The Second Son
THE two brothers lived in the same chambers, though they did not see very much of each other ; for Roger generally was not out of bed when Edmund went out, and Edmund had retired to his room before Roger came in at night. They were in different “ sets.” Roger, whom society held as the more desirable of the two Mitfords, though inferior in many ways to the third, had been sucked into a very usual, very commonplace round of engagements, which, without any pleasure to speak of, to himself or any one else, kept him perpetually occupied, and in the condition of which it is said of a man that he cannot call his soul his own. But it so happened that on this night, of all nights, Roger had an engagement which he disliked particularly, or else he had a headache, or something else had happened which made him break off abruptly for once in a way from that absorbing round; and to the astonishment and temporary embarrassment of both brothers, the elder came in while the younger was still lingering, smoking a cigarette, over the dying fire, which was not out of place even in the beginning of May.
“ Hallo ! is that you, Roger ? ” said Edmund; and “ Hallo! are you still there, Ned ? ” said Roger. These were their only salutations, though they had not met all day.
“ Yes, I’m still here,” said Edmund, poking the fire to give himself a countenance ; “ naturally — it ’s not quite twelve o’clock.”
“ I did n’t know that it was so early,” Roger replied with some embarrassment, bringing forward his favorite easy-chair.
“Some of your engagements fallen through ? By the way, I thought you were to be at the Stathams’ to-night? ”
“ Ned,” returned the elder brother, with a seriousness which perhaps was partly put on to veil other feelings, “when girls do run amuck in society, it’s appalling the pace they go. I’ve laughed at it, perhaps, in other families, but by Jove, when it’s a little thing you’ve seen in long clothes, or short petticoats ’ ’ —
“ Gerry ? ” said Edmund, looking up, with the poker still in his hand.
Roger only nodded as he threw himself down in his chair. “ It’s enough to make a fellow forswear society altogether,” he remarked.
“ She means no harm. It’s because she was kept in so much in her youth. We are partly to blame, for we never attempted to do anything for the girls. There’s poor little Nina. I don’t wonder if they are wild for pleasure when they get free : but Gerry means no harm.”
“ Harm ! ” cried Roger, ” that little thing that never spoke above her breath ! She is as bold as a fishwife, and as noisy as — as noisy as — I can’t find any comparison — as her kind. They are noisier than anything else out.”
“ It is all ignorance — and partly innocence,” said the apologetic brother. “ They tell her it’s fun to startle the old fogies — and she knows no better. I believe most of them are like that. They fear nothing, because they don’t know what there is to fear ” —
Roger kept on shaking his head during this speech. “ That’s all very well,” he said, “ that’s all very well; but when it happens to be your own sister, it takes away your breath.” To show, however, how little his breath was taken away, Roger here breathed a mighty sigh, which disturbed the calm flame of the candles on the table, and made a slight movement in the room. The fastness of Geraldine had given him occasion to let forth some of the prevailing dissatisfaction in his mind ; but the trouble in him did not arise from that alone. “ And what’s the good of it all,” he went on, “ even where there’s no harm, as you say ? Good Lord ! was life given one to be spent in a round of stupid parties night after night, and stupid nothings all the day ? What do I care for their Hurlingham, and Lord’s, and all the rest of it ? I’m not a boy; I ‘m a man. I tell you that I ‘m sick of all those fellows that say the same things, and wear the same clothes, and make the same silly jokes forever and ever. Jove ! if a war would break out or something, a good, savage, man-to-man business, like the French Revolution ; but the beggars would fight, I can tell you. We’d neither stand to have our heads cut off, nor run away.”
“No, I don’t suppose we should — but why such a grim suggestion ? We ‘ll have no French Revolution here.”
“ More’s the pity,” declared Roger, with a sigh. “ It might clear the air all over the world, and dispose of a lot that could do that, but are not much good for anything else.”
Edmund feared above all this fierce mood, which was half longing for those scenes and objects of living from which he had been instrumental in drawing his brother away.
“ You should try my haunts for a bit,” he said, with a laugh. “ My friends are bent — the most of them — on mending the world. And now and then one meets an original who is fun. To-night there was old Gavelkind " —
He regretted it the moment he had mentioned the name.
“ Gavelkind ! who ’s that ? It’s an odd name, I remember the name. Something to do with law : now I recollect. It is the old fellow one used to see about with Mr. Travers. An original, is he ? And so was the other old man.”
