The squire himself was always there, but a peculiar chair was placed for him, supposed to be invisible to the reader, in which he slept during the whole time, subject to correction from a neighbouring daughter in the event of his snoring. An extra bottle of port after dinner was another Sunday observance which added to the irritability of the occasion,—so that the squire, when the reading and prayers were over, would generally be very cross, and would take himself up to bed almost without a word, and the brothers would rush away almost with indecent haste to their smoking. As the novels had all been put away into a cupboard, and the good books which were kept for the purpose strewed about in place of them, and as knitting, and even music, were tabooed, the girls, having nothing to do, would also go away at an early hour.
'John, would you mind staying a few moments with me?' said Aunt Polly, in her softest voice when Caldigate was hurrying after his male cousins. He knew that the hour had come, and he girded up his loins.
'Come nearer, John,' she said,—and he came nearer, so that she could put her hand upon his. 'Do you remember, John, when you and I and Julia were together in that little room up-stairs?' There was so much pathos in her voice, she did her acting so well, that his respect for her was greatly augmented,—as was also his fear. 'She remembers it very well.'
'Of course I remember it, Aunt Polly. It's one of those things that a man doesn't forget.'
'A man ought not to forget such a scene as that,' she said, shaking her head. 'A man would be very hard of heart if he could forget it.'
Now must be the moment for his exertion! She had spoken so plainly as to leave no doubt of her meaning, and she was pausing for an answer; yet he hesitated,—not in his purpose, but doubting as to his own manner of declaring it. He must be very decided. Upon that he was resolved. He would be decided, though they should drag him in pieces with wild horses for it afterwards. But he would fain be gentle with his aunt if it were possible. 'My dear Aunt Polly, it won't do; I'm not going to be caught, and so you may as well give it over.' That was what he wished her to understand;—but he would not say it in such language. Much was due to her, though she was struggling to catch him in a trap. 'When I had made such a fool of myself before I went—about money,' he said, 'I thought that was all over.'
'But you have made anything but a fool of yourself since,' she replied triumphantly; 'you have gone out into the world like a man, and have made your fortune, and have so returned that everybody is proud of you. Now you can take a wife to yourself and settle down, and be a happy goodman.'
It was exactly his view of life;—only there was a difference about the wife to be taken. He certainly had never said a word to his cousin which could justify this attack upon him. The girl had been brought to him in a cupboard, and he had been told that he was to marry her! And that when he had been young and drowned with difficulties. How is a man ever to escape if he must submit under such circumstances as these? 'My dear Aunt Polly, I had better tell you at once that I cannot marry my cousin Julia.' Those were the words which he did speak, and as he spoke there was a look about his eyes and his mouth which ought to have made her know that there was no hope.
'And why not? John Caldigate, is this you that I hear?'
'Why should I?'
'Because you promised it.'
'I never did, Aunt Polly.'
'And because she loves you.'
'Even if it were so, am I to be bound by that? But, indeed, indeed, I never even suggested it,—never thought of it. I am very fond of my cousin, very fond of all my cousins. But marriage is a different thing. I am inclined to think that cousins had better not marry.'
'You should have said that before. But it is nonsense. Cousins marry every day. There is nothing about it either in the Bible or the Prayer-book. She will die.'
Aunt Polly said this in a tone of voice which made it a matter of regret that she should not have been educated for Drury Lane. But as she said it, he could not avoid thinking of Julia's large ankles, and red cheeks, and of the new green hat and feather. A girl with large ankles is, one may suppose, as liable to die for love as though she were as fine about her feet as a thorough-bred filly; and there is surely no reason why a true heart and a pair of cherry cheeks should not go together. But our imagination has created ideas in such matters so fixed, that it is useless to contend against them. In our endeavours to produce effects, these ideas should be remembered and obeyed. 'I hope not on that account,' said Caldigate, and as he uttered the words some slightest suspicion of a smile crossed his face.
Then Aunt Polly blazed forth in wrath. 'And at such a moment as this you can laugh!'
'Indeed, I did not laugh;—I am very far from laughing, Aunt Polly.'
'Because I am anxious for my child, my child whom you have deceived, you make yourself merry with me!'
'I am not merry. I am miserably unhappy because of all this. But I cannot admit that I have deceived my cousin. All that was settled, I thought, when I went away. But coming back at the end of four years, of four such long years, with very different ideas of life——'
'Well,—at any rate, with ideas of having my own way,—I cannot submit myself to this plan of yours, which, though it would have given me so much——'
'It would give you everything, sir.'
'Granted! But I cannot take everything. It is better that we should understand each other, so that my cousin, for whom I have the most sincere regard, should not be annoyed.'
'Much you care!'
'What shall I say?'
'It signifies nothing what you say. You are a false man. You have inveigled your cousin's affections, and now you say that you can do nothing for her. This comes from the sort of society you have kept out at Botany Bay! I suppose a man's word there is worth nothing, and that the women are of such a kind they don't mind it. It is not the way with gentlemen here in England; let me tell you that!' Then she stalked out of the room, leaving him either to go to bed, or join the smokers or to sit still and repent at his leisure, as he might please. His mind, however, was chiefly occupied for the next half-hour with thinking whether it would be possible for him to escape from Babington on the following morning.
Before the morning he had resolved that, let the torment of the day be what it might, he would bear it,—unless by chance he might be turned out of the house. But no tragedy such as that came to relieve him. Aunt Polly gave him his tea at breakfast with a sternly forbidding look,—and Julia was as cherry-cheeked as ever, though very silent. The killing of calves was over, and he was left to do what he pleased during the whole day. One spark of comfort came to him. 'John, my boy,' said his uncle in a whisper, 'what's the matter between you and Madame?' Mr. Babington would sometimes call his wife Madame when he was half inclined to laugh at her. Caldigate of course declared that there was nothing wrong. The squire shook his head and went away. But from this it appeared to Caldigate that the young lady's father was not one of the conspirators,—by ascertaining which his mind was somewhat relieved.
On the next morning the fly came for him, and he went away without any kisses. Upon the whole he was contented with both his visits, and was inclined to assure himself that a man has only to look a difficulty in the face, and that the difficulty will be difficult no longer.
Again at Puritan Grange
As Caldigate travelled home to Folking he turned many things in his mind. In the first place he had escaped, and that to him was a matter of self-congratulation. He had declared his purpose in reference to his cousin Julia very clearly;—and though he had done so he had not quarrelled utterly with the family. As far as the young lady's father was concerned or her brothers, there had been no quarrel at all. The ill-will against him was confined to the women. But as he thought of it all, he was not proud of himself. He had received great kindness from their hands, and certainly owed them much in return. When he had been a boy he had been treated almost as one of the family;—but as he had not been quite one of them, would it not have been natural that he should be absorbed in the manner proposed? And then he could not but admit to himself that he had been deficient in proper courage when he had been first caught and taken into the cupboard. On that occasion he had neither accepted nor rejected the young lady; and in such a matter as this silence certainly may be supposed to give consent. Though he rejoiced in his escape he was not altogether proud of his conduct in reference to his friends at Babington.
Would it not have been better that he should have told his aunt frankly that his heart was engaged elsewhere? The lady's name would have been asked, and the lady's name could not have been given. But he might in this way have prepared the way for the tidings which would have to be communicated should he finally be successful with Hester Bolton. Now such news would reach them as an aggravation of the injury. For that, however, there could be no remedy. The task at present before him was that of obtaining a footing in the house at Chesterton, and the more he thought of it the more he was at a loss to know how to set about it. They could not intend to shut such a girl up, through all her young years, as in a convent. There must be present to the minds of both of them an idea that marriage would be good for her, or, at any rate, that she should herself have some choice in the matter. And if there were to be any son-in-law why should not he have as good a chance as any other? When they should learn how constantly the girl's image had been present to his mind, so far away, during so many years, under such hard circumstances would not that recommend him to them? Had he not proved himself to be steady, industrious, and a good man of business? In regard to position and fortune was he not such as a father would desire for his daughter? Having lost his claim to Folking, had he not regained it;—and in doing so had he not shown himself to be something much more than merely the heir to Folking? An immediate income would, of course, be necessary;—but there was money enough. He would ask the old man for nothing. Reports said that though the old man had been generous to his own sons, still he was fond of money. He should have the opportunity of bestowing his daughter in marriage without being asked for a shilling. And then John Caldigate bethought himself with some pride that he could make a proper settlement on his wife without burdening the estate at Folking with any dowers. But of what use would be all this if he could not get at the girl to tell her that he loved her?
