A Country Gentleman
“ OF course it was perfectly right. No one could say that I was in any way infatuated about Lady Markland, never from the first; but I quite approve of that. Why should she call herself Mrs. Theodore Warrender, when she has the title of a viscountess ? Or if it had been a trumpery little baronetcy,” said Minnie, strong in her new honors, “ that would have been quite a different matter; but why should one give up one’s precedency, and all that? I should not at all like to have Mrs. Wilberforce, for instance, or any other person of her class, walk out of a room before me — now.”
“Nor me, I suppose,” Mrs. Warrender said with a smile.
“ Oh, you ! that is different of course,” said the Hon. Mrs. Eustace Thynne ; but though she was good enough to say this, it was very evident that even for her mother Minnie had no idea of waiving her rights. “ When a thing is understood it is so much easier,” she added, “ every one must see that; besides, it was not her fault that her first husband died.”
“ Surely, it was her fault that she married again,” said Chatty.
“ Oh, what do you know about it ? An unmarried girl can’t really have any experience on that subject. Well, to be sure it was her own doing to marry again, but a lady of any rank never gives up her title on marrying a commoner. A baronet’s wife as I say,—but then a baronet is only a commoner himself.”
“ You seem to have thoroughly studied the subject, Minnie.”
“ Yes, I have studied it; marrying into a noble family naturally changes one’s ideas. And the Thynnes are very particular. You should have seen my mother-in-law arranging the dinner-party she asked to meet us. I went first, of course, as the bride, but there was Lady Highcourt and Lady Grandmaison, both countesses, and the creation within twenty-five years of each other. Eustace said nobody but his mother could have recollected, without looking it up, that the Grandmaisons date from 1425 and the Highcourts only from 1450 — not the very oldest nobility either of them,” said Minnie, with a grand air. “ The Thynne peerage dates from 1395.”
“ But then,” said Mrs. Warrender, much amused, shooting an arrow at a venture, “their descent counts in the female line.”
Upon which a deep blush, a wave of trouble and shame, passed over Minnie’s countenance. “ Only in one case,” she cried, “only once; and that you will allow is not much in five hundred years.”
The bridal pair had arrived on their visit only the day before : they had taken a long holiday, and had been visiting many friends. It was now about two months since their marriage, and the gowns in Minnie’s trousseau began to lose their obtrusive newness, nor can it be said that her sentiments were new. They were only modified a little by her present milieu. “ I suppose,” she said, after an interval, “ that Lady Markland will come to see me as soon as she knows I am here. Shall they have any one there for the shooting, this year ? Eustace quite, looks forward to a day now and then. There is the Warren at least, which poor dear papa never preserved, but which I hope Theo — Eustace says that Theo will really be failing in his duty if he does not preserve.”
“ I know nothing about their plans or their visitors. Theo is very unlikely to think of a party of sportsmen, who were never much in his way.”
Chatty in the mean time had gone out of the room about her flowers, which were always her morning’s occupation. When she had closed the door, Minnie, who had been waiting eagerly, leaned forward to her mother. “ As for being in his way, Theo has no right to be selfish, mamma. He ought to think of Chatty. She ought to think of Chatty. I shall not have nearly so good an opinion of her, if she does not take a little trouble and do something for Chatty now she is going out again and has it in her power.”
“ For Chatty — but Chatty does not shoot! ”
“ You never will understand, mamma,” said Mrs. Eustace Thynne with gentle exasperation. “ Chatty ought to be thought of now. I am sure I never was; if it had not been for Eustace coming to Pierrepoint, I should have been Miss Warrender all my life, and so will Chatty be Miss Warrender all her life, if no one comes to the rescue. Of course it should lie with me in the first place, but except neighboring clergymen, we are likely to see so few people just at present. To be sure I have married a clergyman myself, but Eustace was quite an exceptional case, and clergymen as a rule can scarcely be called eligible, so there is nothing for it but that Lady Markland should interfere.”
“ For Chatty ? I beg your pardon, my dear. You are much wiser than I am ; but. in the present case I think Chatty’s mother is sufficient for all needs.”
“ That was always your way, mamma, to take one up at a word without thinking. Don’t you observe how awfully quiet Chatty is ? Eustace noticed it the very first day. He is very quick to see a thing, and he has a lot of sisters of his own. He said to me, Either Chatty has had a disappointment or she is just bored to death staying at home. I think very likely it is my marriage that has done it, for of course there could have been no disappointment,” Minnie added calmly. “Seeing both me and Theo happy, she naturally asks herself, Am I always to sit here like an old person, with mamma?”
Mrs. Warrender felt the prick, but only smiled. “ I don’t think she asks herself that question, but in any case I am afraid she must just be left, however dull it may be, with mamma.”
“ Oh, I hope you will be reasonable,” said Minnie, “ I hope you will not stand in poor Chatty’s way. It is time she saw somebody, and that people saw her. She is twenty-four. She has not much time to lose, Eustace says.”
“My dear Minnie, I don’t object to what you say about your sister, that is, I allow you have a right to speak, but Eustace is quite a different matter. We will leave him out of the question. What he may think or say about Chatty is of no consequence to me; in short, I think it is very had taste, if you will allow me to say so.”
“ Mamma ! ” Minnie rose up to much more than her full height, which was by no means great. “ Is it possible that you would teach your own daughter to disregard what her husband says?”
The righteous indignation, the lofty tone, the moral superiority of Minnie’s attitude gave her mother a kind of painful amusement. She said nothing, but went to the writing-table at the other side of the room. Everything was very peaceful, and there seemed no possibility of any real disturbance in the calm well-being of the family, so far as any ordinary eye could see : Theo gone with his bride into a sphere a little above that which belonged to him by nature; Minnie with her husband in all the proud consciousness of virtuous bliss; Chatty quiet and gentle among her flowers. A soft atmosphere of sunshine and prosperity, shaded by blinds at the windows, by little diversities and contrarieties in the spirit from being excessive and dazzling, was all about. In the midst of the calm Minnie’s little theories of the new-made wife made a diverting incident in the foreground. Mrs. Warrender looked at her across the writingtable, with a smile in her eyes.
“ I know,” cried Minnie, “ that you had many ways of thinking I did not go in with — but to throw any doubt upon a woman’s duty to her husband! Oh, mamma, that is what I never expected. Eustace is of course the first in all the world to me; what he says is always of consequence. He is not one to say a word that he has not weighed, and if he takes an interest in his sister-in-law, it is because he thinks it his duty to me.”
“ That is all very well, my dear,” said Mrs. Warrender, with some impatience, “ and no doubt it is a great matter for Chatty to have a sister so correct as yourself, and a brother-in-law to take an interest in her. But as long as I live, I am the first authority about Chatty, and Eustace is not the first authority in the world to me. Chatty ” —
“ Were you calling me, mamma ? ”
Chatty was coming in with a tall vase of flowers held in both hands. The great campanulas, with their lavish, magnificent bells, flung up a flowery hedge between her face and the eyes of the others. It was not that she had anything to conceal, but undeniably Chatty felt herself on a lower level of being, subdued by Minnie’s presence. There is often in young married persons a pride in their new happiness, an ostentation of superiority in their twofold existence, which is apt to produce this effect upon the spectators. Minnie and her husband stood between the two ladies, neither of whom possessed husbands, as the possessors of conscious greatness stand between those who have fallen and those who have never attained. And Chatty, who had no confidence to give, whose little story was all locked in her own bosom, had been fretted by her sister’s questions, and by Mr. Eustace Thynne’s repeated references to the fact that she “ looked pale.”
“ No, my dear. We were talking of you, that was all. Minnie is anxious that you should see — a little more of the world.”
“ Mamma, be correct at least. I said that it would be a duty for myself if I had any opportunity, and for Frances.”
“Do you mean Lady Markland?”
“ Well, she is Frances, I hope, to her husband’s sisters. I said it was Frances’s duty, now that she is going into society, to take you about and introduce you to people. A little while ago,” said Minnie with dignity, “ mamma was all for gadding about; and now she finds fault when I say the simplest things, all because I said that Eustace — of course Eustace takes an interest in Chatty, next to his own sisters he naturally takes an interest in you.”
