The Second Son
AT THE RECTORY.
EDMUND had little heart for the company of his father and brother : his own life seemed to have stopped with Roger’s. It was not only natural affection and sorrow, but a sudden dropping of all the usual companionship. He seemed suddenly to have been left quite alone. As a matter of fact, Roger and he had been thrown more together in the last month or two than they had been since they were boys; and though they had both gone their own way, and were not what might be called of similar tastes, Edmund was himself surprised to find how much he had been in the habit of talking to Roger about the things that interested him. Already, in the short interval since his death, an incredible number of things had accumulated of which Edmund’s first thought had been to tell them to Roger. And when he remembered that Roger was no longer there, and that there was nobody in the wide world whom he could tell them to, whom he would have cared to tell them to, a sense of great solitude came upon him. He felt himself as if in a desert. He seemed no longer to know anybody, to be able to exchange a word with any one. He was as lonely as if he had been upon a desolate island. Even little Nina, the poor little badly-brought-up sister, who troubled his mind with her gossip, — even she was gone. With his father and Stephen he was on good enough terms, with no suspicion of hostility among them, but only a faint aversion in his own mind, a disinclination to have anything to do with them. He could be civil; he could be no more. He did not accuse them of anything,— even Stephen. He did not in his heart allow that Stephen had killed his brother; but he felt a little revulsion, a sort of mental sickening, at the sight of him. He had nothing to say to him ; he did not like to be nearer him than he could help : that was the form his feeling took.
He felt a dreary vacancy around him : of the many things which had once interested him, nothing seemed to remain. He cared for nothing, he had nobody to whom he could talk. When he thought of it, he felt that there was exaggeration in the feeling, and that Roger in life had not really been everything to him, as he now seemed to have been. It was perhaps only the form his sorrow took, — a sentiment which was its own reason, and for which no explanation could be made. He scarcely went out at all for some days, feeling a reluctance to look at the face of the world and resume intercourse with ordinary men. When he did go beyond the limits of the park, his feet carried him, almost without any will of his, to the Rectory. And yet it was the place to which he would have gone had he been in full possession of his will, for there was no one, he felt, who could understand him like Pax, who knew them both through and through. To her he could talk. He had scarcely even remembered her existence, in that first dull vacancy; it was a sign of the beginning of restoration when it occurred to him that with Pax he could talk over everything, without having to explain.
Thus it was almost a disappointment when he found the drawing-room at the Rectory tenanted, not by Pax, but by Elizabeth Travers. He stopped short in the very act of coming in, when he perceived her. But after that first pause a shock of something like pleasure went through him. Unwittingly to himself, she did him more good by the mere sight of her than Pax could have done. The blood seemed to come back to his heart with a thrill, and personal feelings, wishes, consciousness, seemed to awaken suddenly, with a stinging pain, in his heart. But for the first moment he thought he was disappointed, and that, Pax not being there, his better plan was to go away.
Elizabeth rose up, coloring a little. She colored still more when she saw his instinctive stop, and said hurriedly, “ Mr. Mitford! Oh, I ’ll go and find Pax, — she has only gone up-stairs for something. I shall find her in a moment! ”
He put out his hand to stop her movement. “ Don’t go,” he pleaded, “ don’t go.” There was a feeling in him as of the bursting out of wells in the desert. The heavy vacancy quivered into life. Ah, all this still remained, and he had thought that life was emptied out and deprived of all things ! He became astonished at himself.
“ I know — you must want Pax — and not a stranger,” Elizabeth said, with a quiver, too, of sympathetic feeling.
“ You are not a stranger,” he replied, and then for a moment there was nothing more. He sat down near her, and wondered vaguely whether Roger could know that she was the first person he had seen, the first to whom he would talk, after what they had said together that night.
It was she who broke the silence, after an interval which seemed long to her, but not to him.
“ We were very sorry,” she said, faltering, “ very sorry,” and paused again, looking at him, telling him more clearly than in words how sorry she was, how changed she found him, and how she would fain have had something to say to comfort him. Then she repeated, as if nothing else would come, “ Very sorry, both my aunt and I ” —
“ I knew you would be. I think I’ve been dead, too, these last days.”
“ Oh ! I have heard — you have had everything to bear — and you look ill. You must care a little for yourself now.”
“ That’s poor comfort,” he returned, “ to care for one’s self, when there’s nobody else to care for.”
“ But it has to be done, Mr. Mitford. Oh, Pax will know what to say to you much better than I do ! ”
“ Don’t go,” he begged again, “ don’t go,” putting out his hand with an appeal to her, as she half rose. Elizabeth was more embarrassed than became her character. She wanted to escape, and neither knew how to do so nor what to say.
“ In any case,” she said, “ though I am so little qualified to say so, we must not throw away our lives because we are unhappy. We have all our own place to fill — perhaps more — perhaps better than ” —
Here she stopped, reddening with some emotion which she could not repress, the tears coming into her eyes.
Edmund apprehended faintly what she meant. “ You do not know,” he said hastily, — “ no one knows — all that he was. He had not time to show what was in him.”
Miss Travers bowed her head, but there was a stiffness as of unconscious opposition in this assent. “ I saw — very little of him,” she said, faltering.
“ We talked of you, the last time we ever talked together.”
A sudden blush covered Elizabeth’s face, a hot color that looked like anger. She made another little constrained bow. “ I don’t know what there could have been to say of me.”
He did not make any reply, for his mind had gone back to Roger’s rooms in town, — to his brother, all unconscious of what was coming, conscious only of the dawn of a new life in himself; full of anticipations which were so different, so different, from what had come. It was not till all this had passed before him that he remembered what Roger had said of Elizabeth and these prognostications, which were as little likely to come to pass as those which he had imagined of his own career. And Edmund felt his tongue tied ; he made her no answer, partly because he could not, seeing what it was that had been said, and partly that he would not lift the veil from his dead brother’s plans and hopes.
At this moment Pax hurried in, with her arms held out to him and her eyes full of tears. “ Oh, Edmund ! ” she exclaimed, grasping him, giving him a motherly kiss. “ Oh, Edmund ! ” Not the worst comforters are those who have nothing to say in the way of consolation. When she loosed her arms, Pax sat down and cried, tears not only of sympathy, but of grief. “Tell me,” she said, sobbing, — “ tell me everything! I want to hear everything. Oh, who would have thought it, that my old father should get better at eighty, and Roger die ! Oh, my dear Roger ! My poor Roger ! Tell me everything, Edmund ! ”
He did what she told him, and it was a relief to him. There had been no occasion to speak of what had passed with those who knew as much as himself, no family comparison of what each individual had seen and heard. It was a change from the dreadful monotony of the home atmosphere, in which Roger’s name was no more mentioned, to live over all the incidents of his concluding days again. He sat beside Pax, and told her everything, as a brother might have done to a sister; she ever throwing in a new question, requiring every detail, her sobs now and then interrupting the narrative.
