The Second Son
LILY had gone on towards the lodge, and Roger walked by her in a curious fascination, like that of a dream. He had never expected nor planned to have this interview. He was not even prepared for anything it might lead to. He had never talked to her before in the freedom of complete solitude, with no one near them to interrupt. If he had ever seen her alone, it had been but for a few minutes, with Mrs. Ford always ready to come in. But the effect of finding himself thus with her bewildered rather than encouraged him. He had let the first overflowings of his heart have vent, which might be mere vague compliment, and no more. But her presence in the midst of this stillness, the sensation as if they two were all alone in the world, no one near them, was for the present as much as his mind could take in. He was prepared for nothing more. The silence was so long that at last Lily herself spoke.
“ It’s very sweet,” she said, “ to have the park to walk in. It’s beautiful in the evenings. There has been a moon, but now it is on the wane, and does not rise till late.”
“ Is this where you walk always, — not down to the village ? ”
“The village ! — oh, no ! What should I do in the village ? I have no friends there. It is hard upon a girl when she has got a better education, and cannot move in the class she belongs to, Mr. Roger. They don’t like me for that; and they ’re so different, I don’t care for them.”
“ You can have nothing in common, with them,” he said.
“No,” assented Lily. “ I should like to be with the ladies and gentlemen : but they would have nothing to say to me.”
“ You are mistaken, Lily. That is not the case, at least so far as — some are concerned. Women, people say, are jealous. But on the other hand ” —
“ Oh, yes, Mr. Roger,” said Lily, “ I know there are gentlemen who are pleased to come and talk. They think it amusing to see me in my father’s cottage. But I hope you don’t suppose that’s what I care for. I think more of myself than that.”
“ I beg your pardon,” he cried, “ with all my heart. I hope you don’t imagine I could ever mean — Lily, you don’t know with what reverence I think of you. I have been among women who are not fit to tie your shoes; and to think of you has kept me from despising my fellow-creatures and growing bitter and hard. You don’t know what it does for a man to remember a girl so spotless and sweet as you.”
Lily was frightened by the meaning in his voice, the earnestness with which he spoke, and the fine words, finer than anything that had ever been said to her before. And she reflected that to have two brothers making love to her would be very strange, that it would scarcely be right. She hastened her steps a little over the soft undulations of the turf.
“ You are too kind, Mr. Roger,” she said. “ If you knew me better, you would not perhaps think so well of me. I am well enough, but I am not so good as that.”
“ It is not a question of thinking well or ill,” exclaimed Roger, with the strange sensation going through all his being that fate had got hold of him ; that the current against which he had been struggling, sometimes so feebly, had at last got the better of him, had swept him off his feet, and was carrying him away. “ I have long ceased to think so far as you are concerned. I can only feel that you have been a new life to me since ever I first saw you. I have fought against it — I will not conceal that from you — and tried hard. Lily, I wonder if you ever thought of me ? ”
“ Oh, yes, Mr. Roger,” she said tremulously, walking on faster ; though in her agitation she kept stumbling as she went. " We all thought you very kind. It has been very good of you, coming to the lodge. It is getting late, and I must hurry home. Perhaps father has got in the other way.”
“ Lily, stop a moment: kind was not what I meant. Kind ! — it is you who must be kind to me, Lily. Don’t you really know what I mean ? ” he asked, touching her arm with his hand. “I want you to be my wife.”
“Oh, Mr. Roger! ” cried Lily, moving suddenly away from him with a voice and gesture of horror. She said to herself in her fright, her heart almost standing still for a moment, then leaping up again in a very frenzy of excitement, that it was like being courted by a brother. Should she tell him ? How could she answer him ? And she engaged to Stephen ! She had never felt so terrified — so overwhelmed, in her life.
“ You are frightened,” Roger said. “ Why are you frightened ? Don’t think of anything but ourselves, Lily. Be selfish for a moment, if you can be selfish. Everything will come right afterwards for the others, if it is right between you and me.”
“ For the others? ” she repeated, faltering, gazing at him with large and tearful eyes through the dimness of the night.
“ Yes, yes,” he cried impatiently. “You are thinking of your father and of my father. All that will come right. Lily, you must have known : I have not taken you by surprise. Will you ? will you? My Lily ! Words cannot say what is in my heart for you.”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger,” she exclaimed, again putting up her hands between them, " don’t, please don’t talk so! I must n’t listen to you. It makes me feel as if I were — not a proper girl. Mr. Roger, oh, for everybody’s sake, go away, go away.”