“ Old men seem to have the better of us in that way,” remarked Edmund. “ They have had a longer time in which to form their opinions, I suppose.”
“ Not the old fellows about town.” said Roger fiercely. “ Old beasts ! holding on like grim death to what they call life.”
“ You are severe to-night. If you knew them better, no doubt you would find there was some good in them too.”
“ Let us have no more of your moralities, Ned. I can’t stand them to-night. Look here, did he tell you anything about — about them, you know — about — Elizabeth — and the rest ? He’s always coming and going. What did he say about them ? ”
“ Roger,” said Edmund, turning from his brother, and playing with the poker upon the dying fire, “ I am not much of a fellow to ask questions — but I should like to know — If you will let me — I should — like to understand ” —
“ What, in the name of Heaven ? Am I to be brought to book by you too ? ”
“ Bringing to book is folly, and you know it. There is one thing I should like to know. It may be among the things that a man has no right to ask.”
“ Not from a brother ? ” asked Roger, with something like a sneer.
“ A brother, I suppose, least of all — and yet— I may as well say out what I mean. There is one name which you have singled out to inquire after. I don’t want to bring that name under discussion : you have had enough of that. Roger, as one fellow to another, without any right to ask or pry into your business — have you any — feeling about her, or intentions, or — Right ? — no, I have no right to ask. I said so to begin with : only the right,” Edmund added, with a little harsh laugh, “ of wanting to know.”
He had put down the poker and risen from his chair, but not to aid his interrogatory by his eyes. He stood with his back to his brother, staring into the glass, all garlanded with cards of invitation, which was over the mantelpiece, and in which the only thing he saw was his own overcast and clouded face. There was a momentary silence in the room, into which the creaking of the chair upon which Roger was leaning heavily, the fall of ashes from the grate, and even the sound of footsteps outside came in as with a curious diversion of interest, which, however, was no diversion at all. Roger replied at length, with his chin set down, and the words coming with difficulty from between his teeth, in the tone which all the Mitfords knew: —
“ I can’t see why you should want to know, or why I should submit to be questioned — or what my affairs are to you.” These phrases were uttered with a little interval between each, and then there was a longer pause ; after which Roger exclaimed, suddenly striking his hand upon the table, “ I feel like the very devil to-night. Why do you provoke me with questions ? There is no woman in the world that is worth a quarrel between you and me.”
Edmund made no reply. He sat down again in his chair without turning round. On his side, he thought, no doubt, that the question he had asked was one that ought to have been answered should the whole earth fall to pieces; and as for no woman in the world being worth — He could not but say to himself with some bitterness that the women Roger knew were indeed worth but little, which, at the same time, he was aware was not true. An uncomfortable moment passed thus. Edmund could keep himself under, and restrain all words of impatience, but words of kindness were beyond him. Presently, in ten long minutes or so, in the course of nature, he would say something on some profoundly indifferent subject, and the incident would be over, without sequence or meaning of any kind.
This, however, was not to be. The silence was broken by Roger, though only by the sound of his chair drawing a little nearer to the half-extinguished fire ; then he lightly touched his brother on the shoulder. “Ned, I say, no woman ’s worth a quarrel between you and me.”
“ I have no intention of making any quarrel ” —
“ No, but I know what you think. I asked about Miss Travers because — because that old fellow was connected with her ; because hers was the first name that came uppermost; because — Ned, her name is nothing to me more than any other ; and it’s a pity. My father was quite right, notwithstanding. No, more’s the pity, — her name means nothing to me.”
“ But it may, if you regret it already.”
Edmund turned round for the first time, and looked his brother in the face. Roger’s eyes seemed full of a moisture which was not tears ; a strange, softening liquid medium which made them glow and shine. The look of them went to Edmund’s heart. He put out his hand and grasped his brother’s, which was hot and not very steady. “ Old fellow,” he said, and said no more. Emotion in England does not know how to express itself between two men. Pity, tenderness, an awful sense of the impotence of humanity, came into Edmund’s heart and overwhelmed it. No man can save his brother. The tragic folly, the passion which would not loose its hold, the infatuation which appeared to have laid its hand upon one, and which the other understood with an intolerable conviction of the madness of it, the unworthiness, were beyond the reach of help. Anger, indignation, wonder, all mingled together, and all obliterated in pity could do nothing. Edmund understood, yet could not understand. He would have given up all thought of happiness for himself, if that would have sufficed to pluck Roger from the edge of the precipice. But what could he do ? Words were of no avail, remonstrances, arguments ; nor even the pointing out of a better way. No man can save his brother. He sank back in his chair with a groan.
