When Herbert Fitzgerald got back to Castle Richmond it was nearly dark. He opened the hall door without ringing the bell, and walking at once into the dining room, threw himself into a large leathern chair which always stood near the fire-place. There was a bright fire burning on the hearth, and he drew himself close to it, putting his wet feet up on to the fender, thinking that he would at any rate warm himself before he went in among any of the family. The room, with its deep-red curtains and ruby-embossed paper, was almost dark, and he knew that he might remain there unseen and unnoticed for the next half-hour. If he could only get a glass of wine! He tried the cellaret, which was as often open as locked, but now unfortunately it was closed. In such a case it was impossible to say whether the butler had the key or Aunt Letty; so he sat himself down without that luxury.
By this time, as he well knew, all would have been told to his mother, and his first duty would be to go to her — to go to her and comfort her, if comfort might be possible, by telling her that he could bear it all; that as far as he was concerned title and wealth and a proud name were as nothing to him in comparison with his mother’s love. In whatever guise he may have appeared before Lady Desmond, he would not go to his mother with a fainting heart. She should not hear his teeth chatter, nor see his limbs shake. So he sat himself down there that he might become warm, and in five minutes he was fast asleep.
How long he slept he did not know; not very long, probably; but when he awoke it was quite dark. He gazed at the fire for a moment, bethought himself of where he was and why, shook himself to get rid of his slumber, and then roused himself in his chair. As he did so a soft sweet voice close to his shoulder spoke to him. “Herbert,” it said, “are you awake?” And he found that his mother, seated by his side on a low stool, had been watching him in his sleep.
“Mother!” he exclaimed.
“Herbert, my child, my son!” And the mother and son were fast locked in each other’s arms.
He had sat down there thinking how he would go to his mother and offer her solace in her sorrow; how he would bid her be of good cheer, and encourage her to bear the world as the world had now fallen to her lot. He had pictured to himself that he would find her sinking in despair, and had promised himself that with his vows, his kisses, and his prayers, he would bring her back to her self-confidence, and induce her to acknowledge that God’s mercy was yet good to her. But now, on awakening, he discovered that she had been tending him in his misery, and watching him while he slept, that she might comfort him with her caresses the moment that he awoke to the remembrance of his misfortunes.
“Herbert, Herbert, my son, my son!” she said again, as she pressed him close in her arms.
“Mother, has he told you?”
Yes, she had learned it all; but hardly more than she had known before; or, at any rate, not more than she had expected. As she now told him, for many days past she had felt that this trouble which had fallen upon his father must have come from the circumstances of their marriage. And she would have spoken out, she said, when the idea became clear to her, had she not then been told that Mr. Prendergast had been invited to come thither from London. Then she knew that she had better remain silent, at any rate till his visit had been made.
And Herbert again sat in the chair, and his mother crouched, or almost kneeled, on the cushion at his knee. “Dearest, dearest, dearest mother,” he said, as he supported her head against his shoulder, “we must love each other now more than ever we have loved.”
“And you forgive us, Herbert, for all that we have done to you?”
“Mother, if you speak in that way to me you will kill me. My darling, darling mother!”
There was but little more said between them upon the matter — but little more, at least, in words; but there was an infinity of caresses, and deep — deep assurances of undying love and confidence. And then she asked him about his bride, and he told her where he had been, and what had happened. “You must not claim her, Herbert,” she said to him. “God is good, and will teach you to bear even that also.”
“Must I not?” he asked, with a sadly plaintive voice.
“No, my child. You invited her to share your prosperity, and would it be just —”
“But, mother, if she wills it?”
“It is for you to give her back her troth, then leave it to time and her own heart.”
“But if she love me, mother, she will not take back her troth. Would I take back hers because she was in sorrow?”
“Men and women, Herbert, are different. The oak cares not whether the creeper which hangs to it be weak or strong. If it be weak the oak can give it strength. But the staff which has to support the creeper must needs have strength of its own.”