“ For everybody’s sake ? ” he said, the moisture coming to his eyes. " Is that what they have put into your dear mind, that you must not listen to me, for everybody’s sake ? But, my dearest, if I answer for it that nobody shall come to harm, if I tell you that all shall be well? Surely you may trust me that nobody shall come to harm.”
She made no reply, but hurried along, stumbling over the inequalities in her path, with her head averted a little and horror in her heart. " Stephen ! Stephen ! ” she said to herself; but she dared not utter his name. What would Stephen think if he heard his brother thus offering her himself and all he had ? In the shock of fancied guilt, Lily could not realize what was the offer that was being made. The heir of Melcombe and all that he had! Her brain was not even touched by the magnificence of the conquest. Perhaps she had not yet had time to realize it. She was eager for the shelter of the cottage, eager to get away from him, terrified to betray herself, still more terrified lest lie should do or say something that would make Stephen angry: his brother, which was the same as her own brother, — something too horrible to think of ! He went on speaking, she scarcely heard what, as he hurried on beside her; begging her to pause, to think; telling her he would wait for his answer, that he saw she was beside herself with fear. " But why ? why ? ” Roger cried. " My sweet Lily, do you think I would risk your father’s living? Do you think I would do him harm ? If my father even should stand in our way, do you think I would n’t keep him from suffering ? Hear reason, dearest, hear reason! ” He was out of breath, and so was Lily. She only cried, “ Oh, Mr. Roger ! ” as she hastened on.
Mrs. Ford stood at her garden gate looking out for Lily, and saw with wonder and a shock at her heart the figure which accompanied her child, clearly a gentleman, with his white shirt front, otherwise indistinguishable in the night. Her first thought was that some one was insulting Lily.
“ I ’m here, dear, I’m here ; you ’re all right, you ’re close at home ! ” she cried.
“ Oh, mother, it’s Mr. Roger! ” cried Lily in reply; but she did not pause as if her mother’s presence reassured her. “ Good-night, sir,” she said, and ran in. And in the stillness of the place the lover and the mother, facing each other in the dark, could hear her footsteps climbing hurriedly up the narrow, steep staircase till she reached her room, in which sanctuary both sight and sound of her disappeared.
Mrs. Ford and Roger were left standing, confronting one another, and the position was not without its disagreeable side. Mrs. Ford looked at Roger, and her fingers began to fumble with her apron. Fear for her daughter, uneasiness in the presence of her master’s son, whom she was so unwilling to offend, took all assurance from her tone. And yet, if any wrong had been done to her child — “ Mr. Roger,” she said, trembling, “ you have given my Lily a fright.”
“ It appears so. Mrs. Ford, I hope you will stand my friend and bring her to hear reason. It must be Ford and my father she is thinking of. No harm shall come to Ford. I have asked her to be my wife ! ”
Mrs. Ford gave a shriek which echoed out into the stillness among the trees. “ Oh ! good Lord ! — Mr. Roger ! ” she cried.
BROUGHT TO BOOK.
There is at once something very exciting and strangely calming in having at last carried out an intention long brooding in the mind. The thrill of the real and actual through all the veins is suddenly met and hushed in the awe of the accomplished. And all the hundred questions which had been distracting the mind, — shall I ? shall I not ? shall it be now ? soon ? a lifetime hence ? will it be for good ? will it be for evil ? — all these doubts, uncertainties, peradventures, cease and disappear, leaving a curious vacancy and awe of silence in the soul. No need for them any longer ; no room for further debate. Whether it ought to have been now or never, whether it was for good or evil, it is done, done, and never can be undone. Perhaps to the most happy such a crisis is something of a shock, and in the midst of rapture even a regret may breathe, for the time when everything was still wrapped in the mists of uncertainty, everything possible, nothing accomplished. Probably, even in such a matter as a declaration of love, the fact is always less delightful than the imagination. Fancy alone is high fantastical; the imagination which gives us so many of our highest pleasures is exigent. A look, a touch, the inflection of a tone, may offend its overwrought expectations, and reality can never be so wholly sweet as the pictures it has drawn.