“ There’s nothing to make yourself unhappy about, Ned,” said Roger, with sudden cheerfulness. “ I am safe enough, and out of the way of mischief here. Out of the way of mischief ! ” he repeated, mockingly. “ I should think so. There is nothing in poor little Gerry’s set, is there, to tempt a man to folly ? ”
“ I wish there were ! ”
“ You wish there were ? You would like to see Melcombe turned into Vanity Fair, or into a sort of anteroom to the stables, — which ? You would like to see dogs and horses, and horsey men crowding up the place ; or a rabble rout, acting, dancing, rushing about; something going on forever and ever. Which is better, I wonder,” said Roger, “ a stableboy disguised as a fine lady, with the best of blood and all the rest of it, education and so forth, or a woman descended from nobody in particular, — just a woman, no more ? ”
“ Is that a question we need to ask ? ” returned Edmund. But Roger had left his chair, and gone to the other end of the room to supply himself with some of those drinks which seem indispensable when men sit and talk together, and he did not hear ; or if he did hear, did not think it necessary to pay any attention. He came back to his chair with his glass in his hand, and began to talk upon ordinary subjects, to the great relief, yet disappointment, of his brother; and they sat thus through the small hours, discussing matters not of the least importance ; or, indeed, not discussing anything ; sitting together, while the fire went out at their feet, making a remark once in five minutes or so ; now and then fortunately hitting upon some subject which called forth a little rapid interchange of words for a few seconds ; then dropping off again into that silence occasionally broken with an indifferent phrase. They had both many things to think of, but carefully abstained from approaching again the edge of any subject that was of the slightest interest. They would both have been a great deal better in bed, and they had nothing in the world to keep them out of it; no particular pleasure in this companionship, nothing but habit, which kept them with their feet on the fender, though the fire was out; and, especially with a window open, it is not always balmy in London in the middle of the night in May.
At last Edmund got up, stretching his limbs like a man fatigued. “ I think I ’ll go to bed,” he said. Then after an interval, “ I ’ve half an idea of running down home to-morrow. There is nothing much for me to do here.”
“ Home ! ” cried Roger, rising, too. “ To-morrow! That ’s sudden, is n’t it ? ”
“ No ; I don’t think it’s sudden. I’m not one of your fashionable men. I never meant to stay ” —
“ Oh ! ” Roger said, and that was all. The remark, however, had a great deal in it. It meant a little surprise, a slight shock, indeed, as of a thing not at all expected or foreseen ; and then a half doubt, an uncertainty, a dawn of purpose. All this Edmund divined and feared; but he made as though he saw nothing in it except that universal English exclamation which means anything or nothing, as the case may be. He lighted his candle with sudden expedition, so as to leave the room before the dull air should tingle with any more words ; before Roger should say, " I don’t see — why I should not go too.” Edmund escaped to the shelter of his own room before these words could be said, if even there had been any intention that they should he said. The elder brother left behind did not say them to himself. All that he did was what Edmund had done before, to lean upon the mantelpiece and gaze into the glass, about which were stuck so many cards, large and small. Gazing into a mirror is not an unusual trick with people with troubled minds. Sometimes one does but look blankly into that unreal world, with its mystery and suggestions. There is a kind of fantastic charm in it. Roger did this blankly, not caring for his own face, in which he could read nothing he did not, know, but gazing into the void, which was something different from the well-known room reflected in it, — something with depths of the unseen, and darkling shadows as profound as fate. What did he see there ? No prevision of what was coming ; only a blank such as there was in his heart, without power to anticipate, much less to decide, what was to be.