Chatty placed her tall vase in the corner which she had chosen for it, in silence. She expressed no thanks for the interest Eustace took in her. Neither did Mrs. Warrender say anything further. The chill of this ingratitude had upon Minnie a contrary effect to that which might have been anticipated. She grew very hot and red.
“ I don’t know what you all mean,” she cried ; “ it is what we have never met with yet, in all the places we have been. Everybody has been grateful to Eustace for his good advice. They have all liked to know what he thought. ‘ Try and find out what Eustace thinks ’ is what has been said ; and now my own mother and sister”— Here words failed and she wiped away a few angry tears.
At this, Chatty’s tender heart was touched. She went to her sister and gave her a gentle kiss. “Dear Minnie, I am sure you are very kind, and if there was anything to take an interest about — But mamma and I have just settled down. We want nothing, we are quite happy.” Chatty looked across the room at her mother, which was natural enough, but then Mrs. Warrender observed that the girl’s eyes went further, that they went beyond anything that was visible within those white paneled walls. “ Oh, quite happy,” Chatty repeated very softly, with that look into the distance, which only her mother saw.
“That maybe for the present; but you don’t suppose you will always be quite satisfied and happy with mamma. That is exactly what Eustace says. I never knew anybody take so little interest in her girls as mamma does. You will be thrown among the little people here — a curate in Highcombe, or somebody’s son who lives in the town. Mamma, you may say what you please, but to have a little nobody out of a country town for a brother-in-law, a person probably with no connections, no standing, no ” — Minnie paused, out of mere incapacity to build up the climax higher.
It is not solely characteristic of women that a small domestic controversy should excite them beyond every other : but perhaps only a woman could have felt the high swelling in her breast of that desire to cast down and utterly confound Minnie and all her pretensions by the mention of a name, and the contrariety of not being able to do it, and the secret exultation in the thought of one day cutting her down, down to the ground with the announcement. While she was musing her heart turned to Cavendish — a relation within well authenticated lines of the duke, very different from the small nobility of the Thynnes, who on their side were not at all related to the greater family of the name. Mrs. Warrender’s heart rose with this thought so that it was almost impossible for her to keep silence, to look at Minnie and not overwhelm her. But she did refrain, and the consciousness that she had this unanswerable retort behind kept her, as nothing else could, from losing her temper. She smiled with a sense of the humor of the situation.
“ It will be very sad, my dear, if Chatty provides Eustace with an unsuitable brother-in-law ; but we must not look so far ahead. There is no aspirant for the moment who can give your husband any uneasiness. Perhaps he would like a list of the ineligible young men in the neighborhood? There are not very many, from all I can hear.”
“ Oh. mamma, I never knew any one so unsympathetic as you are,” said Minnie, with an angry flush of color. Chatty had not stayed to defend herself. She had hurried away, out of reach of the warfare. No desire to crush her sister with a name was in Chatty’s mind. It had seemed to her profane to speak of such a possibility at all. She realized so fully that everything was over, that all idea of change in her life was at an end forever, that she heard with a little shiver, but with no warm personal feeling, the end of this discussion. She shrank, indeed, from the idea of being talked over—but then, she reflected, Minnie would be sure to do that, Minnie could not be expected to understand. While Mrs. Warrender began to write her letters, Chatty went softly out of the room, in her many comings and goings about the flowers. She had them on a table in the hall, with a great jug of fresh water and a basket to put all the litter, the clippings of stalks and unnecessary leafage in, and all her pots and vases ready. She was very tidy in all her ways. It was not a very important piece of business, and yet all the sweet, orderly spirit of domestic life was in Chatty’s movements. There are many people who would have been far more pleased and touched to see her at this simple work than had she been reading Greek, notwithstanding that the Greek, too, is excellent ; but it was not Chatty’s way.
Mrs. Warrender sat at her writing-table with a little thrill of excitement and opposition in her. She saw the angry flush on Minnie’s face, and watched without seeming to watch her as she rose suddenly and left the room, almost throwing down the little spindle-legged table beside her. Just outside the door Mrs. Warrender heard Chatty’s calm voice say to her sister, " Will you have these for your room, Minnie?” evidently offering her some of her flowers. (It was a pretty blue and white china pot, with a sweetsmelling nosegay of mignonetteand a few of the late China roses, sweet enough to scent the whole place.) “ Oh, thanks, I don’t like flowers in my room. Eustace thinks they are not healthy,” said Minnie, in tones still full of displeasure. Mrs. Warrender was not a wise woman. She was pleased that she and the child who was left to her were having the better of the little fray. “ Eustace thinks ” — Minnie might quote him as much as she pleased, but she would never get her mother to quail before these words. A man may be Honorable and Reverend both, and yet not be strong enough to tyrannize over his mother-in-law and lay down the law in her house. This is a condition of affairs quite different from the fashionable view, but then, Mrs. Warrender was in her own house, and quite independent of her son-in-law. She had a malicious pleasure in the thought of his discomfiture. Cavendish ! She imagined to herself how they would open their eyes, and tasted in advance the pleasure of the letter which she should write to Theo, disclosing all that could happen. It seemed to her that she knew very well what would happen. The young man was honorable and honest, and Chatty was most fit and suitable, a bride whom no parents could object to. As for mysterious restraining influences, Mrs. Warrender believed in no such things. She had not lived in a world where they exist, and she felt as sure of Dick Cavendish as of herself — that is to say, almost as sure.
All this might have been very well and done no harm, but in the energy of this angry, excited, exasperated, exhilarated mood, it occurred to Mrs. Warrender to take such a step as she had never done before nor thought herself capable of doing. To make overtures of any sort to a man who had showed a disposition to be her daughter’s lover, yet had not said anything or committed himself in any way, would, twenty-four hours before, have seemed to her impossible. It would have seemed to her inconsistent with Chatty’s dignity and her own. But opposition and a desire to have the better of one’s domestic and intimate opponents are very strong, and tempt people to the most equivocal proceedings. Mrs. Warrender did not wait to think, but took out a fresh sheet of paper and dipped her pen in the ink with that impulsiveness which was characteristic of her. A note or two had already passed between Dick Cavendish and herself, so that it was not so extraordinary a proceeding as it appeared. This was what she wrote : —
DEAR MR. CAVENDISH, — Is it worth while coming to us only from Saturday to Monday, as your modesty suggests? I fear Chatty and I, in our quietness, would scarcely repay the long journey. But Minnie is with us (with her husband), and she was always a much more practical person than her mother. She has just been suggesting to me that Theo has now the command of covers more interesting from the sportsman point of view than our old thicket at the Warren. If, therefore, you really feel inclined to come down for a few days, there will, it appears, be a real inducement— something more in a young man’s way than the tea-parties at Higheombe. So bring your gun, and let it be from Monday to Saturday instead of the other way.
We think of our brief campaign in town with great pleasure, and a strong sense of obligation to you who did so much for the pleasure of it. Most truly yours, M. WARRENDER.
She sent this epistle off with great satisfaction, yet a little sense of guilt, that same evening, taking particular care to give it to the parlor maid with her own hand, lest Chatty should see the address. It was already September, and the time of the partridges had begun.
When the ladies left London, Dick Cavendish had felt himself something like a wreck upon the shore. The season was very near its end, and invitations no longer came in dozens. To be sure, there were a great many other wrecks whose society made life tolerable; but he felt himself out of heart, out of temper, seized by that sudden disgust with life in general which is often the result of the departure of one person who has given it a special interest. It was a strong effect to be produced by Chatty’s unpretending personality, but it affected him more than if she had been in herself a more striking personage. For it was not so much that her absence made a blank in any of the gay scenes that still remained, but that she suggested another kind of scene altogether. He felt that to say it was a bore to go out was no longer that easy fiction which it usually is. It was a bore to go out into those aimless assemblies where not to go was a social mistake, yet to go was weariness of the flesh and spirit. In the midst of them his thoughts would turn to the little group in Half Moon Street which had made the commonplace drawingroom of the lodging-house into a home. Chatty over her muslin work — he laughed to himself when he thought of it. It was not lovely; there was no poetry about it ; the little scissors and sharp pointed blade that made the little holes ; the patient labor that sewed them round. So far as he was aware there was not much use in the work, and no prettiness at all ; a lover might linger over an embroidery frame, and rave of seeing the flowers grow under her hand ; but the little checkered pattern of holes—there was nothing at all delightful in that. Yet he thought of it, which was amazing, and laughed at himself, then thought of it again. He was not what could be called of the domestic order of man. He had “ knocked about,” he had seen all sorts of things and people, and to think that his heart should be caught by Chatty and her muslin work! He was himself astonished and amused, but so it was. He could not take kindly to anything now that she was gone, and even in the rapidity of the last expiring efforts of the season, he felt himself yawn and think of quite another scene : of a little house to go home to, and say what a bore it was, while Chatty took out her muslin work. He was so far gone that he scrawled patterns for that muslin work over his blotting-books, — arrangements of little holes in squares, in rounds, in diagonal formations, in the shape of primitive leaf and berry, at which he would laugh all by himself and blush, and fling them into the fire ; which did not, however, by any means withdraw the significance from these simple attempts at ornamental art.