Far more than in ordinary cases was this the case with Roger. The melting of modest half-reluctance of which he had dreamed ; the shy, sweet wonder of the girl to whom he was opening (how could he help knowing that?) gates as of heaven ; the pause of delicate hesitation, doubt, alarm, all of which his love would have so amply cleared away, — these were not what he had encountered. His suit had been received with an appearance of terror very different from that veiled and tremulous happiness which he had imagined to himself. She had been not shy, not trembling only, but afraid, in a panic of real terror, anxious to escape from him ; too much terrified to hear what he had to say. To be sure, he felt himself able to account for this, in a way which exalted and ennobled Lily, since it was her utter unselfishness, her preference of her father’s interests and of his, Roger’s interests, to her own, her determination to allow no quarrel on her account, no family break-up, no endangerment of others, which had made her receive him so strangely. But yet it had been a disappointment. He had not, indeed, allowed his imagination to dwell on that scene ; other questions, far more dark and tragic, had kept him from such lover’s dreams ; but yet by turns, in the pauses of his anxious thoughts, there had gleamed upon him a sudden picture of how that gentle heart would understand his, of the struggle in Lily’s transparent countenance, the spring of delight, the pause of soft alarm. He had seen these things by a side glance. But the picture had not been realized.
This was the first sensation. Then followed others more personal. He had done this thing over which he had hesitated for months, which he had recognized as a revolution in his life, full of terrible, perhaps tragical, consequences. He had foreseen all these, both great and little, from his own banishment from his father’s house (which did not seem a very real danger) to the more horrible certainty of the close ties which would be established between him and the Fords, the place they would have a right to in his household, the gamekeeper father, the homely drudge of a woman, who would be brought so near him. All this he put behind his back now with disdain. What he had done he had done, and nothing could undo it. He raised his hand unconsciously as he hurried across the park, waving all these spectres away. He had accepted them, and their power was gone. He thought of them no more.
A kind of exaltation came into his mind as he went home. To have done it after all was much, to have got out of the region of conflict and doubt. Strange to think that he had heen wasting his strength in futile conflicts only this morning ; that yesterday he had heen struggling in those nets of society which he loathed, and had almost believed of himself that he never would have done this thing, which now it was as certain he must have done as if it had been planned amid all the counsels of the spheres. And who should say it had not been so planned ? When the great crises of our life arrive, we are seldom unwilling to recognize that there is something providential in the way they come about; or at least, if we are very advanced and superior, to smile upon the weaker sweet imagination which seems to have some fanciful justification for thinking that Heaven itself might have taken that trouble. For how can there be a greater thing than the bringing together of two human creatures, from whom a greater and a greater life may spring, until the race touches again the spheres ? Marriages, the simple say, are made in heaven. They are fit things to be made in heaven : not the marriages “ arranged ” in society, with so much blood and beauty on the one side, and so much money on the other, or between two great estates which would naturally come together, or for any other horrible devil’s reason, not Heaven’s; but between two genuine human creatures, man and maid, between the primeval Two, the pair on whom all life is founded and all society. Roger was not, perhaps, a man of poetical thought in general, but the mind which usually thinks in prose will sometimes strike a higher note of poetry in exceptional elevation and excitement than the more poetically disposed. Then he thought of the fast women, the girls like Geraldine and Amy, and of the contrast between the noisy racket of that unlovely life and the beautiful tranquil existence of the true woman, working all day under a humble, quiet roof, walking in her sweetness among all other sweet and tender influences in the soft May evening, amid the dews and balmy odors of the park. How different, he thought with a certain glorying in his own apparent unsuccess (which he did not believe, would not believe, was real), how still more different would have been the reception of his suit in that other world, the great world, where he was known as an excellent parti, the heir to a good estate ! There would have been no hesitation about the girl he had chosen ; the parents would have accepted him with open arms. Lily’s panic was sweet in comparison, — how sweet! To her it was the obstacle that he should be the heir of Melcombe. How different! This thought carried his soul away, floating upon waves of immeasurable content.
He had reached the house before he was aware, going quickly in the abstraction of his mind. It stood solid in the summer dark, a big shadow softly rounded off by the surrounding trees; the great cedar on the lawn like a tower, more substantial even in its blackness of shadow than the human house with its flickers of light at the windows. He came to it upon the garden side, where were the long row of projecting windows. In Nina’s, which formed one of the drawing-room bays, there was a light, and he saw her little face appear, suddenly pressed against the glass, peering out at the sound of his footstep on the gravel. A more subdued light, that of his father’s shaded lamp, shone from the corresponding window of the library. Did his father rise too at the sound of his step, or was it, only his imagination that suggested a stir within ? He had passed these lights, and was making his way round to the door which he could see was open, showing the colored lamp in the hall and a glow of variegated light upon the black oak carvings, when he heard himself sharply called from a little distance beyond. It was the Squire’s voice. Roger felt in a moment that all that had gone before was as child’s play, and that now the great crisis of his life had come. He went forward slowly, and I will not say that his heart did not beat louder. He was a man fully matured, not one to tremble before a father ; and yet there went through him a thrill of something like alarm, — a thrill which did not mean fear, nor any disposition to yield to his father the arbitration of his fate, yet which was a summoning of all his energies to meet a danger which he had foreseen without ever expecting it, and which far sooner than he had supposed was to settle and decide the future tenor of his life.
