The suddenness of the demand made for the heir’s presence at Scroope was perhaps not owing to the Earl’s illness alone. The Earl, indeed, was ill — so ill that he thought himself that his end was very near; but his illness had been brought about chiefly by the misery to which he had been subjected by the last despatch from Castle Quin to the Countess. “I am most unwilling,” she said, “to make mischief or to give unnecessary pain to you or to Lord Scroope; but I think it my duty to let you know that the general opinion about here is that Mr. Neville shall make Miss O’Hara his wife — if he has not done so already. The most dangerous feature in the whole matter is that it is all managed by the priest of this parish, a most unscrupulous person, who would do anything — he is so daring. We have known him many many years, and we know to what lengths he would go. The laws have been so altered in favour of the Roman Catholics, and against the Protestants, that a priest can do almost just what he likes. I do not think that he would scruple for an instant to marry them if he thought it likely that his prey would escape from him. My own opinion is that there has been no marriage as yet, though I know that others think that there has been.” The expression of this opinion from “others” which had reached Lady Mary’s ears consisted of an assurance from her own Protestant lady’s maid that that wicked, guzzling old Father Marty would marry the young couple as soon as look at them, and very likely had done so already. “I cannot say,” continued Lady Mary, “that I actually know anything against the character of Miss O’Hara. Of the mother we have very strange stories here. They live in a little cottage with one maid-servant, almost upon the cliffs, and nobody knows anything about them except the priest. If he should be seduced into a marriage, nothing could be more unfortunate.” Lady Mary probably intended to insinuate that were young Neville prudently to get out of the adventure, simply leaving the girl behind him blasted, ruined, and destroyed, the matter no doubt would be bad; but in that case the great misfortune would have been avoided. She could not quite say this in plain words; but she felt, no doubt, that Lady Scroope would understand her. Then Lady Mary went on to assure her friend that though she and her father and sisters very greatly regretted that Mr. Neville had not again given them the pleasure of seeing him at Castle Quin, no feeling of injury on that score had induced her to write so strongly as she had done. She had been prompted to do so simply by her desire to prevent a most ruinous alliance.
Lady Scroope acknowledged entirely the truth of these last words. Such an alliance would be most ruinous! But what could she do? Were she to write to Fred and tell him all that she heard — throwing to the winds Lady Mary’s stupid injunctions respecting secrecy, as she would not have scrupled to do could she have thus obtained her object — might it not be quite possible that she would precipitate the calamity which she desired so eagerly to avoid? Neither had she nor had her husband any power over the young man, except such as arose from his own good feeling. The Earl could not disinherit him; — could not put a single acre beyond his reach. Let him marry whom he might he must be Earl Scroope of Scroope, and the woman so married must be the Countess of Scroope. There was already a Lady Neville about the world whose existence was a torture to them; and if this young man chose also to marry a creature utterly beneath him and to degrade the family, no effort on their part could prevent him. But if, as seemed probable, he were yet free, and if he could be got to come again among them, it might be that he still had left some feelings on which they might work. No doubt there was the Neville obstinacy about him; but he had seemed to both of them to acknowledge the sanctity of his family, and to appreciate in some degree the duty which he owed to it.
The emergency was so great that she feared to act alone. She told everything to her husband, shewing him Lady Mary’s letter, and the effect upon him was so great that it made him ill. “It will be better for me,” he said, “to turn my face to the wall and die before I know it.” He took to his bed, and they of his household did think that he would die. He hardly spoke except to his wife, and when alone with her did not cease to moan over the destruction which had come upon the house. “If it could only have been the other brother,” said Lady Scroope.
“There can be no change,” said the Earl. “He must do as it lists him with the fortune and the name and the honours of the family.”
Then on one morning there was a worse bulletin than heretofore given by the doctor, and Lady Scroope at once sent off the letter which was to recall the nephew to his uncle’s bedside. The letter, as we have seen, was successful, and Fred, who caused himself to be carried over from Dorchester to Scroope as fast as post-horses could be made to gallop, almost expected to be told on his arrival that his uncle had departed to his rest. In the hall he encountered Mrs. Bunce the housekeeper. “We think my lord is a little better,” said Mrs. Bunce almost in a whisper. “My lord took a little broth in the middle of the day, and we believe he has slept since.” Then he passed on and found his aunt in the small sitting-room. His uncle had rallied a little, she told him. She was very affectionate in her manner, and thanked him warmly for his alacrity in coming. When he was told that his uncle would postpone his visit till the next morning he almost began to think that he had been fussy in travelling so quickly.