This would have been simple indeed had it been everything. All the Cavendishes, small and great, even the highest divinities of the name, would have stooped from their high estate to express their pleasure that Dick had found the “nice girl” who was to settle him and make him everything a Cavendish should be. Ah, had that been but all ! Dick was no coxcomb ; but he had read so much in Chatty’s modest eyes as warranted him in believing that he would not woo in vain. Though he could still laugh, being of that nature of man, his heart, in fact, was overwhelmed with a weight of trouble such as might have made the strongest cry out. But crying out was not in his constitution. He went about his occupations, his work, which, now that Chatty was gone, had few interruptions, his pleasures chewing the cud of the bitterest fancy and the most painful thought. He walked about the streets, turning it over and over in his mind. He thought of it even when he made the patterns of the holes and laughed at them, tossing them into the fire. Underneath all his lightest as well as his most serious occupations ran this dark and stern current. The arrival of Mrs. Warrender’s note made it still darker and more constant, carrying him away upon its tide. It was not the first letter he had received from her. He had insisted upon hearing whether their journey home had been a pleasant one, how they had liked their new home, and many other trivial things, and he had asked for that invitation from Saturday to Monday, which now was reversed and turned into almost a week, from Monday to Saturday. He did not know whether he meant to go ; but anyhow the invitation, the power of going if he pleased, was sweet to him. He kept it by him as an anticipation, a sweetmeat which took the bitter taste of life out of his mouth.
But this letter was more formal, more business-like, than anything that had gone before. To go to see the woman whom you think of most in the world, that is a vague thing which other engagements may push aside ; but an invitation to go for the partridges is business and has to be answered. Dick got it at his club, where he was lingering though it was September, making little runs into the country, but avoiding his home, where he knew many questions would be put to him about what he was going to do. It is a sad thing when there is nobody who cares what you are going to do — but this is not the view of the matter most apparent to young men. Dick very much disliked the question. It was not one to which he could give any reply. He was going to do — nothing, unless life and feeling should be too much for him and he should be driven into doing what would be a villainy— yes a villainy, though probably no harm would ever come of it; most probably, almost certainly, no harm would come of it—and yet it would be a villainy. These were the thoughts that were with him wherever he went or came. And after he got Mrs. Warrender’s letter they grew harder and harder, more and more urgent. It was this which took him one day to the rooms of an old gentleman who had not Dick’s reasons for staying in town, but others which were perhaps as weighty, which were that he was fond of his corner in the club, and not of much else. His corner in the club, his walk along the streets, his cosy rooms, and the few old fogies, like himself, sharp as so many needles, giving their old opinions upon the events of the time with a humor sharpened by many an experience of the past; who counted every day only half a day when it was spent out of town. This old gentleman was a lawyer of very high repute, though he had retired from all active practice. He was a man who was supposed to know every case that had ever been on the registers of justice. He had refused the Bench, and he might even have been, if he would, Attorney-General, but to all these responsibilities he preferred freedom and his corner at the club. To him Dick went, with a countenance fresh and fair, which contrasted with the parchment of the old lawyer’s face, but a heart like a piece of lead lying in his breast, weighing down every impulse, which also contrasted strongly, though no one could see it, with the tough piece of mechanism, screwed up to a very level pitch and now seldom out of order, which fulfilled the same organic functions under the old gentleman’s coat.
“ What, Dick ! what ill wind — it must be an ill wind — sends you here in September? You ought to be among the partridges, my boy.”
“ It is an ill wind,” said Dick.
“No need to tell me that; but judging by your complexion, nothing of a tremendous character. Money ? or love ? ”
“ Well, sir, it is not really my own business at all. As for my complexion, that does n’t matter. I don’t show outside.”
“ Some men don’t,” said the old lawyer laconically ; “ but if the trouble is not your own, that is easy to understand.”
At this Dick gave a short laugh. He wanted it to be believed that the trouble was not his own, and yet he did not quite care to he supposed indifferent to it.
“ It’s an old story,” he said. " It is something that happened to — Tom Wyld, an old crony of mine out on the other side.”
“ I suppose you mean in America. No more slang than you can help, please. It ’s admirably expressive sometimes, I allow: but not being used to it in my youth I have some difficulty in following. Well, about Tom Wyld — one of the old judge’s sons or grandsons, I suppose.”
Dick’s complexion heightened a little. “ Oh, not any one you ever heard of — a fellow I picked up—out there.”
“ Oh, a fellow you picked up out there.”
“It was in one of the new States far West; not the sort of place for nicety of any sort, sir, to tell the truth. Judge Lynch and not much else, in the way of law.”
“Works very well I don’t doubt — simplifies business immensely,” said the old lawyer, nodding his head.
“Makes business, too—lots of it. Well, sir, my friend met with a girl there.” Dick seemed to have great difficulty in getting this out. He stammered and his healthy complexion grew now pale, now red.
“ Most likely — they generally do, both in novels and out of them,” the old gentleman said. “ You had better tell me your story straight off. I shall interrupt you no more.”
“ Well, sir, the girl was very young, very pretty, I might say beautiful — not like any one he had ever met before. Without training, but he thought at her pliable age it was so easy to remedy that.” (The old lawyer shook his head with a groan, but said nothing.) “ She had never seen anything but the rough people about, and knew only their manners and ways. Everything went on well enough for a little while after they were married.”
“ Good Lord, they were married! ”
“What else?” said Dick, turning scarlet. “ He respected her as every man must respect the woman he — the woman he — thinks he loves.”
“ I am glad you have the sense to see that he only thought he— Well, and what was the end of it, Mr. Dick?”
“ The end of it was — what you have foreseen, sir,” said Dick, bowing his head. “ The fellow is my friend, that’s to say Tom did all he could. I don’t think he was without patience with her. Afterward, when she left him for good, or rather for bad — bad as could be, he did everything he could to help her. He offered, not to take her back, that was not possible, but to provide for her nud — and all that. She had all the savage virtues as well as faults, and was honorable in her way. She would take nothing from him, and even made out what she called a paper, poor thing, to set him free. She would not take her freedom herself, and leave him bound, she said. And then she disappeared.”
“ Leaving him the paper ? ”
“ Yes,” assented Dick, with a faint smile, “ leaving him the paper. He found it on his table. That was six years ago. He has never seen her since. He came home soon, feeling—I can’t tell you how he felt.”
“ As if life were not much worth living, according to the slang of the day.”
“ Well, sir,” said Dick, “ he’s a droll sort of a fellow. He — seemed to get over it somehow. It took a vast deal out of him, but yet be got over it in a kind of a way. He came back among his own people; and what have they been doing ever since he came back but implore him to marry! It would settle him, they all said, if he could get some nice girl, and they have done nothing but throw nice girls in his way — some of the nicest girls in England, I believe, — one ” —
“Good Lord,” said the old man. “ you don ‘t mean to say this unlucky young fellow has fallen in love again ?”
Dick shook his head with a rueful air, in which it was impossible not to see a touch of the comic, notwithstanding his despair. “ This is precisely what he wants your opinion about, that is, some one’s opinion — for of course he has not the honor of knowing you.”
“ Has n ‘t he ? Ah ! I began to think I remembered something about your Tom — or was it Dick — Wyld. Tom Wyld — I think I have heard the name.”
“ If you should meet him in society,” cried Dick, growing very red, “ don’t for heaven’s sake make any allusion to this. I ought not to have mentioned his name.”
“ Well, get on with the story,” said the old man. “ He thinks, perhaps, he is free to make love to the other girl and marry — because of that precious paper.”
