Not a word was said to the young lord on his return home respecting the O’Haras till he himself had broached the subject. He found his brother Jack Neville at Scroope on his arrival, and Sophie Mellerby was still staying with his aunt. A day had been fixed for the funeral, but no one had ventured to make any other arrangement till the heir and owner should be there. He was received with solemn respect by the old servants who, as he observed, abstained from calling him by any name. They knew that it did not become them to transfer the former lord’s title to the heir till all that remained of the former lord should be hidden from the world in the family vault; but they could not bring themselves to address a real Earl as Mr. Neville. His aunt was broken down by sorrow, but nevertheless, she treated him with a courtly deference. To her he was now the reigning sovereign among the Nevilles, and all Scroope and everything there was at his disposal. When he held her by the hand and spoke of her future life she only shook her head. “I am an old woman, though not in years old as was my lord. But my life is done, and it matters not where I go.”
“Dear aunt, do not speak of going. Where can you be so well as here?” But she only shook her head again and wept afresh. Of course it would not be fitting that she should remain in the house of the young Earl who was only her nephew by marriage. Scroope Manor would now become a house of joy, would be filled with the young and light of heart; there would be feasting there and dancing; horses neighing before the doors, throngs of carriages, new furniture, bright draperies, and perhaps, alas, loud revellings. It would not be fit that such a one as she should be at Scroope now that her lord had left her.
The funeral was an affair not of pomp but of great moment in those parts. Two or three Nevilles from other counties came to the house, as did also sundry relatives bearing other names. Mr. Mellerby was there, and one or two of the late Earl’s oldest friends; but the great gathering was made up of the Scroope tenants, not one of whom failed to see his late landlord laid in his grave. “My Lord,” said an old man to Fred, one who was himself a peer and was the young lord’s cousin though they two had never met before, “My Lord,” said the old man, as soon as they had returned from the grave, “you are called upon to succeed as good a man as ever it has been my lot to know. I loved him as a brother. I hope you will not lightly turn away from his example.” Fred made some promise which at the moment he certainly intended to perform.
On the next morning the will was read. There was nothing in it, nor could there have been anything in it, which might materially affect the interests of the heir. The late lord’s widow was empowered to take away from Scroope anything that she desired. In regard to money she was provided for so amply that money did not matter to her. A whole year’s income from the estates was left to the heir in advance, so that he might not be driven to any momentary difficulty in assuming the responsibilities of his station. A comparatively small sum was left to Jack Neville, and a special gem to Sophie Mellerby. There were bequests to all the servants, a thousand pounds to the vicar of the parish — which perhaps was the only legacy which astonished the legatee — and his affectionate love to every tenant on the estate. All the world acknowledged that it was as good a will as the Earl could have made. Then the last of the strangers left the house, and the Earl of Scroope was left to begin his reign and do his duty as best he might.
Jack had promised to remain with him for a few days, and Sophie Mellerby, who had altogether given up her London season, was to stay with the widow till something should be settled as to a future residence. “If my aunt will only say that she will keep the house for a couple of years, she shall have it,” said Fred to the young lady — perhaps wishing to postpone for so long a time the embarrassment of the large domain; but to this Lady Scroope would not consent. If allowed she would remain till the end of July. By that time she would find herself a home.
“For the life of me, I don’t know how to begin my life,” said the new peer to his brother as they were walking about the park together.
“Do not think about beginning it at all. You won’t be angry, and will know what I mean, when I say that you should avoid thinking too much of your own position.”
“How am I to help thinking of it? It is so entirely changed from what it was.”
“No Fred — not entirely; nor as I hope, is it changed at all in those matters which are of most importance to you. A man’s self, and his ideas of the manner in which he should rule himself, should be more to him than any outward accidents. Had that cousin of ours never died —”
“I almost wish he never had.”
“It would then have been your ambition to live as an honourable gentleman. To be that now should be more to you than to be an Earl and a man of fortune.”
“It’s very easy to preach, Jack. You were always good at that. But here I am, and what am I to do? How am I to begin? Everybody says that I am to change nothing. The tenants will pay their rents, and Burnaby will look after things outside, and Mrs. Bunce will look after the things inside, and I may sit down and read a novel. When the gloom of my uncle’s death has passed away, I suppose I shall buy a few more horses and perhaps begin to make a row about the pheasants. I don’t know what else there is to do.”
“You’ll find that there are duties.”
