A MIDNIGHT TALK.
THE house, however, was not so still as Mr. Mitford supposed. It contained at least one room in which an exciting act of the same family drama was being carried on. The brothers had not met immediately after Edmund had left his father: for a few hours they had been alone, following each the thread of his own excited and troublous thoughts. Roger had gone out to calm the fever of his mind in the coolness and darkness of the night. Edmund, hastening out of his father’s presence after his dismissal, had sunk into a chair in the hall, where all was vacant, the night air breathing in through the open door, the shadows of the trees waving faintly, the leaves rustling. He had thrown himself down there in the dark, where no one could see him, to escape from the necessity of doing or saying anything. As he sat there Nina’s little white figure came out from the drawing-room, peered about with anxious curiosity, then vanished up-stairs; and Larkins appeared, with a footman after him, to shut up for the night. Edmund did not move while they passed from one room to another, closing the windows, letting down the bolts and bars. The jar of these noises gave a kind of unwilling accompaniment to his troubled mind. Then a quick step, unsteady with passion and excitement, approached rapidly and rang upon the pavement. " Is it you, Roger ? ” his brother said, rising out of the shadows. Roger was in no mood to talk; he waved his hand as if to put all interruption away, and hastened to his room with an evident disinclination for any further intercourse. But an hour or two later, when all was still, Edmund, who had taken refuge in the mean time in the billiard-room, which was the one room of the house left alone by Larkins, always a refuge for the young men, — their sulking-room when they were indisposed for family society, — heard the door suddenly open and his brother come in. The only light in the room was from the lamp suspended over the billiardtable, and throwing a vivid glow upon the green cloth. The large bow-window at the end let in a prospect of pale sky and waving branches. The room was in an angle separated from the rest of the house. Roger came in like a ghost, scarcely seen, and threw himself upon a chair near the one which Edmund had himself taken; and there they sat for some time, stretching out their long limbs, extending, as it were, their minds, racked with distracting thoughts, with nothing to say to each other, and yet so much ; communicating a mutual malaise, misery, difficulty, without a word said. They had a degree of family likeness which made this mute meeting all the more pathetic. They were antagonists in interest, according to any vulgar estimate of the case. The younger brother disapproved profoundly, miserably, of what the elder had done. He felt the inappropriateness of it, the folly of it, to the bottom of his heart; and yet in this troubled chaos, where all landmarks were disappearing and every established law being abrogated, he was one with Roger, smarting with him under the wounds of his father’s rage, and even moved (though he was so much against it) by a sort of instinctive sympathy with that fatal infatuation of foolish love.
They began to talk at last in monosyllables, which dropped now and then into the silence with a question and answer half expressed. “ All settled, then?” — “ Nothing to be done ? ” — “ All ” — " Nothing.” Then another long pause. By degrees a few more words came to Edmund’s lips, and a longer reply from Roger’s; then, the ice once fully broken, the brothers settled into talk.
“ Don’t spoil your own life for me, Ned,” said Roger ; " the die is cast for me. And in every way it is better, when you come to think of it. I don’t say there is not reason in it, from his point of view. I ’ve never been blind to that side of the question. I know that it might not be easy to reconcile everything — the father and mother ” —
“ You see that,” exclaimed Edmund, " and yet it makes no difference.”
“ I have always seen it,” said Roger, almost fiercely : " you know I have. I see everything. No! it makes no difference, — rather the reverse.”
“ It pushes you on ? ”
“ It pushes me on. Ned,” he added, leaning forward, " you don’t know what it is to be caught in the tide like this. Every disadvantage pushes me on : because it is not what I may have dreamed — because, God help us ! there may be, even afterwards, things to overcome ” —
“ Roger, for God’s sake ” —
“ Don’t speak to me,” he said, holding up his hand. " I ’ll quarrel with you, if you do, — though, Ned, old fellow, Heaven knows I trust you and hold you closer than any other man in the world. Only don’t touch that subject. Yes,” he went on dreamily, leaning back in his chair again, " I don’t disguise it from myself: there may be things to overcome. We have lived in very different spheres, we have different ways of thinking, and all the associations and habits — I scorn myself for thinking of them at all, but I overlook nothing, I am as cool and cold as any calculating machine ” —
“ And yet you sacrifice everything, you throw away everything.”
“ Hush ! ” said Roger again, " not a word. What do I sacrifice, — the chance of marrying a woman like my sisters ? And suppose that there are differences between her and me, — what are they ? Conventionalities on my side, things that mean nothing, mannerisms to which we choose to attribute an importance; to sit down in a certain way, to speak in a certain tone, to observe certain ceremonies. What is all that ? Who would put these nothings in comparison with a pure nature, — a pure, sweet nature and a good heart ? ”
To this Edmund made no reply. A self-pleading so pitiful wanted none. The depths out of which Roger spoke, a happy lover, feeling the world well lost for the sake of the woman he loved, were too dark and tragic to be fathomed by any sympathizer, even a brother. And perhaps when Edmund did speak it was still more dangerous ground upon which he trod. " Are you sure”—he said, then paused, feeling the insecurity of the soil.
