'I DID NOT LOVE HIM'
'When a man begins to do wrong, he cannot answer for himself how far he may be carried on. He does not see beforehand; he cannot know where he will find himself after the sin is committed. One false step forces him to another.'—NEWMAN.
'An Italian proverb, too well known, declares that if you would succeed you must not be too good.'—EMERSON.
Audrey found Michael strangely uncommunicative that evening; he hardly responded to her expressions of pleasure at seeing him again, and all her questions were answered as briefly as possible. His manner was as kind as ever; indeed, he spoke to her with more than his usual gentleness; but during dinner he seemed to find conversation difficult, and all her little jokes fell flat. She wanted to know how many pretty things he had bought, and if he had put down his name for the proof engraving of a certain picture he had longed to possess.
'Twenty guineas is nothing to you now, Michael,' she observed playfully.
'No, I forgot all about the picture,' he returned, starting up from his chair; 'but I have brought you a present.'
And the next moment he put in her hand a little case. When Audrey opened it, there was a small cross studded with diamonds of great beauty and lustre, and the whole effect was so sparkling and dainty that Audrey quite flushed with surprise and pleasure.
'Oh, mother, look how beautiful! But, Michael, how dare you waste your money on me; this must have cost a fortune!' And then she added a little thoughtfully, 'I am afraid Cyril will be sorry when he sees this; he is always lamenting that he cannot give me things.'
'I chose a bracelet for Geraldine,' he returned carelessly, as though buying diamonds were an everyday business with him. 'Would you like to see it?' and he showed her the contents of the other case. 'I have a small offering for my godson in the shape of the inevitable mug, and I mean to give this to Leonard's mamma.'
'It is very handsome; mother thinks so: don't you, mother? and Gage is devoted to bracelets; but I like mine ever so much better; it is the very perfection of a cross, and I shall value it, ah, so dearly, Michael!' and Audrey held out her hand as she spoke.
Michael pressed it silently. It was little wonder, he thought, that Audrey liked her gift better than Geraldine's; it had cost at least three times as much; in fact, its value had been so great that he had written the cheque with some slight feeling of shame and compunction. 'There is no harm, after all, and she is so fond of diamonds,' he assured himself, as he put the little case in his pocket; 'she will not know what it cost me, and he will never be able to buy ornaments for her—I may as well give myself this pleasure;' and just for the moment it did please him to see her delight over the ornament.
'It is not so much the diamonds that please me, as Michael's kindness and generosity,' she said to Cyril the next day. 'He has bought nothing for himself, and yet he has been in town a whole month; he only thought of us.'
And Cyril observed quietly, as he closed the case, that it was certainly very kind of Captain Burnett; but a close observer would have said that Michael's generosity had not quite pleased him.
'I suppose you will wear this to-night at the Charringtons'?' he asked presently.
'Yes; and those lovely flowers you have brought me,' she added, with one of her charming smiles; and somehow the cloud passed in a moment from the young man's brow.
What did it matter, after all, that he could not give her diamonds? Had he not given himself to her, and did they not belong to each other for time and for eternity? And as he thought this he took her in his arms with a loving speech.
'You are sweet as the very sweetest of my flowers,' he said, holding her close to him. 'You are the very dearest thing in the world to me, Audrey; and sometimes, when I think of the future, I am almost beside myself with happiness.'
When the little excitement of the diamonds was over, Michael relapsed again into gravity, and he was still grave when he went up to Hillside the next day. A wakeful night's reflection had brought him no comfort; he felt as though a gulf were opening before him and those whom he loved, and that he dared not, for very dread and giddiness, look into it.
When they returned from church, and were about to sit down to the sumptuous luncheon, he took Geraldine aside and presented his offerings. To his surprise, she was quite overcome, and would have called her husband to share her pleasure; but he begged her to say nothing just then.
'Audrey has a present, too, but she took it far more calmly,' he said, in a rallying tone. But as he spoke he wondered at his cousin's beauty. Her complexion had always been very transparent, but now excitement had added a soft bloom. Was it motherhood, he asked himself, that deepened the expression of her eyes and lent her that new gentleness? 'I never saw you look better, Gage,' he said, in quite an admiring voice; but Geraldine was as unconscious as ever.
