A dull, cold, wretched week passed over their heads at Castle Richmond, during which they did nothing but realize the truth of their position; and then came a letter from Mr. Prendergast, addressed to Herbert, in which he stated that such inquiries as he had hitherto made left no doubt on his mind that the man named Mollett, who had lately made repeated visits at Castle Richmond, was he who had formerly taken the house in Dorsetshire under the name of Talbot. In his packet Mr. Prendergast sent copies of documents and of verbal evidence which he had managed to obtain; but with the actual details of these it is not necessary that I should trouble those who are following me in this story. In this letter Mr. Prendergast also recommended that some intercourse should be had with Owen Fitzgerald. It was expedient, he said, that all the parties concerned should recognize Owen’s position as the heir presumptive to the title and estate; and as he, he said, had found Mr. Fitzgerald of Hap House to be forbearing, generous, and high-spirited, he thought that this intercourse might be conducted without enmity or ill blood. And then he suggested that Mr. Somers should see Owen Fitzgerald.
All this Herbert explained to his father gently and without complaint; but it seemed now as though Sir Thomas had ceased to interest himself in the matter. Such battle as it had been in his power to make he had made to save his son’s heritage and his wife’s name and happiness, even at the expense of his own conscience. That battle had gone altogether against him, and now there was nothing left for him but to turn his face to the wall and die. Absolute ruin, through his fault, had come upon him and all that belonged to him — ruin that would now be known to the world at large; and it was beyond his power to face that world again. In that the glory was gone from the house of his son, and of his son’s mother, the glory was gone from his own house. He made no attempt to leave his bed, though strongly recommended so to do by his own family doctor. And then a physician came down from Dublin, who could only feel, whatever he might say, how impossible it is to administer to a mind diseased. The mind of that poor man was diseased past all curing in this world, and there was nothing left for him but to die.
Herbert, of course, answered Clara’s letter, but he did not go over to see her during that week, nor indeed for some little time afterwards. He answered it at considerable length, professing his ready willingness to give back to Clara her troth, and even recommending her, with very strong logic and unanswerable arguments of worldly sense, to regard their union as unwise and even impossible; but nevertheless there protruded through all his sense and all his rhetoric, evidences of love and of a desire for love returned, which were much more unanswerable than his arguments, and much stronger than his logic. Clara read his letter, not as he would have advised her to read it, but certainly in the manner which best pleased his heart, and answered it again, declaring that all that he said was no avail. He might be false to her if he would. If through fickleness of heart and purpose he chose to abandon her, she would never complain — never at least aloud. But she would not be false to him, nor were her inclinations such as to make it likely that she should be fickle, even though her affection might be tried by a delay of years. Love with her had been too serious to be thrown aside. All which was rather strong language on the part of a young lady, but was thought by those other young ladies at Castle Richmond to show the very essence of becoming young-ladyhood. They pronounced Clara to be perfect in feeling and in judgment, and Herbert could not find it in his heart to contradict them.
And of all these doings, writings, and resolves, Clara dutifully told her mother. Poor Lady Desmond was at her wits’ end in the matter. She could scold her daughter, but she had no other power of doing anything. Clara had so taken the bit between her teeth that it was no longer possible to check her with any usual rein. In these days young ladies are seldom deprived by force of paper, pen, and ink, and the absolute incarceration of such an offender would be still more unusual. Another countess would have taken her daughter away, either to London and a series of balls, or to the South of Italy, or to the family castle in the North of Scotland, but poor Lady Desmond had not the power of other countesses. Now that it was put to the trial, she found that she had no power, even over her own daughter. “Mamma, it was your own doing,” Clara would say; and the countess would feel that this alluded not only to her daughter’s engagement with Herbert the disinherited, but also to her non-engagement with Owen the heir.
Under these circumstances Lady Desmond sent for her son. The earl was still at Eton, but was now grown to be almost a man — such a man as forward Eton boys are at sixteen — tall, and lathy, and handsome, with soft incipient whiskers, a bold brow and blushing cheeks, with all a boy’s love for frolic still strong within him, but some touch of a man’s pride to check it. In her difficulty Lady Desmond sent for the young earl, who had now not been home since the previous midsummer, hoping that his young manhood might have some effect in saving his sister from the disgrace of a marriage which would make her so totally bankrupt both in wealth and rank.