That evening he dined alone with his aunt, and the conversation during dinner and as they sat for a few minutes after dinner had reference solely to his uncle’s health. But, though they were alone on this evening, he was surprised to find that Sophie Mellerby was again at Scroope. Lady Sophia and Mr. Mellerby were up in London, but Sophie was not to join them till May. As it happened, however, she was dining at the parsonage this evening. She must have been in the house when Neville arrived, but he had not seen her. “Is she going to live here?” he asked, almost irreverently, when he was first told that she was in the house. “I wish she were,” said Lady Scroope. “I am childless, and she is as dear to me as a daughter.” Then Fred apologized, and expressed himself as quite willing that Sophie Mellerby should live and die at Scroope.
The evening was dreadfully dull. It had seemed to him that the house was darker, and gloomier, and more comfortless than ever. He had hurried over to see a dying man, and now there was nothing for him to do but to kick his heels. But before he went to bed his ennui was dissipated by a full explanation of all his aunt’s terrors. She crept down to him at about nine, and having commenced her story by saying that she had a matter of most vital importance on which to speak to him, she told him in fact all that she had heard from Lady Mary.
“She is a mischief-making gossiping old maid,” said Neville angrily.
“Will you tell me that there is no truth in what she writes?” asked Lady Scroope. But this was a question which Fred Neville was not prepared to answer, and he sat silent. “Fred, tell me the truth. Are you married?”
“No; — I am not married.”
“I know that you will not condescend to an untruth.”
“If so, my word must be sufficient.”
But it was not sufficient. She longed to extract from him some repeated and prolonged assurance which might bring satisfaction to her own mind. “I am glad, at any rate, to hear that there is no truth in that suspicion.” To this he would not condescend to reply, but sat glowering at her as though in wrath that any question should be asked him about his private concerns. “You must feel, Fred, for your uncle in such a matter. You must know how important this is to him. You have heard what he has already suffered; and you must know too that he has endeavoured to be very good to you.”
“I do know that he has — been very good to me.”
“Perhaps you are angry with me for interfering.” He would not deny that he was angry. “I should not do so were it not that your uncle is ill and suffering.”
“You have asked me a question and I have answered it. I do not know what more you want of me.”
“Will you say that there is no truth in all this that Lady Mary says?”
“Lady Mary is an impertinent old maid.”
“If you were in your uncle’s place, and if you had an heir as to whose character in the world you were anxious, you would not think anyone impertinent who endeavoured for the sake of friendship to save your name and family from a disreputable connexion.”
“I have made no disreputable connexion. I will not allow the word disreputable to be used in regard to any of my friends.”
“You do know people of the name of O’Hara?”
“Of course I do.”
“And there is a — young lady?”
“I may know a dozen young ladies as to whom I shall not choose to consult Lady Mary Quin.”
“You understand what I mean, Fred. Of course I do not wish to ask you anything about your general acquaintances. No doubt you meet many girls whom you admire, and I should be very foolish were I to make inquiries of you or of anybody else concerning them. I am the last person to be so injudicious. If you will tell me that there is not and never shall be any question of marriage between you and Miss O’Hara, I will not say another word.”
“I will not pledge myself to anything for the future.”
“You told your uncle you would never make a marriage that should be disgraceful to the position which you will be called upon to fill.”
“Nor will I.”
“But would not this marriage be disgraceful, even were the young lady ever so estimable? How are the old families of the country to be kept up, and the old blood maintained if young men, such as you are, will not remember something of all that is due to the name which they bear.”
“I do not know that I have forgotten anything.”
Then she paused before she could summon courage to ask him another question. “You have made no promise of marriage to Miss O’Hara?” He sat dumb, but still looking at her with that angry frown. “Surely your uncle has a right to expect that you will answer that question.”
“I am quite sure that for his sake it will be much better that no such questions shall be asked me.”
In point of fact he had answered the question. When he would not deny that such promise had been made, there could no longer be any doubt of the truth of what Lady Mary had written. Of course the whole truth had now been elicited. He was not married but he was engaged; — engaged to a girl of whom he knew nothing, a Roman Catholic, Irish, fatherless, almost nameless — to one who had never been seen in good society, one of whom no description could be given, of whom no record could be made in the peerage that would not be altogether disgraceful, a girl of whom he was ashamed to speak before those to whom he owed duty and submission!
That there might be a way to escape the evil even yet Lady Scroope acknowledged to herself fully. Many men promise marriage but do not keep the promise they have made. This lady, who herself was really good — unselfish, affectionate, religious, actuated by a sense of duty in all that she did, whose life had been almost austerely moral, entertained an idea that young men, such as Fred Neville, very commonly made such promises with very little thought of keeping them. She did not expect young men to be governed by principles such as those to which young ladies are bound to submit themselves. She almost supposed that heaven had a different code of laws for men and women in her condition of life, and that salvation was offered on very different terms to the two sexes. The breach of any such promise as the heir of Scroope could have made to such a girl as this Miss O’Hara would be a perjury at which Jove might certainly be expected to laugh. But in her catalogue there were sins for which no young men could hope to be forgiven; and the sin of such a marriage as this would certainly be beyond pardon.