“ Am I sure — of what ? That there is no further question as to what I have done and mean to do ? Yes, quite sure.”
“ That was not what I meant to ask — and you may be offended by my question; but it is serious enough to risk your anger for. Are you sure that she loves you, Roger, — you who are giving up so much for her ? ”
Roger did not reply at once, but when he did so did it in haste, turning quickly upon his brother, as if he had not allowed a minute to elapse before giving him his answer. " Would you like her to have thrown herself at my head, clutched at me as a good parti, not to be let slip ? That’s what she would have done if she were a girl in society ; but fortunately for me, she is not that.”
“ Forget the girls in society,” said Edmund; " they are not what you choose to think them, or at least I don’t believe it. But, Roger, there’s no question so important to you as this. Think how many inducements there are for her besides love. I will say nothing else, — I will allow that everything has gone too far to be altered, — but only this : are you sure that she shares your feelings ? I don’t want to bother you ; you know that.”
“ Am I so disagreeable ? ” demanded Roger, with a laugh; “ beside all the people she is likely to see, am I so little worth considering ? You pay me a poor compliment, Ned. But of this I’m sure : if it is so, she ‘ll have nothing to say to me. You can comfort yourself with that thought.”
“ Perhaps not,” said Edmund, hesitating ; " but if so, she will have great strength of mind. Roger, for Heaven’s sake, make sure. She has everything to gain, and you have everything to lose ” —
“ That’s enough ! ” Roger rose impatiently, and held out his hand to his brother. “You ’re a Job’s comforter, Ned! I don’t doubt you mean very well, but this is not the way to encourage a man when he’s — when he’s at a difficult point in life. Good-night, old fellow ! I know you wish me well. Don’t spoil your own chances for me, that’s all.”
“Good-night!” Edmund said; and he sat still in the silent room after his brother had left him, thinking over this new danger, — that Roger might give up everything he had in the world for the sake of a girl to whom he was merely the means of rising, a fine match, a gentleman elevating her out of her own small sphere. Love! how could it be love ? What did she know of him to make love possible ? It might even be that it was a hard thing to expect from such a girl indifference to the advantages which Roger could offer her : she would be flattered, she would be dazzled, she would see herself in a moment placed high above all her equals. Neither she nor her parents would believe in Roger’s disinheritance; and he, with this fatal passion in him, this fate which he had not been able to resist, would barter away his heart and his life — for what ? — for the privilege of making Lily Ford a lady; not to win love and all its compensations, but to serve as a steppingstone to the ambition of an artificially trained girl. The tragedy deepened as he thought it all over, sitting alone, feeling the chill of the night steal upon him in the silent house. Oh, what a mystery is life, with all its mistakes and tragic blunderings! What fatal darkness all about us, until all illumination is too late! It is the spectator, people say, who sees the game, not those whose whole fortune is staked upon it. But in this case it was not even so ; the gamester, who had put his all upon the touch to win or to lose, saw too, — was aware of the ruin that might be before him, the wasted sacrifice, the spoiled life, — and yet would neither pause nor think. Perhaps it is the tender-hearted lookeron, in such circumstances, who has the worst of it. He has none of the compensations. Even the excitement which is sometimes so tragic is sometimes also rapturous for the chief actor : but the sympathizer can never get its realities out of his eyes; they overshadow everything, even the hope, which might be a just one, that, after all was said, the soul of goodness would vindicate itself even amid things evil. For Roger there was still the chance that joy might be the outcome ; at all events, there was no happiness for him except in this way. But Edmund saw the evil and not the good, nor any good, however things might turn.
When Roger woke next morning, and opened his eyes in the familiar room, and saw the peaceful sunshine streaming in through that familiar window, as he had done for the greater part of his life, it was not for some minutes that he realized to himself all that had happened, — all the difference there was between this awakening and that of any other day. It flashed upon him suddenly after a moment of wonder and trouble, — a moment in which care confronted him, awake before him, but with the mists of morning over its face. What was it that had happened ? Then recollection came like a flood. He had declared himself to Lily, his love-tale was told, he was hers whatever might happen. All doubt or question was over so far as that was concerned. A gleam of troubled sunshine passed over his memory, a vision of her, timid, shrinking, with that frightened cry, “ Oh, Mr. Roger ! — nothing more responsive ; but what could that be but her modest way, her shy panic at the passion in him, her unselfish fears for her father ? It could be nothing more. Then out of this sunshine, out of this transporting certainty, his mind plunged into the darkness again. He saw the dim library, the shaded lamp, his father, furious, opposite to him, calling for the renunciation of all his hopes. He raised himself slowly from his bed, and looked round him. All was so familiar and so dear ; it was home. There cannot be two homes in this world: he had grown up here, he knew every corner of it, and there was not a nook, out of doors or in, that had not some association for Roger. As in a vision he suddenly saw his mother standing just within the door, shading the candle with her hand so that the light should not fall on his eyes. He seemed to see her, though it must have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago! and all this time he had been here, with short absences; coming back always to the same place, always the chief person in the house next to his father, knowing that all was his whatever should happen. And now it was his no longer. To-day was to be the last he should spend under the paternal roof; to-day was the last day on which he could call Melcombe his home : and up to this time there had never been any doubt that he would be master of all. It was not a thing that had ever been taken into discussion or questioned. He was his father’s eldest son, the head of the family after him. What could happen but that Roger should succeed his father ? He had no more wished for this as an advantage over his brothers than he had wished for his father’s death in order that he might succeed. There was no reasoning in it, no personal thought. It was the course of nature, taken for granted as much as we take it for granted that to-morrow’s sun will shine.