“I suppose I shall. Something is expected of me. I am to keep up the honour of the family; but it really seems to me that the best way of doing so would be to sit in my uncle’s arm chair and go to sleep as he did.”
“As a first step in doing something you should get a wife for yourself. If once you had a settled home, things would arrange themselves round you very easily.”
“Ah, yes; — a wife. You know, Jack, I told you about that girl in County Clare.”
“You must let nothing of that kind stand in your way.”
“Those are your ideas of high moral grandeur! Just now my own personal conduct was to be all in all to me, and the rank nothing. Now I am to desert a girl I love because I am an English peer.”
“What has passed between you and the young lady, of course I do not know.”
“I may as well tell you the whole truth,” said Fred. And he told it. He told it honestly — almost honestly. It is very hard for a man to tell a story truly against himself, but he intended to tell the whole truth. “Now what must I do? Would you have me marry her?” Jack Neville paused for a long time. “At any rate you can say yes, or no.”
“It is very hard to say yes, or no.”
“I can marry no one else. I can see my way so far. You had better tell Sophie Mellerby everything, and then a son of yours shall be the future Earl.”
“We are both of us young as yet, Fred, and need not think of that. If you do mean to marry Miss O’Hara you should lose not a day; — not a day.”
“But what if I don’t. You are always very ready with advice, but you have given me none as yet.”
“How can I advise you? I should have heard the very words in which you made your promise before I could dare to say whether it should be kept or broken. As a rule a man should keep his word.”
“Let the consequences be what they may?”
“A man should keep his word certainly. And I know no promise so solemn as that made to a woman when followed by conduct such as yours has been.”
“And what will people say then as to my conduct to the family? How will they look on me when I bring home the daughter of that scoundrel?”
“You should have thought of that before.”
“But I was not told. Do you not see that I was deceived there. Mrs. O’Hara clearly said that the man was dead. And she told me nothing of the galleys.”
“How could she tell you that?”
“But if she has deceived me, how can I be expected to keep my promise? I love the girl dearly. If I could change places with you, I would do so this very minute, and take her away with me, and she should certainly be my wife. If it were only myself, I would give up all to her. I would, by heaven. But I cannot sacrifice the family. As to solemn promises, did I not swear to my uncle that I would not disgrace the family by such a marriage? Almost the last word that I spoke to him was that. Am I to be untrue to him? There are times in which it seems impossible that a man should do right.”
“There are times in which a man may be too blind to see the right,” said Jack — sparing his brother in that he did not remind him that those dilemmas always come from original wrong-doing.
“I think I am resolved not to marry her,” said Fred.
“If I were in your place I think I should marry her,” said Jack; —“but I will not speak with certainty even of myself.”
“I shall not. But I will be true to her all the same. You may be sure that I shall not marry at all.” Then he recurred to his old scheme. “If I can find any mode of marrying her in some foreign country, so that her son and mine shall not be the legitimate heir to the title and estates, I would go there at once with her, though it were to the further end of the world. You can understand now what I mean when I say that I do not know how to begin.” Jack acknowledged that in that matter he did understand his brother. It is always hard for a man to commence any new duty when he knows that he has a millstone round his neck which will probably make that duty impracticable at last.
He went on with his life at Scroope for a week after the funeral without resolving upon anything, or taking any steps towards solving the O’Hara difficulty. He did ride about among the tenants, and gave some trifling orders as to the house and stables. His brother was still with him, and Miss Mellerby remained at the Manor. But he knew that the thunder-cloud must break over his head before long, and at last the storm was commenced. The first drops fell upon him in the soft form of a letter from Kate O’Hara.
I am not quite sure that I ought to address you like that; but I always shall unless you tell me not. We have been expecting a letter from you every day since you went. Your friend from Ennis came here, and brought us the news of your uncle’s death. We were very sorry; at least I was certainly. I liked to think of you a great deal better as my own Fred, than as a great lord. But you will still be my own Fred always; will you not?
Mother said at once that it was a matter of course that you should go to England; but your friend, whose name we never heard, said that you had sent him especially to promise that you would write quite immediately, and that you would come back very soon. I do not know what he will think of me, because I asked him whether he was quite, quite sure that you would come back. If he thinks that I love you better than my own soul, he only thinks the truth.