Going home to-morrow ! Presently he began to take down and turn over in his hands the invitation cards. At first mechanically, without any thought ; afterwards with flashes of imagination, of realization. So many crushes through which he would make his way, hat in hand, shake hands with a few people, say half a dozen indifferent words here and there to individuals whom he had probably met half a dozen times before the same day, and whom he did not care if he never saw again ; dinners where he would eat the same delicacies out of season, and maintain the same talk evening after evening. " The Row was very full to-day. I did not see you at Lady Grandmaison’s. It was rather a pretty party, considering that so many people stayed away. We shall meet, I suppose, to-night at old Bullion’s,—oh, everybody is going.” These were the jewels of conversation which he would gather, unless horses were in question, or the prospects at Ascot, or the opinions of the grooms and trainers; or perhaps, which was worst of all, there would be a young lady in the house, gently urged upon him, carefully thrown in his way, sometimes to the girl’s own indignation, sometimes with her consent. As he went over them all, Roger, being somewhat jaundiced in his view of society, and glad to think the worst of it, felt a sickness and faintness steal over him. Why should he stay for that ? Was this enjoyment? Town was supposed to be exciting and delightful, and the country dull and flat. Well, perhaps the country was dull and flat. There was nothing in it, save one forbidden thing, which tempted him very much. But town! — the vulgar routine of it, the commonplace, the vacancy, the same thing over and over again. Why, a laborer on the road, a gamekeeper in the woods, had something to say that varied at least with the weather or the season. He did not ask. Are you going here ? Have you been there ? And it was for this that a man was supposed to stay in London. To give up, to sacrifice —
What ? Roger did what Edmund had done. He lighted his candle hastily and went off to his room, to escape — from himself, which is a thing not so easily done as to escape from a brother. “ I don’t see why — I should n’t go too.” Edmund had got away before these words were said, though he had seen them coming. But Roger was not so quick, and could not get away.
It is not very excellent policy, perhaps, when you see the words upon a man’s lips, and know they must be uttered one time or another, to run away before they can be said. As likely as not they will be worse instead of better when you do hear them, taking harm by the delay. When the two Mitfords met, next day, which was not till Edmund was ready for his journey, it was to him as if some explosive which he had thought dead and harmless had suddenly developed and exploded under his feet, when Roger said abruptly, “ I think I shall go home too.”
“ What! ” his brother cried, with mingled astonishment and dismay.
“ What ? Is there any harm in it ? I’m sick of town.”
Edmund said nothing, hut waved his hand towards all the cards on the chimney-piece, remarking, however, as he did so, with a chill of alarm, that they had been taken down from the glass, and lay together like a pack of cards among the ornaments of the mantelshelf.
“ Oh, these ! What do they matter ? Half the people will never remember that they asked me ; the other half will never find out that I have not been there. I might not have thought of it but for our talk last night: but why should I make a martyr of myself for a pack of people who care nothing for me ? ”
“ Not that, Roger: but a man like you has — duties. No one leaves London at this time of the year.”
“ You are leaving London. Ned, don’t talk any nonsense. Duties! I’m not a young duke, if that’s the sort of thing you mean.”
“ You are the eldest son, which comes to much the same thing,” said Edmund.
“ With a father who is always threatening to disinherit me, and can if he pleases; and after all, no such mighty position, were it as safe as the Tower. Come, Ned, no folly ; London will never put on mourning for me. Should it shake society to its foundations, I am still going home.”
“ If that is so, you will do what you please, no doubt,” said Edmund, with much gravity ; and the consequence was that they traveled down to Melcombe together, as they had left it, but with no such eagerness on Edmund’s part to amuse and keep his brother from thinking, which had transformed him into an exuberant, not to say loquacious, conversationalist on the way from home. The brothers now sat each in his own corner, moody and silent: Roger, not unconscious that he was taking a step which might be fatal to him ; Edmund, vexed and disappointed, saying to himself that he might have spared all this trouble, that after all he was but an officious busybody, and that after one tantalizing moment of hope everything was as before.
They reached home while Stephen’s traces were still warm. He had returned to his regiment only the day before. “ I wonder you did not knock against each other somewhere on the road.” said the Squire. " He’s always a queer fellow ; he told me you were coming home.”
“ I did not know it myself till this morning,” said Roger ; “ he must have the second sight.”
“ He has very keen eyes of his own, at all events; he gave me a number of tips,” said Mr. Mitford, who was apt to exalt the absent at the expense of the present. This was the welcome the young men received. It left an uncomfortable impression on their minds that their shortcomings had been talked over between Stephen and their father, which was not at all the case. To Edmund this gave scarcely any uneasiness, but it lit up a dark glow of anger under Roger’s eyes. They had been talking him over, no doubt, in that which was his most intimate and sacred secret, putting vulgar interpretations to it, hideous developments. Roger thought he could hear the mocking of Stephen’s laugh, and it raised in him a responsive fury. What did Stephen know about anything that was sacred ? He had his own vulgar amours, and judged others by that standard. Roger quivered with indignation as the image of these possible conversations, which had never taken place, came before him.