“ He is not such a fool as that; I, even,”said Dick faltering, “ know law enough to warn him that would be folly. But you know, sir, in some of the wild States, like the one be lived in, divorce is the easiest thing in the world.”
“ Well, and he thinks he can get a divorce. He had better do it, then, without more ado. I suppose the evidence — is sufficient ? ”
Dick gave vent to a hoarse, nervous laugh. “ Sufficient — for twenty divorces, he said. Then he added quickly : " But that’s not the question.”
“ Why, what is the question then ? He should be very thankful to be able to manage it so easily, instead of being dragged through the mud for everybody to gloat over in London. What does the fellow want ? ” said the old man peevishly. “ Many a man would be glad to find so easy a way.”
Dick’s embarrassment was great, he changed color, he could not keep still, his voice grew husky and broken. “ I don’t say that I agree with him, but this is what he thinks. It’s easy enough, but he would have to summon her by the newspapers to answer for herself, which she would n’t do. And who can tell what hands that newspaper might fall into. He says that nobody knows anything about it here; no one has the slightest suspicion that he ever was married or had any entanglement. And she, poor soul, to do her justice, would never put forth a claim. She never would molest him, of that he is sure. He thinks ” —
“ You take a great deal of interest in your friend’s cause. Dick ! ”
For Dick had paused with parted lips, unable to say any more.
“ I do. It’s a case that has been very interesting to me. He asks why he should take any notice of it at all — a thing done when he was scarcely of age, thousands of miles away, a mistake — an utter failure — a — ah ” — Dick had been speaking very rapidly against time to get out what he had to say before he was interrupted ; “ yon don’t see it in that point of view.”
“ Do you mean to say, sir,” said the old gentleman, “that you contemplate betraying a woman by a fictitious marriage, making her children illegitimate and herself a — I can’t suppose that you have any real intention of that.”
Dick, who had got up in his excitement, here sat down suddenly, as if his strength had failed him, with an exclamation of horror and alarm.
“You don’t see that? Why what else would it be ? so long as there is a Mrs.— what do you call her? living — living and undivorced the union of that woman’s husband with another woman could be nothing but a fictitious marriage. There is a still uglier word by which it could be called.”
“ You forget,” said Dick, “ that Mrs. Wyld neither bears that name nor lays any claim to it. Site put it aside long ago, when she went on her own course. It was nothing to her. She is not of the kind that try to keep up appearances or — anything of that sort. I’ll do her that justice, she never meant to give the — the — unfortunate, fellow any trouble. She did n’t even want to stand in his way, and told him he should neither hear of her nor see her again. She is honest, though she is — She has been to him as if she did not exist for years.”
“ Why does that matter,” cried the old gentleman, “ so long as she does exist? There are women who are mad, and never can he otherwise — but that does not give their husbands a right to marry again. Divorce her, since you are sure you can do so, and be thankful you have that remedy. I suppose this woman is — not a lady.”
“ No.”Dick spoke in a very low voice. He was quite cowed and subdued, glancing at his old friend with furtive looks of trouble. Though he spoke as if the case were not his own, yet he did not attempt to correct the elder man who at once assumed it to be so. He was so blanched and tremulous, nothing but the red of his lips showing out of his colorless face, and all the lines drawn with inward suffering, that he too might have been an old man. He added in the same low tones : “ A man who is divorced would be a sort of monster to them. They would never permit — she would never listen.”
“ You mean—the other? well, that is possible. There is a prejudice, and a just prejudice. So you think on the whole that to do a young lady — for I suppose the second is in your own class — a real, an unspeakable injury would be better than to shock her prejudices? If that is how you of the new generation confuse what’s right and wrong” —
Dick made no reply. He was not capable of self-defense, or even of understanding the indignation directed against him. He continued as if only half conscious. “It need never be known. There is not a creature who knows of it. She sent me her marriage lines and has nothing to prove that there ever was anything — and she would not want to prove anything. She is as if she were dead.”
“ Come, sir,” said the lawyer, “rouse yourself, Dick ; she is not dead, and for every honorable man that must be enough. Don’t bewilder yourself with sophistries. Why should you want to marry —again ? You have had enough of it, I should think ; or else divorce her, since you can. You may be able to do that secretly as well as the marriage. Why not ? ”
Dick said nothing, but shook his head. He was so completely cast down that he had not a word to say for himself. How he could have supposed that a dispassionate man could have taken his side and seen with his eyes in such a matter, it is hard to say. He had thought of it so much that all the lines had got blurred to him, and right and wrong had come to seem relative terms. “What harm would it do?” he said to himself, scarcely aware he was speaking aloud. “ No one would be wronged, and they would never know. How could they know? It would be impossible. Whereas on the other side, a great scandal and raking up of everything, and betrayal — to every one.” He shuddered as he spoke.
“ Whereas on the other side,” said the old lawyer, “ there would be a betrayal— very much more serious. Suppose you were to die, and that then it were to be found out (in the long run everything is found out) that your wife was not your wife, and her children — Come, Dick, you never can have contemplated a blackguard act like that to an unsuspecting girl ! ”
“Sir!” cried Dick, starting to his feet. But he could not maintain that resentful attitude. He sank down in the chair again, and said with a groan, “ What am I to do ? ”
“There is only one thing for you to do : but it is very clear. Either explain the real circumstances to the young lady or her friends — or without any explanation give up seeing her. In any case it is evident that the connection must be cut at once. Of course if she knows the true state of the case, and that you are a married man, she will do that. And if you shrink from explanations, you must do it without an hour’s delay.”
Dick made no reply. He sat for a time with his head in his hands : and then rose with a dazed look, as if he scarcely knew what he was about. “Good-by,” he said, “and thank you. I ’ll— tell Tom — what you said.”
“Do,” said the old lawyer, getting up. He took Dick’s hand and wrung it in his own with a pressure that, though the thin old fingers had but little force, was painful in its energy. “ Yon don’t ask my silence, but I ’ll promise it to you — except in one contingency,” and here he wrung Dick’s hand again. “ Should I hear of any marriage — after what you have said, I shall certainly think it my duty to interfere.”
When Dick came out the day seemed to have grown dark to him, the sky was all covered with threads of black, he could scarcely see his way.
Nevertheless, Dick went down to Highcombe on the following Saturday. There are two ways in which advice can work : one by which the man who receives it is led to abandon his own evil way and adopt the good way set before him, which of course is the object of all good advice, though one but rarely attained to; the other is to make him far more hotly and determinedly bent upon his own way, with a sort of personal opposition to the adviser, and an angry sense that he has not properly understood the subject, or entered into those subtle reasons below the surface which make a certain course of action, not generally desirable, perhaps, the only one that can be appropriately adopted in this particular case. This was the effect produced upon Dick. He spent the intervening time in turning it over and over in his mind, as he had already done so often, until all the outlines were blurred. For a long time he had been able to put that early, fatal, mad marriage out of his mind altogether, finding himself actually able to forget it; so that if any one had suddenly accused him of being, as his old friend said, a married man, he would have, at the first shock, indignantly denied the imputation. It had lasted so short a time, it had ended in such miserable disaster ! Scarcely a week had passed before he had discovered the horror and folly of what he had done. He had not, like many men, laid the blame upon the unhappy creature who had led him into these toils. She was no unhappy creature, but one of those butterfly-women without any soul, to whom there are no distinctions of right and wrong. He discovered afterwards that if he had not himself been honorable, it was not she who would have insisted upon the bond of marriage, and whether she had ever intended to be bound by it he could not tell. Her easy, artless independence of all moral laws had been a revelation to the young man, such as arrested his very life and filled him with almost awe in the midst of his misery, disgust, and horror. Without any soul, or heart, or shame, or sense that better was required from her — this was what she was. All the evil elements of corrupt civilization and savage freedom seemed to have got mixed in her blood : half of the worst of the old world, half of the rudest and wildest of the new. She had been a captivating wonder to the young Englishman, accustomed to all the domestic bonds and decorums, when he saw her first, a fresh wild flower, as he thought, with the purity as well as the savagery of primitive nature. But afterwards it seemed an uncertain matter whether she had ever known what purity was, or whether those links which bound him to her had not bound other men even before his day. She had flung in his face those marriage lines which women of the lower classes generally hold in such reverence, and had laughed and assured him that they were so much waste paper, and that as she did not mean to be bound by them, neither need he; and then she had disappeared, and for years he had not known that she existed. The awful discovery that she was in the neighborhood of his friends, and that he himself might by chance meet her any moment on the common road, had turned him to stone. Lizzie Hampson had been her maid during the brief period in which she was his wife, and had loved and clung to her, the object of a fascination not uncommon between women, after every other trace of that episode in her life had passed away. Dick Cavendish had not for years thought of that miserable chapter in his life until lie had by chance recognized Lizzie at Underwood. He had even lent himself with no serious purpose, yet with a light heart, to that scheme of his family and friends about the “nice girl” who was to convert him into a steady member of society. No doubt the moment it had become serious he must have felt himself brought face to face with the burdens and hindrances of his previous career, even had he not seen Lizzie Hampson. This reminder of what had been, however, came at the exact crisis when Chatty Warrender had (as his errant imagination always pictured her) pushed open lightly the door of his heart and walked in with the bowl of roses in her hands, and hence all the tumults and storms which had suddenly seized again upon a life almost forgetful of any cause for these tempests. He knew what he ought to have done then. He ought to have flown from Chatty and every other “ nice girl,” as indeed he had done at once, to do him justice. But who could have foreseen that meeting in London, who provided against the necessity of “paying a little attention,” to the mother and sister of his friend ? And now here was this invitation, which meant — what did it mean ?