“ Roger, is it you ? I might have known. What do you mean, bursting in at the windows and scaring poor little Nina ? Nobody shall do that in my house.”
“ Has Nina said so ? ” asked Roger sharply. “ I came in at no window, sir. When you called me I was making my way to the door.”
The Squire paused, and looked at his son as a bull might look, with his head down before charging. “ It does n’t matter,” he said, “ door or window. Where have you been, sir ? — that’s the question. Only a few hours at home, and here ’s somebody who must receive a visit, who can’t be put off, — the first night! Where have you been ? ”
“ Where have I been ? Surely I am not a child, sir, to be questioned in that way ” —
“ No, you ’re not a child, more’s the pity. A child can do no harm but to himself. You— can disgrace your family and everybody belonging to you. Where have you been, sir, to-night ? ”
“ I have been,” said Roger, with a strong effort at self-control, “ in the park. When you think of it, you will see that a man of my age cannot be asked such questions. Let the night pass, father. If you have anything to ask that I can answer, let it be to-morrow.”
“ It shall be to-night! ” cried the Squire, with foam flying from his lips. “ And you shall answer what questions I choose to ask, or else I will know the reason why. In the park ? I know where you have been, you poor fool. You have been at the West Lodge ! ”
“ Well, sir : and what then ? ” said Roger, the blood coursing hack upon his heart, all his forces rallying to meet the attack. It subdued his excitement and made him calm. He stood firmly looking in his father’s face, which he could scarcely see, except that it was infuriated and red. And there was a moment of silence, — dead silence, — into which the stirrings of the night outside and the movements of the house came strangely.
For a moment Mr. Mitford was speechless with rage and consternation. Then he turned and walked quickly into the house, waving to his son to follow him. “We can’t talk here. Come into my room.”
The library was a large room lined with books, a miscellaneous collection, abundant but not valuable, in dingy old bindings, which made the walls dark. One lamp, and that a shaded one, stood in a corner on the table where Mr. Mitford read his newspapers. This was the only light visible. The Squire went up to it, and threw himself into his armchair. Roger did not sit down. He stood with his hand upon the table, which was in the light, but his face was in shadow. This gave him a slight advantage over his father, who was full in the light.
“You say ' What then?’” said Mr. Mitford, “ and you say it mighty coolly, as if it did n’t matter. Let’s understand each other once for all. It’s some time now since you have set yourself to thwart my plans. I was ready to settle everything for you, to make it easy, — and you had the best of everything waiting for you to pick up. By Jove, you were too well off, — that’s all about it. Well, what’s come between you and all this ? Your mind’s changed, and your ways. Once you were all straight, doing very well, though you were always a stubborn one. Now ” —
“ I am still a stubborn one, I fear,” Roger assented, with an attempt at a smile.
“ None of your smiling! ” cried the Squire. “ It’s no smiling matter, I can tell you. What’s the reason ? Confound you, sir,” exclaimed the angry father, the foam flying from his lips again, “ do you think I don’t know what it is ? A dressed-up, mincing milliner’s girl — a doll with a pretty face — a — a creature ! I’ve seen her, sir, — I’ve seen her. Ford’s daughter, — the keeper ! That’s what takes you every night from home. And you come back from low company like that to your sister’s — and look me in the face ” —
“ I hope,” said Roger, pale and trembling with passion, “ I can look any man in the face. And as for my sisters, any one of them, if they were half as good as she of whom you speak ” —
The Squire was purple : it was not much wonder, perhaps. And he knew that was a bad thing for a man of a full habit, like himself, and with one big word to relieve his mind he forced himself into a sort of calmness, resuming his seat from which he had started. Losing one’s temper does nobody any good. He puffed forth a hot blast of angry breath, which relieved him, and then he assumed what was intended for a polished air of composure.
“ Good! I see you have made up your mind. May I ask what course you intend to adopt in respect to this paragon ? I suppose you’ve settled that too ? ”
“ Sir,” said Roger, “ when a man loves a woman, and she is free to marry him, there can be but one course to adopt, so far as I am aware.”
“ Oh! so that is it: ' there can be but one course ’! ” repeated the Squire, with that highly offensive attempt to mimic his son’s tone which was habitual to him. Then thundering, " You mean to marry the baggage, sir, and bring her to this house, to your mother’s place ! ”
“ She was my mother’s favorite ; she has been trained upon my mother’s plan,” said Roger, with white lips.
