Mr. Prendergast as he walked out of Spinny Lane, and back to St. Botolph’s church, and as he returned thence again to Bloomsbury Square in his cab, had a good deal of which to think. In the first place it must be explained that he was not altogether self-satisfied with the manner in which things had gone. That he would have made almost any sacrifice to recover the property for Herbert Fitzgerald, is certainly true; and it is as true that he would have omitted no possible effort to discover all that which he had now discovered, almost without necessity for any effort. But nevertheless he was not altogether pleased; he had made up his mind a month or two ago that Lady Fitzgerald was not the lawful wife of her husband; and had come to this conclusion on, as he still thought, sufficient evidence. But now he was proved to have been wrong; his character for shrewdness and discernment would be damaged, and his great ally and chum Mr. Die, the Chancery barrister, would be down on him with unmitigated sarcasm. A man who has been right so frequently as Mr. Prendergast, does not like to find that he is ever in the wrong. And then, had his decision not have been sudden, might not the life of that old baronet have been saved?
Mr. Prendergast could not help feeling this in some degree as he drove away to Bloomsbury Square; but nevertheless he had also the feeling of having achieved a great triumph. It was with him as with a man who has made a fortune when he has declared to his friends that he should infallibly be ruined. It piques him to think how wrong he has been in his prophecy; but still it is very pleasant to have made one’s fortune.
When he found himself at the top of Chancery Lane in Holborn, he stopped his cab and got out of it. He had by that time made up his mind as to what he would do; so he walked briskly down to Stone Buildings, and nodding to the old clerk, with whom he was very intimate, asked if he could see Mr. Die. It was his second visit to those chambers that morning, seeing that he had been there early in the day, introducing Herbert to his new Gamaliel. “Yes, Mr. Die is in,” said the clerk, smiling; and so Mr. Prendergast passed on into the well-known dingy temple of the Chancery god himself.
There he remained for full an hour, a message in the mean while having been sent out to Herbert Fitzgerald, begging him not to leave the chambers till he should have seen Mr. Die; “and your friend Mr. Prendergast is with him,” said the clerk. “A very nice gentleman is Mr. Prendergast, uncommon clever too; but it seems to me that he never can hold his own when he comes across our Mr. Die.”
At the end of the hour Herbert was summoned into the sanctum, and there he found Mr. Die sitting in his accustomed chair, with his body much bent, nursing the calf of his leg, which was always enveloped in a black, well-fitting close pantaloon, and smiling very blandly. Mr. Prendergast had in his countenance not quite so sweet an aspect. Mr. Die had repeated to him, perhaps once too often, a very well-known motto of his; one by the aid of which he professed to have steered himself safely through the shoals of life — himself and perhaps some others. It was a motto which he would have loved to see inscribed over the great gates of the noble inn to which he belonged; and which, indeed, a few years since might have been inscribed there with much justice. “Festina lente,” Mr. Die would say to all those who came to him in any sort of hurry. And then when men accused him of being dilatory by premeditation, he would say no, he had always recommended despatch. “Festina,” he would say; “festina” by all means; but “festina lente.” The doctrine had at any rate thriven with the teacher, for Mr. Die had amassed a large fortune.
Herbert at once saw that Mr. Prendergast was a little fluttered. Judging from what he had seen of the lawyer in Ireland, he would have said that it was impossible to flutter Mr. Prendergast; but in truth greatness is great only till it encounters greater greatness. Mars and Apollo are terrible and magnificent gods till one is enabled to see them seated at the foot of Jove’s great throne. That Apollo, Mr. Prendergast, though greatly in favour with the old Chancery Jupiter, had now been reminded that he had also on this occasion driven his team too fast, and been nearly as indiscreet in his own rash offering.
“We are very sorry to keep you waiting here, Mr. Fitzgerald,” said Mr. Die, giving his hand to the young man without, however, rising from his chair; “especially sorry, seeing that it is your first day in harness. But your friend Mr. Prendergast thinks it as well that we should talk over together a piece of business which does not seem as yet to be quite settled.”
Herbert of course declared that he had been in no hurry to go away; he was, he said, quite ready to talk over anything; but to his mind at that moment nothing occurred more momentous than the nature of the agreement between himself and Mr. Die. There was an honorarium which it was presumed Mr. Die would expect, and which Herbert Fitzgerald had ready for the occasion.
“I hardly know how to describe what has taken place this morning since I saw you,” said Mr. Prendergast, whose features told plainly that something more important than the honorarium was now on the tapis.
