Herbert as he started from his bed with this letter in his hand felt that he could yet hold up his head against all that the world could do to him. How could he be really unhappy while he possessed such an assurance of love as this, and while his mother was able to give him so glorious an example of endurance? He was not really unhappy. The low-spirited broken-hearted wretchedness of the preceding day seemed to have departed from him as he hurried on his clothes, and went off to his sister’s room that he might show his letter to Emmeline in accordance with the promise he had made her.
“May I come in?” he said, knocking at the door. “I must come in, for I have something to show you.” But the two girls were dressing and he could not be admitted. Emmeline however, promised to come to him, and in about three minutes she was out in the cold little sitting-room which adjoined their bedroom with her slippers on, and her dressing gown wrapped round her, an object presentable to no male eyes but those of her brother.
“Emmeline,” said he, “I have got a letter this morning.”
“Not from Clara?”
“Yes, from Clara. There; you may read it;” and he handed her the precious epistle.
“But she could not have got your letter?” said Emmeline, before she looked at the one in her hand.
“Certainly not, for I have it here. I must write another now; but in truth I do not know what to say. I can be as generous as she is.”
And then his sister read the letter. “My own Clara!” she exclaimed, as she saw what was the tenor of it. “Did I not tell you so, Herbert? I knew well what she would do and say. Love you ten times better! — of course she does. What honest girl would not? My own beautiful Clara, I knew I could depend on her. I did not doubt her for one moment.” But in this particular it must be acknowledged that Miss Emmeline Fitzgerald hardly confined herself to the strictest veracity, for she had lain awake half the night perplexed with doubt. What, oh what, if Clara should be untrue! Such had been the burden of her doubting midnight thoughts. “‘I will not be given up,’” she continued, quoting the letter. “No; of course not. And I tell you what, Herbert, you must not dare to talk of giving her up. Money and titles may be tossed to and fro, but not hearts. How beautifully she speaks of dear mamma!” and now the tears began to run down the young lady’s cheeks. “Oh, I do wish she could be with us! My darling, darling, darling Clara! Unhappy? Yes: I am sure Lady Desmond will give her no peace. But never mind. She will be true through it all; and I said so from the first.” And then she fell to crying, and embracing her brother, and declaring that nothing now should make her altogether unhappy.
“But, Emmeline, you must not think that I shall take her at her word. It is very generous of her —”
“Nonsense, Herbert!” And then there was another torrent of eloquence, in answering which Herbert found that his arguments were of very little efficacy.
And now we must go back to Desmond Court, and see under what all but overwhelming difficulties poor Clara wrote her affectionate letter. And in the first place it should be pointed out how very wrong Herbert had been in going to Desmond Court on foot, through the mud and rain. A man can hardly bear himself nobly unless his outer aspect be in some degree noble. It may be very sad, this having to admit that the tailor does in great part make the man; but such I fear is undoubtedly the fact. Could the Chancellor look dignified on the woolsack, if he had had an accident with his wig, or allowed his robes to be torn or soiled? Does not half the piety of a bishop reside in his lawn sleeves, and all his meekness in his anti-virile apron? Had Herbert understood the world he would have had out the best pair of horses standing in the Castle Richmond stables, when going to Desmond Court on such an errand. He would have brushed his hair and anointed himself; he would have clothed himself in his rich Spanish cloak; he would have seen that his hat was brushed, and his boots spotless; and then with all due solemnity, but with head erect, he would have told his tale out boldly. The countess would still have wished to be rid of him, hearing that he was a pauper; but she would have lacked the courage to turn him from the house as she had done.
But seeing how woebegone he was and wretched, how mean to look at, and low in his outward presence, she had been able to assume the mastery, and had kept it throughout the interview. And having done this her opinion of his prowess naturally became low, and she felt that he would have been unable to press his cause against her.
For some time after he had departed, she sat alone in the room in which she had received him. She expected every minute that Clara would come down to her, still wishing, however, that she might be left for a while alone. But Clara did not come, and she was able to pursue her thoughts.
