Three or four days after writing his letter to Kate O’Hara, the Earl told his aunt that he must return to Ireland, and he named the day on which he would leave Scroope. “I did not think that you would go back there,” she said. He could see by the look of her face and by the anxious glance of her eye that she had in her heart the fear of Kate O’Hara — as he had also.
“I must return. I came away at a moment’s notice.”
“But you have written about leaving the regiment.”
“Yes; — I have done that. In the peculiar circumstances I don’t suppose they will want me to serve again. Indeed I’ve had a letter, just a private note, from one of the fellows at the Horse Guards explaining all that.”
“I don’t see why you should go at all; — indeed I do not.”
“What am I to do about my things? I owe some money. I’ve got three or four horses there. My very clothes are all about just as I left them when I came away.”
“Any body can manage all that. Give the horses away.”
“I had rather not give away my horses,” he said laughing. “The fact is I must go.” She could urge nothing more to him on that occasion. She did not then mention the existence of Kate O’Hara. But he knew well that she was thinking of the girl, and he knew also that the activity of Lady Mary Quin had not slackened. But his aunt, he thought, was more afraid of him now that he was the Earl than she had been when he was only the heir; and it might be that this feeling would save him from the mention of Kate O’Hara’s name.
To some extent the dowager was afraid of her nephew. She knew at least that the young man was all-powerful and might act altogether as he listed. In whatever she might say she could not now be supported by the authority of the Lord of Scroope. He himself was lord of Scroope; and were he to tell her simply to hold her tongue and mind her own business she could only submit. But she was not the woman to allow any sense of fear, or any solicitude as to the respect due to herself, to stand in the way of the performance of a duty. It may be declared on her behalf that had it been in her nephew’s power to order her head off in punishment for her interference, she would still have spoken had she conceived it to be right to speak.
But within her own bosom there had been dreadful conflicts as to that duty. Lady Mary Quin had by no means slackened her activity. Lady Mary Quin had learned the exact condition of Kate O’Hara, and had sent the news to her friend with greedy rapidity. And in sending it Lady Mary Quin entertained no slightest doubt as to the duty of the present Earl of Scroope. According to her thinking it could not be the duty of an Earl of Scroope in any circumstances to marry a Kate O’Hara. There are women, who in regard to such troubles as now existed at Ardkill cottage, always think that the woman should be punished as the sinner and that the man should be assisted to escape. The hardness of heart of such women — who in all other views of life are perhaps tender and soft-natured — is one of the marvels of our social system. It is as though a certain line were drawn to include all women — a line, but, alas, little more than a line — by overstepping which, or rather by being known to have overstepped it, a woman ceases to be a woman in the estimation of her own sex. That the existence of this feeling has strong effect in saving women from passing the line, none of us can doubt. That its general tendency may be good rather than evil, is possible. But the hardness necessary to preserve the rule, a hardness which must be exclusively feminine but which is seldom wanting, is a marvellous feature in the female character. Lady Mary Quin probably thought but little on the subject. The women in the cottage on the cliff, who were befriended by Father Marty, were to her dangerous scheming Roman Catholic adventurers. The proper triumph of Protestant virtue required that they should fail in their adventures. She had always known that there would be something disreputable heard of them sooner or later. When the wretched Captain came into the neighbourhood — and she soon heard of his coming — she was gratified by feeling that her convictions had been correct. When the sad tidings as to poor Kate reached her ears, she had “known that it would be so.” That such a girl should be made Countess of Scroope in reward for her wickedness would be to her an event horrible, almost contrary to Divine Providence — a testimony that the Evil One was being allowed peculiar power at the moment, and would no doubt have been used in her own circles to show the ruin that had been brought upon the country by Catholic emancipation. She did not for a moment doubt that the present Earl should be encouraged to break any promises of marriage to the making of which he might have been allured.
But it was not so with Lady Scroope. She, indeed, came to the same conclusion as her friend, but she did so with much difficulty and after many inward struggles. She understood and valued the customs of the magic line. In her heart of hearts she approved of a different code of morals for men and women. That which merited instant, and as regarded this world, perpetual condemnation in a woman, might in a man be very easily forgiven. A sigh, a shake of the head, and some small innocent stratagem that might lead to a happy marriage and settlement in life with increased income, would have been her treatment of such sin for the heirs of the great and wealthy. She knew that the world could not afford to ostracise the men — though happily it might condemn the women. Nevertheless, when she came to the single separated instance, though her heart melted with no ruth for the woman — in such cases the woman must be seen before the ruth is felt — though pity for Kate O’Hara did not influence her, she did acknowledge the sanctity of a gentleman’s word. If, as Lady Mary told her, and as she could so well believe, the present Earl of Scroope had given to this girl a promise that he would marry her, if he had bound himself by his pledged word, as a nobleman and a gentleman, how could she bid him become a perjured knave? Sans reproche! Was he thus to begin to live and to deserve the motto of his house by the conduct of his life?
