The Second Son
“ EDMUND ! ”
Before Edmund could get his hand free from the lingering clasp of Mr. Gavelkind, his father’s voice was loudly audible, calling him, which was a very unusual thing to hear in Melcombe. The call was repeated with some vehemence before he could obey. He was absent scarcely five minutes, but the Squire regarded even that little interval with suspicion ; and in the mean time the scene had changed. Stephen had come in when the visitor withdrew and had. it was evident, been hotly received ; for though he had thrown himself into a chair with an appearance of indifference, his attempt at ease was belied by the heated color on his cheeks. Mr. Mitford was fulminating across his writingtable. He turned his wrath upon the new-comer without a pause.
“ What did you want of that old rogue, Ned? They’re all rogues, the lot of them, and up to something or other now, — that’s clear, — trying to embroil me with Lizzy Travers. And you go over to the other side, of course, and desert mine ! Come in, and shut the door. Now you ’re both here, perhaps I may get to understand. Who is it that takes upon himself to interfere in the management of my affairs ? No one has ever done it till now, and by George ! I ’ll not have it! I ’ll not have it! Not if you were twice the men you are, both Stephen and you ! ”
“ I don’t know what you are in such a rage about,” remarked Stephen. “ It is not much more than a week since you ordered me to send in my papers, that I might be free to take the trouble off your hands.”
“ I said nothing of the sort, sir. I never said anything of the sort. I could not have said it, for I certainly never meant it! ” cried the Squire.
“ If you please to say so,” returned Stephen, with cool impertinence; “ there was no witness present, to be sure. It must go either by your word or mine. It’s a conflict of testimony, that’s all.”
“ Do you mean to say I am telling a lie, sir ? ” the Squire demanded, furiously.
“ Oh, not at all ; it is not I who make such accusations. I only say that it is clear one of us has made a great mistake.”
“ And that’s I, of course, you mean to imply ? ”
“ I never said so, sir,” replied Stephen, with a shrug of his shoulders.
Mr. Mitford was very angry. He got up and walked about the room, with his hands deeply dug into his pockets, saying to himself from time to time, “ By George ! ” with other exclamations perhaps less innocent. It was as good a way as another of blowing off his wrath. Meanwhile, the culprit sat with an air of coolness and contemptuous indifference which exasperated his father more and more, stretching out his long legs in such a way as to bar the passage and confine the Squire to his own side.
“ If I ever said a word that could be twisted into such a meaning, it must have been when I thought you a little serious, impressed by what had happened, — as you might have been, if you had any feeling : but there’s no feeling of that sort left in the world, so far as I can see. Here’s one of you trying to get the reins out of my hands, and the other holding secret confabs with a pettifogging lawyer, a fellow that wants to bring me to book, — me ! ” the Squire cried, with an indignant, almost incredulous sense of undeserved insult and injury. “Heaven knows I have had trouble enough, one way or another, on account of my sons,” he went on, changing into a tone which was almost tearful ; for to think of all he had suffered overcame him with self-pity. “ All the trouble I have known has been connected with one or other of you. The man who has no children has the best of it. But there is one thing you may be quite sure of, and you had better both of you mark what I have to say. I will not have you meddling in my affairs. Thank Heaven, I ’m very well capable of minding my own business. Whatever I may be supposed to have said, this is my last word. I “ll have none of your meddling, — neither yours, Stephen, nor yours, Ned ; neither the one nor the other ! The first man who interferes shall go. I ‘ll have none of it — I ’ll have ” —
Stephen got up from his chair with a laugh, shaking himself out of all creases in his well-fitting clothes. “ That’s just what I should like, for one,” he remarked. “ Don’t restrain your feelings, sir. I am delighted to go.”
Mr. Mitford turned like a bull who is confronted by a new assailant ; but a man and a father cannot take a ribald upon his horns, like that well-provided animal. He stared for a moment, with fiery eyes that seemed to be leaping from their sockets, and then he recognized, as the angriest man must, that barrier of the immovable which an altogether unimpressionable human being, however insignificant, can place before the most mighty. Stephen was not to be influenced by any of those causes which make it possible for a domestic despot to have his way. He was not afraid of the penalty involved. He had no reluctance to see his father compromise his own dignity by unbecoming threats or violence. Edmund, moved by that sentiment, had turned away, willing rather to submit or to retire than to be thus compelled to witness a scene which made him ashamed for his father. But Stephen knew none of these delicacies ; he was entirely free from all such restraints. The Squire was like any other old fellow, who threatened a great deal more than he could ever perform. And Mr. Mitford recognized this, as he stared at the heir of his choice, this young man to whom he had given the chief place in the family, — that being, quite invulnerable, untouched by sympathy, natural respect, or human feeling, who is the fit and only opponent of the family tyrant. He stared and gasped with exasperation unspeakable, and the feeling that Jove’s thunderbolt would be the only effectual instrument to level the rebel to the ground instantaneously. Perhaps, vulgarly considered, Prometheus was something of this intolerable sort to the father of gods and men. The cool cynicism of Stephen’s eyes struck his father like a blow. They said, “ You have done that once too often already. Do it, — I’d like it. Make an old fool of yourself ! ” But after that astonished, incredulous stare of the Jupiter manqué, Mr. Mitford came to himself. Passion itself could not stand before those cynic eyes. Virtue and heroic suffering are alone supposed to possess this restraining power; but perhaps it will be found that the less elevated defiance has the greater influence, the sneering devil being more potent with the common mind than the serious hero. Mr. Mitford made the discovery that in whatsoever way he might be able to establish his authority, this way would not do. He solaced his personal discomfiture by an attack upon the one remaining, who would not flout nor defy him, and turned upon Edmund with a snort of wrath.
