It had been Clara Desmond’s first ball, and on the following morning she had much to occupy her thoughts. In the first place, had she been pleased or had she not? Had she been most gratified or most pained?
Girls when they ask themselves such questions seldom give themselves fair answers. She had liked dancing with Owen Fitzgerald; oh, so much! She had liked dancing with others too, though she had not known them, and had hardly spoken to them. The mere act of dancing, with the loud music in the room, and the gay dresses and bright lights around her, had been delightful. But then it had pained her — she knew not why, but it had pained her — when her mother told her that people would make remarks about her. Had she done anything improper on this her first entry into the world? Was her conduct to be scanned, and judged, and condemned, while she was flattering herself that no one had noticed her but him who was speaking to her?
Their breakfast was late, and the countess sat, as was her wont, with her book beside her teacup, speaking a word every now and again to her son.
“Owen will be over here today,” said he. “We are going to have a schooling match down on the Callows.” Now in Ireland a schooling match means the amusement of teaching your horses to jump.
“Will he?” said Lady Desmond, looking up from her book for a moment. “Mind you bring him in to lunch; I want to speak to him.”
“He doesn’t care much about lunch, I fancy,” said he; “and, maybe, we shall be halfway to Millstreet by that time.”
“Never mind, but do as I tell you. You expect everybody to be as wild and wayward as yourself.” And the countess smiled on her son in a manner which showed that she was proud even of his wildness and his waywardness.
Clara had felt that she blushed when she heard that Mr. Fitzgerald was to be there that morning. She felt that her own manner became constrained, and was afraid that her mother should look at her. Owen had said nothing to her about love; and she, child as she was, had thought nothing about love. But she was conscious of something, she knew not what. He had touched her hand during those dances as it had never been touched before; he had looked into her eyes, and her eyes had fallen before his glance; he had pressed her waist, and she had felt that there was tenderness in the pressure. So she blushed, and almost trembled, when she heard that he was coming, and was glad in her heart when she found that there was neither anger nor sunshine in her mother’s face.
Not long after breakfast, the earl went out on his horse, and met Owen at some gate or back entrance. In his opinion the old house was stupid, and the women in it were stupid companions in the morning. His heart for the moment was engaged on the thought of making his animal take the most impracticable leaps which he could find, and it did not occur to him at first to give his mother’s message to his companion. As for lunch, they would get a biscuit and glass of cherry-brandy at Wat M’Carthy’s, of Drumban; and as for his mother having anything to say, that of course went for nothing.
Owen would have been glad to have gone up to the house, but in that he was frustrated by the earl’s sharpness in catching him. His next hope was to get through the promised lesson in horse-leaping as quickly as possible, so that he might return to Desmond Court, and take his chance of meeting Clara. But in this he found the earl very difficult to manage.
“Oh, Owen, we won’t go there,” he said, when Fitzgerald proposed a canter through some meadows down by the river-side. “There are only a few gripes”— Irish for small ditches —“and I have ridden Fireball over them a score of times. I want you to come away towards Drumban.”
“Drumban! why, Drumban’s seven miles from here.”
“What matter? Besides, it’s not six the way I’ll take you. I want to see Wat M’Carthy especially. He has a litter of puppies there out of that black bitch of his, and I mean to make him give me one of them.”
But on that morning, Owen Fitzgerald would not allow himself to be taken so far a-field as Drumban, even on a mission so important as this. The young lord fought the matter stoutly; but it ended by his being forced to content himself with picking out all the most dangerous parts of the fences in the river meadows.
“Why, you’ve hardly tried your own mare at all,” said the lad, reproachfully.
“I’m going to hunt her on Saturday,” said Owen; “and she’ll have quite enough to do then.”
“Well, you’re very slow today. You’re done up with the dancing, I think. And what do you mean to do now?”
“I’ll go home with you, I think, and pay my respects to the countess.”
“By-the-by, I was to bring you in to lunch. She said she wanted to see you. By jingo, I forgot all about it! But you’ve all become very stupid among you, I know that.” And so they rode back to Desmond Court, entering the demesne by one of the straight, dull, level roads which led up to the house.