How very terrible was this tragedy that had fallen out in her close neighbourhood! That was the first thought that came to her now that Herbert had left her. How terrible, overwhelming, and fatal! What calamity could fall upon a woman so calamitous as this which had now overtaken that poor lady at Castle Richmond? Could she live and support such a burden? Could she bear the eyes of people, when she knew the light in which she must be now regarded? To lose at one blow, her name, her pride of place, her woman’s rank and high respect! Could it be possible that she would still live on? It was thus that Lady Desmond thought; and had any one told her that this degraded mother would that very day come down from her room, and sit watchful by her sleeping son, in order that she might comfort and encourage him when he awoke, she would not have found it in her heart to believe such a marvel. But then Lady Desmond knew but one solace in her sorrows — had but one comfort in her sad reflections. She was Countess of Desmond, and that was all. To Lady Fitzgerald had been vouchsafed other solace and other comforts.
And then, on one point the countess made herself fixed as fate, by thinking and re-thinking upon it till no doubt remained upon her mind. The match between Clara and Herbert must be broken off, let the cost be what it might; and — a point on which there was more room for doubt, and more pain in coming to a conclusion — that other match with the more fortunate cousin must be encouraged and carried out. For herself, if her hope was small while Owen was needy and of poor account, what hope could there be now that he would be rich and great? Moreover, Owen loved Clara, and not herself; and Clara’s hand would once more be vacant and ready for the winning. For herself her only chance had been in Clara’s coming marriage.
In all this she knew that there would be difficulty. She was sure enough that Clara would at first feel the imprudent generosity of youth, and offer to join her poverty to Herbert’s poverty. That was a matter of course. She, Lady Desmond herself, would have done this, at Clara’s age — so at least to herself she said, and also to her daughter. But a little time, and a little patience, and a little care would set all this in a proper light. Herbert would go away and would gradually be forgotten. Owen would again come forth from beneath the clouds, with renewed splendour; and then, was it not probable that, in her very heart of hearts Owen was the man whom Clara had ever loved?
And thus having realized to herself the facts which Herbert had told her, she prepared to make them known to her daughter. She got up from her chair, intending at first to seek her, and then, changing her purpose, rang the bell and sent for her. She was astonished to find how violently she herself was affected; not so much by the circumstances, as by this duty which had fallen to her of telling them to her child. She put one hand upon the other and felt that she herself was in a tremor, and was conscious that the blood was running quick round her heart. Clara came down, and going to her customary seat waited till her mother should speak to her.
“Mr. Fitzgerald has brought very dreadful news,” Lady Desmond said, after a minute’s pause.
“Oh mamma!” said Clara. She had expected bad tidings, having thought of all manner of miseries while she had been upstairs alone; but there was that in her mother’s voice which seemed to be worse than the worst of her anticipations.
“Dreadful, indeed, my child! It is my duty to tell them to you; but I must caution you, before I do so, to place a guard upon your feelings. That which I have to say must necessarily alter all your future prospects, and, unfortunately, make your marrying Herbert Fitzgerald quite impossible.”
“Mamma!” she exclaimed, with a loud voice, jumping from her chair. “Not marry him! Why; what can he have done? Is it his wish to break it off?”
Lady Desmond had calculated that she would best effect her object by at once impressing her daughter with the idea that, under the circumstances which were about to be narrated, this marriage would not only be imprudent, but altogether impracticable and out of the question. Clara must be made to understand at once, that the circumstances gave her no option — that the affair was of such a nature as to make it a thing manifest to everybody, that she could not now marry Herbert Fitzgerald. She must not be left to think whether she could, or whether she could not, exercise her own generosity. And therefore, not without discretion, the countess announced at once to her the conclusion at which it would be necessary to arrive. But Clara was not a girl to adopt such a conclusion on any other judgment than her own, or to be led in such a matter by the feelings of any other person.
“Sit down, my dear, and I will explain it all. But, dearest Clara, grieved as I must be to grieve you, I am bound to tell you again that it must be as I say. For both your sakes it must be so; but especially, perhaps, for his. But when I have told you my story, you will understand that this must be so.”
“Tell me, then, mother.” She said this, for Lady Desmond had again paused.