Now the course of nature was stopped, and everything that had been sure to be was turned aside and would be no more. Bewilderment was the chief feeling in Roger’s mind ; not pain so much as wonder, and the difficulty of accepting what was incredible, — a state not of excitement, still less of struggle, but of a certain dim consternation, incapacity to understand or realize what nevertheless he knew to be true. He knew it so well to be true and irresistible that, as he dressed, he arranged in his mind how his few private possessions were to be disposed of. Some of them he would no longer have any use for, — his hunters, his dog-cart, the many things which somehow had come to be his, without either purchase or gift, the natural property of the heir of the house. Were they his at all ? What was his ? Almost nothing ; a legacy his godfather had left him, a little money he had at the bank, the remains of the allowance he had from his father : that, of course, would stop. He must find work of some kind, — something which he could do, enough to maintain himself — and his wife. His wife! Good heavens! was it to poverty he was to bring her? Instead of transporting her to the higher sphere in which he had (O fool!) foreseen so many difficulties, was he to give her only the dullness of genteel poverty, — a poverty harder and less simple than that to which she had been used ? Was this what it had come to? He thought for the first time seriously of Edmund’s question, — “ Does she love you?” She was not mercenary; no, not like the society women. She would not count what he had or weigh the advantages of marrying him, but— The question had become more serious even in the very moment of being put. It might have been enough for the future master of Melcombe to love his bride, whom he could surround with everything her heart could desire. But if Lily were to wed a man disinherited, she must love him. The chill of that thought came over him like a sudden storm-cloud. He had not asked if she loved him. She was a timid, modest girl, who perhaps had never even thought of love. She would love him after ; she would come to love him : he who could make her life like a fairy-tale, who could change everything for her, realize her every dream, — what could she do but love him ? He would be the fairy prince to Lily, the giver of everything that was delightful and sweet. He had never been exigent, he had not expected from her a return which he believed she was too innocent, too inexperienced, to have thought of. It would almost have wounded the delicacy of Roger’s passion had she thrown herself into his arms, and acknowledged that her heart had already awakened and responded to the fervor of his. But now the question was altogether changed. Now that he had nothing to offer, nothing to give her, it was necessary before she accepted the only remainder, which was himself, that Lily’s heart should have spoken, that she should love him. He had not thought of it in this light even when Edmund put the question to him, nor had Edmund thought of it in that light, but he saw it now.
The effect upon Roger of this thought was extraordinary. Certainly he had not intended to carry away from Ford’s cottage an unwilling bride. He had looked for a sweet consent, a gentle yielding to his love, a growing wonder and enchantment and delight; but now — In spite of himself, a chill got into Roger’s veins. What had he to offer her? Poverty, obscurity; an existence differing from that in which she had been brought up in nothing except that it would be far harder in its necessities than those of the gamekeeper’s cottage ever could have been. Acquiescence would not do any longer. Lily must choose, she must know what her own heart said. This change altered all possible relations between them at once. She must take a woman’s part, which, he said to himself with a groan, she was not old enough nor experienced enough to take, and judge for herself. It was for her sake that he would be poor, but perhaps she would be in the right if she refused his poverty. It would have to be put to her, at least, and she must decide for herself. The shifting scenes which surrounded this resolution in Roger’s imagination were many and various. He imagined how he would tell her, and half a dozen different ways in which she might reply. She might put her hand in his and say, “ You need me more if you are to be poor ; ” or she might whisper that it was he, and not his fortune, that had ever moved her ; or she might tell by nothing but a smile, by nothing but tears, what her meaning was. There were a hundred ways. Ah ! if that were so, it would be easy to say it; but if it were not so ?
He set out with a very grave face, after the pretense at breakfast which he had made alone, having waited until the family had dispersed from that meal, — all but Nina, who sat faithful by the urn, with large eyes expanded by curiosity, watching all her brother’s movements, until she had poured out the tea for everybody. Roger did not even notice her watchful looks. He had not an idea that she perused all the faces at that table, one after another, and made them out. But something more was going on than was within Nina’s ken : it was not enough, she knew, to conclude that papa had been scolding the boys, — that was the only way of putting it which she was accustomed to ; but by this time she was aware that it was more serious than that. Roger’s face, however, was all shut and closed to her scrutiny; the upper lip firmly set against the lower, the chin square, the eyes overcast.