“What has taken place?” said Herbert, whose mind now flew off to Castle Richmond.
“Gently, gently,” said Mr. Die; “in the whole course of my legal experience — and that now has been a very long experience — I have never come across so — so singular a family history as this of yours, Mr. Fitzgerald. When our friend Mr. Prendergast here, on his return from Ireland, first told me the whole of it, I was inclined to think that he had formed a right and just decision —”
“There can be no doubt about that,” said Herbert.
“Stop a moment, my dear sir; wait half a moment — a just decision, I say — regarding the evidence of the facts as conclusive. But I was not quite so certain that he might not have been a little — premature perhaps may be too strong a word — a little too assured in taking those facts as proved.”
“But they were proved,” said Herbert.
“I shall always maintain that there was ample ground to induce me to recommend your poor father so to regard them,” said Mr. Prendergast, stoutly. “You must remember that those men would instantly have been at work on the other side; indeed, one of them did attempt it.”
“Without any signal success, I believe,” said Mr. Die.
“My father thought you were quite right, Mr. Prendergast,” said Herbert, with a tear forming in his eye; “and though it may be possible that the affair hurried him to his death, there was no alternative but that he should know the whole.” At this Mr. Prendergast seemed to wince as he sat in his chair. “And I am sure of this,” continued Herbert, “that had he been left to the villanies of those two men, his last days would have been much less comfortable than they were, My mother feels that quite as strongly as I do.” And then Mr. Prendergast looked as though he were somewhat reassured.
“It was a difficult crisis in which to act,” said Mr. Prendergast, “and I can only say that I did so to the best of my poor judgment.”
“It was a difficult crisis in which to act,” said Mr. Die, assenting.
“But why is all this brought up now?” asked Herbert.
“Festina lente,” said Mr. Die; “lente, lente, lente; always lente. The more haste we make in trying to understand each other, with the less speed shall we arrive at that object.”
“What is it, Mr. Prendergast?” again demanded Herbert, who was now too greatly excited to care much for the Chancery wisdom of the great barrister. “Has anything new turned up about — about those Molletts?”
“Yes, Herbert, something has turned up —”
“Remember, Prendergast, that your evidence is again incomplete.”
“Upon my word, sir, I do not think it is: it would be sufficient for any intellectual jury in a Common Law court,” said Mr. Prendergast, who sometimes, behind his back, gave to Mr. Die the surname of Cunctator.
“But juries in Common Law courts are not always intelligent. And you may be sure, Prendergast, that any gentleman taking up the case on the other side would have as much to say for his client as your counsel would have for yours. Remember, you have not even been to Putney yet.”
“Been to Putney!” said Herbert, who was becoming uneasy.
“The onus probandi would lie with them,” said Mr. Prendergast. “We take possession of that which is our own till it is proved to belong to others.”
“You have already abandoned the possession.”
“No; we have done nothing already: we have taken no legal step; when we believed —”
“Having by your own act put yourself in your present position, I think you ought to be very careful before you take up another.”
“Certainly we ought to be careful. But I do maintain that we may be too punctilious. As a matter of course I shall go to Putney.”
“To Putney!” said Herbert Fitzgerald.
“Yes, Herbert, and now, if Mr. Die will permit, I will tell you what has happened. On yesterday afternoon, before you came to dine with me, I received that letter. No, that is from your cousin, Owen Fitzgerald. You must see that also by-and-by. It was this one — from the younger Mollett, the man whom you saw that day in your poor father’s room.”
Herbert anxiously put out his hand for the letter, but he was again interrupted by Mr. Die. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Fitzgerald, for a moment. Prendergast, let me see that letter again, will you?” And taking hold of it, he proceeded to read it very carefully, still nursing his leg with his left hand, while he held the letter with his right.
“What’s it all about?” said Herbert, appealing to Prendergast almost in a whisper.
“Lente, lente, lente, my dear Mr. Fitzgerald,” said Mr. Die, while his eyes were still intent upon the paper. “If you will take advantage of the experience of grey hairs, and bald heads,”— his own was as bald all round as a big white stone —“you must put up with some of the disadvantages of a momentary delay. Suppose now, Prendergast, that he is acting in concert with those people in-what do you call the street?”
“In Spinny Lane.”
“Yes; with his father and the two women there.”
“What could they gain by that?”
“Share with him whatever he might be able to get out of you.”
“The man would never accuse himself of bigamy for that. Besides, you should have seen the women, Die.”