He might, indeed, get at the father and tell his purpose plainly and honestly. But he thought that his chance of prevailing with the girl might be better than with the father. In such cases it is so often the daughter who prevails with her own parents after she has surrendered her own heart. The old man had looked at him sternly, had seemed even in that moment of time to disapprove of him. But the girl——. Well; in such an interview as that there had not been much scope for approval. Nor was he a man likely to flatter himself that any girl could fall in love with him at first sight. But she had not looked sternly at him. In the few words which she had spoken her voice had been very sweet. Both of them had said they remembered him after the long interval that had passed;—but the manner of saying so had been very different. He was almost sure that the old man would be averse to him, though he could tell himself personally that there was no just cause for such aversion. But if this were so, he could not forward his cause by making his offer through the father.
'Well, John, how has it gone with you at Babington?' his father asked almost as soon as they were together.
It had not been difficult to tell his father of the danger before he made his visit, but now he hesitated before he could avow that the young lady's hand had again been offered to him. 'Pretty well, sir. We had a good deal of archery and that kind of thing. It was rather slow.'
'I should think so. Was there nothing besides the archery?'
'The young lady was not troublesome?'
'Perhaps the less we say about it the better, sir. They were very kind to me when I was a boy.'
'I have nothing to say at all, unless I am to be called on to welcome her as a daughter-in-law.'
'You will not have to do that, sir.'
'I suppose, John, you mean to marry some day,' said the father after a pause. Then it occurred to the son that he must have some one whom he could trust in this matter which now occupied his mind, and that no one probably might be so able to assist him as his father. 'I wish I knew what your idea of life is,' continued Mr. Caldigate. 'I fear you will be growing tired of this place, and that when you get back to your gold-mines you will stay there.'
'There is no fear of that. I do not love the place well enough.'
'If you were settled here, I should feel more comfortable. I sometimes think, John, that if you would fix yourself I would give the property up to you altogether and go away with my books into some town. Cambridge, perhaps, would do as well as any other.'
'You must never do that, sir. You must not leave Folking. But as for myself,—I have ideas about my own life.'
'Are they such that you can tell them?'
'Yes;—you shall hear them all. But I shall expect you to help me;—or at least not turn against me?'
'Turn against you, John! I hope I may never have to do that again. What is that you mean?' This he said very seriously. There was usually in his voice something of a tone of banter,—a subdued cynicism,—which had caused everybody near him to be afraid of him, and which even yet was habitual to him. But now that was all gone. Was there to be any new source of trouble betwixt him and his son?
'I intend to ask Hester Bolton to be my wife,' said John Caldigate.
The father, who was standing in the library, slapped both his hands down upon the table. 'Hester Bolton!'
'Is there any objection?'
'What do you know about her? Why;—she's a child.'
'She is nearly twenty, sir.'
'Have you ever seen her?'
'Yes, I have seen her,—twice. I daresay you'll think it very absurd, but I have made up my mind about it. If I say that I was thinking about it all the time I was in Australia, of course you will laugh at me.'
'I will not laugh at you at all, John.'
'If any one else were to say so to me, I should laugh at them. But yet it was so. Have you ever seen her?'
'I suppose I have. I think I remember a little girl.'
'For beauty I have never seen anybody equal to her,' said the lover. 'I wish you'd go over to Chesterton and judge for yourself.'
'They wouldn't know what such a thing meant. It is years since I have been in the house. I believe that Mrs. Bolton devotes herself to religious exercises and that she regards me as a pagan.'
'That's just the difficulty, sir. How am I to get at her? But you may be sure of this, I mean to do it. If I were beat I do think that then I should go back and bury myself in the gold-mines. You asked me what I meant to do about my future life. That is my purpose. If she were my wife I should consult her. We might travel part of the time, and I might have a farm. I should always look upon Folking as home. But till that is settled, when you ask me what I mean to do with my life, I can only say that I mean to marry Hester Bolton.'
'Did you tell them at Babington?'
'I have told nobody but you. How am I to set about it?'
Then Mr. Caldigate sat down and began to scratch his head and to consider. 'I don't suppose they ever go out anywhere.'
'I don't think they do;—except to church.'
'You can't very well ask her there. You can always knock at the house-door.'
'I can call again once;—but what if I am refused then? It is of no use knocking if a man does not get in.' After a little more conversation the squire was so far persuaded that he assented to the proposed marriage as far as his assent was required; but he did not see his way to give any assistance. He could only suggest that his son should go direct to the father and make his proposition in the old-fashioned legitimate fashion. But when it was put to him whether Mr. Bolton would not certainly reject the offer unless it were supported by some goodwill on the part of his own daughter, he acknowledged that it might probably be so. 'You see,' said the squire, 'he believes in gold, but he doesn't believe in gold-mines.'
'It is that accursed Davis that stands against me,' said the son.
John Caldigate, no doubt, had many things to trouble him. Before he had resolved on making his second visit to Chesterton, he received a most heartrending epistle from Aunt Polly in which he was assured that he was quite as dear to her as ever, quite as dear as her own children, and in which he was implored to return to the haunts of his childhood where everybody loved him and admired him. After what had passed, he was determined not to revisit the haunts till he was married, or, at any rate, engaged to be married. But there was a difficulty in explaining this to Aunt Polly without an appearance of ingratitude. And then there were affairs in Australia which annoyed him. Tom Crinkett was taking advantage of his absence in reference to Polyeuka,—that his presence would soon be required there;—and other things were not going quite smoothly. He had much to trouble him;—but still he was determined to carry out his purpose with Hester Bolton. Since the day on which he had roused himself to the necessity of an active life he had ever called upon himself 'not to let the grass grow under his feet.' And he had taught himself to think that there were few things a man could not achieve if he would only live up to that motto. Therefore, though he was perplexed by letters from Australia, and though his Aunt Polly was a great nuisance, he determined to persevere at once. If he allowed himself to revisit Nobble before he had settled this matter with Hester Bolton, would it not be natural that Hester Bolton should be the wife of some other man before he returned?
With all this on his mind he started off one day on horseback to Cambridge. When he left Folking he had not quite made up his mind whether he would go direct to the bank and ask for old Mr. Bolton, or make a first attempt at that fortified castle at Chesterton. But on entering the town he put his horse up at an inn just where the road turns off to Chesterton, and proceeded on foot to the house. This was about a mile distant from the stable, and as he walked that mile he resolved that if he could get into the house at all he would declare his purpose to some one before he left it. What was the use of shilly-shallying? 'Who ever did anything by letting the grass grow under his feet?' So he knocked boldly at the door and asked for Mrs. Bolton. After a considerable time, the maid came and told him, apparently with much hesitation, that Mrs. Bolton was at home. He was quite determined to ask for Miss Bolton if Mrs. Bolton were denied to him. But the girl said that Mrs. Bolton was at home, seeming by her manner to say at the same time, 'I cannot tell a lie about it, because of the sin; but I don't know what business you can have here, and I'm sure that my mistress does not want to see any such a one as you.' Nevertheless she showed him into the big sitting-room on the left hand of the hall, and as he entered he saw the skirts of a lady's dress vanishing through another door. Had there been a moment allowed him he would boldly have called the lady back, for he was sure that the lady was Hester;—but the lady was gone and the door closed before he could open his mouth.
Then he waited for full ten minutes, which, of course, seemed to him to be very much more than an hour. At last the door was opened and Mrs. Bolton appeared. The reader is not to suppose that she was an ugly, cross-looking old woman. She was neither ugly, nor old, nor cross. When she had married Mr. Bolton, she had been quite young, and now she was not much past forty. And she was handsome too, with a fine oval face which suited well with the peculiar simplicity of her dress and the sober seriousness of her gait and manner. It might, perhaps, be said of her that she tried to look old and ugly,—and cross too, but that she did not succeed. She now greeted her visitor very coldly, and having asked after old Mr. Caldigate, sat silent looking at John Caldigate as though there were nothing more possible for her to say.
'I could not but come to see you and thank you for your kindness before I went,' said John.
'I remember your coming about some business. We have very few visitors here.'
'I went out, you know, as a miner.'
'I think I heard Mr. Bolton say so.'
'And I have succeeded very well.'
'So well that I have been able to come back; and though I may perhaps be obliged to revisit the colony to settle my affairs there, I am going to live here at home.'
'I hope that will be comfortable to you.' At every word she spoke, her voice took more and more plainly that tone of wonder which we are all of us apt to express when called on to speak on matters which we are at the moment astonished to have introduced to us.
'Yes; Mrs. Bolton, I hope it will. And now I have got something particular to say.'
'Perhaps you had better see—Mr. Bolton—at the bank.'