The weather seemed to change all in a moment as they left town, as it sometimes does in the capricious English springs. It had been ungenial and cold there; here it was May, as that month should be, but so seldom is, in all the softness of the early year, the air sweet with growth and blossom, the skies shedding balm. Something in this delicious sudden transformation went to the young man’s heart, softening and charming it. The first dinner, the domestic gathering for which Edmund had trembled, passed over quite harmoniously. Mr. Mitford appeared for the moment to perceive that to irritate his son was bad policy, and Nina’s soft storm of questions as to Geraldine and Amy filled up the silence at table. Here unexpectedly Roger and his father were in accord.
“ Don’t you think Gerry might ask me to come and see her ? Don’t you think I might write and say I should like to come ? ” Nina no doubt was bolder since Stephen’s judicious drawing out had put so many new ideas in her head.
“ No,” said Roger, “ certainly not, if you take my advice.”
“ Oh! that ’s not what Steve said : he said they had such fun ! ”
“ I don’t think, sir,” said Roger to his father, “ it’s the kind of fun you would approve of for a girl.”
“ I have told her so,” returned the Squire. “ There, Nina, you hear what your brother says; your brother’s a good authority; not like Steve, who is a rover himself. Run away now, and let me hear of Geraldine no more.”
“ Oh, papa ! ” Nina exclaimed.
“ I tell you I ’ll have no more of it,” said Mr. Mitford. “ I never liked that sort of thing. Your mother was a quiet woman, and I’ve always been used to quiet women. These girls ought to be spoken to, — they ought to be spoken to. But Stephen tells me Statham is a fellow that can take care of his wife.”
“ There is no need for alarm, sir,” remarked Edmund : “ the girls mean no harm.”
“ I hate fast women,” said the Squire. “ I never could bear them. Your mother was a pattern ; out of her own house nobody ever heard a word of Mrs. Mitford. That ’s the greatest praise a woman can have.”
“ That is no longer the opinion of society,” said Roger. “ They think the more a woman is talked of, the more noise she makes, the more absurdities she does, the better. If she has a moment’s quiet, she thinks she ’s out of the swim. If she stays a night at home, she’s half dead with the bore of it. Women are not what they used to be.”
“The more’s the pity. It’s all the fault of this ridiculous education, which, thank Heaven, I never went in for,” said the Squire. “They think themselves emancipated, the little fools, and they don’t care how far they go.”
Edmund had an observation trembling on his lips, to the effect that education, which the Squire thanked Heaven he had never given in to, could scarcely be the cause of his sister’s failings, but he was stopped by a certain nervous air of seriousness in Roger’s face.
“ My own opinion is,” said Roger, whose eyes had an abstracted look, as if he were ruminating a general principle, “ that to find a woman of the old type, like my mother, sir, — sweet and womanly, you know, and fond of home, and satisfied to be happy there, — whoever she was, would be better than anything you could get, family, money, rank, whatever you please, and a fast girl along with it. That’s my opinion ; and as I’ve just come from the midst of them, I think I ought to know.”
“ All right, my boy,” assented the Squire, “ I ’m with you as far as you go. Carry out your views, my fine fellow, and you may be sure you ’ll please me.”
This pregnant conversation was interrupted by another whisper on Nina’s part, in which that little person took a very practical view of the matter. “Should one always stay at home?” she asked. “ If Geraldine and Amy had always stayed at home, they would never have been married, and then you would not have got rid of them, papa. I have heard you say you were glad to have got rid of them. If I am never to go on any visit, nor see any one, you will never, never get rid of me.”
“Run away, Nina. We’ve had enough of this. The first thing a woman ought to learn,” said Mr. Mitford, “is when to go, after dinner. Five minutes after the servants, — that’s long enough. Run away.”