Elizabeth moved uneasily in her chair, then rose to go away, but was stopped again and again by a word from Pax. “ He does n’t mind you being there, and I want you,” she said, in the midst of her tears. Miss Travers had no resource but to stay. She listened to the story of the death-bed, herself now and then greatly moved, yet contending with her feelings, something like indignation mingling with her involuntary sympathy, a look of reluctance and resistance on her face. She was angry with herself for being so much affected, yet unwilling to shed a tear for Roger. Edmund did not perceive this, in the preoccupation of his own sorrow, — not, at least, till he had nearly reached the end.
“ And what part did Lily Ford take in all this ? ” inquired Pax at last.
At this utterance Elizabeth got up hurriedly and went to the window, where she stood, turning her back upon them, as if she could bear no more.
“ Lily Ford ! ” exclaimed Edmund. “ What part should she have taken ? She did not even know that anything had happened, so far as I am aware.”
“ And yet the poor boy was going to marry her ! She might have gone and nursed him, at the least. Not that I hold with such nursing, but she might have offered — she might ” —
“ I have no reason to suppose she knew anything about it,” replied Edmund. “ Don’t blame her, poor girl! ”
Elizabeth turned quickly from the window. “ Blame her ! ” she cried, involuntarily.
Edmund turned half round to look at her, but he had no clue whatever to her meaning. He turned again to Pax. “ He had made out a draft of a kind of settlement,” he said, — “I found it among his papers, — to secure to her what money he had to leave. It was not very much.”
“ That was like him,” said Pax, “ that was like him! My dear, I can’t help being glad it never happened ; but to take care of her future, as if she had been his own equal, as if she had had people to look after her interests, — that was like my Roger! Ah! you may say what you please, all of you, but I knew him best of all. He was in love with me once, bless him ! — a woman who might have been his mother! It was nonsense, of course, but it gives me all the more right to him now. You none of you know him as I do ! And what will you do about it, Edmund, — a thing that was never binding, of course, and never could be ? ”
“ It shall be binding,” answered Edmund. “ I shall see that his intentions are carried out, — though she did not deserve that he should care for her so.”
“ Not deserve ! ” cried Elizabeth, turning round again, the words bursting from her in spite of herself. Both of them, Pax drying her eyes, Edmund raising his head, looked up at her, wondering what she could mean. Elizabeth was very much moved; her color came and went. “ Mr. Mitford,” she said, “ if you mean this to be a sort of compensation, — which I suppose was its intention at first, — I may say to you that Lily would never accept it, never! Oh, how could you think of such a thing! I know that nothing but good should be said of the dead, and I don’t want to say a word, — not a word. I am sorry, sorry to the bottom of my heart, for you. I know you will wish to think the best, naturally ; and so should I. But Lily will never accept it! I — I happen to know ” —
It was with difficulty she could restrain her tears. To see Elizabeth, so composed and dignified as she was, in this strange state of excitement bewildered them both. What did she mean ? The thought shot through Edmund’s mind painfully, as if some one had thrown an arrow or a missile at him, that she had cared for Roger more than she was aware, that she had resented his love for Lily, that Elizabeth was another victim. If it were so, Roger had never suspected it, and in that case all was waste, Elizabeth’s love as well as the rest, — though had it but come to him ! He looked at her with a pang that seemed to cut his heart in two. Elizabeth’s love all wasted, when it might have made the world bloom again, and brought Eden out of the wilderness!
The thought was very bitter, and the thought that she herself resented it, angry, excited, covering a pang which no doubt mortified as well as wounded her with this fierceness about Lily; taking Lily’s part, as if Roger had meant her any wrong.
“ She knows something we don’t know,” observed Pax. “You would not speak like that, Elizabeth, without thinking you had some reason.”
“ I have reason ; there is no thinking ! Oh,” said Elizabeth, wringing her hands, “ it’s not a moment to say anything ! I am very wrong to have said anything. I am going home. I can’t help it if I don’t feel as you do. I am very, very sorry, all the same, Mr. Mitford, for you.”
“ Let me go away, not you,” said Edmund, rising: “ it is time I did. It has done me a great deal of good to tell Pax. Thank you for your sympathy, Miss Travers. One day I wanted to tell you what Roger said, and perhaps that day may come still, but I see it cannot be now. Perhaps there were things he did not understand. He may have been absorbed in a foolish thought, and not have perceived what was a great deal more worth thinking of.” Edmund stopped when he had made this strange apology, remembering that if his discovery were a real one, this was not what Elizabeth would wish to have said ; but it was too late to draw back.
Whatever she meant, however, it was clear enough that she did not understand what he meant. She looked at him in the eyes, in a strange way, with a fixed look, as if trying to convict him of something, he had not the least idea what. They looked earnestly at each other: he sorrowfully, grieving for her, for himself, for Roger, for everything thus lost and wasted; she severely, scarce able to contain herself, moved in a more intolerable way by the contradiction of some indignant resentment which contended with all the softer feelings in her heart. To both there came a vague sense that there was something more on either side than either comprehended, which neither could divine. Pax looked at them both with lips apart, with a gaze of wonder. It was seldom that she had a difficulty before her which quite transcended her power of divination.
“ Yes, Edmund, my dear,” she said, “ go ; we have had our cry together, and it has done us both good. And Lizzy and you will never understand each other in this way. Leave her with me. Whatever her reason is, it can’t be a true one against our boy. We know better than that. Good-by, Edmund, my dear! ” Pax took him in her large embrace again, and put her wet cheek against his. “ It’s miserable now,” she said, “but it will not be so forever. God bless you, my dear! ”
He went away almost without looking round. Elizabeth held out her hand to him suddenly, as he passed her, and her hand trembled; but he did not know why, unless it was for the dear sake of Roger, against whom she was angry, he could not tell why. Because he had not loved her, — because he had loved Lily Ford ? Would a woman be angry still, when the man was dead, at such a wrong ? It seemed more fit that Edmund should be angry against Fate, who had thus let everything run to waste, and taken from him all hope of a new spring of life. But he had not the heart for any such feeling.
He went to the churchyard, on, his way home, and lingered long, looking at the outside of the vault in which Roger had been placed. There was not so much comfort in it as there would have been in the sod of a visible grave. It seemed to wrap the dead in a deeper darkness, to misrepresent all life and the meaning of life ; as if everything were to fall into subterranean gloom, and all possibilities were to be piled together like so much rubbish in the bowels of the earth.
EDMUND OUT OF HEART.