'I hope I may be able to do so. I quite intend it. But as I am here, if you will allow me, I will say a word to you first. In all matters there is nothing so good as being explicit.' She looked at him as though she was altogether afraid of him. And indeed she was. Her husband's opinion of the young man had been very bad five years ago,—and she had not heard that it had been altered since. Young men who went out to the colonies because they were ruined, were, to her thinking, the worst among the bad,—men who drank and gambled and indulged in strange lives, mere castaways, the adopted of Satan. And, to her thinking, among men, none were so rough as miners,—and among miners none were so godless, so unrestrained so wild as the seekers after gold. She had read, perhaps, something of the Spaniards in Central America, and regarded such adventurers as she would pirates and freebooters generally. And then with regard to the Caldigates generally,—the elder of whom she knew to have been one of her husband's intimate friends in his less regenerated days,—she believed them to be infidel freethinkers. She was not, therefore, by any means predisposed in favour of this young man; and when he spoke of his desire to be explicit, she thought that he had better be explicit anywhere rather than in her drawing-room. 'You may remember,' he said, 'that I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter here before I left the country five years ago.' Then she listened with all her ears. There were not many things in this empty, vain, hard unattractive world which excited her. But the one thing in regard to which she had hopes and fears, doubts and resolutions,—the one matter as to which she knew that she must ever be on her guard, and yet as to which she hardly knew how she was to exercise her care,—was her child. 'And once I have seen her since I have been back, though only for a moment.' Then he paused as though expecting that she should say something;—but what was it possible that she should say? She only looked at him with all her eyes, and retreated a little from him with her body, as anxious to get away from a man of his class who should dare even to speak to her of her girl. 'The truth is, Mrs. Bolton, that her image has been present to me through all my wanderings, and I am here to ask her to be my wife.' She rose from her chair as though to fly from him,—and then sitting down again stared at him with her mouth open and her eyes fixed upon him. His wife! Her Hester to become the wife of such a one as that! Her girl, as to whom, when thinking of the future life of her darling, she had come to tell herself that there could be no man good enough, pure enough, true enough, firm enough in his faith and life, to have so tender, so inestimable a treasure committed to his charge!
Caldigate felt at the moment that he had been very abrupt,—so abrupt as to have caused infinite dismay. But then it had been necessary that he should be abrupt in order that he might get the matter understood. The ordinary approaches were not open to him, and unless he had taken a more than usually rapid advantage of the occasion which he had made for himself, he would have had to leave the house without having been able to give any of its inmates the least idea of his purpose. And then,—as he said to himself,—matrimony is honest. He was in all worldly respects a fit match for the young lady. To his own thinking there was nothing preposterous in the nature of his request, though it might have been made with some precipitate informality. He did not regard himself exactly as the lady regarded him, and therefore, though he saw her surprise, he still hoped that he might be able to convince her that in all that he was doing he was as anxious for the welfare of her child as she could be herself.
She sat there so long without saying a word that he found himself obliged to renew his suit. 'Of course, Mrs. Bolton, I am aware how very little you know of me.'
'Nothing at all,' she answered, hurriedly;—'or rather too much.'
He blushed up to his eyes, perfectly understanding the meaning of her words; and, knowing that he had not deserved them, he was almost angry. 'If you will make inquiry I think you will find that I have so far succeeded as to justify you in hoping that I may be able to marry and settle myself in my own country.'
'You don't know my daughter at all.'
'It is quite out of the question. She is very young, and such a thing has never occurred to her. And we are not the same sort of people.'
'Why not, Mrs. Bolton? Your husband and my father have been intimate friends for a great many years. It is not as though I had taken up the idea only yesterday. It has been present with me, comforting me, during all my work, for the last five years. I know all your daughter's features as though she had been my constant companion.' The lady shivered and almost trembled at this profanation of her child's name. It was trouble to her that one so holy should ever have been thought about by one so unholy. 'Of course I do not ask for anything at present;—but will you not consult your husband as to the propriety of allowing her to make my acquaintance?'
'I shall tell my husband, of course.'
'And will repeat to him what I say?'
'I shall tell him,—as I should any other most wild proposition that might be made to me. But I am quite sure that he will be very angry.'
'Angry! why should he be angry?'
'Because——' Then she stopped.
'I do not think, Mrs. Bolton, that there can be any cause for anger. If I were a beggar, if I were below her in position, if I had not means to keep a wife,—even if I were a stranger to his name, he might be angry. But I do not think he can be angry with me, now, because, in the most straightforward way, I come to the young lady's parents and tell them that I love their child. Is it a disgrace to me that of all whom I have seen I think her to be the loveliest and best? Her father may reject me; but he will be very unreasonable if he is angry with me.'
She could not tell him about the dove and the kite, or the lamb and the wolf. She could not explain to him that he was a sinner, unregenerated, a wild man in her estimation, a being of quite another kind than herself, and therefore altogether unfitted to be the husband of her girl! Her husband, no doubt, could do all this—if he would. But then she too had her own skeleton in her own cupboard. She was not quite assured of her own husband's regeneration. He went to church regularly, and read his Bible, and said his prayers. But she feared,—she was almost sure,—that he liked the bank-books better than his Bible. That he would reject this offer from John Caldigate, she did not doubt. She had always heard her husband speak of the man with disapprobation and scorn. She had heard the whole story of Davis and the Newmarket debts. She had heard, too, the man's subsequent prosperity spoken of as a thing of chance,—as having come from gambling on an extensive scale. She herself regarded money acquired in so unholy a way as likely to turn to slate-stones, or to fly away and become worse than nothing. She knew that Mr. Bolton, whether regenerate or not, regarded young Caldigate as an adventurer, and that therefore, the idea of such a marriage would be as unpalatable to him as to herself. But she did not dare to tell her visitor that he was an unregenerate kite, lest her husband would not support her.
'Whatever more you have got to say, you had better say it to him,' she replied to the lover when he had come to the end of his defence. At that moment the door opened, and a gentleman entered the room. This was Mr. Robert Bolton, the attorney. Now of all her husband's sons,—who were, of course, not her sons,—Mrs. Bolton saw this one the most frequently and perhaps liked him the least. Or it might be juster to say that she was more afraid of him than of the others. The two eldest, who were both in the bank, were quiet, sober men, who lived affluently and were married to religious wives, and brought up their children plentifully and piously. She did not see very much of them, because her life was not a social life. But among her friends they were the most intimate. But Robert's wife was given to gaiety and dinner-parties and had been seen even at balls. And Robert himself was much oftener at the Grange than either of the other brothers. He managed his father's private affairs, and was, perhaps, of all his sons the best liked by the father. He was prosperous in his business and was reported to be the leading lawyer in the town. In the old Cambridge days he had entertained John Caldigate at his house; and though they had not met since the miner's return from Australia, each at once knew the other, and their greeting was friendly 'Where's Hess?' said Robert, asking at once after his sister.
'She is engaged, Robert,' said Mrs. Bolton, very seriously, and very firmly.
'She gave me a commission about some silk, and Margaret says that it can't be executed in Cambridge. She must write to Fanny.' Margaret was Mrs. Robert Bolton, and Fanny was the wife of the barrister brother who lived in London.
'I will tell her, Robert.'
'All the same I should have liked to have seen her.'
'She is engaged, Robert.' This was said almost more seriously and more firmly than before.
'Well, Caldigate,' said the attorney, turning to the visitor, 'so you are the one man who has not only gone to the gold country and found gold, but has brought his gold home with him.'
'I have brought a little home;—but I hope others have done so before.'
'I have never heard of any. You seem to have been uncommonly lucky. Hard work, wasn't it?'
'Hard enough at first.'
'And a good deal of chance?'
'If a man will work steadily, and has backbone enough to stand up against reverses without consoling himself with drink; and if, when the gold comes, he can refrain from throwing it about as though it were endless, I think a man may be tolerably sure to earn something.' Then he told the story of the horse with the golden shoes.
'Shoes of gold upon a horse!' said Mrs. Bolton, holding up both her hands. The man who could even tell such a story must be an adventurer. But, nevertheless the story had interested her so that she had been enticed into taking some part in the conversation.
When Caldigate got up to take his leave, Robert Bolton offered to walk back to the town with him. He had expected to find his father, but would now look for him at the bank. They started together; and as they went Caldigate told his story to the young lady's half-brother. It occurred to him that of all the family Robert Bolton would be the most reasonable in such a matter; and that of all the family he might perhaps be the best able to give assistance. When Robert Bolton had heard it all, at first he whistled. Then he asked the following question. 'What did she say to you?'
'She did not give me much encouragement.'
'I should think not. Though I say it who shouldn't, Hester is the sweetest girl in Cambridgeshire. But her mother thinks her much too good to be given in marriage to any man. This kind of thing was bound to come about some day.'
'But Mrs. Bolton seems to have some personal objection to me.'
'I don't know why she should.'
'She has got one treasure of her own, in enjoying which she is shut out from all the rest of the world. Is it unnatural that she should be a little suspicious about a man who proposes to take her treasure away from her?'
'She must surrender her treasure to some one,—some day.'