“ Perhaps you think you ’ll curry favor with Lizzy Travers,” he cried, “ by playing into her hands, and defying me. You ’ll find that’s not so ; she ’s not the girl to encourage a man to desert his own side.”
Edmund was much surprised by this unexpected attack. “ Mr. Gavelkind is a friend of mine,” he said, “ which was the reason I went out with him. I had no thought of deserting my own side ; but since you blame me, I will venture to return to the original subject, sir. Is Ford dismissed with your consent ? And if not, may not I go and reassure them, and let them know that they are not to be hurried away ? ”
The Squire looked at Edmund severely. It gave him great satisfaction to come upon some one who would not rebel. He took a high tone. “ One would think,” he remarked, “ that the welfare of these people was of more importance to you than the credit of your family. They have not deserved much at my hands.”
It struck Edmund with a sort of dreary amusement that he should be the one to be accused of partiality for the Fords, —he, who was the only one entirely uninfluenced by them. He said, with a faint smile, “I am no partisan of the Fords, — it would be strange if I were ; but they have done nothing to deserve this, and it would be cruel to punish them for a fault — for a fault — which was not theirs.”
“ Do you mean to tell me that the girl was brought up for any other end ? Why, she was trained to inveigle one of my sons, or somebody else, — Ray Tredgold, perhaps, who is not quite such a fool, — into making a lady of her. A child could see that,” said the Squire, with indignation. “ I cannot understand how any man, considering all the circumstances, can speak of the Fords to me.”
“That was my idea,” returned Stephen boldly. “ I felt that they ought to go, but I did n’t think that you ought to be bothered with the name of them. If I went a little further than I ought to have done, that was my idea. Their name can’t be very agreeable to any of us,” he added, with a deep-drawn breath. “ If I went too far, that’s my only excuse.”
“ Well, Steve,” said the father, “ I am glad you see it as I do, and that, if you were wrong, it was an error of judgment only. After what you’ve said, I ‘ll allow that. But Ned is one of the fellows that like to turn the sword round in a wound. He thinks that’s the way to make a man forget.”
“I thought solely of the injustice to them,” urged Edmund, “ not of ourselves at all. It cannot be worth your while, sir, on whatever provocation, to wage civil war upon your gamekeeper. Send him away, by all means, — I should be glad, I confess, to get rid of the sound of their name ; but let it be fairly, with such warning as is natural, or at least with time enough to provide themselves with another home. Suppose they have been scheming, artful, whatever you may call it : you can’t punish them for that as for a crime.”
“ It’s a deal worse than many a crime,” asserted Stephen, with a black look which transformed his face. “ It’s the sort of thing you smother vermin for. Even poaching I ’d look over sooner. I don’t pretend to be one of your forgiving people. There are some things I ’ll never forgive, nor forget.”
Mr. Mitford gave him a grateful look. He was much relieved by the disappearance of Stephen’s sneer, and felt as if he had recovered his proper position when his son condescended to explain. “ I am glad to see that you feel as I do, Steve,” he repeated. “ Ned has his own ways of thinking, though I should have supposed he had more feeling for his brother than to stand up for the Fords. I don’t want them to make out a case for Lizzy Travers’s charity, though. I ’ll speak to Brown, and he shall buy them off and get them out of the country ; and you and I will go over to Mount Travers and explain. You may do some business for yourself at the same time,” he said, with a laugh, to which Stephen responded. The two were once more in full intelligence, understanding each other’s thoughts and wishes.