But the conversation languished after Nina’s little white figure stole reluctantly out of the room. The twilight was sweet, the windows were open, the air was balmy with the breath of early summer. The Squire talked on, but his sons paid slight heed. He continued the discussion of women which Roger had begun. But it is rare that such a discussion can be carried on without a jar, especially when the company is a mingled one, and youth, still accessible to romance, not to say actually touched by the glamour of love, has to listen to the prelections of an elder man upon this delicate subject. The Squire did not transgress decorum, he was not disposed that way; but he was full of that contempt for women which men of his age, especially when freed from all domestic intercourse with the inferior sex, often entertain. And it may be supposed that his talk about what constituted a good mother and continuer of the race, and all the domestic qualifications which he thought necessary, was of a kind little congenial with the perturbed yet absorbing passion which Roger had held at arm’s-length so long, only to fall back into with redoubled force and entrainement now; or with the more visionary, yet at the same time more highly pitched sentiment of Edmund, whose feet were being drawn away by the sweet, rising tide, but who had not yet ventured to launch fairly upon it. Roger was the more impatient of the two, for his mind had gone much further than that of his brother. He was indeed moment by moment passing out of his own control, feeling his feet and his heart and his thoughts swept along by that resistless flood, and all the will he ever had against it gone like a useless barrier across a river. He bore his father’s matter-of-fact discourse as long as human nature, in so very different a vein of sentiment, could do; and it was at last quite suddenly, with a start, as if he had been touched by something intolerable, that he rose from his chair. “Excuse me,” he murmured, “I’ve got a headache. I must try the open air ; ” and he slid out into the gathering grayness of twilight like a shadow, leaving Mr. Mitford open-mouthed, with the half of his sentence unsaid.
“ I ’m afraid Roger is not very well,” cried Edmund, getting up ; “ if you ’ll excuse me too, sir” —
“ Nothing of the sort,” said the Squire. “ Excuse you ? No, I won’t excuse you ; sit down, I tell you, Ned. What! your first night at home, and neither one nor the other of you can spend half an hour with your father after dinner ? Let Roger alone : you ’re not a couple of girls to make yourselves interesting, fussing over each other’s headaches. I suppose the truth of the matter is, he wants his cigar. I’m glad he’s gone, for one thing. You can tell me what he’s been about, and in what mind he’s come home.”
“ I can tell you neither the one nor the other,” said Edmund, not sufficiently under his own command to overcome his annoyance at being detained, and his fear as to what his brother might do. Then he added, “ I must follow him, father ; for Heaven’s sake, don’t detain me ! He may be going ” —
“ Sit down, sir,” exclaimed the Squire, with a powerful hand on his son’s arm, forcing him back into his chair. “ Let him go to — the devil, if he likes : if he means to, do you think you can keep him back ? ”
“That is true,” said Edmund, yielding, with once more that sense of impotence which makes the heart sick. What could he do, indeed ? Certainly not keep back Roger’s fated feet from the path which any opposition would make him only the more determined to tread. No man can save his brother. To have to submit to his father’s interrogations was hard, too.
“ Where may he be going ? What does he want?” asked Mr. Mitford. “Do you mean to tell me he’s come home as great a fool as ever? Do you mean to tell me— Why, what was that about women ? What did you understand by that ? The fellow ’s a liar as well as a fool, if it was n’t Elizabeth Travers he meant. Right sort of woman, whoever she was; better than rank, and so forth, — well ! she’s nobody ; but she’s worth a score of the fast ones. Is n’t that true ? What do you mean, confusing my mind again, when what he has said is as clear as daylight ? I tell you, Ned, if he’s deceiving me again ” —
“ I never said he was deceiving you. I am not my brother’s keeper. I can’t give you any account of Roger.”
“You mean you won’t. I know, honor among thieves. You’d rather see your father’s heart broken, and all his plans put out, than split upon your brother. That’s your code ; never mind what becomes of me. Your father’s nobody, and his interests are nothing: but stand together like a band of conspirators, and keep him in the dark. Keep him in the dark ! —that’s what you think honor. It’s not the first time I’ve found it out.”
“ Father, I don’t think you have any right to question me so. I should not betray my brother if I could; but as it happens, I can’t, even if I wished, for I know nothing. We have not been very much together even in an outside way, and if you think he opens his heart to me ” —
“To whom does he open his heart, then?” cried the Squire. “ Has he got a heart to open ? It does n’t seem so, so far as his family is concerned. Now look here, Ned, this sort of thing can’t go on. He must make up his mind one way or the other. If he will not take my way, he shall not take my property ; that’s as clear as daylight. If he’s meditating any disgrace to his family, it shall never be done in this house, I can answer for that. You’d better warn him; you shall have it, not he.”
“ I, sir ! ” cried Edmund, springing from his chair.
“ No heroics, for I sha’n’t believe them. Melcombe is mine, to dispose of it as I please. Unless Roger does as I wish, he sha’n’t have it, not a square foot of it. You shall have it; I’ve said so before. You think I’m joking, perhaps ?
I never joke on such subjects ; you shall have it. There! my mind is made up, and there’s not another word to say.”