But it did not suit the earl to ride on the road while the grass was so near him; so they turned off with a curve across what was called the park, thus prolonging their return by about double the necessary distance.
As they were cantering on, Owen saw her of whom he was in quest walking in the road which they had left. His best chance of seeing her alone had been that of finding her outside the house. He knew that the countess rarely or never walked with her daughter, and that, as the governess was gone, Clara was driven to walk by herself.
“Desmond,” he said, pulling up his horse, “do you go on and tell your mother that I will be with her almost immediately.”
“Why, where are you off to now?”
“There is your sister, and I must ask her how she is after the ball;” and so saying he trotted back in the direction of the road.
Lady Clara had seen them; and though she had hardly turned her head, she had seen also how suddenly Mr. Fitzgerald had stopped his horse, and turned his course when he perceived her. At the first moment she had been almost angry with him for riding away from her, and now she felt almost angry with him because he did not do so.
He slackened his pace as he came near her, and approached her at a walk. There was very little of the faint heart about Owen Fitzgerald at any time, or in anything that he attempted. He had now made up his mind fairly to tell Clara Desmond that he loved her, and to ask for her love in return. He had resolved to do so, and there was very little doubt but that he would carry out his resolution. But he had in nowise made up his mind how he should do it, or what his words should be. And now that he saw her so near him he wanted a moment to collect his thoughts.
He took off his hat as he rode up, and asked her whether she was tired after the ball; and then dismounting, he left his mare to follow as she pleased.
“Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald, won’t she run away?” said Clara, as she gave him her hand.
“Oh no; she has been taught better than that. But you don’t tell me how you are. I thought you were tired last night when I saw that you had altogether given over dancing.” And then he walked on beside her, and the docile mare followed them like a dog.
“No, I was not tired; at least, not exactly,” said Clara, blushing again and again, being conscious that she blushed. “But — but — you know it was the first ball I was ever at.”
“That is just the reason why you should have enjoyed it the more, instead of sitting down as you did, and being dull and unhappy. For I know you were unhappy; I could see it.”
“Was I?” said Clara, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes; and I’ll tell you what. I could see more than that; it was I that made you unhappy.”
“You, Mr. Fitzgerald!”
“Yes, I. You will not deny it, because you are so true. I asked you to dance with me too often. And because you refused me, you did not like to dance with any one else. I saw it all. Will you deny that it was so?”
“Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald!” Poor girl! She did not know what to say; how to shape her speech into indifference; how to assure him that he made himself out to be of too much consequence by far; how to make it plain that she had not danced because there was no one there worth dancing with. Had she been out for a year or two, instead of being such a novice, she would have accomplished all this in half a dozen words. As it was, her tell-tale face confessed it all, and she was only able to ejaculate, “Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald!”
“When I went there last night,” he continued, “I had only one wish — one hope. That was, to see you pleased and happy. I knew it was your first ball, and I did so long to see you enjoy it.”
“And so I did, till —”
“Till what? Will you not let me ask?”
“Mamma said something to me, and that stopped me from dancing.”
“She told you not to dance with me. Was that it?”
How was it possible that she should have had a chance with him; innocent, young, and ignorant as she was? She did not tell him in words that so it had been; but she looked into his face with a glance of doubt and pain that answered his question as plainly as any words could have done.
“Of course she did; and it was I that destroyed it all. I that should have been satisfied to stand still and see you happy. How you must have hated me!”
“Oh no; indeed I did not. I was not at all angry with you. Indeed, why should I have been? It was so kind of you, wishing to dance with me.”
“No; it was selfish — selfish in the extreme. Nothing but one thing could excuse me, and that excuse —”
“I’m sure you don’t want any excuse, Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“And that excuse, Clara, was this: that I love you with all my heart. I had not strength to see you there, and not long to have you near me — not begrudge that you should dance with another. I love you with all my heart and soul. There, Lady Clara, now you know it all.”