To Edmund’s sensitive ears the laugh was intolerable. It was full of that rude and primitive meaning which lurks so often in the private sympathetic chuckle with which two men discuss a woman. He went out of the room quickly, with a nervous impatience, over which he had no control. In the experience of all sensitive persons, there arises now and then a moment when contrariety seems in the very air, and everything turns against them. Edmund felt that on every side his wishes, his feelings, his ideas of all that was just and fit, were contradicted, and that the entire world was out of harmony with him. Not only his father and brother, and the atmosphere of the house which was full of them, opposed him and jarred his nerves and temper at every turn, but the most trifling things appeared to rise in antagonism, and cut every possibility of relief. The sourd, mysterious something which stood between him and Elizabeth, which made even old Pax, his most familiar confidant, repellent and unharmonious, scarcely affected him more than those lesser jars of contradiction which met him at every turn. That Mrs. Ford should have refused information about Lily, that he should be supposed the champion of the family, that it should be possible, however falsely, to gibe at his forgetfulness of their disastrous influence over Roger, — he whose heart was the only one faithful to Roger, — exasperated him almost beyond bearing. He went out with that sensation of being unable to bear anything more, or endure another moment of this contrariety and horrible antagonism of everything, which is at once so natural, so inevitable, so foolish. Women find relief in tears at such moments, but Edmund could get no such relief ; everything was against him ; he was despondent yet exasperated, angry as well as sad. Why should he go to Mount Travers, where everything was already decided against him ? Why stay here, where he was put out of all influence, misrepresented, misunderstood ; where his attempt to do justice was taken for partiality towards the offender, and his anxious endeavor to carry out his dead brother’s wishes repulsed as a curiosity of his own ? It was time, surely, for him to shake the dust off his feet, and leave the place where he was disinherited, contemned, and set aside. He felt the jar of the vexation, of the contradiction, go to his very soul. How much better to go away from the house where he was displaced, from the love that would have none of him, from the country where his charities, his faithfulness, his desire to help and succor, were all misconceived ! Roger had done it in the most conclusive fashion, shaking off so many embarrassments and troubles along with the mortal coil. Edmund thought wistfully, with a certain envy, of his brother’s complete escape. He had no temptation to put an end to his life, yet a great weariness took possession of him. If he could but turn his back on everything, flee far from them! Oh, for the wings of a dove! But where? Not to some foreign land, which was the ordinary commonplace expedient,— to change the sky, but not the mind. What Edmund really wanted was to escape from himself ; and that, alas, is what none can do.
At the same time, amid all this contrariety, there was something, a spirit in his feet, driving him to that high house on the hill, to which he had been invited that morning. To see Mr. Gavelkind ! He laughed, with a bitter sense of humor, at that idea. The old lawyer was his friend, — there was no scorn of him in Edmund’s mind ; but with a heart full of Elizabeth, to go to her man of business ! It would have been too ludicrous, if it had not been the greatest contradiction, the most irritating contrariety of all.
AT MOUNT TRAVERS.
“ Yes, I am just going. I wish you could have come a little earlier. I ’ve been here three days, — to be sure, one of them was a Sunday. There are a great many things I should have liked to talk to you about.”
“ I am sorry,” Edmund said ; but he had not the same sense that to talk things over with Mr. Gavelkind was a matter of importance which the lawyer seemed to feel on his side.
“ I see ; you don’t feel that it’s of very much consequence what I think. Well, perhaps not. Few things are of much importance taken separately ; it’s when they come together that they tell. No, don’t apologize ; I am in no danger of misunderstanding. I’ll tell you what, though : you should n’t leave things too long hanging in the wind.”
“ Hanging in the wind ? ”
“ Come,” said Mr. Gavelkind, “ I don’t intend to summer it and winter it, as the country people say. You and I have been able to understand each other before now without putting a dot on every i. There’s something going on up there which I don’t understand.”
He pointed, with a wave of his hand, to the house on the hill. The sun was blazing in all the plate-glass, and made it flare over the whole country, as if it were some great heliographic apparatus. Edmund had met the lawyer going down to the station by the steep and short path which old Travers had made through the grounds. He had a little bag in his hand, and his coat over his arm.
“To have to do with ladies in business is a trial,” he resumed. “ In your own family it’s a different matter, and I ’m fond of women for friends, notwithstanding all that’s said to the contrary ; but to have their business to do, and to hold them to it, and to keep reason always uppermost, is almost too much for me.”
“ I have heard you commend Miss Travers’s capacity for business, all the same.”
“ That I have, and meant it, too! She has a good head, and a clear head ; but there ’s always some point in which reason is not the sole guide with women. It may take a long time to find it out, but it always appears at the end. There ’s this business about these Fords — Ah, Mrs. Travers ! ” exclaimed Mr. Gavelkind, hastily transferring his coat to his left arm that he might take off his hat. “ I knew you were out-ofdoors, but I did n’t think you would venture down a steep road like this.”
“ I did n’t. I came the other way, to say good-by to you ; I could n’t let you go without saying good-by. And my compliments to Mrs. Gavelkind. I hope she will really arrange some time to come with you and stay a little while. Saturday to Monday I don’t consider a visit at all.”
“ You are very kind, I’m sure,” said the lawyer. “ It’s been Friday to Monday, this time, and a great deal of business got through. I ’ll give my wife your kind message. Miss Travers had already asked ” —
“I dare say,” said the old lady quickly, “ that your wife, being an older person, would not think much of an invitation from Lizzy, while the mistress of the house said nothing ; but you can tell her from me that it’s all the same. We ’ll be highly pleased to see her any time before the end of the summer. Good-by, Mr. Gavelkind.”
The lawyer shot a glance at Edmund underneath his brows, but he took his leave very ceremoniously of the old lady, who had been accompanied by a female figure, a few steps behind her. She turned round to take this companion’s arm, to mount the slope.
“ Why, the girl is gone ! ” she cried. “ Mr. Mitford, I beg your pardon ! I was so occupied in saying good-by to Mr. Gavelkind that I’ve never said ‘ How d’ ye do ’ to you. I wonder if you ’ll give me your arm to help me up the bank ? Thank you. I’ve always noticed you were nice to old people. And so was your poor brother. Is it true what I hear, that it’s the youngest that is to succeed to the property ? Somebody told me so this very day.”