It meant at least that Mrs. Warrender did not object to the continuance of that intercourse, that perhaps Chatty herself — perhaps Chatty— His pulses had been beating hotly enough before : but when this thought came, the mingling of a delicious sort of intoxicating pleasure with the misery was more than he could bear. When he got home to his rooms he opened the dispatch box which had accompanied him through all his wanderings, and which, he suddenly recollected, should “ anything happen to him,” held all the indications of a secret in his life without any explanation of it, and went over its contents. He was interrupted in the midst of this by a chance and inopportune visitor, no less than a younger brother, who pulled the papers about, and cried, “ Hallo, what’s this?” with the unjustifiable freedom of a near relation, bringing Dick’s heart into his mouth, and furnishing him with a dreadful example of what might be, were a touch of more authority laid upon those scattered débris of his life. A young brother could be sent away, or otherwise disposed of, but there might come those who could not be sent away. When he was alone again, he found the few papers connected with his secret amid many others of no consequence, and it gave Dick a curious thrill, half of amusement, to think of the spring of astonished interest with which some problematical person who might examine these papers after his death would come upon this little trace of something so different from the tame relics of every day. There was the letter which she had left behind her setting him free, as the lawless creature intended; there was the marriage certificate, and some little jumble of mementos which somehow, without any will of his, had got associated with the more important papers. Dick looked over the bundle as if through the eyes of that man who would go through them after his death, finding out this appalling mystery. The man would be delighted, though it might not be a pleasant discovery ; it might (Dick went on imagining to himself) throw a horrible doubt, as old What’shis-name said, upon the standing of his widow, upon the rights of his child, but the man who found it would be delighted. It would come so unexpectedly amid all these Uninteresting letters and records of expenditure. It would brighten them up with the zest of a story, of a discovery ; it would add an interest to all the lawyer’s investigations into his estate. All the men about would meet and shake their heads over it, putting two and two together, making out what it meant. Probably they would advertise cautiously (which was what Dick himself, as a budding lawyer, would recommend in the circumstances) for her, poor creature, sure to be dead and buried long before that. They would consult together whether it was necessary to inform poor Mrs. Cavendish until they had something more definite to say. Dick, looking down the vale of years, saw, or thought he saw, with a curious quiver of his heart between pleasure and pity, Chatty in a widow’s cap, shedding tears at the sound of his name, absolutely obtuse and incapable of understanding how any dishonor could have come to her by him. They would think her stupid, Dick believed, with a tear stealing to the corner of his eye. Yes, she would be blank with a holy stupidity, God bless her, idiotic if you like, my fine gentleman, in that — not capable of understanding dishonor. It was with a sort of grim pleasure that he got up after this and lighted a candle, which shone strangely yellow and smoky in the clear September sunshine. “ I ’ll balk them,” he said to himself, with fierce satisfaction, as if those respectable imaginary executors of his had been illnatured gossips bent on exposing him. And he burnt the papers one by one at his candle, watching the last fibre of each fade away in redness and then in blackness, disappearing into nothing.
And then he packed his portmanteau and went down to Highcombe. There are some people who will think this inconceivable, but then these good persons perhaps have never had a strong overpowering inclination to fight against, never been pressed and even menaced by an urgent adviser, never recognized that necessity of doing one thing which seems to throw them into the arms of the other. And below all this contention Dick had a stubborn, strong determination to conduct this matter his own way. He had decided in his mind that it was the best way. If there had been any latent doubt on the subject before he consulted his old friend, that had been dissipated by the interview and by all the old gentleman’s cogent reasoning on the other side. Dick felt that he had taken the bit in his teeth and would be guided by no man. It was the best way, there was no risk in it, no wrong in it — certainly no wrong. He had not dealt even harshly with that wretched creature. He knew that he had been kind, that he had tried every way to reclaim her, and she had freed him from every law. human or divine. He could get a divorce anywhere, that he knew ; but after all a divorce was but the legal affirmation of that severance which had been made by nature, ay, and by God. Even the pure law of Christianity permitted it for that one cause. Therefore there was no wrong. And to spare publicity was merciful, — merciful to her as well as to himself.
Thus he reasoned, growing more certain on each repetition, and packed his portmanteau. But he did not take Mrs. Warrender’s invitation in all its fullness. There was a little salve for any possible prick of conscience in this. Instead of from Monday to Saturday, as she said, he kept to the original proposal and went from Saturday to Monday. There was something in that ; it was a self-denial, a self-restraint. — he felt that it was something to the other side of the account.
The Eustace Thynnes were still at Highcombe when he arrived, and Mrs. Warrender had a little foretaste of the gratification which she proposed to herself in announcing to Minnie at some future period the name of her brotherin-law, in perceiving how deeply Minnie was impressed by the visitor, and the evident but very delicately indicated devotion with which he regarded Chatty, a thing which took the young married lady altogether by surprise and gave her much thought. As for Chatty herself, it was with the sensation of one reluctantly awaked out of a dream that she suffered herself once more to glide into the brighter life which seemed to come and go with Cavendish as an attendant atmosphere. The dream, indeed, had not been happy, but there had been a dim and not unsweet tranquillity in it — a calm which was congenial to Chatty’s nature. Besides that, she was still young enough to feel a luxury in that soft languor of disappointment and failure against which she had never rebelled, which she had accepted as her lot. Was it possible that it was not to be her lot after all ? Was there something before her brighter, more beautiful ? not an agitated happiness, more excitement than bliss, like that of Theo, not the sort of copartnery of superior natures laying down the law to all surroundings, like Minnie and her Eustace : but something much more lovely, the true ideal, that which poetry was full of — was it possible that to herself, Chatty, the simplest and youngest (she was older than Theo it was true, but that did not seem to count, somehow, now that Theo was a man and married), this beautiful lot was to come ? She was very shy to accept this thought, holding back with a gentle modesty, trying not to see how Dick’s thoughts and looks turned to her — an attitude that was perfect in its conformity with her nature and looks, and filled Dick with tender admiration mingled with a little alarm, such as he had not heretofore felt; but this attitude filled Minnie with astonishment and indignation.
“ She can’t be going to refuse Mr. Cavendish,” she said afterwards to the partner of her thoughts. ‘’It would be very surprising,” said Eustace. “ Oh, it must not be allowed for a moment,” Minnie cried.
On the first evening, which was Saturday. Lady Markland and Then came to dinner: she very sweet, and friendly and gracious to every one; he full of cloudy bliss, with all his nerves on the surface, ready to be wounded by any chance touch. The differing characteristics of the family thus assembled together might have given an observer much amusement, so full was each of his and her special little circle of wishes and interests; but time does not permit us to linger upon the little society. Lady Markland attached herself most to the mother, with a curious fellow feeling which touched, yet alarmed, Mrs. Warrender. “ I am more on your level than on theirs,” she whispered. “ My dear, that is nonsense; Minnie is as old as you are,” Mrs. Warrender said. But then Minnie had never been anything but a young lady until she married Eustace, and Lady Markland —ah, nothing could alter the fact that Lady Markland had already lived a life with which Theo had nothing to do. In the midst of this family party Chatty and her affairs were a little thrown into the background. She fulfilled all the modest little offices of the young lady of the house, made the tea and served it sweetly, brought her mother’s work and footstool, and did everything that was wanted. Dick could not talk to her much, indeed talking was not Chatty’s strong point; but he followed her about with his eyes, and took the advantage of all her simple ministrations, in which she shone much more than in talk.