“ Will you have another cup of tea, Roger ? ” she said.
“ No, Nina, thanks.”
“ Won’t you have something to eat, Roger ? You have had nothing. A gentleman can’t breakfast on a cup of tea.”
“ Thank you, my dear; I have had all I want.”
“ Oh, Roger, I ’m afraid you are not well. Oh, Roger, do eat something before you go out.”
Her voice was so much disturbed that he paused to pat her upon the shoulder, as he passed her.
“ Don’t trouble about me, Nina. I have more to think of than breakfast,” Roger said. His tone was more gentle than usual, his hand lingered tenderly upon her shoulder. Nina got very quickly to her window, when he had left the room ; there was no more occasion for keeping her place by the urn. She watched till he came out from the other side of the house and took his way across the park. To the West Lodge again, and so early ! It became clear to Nina that something more must be involved than a scolding from papa.
Roger had not the air of a happy lover ; his face was grave and pale and full of care. He went straight across the park as the bird flies, not even perceiving the obstacles in his way. It was a mode of progress as different from the manner in which he used to approach that centre of his thoughts, circling and circling until, as if by accident, he found himself close to the little humble place in which was his shrine, — as different as the evening leisure, the soft nightfall, when beasts and men were alike drawing homeward, was to this morning hour of life and labor. Ford’s cottage was different, too ; it was astir with morning sounds of work and the rude employments of every day. One of the helpers about the Melcombe stables was busy outside with something for the pheasants, with half a dozen dogs following him wherever he moved ; and the sound of his heavy footsteps coming and going, the rattle of the grain in the baskets, the scuffling and occasional barking of the young dogs, jarred upon Roger, whose first impulse was to order the man away. But he remembered, with a half smile which threw a strange light upon his face, that he had no longer any authority here, and passed on to the house.
Mrs. Ford was busy with her domestic work within, — very busy cleaning bright copper kettles and brass candlesticks, which stood in a row upon the table and made a great show ; but though she seemed so hard at work, it was probable that Mrs. Ford was not working at all. Her honest face was disturbed with care. She was red with trouble and anxiety. When she curtsied to the young master, as he came in, the salutation concealed a start which was not of surprise, but rather acknowledged the coming of a crisis for which she was on the outlook and prepared.
“ I have come,” said Roger, quickly, “ to see Lily, as you will understand; but I have also come, Mrs. Ford, to see you. Where is Ford ? I suppose you told him what I said to you last night.”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger! ” cried Mrs. Ford, wiping her hands in her apron, with another curtsy. “ Oh, sir, yes, I told him.”
“ Is he here ? You must have known I should want to come to an understanding at once.”
“ Oh, sir ! It’s early, Mr. Roger — we never thought — Ford’s away in the woods ; he would n’t bide from his work.”
“ I suppose he told you his mind ; of course you know it well enough. Mrs. Ford, I ‘ve got something more to tell you to-day.”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger,” said Mrs. Ford, “ don’t, sir, don’t tell me no more ! I’ve not got the strength for it. Oh, don’t tell me no more ! We are that upset, Ford and me, that we don’t know what to think or what to say.”
“ Am I not to be trusted, then ? ” asked Roger, with a smile of conscious power, grave as he was. “ Have you higher views? No, I ought n’t to say that. Why should you be so upset, Ford and you ? ”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger,” she said again, “ oh, when we thinks how it would be — What will the master say, as has been a good master, taking one year with another, ever since him and me was married, — what would he say ? He has a rough tongue when he’s put out of his way. He d say as we’d inveigled you, and set snares for you, and I don’t know what. He ’d think this is what we’ve been aiming at first and last, giving her her eddication for, and all that.”
“ You need not trouble yourself to think what he ‘ll say; he ’ll take no notice. We have had some words, he and I, and I don’t think he will interfere any more. Where is Lily? I have much to say to her. And as for you, my father will not be unjust to you.”
He was turning along the narrow passage which led to Lily’s parlor, when Mrs. Ford caught him by the arm. “ Mr. Roger ! Lily’s not there.”
“ Not there ? Where is she ? I hope you don’t mean to interfere between her and me ? ”
“ Oh, no, sir, not I would n’t,” cried the keeper’s wife. “ She’s out somewhere ; I don’t know where. She is just distracted, Mr. Roger. Speak of being upset, she ’s more upset than any one. Oh, wait a bit, sir; don’t go after her. She’s distracted, Lily is. All this morning she’s been wringing her poor hands, saying, ‘ What shall I do, — what shall I do ? ’ She’s very feeling, too feeling for her own good. She takes thought for us, and for you, and for every one afore herself. I should n’t wonder if she were to go and hide herself somewhere. I don’t know at this moment where she is.”