“Seen the women! Tsh — tsh — tsh; I have seen enough of them, young and old, to know that a clean apron and a humble tone and a down-turned eye don’t always go with a true tongue and an honest heart. Women are now the most successful swindlers of the age! That profession at any rate is not closed against them.”
“You will not find these women to be swindlers; at least I think not.”
“Ah! but we want to be sure, Prendergast;” and then Mr. Die finished the letter, very leisurely, as Herbert thought.
When he had finished it, he folded it up and gave it back to Mr. Prendergast. “I don’t think but what you’ve a strong prima facie case; so strong that perhaps you are right to explain the whole matter to our young friend here, who is so deeply concerned in it. But at the same time I should caution him that the matter is still enveloped in doubt.”
Herbert eagerly put out his hand for the letter. “You may trust me with it,” said he: “I am not of a sanguine temperament, nor easily excited; and you may be sure that I will not take it for more than it is worth.” So saying, he at last got hold of the letter, and managed to read it through much more quickly than Mr. Die had done. As he did so he became very red in the face, and too plainly showed that he had made a false boast in speaking of the coolness of his temperament. Indeed, the stakes were so high that it was difficult for a young man to be cool while he was playing the game: he had made up his mind to lose, and to that he had been reconciled; but now again every pulse of his heart and every nerve of his body was disturbed. “Was never his wife,” he said out loud when he got to that part of the letter. “His real wife living now in Spinny Lane! Do you believe that, Mr. Prendergast?”
“Yes, I do,” said the attorney.
“Lente, lente, lente,” said the barrister, quite oppressed by his friend’s unprofessional abruptness.
“But I do believe it,” said Mr. Prendergast: “you must always understand, Herbert, that this new story may possibly not be true —”
“Quite possible,” said Mr. Die, with something almost approaching to a slight laugh.
“But the evidence is so strong,” continued the other, “that I do believe it heartily. I have been to that house, and seen the man, old Mollett, and the woman whom I believe to be his wife, and a daughter who lives with them. As far as my poor judgment goes,” and he made a bow of deference towards the barrister, whose face, however, seemed to say, that in his opinion the judgment of his friend Mr. Prendergast did not always go very far —“As far as my poor judgment goes, the women are honest and respectable. The man is as great a villain as there is unhung — unless his son be a greater one; but he is now so driven into a corner, that the truth may be more serviceable to him than a lie.”
“People of that sort are never driven into a corner,” said Mr. Die; “they may sometimes be crushed to death.”
“Well, I believe the matter is as I tell you. There at any rate is Mollett’s assurance that it is so. The woman has been residing in the same place for years, and will come forward at any time to prove that she was married to this man before he ever saw — before he went to Dorsetshire: she has her marriage certificate; and as far as I can learn there is no one able or willing to raise the question against you. Your cousin Owen certainly will not do so.”
“It will hardly do to depend upon that,” said Mr. Die, with another sneer. “Twelve thousand a-year is a great provocative to litigation.”
“If he does we must fight him; that’s all. Of course steps will be taken at once to get together in the proper legal form all evidence of every description which may bear on the subject, so that should the question ever be raised again, the whole matter may be in a nutshell.”
“You’ll find it a nutshell very difficult to crack in five-and-twenty years’ time,” said Mr. Die.
“And what would you advise me to do?” asked Herbert.
That after all was now the main question, and it was discussed between them for a long time, till the shades of evening came upon them, and the dull dingy chambers became almost dark as they sat there. Mr. Die at first conceived that it would be well that Herbert should stick to the law. What indeed could be more conducive to salutary equanimity in the mind of a young man so singularly circumstanced, than the study of Blackstone, of Coke, and of Chitty? as long as he remained there, at work in those chambers, amusing himself occasionally with the eloquence of the neighbouring courts, there might be reasonable hope that he would be able to keep his mind equally poised, so that neither success nor failure as regarded his Irish inheritance should affect him injuriously. Thus at least argued Mr. Die. But at this point Herbert seemed to have views of his own: he said that in the first place he must be with his mother; and then, in the next place, as it was now clear that he was not to throw up Castle Richmond — as it would not now behove him to allow any one else to call himself master there — it would be his duty to reassume the place of master. “The onus probandi will now rest with them,” he said, repeating Mr. Prendergast’s words; and then he was ultimately successful in persuading even Mr. Die to agree that it would be better for him to go to Ireland than to remain in London, sipping the delicious honey of Chancery buttercups.