“ There is no question of succeeding to the property at present, Mrs. Travers. My father is well and strong, and I hope may keep it himself for many years.”
“ That’s a very proper feeling ; I approve of it greatly. When Lizzy marries, I hope it will not be any one who will grudge me every day I live ; for of course I will leave her everything, — everything that is in my power.”
Edmund made a little bow of assent, but he did not feel it necessary to enter into the possible sentiments of the man whom Lizzy might marry. The old lady looked at him closely, her keen eyes undimmed by the little gasps and pantings with which she had dragged herself up the steep ascent.
“ I have not so much in my power as you would think,” said Mrs. Travers, “ for all the property belongs to Lizzy after my death. Her uncle thought that was only just, seeing that her father began the business, though it was my husband who made the money. Everybody has his own way of thinking, Mr. Mitford, but I must say I felt it a little not to have anything in my own power. Of course I should have left it to Lizzy, — who else should I leave it to ? — but everybody likes to be trusted, and to have something in their own power.”
“ No doubt,” returned Edmund, gravely. The little old lady clung to his arm, and kept looking up from time to time suddenly, as if to take him at a disadvantage, and read whatever unintentional meaning might pass over his face.
“ If she married a man whom I approved of, they might go on living with me, perhaps. I would not make it a promise ; but if he were a person I liked, and one who would behave properly to an elderly lady— They don’t generally, Mr. Mitford ; when a woman has ceased to be young, they have a way of looking at her as if she had no right to live at all. Oh, I know what I am saying. I am not Lizzy’s mother, it is true, but I should be more or less in the position of a mother-in-law, and that is what I never could put up with. Give a dog an ill-name and hang him, they say ; call a woman a mother-in-law, and it’s the same thing ; though why a respectable woman should be turned into a fiend by the marriage of her daughter I have never been able to find out. Happily, Lizzy is not my daughter, but it comes to very much the same thing.”
As she paused for a reply, Edmund felt himself obliged to say that the general hatred of motliers-in-law was “ only a joke.”
“ A joke! It’s a joke in very bad taste, Mr. Mitford. But you may rely upon it, I know what I am talking about. You were very civil, giving me your arm when that girl ran away. (It was very silly of her to run away, but she can’t bear to be seen about, poor thing!) And your father was very polite the last time he was here. He looked to me as if he were bent on finding out something ; but he was very polite, all the same, and made himself quite agreeable. Tell me about your brother, — the brother that is to be the successor, according to what people say. Oh! I forgot ; you don’t wish to talk of that.”
“ I have no objection to talk of it. I believe you are quite right, and that Stephen is to be my father’s heir.”
“ I have always heard it was a very nice property,” she remarked. “ My dear Mr. Mitford, I am sure you must have played your cards very badly, when your kind father cuts you off like that.”
“ Perhaps so,” replied Edmund, with a half smile ; “ or perhaps he thinks my brother better fitted to keep up the character of a country gentleman, and he may be quite right.”
“You take it very coolly, anyhow,” said Mrs. Travers ; “ and you really think that Mr. Stephen — is n’t that his name ? Oh, Captain, to be sure; I had forgot — will keep it up best ? Well, I never was brought up with any superstition about an eldest son, myself. I know your younger brother least of any of you. I hope he ’ll come and see us. I am devoted to the army, and I like people of decided character. Tell him I shall be glad to see him at Mount Travers. Mr. Mitford, I am very much obliged to you. I don’t require to trouble you any more, now we have got up to the level of the house.” And she drew her arm briskly out of his, and stood still for a moment, turning round upon him as if to give him his dismissal.
Edmund felt with a sense of pleasure that, notwithstanding all that had happened, his mind was as capable of being amused as ever. He had been vague enough up to this moment, not decided whether he should go in or not. But Mrs. Travers made up his mind for him. “ I hope,” he said, “ I may call, though I am no longer of any use ; for I have a message for Miss Travers from the Rectory.”
“ Oh, from Pax, as Lizzy calls her ; an absurd name, and I think she ’s rather an absurd person. I can’t see what Lizzy finds in her, — very limited and prejudiced, like all the clergy people, and very fond of her own way. Oh, surely, Mr. Mitford, come in, come in : you ’ll find Lizzy in the drawing-room. Good-by, in case I should not see you again.”
Elizabeth was seated at the further end of the room, at a writing-table, with her back turned towards the door. She got up with a little stumble of excitement, when she became aware of Edmund’s presence. “ You must pardon me,” he said, “for coming in unannounced. I met Mrs. Travers at the foot of the bank, and came back with her. She told me I should find you here.”
“ Yes,” said Elizabeth, holding out her hand. She added, in a voice which was slightly tremulous, “ I am always at home at this hour.”
Did she wish him to be aware of that ? Or was it a mere impulse of shyness, and because she did not know what to say ?