There were some subjects which were altogether ignored at Melcombe during the somewhat sombre period which the three gentlemen spent together there. They met scarcely at all, except at meals, and when they talked, which was never much, it was on public and impersonal subjects. Political questions had never been so thoroughly discussed in the house : they were more or less safe subjects. Mr. Mitford and Stephen were naturally Tories of the old school, who followed their party steadily, without any idea of independent judgment. It would have been against Mr. Mitford’s principles to think on these matters: his ideas had been defined from before the beginning of time. He thought as his father did, and as he fully expected his son should do. Roger, had he lived, would have carried out the tradition faithfully enough, though with a more reasonable devotion to the tenets in which he had been trained. And Stephen, whose only virtuous point was a capacity for understanding discipline and the power of authority, followed his father closely, and was staunch as steel to the tradition of that old stubborn, all-resisting conservatism which is a most respectable sentiment, and has perhaps done England more good than all the new theories in the world. Edmund, also in strict conformity to nature, was of a totally different frame of mind. He was the second son. He was in her Majesty’s opposition. But as he had no special political fervor or impassioned creed, his politics were much more theoretical than practical; he had none of the martyr impulse in him, and he was strong in that slightly contemptuous toleration which the only intellectual member of a family often feels for those who are not in the least given to independent thought. He knew he could not convince them, nor even make his point of view comprehensible to them, so he refrained from controversy. And in the present state of affairs it was a relief to let them talk upon subjects of public moment on which they were entirely agreed, and on which he could occasionally say his say without too much offense. But on subjects more familiar there was little said. Roger was not named among them, nor did any one speak of the future or of what he intended to do. There were no confidences of any description in the strange little male group, which was a family party, yet had so little of the character of a family in it. Even little Nina, as Edmund felt more and more, would have been a relief. It would have been possible to say to her, “ What are you going to do this morning ? Do you intend to walk, or to ride, or to drive ? ” Such questions were not put to each other by the three men, who only remarked that it was a fine day; that Lord So-and-So made a very good speech last night; that Tredgold, as chairman of quarter sessions, was ridiculously out of place ; and that what with competitive examinations and all that the country was going to wreck and ruin. Edmund, for one, longed, amid all this talk, to be able to say to Nina, “ What are you going to do to-day ? ” but to Stephen he did not put that question, even when he had a distinct interest in knowing what Stephen meant to do.
His special interest in this question arose from the fact that Stephen and his father had spoken, in his hearing, of the household at Mount Travers in a manner which vaguely but powerfully excited Edmund. He had himself found his way there soon after his meeting with Miss Travers in the Rectory, and had been puzzled, yet not discouraged, by his reception. Elizabeth had received him with something which looked almost like agitation, — agitation suppressed and only to be divined, yet which betrayed itself to an observer so sympathetic in little changes of color and momentary tremors, in sudden impulses and self - restraints, which were scarcely comprehensible and very perplexing. When any allusion was made to Roger, she stiffened at once into a marble-like impassiveness, more significant in the studied absence of all expression than the utmost show of feeling, keeping all his questions back. Was it an injured sense of love rejected ? Was it the indignation and wounded delicacy of a woman who felt herself slighted for an object much less worthy ? Edmund was unable to solve this mystery.
What made it still more difficult to understand was that Pax also put on to some degree the same manner, checking him in those talks which were almost the only relief his mind had by a hurried “ Poor Roger! ” accompanied by a shake of the head and a change of subject, such as Edmund found it still more difficult to understand. “ God forgive him, poor boy, for all his imperfections ! Let’s say no more, — let’s say no more about it. By and by it won’t be so hard,” Pax said once. Why should it be hard to speak of him, now or at any time ? To protest against the prayer that God might forgive him would have been vain indeed, for the best of men must have need to be forgiven ; but when that is said between people who loved him, of one who is dead, it means something more than the imperfections which all men have before God. Edmund was greatly perplexed and unhappy, notwithstanding that there were in Elizabeth’s manner to himself many signs which a vainer man might have built much upon: an air of almost tenderness in her look, a softness in her voice, as if sympathy for Edmund were somehow involved in her singular repugnance to any mention of his dead brother. Edmund frequented the roads between Melcombe and Mount Travers with a fascination for which he could scarcely account to himself. He wanted to see her, to speak to her of that last conversation with Roger, to tell her a tale which was all woven in with his brother’s memory ; and the more Elizabeth stiffened at all reference to him, the more indispensable it seemed to Edmund that she should know the complications of his story. He had been silent before for Roger’s sake, and now she would give him no chance to show her what was in his heart.
He was so intent upon the explanation that he forgot how impossible it ought to be for him, the disinherited, to approach the heiress. Of that secondary subject he never thought at all. Perhaps it showed a dullness of perception in him. His mind was so full of what he had to say to her, of the story he would so fain have poured into her ear, of his long doubt and uncertainty and final liberation from all hindrances, that he had no time to be tormented by the thought of her great fortune and his small one. That consideration no more entered into his mind than it would have entered into hers. A woman, in such a case, is better off than a man ; but Edmund was as free from painful calculations of this sort as Elizabeth herself could have been. He forgot that what might have seemed to some supersensitive minds a new barrier between them had come into existence. He was so much occupied by other matters, by perplexity about her feelings and desire to disclose his own, that he had no leisure to think of anything else. And yet, though he was so eager to tell her his story, which was in reality the story of several past years, Edmund could not find opportunity nor courage to do so. Day after day he walked to the very gate, and then turned back, his heart having failed him. Once or twice he had gone farther, as far as the drawing-room, with its great plateglass windows, when the sight of that sudden shutting up of her countenance silenced him in a moment, and took all strength from him. In this way Elizabeth occupied his mind almost more than had she been his affianced bride. He could not make out the meaning of that look, almost stern in its sudden repression, or of the melting kindness with which she would turn to him after she had thus silenced him. Something stood between them, — he could not tell what; a shadow of Roger, a ghost which came chill between the two whom Roger had wished to see one. There could not be any doubt that it was Roger who was that shadow, but how or why Edmund could not divine. Had she loved him who had not loved her ? Did she find herself unable to forgive him who had never divined that love, who had given his less worthily ? But why then that softened look, that melting tone, to Edmund ? He was bewildered by this question; it paralyzed him ; the words died from his lips, though he knew that until he said them he could have no rest.
