her daughter’s suitor, would become the rich inheritor of all those broad acres, and that old coveted family honour. And this Owen still loved her daughter — loved her not as Herbert did, with a quiet, gentleman-like, every-day attachment, but with the old, true, passionate love of which she had read in books, and dreamed herself, before she had sold herself to be a countess. That Owen did so love her daughter, she was very sure. And then, as to her daughter; that she did not still love this new heir in her heart of hearts — of that the mother was by no means sure. That her child had chosen the better part in choosing money and a title, she had not doubted; and that having so chosen Clara would be happy — of that also she did not doubt. Clara was young, she would say, and her heart in a few months would follow her hand.
But now! How was she to decide, sitting here with Herbert Fitzgerald before her, gloomy as death, cold, shivering, and muddy, telling of his own disasters with no more courage than a whipped dog? As she looked at him she declared to herself twenty times in half a second that he had not about him a tithe of the manhood of his cousin Owen. Women love a bold front, and a voice that will never own its master to have been beaten in the world’s fight. Had Owen came there with such a story, he would have claimed his right boldly to the lady’s hand, in spite of all that the world had done to him.
“Let her have him,” said Lady Desmond to herself, and the struggle within her bosom was made and over. No wonder that Herbert, looking into her face for pity, should find that she was harsh and cruel. She had been sacrificing herself, and had completed the sacrifice. Owen Fitzgerald, the heir to Castle Richmond, Sir Owen as he would soon be, should have her daughter. They two, at any rate, should be happy. And she — she would live there at Desmond Court, lonely as she had ever lived. While all this was passing through her mind, she hardly thought of Herbert and his sorrows. That he must be given up and abandoned, and left to make what best fight he could by himself; as to that how was it possible that she as a mother should have any doubt?
And yet it was a pity — a thousand pities. Herbert Fitzgerald, with his domestic virtues. his industry and thorough respectability, would so exactly have suited Clara’s taste and mode of life — had he only continued to be the heir of Castle Richmond. She and Owen would not enter upon the world together with nearly the same fair chance of happiness. Who could prophecy to what Owen might be led with his passionate impulses, his strong will, his unbridled temper, and his love of pleasure? That he was noble-hearted, affectionate, brave, and tender in his inmost spirit, Lady Desmond was very sure; but were such the qualities which would make her daughter happy? When Clara should come to know her future lord as Clara’s mother knew him, would Clara love him and worship him as her mother did? The mother believed that Clara had not in her bosom heart enough for such a love. But then, as I have said before, the mother did not know the daughter.
“You say that you will break all this to Clara,” said Herbert, having during this silence turned over some of his thoughts also in his mind. “If so I may as well leave you now. You can imagine that I am anxious to get back to my mother.”
“Yes, it will be better that I should tell her. It is very sad, very sad, very sad indeed.”
“Yes, it is a hard load for a man to bear,” he answered, speaking very, very slowly. “But for myself I think I can bear it, if —”
“If what?” asked the countess.
“If Clara can bear it.”
And now it was necessary that Lady Desmond should speak out. She did not mean to be unnecessarily harsh, but she did mean to be decided, and as she spoke her face became stern and ill-favoured. “That Clara will be terribly distressed,” she said, “terribly, terribly distressed,” repeating her words with great emphasis, “of that I am quite sure. She is very young, and will, I hope, in time get over it. And then too I think she is one whose feelings, young as she is, have never conquered her judgment. Therefore I do believe that, with God’s mercy, she will be able to bear it. But, Mr. Fitzgerald —”
“Of course you feel with me — and I am sure that with your excellent judgment it is a thing of course — that everything must be over between you and Lady Clara.” And then she came to a full stop as though all had been said that could be considered necessary.
Herbert did not answer at once, but stood there shivering and shaking in his misery. He was all but overcome by the chill of his wet garments; and though he struggled to throw off the dead feeling of utter cold which struck him to the heart, he was quite unable to master it. He could hardly forgive himself that on such an occasion he should have been so conquered by his own outer feelings, but now he could not help himself. He was weak with hunger too — though he did not know it, for he had hardly eaten food that day, and was nearly exhausted with the unaccustomed amount of hard exercise which he had taken. He was, moreover, thoroughly wet through, and heavy laden with the mud of the road. It was no wonder that Lady Desmond had said to herself that he looked like a whipped dog.
“That must be as Lady Clara shall decide,” he said at last, barely uttering the words through his chattering teeth.
“It must be as I say,” said the countess firmly; “whether by her decision or by yours — or if necessary by mine. But if your feelings are, as I take them to be, those of a man of honour, you will not leave it to me or to her. What! now that you have the world to struggle with, would you seek to drag her down into the struggle?”
“Our union was to be for better or worse. I would have given her all the better, and —”
“Yes; and had there been a union she would have bravely borne her part in sharing the worst. But who ought to be so thankful as you that this truth has broken upon you before you had clogged yourself with a wife of high birth but without fortune? Alone, a man educated as you are, with your talents, may face the world without fearing anything. But how could you make your way now if my daughter were your wife? When you think of it, Mr. Fitzgerald, you will cease to wish for it.”
“Never; I have given my heart to your daughter, and I cannot take back the gift. She has accepted it, and she cannot return it.”
“And what would you have her do?” Lady Desmond asked, with anger and almost passion in her voice.