The manner in which he made his declaration to her was almost fierce in its energy. He had stopped in the pathway, and she, unconscious of what she was doing, almost unconscious of what she was hearing, had stopped also. The mare, taking advantage of the occasion, was cropping the grass close to them. And so, for a few seconds, they stood in silence.
“Am I so bold, Lady Clara,” said he, when those few seconds had gone by —“Am I so bold that I may hope for no answer?” But still she said nothing. In lieu of speaking she uttered a long sigh; and then Fitzgerald could bear that she was sobbing.
“Oh, Clara, I love you so fondly, so dearly, so truly!” said he in an altered voice and with sweet tenderness. “I know my own presumption in thus speaking. I know and feel bitterly the difference in our rank.”
“I— care — nothing — for rank,” said the poor girl, sobbing through her tears. He was generous, and she at any rate would not be less so. No; at that moment, with her scanty seventeen years of experience, with her ignorance of all that the world had in it of grand and great, of high and rich, she did care nothing for rank. That Owen Fitzgerald was a gentleman of good lineage, fit to mate with a lady, that she did know; for her mother, who was a proud woman, delighted to have him in her presence. Beyond this she cared for none of the conventionalities of life. Rank! If she waited for rank, where was she to look for friends who would love her? Earls and countesses, barons and their baronesses, were scarce there where fate had placed her, under the shadow of the bleak mountains of Muskerry. Her want, her undefined want, was that some one should love her. Of all men and women whom she had hitherto known, this Owen Fitzgerald was the brightest, the kindest, the gentlest in his manner, the most pleasant to look on. And now he was there at her feet, swearing that he loved her; — and then drawing back as it were in dread of her rank. What did she care for rank?
“Clara, Clara, my Clara! Can you learn to love me?”
She had made her one little effort at speaking when she attempted to repudiate the pedestal on which he affected to place her; but after that she could for a while say no more. But she still sobbed, and still kept her eyes fixed upon the ground.
“Clara, say one word to me. Say that you do not hate me.” But just at that moment she had not one word to say.
“If you will bid me do so, I will leave this country altogether. I will go away, and I shall not much care whither. I can only stay now on condition of your loving me. I have thought of this day for the last year past, and now it has come.”
Every word that he now spoke was gospel to her. Is it not always so — should it not be so always, when love first speaks to loving ears? What! he had loved her for that whole twelve-month that she had known him; loved her in those days when she had been wont to look up into his face, wondering why he was so nice, so much nicer than any one else that came near her! A year was a great deal to her; and had he loved her through all those days? and after that should she banish him from her house, turn him away from his home, and drive him forth unhappy and wretched? Ah, no! She could not be so unkind to him; — she could not be so unkind to her own heart. But still she sobbed; and still she said nothing.
In the mean time they had turned, and were now walking back towards the house, the gentle-natured mare still following at their heels. They were walking slowly — very slowly back — just creeping along the path, when they saw Lady Desmond and her son coming to meet them on the road.
“There is your mother, Clara. Say one word to me before we meet them.”
“Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald; I am so frightened. What will mamma say?”
“Say about what? As yet I do not know what she may have to say. But before we meet her, may I not hope to know what her daughter will say? Answer me this, Clara. Can you, will you love me?”
There was still a pause, a moment’s pause, and then some sound did fall from her lips. But yet it was so soft, so gentle, so slight, that it could hardly be said to reach even a lover’s ear. Fitzgerald, however, made the most of it. Whether it were Yes, or whether it were No, he took it as being favourable, and Lady Clara Desmond gave him no sign to show that he was mistaken.
“My own, own, only loved one,” he said. embracing her, as it were, with his words, since the presence of her approaching mother forbade him even to take her hand in his, “I am happy now, whatever may occur; whatever others may say; for I know that you will be true to me. And remember this — whatever others may say, I also will be true to you. You will think of that, will you not, love?”
This time she did answer him, almost audibly. “Yes,” she said. And then she devoted herself to a vain endeavour to remove the traces of her tears before her mother should be close to them.