But when he became aware that the same subject was being discussed between Stephen and his father, a singular excitement took possession of Edmund. He remembered the discussions between the Squire and Roger, the recommendations which were commands on one side, and insults on the other, — commands to his son to secure the heiress, insulting enumerations of the advantages to follow. Had this process begun over again ? Had Stephen lent an ear more attentive than that of his elder brother to these inducements and recommendations, and was Edmund’s brother again, and this time in earnest, to be his rival ? The suggestion made his blood boil. Stephen to pretend to Elizabeth Travers ! Stephen, who made no secret of his own estimate of women, and whose associates among them were sufficiently well known! He, with his garrison-town associations, his intrigues, his cynical incapacity for deeper emotion, — could it be in the possibilities of the future that Elizabeth had been reserved for him ? Edmund’s blood boiled at the thought. He said to himself that it was impossible, — that it could not be; but then he remembered how many things that are seemingly impossible come to pass, especially in such concerns. The shadow of Roger stood between himself and the woman he loved, but no such shadow was upon Stephen. Stephen would never perceive, even if it did exist for him, that indefinable something which closed Edmund’s lips and made his heart fail him. Stephen would go forward boldly, whatever were the circumstances. No scare of the imagination would prevent him from pressing his suit. And who would say that amid all these complications Elizabeth herself might not find a certain relief in the addresses of a man who had nothing to do with the past, whose image was not involved with Roger’s, and who, though his brother, had so little in common with him, and was so entirely a new departure, a fresh competitor ? In the hurrying excitement of his thoughts at sight of this new possibility, Edmund could not but see all that was in its favor. He was well aware of Stephen’s advantages,—his good looks, his selfassurance, his boldness, even his position as virtually a stranger, an individuality little known. All this struck him with a horror which was not to be expressed. That which Roger in his folly had not sought, but might perhaps have obtained, that which Edmund himself would give his life for, — to think that it might come to Stephen at last! He said to himself that it was not possible ; that Elizabeth’s perceptions were too fine, her taste too delicate, for such a catastrophe, — but who could tell ? How many tender women had fallen victims before to men as unworthy of them ! How often had all prognostications been defied and all finer divination suspended ! — for what could a woman really know of a man, in such circumstances, but the outward impression which he made, and how often was that outward impression a false one !
This was the thought which eventually roused Edmund out of the lethargy into which he had fallen. All the circumstances of his present position had combined to hold him in that suspense of being. Grief and that sense of injury with which such a grief is so often accompanied, the feeling of unworthiness triumphant, and the nobler and more true swept away before the tide of successful wrong, — Roger fallen, and Stephen raised in his place, — produced of themselves a partial arrest of all Edmund’s faculties. The feeling was not a selfish one. He had never anticipated, never contemplated, the position of heir and future head of the family; but the extraordinary overturn of all justice or any moral balance in the world, when the good and true were thus thrown down to make way for the false and evil, produced in him that pause of hopelessness, that sense of incapacity to understand or contend with the apparently blind and inexorable fate that seems so often to shape human affairs, which makes action impossible, and sickens the heart. And then the curious attitude of Elizabeth, as incomprehensible as fate, repelling and attracting him at once, added so much more to the paralyzing effect. But when he thought of Stephen’s possible suit, the suit that he divined with an angry alarm which was more than jealousy, Edmund’s dormant energy awoke. The man who had taken his inheritance, who had killed his brother, who had ruined Lily Ford, should not, must not, soil the pure name and break the heart of Elizabeth Travers. No ! She might not be for Edmund, — he believed she would never be for him, — but she must not be thrown away upon one unworthy.
Lily Ford! Edmund came to himself after the long suspension of his energies: he had not done his duty by his dead brother in this respect, at least, which Roger would have thought the most important of all. He had not sought out Lily, nor tried to save her, nor carried out Roger’s wishes in regard to her. Edmund did not believe that it was possible to save Lily; but wherever the poor girl now was, she could not but be in trouble and misery, and to find her might be to save Elizabeth. The notion was, if not selfish, yet not single. It aimed at two objects, and the less direct was the more important in his eyes. But yet, apart from Elizabeth and all her concerns, he had a duty to Lily, too. He was the executor of Roger’s wishes, and it ought to have been his first business to find her. What matter that the thought of her was odious to him; that she embodied in her slightness and trifling unimportance all the misfortunes that had crushed Roger, — the loss of his tranquillity, his fortune, his career, finally his very life ? A creature of so little account, with nothing but her prettiness, her foolish education; a girl whom Stephen’s careless wooing could lead to her destruction, — and she had cost Roger everything, his happiness and his life! The thought roused in Edmund a silent rage against human fate and the helplessness of man, and towards her, the trifling instrument of so much harm, a sick contempt and indignation, a horror of the sight of her and of her ill-omened name. But yet he had a duty to fulfill, and perhaps — perhaps — her story might yet be of some service ; it might save Elizabeth. It was this hope, more than any juster sentiment, which turned his steps toward the West Lodge. Mrs. Ford had appealed to him to find her daughter; and though he had not succeeded in doing that, the appeal justified his inquiries. Time had flown heavily but quickly during this interval of inaction ; yet, after all, a month had not passed since Roger’s death.
THE WEST LODGE.
It was about noon when Edmund approached the lodge, and everything recalled to him the last time he had been there, which was so short a while ago, and yet seemed to belong to another life. He remembered every incident, even all the appearances, of that day: the anxious mother hurrying out at the sound of his step; the father, all blanched in his rough out-of-door redness and brownness with the horror of a catastrophe which was worse than death; his passion and threats against the man who had betrayed his child, and the woman’s pitiful attempts to restrain, to comfort him, while herself in the grip of despair. Poor people! tragic as their unintended influence had been, they themselves were not less to be pitied on that account; and he conjured up before him the miserable little house with all its happiness blighted, the shame that had taken the place of their foolish, innocent pride, the weight of suspense, or still more terrible knowledge, that must have crushed the unhappy father and mother, so that his heart had become very tender towards the unfortunate couple before he reached their door. After all, they were not to blame ; and they had suffered even more bitterly than the family of the other victim.
It seemed to Edmund that he must see tokens of their wretchedness in the very air, as he drew near the little flowery place which had once been their pride ; and to see the garden as bright as ever, the tall lilies, from which their child had got her name, standing with all their buds ready to open along the sunny borders, and everything in summer order, full of sweetness and bloom, filled him with involuntary surprise. The morning sun shone upon the red roof and waving trees ; the door stood open; a tranquil cat lay sunning herself upon the window ledge ; a brood of little yellow chickens flitted about under the charge of an anxious mother hen. Nothing more peaceful, more full of humble ease and comfort, could be. The whole seemed to breathe a silent contradiction to Edmund’s troubled thoughts. Yet the sun will shine, the flowers will bloom, the unconscious creatures thrive and enjoy their little life, whatever misery may reign within the house, he said to himself, with a curious sense of incongruity, almost of disappointment.
To his astonishment, he heard voices in raised and angry tones within the house, and, unconsciously listening, distinguished with consternation indescribable the voice of Stephen addressing some one with loud authority. “ You must clear out of here ! ” he was saying, in a tone so little subdued that any passer-by must have heard. “ I know nothing about notice. I tell you you must clear out of here. I want the place. Get out at once : do you hear ? You ’ll be paid in place of your notice, if you’ve any right to it, which I don’t believe you have. You think I’m to be put off with tricks and excuses, to gain time, but you ’re mistaken. You must get out tomorrow at latest: do you hear ? I want the place for a servant of my own.”
“ Sir,” replied the voice of Mrs. Ford, “ my ’usband’s not here, and I can’t make you no answer; but turn a servant away there’s no master can, without warning. I’ve been in service all my life, and if I did n’t know that, who should ? It’s all the protection poor servants has. I’m not saying nothing again going ” —
“ You had better not,” said Stephen, “or I ’ll have you turned out, which perhaps would be the quickest way.”
