The Countess was seen no more on that day — was no more seen at least by either of the two brothers. Miss Mellerby was with her now and again, but on each occasion only for a few minutes, and reported that Lady Scroope was ill and could not appear at dinner. She would, however, see her nephew before he started on the following morning.
Fred himself was much affected by the interview with his aunt. No doubt he had made a former promise to his uncle, similar to that which had now been exacted from him. No doubt he had himself resolved, after what he had thought to be mature consideration that he would not marry the girl, justifying to himself this decision by the deceit which he thought had been practised upon him in regard to Captain O’Hara. Nevertheless, he felt that by what had now occurred he was bound more strongly against the marriage than he had ever been bound before. His promise to his uncle might have been regarded as being obligatory only as long as his uncle lived. His own decision he would have been at liberty to change when he pleased to do so. But, though his aunt was almost nothing to him — was not in very truth his aunt, but only the widow of his uncle, there had been a solemnity about the engagement as he had now made it with her, which he felt to be definitely binding. He must go to Ardkill prepared to tell them absolutely the truth. He would make any arrangement they pleased as to their future joint lives, so long as it was an arrangement by which Kate should not become Countess of Scroope. He did not attempt to conceal from himself the dreadful nature of the task before him. He knew what would be the indignation of the priest. He could picture to himself the ferocity of the mother, defending her young as a lioness would her whelp. He could imagine that that dagger might again be brought from its hiding place. And, worse than all, he would see the girl prostrate in her woe, and appealing to his love and to his oaths, when the truth as to her future life should be revealed to her. But yet he did not think of shunning the task before him. He could not endure to live a coward in his own esteem.
He was unlike himself and very melancholy. “It has been so good of you to remain here,” he said to Sophie Mellerby. They had now become intimate and almost attached to each other as friends. If she had allowed a spark of hope to become bright within her heart in regard to the young Earl that had long since been quenched. She had acknowledged to herself that had it been possible in other respects they would not have suited each other — and now they were friends.
“I love your aunt dearly and have been very glad to be with her.”
“I wish you would learn to love somebody else dearly.”
“Perhaps I shall, some day — somebody else; though I don’t at all know who it may be.”
“You knew whom I mean.”
“I suppose I do.”
“And why not love him? Isn’t he a good fellow?”
“One can’t love all the good fellows, Lord Scroope.”
“You’ll never find a better one than he is.”
“Did he commission you to speak for him?”
“You know he didn’t. You know that he would be the last man in the world to do so?”
“I was surprised.”
“But I had a reason for speaking.”
“I don’t suppose it will have any effect with you; — but it is something you ought to know. If any man of my age can be supposed to have made up his mind on such a matter, you may believe that I have made up my mind that I will — never marry.”
“What nonsense, Lord Scroope.”
“Well; — yes; perhaps it is. But I am so convinced of it myself that I shall ask my brother to come and live here — permanently — as master of the place. As he would have to leave his regiment it would of course be necessary that his position here should be settled — and it shall be settled.”
“I most sincerely hope that you will always live here yourself.”
“It won’t suit me. Circumstances have made it impossible. If he will not do so, nor my aunt, the house must be shut up. I am most anxious that this should not be done. I shall implore him to remain here, and to be here exactly as I should have been — had things with me not have been so very unfortunate. He will at any rate have a house to offer you, if —”
“I know what you are going to say, Sophie.”
“I don’t know that I am as yet disposed to marry for the sake of a house to shelter me.”
“Of course you would say that; but still I think that I have been right to tell you. I am sure you will believe my assurance that Jack knows nothing of all this.”
That same evening he said nearly the same thing to his brother, though in doing so he made no special allusion to Sophie Mellerby. “I know that there is a great deal that a fellow should do, living in such a house as this, but I am not the man to do it. It’s a very good kind of life, if you happen to be up to it. I am not, but you are.”
“My dear Fred, you can’t change the accidents of birth.”
“In a great measure I can; or at least we can do so between us. You can’t be Lord Scroope, but you can be master of Scroope Manor.”
“No I can’t; — and, which is more, I won’t. Don’t think I am uncivil.”
“You are uncivil, Jack.”