But then the evil that would be done was so great! She did not for a moment doubt all that Lady Mary told her about the girl. The worst of it had indeed been admitted. She was a Roman Catholic, ill-born, ill-connected, damaged utterly by a parent so low that nothing lower could possibly be raked out of the world’s gutters. And now the girl herself was — a castaway. Such a marriage as that of which Lady Mary spoke would not only injure the house of Scroope for the present generation, but would tend to its final downfall. Would it not be known throughout all England that the next Earl of Scroope would be the grandson of a convict? Might there not be questions as to the legitimacy of the assumed heir? She herself knew of noble families which had been scattered, confounded, and almost ruined by such imprudence. Hitherto the family of Scroope had been continued from generation to generation without stain — almost without stain. It had felt it to be a fortunate thing that the late heir had died because of the pollution of his wretched marriage. And now must evil as bad befall it, worse evil perhaps, through the folly of this young man? Must that proud motto be taken down from its place in the hall from very shame? But the evil had not been done yet, and it might be that her words could save the house from ruin and disgrace.
She was a woman of whom it may be said that whatever difficulty she might have in deciding a question she could recognise the necessity of a decision and could abide by it when she had made it. It was with great difficulty that she could bring herself to think that an Earl of Scroope should be false to a promise by which he had seduced a woman, but she did succeed in bringing herself to such thought. Her very heart bled within her as she acknowledged the necessity. A lie to her was abominable. A lie, to be told by herself, would have been hideous to her. A lie to be told by him, was worse. As virtue, what she called virtue, was the one thing indispensable to women, so was truth the one thing indispensable to men. And yet she must tell him to lie, and having resolved so to tell him, must use all her intellect to defend the lie — and to insist upon it.
He was determined to return to Ireland, and there was nothing that she could do to prevent his return. She could not bid him shun a danger simply because it was a danger. He was his own master, and were she to do so he would only laugh at her. Of authority with him she had none. If she spoke, he must listen. Her position would secure so much to her from courtesy — and were she to speak of the duty which he owed to his name and to the family he could hardly laugh. She therefore sent to him a message. Would he kindly go to her in her own room? Of course he attended to her wishes and went. “You mean to leave us tomorrow, Fred,” she said. We all know the peculiar solemnity of a widow’s dress — the look of self-sacrifice on the part of the woman which the dress creates; and have perhaps recognised the fact that if the woman be deterred by no necessities of oeconomy in her toilet — as in such material circumstances the splendour is more perfect if splendour be the object — so also is the self-sacrifice more abject. And with this widow an appearance of melancholy solemnity, almost of woe, was natural to her. She was one whose life had ever been serious, solemn, and sad. Wealth and the outward pomp of circumstances had conferred upon her a certain dignity; and with that doubtless there had reached her some feeling of satisfaction. Religion too had given her comfort, and a routine of small duties had saved her from the wretchedness of ennui. But life with her had had no laughter, and had seldom smiled. Now in the first days of her widowhood she regarded her course as run, and looked upon herself as one who, in speaking, almost spoke from the tomb. All this had its effect upon the young lord. She did inspire him with a certain awe; and though her weeds gave her no authority, they did give her weight.
“Yes; I shall start tomorrow,” he replied.
“And you still mean to go to Ireland?”
“Yes; — I must go to Ireland. I shan’t stay there, you know.”
Then she paused a moment before she proceeded. “Shall you see — that young woman when you are there?”
“I suppose I shall see her.”
“Pray do not think that I desire to interfere with your private affairs. I know well that I have no right to assume over you any of that affectionate authority which a mother might have — though in truth I love you as a son.”
“I would treat you just as I would my own mother.”
“No, Fred; that cannot be so. A mother would throw her arms round you and cling to you if she saw you going into danger. A mother would follow you, hoping that she might save you.”
“But there is no danger.”
“Ah, Fred, I fear there is.”
“You are now the head of one of the oldest and the noblest families in this which in my heart I believe to be the least sinful among the sinful nations of the wicked world.”
“I don’t quite know how that may be; — I mean about the world. Of course I understand about the family.”
“But you love your country?”
“Oh yes. I don’t think there’s any place like England — to live in.”
“And England is what it is because there are still some left among us who are born to high rank and who know how to live up to the standard that is required of them. If ever there was such a man, your uncle was such a one.”
“I’m sure he was; — just what he ought to have been.”