Fitzgerald at once saw that such endeavour must be vain. At one time he had thought of turning away, and pretending that they had not seen the countess. But he knew that Clara would not be able to carry out any such pretence; and he reflected also that it might be just as well that Lady Desmond should know the whole at once. That she would know it, and know it soon, he was quite sure. She could learn it not only from Clara, but from himself. He could not now be there at the house without showing that he both loved and knew that he was beloved. And then why should Lady Desmond not know it? Why should he think that she would set herself against the match? He had certainly spoken to Clara of the difference in their rank; but, after all, it was no uncommon thing for an earl’s daughter to marry a commoner. And in this case the earl’s daughter was portionless, and the lover desired no portion. Owen Fitzgerald at any rate might boast that he was true and generous in his love.
So he plucked up his courage, and walked on with a smiling face to meet Lady Desmond and her son; while poor Clara crept beside him with eyes downcast, and in an agony of terror.
Lady Desmond had not left the house with any apprehension that there was aught amiss. Her son had told her that Owen had gone off “to do the civil to Clara;” and as he did not come to the house within some twenty minutes after this, she had proposed that they would go and meet him.
“Did you tell him that I wanted him?” said the countess.
“Oh yes, I did; and he is coming, only he would go away to Clara.”
“Then I shall scold him for his want of gallantry,” said Lady Desmond, laughing, as they walked out together from beneath the huge portal.
But as soon as she was near enough to see the manner of their gait, as they slowly came towards her, her woman’s tact told her that something was wrong; — and whispered to her also what might too probably be the nature of that something. Could it be possible, she asked herself, that such a man as Owen Fitzgerald should fall in love with such a girl as her daughter Clara?
“What shall I say to mamma?” whispered Clara to him, as they all drew near together.
“Tell her everything.”
“But, Patrick —”
“I will take him off with me if I can.” And then they were all together, standing in the road.
“I was coming to obey your behests, Lady Desmond,” said Fitzgerald, trying to look and speak as though he were at his ease.
“Coming rather tardily, I think,” said her ladyship, not altogether playfully.
“I told him you wanted him, as we were crossing to the house,” said the earl. “Didn’t I, Owen?”
“Is anything the matter with Clara?” said Lady Desmond, looking at her daughter.
“No, mamma,” said Clara; and she instantly began to sob and cry.
“What is it, sir?” And as she asked she turned to Fitzgerald; and her manner now at least had in it nothing playful.
“Lady Clara is nervous and hysterical. The excitement of the ball has perhaps been too much for her. I think, Lady Desmond, if you were to take her in with you it would be well.”
Lady Desmond looked up at him; and he then saw, for the first time, that she could if she pleased look very stern. Hitherto her face had always worn smiles, had at any rate always been pleasing when he had seen it. He had never been intimate with her, never intimate enough to care what her face was like, till that day when he had carried her son up from the hall door to his room. Then her countenance had been all anxiety for her darling; and afterwards it had been all sweetness for her darling’s friend. From that day to this present one, Lady Desmond had ever given him her sweetest smiles.
But Fitzgerald was not a man to be cowed by any woman’s looks. He met hers by a full, front face in return. He did not allow his eye for a moment to fall before hers. And yet he did not look at her haughtily, or with defiance, but with an aspect which showed that he was ashamed of nothing that he had done — whether he had done anything that he ought to be ashamed of or no.
“Clara,” said the countess, in a voice which fell with awful severity on the poor girl’s ears, “you had better return to the house with me.”
“And shall I wait on you tomorrow, Lady Desmond?” said Fitzgerald, in a tone which seemed to the countess to be, in the present state of affairs, almost impertinent. The man had certainly been misbehaving himself, and yet there was not about him the slightest symptom of shame.
“Yes; no,” said the countess. “That is, I will write a note to you if it be necessary. Good morning.”
“Good-bye, Lady Desmond,” said Owen. And as he took off his hat with his left hand, he put out his right to shake hands with her, as was customary with him. Lady Desmond was at first inclined to refuse the courtesy; but she either thought better of such intention, or else she had not courage to maintain it; for at parting she did give him her hand.
“Good-bye, Lady Clara;” and he also shook hands with her, and it need hardly be said that there was a lover’s pressure in the grasp.