“At any rate I am not ungrateful. I only want you to understand thoroughly that such an arrangement is out of the question. In no condition of life would I care to be the locum tenens for another man. You are now five or six and twenty. At thirty you may be a married man with an absolute need for your own house.”
“I would execute any deed.”
“So that I might be enabled to keep the owner of the property out of the only place that is fit for him! It is a power which I should not use, and do not wish to possess. Believe me, Fred, that a man is bound to submit himself to the circumstances by which he is surrounded, when it is clear that they are beneficial to the world at large. There must be an Earl of Scroope, and you at present are the man.”
They were sitting together out upon the terrace after dinner, and for a time there was silence. His brother’s arguments were too strong for the young lord, and it was out of his power to deal with one so dogmatic. But he did not forget the last words that had been spoken. It may be that “I shall not be the man very long,” he said at last.
“Any of us may die today or tomorrow,” said Jack.
“I have a kind of presentiment — not that I shall die, but that I shall never see Scroope again. It seems as though I were certainly leaving for ever a place that has always been distasteful to me.”
“I never believe anything of presentiments.”
“No; of course not. You’re not that sort of fellow at all. But I am. I can’t think of myself as living here with a dozen old fogies about the place all doing nothing, touching their hats, my-lording me at every turn, looking respectable, but as idle as pickpockets.”
“You’ll have to do it.”
“Perhaps I shall, but I don’t think it.” Then there was again silence for a time. “The less said about it the better, but I know that I’ve got a very difficult job before me in Ireland.”
“I don’t envy you, Fred; — not that.”
“It is no use talking about it. It has got to be done, and the sooner done the better. What I shall do when it is done, I have not the most remote idea. Where I shall be living this day month I cannot guess. I can only say one thing certainly, and that is that I shall not come back here. There never was a fellow so loose about the world as I am.”
It was terrible that a young man who had it in his power to do so much good or so much evil should have had nothing to bind him to the better course! There was the motto of his house, and the promises which he had made to his uncle persuading him to that which was respectable and as he thought dull; and opposed to those influences there was an unconquerable feeling on his own part that he was altogether unfitted for the kind of life that was expected of him. Joined to this there was the fact of that unfortunate connection in Ireland from which he knew that it would be base to fly, and which, as it seemed to him, made any attempt at respectability impossible to him.
Early on the following morning, as he was preparing to start, his aunt again sent for him. She came out to him in the sitting-room adjoining her bedroom and there embraced him. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her face wan with care. “Fred,” she said; “dear Fred.”
“Good-bye, aunt. The last word I have to say is that I implore you not to leave Scroope as long as you are comfortable here.”
“You will come back?”
“I cannot say anything certain about that.”
She still had hold of him with both hands and was looking into his face with loving, frightened, wistful eyes. “I know,” she said, “that you will be thinking of what passed between us yesterday.”
“Certainly I shall remember it.”
“I have been praying for you, Fred; and now I tell you to look to your Father which is in Heaven for guidance, and not to take it from any poor frail sinful human being. Ask Him to keep your feet steady in the path, and your heart pure, and your thoughts free from wickedness. Oh, Fred, keep your mind and body clear before Him, and if you will kneel to Him for protection, He will show you a way through all difficulties.” It was thus that she intended to tell him that his promise to her, made on the previous day, was to count for nought, and that he was to marry the girl if by no other way he could release himself from vice. But she could not bring herself to declare to him in plain terms that he had better marry Kate O’Hara, and bring his new Countess to Scroope in order that she might be fitly received by her predecessor. It might be that the Lord would still show him a way out of the two evils.
But his brother was more clear of purpose with him, as they walked together out to the yard in which the young Earl was to get into his carriage. “Upon the whole, Fred, if I were you I should marry that girl.” This he said quite abruptly. The young lord shook his head. “It may be that I do not know all the circumstances. If they be as I have heard them from you, I should marry her. Good-bye. Let me hear from you, when you have settled as to going anywhere.”
“I shall be sure to write,” said Fred as he took the reins and seated him in the phaeton.
His brother’s advice he understood plainly, and that of his aunt he thought that he understood. But he shook his head again as he told himself that he could not now be guided by either of them.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55