“Won’t you sit down, dearest?”
“Well, yes; it does not matter;” and Clara, at her mother’s bidding, sat down, and then the story was told to her.
It was a difficult tale for a mother to tell to so young a child — to a child whom she had regarded as being so very young. There were various little points of law which she thought that she was obliged to explain; how it was necessary that the Castle Richmond property should go to an heir-at-law, and how it was impossible that Herbert should be that heir-at-law, seeing that he had not been born in lawful wedlock. All these things Lady Desmond attempted to explain, or was about to attempt such explanation, but desisted on finding that her daughter understood them as well as she herself did. And then she had to make it also intelligible to Clara that Owen would be called on, when Sir Thomas should die, to fill the position and enjoy the wealth accruing to the heir of Castle Richmond. When Owen Fitzgerald’s name was mentioned a slight blush came upon Clara’s cheek; it was very slight, but nevertheless her mother saw it, and took advantage of it to say a word in Owen’s favour.
“Poor Owen!” she said. “He will not be the first to triumph in this change of fortune.”
“I am sure he will not,” said Clara. “He is much too generous for that.” And then the countess began to hope that the task might not be so very difficult. Ignorant woman! Had she been able to read one page in her daughter’s heart, she would have known that the task was impossible. After that the story was told out to the end without further interruption, and then Clara, hiding her face within her hands on the head of the sofa, uttered one long piteous moan.
“It is all very dreadful,” said the countess.
“Oh, Lady Fitzgerald, dear Lady Fitzgerald!” sobbed forth Clara.
“Yes, indeed. Poor Lady Fitzgerald! Her fate is so dreadful that I know not how to think of it.”
“But, mamma —” and as she spoke Clara pushed back from her forehead her hair with both her hands, showing, as she did so, the form of her forehead, and the firmness of purpose that was written there, legible to any eyes that could read. “But, mamma, you are wrong about my not marrying Herbert Fitzgerald. Why should I not marry him? Not now, as we, perhaps, might have done but for this; but at some future time when he may think himself able to support a wife. Mamma, I shall not break our engagement; certainly not.”
This was said in a tone of voice so very decided that Lady Desmond had to acknowledge to herself that there would be difficulty in her task. But she still did not doubt that she would have her way, if not by concession on the part of her daughter, then by concession on the part of Herbert Fitzgerald. “I can understand your generosity of feeling, my dear,” she said; “and at your age I should probably have felt the same. And therefore I do not ask you to take any steps towards breaking your engagement. The offer must come from Mr. Fitzgerald, and I have no doubt that it will come. He, as a man of honour, will know that he cannot now offer to marry you; and he will also know, as a man of sense, that it would be ruin for him to think of — of such a marriage under his present circumstances.”
“Why, mamma? Why should it be ruin to him?”
“Why, my dear? Do you think that a wife with a titled name can be of advantage to a young man who has not only got his bread to earn, but even to look out for a way in which he may earn it?”
“If there be nothing to hurt him but the titled name, that difficulty shall be easily conquered.”
“Dearest Clara, you know what I mean. You must be aware that a girl of your rank, and brought up as you have been, cannot be a fitting wife for a man who will now have to struggle with the world at every turn.”
Clara, as this was said to her, and as she prepared to answer, blushed deeply, for she felt herself obliged to speak on a matter which had never yet been subject of speech between her and her mother. “Mamma,” she said, “I cannot agree with you there. I may have what the world calls rank; but nevertheless we have been poor, and I have not been brought up with costly habits. Why should I not live with my husband as — as — as poorly as I have lived with my mother? You are not rich, dear mamma, and why should I be?”