“ Your mother’s favorite — for a waiting-maid ! Trained upon your mother’s plan — to cut out aprons and sew them! Is that what you want her for ? But let me tell you, sir, that girl shall never sit in your mother’s place, — never, if there was not a woman but herself in the world ; never, if — What is the use of wasting words ? If you mean to make such a disgraceful match, you had better count the cost first, which is — Melcombe in the first place, and your supposed position here. The land shall go to your brother; I withdraw your allowance. Love is a fine thing, is n’t it ? Go and live upon it, and see how you like it then.”
“ Father,” gasped Roger ; he felt it necessary to control his own passion, and caught at the word to remind himself of a bond that could not be ignored.
“ It is of no use appealing to me. You think I have been uttering vain threats and have meant nothing; but by Jove, you shall find out the difference. I’ve not been a pedant,” cried the Squire, “nor a prude,” — they were the first words that occurred to him. “ I’ve paid your debts, and put up with — many things no father approves of.”
“ You must think, sir, that you are speaking to Stephen, and not to me.”
“ Hold your tongue, sir ! ” thundered the Squire. “ I know what I’m saying and who I am speaking to. Stephen may be a fool, but not so great a fool as you are. He would not throw away his living and his place in the world for any woman. Look here ! either you give up this business at once, this very night (I ’ll pack the whole brood away to-morrow, out of your road), and settle down and marry as you ought, and do your duty by yourfamily, or — good-by ! ” cried the Squire, angrily, kissing the tips of his fingers, — “ good-by! Take your own way; it’s to be hoped you ’ll find it a wise one. As for me, I’ve nothing more to say.”
“ Father,” exclaimed Roger again. The shock, for it was a shock, calmed him once more. There had been no very cordial relations in the family, perhaps, but never a breach. And his home exercised that charm upon him which an ancestral home does upon most Englishmen. The disinheritance did not strike him as anything real, but the severance had a horrible sound ; it daunted him in spite of himself.
“ I will listen to no appeal,” said the Squire. “ You think you can touch my heart by that ‘ father ’ of yours. Pshaw! you ’re not a baby; you know what you ’re about as 'well as I do. We ’re both men, no such wonderful difference. I ’ll have no false sentiment. Do what I require, or if you take your own way, understand that Melcombe will never be yours. I may settle some trifle on you for charity, but Melcombe ” —
“ In that case, sir,” said Roger, slowly and stiffly, “ words are useless, as you say. I can’t take your way in what’s life or death to me. Melcombe — can — have nothing to do with it so far as I am concerned. It is yours, not mine, to dispose of. And as for charity ” — His hand clenched upon the table, showing all the veins ; but his face, which was white to the lips, was in the shadow, out of which his voice came tuneless and hard, with pauses to moisten his throat. It stopped at last from that cause, his mouth being parched with agitation and passion, on the word “ charity,” which, had he retained the power of expression, would have been full of scathing scorn, but he had lost the power.
The door opened behind them at this crisis, and Edmund came into the room. Edmund had been uneasy all the evening. but his mind went no further than uneasiness. He feared vaguely a quarrel between his father and brother. He feared that Roger, in his excited and uncertain state, would bear no interference, but this was all. He came into the room anxious, but scarcely alarmed, and took no fright from the words he heard. “ Charity,” — it had ended thus, he thought, amicably, on some mild matter of benevolence on which father and son were agreeing. But this delusion lasted a moment, and no longer.
“ Here, Ned,” cried the Squire, “ you ’re just in time. Your brother thinks more of your interests than his own. Your name goes down in the will tomorrow in the place of his. Shake hands, old fellow; it’s you that are to have Melcombe. You are a bit of a milksop, Ned, but never mind. Shake hands on it, my boy.”
“ What does this mean ? ” cried Edmund, hurrying forward into the light. But Roger did not wait for the explanation. He caught his brother’s hand as he passed him, and wrung it in his own ; then hurried out of the room, leaving the two others, the one at the height of excitement, the other disturbed and wondering, looking strangely into each other’s eyes.
EDMUND and his father stood looking at each other, as Roger’s steps died away. They listened with a curious unanimity, though the one was at the height of unreasoning anger, and the other anxious and alarmed, — as people listen to steps that are going away forever. There seemed some spell in the sound. Mr. Mitford was the first to break free from it. He threw himself down in his chair, making it creak and swing. “Well!” he cried, “there’s heroics! And now to business. You. were surprised, I don’t doubt, at what I said just now, Ned. You thought I did n’t mean it. You thought, perhaps, I had said it before. There you ’re wrong. If I said it before, it was but a threat, a crack of the whip, don’t you know, over his head. I am in serious earnest now.”