He made no further answer to her, but understood that he must do as she bade him. He understood now also, without many arguments within himself, that he had no right to expect from Clara Desmond that adherence to him and his misfortunes which he would have owed to her had she been unfortunate. He understood this now; but still he hoped. “Two hearts that have once become as one cannot be separated,” he said to himself that night, as he resolved that it was his duty to write to her, unconditionally returning to her her pledges.
“But, Herbert, what a state you are in!” said Lady Fitzgerald, as the flame of the coal glimmering out, threw a faint light upon his clothes.
“Yes, mother; I have been walking.”
“And you are wet!”
“I am nearly dry now. I was wet. But, mother, I am tired and fagged. It would do me good if I could get a glass of wine.”
She rang the bell, and gave her orders calmly — though every servant in the house now knew the whole truth — and then lit a candle herself, and looked at him. “My child, what have you done to yourself? Oh, Herbert, you will be ill!” And then, with his arm round her waist, she took him up to her own room, and sat by him while he took off his muddy boots and clammy socks, and made him hot drinks, and tended him as she had done when he was a child. And yet she had that day heard of her great ruin! With truth, indeed, had Mr. Prendergast said that she was made of more enduring material than Sir Thomas.
And she endeavoured to persuade him to go to his bed; but in this he would not listen to her. He must, he said, see his father that night. “You have been with him, mother, since — since —”
“Oh yes; directly after Mr. Prendergast left me.”
“He cried like a child, Herbert. We both sobbed together like two children. It was very piteous. But I think I left him better than he has been. He knows now that those men cannot come again to harass him.”
Herbert gnashed his teeth, and clenched his fist as he thought of them; but he could not speak of them, or mention their name before his mother. What must her thoughts be, as she remembered that elder man and looked back to her early childhood!
“He is very weak,” she went on to say: “almost helplessly weak now, and does not seem to think of leaving his bed. I have begged him to let me send to Dublin for Sir Henry; but he says that nothing ails him.”
“And who is with him now, mother?”
“The girls are both there.”
“And Mr. Prendergast?”
Lady Fitzgerald then explained to him, that Mr. Prendergast had returned to Dublin that afternoon, starting twenty-four hours earlier than he intended — or, at any rate, than he had said that he intended. Having done his work there, he had felt that he would now only be in the way. And, moreover, though his work was done at Castle Richmond, other work in the same matter had still to be done in England. Mr. Prendengast had very little doubt as to the truth of Mollett’s story; — indeed we may say he had no doubt; otherwise he would hardly have made it known to all that world round Castle Richmond. But nevertheless it behoved him thoroughly to sift the matter. He felt tolerably sure that he should find Mollett in London; and whether he did or no, he should be able to identify, or not to identify, that scoundrel with the Mr. Talbot who had hired Chevy-chase Lodge, in Dorsetshire, and who had undoubtedly married poor Mary Wainwright.
“He left a kind message for you,” said Lady Fitzgerald. — My readers must excuse me if I still call her Lady Fitzgerald, for I cannot bring my pen to the use of any other name. And it was so also with the dependents and neighbours of Castle Richmond, when the time came that the poor lady felt that she was bound publicly to drop her title. It was not in her power to drop it: no effort that she could make would induce those around her to call her by another name.
“He bade me say,” she continued, “that if your future course of life should take you to London, you are to go to him, and look to him as another father. He has no child of his own,” he said, “and you shall be to him as a son.”
“I will be no one’s son but yours — yours and my father’s,” he said, again embracing her.
And then, when, under his mother’s eye, he had eaten and drank and made himself warm, he did go to his father and found both his sisters sitting there. They came and clustered round him, taking hold of his hands and looking up into his face, loving him, and pitying him, and caressing him with their eyes, but standing there by their father’s bed, they said little or nothing. Nor did Sir Thomas say much — except this, indeed, that, just as Herbert was leaving him, he declared with a faint voice, that henceforth his son should be master of that house, and the disposer of that property —“As long as I live!” he exclaimed with his weak voice; “as long as I live!”