“ I said as I’m not saying nothing again going,” said Mrs. Ford, raising her voice. “ We’ve allays meant to go. It’s not as if we were badly off or had no friends; and Ford is n’t one as can stand new masters and new laws. He’s ready to go, but he won’t go without his warning, as if he was turned off for something bad. I don’t want to say nothing disrespectful, but we has our pride the same as other folks, and Ford, he won’t stir without his legal warning. I might n’t stand out myself,” the woman continued, with a sound as of coming tears, “ for the sake of peace, but Ford, he’s not that sort of a man; he ’ll not be turned out like a thief, — him as has served the Squire man and boy.”
“ Don’t give me any of your impudence,” said Stephen ; “ that is just how he shall be turned out. I give you your choice, — clear out at once, or I ’ll have the police to-morrow to throw your things out of the window. Hallo ! what do you want here ? ”
This was addressed to Edmund, who had come in unnoticed, behind him, to the little trim kitchen, where Mrs. Ford stood on her own hearth as in a citadel, flushed, with a look of resistance on her homely face, but her apron in her hand, ready to wipe off the angry tears which were very near coming, and a huskiness growing in her throat.
“ What is the matter ? ” said Edmund. “ There must be some mistake. I could not help hearing what you were saying. What has Ford done ? My father would never bundle them out in this way unless there’s a very serious reason; he will listen to what they’ve got to say.”
Stephen turned round upon his brother with a flushed and furious face. “ You had better mind your own business, Ned ! I ’ve got this to do, and I ’ll allow no one to interfere.”
“ And as for what we’ve got to say,” cried Mrs. Ford shrilly, turning upon the new-comer, — “we’ve got nothing to say, sir. I would n’t stay, not if I was paid to do it. We’ve got better friends than ever the Mitfords was, that won’t see us put upon. And there’s no man livin’ as can have a better character than my man. But we ’ll have our warning. Police ! Them that dares name such a name to me knows well as my man’s out o’ the way, and I’ve nobody to stand up for me. Police ! ” Her voice ran off into a shriek. “ For shame of yourselves as call yourselves gentlefolks, and can come and insult a woman like that! ”
“ There must be some mistake,” repeated Edmund. “ No one shall insult you while I am here. Stephen,”—he turned and faced his brother, laying his hand on his arm, — “ whatever you have against these people, let it be referred to my father. You know he will never turn them out ; and it ’s not for you ” —
Stephen threw up the arm which his brother had touched with a fierce gesture, which brought back to both their minds another scene. He was about to reply furiously, but the angry exclamation was stopped on his lips by that recollection. He gave Edmund a look of baffled rage. “ I ’ll refer it to no man,” he cried, “ and I ’ll be questioned by no man, and I ’ll not argue with you, either. You know what I ’ve got to say. Clear out of this at once, or by Jove ! I ’ll ” — Stephen, however, was made of flesh and blood, like other people. He could not stand against the thoughts thus evoked. He turned round upon his heel and quitted the house, leaving his threat unsaid. The ghost of Roger came up again, and protected the humble place. He could not stand before that shadow, though he saw nothing, and though he was not in any way turned from his purpose; but for the moment his soul was disturbed, and he could say no more.
Mrs. Ford did not know why he had abandoned the field. She thought it was perhaps Edmund, always her friend, who had driven forth the enemy ; but when the angry visitor had withdrawn, those tears which were so near falling came at once. “ Oh, that any gentleman should have named the police to me ! ” she cried. “ Oh, that I should have lived to be threatened with that, and my things thrown out o’ window! Mr. Edmund, don’t say nothing, for I ’ll never forget it, I ’ll never forget it; not if the Squire was to come on his bended knees, and ask me himself to stay! ”
“ I am very sorry,” observed Edmund. “ I don’t understand it. I came to ” — He paused here, and looked round the comfortable room, where there was no sign of neglect or downfall. It was quite true that Mrs. Ford was the sort of woman to keep her house tidy, whatever happened, but he could not associate the trim room with any misfortune. “ I have not seen you,” he said, “since before — the great trouble we have had.” He felt that it would be easier to inquire into her circumstances after he had made some allusion to his own.
For a moment Mrs. Ford stopped her angry sobs. “ Oh, sir,” she cried, “we was very sorry! Nobody would ever have spoken to me like that if Mr. Roger had a’ been to the fore! Oh, I don’t hold with new masters that can speak like that to a woman, and her husband’s back turned. And us that did n’t mean to stay, — us as was going to give warning from one day to another ! But without he has his just warning, Ford ’ll never go. He’s a man as stands upon his rights! ”
“ When I was last here,” said Edmund, “you were in great trouble.”
Mrs. Ford took scarcely a moment to recover herself. She put down her apron from her eyes, which were still wet, but immediately became watchful and full of strange defiance and light. “ Was we, sir? ” she asked, with an appearance of surprise and a sudden smile, as if the affair had been so trifling as to escape her memory.
“ You were in great trouble.” repeated Edmund, with some impatience. “You were almost in despair. Lily had left home, and you did n’t know where she was. You thought it might have been my brother Roger ” — Edmund spoke the words with an effort — “ who had taken her away.”
“ Lord bless us! ” said the woman, “ what things do get into folks’ heads ! I remember now. I was just like a mad woman. Ford, he never grave in to it ” —
“ I beg your pardon, Ford was as bad, or worse, than you. He said he would kill the man who ” —
“ So he did, — so he did ! Them things go out of your mind when you find out as it was all silly fancies and not true. Dear, bless us all! so we did ; ravin’ like mad folks, as if our Lily — Mr. Edmund, I don’t blame you: you think as poor folks has no feelings ; but I would n’t have put you in mind of the like of that, if I had been you ! ”
She gave him a look of injured feeling, yet of magnanimous forgiveness, and laughed a little, with her apron still held in her hand.
“ It was thoughtless of the child,” she continued, looking down upon the apron, which she twisted in her fingers. “ I don’t say nothing else. But one as never thought a wrong thought, nor knew what wickedness was, how was she to suppose as we’d take such fancies into our heads ? I was that ashamed I could n’t look her in the face, — to think as I had ever mistrusted my Lily ! But, thank God ! she don’t know, not to this day ; and them as would tell her would be cruel, — oh, it would be cruel! I would sooner die nor do it, though I ’m nothing but a poor woman, and no scholard nor a gentleman, like you! ”
“ You may be sure,” replied Edmund, “ that Lily shall never hear anything of the sort from me. I am very glad your fears have turned out to be vain. Is she here now ? ”
“ She’s far better off,” answered Mrs. Ford. “ She’s with friends that think a deal of her, — oh, a great deal of her ! She’s kept like a lady, and never puts her hand to a thing but what she pleases, and books to read and a pianny to play upon, and everything she can set her face to. Oh, she’s better off than she could be with Ford and me.”