“ Mrs. Ford,” said Roger, almost sternly, “ I must know the truth : is this because Lily does not — care for me ? ”
“Oh, sir!” exclaimed the woman, trembling, watching him with furtive eyes; and then a small hysterical sound, half cough, half sob, escaped her. “ Mr. Roger, is it possible she should n’t be proud ? A gentleman like you — and stooping to our little place to seek her out! Not but what my Lily is one as any gentleman might” —
“Yes, yes,” he cried, — “yes, yes ! There is no question of that. The question is, Has she any answer to give me ? It is not because I am a gentleman, but because I am a man, that I want my answer from Lily. Does she want to avoid me ? Am I not her choice, — am I not ” — Roger paused and turned to the door. “ I must find her, wherever she is,” he added.
Mrs. Ford caught his arm again. “ Oh, Mr. Roger, she do find such places among the trees as nobody ’ud ever think of. Oh, don’t go after her, Mr. Roger ! Is it natural, sir, as she should n’t give her ’eart to you ? Who has she ever seen but you ? You ’re the only gentleman — Oh, sir, don’t stop me like that. My girl, she’s a lady in her heart. Do you think she would ever look at the likes of them common men ? And she has never seen nobody but you. It’s not that. I understand what it is, Mr. Roger, if you, that are young, don’t understand. It’s turning everything wrong, everything upside down, everybody out of their way, all for one young little bit of a girl. She can’t abear it. Her father and me as will be turned out of house and home, and you as will be put all wrong with the Squire, and everything at sixes and sevens! Oh ! I understand her, though it may n’t be so easy for a young man like you.”
“ As for Ford and you, I’ll see to ” — Roger had said so much before he recollected how powerless he now was. He stopped short, then added hastily, “ I don’t think you have any cause for fear, Mrs. Ford; my father has done all he can. He will not trouble himself with other matters. He has disinherited me. It does not matter to him now what I do. Of course, you have a right to know it; and I must see Lily; I must speak to Lily ; there must be no doubt upon the subject now. She must look at it, and think of it, and make up her own mind.”
“ Disinher— ” It was too big a word for Mrs. Ford’s mouth, but not for her understanding. She gazed at Roger with round, wide-open eyes. " Oh, sir, has he put you out, — has he put you out ? and all for our Lily ! ” She wrung her hands. " Oh, but Mr. Roger, it’s not too late. You must n’t let that be. A girl may be both pretty and good, and that’s what my Lily is ; but to be turned out of house and home for her! Oh, no, no, — it’s not too late, — it must n’t be.”
“ There is nothing more to be said on that subject,” said Roger, with a certain peremptory tone. " But tell me where she is. Where is she ? Why am I kept from her? You understand that I am leaving to-day, and that I must see her. To keep her back is no kindness ; it is rather cruelty. Let me see her at once, Mrs. Ford.”
“ Oh, Mr. Roger ! ” she cried again, wringing her hands, “ you can go into the parlor and see for yourself. She’s been distracted-like in her mind since last night. She’s gone out, and I can’t tell where she is. Oh, sir, for all our sakes, make it up with the Squire. Don’t make a quarrel in the family ; go back to your father, Mr. Roger, and don’t mind us no more ! ”
A smile passed over his face at the strange futility of the idea. As well suggest that the pillars of the earth might be shaken, to make his seat more comfortable. He waved it aside with a movement of his hand.
“ You will perceive that I must see her to-day. I will come back before the time for the afternoon train. Tell her — tell her to think it all over ; and don’t attempt to come between us, for that is what cannot be done now.”
Was he almost glad in his heart to put off this interview, although he was so anxious for it ? There are times when, with our hearts beating for the turn of an event, Nature, sick with suspense yet terrified for certainty, will with both her hands push it away.
MR. MITFORD’S WILL.