'If it be so, she will hope to do so to a man of whose antecedents she may know more than she does of yours. What she does know of you is of a nature to frighten her. You will excuse me.'
'Oh, of course.'
'She has heard that you went away under a cloud, having surrendered your estate. That was against you. Well;—you have come back, and she hears that you have brought some money with you. She does not care very much about money; but she does care about regularity and fixed habits. If Hess is to be married at all she would especially wish that her husband should be a religious man. Perhaps you are.'
'I am neither the one thing nor the other,—especially.'
'And therefore peculiarly dangerous in her eyes It is natural that she should oppose you.'
'What am I to do, then?'
'Ah! How am I to answer that? The whole story is very romantic, and I do not know that we are a romantic family. My father is autocratic in his own house.'
This last assurance seemed to contain some comfort As Mrs. Bolton would be his enemy in the matter, it was well that the power of deciding should be in other hands. 'I do not mean to give it up,' said he.
'I suppose you must if they won't open their doors to you.'
'I think they ought to allow me to have the chance of seeing her.'
'I don't see why they should. Mind I am not saying anything of this for myself. If I were my sister's guardian, I should take the trouble to make many inquiries before I either asked you into my house or declined to do so. I should not give access to you, or to any other gentleman merely because he asked it.'
'Let them make inquiry.'
'Mrs. Bolton probably thinks that she already knows enough. What my father may say I cannot even surmise.'
'Will you tell him?'
'If you wish it.'
'Tell him also that I will wait upon him at once if he desires it. He shall know everything about my affairs,—which indeed require no concealment. I can settle enough upon her for her comfort. If she is to have anything of her own, that will be over and above. As far as I am concerned myself, I ask no question about that. I think that a man ought to earn enough for himself and for his wife too. As to religion——'
'If I were you, I would leave that alone,' said the lawyer.
'I will tell my father. That is all I can say. Good-bye.'
So they parted; and Caldigate, getting on his horse, rode back to Folking. Looking back at what he had done that day, he was almost disposed to be contented with it. The lady's too evident hostility was, of course, to be deprecated;—but then he had expected it. As Robert Bolton had explained to him very clearly, it was almost impossible that he should, at the first, be regarded by her with favourable eyes. But he thought that the brother had been quite as favourable to him as he could have expected, and the ice was broken. The Bolton family generally would know what he was about. Hester would not be told, of course;—at any rate, not at once. But the first steps had been taken, and it must be for him now so to press the matter that the ultimate decision should be made to rest in her hands as soon as possible.
'What did Mr. Bolton say to you?' asked the squire.
'I did not see him.'
'And what did the young lady say?'
'I did not see her.'
'Or the mamma?'
'I did see her, and told her my project.'
'I should think she would be startled?'
'She was not very propitious, sir; but that was not to be expected.'
'She is a poor melancholy half-crazed creature, I take it,' said the squire; 'at least, that is what I hear. The girl, I should think, would be glad to get away from such a home. But I am afraid you will find a good many obstacles.' After that nothing more was said about the matter at Folking for some days.
But there was a great deal said upon the matter both in Cambridge and at Chesterton. Robert Bolton found his father at the bank on the same afternoon, and performed his promise. 'Did he see your step-mother?' asked the old man.
'Oh yes; and as far as I can understand, did not receive very much favour at her hands.'
'But he did not see Hester?'
'Certainly not to-day.'
Then the old man looked up into his son's face, as though seeking some expression there from which he might take some counsel. His own nature had ever been imperious; but he was old now, and, in certain difficulties which environed him, he was apt to lean on his son Robert. It was Robert who encouraged him still to keep in his hands some share of the management of the bank; and it was to Robert that he could look for counsel when the ceremonious strictness of his wife at home became almost too hard even for him.
'It is natural to suppose that Hester should be married some day,' said the lawyer.
'Her mother will never wish it.'
'She will never wish it at any given moment, but she would probably assent to the proposition generally. Why not Hester as well as another girl? It is the happiest life for women.'
'I am not sure. I am not sure.'
'Women think so themselves, and Hester will probably be the same as others. She will, of course, have an opinion of her own.'
'She will be guided by her mother.'
'Not altogether. It will only be fair that she should be consulted on a matter of such importance to herself.'
'You would not tell her what this man has been saying?'
'Not necessarily. I say that she should be consulted generally as to her future life. In regard to this man, I see no objection to him if he be a good man.'
'He was here at college. You know what he did then?'
'Yes; and I know, too, something of what he has done since. He went away disinherited and almost degraded. He has come back, as I hear, comparatively a rich man. He has got back his inheritance, which might probably be settled on his children if he were to be married. And all this he has done off his own bat. Where other men stumble so frequently, he has stood on his legs. No doubt, he has lived with rough people, but still he seems to be a gentleman. Hester will be well off, no doubt, some day.'
'She will have something,—something,' said the old man.
'But this suitor asks for nothing. It is not as though he were coming to you to prop him up in the world. It does not look like that at least. Of course, we ought to make inquiry as to his means.'
'The mortgage has been paid off.'
'So much we know, and the rest may be found out. I do not mean at all to say that he should be allowed to have his own way. I think too much of my sister for that. But, in this matter, we ought to regard simply her happiness and her welfare;—and in considering that you ought to be prepared for her coming marriage. You may take it for granted that she will choose to give herself, sooner or later, to some man. Give a girl good looks, and good sense, and good health, and she is sure to wish to be some man's wife,—unless she be deterred by some conventual superstition.'
If there were any words capable of conveying horror to the mind of the old banker, they were convents, priests, and papacy,—of which the lawyer was well aware when speaking thus of his sister. Mrs. Bolton was certainly not addicted to papistical observances, nor was she at all likely to recommend the seclusion of her daughter in a convent. All her religious doctrines were those of the Low Church. But she had a tendency to arrive at similar results by other means. She was so afraid of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that she would fain shut up her child so as to keep her from the reach of all evil. Vowed celibacy was abominable to her, because it was the resource of the Roman Catholics; and because she had been taught to believe that convent-walls were screens for hiding unheard-of wickedness. But yet, on behalf of her child, she desired seclusion from the world, fancying that so and so only might security be ensured. Superstition was as strong with her as with any self-flagellated nun. Fasting, under that name, she held in abhorrence. But all sensual gratifications were wicked in her sight. She would allow all home indulgences to her daughter, each under some separate plea,—constrained to do so by excessive love; but she did so always in fear and trembling, lest she was giving some foothold to Satan. All of which Robert Bolton understood better even than did his father when he gave the above advice in reference to this lover.
Men Are So Wicked
A month had passed by since Caldigate's interview with Mrs. Bolton, and nothing had as yet been decided either for him or against him at Chesterton And the fact that no absolute decision had been made against him may be taken as having been very much in his favour. But of those who doubted, and doubting, had come to no decision, Mrs. Bolton herself was by no means one. She was as firm as ever in her intention that the idea should not even be suggested to her daughter. Nor, up to this time, had our hero's name been even mentioned to Hester Bolton.
About a week after Caldigate's visit to Chesterton in the early days of August, he wrote to Robert Bolton saying that he was going into Scotland for a month, and that he trusted that during that time his proposition might be considered. On his return he would take the liberty of calling on Mr. Bolton at the bank. In the meantime he hoped that inquiries might be made as to his position in the world, and in order that such inquiries might be effectual he gave a reference to his man of business in London. To this letter Robert Bolton sent no answer; but he went up to London, and did make the inquiries as suggested, and consulted his brother the barrister, and his sister-in-law the barrister's wife. They were both of opinion that John Caldigate was behaving well, and were of opinion also that something should be done to liberate Hester from the thraldom of her mother. 'I knew how it would be when she grew up and became a woman,' said Mrs. William Bolton. 'Nobody will be allowed to see her, and she won't have a chance of settling herself. When we asked her to come up here for a couple of months in the season, Mrs. Bolton sent me word that London is a terrible place for young girls,—though, of course, she knew that our own girls were being brought up here.' Then the ways of Mrs. Bolton at Chesterton and Hester's future life generally were discussed in a spirit that was by no means unfriendly to our hero.
The suggested inquiries were made in the city, and were all favourable. Everyone connected with the mining interests of the Australian colonies knew the name of John Caldigate. All of that class of people were well aware of his prosperity and confirmed good-fortune. He had brought with him or sent home nobody quite knew how much money. But it was very well known that he had left his interest in the Polyeuka mine to be sold for L60,000, and now there had come word that a company had created itself for the sake of making the purchase, and that the money would be forthcoming. The gentleman in the city connected with mining matters did not think that Mr. Caldigate would be called upon to go out to the colony again, unless he chose to do so for his own pleasure. All this Robert Bolton learned in the City, and he learned also that the man as to whom he was making inquiry was held in high esteem for honesty, perseverance, and capacity. The result of all this was that he returned to Cambridge with a feeling that his sister ought to be allowed to make the man's acquaintance. He and his brother had agreed that something should be done to liberate their sister from her present condition. Love on the part of a mother may be as injurious as cruelty, if the mother be both tyrannical and superstitious. While Hester had been a child, no interference had been possible or perhaps expedient,—but the time had now come when something ought to be done. Such having been the decision in Harley Street, where the William Boltons lived, Robert Bolton went back home with the intention of carrying it out.