“ Is this the account she gives you ? Are you quite sure it is true ? Don’t you know where she is ? ” Edmund asked, with again a sickening thrill of horror. “ Do you take all this merely upon her word ? ”
“ I ’d take the Bank of England upon her word ! ” cried the mother, with a confusion of ideas not difficult to understand. “ Me and the lady — the lady that makes Lily so happy — more happy, — and I do grudge a bit to know it, I ’ll not deny my mean ways — more happy than she was with me.”
“ Mrs. Ford,” said Edmund, “ are you sure you are not being once more deceived ? ” He was very much in earnest and very serious ; confused more than it is possible to say by the mother’s evident ignorance, by Stephen’s strange appearance here, which was scarcely credible if Lily were still in his power, and by all the bewildering circumstances which seemed to contradict each other. Mrs. Ford, on her side, flung her apron from her, and confronted him with a glowing countenance and eyes aflame.
“I was never deceived ! ” she cried. “ Me, deceived! Oh, if I was weak for a moment, and came and cried out to you in my trouble, it was because I was a silly woman and did n’t know no better. Deceived ! I could tell you a name as would bring you down on your knees, Mr. Edmund, to ask her pardon, —yes, on your knees, that’s the word ! Lily’s where she has a right to be, and that’s among ladies, like what she is herself; ladies as is her friends and our friends too,” cried Mrs. Ford, “ mine and my ’usband’s, all for the sake of Lily, and has offered us a home, and a better home nor here. And Ford, he was to have given the master warning this very day, if it had n’t been as my heart just clung a bit to the flowers. But without his warning he ’ll not budge a step, — no, not for all the police in the world, neither him nor me ; and you may tell the master that, Mr. Edmund! We’ve served him honest and true for more than twenty year : is that a reason to turn us out like thieves at a day’s notice ? But we ’ll not go without our just warning, — no, not a step, neither Ford nor me.”
Mrs. Ford made this long speech with a fervor and passion which had its natural result, and plunged her at the end into a fit of indignant tears.
“ I don’t understand it,” returned Edmund. “ I am sure my father never meant this. There must be some mistake. And Stephen — what Stephen could mean — I am bewildered altogether. I don’t understand your story, and I don’t understand his action : but I promise you you shall not be turned out if I can help it; certainly you shall not be turned out.”
“ Oh, sir, I can tell you what he means : he ’s got somebody of his own as he wants to put in, and it’s well known that there’s little mercy for them as comes in Mr. Stephen’s way. I would n’t be in Mr. Stephen’s power, not for anything that could be given me ; and that ’s why I could bite my tongue out that I would n’t let Ford give warning. Oh, it’s easy to understand Mr. Stephen; he don’t let no one stand in his way.”
“You are doing my brother injustice,” Edmund said ; but he had little spirit in Stephen’s cause, and he was too much bewildered to be able to see light one way or another. That Stephen should thus venture to insult the people he had so deeply injured seemed beyond belief, and so was the whole confused mystery of Lily, — the ladies with whom she was supposed to be, the friends, though the unhappy mother had declared at the first stroke of the calamity that she had no friends. Edmund did not know what to think or say. He went back across the park completely perplexed, feeling that he had lost every landmark, and all was chaos and confusion around him. Was it, after all, the common tale of betrayal and ruin ? Was it something entirely different ? Was Stephen the cold-blooded destroyer, who, after he had ruined the daughter, could attempt to conceal his crime by driving away the helpless poor people from their home ? He could not tell what to think. Was there perhaps some unsuspected third party, who was the criminal or who was the saviour ? Edmund felt that he could make nothing of it, one way or another. As for the hope which he had entertained of injuring Stephen in the eyes of Elizabeth by means of Lily’s wretched story, — for that was how his project now appeared to him, — he felt ashamed to the bottom of his heart of this unworthy purpose. Stephen was without mercy, without kindness, bent on his own ends, and tolerating no interference ; but in this matter, perhaps, after all, he was innocent. He could not have tried to crush Lily’s parents if Lily had owed her destruction to him: a man may be bad, but not so bad as that! Compunction came into Edmund’s soul: to do injustice to any man was terrible to him.
A brief conversation which he had with Stephen before dinner did not, however, mend matters. Stephen took the first word. He asked what the devil Edmund meant by interfering with what was no business of his.
“ As much of mine as yours,” retorted Edmund; “ more, perhaps, since I know the people better. You could not really think of taking it upon yourself to turn one of my father’s old servants away ? ”
“ Old servants be —— ! ” exclaimed Stephen. “ A pair of detestable old hypocrites ! What use is an old fellow like that in the covers ? I ’ll have all those vermin of old servants cleared away.”
“ Fortunately you are not the master, Steve. No, neither am I; I pretend to no authority.”
“ I should hope not,” rejoined Stephen, with an insolent laugh ; “ you ’re out of it, at least. And I can tell you I ’ll stand no nonsense, Ned,—no protecting of a set of rogues and toadies. They think they can defy me, and that Mr. Edmund will see them righted, as they call it. I ’ll have none of that. The estate is to be mine, and I mean to manage it my own way.”
“The estate is not yours while it is my father’s, Stephen; and I shall certainly appeal to him not to suffer the Fords to be turned out in this summary way. They are old retainers, — they were favorites of my mother.”
“Oh, yes, to be sure; and the pretty daughter ! There was perhaps more than one of us hit in that quarter,” cried Stephen, with a rude laugh. “ That explains everything. It is a crime to meddle with her father, eh ? ”
He stood with insolent eyes fixed upon Edmund’s, a flush on his face, defiance in his look. Edmund did not know the keen pang of mortification in Stephen’s mind which made him seize this opportunity of mischief, and there was something exasperating in the look which tried his patience almost beyond endurance. It was the second time in which all his self-control had been necessary not to strike his brother to the ground. They stood straight up in front of each other for a moment, looking into each other’s faces like deadly foes, not like brothers. Then Edmund turned slowly away.
“ We cannot fight,” he said, “ because we are both Mitfords, and I will not dishonor my father’s house by a scuffle ; but you know what I think better than if I said it, either by words or blows.”
“ That for your blows ! ” cried Stephen, snapping his fingers ; but he turned away more quickly than his brother. Even he could not but feel that there had already been enough of that.
THE SQUIRE IN THE WRONG.
They both watched their father during the hour of dinner, which passed as usual, in a suppressed antagonism and careful avoidance of dangerous subjects. But neither Edmund nor Stephen had the advantage for that night. Mr. Mitford fretfully declined to listen to what either had to say. He had no mind for a discussion with the son who was now his eldest son, and to whom he was doing wrong. His conscience was not very tender, but it was vulnerable in this respect. There could be no doubt that he was wronging Edmund. Edmund, perhaps, had not been too complaisant. He had stood by Roger, and deserted his father ; but Roger was dead, poor fellow, and except in that point the Squire was aware that Edmund had given him no just cause of offense ; and yet he was cast out of his natural place and disinherited for no reason. Mr. Mitford could not bear to think of it; and to allow himself to be let in, as he said, for a discussion with that fellow at night, when there could be no chance of deliverance, when he probably would bring up everything and go over the whole ground — No, no ; the Squire took refuge in the first excuse which occurred to him, and that was a headache. “ I don’t feel at all the thing,” he remarked. “ I have got a very queer feeling here,” tapping his forehead as he spoke. “ It’s worry and the hot weather, and things in general. Robson is very decided on the subject. I am never to bother about business, he tells me, when I feel like this. I suppose it will do to-morrow ? ”
“ It will do to-morrow, certainly,” assented Edmund, looking at Stephen, “ so long as I am assured that no further steps will be taken.”