“And you will assume the title, I suppose?” said Mr. Die.
“Not, at any rate, till I get to Castle Richmond,” he said, blushing. He had so completely abandoned all thought of being Sir Herbert Fitzgerald, that he had now almost felt ashamed of saying that he should so far presume as to call himself by that name.
And then he and Mr. Prendergast went away and dined together, leaving Mr. Die to complete his legal work for the day. At this he would often sit till nine or ten, or even eleven in the evening, without any apparent ill results from such effects, and then go home to his dinner and port wine. He was already nearly seventy, and work seemed to have no effect on him. In what Medea’s caldron is it that the great lawyers so cook themselves, that they are able to achieve half an immortality, even while the body still clings to the soul? Mr. Die, though he would talk of his bald head, had no idea of giving way to time. Superannuated! The men who think of superannuation at sixty are those whose lives have been idle, not they who have really buckled themselves to work. It is my opinion that nothing seasons the mind for endurance like hard work. Port wine should perhaps be added.
It was not till Herbert once more found himself alone that he fully realized this new change in his position. He had dined with Mr. Prendergast at that gentleman’s club, and had been specially called upon to enjoy himself, drinking as it were to his own restoration in large glasses of some special claret, which Mr. Prendergast assured him was very extraordinary.
“You may be as satisfied as that you are sitting there that that’s 34,” said he; “and I hardly know anywhere else that you’ll get it.”
This assertion Herbert was not in the least inclined to dispute. In the first place, he was not quite clear what 34 meant, and then any other number, 32 or 36, would have suited his palate as well. But he drank the 34, and tried to look as though he appreciated it.
“Our wines here are wonderfully cheap,” said Mr. Prendergast, becoming confidential; “but nevertheless we have raised the price of that to twelve shillings. We’ll have another bottle.”
During all this Herbert could hardly think of his own fate and fortune, though, indeed, he could hardly think of anything else. He was eager to be alone, that he might think, and was nearly broken-hearted when the second bottle of 34 made its appearance. Something, however, was arranged in those intercalary moments between the raising of the glasses. Mr. Prendergast said that he would write both to Owen Fitzgerald and to Mr. Somers; and it was agreed that Herbert should immediately return to Castle Richmond, merely giving his mother time to have notice of his coming.
And then at last he got away, and started by himself for a night walk through the streets of London. It seemed to him now to be a month since he had arrived there; but in truth it was only on the yesterday that he had got out of the train at the Euston Station. He had come up, looking forward to live in London all his life, and now his London life was over — unless, indeed, those other hopes should come back to him, unless he should appear again, not as a student in Mr. Die’s chamber, but as one of the council of the legislature assembled to make laws for the governance of Mr. Die and of others. It was singular how greatly this episode in his life had humbled him in his own esteem. Six months ago he had thought himself almost too good for Castle Richmond, and had regarded a seat in Parliament as the only place which he could fitly fill without violation to his nature. But now he felt as though he should hardly dare to show himself within the walls of that assembly. He had been so knocked about by circumstances, so rudely toppled from his high place — he had found it necessary to put himself so completely into the hands of other people, that his self-pride had all left him. That it would in fact return might be held as certain, but the lesson which he had learned would not altogether be thrown away upon him. At this moment, as I was saying, he felt himself to be completely humbled. A lie spoken by one of the meanest of God’s creatures had turned him away from all his pursuits, and broken all his hopes; and now another word from this man was to restore him — if only that other word should not appear to be the greater lie! and then that there should be such question as to his mother’s name and fame — as to the very name by which she should now be called! that it should depend on the amount of infamy of which that wretch had been guilty, whether or no the woman whom in the world he most honoured was entitled to any share of respect from the world around her! That she was entitled to the respect of all good men, let the truth in these matters be where it might, Herbert knew, and all who heard the story would acknowledge. But respect is of two sorts, and the outer respect of the world cannot be parted with conveniently.
He did acknowledge himself to be a humbled man — more so than he had ever yet done, or had been like to do, while conscious of the loss which had fallen on him. It was at this moment when he began to perceive that his fortune would return to him, when he became aware that he was knocked about like a shuttlecock from a battledore, that his pride came by its first fall. Mollett was in truth the great man — the Warwick who was to make and unmake the kings of Castle Richmond. A month ago, and it had pleased Earl Mollett to say that Owen Fitzgerald should reign; but there had been a turn upon the cards, and now he, King Herbert, was to be again installed.