But the Sunday morning was the best. The Rev. Eustace took the duty by special request of the vicar in the chief church of Highcombe, and Dick went with the mother and daughter to a humble old church, standing a little out of the town, with its small inclosure round it full of those rural graves where one cannot help thinking the inmates must sleep sounder than anywhere else. Here, as it was very near, they were in the habit of attending, and Chatty, though she was not a great musician, played the organ, as so many young ladies in country places do. When the scant green curtain that veiled the organ loft was drawn aside for a moment, Dick had a glimpse of her, looking out her music before she began, with a chubbyfaced boy who was to “ blow ” for her at her hand ; and this foolish lover thought of Luca della Robbia’s friezes, and the white vision of Florentine singers and players on the lute. The puffycheeked boy was just like one of those sturdy Tuscan urchins, but the maiden was of finer ware, like a Madonna. So Dick thought : although Chatty had never called forth such fine imaginations before. They all walked home together very peacefully in a tender quiet, which lasted until the Eustace Thynnes came back with their remarks upon everybody. And in the afternoon Dick told Mrs. Warrender that he must go over and see Wilberforce at Underwood. There were various things he had to talk to Wilberforce about, and he would be back to dinner, which was late on Sunday to have time for the evening churchgoing. Chatty had her Sunday-school, so it was as well for him to go. He set out walking, having first engaged the people at the Plough Inn to send a dogcart to bring him back. It was a very quiet, unexciting road, rather dusty, with here and there a break through the fields. His mind was full of a hundred things to think of; his business was not with Wilberforce, but with Lizzie Hampson, whom he must see, and ask — what was he to ask? He could scarcely make out to himself. But she was the sole custodian of this secret, and he must know how she could be silenced, or if it would be necessary to silence her, to keep her from interfering. The walk, though it was six long miles, was not long enough for him to decide what he should say. He went round the longest way, passing the Elms in order to see if the bouse was still empty, with a chill terror in his heart of seeing some trace of those inhabitants whose presence had been an insult to him. But all was shut up, cold and silent; he knew that they were gone, and yet it was a relief to him when he saw with his eyes that this was so. Then he paused and looked down the little path opening by a rustic gate into the wood which led to the Warren. It was a footpath free to the villagers, and he saw one or two people passing at long intervals, for the road led by the further side of the pond and was a favorite Sunday walk. Dick thought lie would like to see what changes Warrender had made, and also the spot where he had seen Chatty, if not for the first time, yet the first time with the vision which identified her among all women. He went along, lingering to note the trees that had been cut down and the improvements made, and his mind had so completely abandoned its former course of thought for another, that when Lizzie Hampson came out of the little wood, and met him, he started as if he had not known she was here. There was nobody else in sight, and he had time enough as she approached him to recover the former thread of his musings. She did not recognize him until they were close to each other : then she showed the same reluctance to speak to him which she had done before, and after a hasty glance round, as if looking for a way of escape, cast down her eyes and head evidently with the intention of hurrying past as if she had not seen him. He saw through the momentary conflict of thought, and kept his eyes upon her. “ I am glad that I have met you,” he said ; “ I wanted to see you,” standing himself in front of her so that she could not escape.
“ But I don’t want to see you, sir,” Lizzie said, respectfully enough.
“ That may be, but still I have some questions to ask you. Will you come with me towards the house ? We shall be less interrupted there.”
“ If I must, I ’d rather hear you here, sir,”returned Lizzie. “ I won’t have the folks hero say that I talk with a gentleman in out of the way places. It’s better on the common road.”
“As you please,” said Dick. “You know what the subject is. I want to know ” —
“ What, sir ? You said as I was to let you know when trouble came. Now no trouble’s come, and there’s no need, nor ever will be. She would never take help from you.”
“ Why ? She has done me harm enough.”
“ She never says anything different. She will never take help from you. She will never hear of you, nor you of her. Never, never. Consider her as if she were dead, sir—that’s all her desire.”
“ I might have done that before I saw you. But now ” —
“ You don’t mean,” exclaimed Lizzie, with a sudden eager gleam of curiosity, “that you — that after all that’s come and gone ” — The look that passed over his face, a flush of indignation, a slight shudder of disgust, gave her the answer to her unspoken question. She drew herself together again, quickly, suddenly catching her breath. “I can’t think,” she said, “ what questions there can be.”
“ There is this,” he said ; “ I had almost forgotten her existence — till I saw you, but now that is not possible. Look here, I may have to try and get a divorce — you know what that means — out there, not here; and she must have warning. Will you let her know?”
The girl started a little, the word frightened her. “ Oh, sir,” she cried, “ you would n’t punish her, you would n’t put her in prison, or that? Oh, don’t, sir. She would die — aud you know she’s not fit to die.”
“ You mistake,” said Dick, “ there is no question of punishment; only to be free of each other as if indeed, as you say, she were dead to me.”
“ And so she is,” cried Lizzie earnestly. “ She never will have her name named to you, that ’s what she says, never if she should be ever so— She ’s given you your freedom as she ’s taken hers, and never, never shall you hear word of her more; that is what she says.”
“ Yet she is in England, for all she says.”
“ Did she ever pass you her word not to come to England ? But I don’t say as she’s in England now. Oh, it was an ill wind, sir, said Lizzie with vehemence, “ that brought you here ! ”
“ It may be so,” Dick returned, with a gravity that went beyond any conscious intention of regret he had. “ There is but one thing now, and that is that I must be free. Let her know that I must take proceedings for divorce. I have no way of reaching her but through you.”
“ Sir, there is somebody coming,” said Lizzie ; “ pass on, as if you had been asking me the way. I ’ll let her know.
I ‘ll never open my lips to you more, nor to any one, about her, but I ’ll do what you say. That’s the way to the house,” she added, turning, pointing out the path that led away from the side of the pond towards the Warren. He followed the indication without another word, and in another minute stood in the peaceful shadow of the deserted house. It came upon him chill, but wholesome, life reviving after the agitation of that brief encounter. Divorce ! it was a bad word to breathe in such an honest place — a bad blasphemous word, worse than an oath. He had not meant to say it, nor thought of it before this meeting, but now he seemed to he pledged to this step involuntarily, unwillingly; was it by some good angel, something that was working in Chatty’s interests and for her sweet sake ?
Dick went back to town on the Monday, having taken no decisive step, nor said any decisive words. All that he had done was to make it apparent that the matter was not to end there, as had seemed likely when they parted in London. Chatty now saw that it was not to be so. The thing was not to drop in the mere blank of unfulfilledness, but was to he brought to her decision, to yea or nay. This conviction, and the company of Dick in a relation which could not but be new, since it was no longer accidental, but of the utmost gravity in her life, gave a new turn altogether to her existence. The change in her was too subtle for the general eye. Even Minnie, sharp as she was, could make nothing more of it than that Chatty was “more alive looking,” a conclusion which, like most things nowadays, she declared to come from Eustace. Mrs. Warrender entered with more sympathy into her daughter’s life, veiled not so much by intention as by instinctive modesty and reserve from her as from all others; but even she did not know what was in Chatty’s mind, the slow rising of an intense light which illuminated her as the sun lights up a fertile plain, — the low land drinking in every ray, unconscious of shadow,— making few dramatic effects, but receiving the radiance at every point. Chatty herself felt like that low-lying land. The new life suffused her altogether, drawing forth few reflections, but flooding the surface of her being, and warming her nature through and through. It was to be hers, then, — not as Minnie, not as Theo had it, — but like Shakespeare, like poetry, like that which maidens dream.