Roger left Melcombe by the afternoon train, to which his brother accompanied him with feelings indescribable, but no faith in anything that was happening. It seemed to Edmund like a feverish dream, which by and by must pass, leaving the world as it was before. Roger was not very communicative as to what he was going to do. Indeed, it would have been difficult, for he did not have any distinct plans. He meant to get something he could work at, with a great vagueness in his mind as to what that would be. Something would be found, he had no doubt, though what he was fit for, what he could do, it was more difficult, nay, almost impossible, to say ; but that was the least of his preoccupations. He was sombre and downcast about matters which he did not confide to his brother ; saying, indeed, nothing about the Fords, or Lily, or anything that went below the surface of affairs. His father and he had met at luncheon, but nothing had been said between them. He left the house of his birth without a word of farewell, without any sign on his own part or that of others that he was doing more than going out for a walk. Nina, who had gained an interest in his eyes, he could not himself tell how, by dint of the anxious curiosity in hers, which Roger, forlorn, took for affectionate interest, received from him a kiss upon her cheek, a most unusual caress, which astonished her greatly. " You are not going away, Roger ? ” she said, scanning him all over with those keen eyes, seeing no indication of a journey, no change in his dress, yet suspecting something, she did not know what. " Good-by, little Nina; be good, and take care of yourself,” said he. And these were all the adieux he made. When they reached the station, Edmund observed that his brother glanced round him anxiously, as if looking for some one ; but he did not say for whom he looked. His last glance out of the carriage window was still one of scrutiny ; but it was evident that he did not find what he was expecting, and it was with an air of dissatisfaction and disappointment that he threw himself back into his corner, not making any response to Edmund, nor, indeed, seeing him as he stood to watch the train go away. The station was as little frequented as usual; one or two passengers, who had been dropped by the train, dispersing; one or two vacant bystanders turning their backs as the momentary excitement died away ; Edmund watching the line of carriages disappear with a sensation of sickness and confusion of faculties far more serious, he said to himself, than could be called for. There was nothing tragic in the matter, after all. Even if Roger were disinherited, as his father threatened, some provision must be made for him, and no doubt there would be time for many changes of sentiment before any disinheritance could be operative, the Squire being a man full of strength and health, more vigorous than any of his sons. What if Roger did make an unsatisfactory marriage ? Hundreds of men had done that, and yet been little the worse. If a woman were pretty and pleasant, who cared to inquire into who her father was ? Lily would no doubt put on very readily the outside polish of society. After all, there was nothing tragic about it; and yet —
Edmund, as was natural, strayed into the Rectory on his way home, and, what was equally natural, unbosomed himself to Pax, who had seen the brothers pass, and who knew somehow, neither she herself nor any one else knew how, that something was wrong at Melcombe. " My father speaks very big, but of course he will never do it,” Edmund said.
“ I would not be too sure of that. He may sometimes say more than he means to carry out. but when he is set at defiance like this ” —
“ Pax, you go in too much for the authorities. A man over thirty may surely choose a wife for himself.”
“ He should choose for his father too, when he is the eldest son,” said Pax. " Don’t talk to me. It’s all an unnatural system, if you like. I don’t mind what you say on that subject; but granting the system, it’s clear to me what must follow. If you ’re to carry on a family, you must carry it on. It is quite a different thing when you live an independent life. The predestined heir can never be an independent man.”
“ That is not the opinion of the world,” returned Edmund, with a smile.
“ It’s my opinion, and I don’t think I’m a fool. Now you are free to please yourself. You might marry Lily Ford and welcome. No one has any right to interfere with you.”
“ Thank you,” said Edmund ; " my tastes don’t lie that way.”
“ No,” answered Pax; " you might, and won’t; and Roger ought not, but does. That is the way always. I blame him very much, though I’m sorry for him. She is not worth it. There are some women who are, though. If Lizzie Travers had not a shilling, she would be worth it. She ’s a fortune in herself.”
“ Why bring in her name ? ” said Edmund ; “ though I don’t doubt you are right enough.”
“ I bring in her name for this, Edmund : that your father is quite right about her, and that if you let her slip through your fingers it will be wicked as well as foolish. There, that’s my opinion. Roger’s out of the question. Now, Edmund, àvous ” —
“ You speak as if it did n’t much matter which, so long as it was one of us ; that is highly disrespectful, I think, to one of whom — to one who ” —
“Yes,” said Pax, “that’s right; resent it on her account. That’s exactly what I knew you would do. Why bring in her name, as you say ? Poor Roger, poor boy ! So he thinks the world well lost for Lily Ford. I could hope he would never live to change his mind ; but I fear that is not likely to be. Lily Ford ! Well, she is neither a bad girl nor a silly one, any more than she can help being. I don’t think ill of her at all. She wants to be a lady, naturally, after her ridiculous bringing up, but she has not a bad heart. There ’s nothing bad about her. If she is fond of him, if she has any sort of love for him, all may come well.”
Though Edmund had himself expressed a doubt on this point, he could not hear it suggested by another. “ If she does not, she must be perverse indeed,” he said. “ Whom can she have seen equal to Roger ? I suppose he is the only gentleman who has ever come in her way.”
“ Who knows ? ” observed Pax, oracularly. She had not the slightest intention in what she said, nor did she know anything about the people whom Lily might have met. But she had a rooted objection to assumptions generally. “ Who knows ? A girl like that finds men to admire her in the depths of a wood, where other people would see nothing but twisted trees.”
Altogether she did not give much comfort to her visitor ; and Edmund did not find any pleasure in that day. He had to meet his father at dinner, who did worse than inquire about Roger ; he took no notice of his absence, not even of the empty chair at the other end of the table, which Edmund would not take, and which marked painfully the absence of the eldest son. Mr. Mitford talked a great deal at dinner ; he told stories which made Nina laugh, and even produced from the young footman a faint explosion, for which Larkins made him suffer afterwards. Edmund, however, would not laugh; he sat silent, and let his father’s pleasantries pass, the presence of his pale, grave face making a painful contrast with the gayety of the others. Larkins was as deeply conscious of the strained state of affairs as Edmund was, and went about the shaded background of the room with more solemnity than ever, while the Squire went on with his story - telling, and Nina laughed. Nina, indeed, did not want to laugh; she wanted to know why Roger had gone away, and what was the meaning of it all. But papa was “ so funny,” she could not but yield to the irresistible. The dinner is always a dreadful ordeal at such periods of family history, and most likely it was to hide his own perception of this, and do away with the effect upon himself of that significant vacancy at the other end of the table, that the Squire took refuge in being funny, which was not at all his usual way.