He walked down all alone through St. James’s Street, and by Pall Mall and Charing Cross, feeling rather than thinking of all this. Those doubts of Mr. Die did not trouble him much. He fully believed that he should regain his title and property; or rather that he should never lose them. But he thought that he could never show himself about the country again as he had done before all this was known. In spite of his good fortune he was sad at heart, little conscious of the good that all this would do him.
He went on by the Horse Guards and Treasury Chambers into Parliament Street, and so up to the new Houses of Parliament, and sauntered into Westminster Hall; and there, at the privileged door between the lamps on his left hand, he saw busy men going in and out, some slow and dignified, others hot, hasty, and anxious, and he felt as though the regions to and from which they passed must be far out of his reach. Could he aspire to pass those august lamp-posts, he whose very name depended on what in truth might have been the early doings of a low scoundrel who was now skulking from the law?
And then he went on, and mounting by the public stairs and anterooms found his way to the lobby of the house. There he stood with his back to the ginger-beer stall, moody and melancholy, looking on as men in the crowd pushed forward to speak to members whom they knew, or, as it sometimes appeared, to members whom they did not know. There was somewhat of interest going on in the house, for the throng was thick, and ordinary men sometimes jostled themselves on into the middle of the hall — with impious steps, for on those centre stones none but legislators should presume to stand.
“Stand back, gentlemen, stand back; back a little, if you please, sir,” said a very courteous but peremptory policeman, so moving the throng that Herbert, who had been behind, in no way anxious for a forward place, or for distinguishing nods from passing members, found himself suddenly in the front rank, in the immediate neighbourhood of a cluster of young senators who were cooling themselves in the lobby after the ardour of the debate.
“It was as pretty a thing as ever I saw in my life,” said one, “and beautifully ridden.” Surely it must have been the Spring Meeting and not the debate that they were discussing.
“I don’t know much about that,” said another, and the voice sounded on Herbert’s ears as it might almost be the voice of a brother. “I know I lost the odds. But I’ll have a bottle of soda-water. Hallo, Fitzgerald! Why —;” and then the young member stopped himself, for Herbert Fitzgerald’s story was rife about London at this time.
“How do you do, Moulsey?” said Herbert, very glumly, for he did not at all like being recognized. This was Lord Moulsey, the eldest son of the Earl of Hampton Court, who was now member for the River Regions, and had been one of Herbert’s most intimate friends at Oxford.
“I did not exactly expect to see you here,” said Lord Moulsey, drawing him apart. “And upon my soul I was never so cut up in my life as when I heard all that. Is it true?”
“True! why no; — it was true, but I don’t think it is. That is to say — upon my word I don’t know. It’s all unsettled — Good evening to you.” And again nodding his head at his old friend in a very sombre manner, he skulked off and made his way out of Westminster Hall.
“Do you know who that was?” said Lord Moulsey, going back to his ally. “That was young Fitzgerald, the poor fellow who has been done out of his title and all his property. You have heard about his mother, haven’t you?”
“Was that young Fitzgerald?” said the other senator, apparently more interested in this subject than he had even been about the pretty riding. “I wish I’d looked at him. Poor fellow! How does he bear it?”
“Upon my word, then, I never saw a fellow so changed in my life. He and I were like brothers, but he would hardly speak to me. Perhaps I ought to have written to him. But he says it’s not settled.”
“Oh, that’s all gammon. It’s settled enough. Why, they’ve given up the place. I heard all about it the other day from Sullivan O’Leary. They are not even making any fight. Sullivan O’Leary says they are the greatest fools in the world.”
“Upon my word I think young Fitzgerald was mad just now. His manner was so very odd.”
“I shouldn’t wonder. I know I should go mad if my mother turned out to be somebody else’s wife.” And then they both sauntered away.
Herbert was doubly angry with himself as he made his way down into the noble old hall — angry that he had gone where there was a possibility of his being recognized, and angry also that he had behaved himself with so little presence of mind when he was recognized. He felt that he had been taken aback, that he had been beside himself, and unable to maintain his own dignity; he had run away from his old intimate friend because he had been unable to bear being looked on as the hero of a family tragedy. “He would go back to Ireland,” he said to himself, “and he would never leave it again. Perhaps he might teach himself there to endure the eyes and voices of men around him. Nothing at any rate should induce him to come again to London.” And so he went home to bed in a mood by no means so happy as might have been expected from the result of the day’s doings. And yet he had been cheerful enough when he went to Mr. Die’s chambers in the morning.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01