This could only be done through the old man, and even with him not without great care. He was devotedly attached to his young wife;—but was very averse to having it thought that he was ruled by her. Indeed, in all matters affecting his establishment, his means, and his business, he would hardly admit of interference from her at all. His worldly matters he kept between himself and his sons. But in regard to his soul he could not restrain her, and sometimes would hardly oppose her. The prolonged evening prayers, the sermons twice a-week, the two long church services on Sundays,—indulgence as to the third being allowed to him only on the score of his age,—he endured at her command. And in regard to Hester, he had hitherto been ruled by his wife, thinking it proper that a daughter should be left in the hands of her mother. But now, when he was told that if he did not interfere, his girl would be constrained by the harsh bonds of an unnatural life, stern as he was himself and inclined to be gloomy, little as he was disposed to admit ideas of recreation and delight, he did acknowledge that something should be done to relieve her. 'But when I die she must be left in her mother's hands,' said the old banker.
'It is to be hoped that she may be in other hands before that,' replied his son. 'I do not mean to say anything against my step-mother;—but for a young woman it is generally best that she should be married. And in Hester's peculiar position, she ought to have the chance of choosing for herself.'
In this way something almost like a conspiracy was made on behalf of Caldigate. And yet the old man did not as yet abandon his prejudices against the miner. A man who had at so early an age done so much to ruin himself, and had then sprung so suddenly from ruin to prosperity, could not, he thought, be regarded as a steady well-to-do man of business. He did agree that, as regarded Hester, the prison-bars should be removed; but he did not think that she should be invited to walk forth with Mr. John Caldigate. Robert declared that his sister was quite able to form an opinion of her own, and boldly suggested that Hester should be allowed to come and dine at his house. 'To meet the man?' asked the banker in dismay. 'Yes,' said Robert. 'He isn't an ogre. You needn't be afraid of him. I shall be there,—and Margaret. Bring her yourself if you are afraid of anything. No plant ever becomes strong by being kept always away from the winds of heaven.' To this he could not assent at the time. He knew that it was impossible to assent without consulting his wife. But he was brought so far round as to think that if nothing but his own consent were wanting, his girl would be allowed to go and meet the ogre.
'I suppose we ought to wish that Hester should be married some day,' he said to his wife about this time. She shuddered and dashed her hands together as though deprecating some evil,—some event which she could hardly hope to avoid but which was certainly an evil. 'Do you not wish that yourself?' She shook her head. 'Is it not the safest condition in which a woman can live?'
'How shall any one be safe among the dangers of this world, Nicholas?' She habitually called her husband by his Christian name, but she was the only living being who did so.
'More safe then?' said he. 'It is the natural condition of a woman.'
'I do not know. Sin is natural.'
'Very likely. No doubt. But marriage is not sinful.'
'Men are so wicked.'
'Some of them are.'
'Where is there one that is not steeped in sin over his head?'
'That applies to women also; doesn't it?' said the banker petulantly. He was almost angry because she was introducing a commonplace as to the world's condition into a particular argument as to their daughter's future life,—which he felt to be unfair and illogical.
'Of course it does, Nicholas. We are all black and grimed with sin, men and women too; and perhaps something more may be forgiven to men because they have to go out into the world and do their work. But neither one nor the other can be anything but foul with sin;—except,—except—'
He was quite accustomed to the religious truth which was coming, and, in an ordinary way, did not object to the doctrine which she was apt to preach to him often. But it had no reference whatever to the matter now under discussion. The general condition of things produced by the fall of Adam could not be used as an argument against matrimony generally. Wicked as men and women are it is so evidently intended that they should marry and multiply, that even she would not deny the general propriety of such an arrangement. Therefore when he was talking to her about their daughter, she was ill-treating him when on that occasion she flew away to her much-accustomed discourse.
'What's the use, then, of saying that men are wicked?'
'They are. They are!'
'Not a doubt about it. And so are the women, but they've got to have husbands and wives. They wouldn't be any the better if there were no marrying. We have to suppose that Hester will do the same as other girls.'
'I hope not, Nicholas.'
'But why not?'
'They are vain, and they adorn themselves, not in modest apparel, as St. Paul says in First Timothy, chapter second, nor with shame-facedness and sobriety; but with braided hair and gold and pearls and costly array.'
'What has that to do with it?'
'She might be married without all those things.'
'You said you wanted her to be like other girls.'
'No, I didn't. I said she would have to get married like other girls. You don't want to make a nun of her.'
'A nun! I would sooner sit by her bedside and watch her die! My Hester a nun!'
'Very well, then. Let her go out into the world——'
'The world, Nicholas! The world, the flesh, and the devil! Do they not always go together?'
He was much harassed and very angry. He knew how unreasonable she was, and yet he did not know how to answer her. And she was dishonest with him. Because she felt herself unable to advocate in plain terms a thorough shutting up of her daughter,—a protecting of her from the temptation of sin by absolute and prolonged sequestration,—therefore she equivocated with him, pretending to think that he was desirous of sending his girl out to have her hair braided and herself arrayed in gold and pearls. It was thoroughly dishonest, and he understood the dishonesty. 'She must go somewhere,' he said, rising from his chair and closing the conversation. At this time a month had passed since Caldigate had been at Chesterton, and he had now returned from Scotland to Folking.
On the following day Hester was taken out to dinner at The Nurseries, as Robert Bolton's house was called,—was taken out by her father. This was quite a new experiment, as she had never dined with any of her aunts and cousins except at an early dinner almost as a child,—and even as a child not at her brother Robert's. But the banker, after having declared that she must go somewhere, had persisted. It is not to be supposed that Caldigate was on this occasion invited to meet her;—nor that the father had as yet agreed that any such meeting should be allowed. But as William Bolton,—the London brother,—and Mrs. William and one of their girls were down at Cambridge, it was arranged that Hester should meet her relatives. Even so much as this was not settled without much opposition on the part of Hester's mother.
There was nobody at the house but members of the family. The old banker's oldest son Nicholas was not there as his wife and Mrs. Robert did not get on well together. Mrs. Nicholas was almost as strict as Mrs. Bolton herself, and, having no children of her own, would not have sympathised at all in any desire to procure for Hester the wicked luxury of a lover. The second son Daniel joined the party with his wife, but he had married too late to have grown-up children. His wife was strict too,—but of a medium strictness. Teas, concerts, and occasional dinner parties were with her permissible;—as were also ribbons and a certain amount of costly array. Mrs. Nicholas was in the habit of telling Mrs. Daniel that you cannot touch pitch and not be defiled,—generally intending to imply that Mrs. Robert was the pitch; and would harp on the impossibility of serving both God and mammon, thinking perhaps that her brother-in-law Robert and mammon were one and the same. But Daniel, who could go to church as often as any man on Sundays, and had thoroughly acquired for himself the reputation of a religious man of business, had his own ideas as to proprieties and expediencies, and would neither quarrel with his brother Robert, or allow his wife to quarrel with Mrs. Robert. So that the Nicholases lived very much alone. Mrs. Nicholas and Mrs. Bolton might have suited each other, might have been congenial and a comfort each to the other, but the elder son and the elder son's wife had endeavoured to prevent the old man's second marriage, and there had never been a thorough reconciliation since. There are people who can never forgive. Mrs. Nicholas had never forgiven the young girl for marrying the old man, and the young girl had never forgiven the opposition of her elder step-daughter-in-law to her own marriage. Hence it had come to pass that the Nicholases were extruded from the family conclaves, which generally consisted of the Daniels and the Roberts. The Williams were away in London, not often having much to do with these matters. But they too allied themselves with the dominant party, it being quite understood that as long as the old man lived Robert was and would be the most potent member of the family.
When the father and the three sons were in the dining-room together, after the six or seven ladies had left them, the propriety of allowing John Caldigate to make Hester's acquaintance was fully discussed. 'I would not for the world interfere,' said Robert, 'if I did not think it unfair to the dear girl that she should be shut up there altogether.'
'Do you suppose that the young man is in earnest?' asked Daniel.