“Stop a moment, father,” exclaimed Edmund. “Nothing in this world, neither your will, nor the law, nor any motive in existence, would make me take my brother’s place. I don’t joke any more than you do, once for all.”
“ Bah ! ” said the Squire ; “ wait till you ’re tried. Your brother’s place ! It is nobody’s place ; it’s my place to the last moment I can hold it, and then it goes to whomever I choose. Hold your tongue, Ned. And now you can go and look after your brother. Take care of him, pretty innocent: don’t let him fall into bad hands. You ’ll take greater care of him than ever, now you know what ’ll happen if you don’t succeed.”
He went off, with a laugh that rang through the room, tramping along the corridor with his quick footstep, which was not heavy for so large a man, yet vibrated through the house, finding out somehow every plank that sounded and every joint that creaked, as no other step did. When that hasty progress had concluded with the swing of the library door, another door opened softly, and Nina stole in.
“ Oh, is papa angry ? Oh, Edmund, is it about me ? ”
“ Nina, you have been listening again ? ”
“No, indeed ; oh, no : besides, I could not hear a single word ; everything was quiet, as if you had been the best of friends. It is only his step like that, and then he slammed the library door.”
“ The library door always makes a noise ; no one was angry ; there was not a word said about you. Be satisfied, Nina; I ’ll come and talk afterwards. I’m going out a little now.”
“ Are you going after Roger, Edmund ? for I ’m sure he’s gone to the West Lodge.”
“What do you know about the West Lodge ? What nonsense you talk, Nina!
What should Roger do there ? He has gone to smoke his cigar.”
“ I know very well,” said the girl, “ he had no cigar. He came round to the hall to get a hat, and then he went off. Oh ! I know quite well what it means when people walk in that way.”
“ In what way ? ”
“ I am not very good at explaining : going straight on, with their heads bent, as if they did not want to look where they were going, because they knew so well. Do you mean to say you don’t know ? ”
Edmund; alas, knew very well what she meant. He flung himself back into a chair with that sense of despairing which had seized him so strongly on various occasions already. What could he do to stop those steps of fate ?
Roger went out into the twilight without seeing anything, with his head bent, taking long steps straight forward, as his sister had said. While he had been musing the fire had burned. All the way down in the silence of the noisy train, all through the dinner hour with its needful ceremonials, the thoughts so long repressed had been flowing on and on in a full stream, until his heart was full and could no longer contain itself. He had relieved himself a little by these enigmatical speeches about women. “ A woman of the old type, like my mother, sweet and womanly and fond of home, and satisfied to be happy there — whoever she might be — would be better ” — It was a relief to say this : it was the last development of the thought which had given him so much comfort, perhaps the first thought which had given him any comfort at all in the whole matter. Instead of a fast woman, or a horsey woman, or a woman given up to “ fun ” and sport, to find one who was all a woman, the flower of life, the sweet, the gentle, and the true. No one could deny that; it was clear as daylight. It might be a good thing, if you so chanced it, to find such a woman in your own class, — one that knew all the little punctilios, how to receive your guests, and sit at the head of your table, and all that. Yes, it might be a good thing : one who had connections something like your own, though everybody says your wife’s relations are a bore. That might be an advantage, if it so happened. But otherwise, instead of one of the society women, those creatures who cared for nothing but amusement, how much better to have a fresh and uncontaminated creature, vigorous and pure as nature could make her, knowing no harm nor thinking any! A wife like that brought new blood and new possibilities to a house. It was a thing that ought to be done, for mere policy, from time to time. True, there might be drawbacks, — drawbacks that were very evident on the face of them : the father and mother, for example, who would turn everything upside down. That could never be a pleasant thought: but it was better than a band of fast girls and doubtful men who would convert one’s house into a bear-garden. People put up with these last because the offenders had good names, because they were in “ society,” though Heaven knows their manners were often bad enough,—worse than the Fords — the Fords— Well, no doubt that would be a bitter pill. But at least it was a thing which nobody would have any business with, — a skeleton which could be comfortably disposed of in the cupboard at home. Better that a thousand times than the other. He repeated this to himself again and again, or rather it turned over and over in his mind, giving him the most curious justification in everything he was doing. He had struggled before as against a thing that had no excuse, but now he had found one; now it seemed to him of two possibilities the better one, — far better for himself, for the race, and the name.