They sat down near each other, in the great room with the vast plate-glass window, which took away all sense of being within doors, and made that wide landscape part of the scene, and for perhaps a whole long minute neither spoke. There was a screen arranged round Mrs. Travers’s little table and easy-chair, to preserve her from some imaginary draught, or perhaps to give a sense of shelter where all was so blank and wide. Elizabeth looked at her visitor with something like a sentiment of alarm in her wide-open eyes. The two seemed at last to have met alone, in a vast centre of naked space, where there could no longer be any veil of mystery between them. Edmund was not so ready as she was expectant. He had not come with any definite idea in his mind as to what he was to do or say, but only to see her, to speak to her, to follow any leading that good or evil fortune might put in his way.
“ I met Mr. Gavelkind, on his way to town.”
“ He has been here since Friday. He is a very warm friend ” —
“ You could, I am sure, have nobody more devoted to your interests.”
“ I meant of yours, Mr. Mitford. He has always a great deal to say of you.”
“ Of me ? ” responded Edmund, with a smile. “ That’s strange ! I have got so wiped out of everything, that it is odd to hear of any one who thinks of me.”
“ You are too kind,” said Miss Travers ; “you let the thought of duty carry you too far. Duty must have a limit. There is something that perhaps I ought to tell you ; but when I see that you are deceived, or that you think yourself bound to regard as sacred, to uphold and to justify ” —
“ What ? ” he asked, bending forward towards her, too much astonished to say more.
“ Mr. Mitford, I don’t know how to speak. It is not a thing to be discussed between you and me. But when I see how you are making an idol of one who
— when I perceive how you are devoting yourself to carry out plans which
— and letting your life and everything in it go by ” —
Elizabeth’s voice had begun to tremble, her eyes were filling with tears, her color changed from red to white. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands, in the strain of some excitement, the cause of which he could not discover. What was its cause, and how was he involved in it ? And what was this purpose which she attributed to him, which made him let his own life go by ?
“ My own life ? ” he said. “ I seem to have none. I am pushed aside from everything, but I wish I could think you cared what became of my life. I should like to tell you how it has been arrested for months in the only great wish I have ever formed for myself. Miss Travers, my brother Roger ” —
“ Oh ! ” she cried, clasping her hands with something which looked like a wild and feverish impatience. " Don’t speak to me of Roger, — I don’t want to know any more of him! I would rather never hear his name again! ”
She got up as she spoke, starting from the chair as though she could no longer tolerate the situation, and stood for a moment in front of the great window, her tall figure showing against the background of the vast landscape outside. She turned her back upon it, and stood facing him, twisting her fingers together, in her agitation.
“ Mr. Mitford,” she said, clearing her throat, “ I know I ought to have told you — I ought to tell you”— The door opened while the words were on her lips. Elizabeth made a movement of almost angry impatience. “ I had made up my mind to it, and now I can’t do it! ” she cried, turning away hastily. Edmund had risen, too, he scarcely could tell why. She had turned round, and stood gazing out of the window, in a tremor of suspense and agitation, disappointed and excited. Mrs. Travers appeared at the door, relieved of her out-door garments, with her little pale face surrounded by the dead white of her widow’s cap, and everything about her breathing the tranquillity of the common day. The extraordinary difference and contrast startled Edmund. He did not know why Elizabeth should be so excited ; but he perceived the seriousness of her agitation, and how much it must mean, when he saw her spring up and go to the window, as Mrs. Travers came softly in and took her usual place. A third person, whom he did not remark, except that there was a movement of some one following, came in with the old lady ; half visible for a moment, then disappearing behind the screen. He had an impression, of which he took no heed amid the other images, more urgent, that filled up all the foreground, that this third person, the attendant, whoever she was, remained in the room, though unseen.
“ So you found Lizzy, Mr. Mitford ? ” said Mrs. Travers. " I thought you would find her here. I did intend to let you have her all to yourself, while I rested a little. But, to tell you the truth, we saw your father and your brother coming this way, and I put on my cap and came down. I could n’t leave Lizzy to entertain three gentlemen, all of the same family : that would have been much.”
Elizabeth turned quickly from the window. “ I see them : they are just here,” she said.
“ And I wanted particularly to see the captain, — I have always told you I liked military men,” returned her aunt ; “ but don’t let Mr. Edmund Mitford go away for that. He is not ashamed, I suppose, of being found here.”
Elizabeth came and sat down near him, not concealing the tremulous condition in which she was ; she gave him a look of disappointment, mingled with an almost feverish irritation and annoyance, and faintly shook her head. She had something to tell him, and she had been made to stop with the very words in her mouth. Her eyes had a certain pleading in them that he should not go away, and Edmund had no wish to go away. He was glad to be here, to watch what his father and brother intended, to find out their purpose. Whatever aim they might have, it was well that there should be some one to keep a watch on that.
“Oh, you’ve got here before us, Ned,” Stephen remarked in an aside, in his amiable way. He drew a chair near to that from which Elizabeth had risen on the entry of the new-comers, and which she had resumed nervously, still with that thrill of agitation. She was thus seated between the brothers, Stephen bending towards her, half turning his back upon the window. “It is dazzling to come in here,” he observed. “ The country does n’t look half so sunny and brilliant outside. It must be something in this room.”