As to this they all agreed that there could be no doubt. He was, too, an old family friend, well-to-do in the world, able to make proper settlements, and not at all greedy as to a fortune with his wife. Even Daniel Bolton thought that the young man should have a chance,—by saying which he was supposed to declare that the question ought to be left to the arbitrament of the young lady. The old banker was unhappy and ill at ease. He could not reconcile himself at once to so great a change. Though he felt that the excessive fears of his wife, if indulged, would be prejudicial to their girl, still he did not wish to thrust her out into the world all at once. Could there not be some middle course? Could there not be a day named, some four years hence, at which she might be allowed to begin to judge for herself? But his three sons were against him, and he could not resist their joint influence. It was therefore absolutely decided that steps should be taken for enabling John Caldigate to meet Hester at Robert Bolton's house.
'I suppose it will end in a marriage,' William Bolton said to his brother Robert when they were alone.
'Of course it will. She is the dearest creature in the world;—so good to her mother; but no fool, and quite aware that the kind of restraint to which she has been subjected is an injustice. Of course she will be gratified when a man like that tells her that he loves her. He is a good-looking fellow, with a fine spirit and plenty of means. How on earth can she do better?'
'But Mrs. B.?' said William, who would sometimes thus disrespectfully allude to his step-mother.
'Mrs. B. will do all she can to prevent it,' said Robert; 'but I think we shall find that Hester has a will of her own.'
On the following day John Caldigate called at the bank, where the banker had a small wainscoted back-parlour appropriated to himself. He had already promised that he would see the young man, and Caldigate was shown into the little room. He soon told his story, and was soon clever enough to perceive that the telling of his story was at any rate permitted. The old father did not receive him with astonishment and displeasure combined, as the young mother had done. Of course he made difficulties, and spoke of the thing as being beyond the bounds of probability. But objection no stronger than that may be taken as amounting almost to encouragement in such circumstances. And he paid evident attention to all that Caldigate said about his own pecuniary affairs,—going so far as to say that he was not in a condition to declare whether he would give his daughter any fortune at all on her marriage.
'It is quite unnecessary,' said Caldigate.
'She will probably have something at my death,' rejoined the old man.
'And when may I see her?' asked Caldigate.
In answer to that Mr. Bolton would not at first make any suggestion whatsoever,—falling back upon his old fears, and declaring that there could be no such meetings at all, but at last allowing that the lover should discuss the matter with his son Robert.
'Perhaps I may have been mistaken about the young man Caldigate,' the banker said to his wife that night.
'I only say that perhaps I may have been mistaken.'
'You are not thinking of Hester?'
'I said nothing about Hester then;—but perhaps I may have been mistaken in my opinion about that young man John Caldigate.'
John Caldigate, as he rode home after his interview at the bank, almost felt that he had cleared away many difficulties, and that, by his perseverance, he might probably be enabled to carry out the dream of his earlier youth.
After that Caldigate did not allow the grass to grow under his feet, and before the end of November the two young people were engaged. As Robert Bolton had said, Hester was of course flattered and of course delighted with this new joy. John Caldigate was just the man to recommend himself to such a girl, not too light, not too prone to pleasure, not contenting himself with bicycles, cricket matches, or billiards, and yet not wholly given to serious matters as had been those among whom she had hitherto passed her days. And he was one who could speak of his love with soft winning words, neither roughly nor yet with too much of shame-faced diffidence. And when he told her how he had sworn to himself after seeing her that once,—that once when all before him in life was enveloped in doubt and difficulty,—that he would come home and make her his wife, she thought that the manly constancy of his heart was almost divine. Of course she loved him with all her heart. He was in all respects one made to be loved by a woman;—and then what else had she ever had to love? When once it was arranged that he should be allowed to speak to her, the thing was done. She did not at once tell him that it was done. She took some few short halcyon weeks to dally with the vow which her heart was ready to make; but those around her knew that the vow had been inwardly made; and those who were anxious on her behalf with a new anxiety, with a new responsibility, redoubled their inquiries as to John Caldigate. How would Robert Bolton or Mrs. Robert excuse themselves to that frightened miserable mother if at last it should turn out that John Caldigate was not such as they had represented him to be?
But no one could pick a hole in him although many attempts to pick holes were made. The question of his money was put quite at rest by the transference of all his securities, balances, and documents to the Boltons' bank, and the L60,000 for Polyeuka was accepted, so that there was no longer any need that he should go again to the colony. This was sweet news to Hester when she first heard it;—for it had come to pass that it had been agreed that the marriage should be postponed till his return, that having been the one concession made to Mrs. Bolton. There had been many arguments about it;—but Hester at last told him that she had promised so much to her mother and that she would of course keep her promise. Then the arrangement took such a form that the journey was not necessary,—or perhaps the objection to the journey became so strong in Caldigate's mind that he determined to dispense with it at any price. And thus, very greatly to the dismay of Mrs. Bolton, suddenly there came to be no reason why they should not be married almost at once.
But there was an attempt made at the picking of holes,—or rather many attempts. It would be unfair to say that this was carried on by Mrs. Bolton herself;—but she was always ready to listen to what evil things were said to her. Mrs. Nicholas, in her horror at the general wickedness of the Caldigates almost reconciled herself to her step-mother, and even Mrs. Daniel began to fear that a rash thing was being done. In the first place there was the old story of Davis and Newmarket. Robert Bolton, who had necessarily become the advocate and defender of our hero generally, did not care much for Davis and Newmarket. All young men sow their wild oats. Of course he had been extravagant. Since his extravagance he had shown himself to be an industrious, sensible, steady member of society;—and there was the money that he had earned! What young man had earned more in a shorter time, or had ever been more prudent in keeping it? Davis and Newmarket were easily answered by a reference to the bank account. Did he ever go to Newmarket now, though he was living so close to it? On that matter Robert Bolton was very strong.
But Mrs. Nicholas had found out that Caldigate had spent certainly two Sundays running at Folking without going to church at all; and, as far as she could learn, he was altogether indifferent about public worship. Mrs. Bolton, who could never bring herself to treat him as a son-in-law, but who was still obliged to receive him, taxed him to his face with his paganism. 'Have you no religion, Mr. Caldigate?' He assured her that he had, and fell into a long discussion in which he thoroughly confused her, though he by no means convinced her that he was what he ought to be. But he went with her to church twice on one Sunday, and showed her that he was perfectly familiar with the ways of the place.
But perhaps the loudest complaint came from the side of Babington; and here two sets of enemies joined their forces together who were thoroughly hostile to each other. Mrs. Babington declared loudly that old Bolton had been an errand-boy in his youth, and that his father had been a porter and his mother a washerwoman. This could do no real harm, as Caldigate would not have been deterred by any such rumours, even had they been true; but they tended to show animosity, and enabled Mrs. Nicholas to find out the cause of the Babington opposition. When she learned that John Caldigate had been engaged to his cousin Julia, of course she made the most of it; and so did Mrs. Bolton. And in this way it came to be reported not only that the young man had been engaged to Miss Babington before he went to Australia,—but also that he had renewed his engagement since his return. 'You do not love her, do you?' Hester asked him. Then he told her the whole story, as nearly as he could tell it with some respect for his cousin, laughing the while at his aunt's solicitude, and saying, perhaps something not quite respectful as to Julia's red cheeks and green hat, all of which certainly had not the effect of hardening Hester's heart against him. 'The poor young lady can't help it if her feet are big,' said Hester, who was quite alive to the grace of a well-made pair of boots, although she had been taught to eschew braided hair and pearls and gold.
Mrs. Babington, however, pushed her remonstrances so far that she boldly declared that the man was engaged to her daughter, and wrote to him more than once declaring that it was so. She wrote, indeed, very often, sometimes abusing him for his perfidy, and then, again, imploring him to return to them, and not to defile the true old English blood of the Caldigates with the suds of a washerwoman and the swept-up refuse of a porter's shovel. She became quite eloquent in her denunciation, but always saying that if he would only come back to Babington all would be forgiven him. But in these days he made no visits to Babington.
Then there came a plaintive little note from Mrs. Shand. Of course they wished him joy if it were true. But could it be true? Men were very fickle, certainly; but this change seemed to have been very, very sudden! And there was a word or two, prettily written in another hand, on a small slip of paper—'Perhaps you had better send back the book'; and Caldigate, as he read it, thought that he could discern the almost-obliterated smudge of a wiped-up tear. He wrote a cheerful letter to Mrs. Shand, in which he told her that though he had not been absolutely engaged to marry Hester Bolton before he started for Australia,—and consequently before he had ever been at Pollington,—yet his mind had been quite made up to do so; and that therefore he regarded himself as being abnormally constant rather than fickle. 'And tell your daughter, with my kindest regards,' he added, 'that I hope I may be allowed to keep the book.'