The spring night was very sweet. There were great bushes of hawthorn here and there, gleaming whitely through the faint half light, filling the air with their fragrance. He wandered from point to point, half guided by those trees, taking much the same course that Stephen had done. It was a fortnight later, and the moon, which, had been then young, was now on the wane and rose late. That was one element of enchantment withdrawn; and Roger, though much more apt to regard things poetically than his brother, was not doing so to-night. He did not think of the sweetness of the evening, scarcely even of her sweetness who was drawing him towards the place where she was. It was, he would have said, the serious, the practical part of the question that occupied him now. He had not any love meeting to look forward to, as Stephen had; no feeling of triumph, no excitement of the senses, was in him. He was going over the matter, as he thought, coolly, balancing the advantages and disadvantages, and for the first time seeing all that was to be said on the favorable side. He was hardly aware, even, that all this time he was coming nearer and nearer to Lily. He had not had any thought, when he set out, of seeing her that night.
When he saw something moving among the trees, not far from the West Lodge, Roger was startled, almost alarmed. He went towards the thing by instinct, saying to himself, however, that it must be one of the servants, or perhaps some passing villager, not aware that this was not the permitted way. He was in the clothes he had worn at dinner, and, like Stephen, the whiteness of his linen was like a moving speck in the dark. He went on, quickening his pace, he hardly knew why ; going up to the spot where somebody must be, partly with the instinct of proprietorship to warn off an intruder, partly with a less defined feeling. Something indistinct separated itself from the trees, as he went on, and turned towards him. There was a little cry, a tremulous Oh! and a sound like the flutter of a bird — and was it Lily, with a quick movement, who came to meet him, as if she had expected him, as if she would have run to him ? He asked, with a sudden leap of his heart, " Who is it ? who is it ? — Lily ? ” — making a rapid step forward, so rapid that she was almost in his arms. Then there was a quick recoil, a cry almost wild, with a sharp note of wonder in it, — " Mr. Roger ! ” — and he saw that it was Lily, but Lily drawing back, startled and frightened; not ready, as he had thought, for one moment of surprise, to fling herself into his arms.
“ Yes, it is Roger,” he said. " You thought it was — some one else ? ”
“ I was looking for — my father — he is late, and I came out to look for him. Mother was — a little anxious.” Lily was breathless, with alarm or some other feeling, and panted between the words — " and we did not know, sir, that you had come home.”
“ You could not. I came on the impulse of the moment, I scarcely know why.”
“ They say,” said Lily, still panting a little, “ that it is very gay in London at this time of the year.”
“ Yes, it ’s very gay. I am not fond of gayety. The park here, and a young gentle creature, like you, walking in it in the sweet evening, that is more delightful to me.”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger.”
“ You think I don’t mean it, perhaps, but I do,” said Roger, feeling his own breath come a little quickly. " You suit the soft darkness of the evening, Lily. It is like poetry, and so are you.”
“ I am only a poor girl, Mr. Roger,” said Lily. It was not a speech such as she was usually disposed to make. She could not tell, indeed, by what impulse it came from her. There was a little vexation in it, for she could not help thinking, with a faint pang, that Stephen had never said anything to her so pretty as this. But then Stephen laughed at poetry : he was superior to it.
“ Poor or rich makes little difference that I know of,” said Roger, who also had struck a quite unusual vein. " A true woman is always in her fit place.”
“ It is very good of you to say so, Mr. Roger,” exclaimed Lily, rousing up to the occasion, " for there are some people who don’t think so well of us as that: they scold poor mother for me, as if I were not fit for my own home.”
“ I hope you will not be offended, Lily, but no one can help seeing that the keeper’s lodge is not the sort of place from which one would expect you to come.”
“ It is my home, though,” said the girl; and she added tremulously, " Do you think, if I were in the position of a lady, I would n’t, I should n’t — shame those that put me there ” —
“ Shame ! ” Roger cried, with indignation. It all seemed to him very strange, as if he had walked into some fairy place where there were no disguises, and carried his breast uncovered, so that the throbbings might be seen. “I cannot imagine any place,” he added gravely, " so beautiful or so refined that you would not be in your place there.”
Even in the uncertainty of twilight Roger saw the blush of delight that covered the girl’s face; but he did not know that it was not for him.
“ Thank you,” she said, " perhaps I ’ll never be anything but what I am : but if I should ever be different, I am glad to know that you don’t think I’d bring my — friends to shame.”
“ Hush ! hush ! ” he said, " that can never have anything to do with you.”
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.