Of the injury which was to be done to Miss O’Hara, it may be said with certainty that she thought not at all. In her eyes it would be no injury, but simple justice — no more than a proper punishment for intrigue and wicked ambition. Without having seen the enemy to the family of Scroope, or even having heard a word to her disparagement, she could feel sure that the girl was bad — that these O’Haras were vulgar and false impostors, persons against whom she could put out all her strength without any prick of conscience. Women in such matters are always hard against women, and especially hard against those whom they believe to belong to a class below their own. Certainly no feeling of mercy would induce her to hold her hand in this task of saving her husband’s nephew from an ill-assorted marriage. Mercy to Miss O’Hara! Lady Scroope had the name of being a very charitable woman. She gave away money. She visited the poor. She had laboured hard to make the cottages on the estate clean and comfortable. She denied herself many things that she might give to others. But she would have no more mercy on such a one as Miss O’Hara, than a farmer’s labourer would have on a rat!
There was nothing more now to be said to the heir; — nothing more for the present that could serve the purpose which she had in hand. “Your uncle is very ill,” she murmured.
“I was so sorry to hear it.”
“We hope now that he may recover. For the last two days the doctor has told us that we may hope.”
“I am so glad to find that it is so.”
“I am sure you are. You will see him tomorrow after breakfast. He is most anxious to see you. I think sometimes you hardly reflect how much you are to him.”
“I don’t know why you should say so.”
“You had better not speak to him tomorrow about this affair — of the Irish young lady.”
“Certainly not — unless he speaks to me about it.”
“He is hardly strong enough yet. But no doubt he will do so before you leave us. I hope it may be long before you do that.”
“It can’t be very long, Aunt Mary.” To this she said nothing, but bade him good-night and he was left alone. It was now past ten, and he supposed that Miss Mellerby had come in and gone to her room. Why she should avoid him in this way he could not understand. But as for Miss Mellerby herself, she was so little to him that he cared not at all whether he did or did not see her. All his brightest thoughts were away in County Clare, on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. They might say what they liked to him, but he would never be untrue to the girl whom he had left there. His aunt had spoken of the “affair of — the Irish young lady;” and he had quite understood the sneer with which she had mentioned Kate’s nationality. Why should not an Irish girl be as good as any English girl? Of one thing he was quite sure — that there was much more of real life to be found on the cliffs of Moher than in the gloomy chambers of Scroope Manor.
He got up from his seat feeling absolutely at a loss how to employ himself. Of course he could go to bed, but how terribly dull must life be in a place in which he was obliged to go to bed at ten o’clock because there was nothing to do. And since he had been there his only occupation had been that of listening to his aunt’s sermons. He began to think that a man might pay too dearly even for being the heir to Scroope. After sitting awhile in the dark gloom created by a pair of candles, he got up and wandered into the large unused dining-room of the mansion. It was a chamber over forty feet long, with dark flock paper and dark curtains, with dark painted wainscoating below the paper, and huge dark mahogany furniture. On the walls hung the portraits of the Scroopes for many generations past, some in armour, some in their robes of state, ladies with stiff bodices and high head-dresses, not beauties by Lely or warriors and statesmen by Kneller, but wooden, stiff, ungainly, hideous figures, by artists whose works had, unfortunately, been more enduring than their names. He was pacing up and down the room with a candle in his hand, trying to realize to himself what life at Scroope might be with a wife of his aunt’s choosing, and his aunt to keep the house for them, when a door was opened at the end of the room, away from that by which he had entered, and with a soft noiseless step Miss Mellerby entered. She did not see him at first, as the light of her own candle was in her eyes, and she was startled when he spoke to her. His first idea was one of surprise that she should be wandering about the house alone at night. “Oh, Mr. Neville,” she said, “you quite took me by surprise. How do you do? I did not expect to meet you here.”
“Nor I you!”
“Since Lord Scroope has been so ill, Lady Scroope has been sleeping in the little room next to his, downstairs, and I have just come from her.”
“What do you think of my uncle’s state?”
“He is better; but he is very weak.”
“You see him?”
“Oh yes, daily. He is so anxious to see you, Mr. Neville, and so much obliged to you for coming. I was sure that you would come.”
“Of course I came.”
“He wanted to see you this afternoon; but the doctor had expressly ordered that he should be kept quiet. Good-night. I am so very glad that you are here. I am sure that you will be good to him.”
Why should she be glad, and why should she be sure that he would be good to his uncle? Could it be that she also had been told the story of Kate O’Hara? Then, as no other occupation was possible to him, he took himself to bed.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55