Mr. Somers did go once to Hap House, at Herbert’s instigation; but very little came of his visit. He had always disliked Owen, regarding him as an unthrift, any close connexion with whom could only bring contamination on the Fitzgerald property; and Owen had returned the feeling tenfold. His pride had been wounded by what he had considered to be the agent’s insolence, and he had stigmatized Mr. Somers to his friends as a self-seeking, mercenary prig. Very little, therefore, came of the visit. Mr. Somers, to give him his due, had attempted to do his best; being anxious, for Herbert’s sake, to conciliate Owen; perhaps having — and why not? — some eye to the future agency. But Owen was hard, and cold, and uncommunicative — very unlike what he had before been to Mr. Prendergast. But then Mr. Prendergast had never offended his pride.
“You may tell my cousin Herbert,” he said, with some little special emphasis on the word cousin, “that I shall be glad to see him, as soon as he feels himself able to meet me. It will be for the good of us both that we should have some conversation together. Will you tell him, Mr. Somers, that I shall be happy to go to him, or to see him here? Perhaps my going to Castle Richmond, during the present illness of Sir Thomas, may be inconvenient.” And this was all that Mr. Somers could get from him.
In a very short time the whole story became known to everybody round the neighbourhood. And what would have been the good of keeping it secret? There are some secrets — kept as secrets because they cannot well be discussed openly — which may be allowed to leak out with so much advantage! The day must come, and that apparently at no distant time, when all the world would know the fate of that Fitzgerald family; when Sir Owen must walk into the hall of Castle Richmond, the undoubted owner of the mansion and demesne. Why then keep it secret? Herbert openly declared his wish to Mr. Somers that there should be no secret in the matter. “There is no disgrace,” he said, thinking of his mother; “nothing to be ashamed of, let the world say what it will.”
Down in the servants’ hall the news came to them gradually, whispered about from one to another. They hardly understood what it meant, or how it had come to pass; but they did know that their master’s marriage had been no marriage, and that their master’s son was no heir. Mrs. Jones said not a word in the matter to any one. Indeed, since that day on which she had been confronted with Mollett, she had not associated with the servants at all, but had kept herself close to her mistress. She understood what it all meant perfectly; and the depth of the tragedy had so cowed her spirit that she hardly dared to speak of it. Who told the servants — or who does tell servants of such matters, it is impossible to say, but before Mr. Prendergast had been three days out of the house they all knew that the Mr. Owen of Hap House was to be the future master of Castle Richmond.
“An’ a sore day it’ll be; a sore day, a sore day,” said Richard, seated in an armchair by the fire, at the end of the servants’ hall, shaking his head despondingly.
“Faix, an’ you may say that,” said Corney, the footman. “That Misther Owen will go tatthering away to the divil, when the old place comes into his hans. No fear he’ll make it fly.”
“Sorrow seize the ould lawyer for coming down here at all at all,” said the cook.
“I never knew no good come of thim dry ould bachelors,” said Biddy the housemaid; “specially the Englishers.”
“The two of yez are no better nor simpletons,” said Richard, magisterially. “‘Twarn’t he that done it. The likes of him couldn’t do the likes o’ that.”
“And what was it as done it?” said Biddy.
“Ax no questions, and may be you’ll be tould no lies,” replied Richard.
“In course we all knows it’s along of her ladyship’s marriage which warn’t no marriage,” said the cook. “May the heavens be her bed when the Lord takes her! A betther lady nor a kinder-hearted niver stepped the floor of a kitchen.”
“‘Deed an that’s thrue for you, cook,” said Biddy, with the corner of her apron up to her eyes. “But tell me, Richard, won’t poor Mr. Herbert have nothing?”
“Never you mind about Mr. Herbert,” said Richard, who had seen Biddy grow up from a slip of a girl, and therefore was competent to snub her at every word.
“Ah, but I do mind,” said the girl. “I minds more about him than ere a one of ’em; and av’ that Lady Clara won’t have em a cause of this —”
“Not a step she won’t, thin,” said Corney. “She’ll go back to Mr. Owen. He was her fust love. You’ll see else.” And so the matter was discussed in the servants’ hall at the great house.
But perhaps the greatest surprise, the greatest curiosity, and the greatest consternation, were felt at the parsonage. The rumour reached Mr. Townsend at one of the Relief Committees; — and Mrs. Townsend from the mouth of one of her servants, during his absence, on the same day; and when Mr. Townsend returned to the parsonage, they met each other with blank faces.