He looked at her, as he spoke, with a laugh and an admiring gaze which indicated his meaning almost too distinctly. The time of broad compliment has passed away, and Elizabeth was unacquainted with that form of address. She gave him an astonished look.
“ Of course it is something in this room,”said the Squire. “ Young fellows are not so ready as they were in our day, Mrs. Travers. I think I could have put it more neatly, in my time ” —
“It is the plate-glass,” suggested the old lady. “ As for the other sort of thing, my time ’s over, and Lizzy ’s too serious. I don’t know why the plateglass should have that effect. I always told Mr. Travers that we wanted shade ; but trees won’t grow in a day, and the plate-glass is like a mirror, — that’s what it is.”
“ It ’s the light within,” said Mr. Mitford, with an old-fashioned bow that took in both the ladies. “ My son Stephen has scarcely been at home, to stay, since he was a boy. But he turns up when I want him. We need to hold together now.”
“ Yes, indeed,” Mrs. Travers replied, with the gravity that befitted the situation, “ the fewer you get, the more you ought to cling close; but it is n’t all families that do that.”
“ It wants a pretty strong inducement,” said Stephen, “to make a man bury himself in the country in June. Don’t you think so ? Oh, I know it’s the height of summer, and all that; but on the other hand, there’s nothing for a man to do. Tennis, yes ; but tennis soon palls, don’t you think so, Miss Travers ? — with the Miss Tredgolds and a curate or two.”
His own laugh was the only one that Stephen drew out, which was uncomfortable. Elizabeth was too completely preoccupied to be able to give him more than the faintest smile. “ I am no authority,” she said. “ I never play.”
“We must find something for him to do till September, Miss Travers,” remarked the Squire. “ I shall trust to you ladies to help me in that. In September we all come to life, you know. And that reminds me of our particular errand, Stephen. It appears there is one of our keepers, Ford, whom you ladies have taken a fancy to.”
“ Ford ? ” Elizabeth said, with a sudden interest. “ Yes, I know something of him.” She gave a quick look round, and seemed to hesitate for a moment whether she should not get up and call some one, but reconsidered the matter, and sat still.
“ My dear young lady,” said the Squire, playfully holding up and shaking a finger at her, “ don’t you know — But I am sure you don’t, or you would never have done it. Among us men, it’s not quite the thing — it’s not considered quite the thing to interfere with another man’s servants. We are but savages, more or less. I know our ways are not ladies’ ways.”
“I beg your pardon,” returned Elizabeth. “ I have never intended to interfere. I take an interest in the man, — that is true. He came to tell me he was turned out at a moment’s notice, — threatened with the police.”
“ That was all a bit of nonsense,” observed the Squire, bland and smiling. “ There’s the culprit, looking ashamed of himself, as he ought, come to beg your pardon, my dear young lady. Speak up, Steve. You ’re on your trial, my boy, and before such a judge it’s worth while clearing yourself.”
“ I hope I ’ll meet with mercy,” said Stephen. “ It’s my ill-fate that though I know Miss Travers so well, she knows me little, I fear, and possibly does n’t — trust me.” He was used to good fortune with women, and he knew that among the class to which he was accustomed a bold front was half the battle. He looked at Elizabeth with an air which was half ingratiating, half insolent. “I’m not, perhaps, good for very much ; but if I had known you took an interest in the people, why, that would have made all the difference. But I had n’t a notion — You ’d better speak for me, sir. I have n’t the ear of the court.”
“ Well, to tell the truth, we take a very strong interest in the Fords,” said Mrs. Travers, looking up from her work. “We think they ‘ve had a great deal to bear from your family. I don’t know all the details myself, but Elizabeth does. Probably Mr. Mitford himself does n’t know, Lizzy ; and Captain Mitford, who has been away for so long, and is really almost a stranger in Melcombe ” —
“ It is true,” interrupted Elizabeth. “ I ought to have thought. I know only one side, and perhaps you know only another. I have no right to be the judge.”
“ My dear Miss Travers, we are delighted, delighted to have you for the judge. Where could we find one so gentle, one so fair, in both senses of the word ? Speak up, can’t you, Steve, and tell all your bad meaning. Of course he had a bad meaning ; not abstract justice, — oh, no, that’s seldom what we think of. Speak up ! A fellow like you should get the ladies to take his part.”
“ I’m quite ready, for one,” responded little Mrs. Travers, laying her work down upon her lap. “ I’m always a friend to military men. Where should we be without them ? There would be no security for anything, I always say.”
“ There’s encouragement for you, Steve,” remarked his father, with a laugh.
“If there’s to be a trial, the court had better be cleared,” said Edmund, getting up, — a movement which made Stephen’s face lighten with evident satisfaction.
“ That’s true,” he assented. “ I had better have as few listeners as possible, to take notes of my enormities.”