“ Steps taken ! I should like to see any man taking steps on my property without my knowledge,” the Squire said, still more fretfully. The secret trouble in his conscience was telling upon him more than the hot weather. The power to do as he liked with his own was very dear to him, but he could not obliterate the sense of justice which was in his imperious and selfish, yet not altogether undisciplined nature. There were things which he could not do with any ease of mind, and Edmund’s disinheritance hurt him, even though he was not brave enough to undo it. The safest thing for him, with that queer feeling in his head against which the doctor had warned him, was to cast that thought behind him, though it was not very easy to do, and above all to avoid agitating conferences with his son whom he had wronged, at the dead of night, so to speak.
“ I think I ’ll go to bed early,” said the Squire. “I’m not up to any more worry to-night. To-morrow you can say what you like, Ned : it’s fresher and cooler in the morning. I ’ll hear then all you ’ve got to say.”
“It is not very much I have got to say : a few minutes would do it.”
“ I tell you,” cried the Squire angrily, “ I can’t bear any worry to-night! ”
“ Don’t disturb yourself, sir. I ’ll see to everything — you may leave it to me,” said Stephen. “ You ought to be saved all worry, at your time of life.”
Mr. Mitford turned furiously upon his younger son, though his head, with that leap of the angry blood to his temples, felt more queer than ever. “ What do you know about my time of life ? ” he asked. “ I ’ll trouble you to let me and my affairs alone. I ’ll have no man meddle in my affairs. Yon think I am in my dotage, I suppose ; but you shall find out the difference.” He could not refrain from a threat, though it was vague ; not like the threats which had failed to subdue Roger, for the shame of changing his mind a second time was strong upon the Squire. He could not, he felt, do that sort of thing a second time.
But when he had retired to his library, and closed the door, though he could shut out both the son he had wronged and the son he had promoted, he could not shut out the troublesome thoughts that tormented him, nor return to the easy mind which used to be his. That shadow of Roger, dead, stood by him as it stood by Stephen, as it stood between Edmund and Elizabeth. The birthright with which, in his passion and self-will, he had interfered would not allow itself to be forgotten. His head continued to throb, the pulse kept on beating in his temples. Finally that commotion in his head, which he could not get the better of, drove him to bed, which was the best place for him, and where he slept heavily but soundly, far beyond the reach of the interrupting and disturbing elements round him. Nothing as yet had occurred in his life which had proved capable of keeping the Squire from his sleep.
Edmund was admitted to an audience next day, when Mr. Mitford was quite himself again. To see him seated there, clean-shaved, faultlessly arrayed in his light shooting suit, with a rosebud in his buttonhole, and his complexion almost as clear as the flower, no one could have believed in the head that felt queer, the temples that beat, the blood which ran in so strong a tide. He looked perfectly cool and calm, as he sat behind his writing-table, in all that fresh array of good health and good manners, — but not, perhaps, perfectly good manners; for he was angry with Edmund still, because he felt that he had wronged him.
“ Well,” he observed, half roughly, “ what is it you have got to say ? ”
“I feel as if we were boys again, and I was the sneak who was coming to tell. Have you heard anything about it, sir, from Stephen ? ”
“ Stephen takes too much upon him,” answered the Squire. “ Whatever may happen in the end, by George! I’m master of my own concerns in the mean time, and neither Stephen nor any one else shall interfere.”
“ I will make no complaint of Stephen. What I want is that you should protect some poor people, who perhaps don’t deserve very much at our hands, but it is not any fault of theirs. It seems strange I should come to you about them. I want to speak about the Fords.”
“ The Fords ! ” The Squire muttered something under his breath, which might be forgiven him, though it was not a blessing. “ What, that girl again ! ” he said, with something hoarse and husky in his voice. “ Don’t tell me that it’s you this time, Ned. Is she a witch, or what is she, that her name should come up between us again ? ”
“ It is nothing about her,” Edmund cried, with a sense of profounder sympathy with his father than he had yet felt. But before he could enter into further explanations he was interrupted by Larkins, who came in solemnly with a card. “ The gentleman would like to see you, sir, on business,” he said.
“ Gavelkind ! Who’s Gavelkind ? I’ve heard the name before. What’s his business, — did he tell you what was his business ? I can’t let every stranger in that comes to me on business. It might be an old-clothes man, for anything one can tell, though I think I know the name ; it’s a queer name.”
“ I know both the name and the man, sir; you have met him at Mount Travers. He is the man who manages all their business affairs.”
“ Oh, at Mount Travers ! Show him in, Larkins.” The Squire looked up with a half-humorous, puzzled look. He was not humorous by nature, but the occasion moved him. “ It can’t be her — herself — sending to propose — for Stephen ? ” Mr. Mitford said.
“For Stephen ! ” Edmund did not see any humor in the suggestion. He did not laugh, as his father did ; a deep red mounted to his face. “Why for Stephen ? ” He forgot the absurdity of the idea altogether in the keen pang of thus being left out of all calculation. His mind had not dwelt upon the loss of what was now his birthright, but to be thus put out of the question was a cutting and insulting injury. He awaited the entrance of Mr. Gavelkind with mingled anxiety and offense; of course what the Squire said was altogether ridiculous in every way, but yet — He recovered his common sense, happily, and his usual color before Mr. Gavelkind came in, with his absent look, yet keen, penetrating eyes, his head projecting in a forward stoop from his thin shoulders, a very large hat in his hands.
“ I have come from Miss Travers,” he said, when he had seated himself. He had given one of his quick looks, as he came in, at Mr. Mitford and his son, but he did not look at the Squire as he spoke. He raised one leg across the knee of the other and caressed it, slowly smoothing the cloth of his trousers as if it had been a child. “ I’ve come to make some inquiries.”
Whether he paused to tantalize their curiosity, or to make a little mystery, or to get his breath, or for nothing at all, it would be hard to say; probably the last was the true explanation. He attached no importance to what he had to say, and did not imagine that it would excite any special interest; but half because of the Squire’s jest, half from the general excitement which was in the air, both father and son listened as if some special intimation were about to be made.
“ Yes ? ” remarked Mr. Mitford. “ I ’ll be happy to answer any of Miss Travers’s inquiries. I only wish she had come to put them herself.”