Dick went back to town. When he had gone to his old friend for advice, his mind had revolted against that advice and determined upon his own way ; but the short interview with Lizzie Hampson had changed everything. He had not meant to speak to her on the subject; and what did it matter though he had spoken to her for a twelvemonth ? She could not have understood him or his desire. She thought he meant to punish the poor, lost creature, perhaps to put her in prison. The word divorce had terrified her. And yet he now felt as if he had committed himself to that procedure, and it must now certainly be. Still a strange reluctance to take the first steps retarded him. Even to an unknown advocate in the far West a man is reluctant to allow that his name has been dishonored. The publicity of an investigation before a tribunal, even when three or four thousand miles distant, is horrible to think of, — more horrible than had the wrong and misery been less far away. But after six years, and over a great ocean and the greater part of a continent, how futile it seemed to stir up all those long settled sediments again! He wrote and rewrote a letter to a lawyer whose name he remembered, to whom he had done one or two slight services, in the distant State which was the scene of his brief and miserable story. But he had not yet satisfied himself with this letter when there occurred an interruption which put everything of the kind out of his thoughts.
This was the receipt of a communication in black borders so portentous that Dick, always alive to the comic side of everything, was moved for the moment to a profane laugh. “No mourning could ever be so deep as this looks,” he said to himself, and opened the gloomy missive with little thought. It could, he believed, only convey to him information of the death of some one whom he knew little, and for whom he cared less. But the first glance effectually changed his aspect. His face grew colorless, the paper fell out of his hands. “ Good God ! ” he said. It was no profane exclamation. What was this ? A direct interposition of Heaven in his behalf, a miracle such as is supposed never to happen nowadays ? The first effect was to take breath and strength from him. He sat with his under jaw fallen, his face livid as if with dismay. His heart seemed to stand still ; awe, as if an execution had been performed before his eyes, came over him. He felt as if he had a hand in it. as if some action of his had brought doom upon the sufferer. A cold perspiration came out on his forehead. Had he wished her death in the midst of her sins, poor, miserable woman ? Had he set the powers of fate to work against her, he, arrogant in his virtue and the happiness that lay within his reach? Compunction was the first thought. It seemed to him that he had done it. Had he a right to do it, to cut off her time of repentance, to push her beyond the range of hope ?
After this, however, he picked up the letter again with trembling hands, and read it. It was from a man who described himself as the head of a circus company in Liverpool, with whom Emma Altamont had been performing. She had died in consequence of a fall two days before. “ She directed me with her last breath to write to you, to say that you would know her under another name, which she was not going to soil by naming it even on her death-bed, but that you would know. She died very penitent, and leaving her love to all friends. She was well liked in the company, though she joined it not so very long ago. A few things that she left behind she requested you to have the choice of, if you cared for any keepsake to remember her by, and sent you her forgiveness freely, as she hoped to be forgiven by you. The funeral is to be on Sunday, at two o’clock ; and I think she would have taken it kind as a mark of respect if she had thought you would come. I leave that to your own sense of what is best.”
This was the letter which fell like a bomb into Dick’s life. It was long before he could command himself enough to understand anything but the first startling fact. She was dead. In his heart, by his thoughts, had he killed her, was it his fault ? He did not go beyond this horrible idea for some long minutes. Then there suddenly seized upon him a flood of gladness, a sensation of guilty joy. God had stepped in to set the matter straight. The miracle which we all hope for, which never seems impossible in our own case, had been wrought. All lesser ways of making wrong right were unnecessary now. All was over, the pain of retrospection, the painful expedients of law, the danger of publicity, all over. The choice of her poor little leavings for a token to remember her by! Dick shuddered at the thought. To remember her by! when to forget her was all that he wished.
It was long before he could do anything save think, in confused whirls of recollection, and painful flashes of memory, seeing before his hot eyes a hundred phantasmal scenes. But at last he roused himself to a consideration of what he ought to do. Prudence seemed to suggest an immediate journey to Liverpool, to satisfy himself personally that all was effectually wound up and concluded in this miserable account; but a dread, a repugnance, which he could not overcome, held him back. He could not take part by act or word in anything that concerned her again ; not even, poor creature, in her funeral ; not from any enmity or hatred to her, poor unfortunate one, but because of the horror, the instinctive shrinking, which he could not overcome. Dick determined, however, to send the man who had charge of his chambers, a man half servant, half clerk, in whom he could fully trust. It was Friday when he received the letter. He sent him down next day to Liverpool with instructions to represent him at the funeral, to offer money if necessary to defray its expenses, to let no “ respect ” be spared. She would have liked “ respect ” in this way. It would have given her pleasure to think that she was to have a fine funeral. Dick gave his man the fullest instructions. “She was connected with — friends of mine,” Dick said, “ who would wish everything to be respectably done, though they cannot themselves take any part.” “ I understand, sir,” said the man ; who put the most natural interpretation upon the strange commission, and did not believe in any fiction about Dick’s “ friends.” Dick called him back when he had reached the door. “ You can see the things of which this person writes, and choose some small thing without value, the smaller the better, to send as he proposes to — the people she belongs to.” This seemed the last precaution of prudence to make assurance sure.
After this, three days of tumultuous silence till the messenger came back. He came bringing a description of the funeral, a photograph of “ the poor young lady,” and a little ring — a ring which Dick himself had given her, so long, so long ago. The sight of these relics had an effect upon him impossible to describe. He had to keep his countenance somehow till the man had been dismissed. The photograph was taken in fancy dress, one of the circus costumes ; it was full of all manner of meretricious accessories, — the stage smile, the madeup beauty, the tortured hair; but there was no difficulty in recognizing it. A trembling like palsy seized upon him as he gazed at it; then he lit his taper once more, and, with a prayer upon his quivering lips, burnt it. The ring he twisted up in paper, and carried with him in his hand till he reached the muddy, dark-flowing river, where he dropped it in. Thus all relics and vestiges of her, poor creature, God forgive her! were put out of sight forevermore.
Next day Dick Cavendish, a new man, went once more to Highcombe. He was not quite the light-hearted fellow he bad been. There was a little emotion about him, a liquid look in the eyes, a faint quiver about the mouth, which Chatty, when she lifted her soft eyes with a little start of surprise and consciousness to greet him, perceived at once and set down to their true cause. Ah, yes, it was their true cause. Here he was, come to offer himself with a past full of the recollections we know, with a life which had been all but ruined in times past, to the whitest soul he had ever met with, a woman who was innocence and purity personified; who would perhaps, if site knew, shrink from him, refuse the hand which she would think a soiled one. Dick had all this in his mind, and it showed in his countenance, which was full of feeling, but feeling in which Chatty recognized no complications. He found her alone, by the merest chance. Everything seemed to work for him in this season of fortune. No inquisitive sister, no intrusive brother-in-law, not even the mother with her inquiring eyes was here to interrupt. The jar with the big campanulas stood in the corner ; the mignonettes breathed softly an atmosphere of fragrance ; her muslin work was in Chatty’s hand.
Well ! he had not a great deal to say. It had all been said by his eyes in the first moment, so that the formal words were but a repetition. The muslin work dropped after a few seconds, and Chatty’s hands were transferred to his, to be caressed and kissed and whispered over. He had loved her ever since that day when she had lightly pushed open the door of the faded drawing-room at the Warren and walked in with her bowl of roses. “ That was the door of my heart,” Dick said. “ You had come in before I knew. I can smell the roses still, and I shall ask Theo for that bowl for a wedding present. And you, my Chatty, and you ? ”
Mrs. Warrender had her little triumph that afternoon. She said with the most delicate sarcasm : “ I hope, Minnie, that Eustace after all will be able to tolerate the new brother-in-law.” Minnie gave her mother a look of such astonishment as proved that the fine edge of the sarcasm was lost.
“ To tolerate — a Cavendish ! I can’t think what you mean, mamma! Eustace is not an ignorant goose, though you seem to think so ; nor am I.”
“' I am glad your honors are pleased,” said the ironical mother, with a laugh. Minnie stared and repeated the speech to Eustace, who was not very clear either about its meaning. But “depend upon it, dear, your mother meant to be nasty,” he said, which was quite true.