Next day Edmund was called to his father in the library. He found him in close consultation with Mr. Pouncefort, the solicitor who had been charged with the family business almost all his life, having inherited that, with other lifelong occupations of the same kind, from his father. Mr. Pouncefort sat at Mr. Mitford’s own writing-table, with a bag full of papers at his feet, and turned a very rueful countenance upon Edmund as he entered. He accompanied this look with a slight shake of the head, when Edmund came up and shook hands with him. “ Pretty well, pretty well,”he said, mournfully ; “ as well as can be expected, considering ” — in answer to the young man’s question. He was a neat little old man, with silver-gray hair carefully brushed, and a way of puckering up his brows which made his face look like a flexible mask.
“ Look here, Edmund,” said his father, “ I have been settling my affairs, as I told you.”
“ He means destroying his will, a very reasonable will, and making one that ought n’t to stand for a moment,” broke in Mr. Pouncefort, shaking his head and pushing up into his hair the folds of his forehead.
“ Nothing of the sort, you old croaker ! Pouncefort knows every man’s business better than he does himself.”
“ It’s my business to do so, and I do. I know your affairs all off by heart, which is a great deal more than you do. And I can see to-day from to-morrow, which you can’t in your present state of mind. I don’t know my own affairs a hundredth part so well as I know yours. Look here, a bargain : take my advice about your business, and you shall say what I’m to do with mine.”
The county gentleman looked at his solicitor with eyes in which familiar friendliness scarcely concealed the underlying contempt. They had known each other all their lives, — had been boys together, and called each other, in those days, by their Christian names. Mr. Pouncefort was as independent and nearly as rich as the Squire, but he was only a solicitor when all was said. “ What! ” Mr. Mitford cried, “ if I advise you to let your son marry the housemaid ? Come, Pouncefort, no folly. Read the stipulations to Edmund, and if he likes to abide by them it’s all right. If not, I think I know another who will.”
“ I declare to goodness,” asserted Mr. Pouncefort, “ I’d rather see my son marry anybody than put my hand to this.”
“ I did n’t send for the pope nor the bishop to tell me what was right,” said the other old man. “ I sent for my solicitor — I dare say Edmund has a hundred things to do, and you ’re wasting his valuable time.”
“ I have nothing to do, and I wish you would listen, sir, to what ” —
“ By Jove ! ” exclaimed the Squire, jumping up from his chair, “ is this my business, or whose business is it ? Let him hear it, and let us be done with it. I can’t stay here all day.”
Upon which Mr. Pouncefort, occasionally pausing to launch a comment, read the new settlement of the Mitford property, which after all was not so cruel as appeared. Roger was not cut off with a shilling; he was to have ten thousand pounds: but his successor as Mr. Mitford’s heir was strictly barred from conveying back to him or his heirs, under any pretense, any portion of the property. Roger was excluded formally and forever from all share in Melcombe. Any attempt at the transgression of this stipulation was to entail at once a forfeiture of the estate, which should then pass to the persons to be hereafter named. The spaces for the names were all blank. Mr. Pouncefort, shaking his head, interjecting now and then an exclamation, read to the end, and then he opened out the crackling papers on the table, and turned round first to the Squire, who had resumed his seat and listened with a sort of triumphant complacency, then to Edmund, who had stood all the time leaning on the back of a high carved chair. “ There ! ” cried the lawyer, “ there’s your confounded instructions carried out, and I’m ashamed of myself for doing it; and now, Edmund, it’s for you to speak.”
“ My answer is very simple,” said Edmund. “ It can be no disappointment to you, sir, for you must have foreseen it. I refuse ” —
“ You refuse ! You are a great fool for your pains. You had better take time to think it over. A day or two can’t make much difference, Pouncefort.”
“ A day or two might make all the difference,” replied Mr. Pouncefort. “ Why, you might die — any of us might die — before dinner.”
Once more the Squire jumped out of his chair. “ I think you want to drive me to ” —
“ Suicide ? ” said little Mr. Pouncefort. “ Oh, no; but I’ll tell you one thing, Mitford. If you thought you were going to die before dinner, — ay, or after it, either, — you would not make this will.”
“ You think yourself privileged,” cried the Squire, with a puff of hot breath. “ So far as I ’m aware my death is nothing to you, or when it takes place. Edmund ” —
“ Oh, yes,” returned the lawyer, “ it’s a great deal to me, for we ’re the same age ; and when you go, I ’ll have to be looking to my preparations for the voyage. I don’t want it to happen a day sooner than can be helped.”
“Edmund,” said Mr. Mitford, “all this is utterly beyond the question. Take a day or two to think. I don’t want to hurry you. I like to deal justly with everybody. You ’re the next, and I don’t want to pass you over; but don’t think you can bully me by refusing, for I ’ll stick to my intention whether you go in with it or not.”