Lady Desmond did not answer her daughter at once; but she was not silent because an answer failed her. Her answer would have been ready enough had she dared to speak it out. “Yes, it is true; we have been poor. I, your mother, did by my imprudence bring down upon my head and on yours absolute, unrelenting, pitiless poverty. And because I did so, I hae never known one happy hour. I have spent my days in bitter remorse — in regretting the want of those things which it has been the more terrible to want as they are the customary attributes of people of my rank. I have been driven to hate those around me who have been rich, because I have been poor. I have been utterly friendless because I have been poor. I have been able to do none of those sweet, soft, lovely things, by doing which other women win the smiles of the world, because I have been poor. Poverty and rank together have made me wretched — have left me without employment, without society, and without love. And now would you tell me that because I have been poor you would choose to be poor also?” It would have been thus that she would have answered, had she been accustomed to speak out her thoughts. But she had ever been accustomed to conceal them.
“I was thinking quite as much of him as of you,” at last she said. “Such an engagement to you would be fraught with much misery, but to him it would be ruinous.”
“I do not think it, mamma.”
“But it is not necessary, Clara, that you should do anything. You will wait, of course, and see what Herbert may say himself.”
“Wait half a moment, my love. I shall be very much surprised if we do not find that Mr. Fitzgerald himself will tell you that the match must be abandoned.”
“But that will make no difference, mamma.”
“No difference, my dear! You cannot marry him against his will. You do not mean to say that you would wish to bind him to his engagement, if he himself thought it would be to his disadvantage?”
“Yes; I will bind him to it.”
“I will make him know that it is not for his disadvantage. I will make him understand that a friend and companion who loves him as I love him — as no one else will ever love him now — for I love him because he was so high-fortuned when he came to me, and because he is now so low-fortuned — that such a wife as I will be, cannot be a burden to him. I will cling to him whether he throws me off or no. A word from him might have broken our engagement before, but a thousand words cannot do it now.”
Lady Desmond stared at her daughter, for Clara, in her excitement, was walking up and down the room. The countess had certainly not expected all this, and she was beginning to think that the subject for the present might as well be left alone. But Clara had not done as yet.
“Mamma.” she said, “I will not do anything without telling you; but I cannot leave Herbert in all his misery to think that I have no sympathy with him. I shall write to him.”
“Not before he writes to you, Clara! You would not wish to be indelicate?”
“I know but little about delicacy — what people call delicacy; but I will not be ungenerous or unkind. Mamma, you brought us two together. Was it not so? Did you not do so, fearing that I might — might still care for Herbert’s cousin? You did it; and half wishing to obey you, half attracted by all his goodness, I did learn to love Herbert Fitzgerald; and I did learn to forget — no; but I learned to cease to love his cousin. You did this and rejoiced at it; and now what you did must remain done.”
“But, dearest Clara, it will not be for his good.”
“It shall be for his good. Mamma, I would not desert him now for all that the world could give me. Neither for mother nor brother could I do that. Without your leave I would not have given him the right to regard me as his own; but now I cannot take that right back again, even at your wish. I must write to him at once, mamma, and tell him this.”
“Clara, at any rate you must not do that, that at least I must forbid.”
“Mother, you cannot forbid it now,” the daughter said, after walking twice the length of the room in silence. “If I be not allowed to send a letter, I shall leave the house and go to him.”
This was all very dreadful. Lady Desmond was astounded at the manner in which her daughter carried herself, and the voice with which she spoke. The form of her face was altered, and the very step with which she trod was unlike her usual gait. What would Lady Desmond do? She was not prepared to confine her daughter as a prisoner, nor could she publicly forbid the people about the place to go upon her message.
“I did not expect that you would have been so undutiful,” she said.
“I hope I am not so,” Clara answered. “But now my first duty is to him. Did you not sanction our loving each other? People cannot call back their hearts and their pledges.”
“You will, at any rate, wait till tomorrow, Clara.”
“It is dark now,” said Clara, despondingly, looking out through the window upon the falling night; “I suppose I cannot send to-night.”
“And you will show me what you write, dearest?”
“No, mamma. If I wrote it for your eyes it could not be the same as if I wrote it only for his.”
Very gloomy, sombre, and silent, was the Countess of Desmond all that night. Nothing further was said about the Fitzgeralds between her and her daughter, before they went to bed; and then Lady Desmond did speak a few futile words.
“Clara,” she said. “You had better think over what we have been saying, in bed to-night. You will be more collected tomorrow morning.”