“About what, sir?” asked Edmund. “ Pardon me if I don’t understand.”
“ You mean you won’t understand,” retorted the Squire, who spoke with a puff of angry breath between each phrase, panting with anger. “It is too late for that sort of thing now. You had better give me your attention seriously, without any quixotical nonsense. I don’t say it is wrong to consider your brother. You’ve done so as much — more than he or any one had a right to expect ; but you ’re doing no good, and that is a sort of thing that can’t go on forever. You had better accept the position, and think a little of yourself now.”
“ What is it, father ? You would not, I am sure, do anything hasty. Roger’s not a prudent fellow, and he has a hot temper. If he has done or said anything that offends you, it was in inadvertence, or carelessness, or ” —
“ I know very well what it was, without any of your glosses. If you mean to say that it was not with any intention of being cut out of my will in consequence, I grant you that. Most likely he does not believe I shall ever be aggravated to the point of cutting him out of my will. What he wants is his own way and my property too. Yes,” said Mr. Mitford, with a snort of hot breath, “ that is what he intends, — it’s simple. But there’s a limit to that as to everything else, and I’ve reached that limit. I’ve been coming to it for some time, and he ’s clenched it to-night. I want to speak of yourself, not Roger. So far as he ’s concerned, there ’s not another word to say.”
“ He can’t have done anything since he came home — if it’s only something foolish he has said ” —
“ Hold your tongue, Ned ! There’s not to be another word on that subject, please! ” with fierce politeness. Then the Squire added with a snarl, “ He ’s asked Lily Ford to marry him, — or means to do so, — and tells me she was his mother’s favorite, and therefore is fit to be put in his mother’s place. By Jove ! ” cried Mr. Mitford, puffing out once more from his nostrils a hot blast, “ and the fellow thinks I’m to stand that! It’s all quite settled ; we may take it quietly ; there ’s nothing more to say. Now comes your turn, Ned. You won’t disgrace me in that sort of way, I know. You may sink into a corner and do nothing at all, — that’s likely enough,
— but you won’t disgrace your family. Try and be something more than negative, now you ’re at the head of it. You ’re not the man your brother is, though, thank Heaven, you ’re not the fool he is, either. Why, if you put your best foot foremost — there is no telling
— Lizzie Travers might Idee you as well as Roger. You could but try.”
The Squire exhaled a part of his excitement in a harsh laugh. It sounded coarse and unfeeling, but in reality it was neither. It was anger, pain, emotion, the lower elements heightened by something of that irritation of natural affection which makes wrath itself more wrathful. Edmund did not do justice to his father. He was horrified and revolted by the supposed jest, and had he given vent to his feelings he would have made an indignant and angry reply; but the thought that he was Roger’s sole helper restrained him. He must neither quarrel with his father, nor even refuse these propositions, however horrible they were to him, for Roger’s sake.
“ It would be very painful to me,” he said gravely, “ to be put in my brother’s place.”
“ What, with Lizzie Travers ?” cried the Squire, with another laugh. “ Take heart, man. Women, as often as not, prefer domestic fellows like you.”
Edmund had a hard struggle with himself. He had the sensitiveness of a man whose mind was touched with the preliminaries of love, and in a semi-reverential state to all women; and to hear one name thus tossed about was almost more than he could bear. But there was a great deal at stake, and he mastered himself.
“ You might leave me your heir, sir,” he said, “ but you could not make me the head of the family. After you, Roger is that, though he had not a penny. I am very strong on primogeniture so far as that goes.”
“ Primogeniture is all humbug,” said the Squire. “ If it were not that those Radical fellows are so hot against it, — as if it could do anything to them ! — I should say myself it was a mistake. Let the father choose the son that suits him to come after him. That’s what I say, and that’s my case. As for the head of the family, don’t you trouble your mind, Ned. The head of the family is the one who has the money. You may take my word for that.”
“ And yet, sir,” said Edmund quietly, “ if I were owner of Melcombe to-morrow, and had everything you could give me, I should still be obliged to bear the Mitford arms with a difference, to show I was not the first in descent.”