“ I want no time to think, sir; there can’t be a question about my decision. I am as grieved about Roger as you can be, but I will never step into his place.”
“ ‘ Never ’ is a long word. He might die, as Pouncefort’s so fond of suggesting, and then, of course, you would take his place.”
“ I never will while he lives ; I never will to his detriment. Father, don’t do anything about it now. You are as young as the best of us. What does it matter whether it’s decided now or in six months’ time ? For the moment let it alone. We are all excited ” —
“ Not I,” declared the Squire, “ though Pouncefort thinks I may die before dinner.”
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. “ Edmund’s a very sensible fellow,” he said; “ suppose we put it off for six months.”
“ What! to leave me time to die, as you say, and balk myself? No, I tell you. I know where to find a man to do what I want, if you refuse. Let it be yes or no, then, on the spot, if that’s what you choose.”
“ It must be no, then, sir, — no, without a shadow of hesitation,” Edmund replied. He was very grave and pale, — as different as could be imagined from his father’s red and angry physiognomy. Mr. Mitford knew it was bad for him to be thus excited. Dying before dinner is not such an impossible thing, when a man is stout, of a full habit, and allows himself to get into states of excitement. He had a roar of rage in his throat to deliver upon his son, but was stopped by this thought, which had more effect upon him than a high moral reason. He pulled himself up with another puff of heated breathing, which was half a snort; and then he assumed the air of mockery which was, he was aware, his most effectual weapon.
“ Very well, then, sir,” he said, with that very detestable mimicry of his son’s tone. “ It shall be no, then, sir, and there’s an end of it. And I know some one who will not have a shadow of hesitation, not a — Stephen knows very well on what side his bread’s buttered. I ’ll telegraph for Steve, Pouncefort.”
“ Writing will do quite well; I’m in no hurry. One would think it was I that was pushing this matter on.”
“ Why, I might die — before dinner,” the Squire retorted. To be mimicked is never pleasant, but to be mimicked badly is a thing beyond the power of mortal man to support. Mr. Mitford had no imitative powers. Mr. Pouncefort grew an angry red under his gray hair.
It was at this moment that Larkins opened the door, and came in in his dignified way, — a way that put an end to everything in the shape of a scene wherever he appeared. He was in the habit of making a wide circuit round the furniture, with a calm and decorum which made excited persons ashamed of themselves, and which transferred all their attention, in spite of themselves, to this perfectly digne and respectable messenger from a world outside which made no account of their excitements.
“ Mr. Edmund, sir,” Larkins said, “there is a person outside who wishes to see you.”
Larkins was far above making private communications to any man, especially to one of the family; but there was something in his look which startled Edmund.
“ A person,” he repeated involuntarily, " to see me ? ”
“A very respectable person, sir,” Larkins said. Then he walked round the furniture again, making the circuit of the room, and stood at the door, holding it open to let his young master pass.
Mr. Mitford had seated himself in his chair at the appearance of Larkins, with the aspect of a judge upon the bench, severe but amiable; and Mr. Pouncefort had smoothed down all the billows of his forehead, as if nothing had ever disturbed him. Calm and self-respect came back with that apparition. Edmund was too glad to take advantage of the interruption. He hurried out, with little thought of the object of the call, — glad to be delivered anyhow.
“ I have taken her up to your room, sir. I thought you ’d be quieter there,” Larkins said.
“ Her ! Whom ? Who is it ? Has anything happened ? ” cried Edmund, scarcely knowing what he said.
“ It is a female, Mr. Edmund ; very respectable, and in a deal of trouble.”
Edmund rushed up-stairs, three steps at a time. He did not know what he feared. His rooms were at the end of a long corridor, and the mere fact that his visitor should have been taken there was startling. What woman could want him in this way ? But imagination could not have helped him to call up that homely figure in the garb of a perfect rustic respectability, such as Larkins knew how to value, which came rushing forward as he opened the door, turning upon him an honest face, red with crying and misery. " Oh, sir, where ’s my Lily ? Oh, what’s been done with my Lily? Oh, for the love of God — if you care for that! Mr. Edmund, Mr. Edmund, where is my girl ? Tell me, and I ‘ll go on my knees and bless you. Oh, tell me, tell me, if you don’t want to see me die before your eyes ! ”
“ Mrs. Ford ! ” Edmund cried, with an astonishment beyond words.
“ Oh, for God’s sake, Mr. Edmund! Yes, I ‘m her mother, her poor mother, that has trained her, may be, for her ruin. Oh, where is my girl ? Where’s my Lily ? Tell me, sir, tell me wherever it is, and I ’ll thank you on my knees.”
And the poor woman flung herself, in her big shawl and respectable bonnet, her eyes streaming, her face working with wild supplication, heavily at his feet upon the carpet; a figure half ridiculous, wholly tragic, in all the abandonment of despair.
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.