“Wait — as I must wait,” said Herbert. “That will be her duty, as I believe it will also be her wish.”
“Yes, and wear out her young heart here in solitude for the next ten years, and then learn when her beauty and her youth are gone —. But no, Mr. Fitzgerald; I will not allow myself to contemplate such a prospect either for her or for you. Under the lamentable circumstances which you have now told me it is imperative that this match should be broken off. Ask your own mother and hear what she will say. And if you are a man you will not throw upon my poor child the hard task of declaring that it must be so. You, by your calamity, are unable to perform your contract with her; and it is for you to announce that that contract is therefore over.”
Herbert in his present state was unable to argue with Lady Desmond. He had in his brain, and mind, and heart, and soul — at least so he said to himself afterwards, having perhaps but a loose idea of the different functions of these four different properties — a thorough conviction that as he and Clara had sworn to each other that for life they would live together and love each other, no misfortune to either of them could justify the other in breaking that oath; — could even justify him in breaking it, though he was the one on whom misfortune had fallen. He, no doubt, had first loved Clara for her beauty; but would he have ceased to love her, or have cast her from him, if, by God’s will, her beauty had perished and gone from her? Would he not have held her closer to his heart, and told her, with strong comforting vows, that his love had now gone deeper than that; that they were already of the same bone, of the same flesh, of the same family and hearthstone? He knew himself in this, and knew that he would have been proud so to do, and so to feel — that he would have cast from him with utter indignation any who would have counselled him to do or to feel differently. And why should Clara’s heart be different from his?
All this, I say, was his strong conviction. But, nevertheless, her heart might be different. She might look on that engagement of theirs with altogether other thoughts and other ideas; and if so his voice should never reproach her; — not his voice, however his heart might do so. Such might be the case with her, but he did not think it; and therefore he would not pronounce that decision which Clara’s mother expected from him.
“When you have told her of this, I suppose I may be allowed to see her,” he said, avoiding the direct proposition which Lady Desmond had made to him.
“Allowed to see her?” said Lady Desmond, now also in her turn speaking very slowly. “I cannot answer that question as yet; not quite immediately, I should say. But if you will leave the matter in my hands, I will write to you, if not tomorrow, then the next day.”
“I would sooner that she should write.”
“I cannot promise that — I do not know how far her good sense and strength may support her under this affliction. That she will suffer terribly, on your account as well as on her own, you may be quite sure.” And then, again, there was a pause of some moments.
“I, at any rate, shall write to her,” he then said, “and shall tell her that I expect her to see me. Her will in this matter shall be my will. If she thinks that her misery will be greater in being engaged to a poor man, than — than in relinquishing her love, she shall hear no word from me to overpersuade her. But, Lady Desmond, I will say nothing that shall authorize her to think that she is given up by me, till I have in some way learned from herself what her own feelings are. And now I will say good-bye to you.”
“Good-bye,” said the countess, thinking that it might be as well that the interview should be ended. “But, Mr. Fitzgerald, you are very wet; and I fear that you are very cold. You had better take something before you go.” Countess as she was, she had no carriage in which she could send him home; no horse even on which he could ride. “Nothing, thank you, Lady Desmond,” he said; and so, without offering her the courtesy of his hand, he walked out of the room.
He was very angry with her, as he tried to make the blood run quicker in his veins by hurrying down the avenue into the road at his quickest pace. So angry with her, that for a while, in his indignation, he almost forgot his father and his mother and his own family tragedy. That she should have wished to save her daughter from such a marriage might have been natural; but that she should have treated him so coldly, so harshly — without one spark of love or pity — him, who to her had been so loyal during his courtship of her daughter! It was almost incredible to him. Was not his story one that would have melted the heart of a stranger — at which men would weep? He himself had seen tears in the eyes of that dry, time-worn, world-used London lawyer, as the full depth of the calamity had forced itself upon his heart. Yes, Mr. Prendergast had not been able to repress his tears when he told the tale; but Lady Desmond had shed no tears when the tale had been told to her. No soft woman’s message had been sent to the afflicted mother on whom it had pleased God to allow so heavy a hand to fall. No word of tenderness had been uttered for the sinking father. There had been no feeling for the household which was to have been so nearly linked with her own. No. Looking round with greedy eyes for wealth for her daughter, Lady Desmond had found a match that suited her. Now that match no longer suited her greed, and she could throw from her without a struggle to her feelings the suitor that was now poor, and the family of the suitor that was now neither grand nor powerful.
And then too he felt angry with Clara, though he knew that as yet, at any rate, he had no cause. In spite of what he had said and felt, he would imagine to himself that she also would be cold and untrue. “Let her go,” he said to himself. “Love is worth nothing — nothing if it does not believe itself to be of more worth than everything beside. If she does not love me now in my misery — if she would not choose me now for her husband — her love has never been worthy the name. Love that has no faith in itself, that does not value itself above all worldly things, is nothing. If it be not so with her, let her go back to him.”
It may easily be understood who was the him. And then Herbert walked on so rapidly that at length his strength almost failed him, and in his exhaustion he had more than once to lean against a gate on the road-side. With difficulty at last he got home, and dragged himself up the long avenue to the front door. Even yet he was not warm through to his heart, and he felt as he entered the house that he was quite unfitted for the work which he might yet have to do before he could go to his bed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01