“Good-bye,” said Clara, through her tears, in the saddest, soberest tone. He was going away, happy, light-hearted, with nothing to trouble him. But she had to encounter that fearful task of telling her own crime. She had to depart with her mother; — her mother, who, though never absolutely unkind, had so rarely been tender with her. And then her brother —!
“Desmond,” said Fitzgerald, “walk as far as the lodge with me like a good fellow. I have something that I want to say to you.”
The mother thought for a moment that she would call her son back; but then she bethought herself that she also might as well be without him. So the young earl, showing plainly by his eyes that he knew that much was the matter, went back with Fitzgerald towards the lodge.
“What is it you have done now?” said the earl. The boy had some sort of an idea that the offence committed was with reference to his sister; and his tone was hardly as gracious as was usual with him.
This want of kindliness at the present moment grated on Owen’s ears; but he resolved at once to tell the whole story out, and then leave it to the earl to take it in dudgeon or in brotherly friendship as he might please.
“Desmond,” said he, “can you not guess what has passed between me and your sister?”
“I am not good at guessing,” he answered, brusquely.
“I have told her that I loved her, and would have her for my wife; and I have asked her to love me in return.”
There was an open manliness about this which almost disarmed the earl’s anger. He had felt a strong attachment to Fitzgerald, and was very unwilling to give up his friendship; but, nevertheless, he had an idea that it was presumption on the part of Mr. Fitzgerald of Hap House to look up to his sister. Between himself and Owen the earl’s coronet never weighed a feather; he could not have abandoned his boy’s heart to the man’s fellowship more thoroughly had that man been an earl as well as himself. But he could not get over the feeling that Fitzgerald’s worldly position was beneath that of his sister; — that such a marriage on his sister’s part would be a mesalliance. Doubting, therefore, and in some sort dismayed — and in some sort also angry — he did not at once give any reply.
“Well, Desmond, what have you to say to it? You are the head of her family, and young as you are, it is right that I should tell you.”
“Tell me! of course you ought to tell me. I don’t see what youngness has to do with it. What did she say?”
“Well, she said but little; and a man should never boast that a lady has favoured him. But she did not reject me.” He paused a moment, and then added, “After all, honesty and truth are the best. I have reason to think that she loves me.”
The poor young lord felt that he had a double duty, and hardly knew how to perform it. He owed a duty to his sister which was paramount to all others; but then he owed a duty also to the friend who had been so kind to him. He did not know how to turn round upon him and tell him that he was not fit to marry his sister.
“And what do you say to it, Desmond?”
“I hardly know what to say. It would be a very bad match for her. You, you know, are a capital fellow; the best fellow going. There is nobody about anywhere that I like so much.”
“In thinking of your sister, you should put that out of the question.”
“Yes; that’s just it. I like you for a friend better than any one else. But Clara ought — ought — ought —”
“Ought to look higher, you would say.”
“Yes; that’s just what I mean. I don’t want to offend you, you know.”
“Desmond, my boy, I like you the better for it. You are a fine fellow, and I thoroughly respect you. But let us talk sensibly about this. Though your sister’s rank is high —”
“Oh, I don’t want to talk about rank. That’s all bosh, and I don’t care about it. But Hap House is a small place, and Clara wouldn’t be doing well; and what’s more, I am quite sure the countess will not hear of it.”
“You won’t approve, then?”
“No, I can’t say I will.”
“Well, that is honest of you. I am very glad that I have told you at once. Clara will tell her mother, and at any rate there will be no secrets. Good-bye, old fellow.”
“Good-bye,” said the earl. Then they shook hands, and Fitzgerald rode off towards Hap House. Lord Desmond pondered over the matter some time, standing alone near the lodge; and then walked slowly back towards the mansion. He had said that rank was all bosh; and in so saying had at the moment spoken out generously the feelings of his heart. But that feeling regarded himself rather than his sister; and if properly analyzed would merely have signified that, though proud enough of his own rank, he did not require that his friends should be of the same standing. But as regarded his sister, he certainly would not be well pleased to see her marry a small squire with a small income.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01