The Babington objections certainly made their way in Cambridge and out at Chesterton further than any others, and for a time did give a hope to Mrs. Bolton and Mrs. Nicholas,—and made Robert Bolton shrug his shoulders uneasily when he heard all the details of the engagement in the linen-closet. But there came at one moment a rumour, which did not count for much among the Boltons, but which disturbed Caldigate himself more than any of the other causes adduced for breaking off his intended marriage. Word came that he had been very intimate with a certain woman on his way out to Melbourne;—a woman supposed to be a foreigner and an actress; and the name of Cettini was whispered. He did not know whence the rumour came;—but on one morning Robert Bolton, half-laughing, but still with a tone of voice that was half-earnest, taxed him with having as many loves as Lothario. 'Who is Cettini?' asked Robert Bolton.
'Cettini?' said Caldigate, with a struggle to prevent a blush.
'Did you travel with such a woman?'
'Yes;—at least, if that was her name. I did not hear it till afterwards. A very agreeable woman she was.'
'They say that you promised to marry her when on board.'
'Then they lie. But that is a matter of course. There are so many lies going about that I almost feel myself to be famous.'
'You did not see her after the journey?'
'Yes, I did. I saw her act at Sydney; and very well she acted. Have you anything else to ask?' Robert Bolton said that he had nothing else to ask,—and seemed, at the moment, to turn his half-serious mood into one that was altogether jocular. But the mention of the name had been a wound; and when an anonymous letter a few days afterwards reached Hester herself he was really unhappy. Hester made nothing of the letter—did not even show it to her mother. At that time a day had been fixed for their marriage; and she already regarded her lover as nearer to her than either father or mother. The letter purported to be from some one who had travelled with her lover and this woman on board ship, and declared that everybody on board the ship had thought that Caldigate meant to marry the woman,—who then, so said the letter, called herself Mrs. Smith. Hester showed the letter to Caldigate, and then Caldigate told his story. There had been such a woman, who had been much ill-treated because of her poverty. He had certainly taken the woman's part. She had been clever and, as he had thought, well-behaved. And, no doubt, there had been a certain amount of friendship. He had seen her again in Sydney, where he had found her exercising her profession as an actress. That had been all. 'I cannot imagine, dear,' he said, 'that you should be jealous of any woman; but certainly not of such a one as she.' 'Nor can I imagine,' said Hester, stoutly, 'that I could possibly be jealous of any woman.' And then there was nothing more said about the woman Smith-Cettini.
During all this time there were many family meetings. Those between Mr. Caldigate, the father, and old Mr. Bolton were pleasant enough, though not peculiarly cordial. The banker, though he had been brought to agree to the marriage had not been quite reconciled to it. His younger son had been able to convince him that it was his duty to liberate his daughter from the oppression of her mother's over-vigilance, and all the rest had followed very quickly,—overwhelming him, as it were, by stern necessity. When once the girl had come to understand that she could have her own way, if she chose to have a way of her own, she very quickly took the matter into her own management. And in this way the engagement became a thing settled before the banker had realised the facts of the position. Though he could not be cordial he endeavoured to be gracious to his old friend. But Mrs. Bolton spoke words which made all friendship impossible. She asked old Mr. Caldigate after his soul, and when he replied to her less seriously than she thought becoming, she told him that he was in the bad way. And then she said things about the marriage which implied that she would sooner see her daughter in her grave than married to a man who was no more than a professing Christian. The conversation ended in a quarrel, after which the squire would not go again to Puritan Grange.
There was indeed a time, an entire week, during which the mother and daughter hardly spoke to each other. In these days Mrs. Bolton continually demanded of her husband that he should break off the match, always giving as a reason the alleged fact that John Caldigate was not a true believer. It had been acknowledged between them that if such were the fact the man would be an unfit husband for their daughter. But they differed as to the fact. The son had over and over again declared himself to be a faithful member of the Church of England,—not very scrupulous perhaps in the performance of her ceremonies,—but still a believing member. That his father was not so every one knew, but he was not responsible for his father. Mr. Bolton seemed to think that the argument was good;—but Mrs. Bolton was of opinion that to become willingly the daughter-in-law of an infidel, would be to throw oneself with one's eyes open in the way of perdition. Hester through all this declared that nothing should now turn her from the man she loved, 'Not though he were an infidel himself?' said the terror-stricken mother. 'Nothing!' said Hester, bravely. 'Of course I should try to change him.' A more wretched woman than Mrs. Bolton might not probably then have been found. She suddenly perceived herself to be quite powerless with the child over whom her dominion had hitherto been supreme. And she felt herself compelled to give way to people whom, with all her heart, she hated. She determined that nothing,—nothing should induce her to soften her feelings to this son-in-law who was forced upon her. The man had come and had stolen from her her treasure, her one treasure. And that other man whom she had always feared and always hated, Robert Bolton, the man whose craft and worldliness had ever prevented her from emancipating her husband from the flesh and the devil, had brought all this about. Then she reconciled herself to her child, and wept over her, and implored heaven to save her. Hester tried to argue with her,—spoke of her own love,—appealed to her mother, asking whether, as she had now declared her love, it could be right that she should abandon a man who was so good and so fondly attached to her. Then Mrs. Bolton would hide her face, and sob, and put up renewed prayers to heaven that her daughter might not by means of this unhappy marriage become lost to all sense of grace.
It was very miserable, but still the prospect of the marriage was never abandoned nor postponed. A day had been settled a little before Christmas, and the Robert Boltons would allow of no postponement. The old man was so tormented by the misery of his own home that he himself was averse to delay. There could be no comfort for him till the thing should have been done. Mrs. Bolton had suggested that it should be put off till the spring;—but he had gloomily replied that as the thing had to be done, the sooner it was done the better.
It had been settled almost from the first that the marriage festival should be held, not at Puritan Grange, but at The Nurseries; and gradually it came to be understood that Mrs. Bolton herself would not be present, either at the church or at the breakfast. It was in vain that Hester implored her mother to yield to her in something, to stand with her at any rate on the steps before the altar. 'Would you wish me to go and lie before my God?' said the unhappy woman. 'When I would give all that I have in the world except my soul,—my life, my name, even my child herself, to prevent this, am I to go and smile and be congratulated, and to look as though I were happy?' There was, therefore, very much unhappiness at the Grange, and an absence of all triumph even at The Nurseries. At the old bank-house in the town where the Nicholases lived, the marriage was openly denounced; and even the Daniels, though they were pledged to be present, were in doubt.
'I suppose it is all right,' said Mrs. Robert to her husband.
'Of course it is all right. Why not?'
'It seems sad that such an event as a marriage should give rise to so much ill-feeling. I almost wish we had not meddled, Robert.'
'I don't think there is anything to regret. Remember what Hester's position would have been if my father had died, leaving her simply to her mother's guardianship! We were bound to free her from that, and we have done it.' This was all very well;—but still there was no triumph, no ringing of those inward marriage bells the sound of whose music ought to be so pleasant to both the families concerned.
There were, however, two persons quite firm to their purpose, and these were the bride and bridegroom. With him firmness was comparatively easy. When his father suggested that the whole Bolton family was making itself disagreeable, he could with much satisfaction reply that he did not intend to marry the whole Bolton family. Having answered the first letter or two he could ignore the Babington remonstrances. And when he was cross-examined as to points of doctrine, he could with sincerity profess himself to be of the same creed with his examiners. If he went to church less often than old Mr. Bolton, so did old Mr. Bolton go less often than his wife. It was a matter as to which there was no rule. Thus his troubles were comparatively light, and his firmness might be regarded as a thing of course. But she was firm too, and firm amidst very different circumstances. Though her mother prayed and sobbed, implored her, and almost cursed her, still she was firm. She had given her word to the man, and her heart, and she would not go back. 'Yes, papa. It is too late now,' she said, when her father coming from his wife, once suggested to her that even yet it was not too late. 'Of course I shall marry him,' she said to Mrs. Robert, almost with indignation, when Mrs. Robert on one occasion almost broke down in her purpose.
'Dear aunt, indeed, indeed, you need not interfere,' she said to Mrs. Nicholas. 'If he were all that they have called him, still I would marry him,' she said to her other aunt,—'because I love him.' And so they all became astonished at the young girl whom they had reared up among them, and to understand that whatever might now be their opinions, she would have her way.
And so it was decided that they should be married on a certain Tuesday in the middle of December. Early in the morning she was to be brought down to her aunt's house, there to be decked in her bridal robes, thence to be taken to the church, then to return for the bridal feast, and from thence to be taken off by her husband,—to go whither they might list.