'I am very well,' she returned, smiling, 'only not quite as strong as usual. It is such a pity that Percival would not allow me to invite you to dinner, because he says that I ought to be quiet this evening. He and mother make such a fuss over me. Percival means to take baby and me for a change during the Easter holidays. That will be nice, will it not? I think we shall go to Bournemouth.'
'Very nice,' he returned absently.
'I wish Audrey would go too, but I am afraid she will not leave Cyril; he is not going away this vacation. That is the worst of a sister being engaged, she is not half so useful.'
'I think Audrey would go with you if you asked her; she is very unselfish.'
'Yes; but she has to think about someone else now, and I do not wish to be hard on Cyril. He is very nice, and we all like him.'
'I am very glad to hear that, Gage.'
'Yes; we must just make the best of it. Of course, Percival and I will always consider she is throwing herself away; but that cannot be helped now. By the bye, Michael, this is the first time I have seen you since you came into your fortune. I have never been able to tell you how delighted we both were to hear of it.'
'Well, it was a pretty good haul.'
'Yes; but no one will do more with it. But you must not buy any more diamonds;' and then she smiled on him. And just then Master Leonard made his appearance in his long lace robe, and, as Geraldine moved to take her boy in her arms, there was no further conversation between them.
They left soon after luncheon. Mr. Bryce had to take an early afternoon train, and Dr. Ross accompanied him to the station. Audrey drove home with her mother; they expected Michael to follow them, but he had other business on hand. There was his interview with Mrs. Blake, and on leaving Hillside he went straight to the Gray Cottage.
Mollie met him at the door. She looked disturbed and anxious.
'Yes; you are to go up to the drawing-room, Captain Burnett,' she said, when he asked if Mrs. Blake were at home. 'Mamma is there. I heard her tell Biddy so. Do you know'—puckering up her face as though she were ready to cry—'mamma will not speak to any of us—not even to Cyril! She says she is ill, and that only Biddy understands her. It is so odd that she is able to see a visitor.'
'What makes you think she is ill, Mollie?'
'Oh, because she looked so dreadful when she came home last night; she could hardly walk upstairs, and Cyril was not there to help her. He was quite frightened when I told him, and went to her room at once; but her door was locked, and she said her head ached so that she could not talk. Biddy was with her then; we could hear her voice distinctly, and mamma seemed moaning so.'
'Has she seen your brother this morning?'
'Yes, just for a minute; but the room was darkened, and he could not see her properly. She told him that the pain had got on the nerves, and that she really could not bear us near her. But she would not let him send for a doctor, and Biddy seemed to agree with her.'
'Perhaps she will be better to-morrow,' he suggested; and then he left Mollie and went upstairs. 'Poor little girl!' he said to himself; 'I wonder what she would say if she knew her father were living!'
And then he tapped at the drawing-room door. He was not quite sure whether anyone bade him enter. Mrs. Blake was sitting in a chair drawn close to the fire; her back was towards him. She did not move or turn her head as he walked towards her, and when he put out his hand to her she took no notice of it.
'You have come,' she said, in a quick, hard voice. And then she turned away from him and looked into the fire.
'Yes, I have come,' he replied quietly, as he sat down on the oak settle that was drawn up near her chair. 'I am sorry to see you look so ill, Mrs. Blake.'
He might well say so. She had aged ten years since the previous night. Her face was quite drawn and haggard—he had never before noticed that there were threads of gray in her dark hair—she had always looked so marvellously young; but now he could see the lines and the crows'-feet; and as his sharp eyes detected all this he felt very sorry for her.
'Ill; of course I'm ill,' she answered irritably. 'All night long I have been wishing I were dead. I said yesterday that I would rather kill myself than tell you my story; but to-day I have thought better of it.'
'I am glad of that.'
'Of course I am not a fool, and I know I am in your power—yours and that man's.' And here she shivered.
'Will you tell me this one thing first? Is he—is Matthew O'Brien your husband?'
'Yes; I suppose so. I was certainly married to him once.'
'Then, why, in the name of heaven, Mrs. Blake, do you allow people to consider you a widow?'
'Because I am a widow,' she returned harshly. 'Because I have unmarried myself and given up my husband. Because I refused to have anything more to do with him—he brought me disgrace, and I hated him for it.'
'But, pardon me, it is not possible—no woman can unmarry herself in this fashion—unless you mean——'
And here he stopped, feeling it impossible to put any such question to her. But what on earth could she mean?