This statement made the Squire turn pale. It will probably not impress the reader very profoundly, unless, indeed, he belongs to an old county family, and knows what such a misfortune is. For a moment it took away Mr. Mitford’s breath. He had not thought of that. Roger landless, with full right to the ancient coat; and Edmund rich and the proprietor of everything, yet bearing a mark of cadency, his younger son’s difference ! That was a bitter pill. He had not thought of it, and therefore received the blow full on his breast. The first effect it had was to make him more and more angry with his eldest son.
“ Confound the fellow! ” he cried, with an earnestness of objurgation which was more than wrath. Roger was not only making his father angry, but giving him occasion for serious thought. A mark of cadency! It was an idea for which the Squire was not prepared.
“And if what you foresee should happen,” said Edmund, with grave persistency, following out his line of argument without raising his eyes, “ if we should marry and leave children behind us, there would be the Mitfords who are the elder branch poor, and the Mitfords who are ” —
“ Stop that! ” cried the Squire; “if it is so, it can’t be helped. Do you think I’m going to let myself be balked and all my plans frustrated by a trifle like that ? Let them be the elder branch, and much good may it do them ! — the children of Lily Ford, my gamekeeper’s grandsons ! By Jove ! ” Mr. Mitford felt himself grow purple again, and saw sparks flying before his eyes : and he stopped, for he knew it was not good for him to let excitement go so far. To decide which of his sons should succeed him was one thing; to open the way for him to receive his inheritance at once was very different. He had not the least intention of doing that. " It’s quite enough,” he said, “ for this time that you understand and accept my settlement. I have had enough of it for one night. To-morrow we ’ll have Pounceford over and settle everything. You can leave me now. Why the deuce did you let the fellow come here? ” he exclaimed, with a sudden outburst, as Edmund turned to leave the room.
“ You may ask that, sir. It is my fault. I told him I was coming, which I had no need to do.”
“ Need ! I should as soon have told him to hang himself. And what did you want here ? Could n’t you have stayed in town and kept him straight ? What is the good of you, if you can’t do a thing like that ? ” The foam began to fly from the Squire’s mouth as the gust of irritation rose. “ A younger brother, sir, should have some feeling for the family. He ought to be able to sacrifice a little to keep his brother straight. Good Lord, what is the use of him if it is n’t that ? And here you come vaporing to the country for no reason, and tell him you are coming! Tell him ! For goodness’ sake, why? ”
“ It was the act of a fool,” said Edmund, with bowed head.
“ It was worse,” cried the Squire. “ It was the act of Jacob, he that was the supplanter, don’t you know, that took his brother by the heel — it’s all in the Bible. It’s your fault, and it will be to your advantage: that’s the way of the world. Oh, I don’t suppose you thought of that, — you ’re not clever enough ; but I should, in your position. I should have seen what people would say. You ’ll get the land and the lady, while Roger, my poor Roger ” — And here the Squire broke down. Who could doubt that to cast off his eldest son was a misery even to this high-tempered and imperious man ? Roger was lost to him, — there was no going back upon tlie decision ; but still a man might rage at the things and chances which had turned his son aside from the right way.
“ Father, for God’s sake, let things be as they are! ” cried Edmund. “ Do you suppose I would take Roger’s inheritance from him ? When you think of it you will relent; and I, for my part, could only accept as his trustee, as his representative, to frighten him, since you think proper to do so, but to restore ” —
The Squire looked up, suddenly brought to himself by this unguarded speech. His momentary emotion had blown off, and the watchfulness of the man determined to have his own way, and to permit no one to interfere, started up in full force. “ Oh ! ” he said, “ so that’s it. Your compliance seemed a little too gracious. You ’re not so ready to humor me in a usual way. So that’s it! I might have known there was something underhand.”
Anger flamed up on Edmund’s cheek; but he restrained himself once more. If he let himself go and joined Roger in his banishment, who would there be to make any stand for the disinherited ? Stephen ? He did not trust Stephen. He said gravely, “ I do not suppose you mean, in this respect at least, what you say. I have never, that I know of, done anything underhand.”
“ Well, perhaps that was strong,” said the Squire. “ I don’t know that you have, Ned; but I ’ll have nothing of the kind here. I hope Pounceford knows his business. If you ’re to be my heir, you shall be so, not merely a screen for Roger. Go away now. I’m excited, which, if I had any sense, I should n’t be. One lets one’s self get excited over one’s children, who don’t care two straws what happens to one. That is the truth. You are interested about your brother, but as for me, who have brought you up and cared for you all your life ” —
The Squire’s voice took a pathetic tone. He really felt a little emotion, and he was not in the way of using histrionic methods : but yet everybody does this at one time or another, and he was not unwilling to make his son believe that he felt it a great deal.