“Oh, Aeneas!” said she, before she could get his greatcoat from off his shoulders, “have you heard the news?”
“What news? — about Castle Richmond?”
“Yes; about Castle Richmond.” And then she knew that he had heard it.
Some glimmering of Lady Fitzgerald’s early history had been known to both of them, as it had been known almost to all in the country; but in late years this history had been so much forgotten, that men had ceased to talk of it, and this calamity therefore came with all the weight of a new misfortune.
“And, Aeneas, who told you of it?” she asked, as they sat together over the fire, in their dingy, dirty parlour.
“Well, strange to say, I heard it first from Father Barney.”
“Oh, mercy! and is it all about the country in that way?”
“Herbert, you know, has not been at any one of the Committees for the last ten days, and Mr. Somers for the last week past has been as silent as death; so much so, that that horrid creature, Father Columb, would have made a regular set speech the other day at Gortnaclough, if I hadn’t put him down.”
“Dear, dear, dear!” said Mrs. Townsend.
“And I was talking to Father Barney about this, today — about Mr. Somers, that is.”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“And then he said, ‘I suppose you know what has happened at Castle Richmond?’”
“How on earth had he learned?” asked Mrs. Townsend, jealous that a Roman Catholic priest should have heard such completely Protestant news before the Protestant parson and his wife.
“Oh, they learn everything — from the servants, I suppose.”
“Of course, the mean creatures!” said Mrs. Townsend, forgetting, probably, her own little conversation with her own man-of-all-work that morning. “But go on, Aeneas.”
“‘What has happened!,’ said I, ‘at Castle Richmond?’ ‘Oh, you haven’t heard,’ said he. And I was obliged to own that I had not, though I saw that it gave him a kind of triumph. ‘Why,’ said he, ‘very bad news has reached them indeed; the worst of news.’ And then he told me about Lady Fitzgerald. To give him his due, I must say that he was very sorry — very sorry. ‘The poor young fellow!’ he said —‘the poor young fellow!’ And I saw that he turned away his face to hide a tear.”
“Crocodile tears!” said Mrs. Townsend.
“No, they were not,” said her reverend lord; “and Father Barney is not so bad as I once thought him.”
“I hope you are not going over too, Aeneas?” And his consort almost cried as such a horrid thought entered her head. In her ideas any feeling short of absolute enmity to a servant of the Church of Rome was an abandonment of some portion of the Protestant basis of the Church of England. “The small end of the wedge,” she would call it, when people around her would suggest that that the heart of a Roman Catholic priest might possibly not be altogether black and devilish.
“Well, I hope not, my dear,” said Mr. Townsend, with a slight touch of sarcasm in his voice. “But, as I was saying, Father Barney told me then that this Mr. Prendergast —”
“Oh, I had known of his being there from the day of his coming.”
“This Mr Prendergast, it seems, knew the whole affair, from beginning to end.”
“But how did he know it, Aeneas?”
“That I can’t tell you. He was a friend of Sir Thomas before his marriage, I know that. And he has told them that it is of no use their attempting to keep it secret. He was over at Hap House with Owen Fitzgerald before he went.”
“And has Owen Fitzgerald been told?”
“Yes, he has been told — told that he is to be the next heir, so Father Barney says.”
Mrs. Townsend wished in her heart that the news could have reached her through a purer source, but all this, coming though it did from Father Barney, tallied too completely with what she herself had heard to leave on her mind any doubt of its truth. And then she began to think of Lady Fitzgerald and her condition, of Herbert and of his, and of the condition of them all, till by degrees her mind passed away from Father Barney and all his iniquities.
“It is very dreadful,” she said, in a low voice.
“Very dreadful, very dreadful. I hardly know how to think of it. And I fear that Sir Thomas will not live many months to give them even the benefit of his life interest.”
“And when he dies all will be gone?”
And then tears stood in her eyes also, and in his also after a while. It is very easy for a clergyman in his pulpit to preach eloquently upon the vileness of worldly wealth, and the futility of worldly station; but where will you ever find one who, when the time of proof shall come, will give proof that he himself feels what he preaches? Mr. Townsend was customarily loud and eager upon this subject, and yet he was now shedding tears because his young friend Herbert was deprived of his inheritance.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14