'No, I have not divorced him. I suppose, in one sense, he may still be regarded as my husband; but for fourteen years he has been dead to me, and I have called myself a widow.'
'But you must have known it was wrong,' he returned, a little bewildered by these extraordinary statements. If she had not looked so wan and haggard, he would have accused her of talking wildly.
'No, Captain Burnett; I do not own it was wrong. Under some circumstances a woman is bound to defend herself and her children—a tigress will brave a loaded gun if her young are starving. If it were to come over again, I would do the same. But I will acknowledge to you that I did not love my husband.'
'No; that is evident.'
'I never loved him, though I was foolish enough to marry him. I suppose I cared for him in a sort of way. He was handsome, and had soft, pleasant ways with him; and I was young and giddy, and ready for any excitement. But I had not been his wife three months before I would have given worlds to have undone my marriage.'
'Was he a bad husband to you?'
'No. Mat was always too soft for unkindness; but he was not the man for me. Besides, I had married him out of pique—there was someone I liked much better. You see, I am telling you all quite frankly. I am in your power, as I said before. If I refused to speak, you would just go to Mat, and he would tell you everything.'
'I am very much relieved to find you so reasonable, Mrs. Blake. It is certainly wiser and better to tell me yourself. You have my promise that, as far as possible, I will give you my help; but at present I do not know how this may be.'
'Yes; I will tell you my story,' she answered. But there was a bitterness of antagonism in her tone as she said this. 'I have always been afraid of you, Captain Burnett; I felt you disliked and mistrusted me, and I have never been easy with you. If it were not for Kester, and your kindness to him, I should be horribly afraid of you. But for Kester's sake you would not be hard on his mother.'
'I would not be hard on any woman,' he answered quietly. 'It is true I have mistrusted you. I told you so yesterday. But if you will confide in me, you shall not repent your confidence.'
'You mean you will not be my enemy.'
'I am no woman's enemy,' he said a little proudly. 'I wish someone else had been in my place yesterday; you can understand it is not a pleasant business to ask these questions of a lady; but there are many interests involved, and I am like a son to Dr. Ross. I am bound to look into this matter more closely for his sake, and——' he paused, and, if possible, Mrs. Blake turned a little pale.
'Let me tell you quickly,' she said. 'Perhaps, after all, you will not blame me, and you will help me to keep it from Cyril.' And here she looked at him imploringly, and he could see the muscles of her face quivering. 'No, I never loved Mat. I felt it was a condescension on my part to marry him. My people were well connected. One of my uncles was a dean, and another was a barrister. My father was a clergyman.'
'What was his name?'
'Stephen Carrick. He was Vicar of Bardley.'
'I have heard of Dean Carrick; he wrote some book or other, and came into some notoriety before his death. Is it possible that you are his niece?'
'Yes. I was very proud of him, and of my other uncle; but they would have nothing to do with me after my marriage. We were living in Ireland then, and when Mat brought me to London I seemed to have cut myself adrift from all my people. My father died not long afterwards, and my mother followed him, and my two brothers were at sea. I saw the name of Carrick in the papers one day—James Carrick—he was in the navy; so it must have been Jem. Well, he is dead, and, as far as I know, Charlie may be dead too.'
She spoke with a degree of hardness that astonished him, but he would not interrupt her by a question. He saw that, for some reason of her own, she was willing to tell her story.
'I soon found out my mistake when Mat brought me to London. From the first we were unfortunate; we had neither of us any experience. Our first landlady cheated us, and our lodgings were far too expensive for our means—my money had not then come to me. At my mother's death I was more independent.
'I might have grown fonder of Mat but for one thing. Very shortly after our marriage—indeed, before the honeymoon was over—I discovered that he had already stooped to deceit. He had always led me to imagine that his people were well-to-do, and that his parentage was as respectable as mine; indeed, I understood that his only brother was a merchant, with considerable means at his disposal. I do not say Mat told me all this in words, but he had a way with him of implying things.
'I was very proud—ridiculously proud, if you will—and I had a horror of trade. You may judge, then, the shock it was to me when I found out by the merest accident—from reading a fragment of a letter—that this brother was a corn-chandler in a small retail way.
'We had our first quarrel then. Mat was very cowed and miserable when he saw how I took it; he wanted to coax me into forgiving his deceit.