“Honourable, true, affectionate, self-denying, affable to all men, but ever conscious of his rank, giving much because much had been given to him, asserting his nobility for the benefit of those around him, proud of his order for the sake of his country, bearing his sorrows with the dignity of silence, a nobleman all over, living on to the end sans reproche! He was a man whom you may dare to imitate, though to follow him may be difficult.” She spoke not loudly, but clearly, looking him full in the face as she stood motionless before him.
“He was all that,” said Fred, almost overpowered by the sincere solemnity of his aunt’s manner.
“Will you try to walk in his footsteps?”
“Two men can never be like one another in that way. I shall never be what he was. But I’ll endeavour to get along as well as I can.”
“You will remember your order?”
“Yes, I will. I do remember it. Mind you, aunt, I am not glad that I belong to it. I think I do understand about it all, and will do my best. But Jack would have made a better Earl than I shall do. That’s the truth.”
“The Lord God has placed you — and you must pray to Him that He will enable you to do your duty in that state of life to which it has pleased Him to call you. You are here and must bear his decree; and whether it be a privilege to enjoy, you must enjoy it, or a burden to bear, you must endure it.”
“It is so of course.”
“Knowing that, you must know also how incumbent it is upon you not to defile the stock from which you are sprung.”
“I suppose it has been defiled,” said Fred, who had been looking into the history of the family. “The ninth Earl seems to have married nobody knows whom. And his son was my uncle’s grandfather.”
This was a blow to Lady Scroope, but she bore it with dignity and courage. “You would hardly wish it to be said that you had copied the only one of your ancestors who did amiss. The world was rougher then than it is now, and he of whom you speak was a soldier.”
“I’m a soldier too,” said the Earl.
“Oh, Fred, is it thus you answer me! He was a soldier in rough times, when there were wars. I think he married when he was with the army under Marlborough.”
“I have not seen anything of that kind, certainly.”
“Your country is at peace, and your place is here, among your tenantry, at Scroope. You will promise me, Fred, that you will not marry this girl in Ireland?”
“If I do, the fault will be all with that old maid at Castle Quin.”
“Do not say that, Fred. It is impossible. Let her conduct have been what it may, it cannot make that right in you which would have been wrong, or that wrong which would have been right.”
“She’s a nasty meddlesome cat.”
“I will not talk about her. What good would it do? You cannot at any rate be surprised at my extreme anxiety. You did promise your uncle most solemnly that you would never marry this young lady.”
“If I did, that ought to be enough.” He was now waxing angry and his face was becoming red. He would bear a good deal from his uncle’s widow, but he felt his own power and was not prepared to bear much more.
“Of course I cannot bind you. I know well how impotent I am — how powerless to exercise control. But I think, Fred, that for your uncle’s sake you will not refuse to repeat your promise to me, if you intend to keep it. Why is it that I am so anxious? It is for your sake, and for the sake of a name which should be dearer to you than it is even to me.”
“I have no intention of marrying at all.”
“Do not say that.”
“I do say it. I do not want to keep either you or Jack in the dark as to my future life. This young lady — of whom, by the by, neither you nor Lady Mary Quin know anything, shall not become Countess of Scroope. To that I have made up my mind.”
“But as long as she lives I will make no woman Countess of Scroope. Let Jack marry this girl that he is in love with. They shall live here and have the house to themselves if they like it. He will look after the property and shall have whatever income old Mellerby thinks proper. I will keep the promise I made to my uncle — but the keeping of it will make it impossible for me to live here. I would prefer now that you should say no more on the subject.” Then he left her, quitting the room with some stateliness in his step, as though conscious that at such a moment as this it behoved him to assume his rank.
The dowager sat alone all that morning thinking of the thing she had done. She did now believe that he was positively resolved not to marry Kate O’Hara, and she believed also that she herself had fixed him in that resolution. In doing so had she or had she not committed a deadly sin? She knew almost with accuracy what had occurred on the coast of Clare. A young girl, innocent herself up to that moment, had been enticed to her ruin by words of love which had been hallowed in her ears by vows of marriage. Those vows which had possessed so deadly an efficacy, were now to be simply broken! The cruelty to her would be damnable, devilish — surely worthy of hell if any sin of man can be so called! And she, who could not divest herself of a certain pride taken in the austere morality of her own life, she who was now a widow anxious to devote her life solely to God, had persuaded the man to this sin, in order that her successor as Countess of Scroope might not be, in her opinion, unfitting for nobility! The young lord had promised her that he would be guilty of this sin, so damnable, so devilish, telling her as he did so, that as a consequence of his promise he must continue to live a life of wickedness! In the agony of her spirit she threw herself upon her knees and implored the Lord to pardon her and to guide her. But even while kneeling before the throne of heaven she could not drive the pride of birth out of her heart. That the young Earl might be saved from the damning sin and also from the polluting marriage; — that was the prayer she prayed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01