“No, father, not so.”
“Yes, yes! as long as I live. It will be little that you will have, even so — very little. But so it shall be as long as I live.”
Very little indeed, poor man, for, alas! his days were numbered.
And then, when Herbert left the room, Emmeline followed him. She had ever been his dearest sister, and now she longed to be with him that she might tell him how she loved him, and comfort him with her tears. And Clara too — Clara whom she had welcomed as a sister! — she must learn now how Clara would behave, for she had already made herself sure that her brother had been at Desmond Court, the herald of his own ruin.
“May I come with you, Herbert?” she asked, closing in round him and getting under his arm. How could he refuse her? So they went together and sat over a fire in a small room that was sacred to her and her sister, and there, with many sobs on her part and much would-be brave contempt of poverty on his, they talked over the altered world as it now showed itself before them.
“And you did not see her?” she asked, when with many efforts she had brought the subject round to Clara Desmond and her brother’s walk to Desmond Court.
“No; she left the room at my own bidding. I could not have told it myself to her.”
“And you cannot know, then, what she would say?”
“No, I cannot know what she would say; but I know now what I must say myself. All that is over, Emmeline. I cannot ask her to marry a beggar.”
“Ask her; no! there will be no need of asking her; she has already given you her promise. You do not think that she will desert you? you do not wish it?”
Herein were contained two distinct questions, the latter of which Herbert did not care to answer. “I shall not call it desertion,” he said; “indeed the proposal will come from me. I shall write to her, telling her that she need think about me no longer. Only that I am so weary I would do it now.”
“And how will she answer you? If she is the Clara that I take her for she will throw your proposal back into your face. She will tell you that it is not in your power to reject her now. She will swear to you, that let your words be what they may, she will think of you — more now than she has ever thought in better days. She will tell you of her love in words that she could not use before. I know she will. I know that she is good, and true, and honest, and generous. Oh, I should die if I thought she were false! But, Herbert, I am sure that she is true. You can write your letter, and we shall see.”
Herbert, with wise arguments learned from his mother, reasoned with his sister, explaining to her that Clara was now by no means bound to cling to him, but as he spoke them his arm fastened itself closely round his sister’s waist, for the words which she uttered with so much energy were comfortable to him.
And then, seated there, before he moved from the room, he made her bring him pens, ink, and paper, and he wrote his letter to Clara Desmond. She would fain have stayed with him while he did so, sitting at his feet, and looking into his face, and trying to encourage his hope as to what Clara’s answer might be; but this he would not allow; so she went again to her father’s room, having succeeded in obtaining a promise that Clara’s answer should be shown to her. And the letter, when it was written, copied, and recopied, ran as follows. —
“Castle Richmond — — night.
“My dearest Clara,”— It was with great difficulty that he could satisfy himself with that, or indeed with any other mode of commencement. In the short little love-notes which had hitherto gone from him, sent from house to house, he had written to her with appellations of endearment of his own — as all lovers do; and as all lovers seem to think that no lovers have done before themselves — with appellations which are so sweet to those who write, and so musical to those who read, but which sound so ludicrous when barbarously made public in hideous law courts by brazen-browed lawyers with mercenary tongues. In this way only had he written, and each of these sweet silly songs of love had been as full of honey as words could make it. But he had never yet written to her, on a full sheet of paper, a sensible positive letter containing thoughts and facts, as men do write to women and women also to men, when the lollypops and candied sugar-drops of early love have passed away. Now he was to write his first serious letter to her — and probably his last, and it was with difficulty that he could get himself over the first three words; but there they were decided on at last.
“My dearest Clara,
“Before you get this your mother will have told you all that which I could not bring myself to speak out yesterday, as long as you were in the room. I am sure you will understand now why I begged you to go away, and not think the worse of me for doing so. You now know the whole truth, and I am sure that you will feel for us all here.