It was a sad wedding, though everything within the power of Mr. Robert Bolton was done to make it gay. There was a great breakfast, and all the Boltons were at last persuaded to be present except Mrs. Bolton and Mrs. Nicholas. As to Mrs. Nicholas she was hardly even asked. 'Of course we would be delighted to see Mrs. Nicholas, if she would come,' Mrs. Robert said to Nicholas himself. But there had been such long-continued and absolute hostility between the ladies that this was known to be impossible. In regard to Mrs. Bolton herself, great efforts were made. Her husband condescended to beg her to consent on this one occasion to appear among the Philistines. But as the time came nearer she became more and more firm in her resolution. 'You shall not touch pitch and not be defiled,' she said. 'You cannot serve God and Mammon.' When the old man tried to show her that there was no question of Mammon here, she evaded him, as she always did on such occasions, either by a real or simulated deficiency of consequent intelligence. She regarded John Caldigate as being altogether unregenerate, and therefore a man of the world,—and therefore a disciple of Mammon. She asked him whether he wanted her to do what she thought to be sinful. 'It is very sinful hating people as you hate my sons' families,' he said in his wrath. 'No, Nicholas, I do not hate their families. I certainly do not hate Margaret, nor yet Fanny;—but I think that they live in opposition to the Gospel. Am I to belie my own belief?' Now the old man was quite certain that his wife did hate both Robert's wife and William's and would not admit in her own mind this distinction between the conduct of persons and the persons themselves. But he altogether failed in his attempts to induce her to go to the breakfast.
The great contest was between the mother and the daughter; but in all that passed between them no reference was even made to the banquet. As to that Hester was indifferent. She thought, on the whole, that her mother would do best to be absent. After all, what is a breakfast;—or what the significance of any merry-meeting, even for a wedding? There would no doubt be much said and much done on such an occasion at variance with her mother's feelings. Even the enforced gaiety of the dresses would be distasteful to her, and there would hardly be sufficient cause for pressing her to be present on such an occasion. But in reference to the church, the question, to Hester's thinking, was very different, 'Mamma,' she said, 'if you are not there, it will be a lasting misery to me.'
'How can I go there when I would give so much to save you from going there yourself?' This was a terrible thing for a mother to say to her own child on the eve of her wedding, but it had been now said so often as to have lost something of its sting. It had come to be understood that Mrs. Bolton would not allow herself to give any assent to the marriage, but that the marriage was to go on without such assent. All that had been settled. But still she might go to the church with them and pray for good results. She feared that evil would come, but still she might wish for good,—wish for it and pray for it.
'You don't want me to be unhappy, mamma?'
'Want!' said the mother. 'Who can want her child to be unhappy? But there is an unhappiness harder to be borne, more to be dreaded, enduring so much longer than that which we may suffer here.'
'Will you not come and pray that I may be delivered also from that? As I am going from you, will you not let me know that you are there with me at the last moment. Though you do not love him, you do not wish to quarrel with me. Oh, mamma, let me feel at any rate that you are there.' Then the mother promised that she would be there, in the church, though unknown to or at least unrecognised by any one else. When the morning came, and when Hester was dropped at The Nurseries, in order that she might go up and be invested in her finery amidst her bridesmaids, who were all her cousins, the carriage went on and took Mrs. Bolton to the church. It was represented to her that, by this arrangement, she would be forced to remain an hour alone in the cold building. But she was one of those who regarded all discomfort as meritorious, as in some way adding something to her claim for heaven. Self-scourging with rods as a penance, was to her thinking a papistical ordinance most abominable and damnatory; but the essence of the self-scourging was as comfortable to her as ever was a hair-shirt to a Roman Catholic enthusiast. So she went and sat apart in a dark distant pew, dressed in black and deeply veiled, praying, not it is to be feared, that John Caldigate might be a good husband to her girl, but that he, as he made his way downward to things below, might not drag her darling with him. That only a few can be saved was the fact in all her religion with which she was most thoroughly conversant. The strait way and the narrow gate, through which only a few can pass! Were they not known to all believers, to all who had a glimmering of belief, as an established part of the Christian faith, as a part so established that to dream even that the gate would be made broad and the way open would be to dream against the Gospel, against the very plainest of God's words? If so,—and she would tell herself at all hours that certainly, certainly, certainly so it was,—then why should she trouble herself for one so little likely to come in the way of salvation as this man who was now robbing her of her daughter? If it was the will of the Almighty,—as it clearly was the will of the Almighty,—that, out of every hundred, ninety and nine should perish, could she dare now to pray more than for one? Or if her prayers were wider must they not be inefficacious? Yes;—there had been the thief upon the cross! It was all possible. But this man was a thief, not upon the cross. And, therefore, as she prayed that morning she said not a prayer for him.
In the meantime the carriage had gone back for the bride, who in very simple raiment, but yet in bridal-white array, was taken up to the church. These Boltons were prosperous people, who had all their carriages, so that there was no lack of vehicles. Two of the girls from London and two from The Nurseries made up the bevy of bridesmaids who were as bright and fair as though the bride had come from some worldlier stock. Mrs. Robert, indeed, had done all she could to give to the whole concern a becoming bridal brightness, till even Mrs. Daniel had been tempted to remonstrate. 'I don't see why you shouldn't wear pretty things if you've got the money to pay for them,' said Mrs. Robert. Mrs. Daniel shook her head, but on the afternoon before the wedding she bought an additional ribbon.
Caldigate came over from Folking that morning attended by one John Jones, an old college friend, as his best man. The squire was not at the wedding, but on the day before he was with Hester at The Nurseries, telling her that she should be his dear daughter, and at the same time giving her a whole set of wicked but very pretty worldly gauds. 'Upon my word, my dear, he has been very gracious,' said Mrs. Robert, when she saw them. 'I quite envy the girls being married nowadays, because they get such pretty things.'
'They are very pretty,' said Hester.
'And must have cost, I'm afraid to say how much money.'
'I suppose it means to say that he will love me, and therefore I am so glad to have them!' But the squire, though he did mean to say that he would love her, did not come to the wedding. He was, he said, unaccustomed to such things, and hoped that he might be excused.
Therefore, from the Folking side there was no one but John Caldigate himself and John Jones. Of the Babingtons, of course, there was not one. As long as there was a possibility of success Mrs. Babington had kept up her remonstrances;—but when there was no longer a possibility she announced that there was to be an everlasting quarrel between the houses. Babington and Folking were for the future to know nothing of each other. Caldigate had hoped that though the ladies would for a time be unforgiving, his uncle and his male cousins would not take up the quarrel. But aunt Polly was too strong for that; and he was declared to be a viper who had been warmed in all their bosoms and had then stung them all round. 'If you will nurse a viper in your bosom of course he will sting you,' said Aunt Polly in a letter which she took the trouble to write to the squire. In reply to which the squire wrote back thus; 'My dear sister, if you will look into your dictionary of natural history you will see that vipers have no stings. Yours truly, D. Caldigate.' This letter was supposed to add much to the already existing offence.
But the marriage ceremony was performed in spite of all this quarrelling, and the mother standing up in the dark corner of her pew heard her daughter's silver-clear voice as she vowed to devote herself to her husband. As she heard it, she also devoted herself. When sorrow should come as sorrow certainly would come, then she would be ready once again to be a mother to her child. But till that time should come the wife of John Caldigate would be nothing to her.
She was not content with thinking and resolving that it should be so, but she declared her intention in so many words to her daughter. For poor Hester, though she was proud of her husband, this was in truth a miserable day. Could she have been induced to separate herself altogether from her mother on the previous night, or even on that morning, it would have been better, but there was with her that customary longing for a last word of farewell which has often made so many of us wretched. And then there was a feeling that, as she was giving herself away in marriage altogether in opposition to her mother's counsels, on that very account she owed to her more attached and increased observance. Therefore, she had arranged with her husband that when she returned from the banquet to prepare herself for her journey, a longer absence than usual should be allowed to her;—so that she might be taken back to Chesterton, and might thus see her mother the last after saying farewell to all the others. Then the carriage should return to The Nurseries and he would be ready to step in, and she need not show herself again, worn out as she would be with the tears and sobbings which she anticipated.
It all went as it was arranged, but it would have been much better to arrange it otherwise. The journey to the Grange and back, together with the time spent in the interview, took an hour,—and the time went very slowly with the marriage guests. There always comes a period beyond which it is impossible to be festive. When the bride left the room, the bridesmaids and other ladies went with her. Then the gentlemen who remained hardly knew what to do with each other. Old Mr. Bolton was not jovial on the occasion, and the four brothers hardly knew how to find subjects for conversation on such an occasion. The bridegroom felt the hour to be very long, although he consented to play billiards with the boys; and John Jones, although he did at last escape and find his way up among the girls, thought that his friend had married himself into a very sombre family. But all this was pleasant pastime indeed compared with that which poor Hester endured in her mother's bedroom. 'So it has been done,' said Mrs. Bolton, sitting in a comfortless little chair, which she was accustomed to use when secluded, with her Bible, from all the household. She spoke in a voice that might have been fit had a son of hers been just executed on the gallows.