Elizabeth put up an eager hand. “ Don’t go away, — don’t go away,” she pleaded, almost in a whisper, with an anxious look and a return of that agitation which was so inexplicable to Edmund, and with which he alone seemed connected. The only answer he could make was a bow of submission, but he withdrew from the group, and going to the window, that universal resource for persons who find themselves de trop, stood looking out, seeing nothing, as such persons generally do.
“ I say, sir,” exclaimed Stephen, “ this is n’t fair. Here is Ned, a sort of counsel for the defendant. No, not exactly that, for I am the defendant ; but at all events for the other side. Don’t you know, Miss Travers, that brothers are usually on different sides ? ”
“ Come, come,” cried Mrs. Travers, “ begin ! This is getting more and more interesting.” She was delighted with Stephen’s air of assurance, with his banter, though it was not very refined, and that look of a conquering hero, which he rarely laid aside.
“ Well, then, here goes. Miss Travers, you must know our view of these Fords. They are people, though I don’t know details any more than Mrs. Travers, who have been mixed up in — in most painful events. I know that much, though I may n’t know all. The governor, there, has heard a great deal too much about them ; that’s the truth. I knew he’d be glad to be rid of them. I knew also that he’d rather never hear their name again. Don’t you see ? I therefore thought I’d make hold to take it into my own hands.”
“ I think you were very right. Mr. Mitford might indeed have painful associations, and he could not be to blame.”
Edmund turned round in amazement to hear these words from Elizabeth. To hear the question discussed here at all was in itself strange enough, but to hear it with Stephen’s gloss of pretended solicitude for his father, approved by Elizabeth ! The story was dim, and full of mystery to himself. The chance of hearing it cleared up or explained away, from Stephen’s side, was one which startled him out of all pretense of calm spectatorship. He turned, with involuntary excitement, to watch the speakers. As he did so, Edmund’s eye was attracted by a flicker of movement behind the screen. There was a very narrow interval between its edge and the wall, — so narrow that a person standing behind might see without being himself seen. There seemed to be preparations for some one sitting there : a table with something white on it, a chair pushed against the wall. These details caught Edmund’s eye instantaneously, as he turned his head. But a second glance showed him more. Some one stood, a slight dark figure, at this coigne of vantage, leaning against the screen. Her head was bowed, her face invisible. She had the air of clinging so close as to obliterate herself in the shadow and dark line of the piece of furniture. Perhaps he would not have been sure at all but for the lighter color of her hair ; her very face was pressed against the dark velvet of the screen. He was so much startled that for the moment he scarcely heard what Stephen was saying, though that had an interest to him beyond anything which could be roused by a visitor or servant at Mount Travers, thus clandestinely listening to something which she had no business to hear.
“ Yes,”Stephen said, “ I own that I thought that a kind of duty ; but there it is that my bad meaning, as my father calls it, comes in. To get rid of Ford was all right, a relief to the Squire without bothering him ; but the fact was, I had a man of my own.”
“ A man of your own ! Go on, Mr. Stephen, go on. It is always more and more exciting,” cried Mrs. Travers, sitting up erect in her chair, and clapping her hands.
“ Yes, mea culpa, — that is the height of my offense : I wanted to put in my own man. It is a nice little cottage, with a charming garden ; and instead of that troublesome fellow, Ford, with his bad antecedents, I had planned to put in a nice young couple, my own— Hallo! What’s this ? Who ’s this ? What — what do you mean by it ? ” Stephen cried.
Something had flitted across his line of vision, — a figure which Edmund alone had previously seen. But even Edmund did not observe, so quick was her motion, how it was that she detached herself from the shadow, and suddenly became visible to the whole group, standing in the full light of the great window. Stephen acknowledged the wonder, the strangeness, and the power of this apparition by springing suddenly to his feet ; his face, slightly flushed by his story-telling, grew crimson in a moment; his eyes seemed to project from his head.
“ Eh ? ” exclaimed the Squire, turning towards the new actor on the scene. “ Who is it ? What’s happened ? Why, it’s Lily Ford! ”
“ She has heard her father reflected upon,” said Mrs. Travers. “ Dear, dear, I forgot she was about! Go away, my poor girl, go away ; it was not meant for you to hear.”
“ Miss Travers,” said Lily, in a tremulous, hurried voice, “ I told you all my story, every word, the very first day. I told it all, except who it was. I meant to hide that from you, for his very name was a shame to say. Perhaps I ’ve done harm by it ; I ’m afraid I have. I’m mended of my folly now. To hear him speak of Ford, that was troublesome, that had bad antecedents, that Mr. Mitford could not bear the name of — Look at him, Miss Travers ; do you want me to say more ?
That’s the man that beguiled me up to London ; that was to take me to a woman’s house, where I should be taken care of, and marry me in the morning. I told you every word. He was to have the license in his pocket, and it was to be at a church in the city. There he is, there he stands ! That’s Stephen Mitford, that was to be my husband, but never meant it; that’s the man that is turning out my father and mother, and threatening the police to them, because I escaped away from him out into the streets! Rather the streets than him ! Rather anything in all the world than him! ”
“ It’s a lie! ” retorted Stephen, forgetting all his precautions. “ Hold your tongue ! How dare you speak ? It’s a lie ! ”
“ Lily ! ” cried Elizabeth. “ Oh, Lily ! What are you saying ? ” She had uttered a cry and started up at the first words of this strange revelation ; and without looking at Edmund she put out her hand to him, saying, “ Edmund, forgive — forgive me ! ” as Lily went on.