“ I suppose that’s impossible, in the circumstances,” returned the lawyer. “ I’m sure I don’t know why. Ladies go to many places a great deal less suitable than the house of a man that might be their father ; but that ’s neither here nor there.”
“ And of one who would have no objection to be her father,” said the Squire, with a laugh. “ You can tell her I said so ; she has always been a great favorite of mine.”
“ There are many people with whom she is a favorite, especially now when she has all her uncle’s money. Perhaps you, like me, Mr. Mitford, liked her before ; but, as I was saying, that’s not the question. It appears there ’s a man in your service whom she wishes to take into hers.”
“ Several, I should n’t wonder,” said the Squire, “ and there is one I can recommend. To tell the truth, we were planning to go over to Mount Travers for the purpose.” And at this intended witticism he laughed loudly, which was not, to do him justice, Mr. Mitford’s way. But perhaps to have been seized with a humorous idea had demoralized him. He was proud of the unusual good thing, and wanted to keep up the joke.
“ Ah,” said Mr. Gavelkind, looking vaguely round with eyes that made a slight pause upon Edmund. The Squire felt that he had made a mistake, and naturally hastened to make it worse.
“ No, not that fellow,” he cried ; “ he has n’t spirit enough to teach a pretty girl to know her own mind.”
It was all so entirely out of character, so unbecoming, almost indecent, such a wild and causeless betrayal of his plans to a man who as likely as not might be his adversary, that the Squire lost his head altogether ; and the fact that he was more than half conscious of his folly only made it the greater. “ I’ve got a soldier boy,” he added.
Edmund got up, and walked hastily away. It is difficult to sit still and hear one’s own people commit themselves, even when one is not much in sympathy with them. But after that momentary impulse of vexation, he came as hastily back, conscious, as it followed him, though he could not see it, of the sober lawyer’s wondering, inquiring glance. “ Mr. Gavelkind can scarcely have come to make inquiries concerning your sons, sir,” he remarked.
“No,” said the lawyer, still smoothing assiduously the cloth of his trousers, “ it was not that. Ladies don’t make the inquiries they ought in that sort of way. It’s about a man of quite a different sort, — far less important, no doubt. He’s been gamekeeper at Melcombe, I hear, for a number of years, and now I’m told he’s going to be turned off summarily. Miss Travers would take him into her service, knowing something of his family; but she would like to know first if there is anything really against him. Dismissal at a moment’s notice, after a service of years, looks bad. It seemed to me that, before allowing her to decide, I had better inquire.”
Mr. Mitford looked from Edmund to the speaker, and back again. He had been checked, and almost snubbed, and was aware that he deserved it. The consciousness made him somewhat angry and more than ever severe. “ Who is it?” he asked, sharply.
“It’s a man of the name of Ford. I suppose I must allow that there ’s been some kind of negotiation going on before this. For some reason or other, — I suppose because she thought him a trustworthy man, — Miss Travers had offered him ” —
“ Ford ! ” said the Squire, interrupting almost rudely. “ Why, that’s the second time I’ve heard of Ford this morning, and it was you, Ned ” —
“ I came to tell you, sir, just what Mr. Gavelkind has told you : that by some mistake, which I don’t understand, Ford had been told he must leave at once. There could be no reason for it, — it could be nothing but a mistake.”
“ Ford! ” the Squire repeated. “ Why, he’s the — hum — ha — I don’t understand what you mean. Ford ! I ’ve not said anything about Ford. I had forgotten the fellow’s very existence, with all I ’ve had to think of.”
“ I knew that must be the case,” said Edmund, eagerly. “ You see my father had no such intention. It was a mistake.”
“ The mistake must have gone pretty far,” said Mr. Gavelkind, “ for it appears the man came over this morning to say that he was threatened with the police if he did not turn out to-day.”
“ I should like to know by whom! ” cried the Squire. “ Ford ! Well, yes, I was n’t over-pleased with him once. I meant to get rid of them, Ned, you know. I don’t take it kindly of Miss Travers that she should parley with my servants, Mr. Gavelkind, and the fellow had better go ; but I never said a word about him, and I should like to know who’s taken upon himself to interfere. It’s a confounded piece of impertinence, whoever has done it.”
“ I may conclude, then, that there’s nothing against the man,” said Mr. Gavelkind, with his mild voice. “There’s some private reason which makes Miss Travers take an interest in him. Ladies are governed greatly by private reasons, which they don’t always confide to their man of business. Nothing against him, Mr. Mitford ? Trustworthy, and all the rest of it; so that if he does leave your service after all ” —
“ He’s free to leave my service as soon as he likes ! ” cried the Squire. “ I had very nearly sent him off, — how long is it since, Ned ? I’d rather never hear the fellow’s name again. But I don’t think Miss Travers should meddle with another man’s servant,” he said, calming himself down, with his usual prudential afterthought. “ I ’ve the highest opinion of the lady, — the very highest opinion ; but between gentlemen, Mr. Gavelkind — Ah, I forgot: it’s not between gentlemen ; it’s ” —
“ Between a lady and a man it’s not such plain sailing,” remarked the lawyer. “ Some stand out, all the same, and for my part I think none the worse of them; but a great many give in; and when you ’re not married to them, nor bound to them,” Mr. Gavelkind added, reflectively, “ perhaps it is the best way.”
“ She’s got no preserves that I know of, and not much forest land nor wood of any kind to speak of : what does she want with Ford? On second thoughts,” said the Squire, with a vague notion that Ford had something to tell which might be supposed to be to the discredit of the family, “ I think I ’d rather keep the man. He knows every inch of my covers, and he’s useful in his way.”
“ But since he’s ordered off, on the risk of being turned out by the police if he does n’t go to-day ” —
This brought the purple flush again to Mr. Mitford’s brow. “ I’ve got to find out who’s done that! ” he cried. “ Who’s done it, Ned ? It’s confounded impertinence, whoever it is. By George! if I find the man who has taken it upon himself to interfere ” —
“ I think I ’ve accomplished my business,” said Mr. Gavelkind. “ I must n’t stop you from proceeding with yours. The man’s honest, I may say, if it should come to anything with Miss Travers ? Present employer wishing to retain him always the best testimonial. No, she does n’t do anything in the way of game, and what she wants with a keeper is more than I can say. But ladies go upon private reasons, and nothing more was confided to me. I wish you good-morning, Mr. Mitford.” The old lawyer gave Edmund a look which indicated his desire for further talk. “ I wish you’d come and see them,” he said, in a low tone, as Edmund accompanied him to the door. “ There ’s something going on I don’t understand. There’s some mystery among the ladies, I don’t know what it is. I wish you ’d come and see.”
“ I fear I have no eye for mysteries; and I am not sure that they care to see me ; why should they ? I am not a very cheerful guest.”
“ Of course they care to see you,” said the old lawyer. “ Don’t lose your chance for nonsense, if you ’ll allow me to say so. And you know a little about human nature, so you must have an eye for mysteries. Come and see them; and come while I’m still there.”
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.