And Edmund was aware of both phases. He knew that his father was not without heart. He was even sorry for him in the present complication of affairs : but it went against him to fall into the pathos which was suggested, and make any pretty speech about Mr. Mitford’s devotion to his children and the manner in which they repaid it. He stood still for a moment, silent, making no response, feeling to himself like an impersonation of the undutiful and ungrateful. What could he say ? Nothing that would not be at least partially fictitious, as had been the appeal.
“ I think I will take myself off, sir,” he said, “ as you tell me. To-morrow we shall all know better, perhaps, what we are about. I am very much taken by surprise. I never for a moment supposed that, in earnest, you meant to disinherit your eldest son.”
“ You thought I meant it in jest, then ? ” said the Squire. " It ’s a nice thing to joke about, is n’t it, a man’s eldest son ? Well, go. I have had about enough of this confounded business for one night.”
He felt that his effort had failed, and he was vexed to think that his voice had trembled, and that he had really been touched by his own fatherly devotion, and in vain ; but that soon went out of his head when his son had left him, and he sat alone surveying all the circumstances at his leisure in the quiet which solitude gives. He leaned his head upon his hands, and stared at the light, which came with so much additional force from under the shade of the lamp. He was not a happy father, it was true. His children had gone against him, — Roger violently, Edmund with a silent disapproval which was very trying to bear, Stephen with the careless insolence of a young man who knows the world much better than his father does. Even the girls paid no attention to his wishes. The elder ones were fast young women about town, which was a thing he detested ; and Nina was a little gossip, no better than a waiting-maid at home. These things all came to the Squire’s mind in this moment which he passed alone. He had done a great deal for them all, especially for the boys, and this was how they repaid him. He protested in his own mind against it all, — against their indifference, their carelessness, their superiority to his opinion. That was what a man got for taking a little trouble, for trying to make a home for his family, for giving up all pleasure outside of his own house. It was rather a fine, disinterested, noble-minded picture he made of himself. It looked very well, he thought unconsciously. He might have married again ; he might have spent his time at race meetings, or gone into society, or amused himself in a great many ways; but instead he had lived at home, and brought up his children, and devoted himself to them. It was a fine thing to have done. He had been comparatively young when their mother died, and she, poor thing, had gone early. But he had never given her a successor, as he might have done; he had never abandoned her children : and this was how they rewarded him, — to propose to put Lily Ford in their mother’s place; to pretend to accept his favor in order to give it back to Roger, whom it was his intention to disinherit ; to go against him, cross him, show how little they cared for him in every way!
Mr. Mitford was not softened by his reflections; after that touch of pathos and admiring self-pity, he worked himself up into anger again. They might think to get the better of him, but they should not. They were all in his power, whatever they might think. He was not bound to give them a farthing, any one of them. He might marry again, for that matter, and have heirs who would be perfectly docile, who would never set up their will against his. By Jove ! and that was what he would do, if they did not mind. Who could say that even Lizzie Travers herself might not think a man of sixty-five, hale and hearty, a man who knew the world, as good as any one of the young fellows that did not know a fine woman when they saw her ? She was not in her first youth, after all, — not what you could call a girl. She was twenty-five. The Squire said to himself that he might do a great deal worse, and that she might do a great deal worse. This gleamed across his mind for a moment with a triumphant sense of the universal discomfiture which he might thus create all around. But, to do lmn justice, it was not such a suggestion as found natural root in his mind; and presently he returned to the practical question. To disinherit Roger, yet leave the next heir free to reinstate him, was, of course, out of the question. The Squire drew his blotting-book towards him, and began to write out his instructions to Pounceford. He was not at any time a bad man of business, and the excitement in his mind seemed to clear every faculty. He who had prided himself so on his freedom from all bonds of entail or other restrictions upon his testamentary rights began, with a grim smile upon his face, to invent restrictions for his successor. He tore up several copies of the document before he satisfied himself at last; and as he went on, getting more and more determined that his son should have no will in the matter, the Squire finally decided upon conditions by which Edmund was to be tied up harder than any tenant for life had ever been before him, with the most minute stipulations as to who was to succeed him, —his own children first, then Stephen and his children, then the girls, — not a loophole left for Roger, nor for any arrangement with Roger. The Squire perhaps saw the humor of this, when he read the paper over and shut it into his drawer before going to bed ; for there was a smile upon his face. Nevertheless, he breathed out a long breath as he lighted his candle, and said to himself, “ He ’ll never be such a confounded fool,” as he went upstairs to his own room through the silence of the sleeping house.
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.