Pray — pray write at once. Mother is getting vexed because there is no letter. I am never vexed with my own darling love, but I do so long for a letter. If you knew how I felt, I do think you would write almost every day — if it were only just one short word. If you would say, ‘Dear Love,’ that would be enough. And pray come. Oh do, do, pray come! Cannot you think how I must long to see you! The gentleman who came here said that you would come, and I know you will. But pray come soon. Think, now, how you are all the world to me. You are more than all the world to me.
I am not ill as I was when you were here. But I never go outside the door now. I never shall go outside the door again till you come. I don’t care now for going out upon the rocks. I don’t care even for the birds as you are not here to watch them with me. I sit with the skin of the seal you gave me behind my head, and I pretend to sleep. But though I am quite still for hours I am not asleep, but thinking always of you.
We have neither seen or heard anything more of my father, and Father Marty says that you have managed about that very generously. You are always generous and good. I was so wretched all that day, that I thought I should have died. You will not think ill of your Kate, will you, because her father is bad?
Pray write when you get this, and above all things let us know when you will come to us.
Always, always, and always,
Two days after this, while the letter was still unanswered, there came another from Mrs. O’Hara which was, if possible, more grievous to him than that from her daughter.
“My Lord,” the letter began. When he read this he turned from it with a sickening feeling of disgust. Of course the woman knew that he was now Earl of Scroope; but it would have been so desirable that there should have been no intercourse between her and him except under the name by which she had hitherto known him. And then in the appellation as she used it there seemed to be a determination to reproach him which must, he knew, lead to great misery.
The messenger you sent to us brought us good news, and told us that you were gone home to your own affairs. That I suppose was right, but why have you not written to us before this? Why have you not told my poor girl that you will come to her, and atone to her for the injury you have done in the only manner now possible? I cannot and do not believe that you intend to evade the solemn promises that you have made her, and allow her to remain here a ruined outcast, and the mother of your child. I have thought you to be both a gentleman and a christian, and I still think so. Most assuredly you would be neither were you disposed to leave her desolate, while you are in prosperity.
I call upon you, my lord, in the most solemn manner, with all the energy and anxiety of a mother — of one who will be of all women the most broken-hearted if you wrong her — to write at once and let me know when you will be here to keep your promise. For the sake of your own offspring I implore you not to delay.
We feel under deep obligations to you for what you did in respect of that unhappy man. We have never for a moment doubted your generosity.
Yours, My Lord,
With warmest affection, if you will admit it,
P.S. I ask you to come at once and keep your word. Were you to think of breaking it, I would follow you through the world.
The young Earl, when he received this, was not at a loss for a moment to attribute the body of Mrs. O’Hara’s letter to Father Marty’s power of composition, and the postscript to the unaided effort of the lady herself. Take it as he might — as coming from Mrs. O’Hara or from the priest — he found the letter to be a great burden to him. He had not as yet answered the one received from Kate, as to the genuineness of which he had entertained no doubt. How should he answer such letters? Some answer must of course be sent, and must be the forerunner of his future conduct. But how should he write his letter when he had not as yet resolved what his conduct should be?
He did attempt to write a letter, not to either of the ladies, but to the priest, explaining that in the ordinary sense of the word he could not and would not marry Miss O’Hara, but that in any way short of that legitimate and usual mode of marriage, he would bind himself to her, and that when so bound he would be true to her for life. He would make any settlement that he, Father Marty, might think right either upon the mother or upon the daughter. But Countess of Scroope the daughter of that Captain O’Hara should not become through his means. Then he endeavoured to explain the obligation laid upon him by his uncle, and the excuse which he thought he could plead in not having been informed of Captain O’Hara’s existence. But the letter when written seemed to him to be poor and mean, cringing and at the same time false. He told himself that it would not suffice. It was manifest to him that he must go back to County Clare, even though he should encounter Mrs. O’Hara, dagger in hand. What was any personal danger to himself in such an affair as this? And if he did not fear a woman’s dagger, was he to fear a woman’s tongue — or the tongue of a priest? So he tore the letter, and resolved that he would write and name a day on which he would appear at Ardkill. At any rate such a letter as that might be easily written, and might be made soft with words of love.
I will be with you on the 15th or on the 16th at latest. You should remember that a man has a good deal to do and think of when he gets pitchforked into such a new phase of life as mine. Do not, however, think that I quarrel with you, my darling. That I will never do. My love to your mother.
Ever your own,
I hate signing the other name.
This letter was not only written but sent.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14