After this, all was commotion in the house. Dick, though he had been an uncertain lover, was very urgent now. He made a brief explanation to Mrs. Warrender that his proposal had not been made at the time they parted in London, “only because of an entanglement of early youth,” which made her look grave. “ I do not ask what you mean,” she said, “but I hope at least that it is entirely concluded.” “Entirely,” he replied with fervor; “nor am I to blame as you think, nor has it had any existence for six years. I was young then.” “ Very young, poor boy,” she said with her old indulgent smile. He made the same brief explanation to Chatty, but Chatty had no understanding whatever of what the words meant, and took no notice. If she thought of it at all she thought it was something about money, to her a matter of the most complete indifference. And so everything became bustle and commotion, and the preparations for the wedding were put in hand at once. The atmosphere was full of congratulations, of blushes and wreathed smiles. Marriage is certainly contagious. When it once begins in a family, one never knows where it will stop,” the neighbors said, and some thought Mrs. Warreuder much to be felicitated on getting all her young people settled ; and some, much to be condoled with on losing her last girl just as she had settled down. But these last were in the minority, for to get rid of your daughters is a well understood advantage, which commends itself to the meanest capacity.
It was arranged for the convenience of everybody that the wedding was to take place in London. Dick’s relations were legion, and to stow them away in the dower house at Highcombe, or even to find room to give them a sandwich and a glass of wine, let alone a breakfast after the ceremony, was impossible. Dick himself was especially urgent about this particular, he could not have told why, whether from a foreboding of disturbance or some other incomprehensible reason. But as for disturbance there was no possibility of that. Every evil thing that could have interfered had been exorcised and had lost its power. There was nothing in his way ; nothing to alarm or trouble, but only general approval and the satisfaction of everybody concerned.
Lizzie Hampson heard, like everybody in the village, of what was about to happen. Miss Chatty was going to be married. At first all that was known was that the bridegroom was a gentleman from London, which in those days was a description imposing to rustics. He was a gentleman who had once been visiting at the rectory, who had been seen in the rector’s pew at church, and walking about the village, and on the road to the Warren. Many of the village gossips remembered, or thought they remembered, to have seen him, and they said to each other, with a natural enjoyment of a love story which never fails in women, that no doubt that was when “ it was all made up.” It gave many of them a great deal of pleasure to think that before Miss Minnie had ever seen “ that parson,” her more popular sister had also had a lover, though he had n’t spoken till after, being mayhap a shy gentleman, as is seen often and often. He was a fair-haired gentleman and very pleasant spoken. What his name was nobody cared so much ; the villagers found it easier to recollect him by the color of his hair than by his name. It was some time before Lizzie identified the gentleman whom Miss Chatty was about to marry. She had a small part of the trousseau to prepare, one or two morning dresses to make, a commission which made her proud and happy, and gave her honor in the sight of her friends and detractors, a thing dear to all. And then at the very last Lizzie discovered who the bridegroom was. The discovery affected her very greatly. It was the occasion of innumerable self-arguments, carried on in the absolute seclusion of a mind occupied by matters with which its acquaintance is unsuspected. Old Mrs. Bagley talked about the marriage to every one who came into the shop. It was, she said, almost as if it was a child of her own.
Lizzie Hampson heard all there was to hear, and her mind grew more perplexed as time went on. She had the strange ignorances and the still more strange beliefs common to her kind. She put her faith in those popular glories of the law, at which the better instructed laugh, but which are to the poor and unlearned like the canons of faith. It was the very eve of the wedding before her growing anxiety forced her to action. When Mr. Wilberforce was told that a young woman wanted to see him, he was arranging with his wife the train by which they were to go up to town to the wedding, not without remarks on the oddness of the proceeding, which Mrs. Wilberforce thought was but another of the many signs of the times — which severed all bonds, and made a cheerless big hotel better than your own bouse. The rector was in the habit of taking his wife’s comments very calmly, for he himself was not so much alarmed about our national progress to destruction as she was. But yet he had his own opinion on the subject, and thought it was undignified on the part of Mrs. Warrender not to have her daughter married at home. He was only to be the second in importance in point of view of the ceremony itself, having no more to do than to assist a bishop who was of the Cavendish clan : whereas he considered himself quite man enough to have married Chatty out of hand without any assistance at all. However, to assist a bishop in the capacity of the parish clergyman of the bride was a position not without dignity, and he felt that he had little to complain of. He went into his study to speak to the young woman when the little consultation was over. Lizzie was seated upon the edge of one of the chairs. He was surprised to see her, though he could scarcely have said why.
“ Oh, Lizzie, I am sorry to have kept you waiting, but I had something to do for Mrs. Wilberforce,” the rector said.
“ It does n’t matter, sir. I came to ask your advice, if I may make so bold.”
“ Certainly, certainly, Lizzie — anything that I can do.”
“ It is n’t for me, sir. it’s for a friend,” she said, with the same device which Dick had employed, but in her case with more appropriateness. “ I want to ask you, sir, about marriages. Oh, it’s very serious, sir, there’s nothing to smile about.”
“ I will not smile then, Lizzie. I shall be as serious as you please.”
“ It’s just this, sir. When a man has been married and has had his wife run away from him and has n’t seen her nor heard of her for years — for six or seven years — he ’s free to marry again ? ”
“ Do you think so ? I should not like to affirm so much as that.”
“But what I want you to tell me,” said Lizzie, running on very quickly and taking no notice of his interruption, “ is whether if it could be proved that he had heard of her, though he had n’t seen her, if that would make it any different ? ”
“ I have no doubt it would make all the difference in the world. Even your first statement is doubtful, I fear. I don’t think seven years is a sacred period that would justify a second marriage.”
“ I did n’t say seven, sir, for certain. Six or seven.”
“ That makes little difference. The presumption is, that if he has heard nothing of her for a long period she must be dead ; but of course, if he has heard of her existence ” —
“ But dead to him, oh, dead to him ! ” cried Lizzie, “ leading a dreadful life, not a woman he could ever touch, or so much as look at again.”
“ I am afraid,” said the rector, shaking his head, “ though it is a very hard case for him, that there is nothing to be done. He should try and get a divorce — but that is a serious business. I don’t know what else there is in his power.”
“ Would he be punished for it, sir ? ”
“ It is not so much the punishment to him. In a hard case like this, the circumstances would be very much taken into consideration. Very likely it would be only a nominal punishment. The fatal consequences are not to the man but to the woman — I mean the second wife.”
“ But she knows nothing about it, sir. Why should she be punished ? It’s no doing of hers. She don’t know.”
“ Then, my good girl, you should warn her. Though she knows nothing about it, and is quite innocent, it is upon her chiefly that the consequences will fall. She will not be his wife at all; her children, if she has any, will be illegitimate. She will have no claim upon him, if he should happen to be a bad fellow. In short, if she was married, even as Miss War render is going to be to-morrow, by a bishop, Lizzie, it would be simply no marriage at all.”
Lizzie uttered a wild exclamation, clasping her hands, and said, “ Oh, sir, is there anything that a woman that wishes her well could do ? ”
“ There is only one thing you can do : to warn her before it is too late. Tell her she must break it off, if it were at the last moment — if it were at the very altar. She must not be allowed to sacrifice herself in ignorance. I ’ll see her myself, if that will do any good.”
“ She ’s going to be married to-morrow,” cried Lizzie breathlessly. “ Oh, sir, don’t deceive me! there’s not a creature that knows about it, not one — and she the least of all. Oh, Mr. Wilberforce, how could any judge or jury, or any one, have the heart to punish her ? ”
“ Neither judge nor jury, my poor girl ; but the law, which says a man must not marry auother woman while his first wife is living. There are many even who will not allow of a divorce in any circumstances ; but I am not so sure of that. Tell me who this poor girl is, and I will do my best to warn her while there is time.”
Lizzie rose up and sat down again, in nervous excitement. She made a ball of her handkerchief and pressed it alternately to each of her wet eyes. “ Oh, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do ! ” she cried.
“If there is anything that can be done to-night,” he said — “ Quick, Lizzie, there is no time to lose, for I must leave early to-morrow for Miss Warrender’s marriage.”
“ And there ’s not another train leaves to-night,” exclaimed Lizzie ; then she made an effort to compose herself, and a courtesy, rising from her seat. “ I must do it myself, sir, thank you all the same,” she said, and went away tottering and unsteady in her great trouble : yet only half believing him after all. For how, oh, how, ye heavens, could the law punish one that meant no harm and knew no evil ? a question which minds more enlightened than that of Lizzie have often asked in vain.
M. O. W. Oliphant.