“I shall think of it of course,” said Clara; “but thinking can make no difference,” and then just touching her mother’s forehead with her lips she went off slowly to her room.
What sort of a letter she wrote when she got there, we have already seen; and have seen also that she took effective steps to have her letter carried to Castle Richmond at an hour sufficiently early in the morning. There was no danger that the countess would stop the message, for the letter had been read twenty times by Emmeline and Mary, and had been carried by Herbert to his mother’s room, before Lady Desmond had left her bed. “Do not set your heart on it too warmly,” said Herbert’s mother to him.
“But is she not excellent?” said Herbert. “It is because she speaks of you in such a way —”
“You would not wish to bring her into misery, because of her excellence.”
“But, mother, I am still a man,” said Herbert. This was too much for the suffering woman, the one fault of whose life had brought her son to such a pass, and throwing her arm round his neck she wept upon his shoulders.
There were other messengers went and came that day between Desmond Court and Castle Richmond. Clara and her mother saw nothing of each other early in the morning; they did not breakfast together, nor was there a word said between them on the subject of the Fitzgeralds. But Lady Desmond early in the morning — early for her, that is — sent her note also to Castle Richmond. It was addressed to Aunt Letty, Miss Letitia Fitzgerald, and went to say that Lady Desmond was very anxious to see Miss Letty. Under the present circumstances of the family, as described to Lady Desmond by Mr. Herbert Fitzgerald, she felt that she could not ask to see “his mother”; — it was thus that she overcame the difficulty which presented itself to her as to the proper title now to be given to Lady Fitzgerald; — but perhaps Miss Letty would be good enough to see her, if she called at such and such an hour. Aunt Letty, much perplexed, had nothing for it, but to say that she would see her. The countess must now be looked on as closely connected with the family — at any rate, until that match were broken off; and therefore Aunt Letty had no alternative. And so, precisely at the hour named, the countess and Aunt Letty were seated together in the little breakfast-room of which mention has before been made.
No two women were ever closeted together who were more unlike each other — except that they had one common strong love for family rank. But in Aunt Letty it must be acknowledged that this passion was not unwholesome or malevolent in its course of action. She delighted in being a Fitzgerald, and in knowing that her branch of the Fitzgeralds had been considerable people ever since her Norman ancestor had come over to Ireland with Strongbow. But then she had a useful idea that considerable people should do a considerable deal of good. Her family pride operated more inwardly than outwardly — inwardly as regarded her own family, and not outwardly as regarded the world. Her brother, and her nephew, and her sister-inlaw, and nieces, were, she thought, among the highest commoners in Ireland; they were gentlefolks of the first water, and walked openly before the world accordingly, proving their claim to gentle blood by gentle deeds and honest conduct. Perhaps she did think too much of the Fitzgeralds of Castle Richmond; but the sin was one of which no recording angel could have made much in his entry. That she was a stupid old woman, prejudiced in the highest degree, and horribly ignorant of all the world beyond her own very narrow circle — even of that, I do not think that the recording angel could, under the circumstances, have made a great deal.
And now how was her family pride affected by this horrible catastrophe that had been made known to her? Herbert the heir, whom as heir she had almost idolized, was nobody. Her sister-inlaw, whom she had learned to love with the whole of her big heart, was no sister-inlaw. Her brother was one, who, in lieu of adding glory to the family, would always be regarded as the most unfortunate of the Fitzgerald baronets. But with her, human nature was stronger than family pride, and she loved them all, not better, but more tenderly than ever.
The two ladies were closeted together for about two hours; and then, when the door was opened, Aunt Letty might have been seen with her bonnet much on one side, and her poor old eyes and cheeks red with weeping. The countess, too, held her handkerchief to her eyes as she got back into her pony-carriage. She saw no one else there but Aunt Letty; and from her mood when she returned to Desmond Court it might be surmised that from Aunt Letty she had learned little to comfort her.
“They will be beggars!” she said to herself —“beggars!”— when the door of her own room had closed upon her. And there are few people in the world who held such beggary in less esteem than did the Countess of Desmond. It may almost be said that she hated herself on account of her own poverty.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14