“ He knows it’s all true ! ” the girl cried, pointing to Stephen. “ He used to meet me in the park, and he offered to marry me. He said Not church, church was of no consequence, — a registrar’s office ; but I said No, the church or nothing ; and he was to get the license for a church in the city, and all straightforward, and to take me to a good woman’s. But there was no woman, and he had said I was his wife. Then I opened the door and ran out into the streets ; and I walked, and walked, and walked, till I was like to drop, till the morning ; and then I got to the railway, where there was a woman, and slept all day ; and there you found me. I told you all the story, every word, except his name. And there he stands, — Stephen Mitford. Oh, I have good cause to know his name ! ”
“ The girl is mad ! ” Stephen cried. “ It’s a lie! She means my brother.
My brother would have married her. He was a fool. It was Roger; it was not I.”
“What’s all this about ? ” blustered the Squire. He had sprung up, too, from his seat. “ He ’s right, Miss Travers. This girl, confound her ! — my poor boy wanted to marry her. She had — she had — got over him, somehow. It’s true, Roger wanted to marry her. Stephen was never in it. Stephen is not that sort! ” Mr. Mitford laughed in a wild way, with an indignant braggadocio, ready to boast of his son’s want of virtue. “He’s not a — he’s not one of the innocent ones. He is up to most things ! ”
“ Lily, my child, — Lily, come here,” cried Mrs. Travers. “Oh, dear, dear! To hear that about her father has quite upset her. Lily, come here, — come here.”
Lily obeyed the call. She was very docile, though trembling with passion ; and in that stirring up of all her being, she was glad of some one to cling to, some one to lean upon. She obeyed the movement of the old lady’s hand, and went and stood behind her chair. The others were all standing up, gazing at each other. Elizabeth, in her compunction and astonishment, had put her hand suddenly into Edmund’s, not knowing what she did, calling him by his name ; and notwithstanding the wonderful commotion which this involuntary act roused in him, he had said or done nothing save hold that hand firmly in his, not attempting to interrupt the strain of a stronger interest, the question now raised between his father and brother, between whom a whole tragedy lay. As if a magnet had drawn them, they both followed Lily’s movements with their eyes ; as if her change of position could impart something new to the startling tale.
“ Speak up, man! ” cried the Squire, growing gradually excited. “ Don’t leave me to answer for you, — you’ve a big enough voice when you please.
Take your oath to it! Are you going to let them believe that — that lie ? ”
“ That’s what it is,” answered Stephen. His voice was big enough, but there was something hollow in it. " It is a lie. I’ve said so. You see she can’t face me and say it again! ”
“ Sir,” said Lily, leaning over her friend’s chair, over the head of the little old lady, who looked like some curious white-and-black bird with eager little sparkling eyes, " I have but one word. I can’t vary it. Mr. Roger, — oh ! he was too good ; he spoke to me as if I had been the highest lady in the land. But Stephen made me leave my home ; he said we were to be married, and he would get a license ; it was to be in a church in the city.” Lily went over those details again with a monotony of repetition, as she had gone over and over them in her mind in circles of confused and miserable thinkings. “ I trusted him, and I went to him, but he never meant it. When I saw how it was — Oh, ask him ; he will tell you ! ” she cried, suddenly turning upon her former lover. " Ask him, look at him ! Can’t you see it in his face ? ”
“You liar!” he cried, hoarse with passion ; “ you jilt, you little devil ! The streets, — that was where she came from, where she belonged! Yes, I ’ll take my oath ! I tell you it’s an infernal lie ! ”
“ I walked about the streets all night. God protected me,” said Lily. “ It was like the dead walking, but I was safe there from him. I told Miss Travers every word, but not who he was. I would have spared him, if he had spared my father and mother. For he did me no harm, only a night in the streets ; an awful night, on my feet, walking all the time, but that’s all. He did me no harm ! ”
Stephen looked as a bully looks when he is beaten down and can brag no more. “ I took her from the streets, — that’s what she means. I would n’t go after her there, — that’s what has made her mad. She’s a liar, — she’s a d—d ” —
Mr. Mitford raised his stick, and made as if he would have struck his son on the mouth. His own forehead and cheeks were purple. He tried to speak, and the foam flew from his mouth like spray. “ You hound ! ” he cried. “ Do you know there are ladies here ? D— you, you make me forget it ! ” He struck his stick upon the ground in his passion, and snapped it as if it had been glass. “ Enticed the girl like a villain and lost her like a fool! I’m glad my stick’s broken, or I ’d have struck him. Don’t speak to me, — don’t speak to me. Get out of my way, sir. I ’m going home.”
They all stood staring, accused and accuser together, while the father, stammering, maddened, pushing everything, furniture and persons, wildly from him, turned round, clearing the way with the broken end of his stick, and rushed out of the room.
M. O. W. Oliphant.
T. B. Aldrich.