“Having thought a good deal upon the matter, chiefly during my walk home from Desmond Court, and indeed since I have been at home, I have come to the resolution that everything between us must be over. It would be unmanly in me to wish to ruin you because I myself am ruined. Our engagement was, of course, made on the presumption that I should inherit my father’s estate; as it is I shall not do so, and therefore I beg that you will regard that engagement as at an end. Of my own love for you I will say nothing. But I know that you have loved me truly, and that all this, therefore, will cause you great grief. It is better, however, that it should be so, than that I should seek to hold you to a promise which was made under such different circumstances.
“You will, of course, show this letter to your mother. She, at any rate, will approve of what I am now doing; and so will you when you allow yourself to consider it calmly.
“We have not known each other so long that there is much for us to give back to each other. If you do not think it wrong I should like still to keep that lock of your hair, to remind me of my first love — and, as I think, my only one. And you, I hope, will not be afraid to have near you the one little present that I made you.
“And now, dearest Clara, good-bye. Let us always think, each of the other, as of a very dear friend. May God bless you, and preserve you, and make you happy.
“Yours, with sincere affection,
This, when at last he had succeeded in writing it, he read over and over again; but on each occasion he said to himself that it was cold and passionless, stilted and unmeaning. It by no means pleased him, and seemed as though it could bring but one answer — a cold acquiescence in the proposal which he so coldly made. But yet he knew not how to improve it. And after all it was a true exposition of that which he had determined to say. All the world — her world and his world — would think it better that they should part, and let the struggle cost him what it would, he would teach himself to wish that it might be so — if not for his own sake, then for hers. So he fastened the letter, and taking it with him determined to send it over, so that it should reach Clara quite early on the following morning.
And then having once more visited his father, and once more kissed his mother, he betook himself to bed. It had been with him one of those days which seem to pass away without reference to usual hours and periods. It had been long dark, and he seemed to have been hanging about the house, doing nothing and aiding nobody, till he was weary of himself. So he went off to bed, almost wondering, as he bethought himself of what had happened to him within the last two days, that he was able to bear the burden of his life so easily as he did. He betook himself to bed, and with the letter close at his hand, so that he might despatch it when he awoke, he was soon asleep. After all, that walk, terrible as it had been, was in the end serviceable to him.
He slept without waking till the light of the February morning was beginning to dawn into his room, and then he was roused by a servant knocking at the door. It was grievous enough that awaking to his sorrow after the pleasant dreams of the night.
“Here is a letter, Mr. Herbert, from Desmond Court,” said Richard. “The boy as brought it says as how —”
“A letter from Desmond Court,” said Herbert, putting out his hand greedily.
“Yes, Mr. Herbert. The boy’s been here this hour and better. I warn’t just up and about myself, or I wouldn’t have let ’em keep it from you, not half a minute.”
“And where is he? I have a letter to send to Desmond Court. But never mind. Perhaps —”
“It’s no good minding, for the gossoon’s gone back any ways.” And then Richard, having drawn the blind, and placed a little table by the bed-head, left his young master to read the despatch from Desmond Court. Herbert, till he saw the writing, feared that it was from the countess; but the letter was from Clara. She also had thought good to write before she betook herself to bed, and she had been earlier in despatching her messenger. Here is her letter:
“Dear Herbert, my own Herbert,
“I have heard it all. But remember this; nothing, nothing, NOTHING can make any change between you and me. I will hear of no arguments that are to separate us. I know beforehand what you will say, but I will not regard it — not in the least. I love you ten times the more for all your unhappiness; and as I would have shared your good fortune, I claim my right to share your bad fortune. PRAY BELIEVE ME, that nothing shall turn me from this; for I will NOT BE GIVEN UP.
“Give my kindest love to your dear, dear, dearest mother — my mother, as she is and must be; and to my darling girls. I do so wish I could be with them, and with you, my own Herbert. I cannot help writing in confusion, but I will explain all when I see you. I have been so unhappy.
“Your own faithful
Having read this, Herbert Fitzgerald, in spite of his affliction, was comforted.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55