'"I knew what a proud little creature you were, Olive," he said, trying to extenuate his shabby conduct, "and that there was no chance of your listening to me if you found out Tom was a tradesman. What does it matter about the shop? Tom is as good a chap as ever breathed, and Susan is the best-hearted woman in the world." But I would not be conciliated.
'I would not go near his people, and when he mentioned their names I always turned a deaf ear. It is a bad thing when a woman learns to despise her husband; but from that day I took Mat's true measure, and my heart seemed to harden against him. Perhaps I did not go the right way to improve him or keep him straight, but I soon found out that I dared not rely on him.
'I think I should have left him before the year was out, only my baby was born and took all my thoughts; and Mat was so good to me, that for very shame I dare not hint at such a thing. But we were not happy. His very fondness made things worse, for he was always reproaching me for my coldness.
'"You are the worst wife that a man could have," he would say to me. "You would not care if I were brought home dead any day, and yet if the boy's finger aches you want to send for the doctor. If I go to the bad, it will be your own fault, because you never have a kind look or word for me."
'But he might as well have spoken to the wind. There was no love for Mat in my heart, and I worshipped my boy.'
'You are speaking now of your eldest son?'
'Yes; of Cyril. He was my first-born, and I doted on him. I had two other children before Kester came; but, happily, they died—I say happily, for I had hard work to make ends meet with three children. I was so wrapped up in my boy that I neglected Mat more and more; and when he took to going out of an evening I made no complaints. We were getting on better then, and I seldom quarrelled with him, unless he refused to give me money for the children. Perhaps he was afraid to cross me, for the money was generally forthcoming when I asked for it; but I never took the trouble to find out how he procured it. And he was only too pleased to find me good-tempered and ready to talk to him, or to bring Cyril to play with him; for he was fond of the boy, too. Well, things went on tolerably smoothly until Mollie was born; but she was only a few months old when the crash came.'
She stopped, and an angry darkness came over her face.
'You need not tell me,' returned Michael, anxious to spare her as much as possible. 'I am aware of the forgery for which your husband incurred penal servitude for so many years.'
'You know that!' she exclaimed, with a terrified stare. 'Who could have told you? Oh, I forgot Mat's brother at Brail! Why did I never guess that Audrey's old friend she so often mentioned was this Tom O'Brien? But there are other O'Briens—there was one at Richmond when we lived there—and I thought he was still in his shop.'
'We heard all the leading facts from him; he told Audrey everything.'
'Then you shall hear my part now,' she returned, with flashing eyes. 'What do you suppose were my feelings when I heard the news that Mat was in prison, and that my boy's father was a convicted felon? What do you imagine were my thoughts when I sat in my lodgings, with my children round me, knowing that this heritage of shame was on them?'
'It was very bad for you,' he whispered softly, for her tragical aspect impressed him with a sense of grandeur. She was not good: by her own account she had been an unloving wife; but in her way she had been strong—only her strength had been for evil.
'Yes, it was bad. I think for days I was almost crazed by my misfortunes; and then Mat sent for me. He was penitent, and wanted my forgiveness, so they told me.'
'And you went?'
'Of course I went. I had a word to say to him that needed an answer, and I was thankful for the opportunity to speak it. I dressed myself at once, and went to the prison. Cyril cried to come with me, and slapped me with his little hands when I refused to take him; but I only smothered him with kisses. I remember how he struggled to get free, and how indignant he was. "I don't love you one bit to-day, mamma! you are not my pretty mamma at all." But I only laughed at his childish pet—my bright, beautiful boy!—I can see him now.
'Mat looked utterly miserable; but his wretchedness did not seem to touch me. The sin was his, and he must expiate it; it was I and my children who were the innocent sufferers. He began cursing himself for his mad folly, as he called it, and begged me over and over again to forgive him. I listened to him for a few minutes, and then I looked at him very steadily.
'"I will forgive you, Mat, and not say a hard word to you, if you will promise me one thing."
'"And what is that?" he asked, seeming as though he dreaded my answer.
'"That you will never try to see me or my children again."'
'SHALL YOU TELL HIM TO-NIGHT?'
'Wouldst thou do harm, and still unharmed thyself abide? None struck another yet, except through his own side.
* * * * *
From our ill-ordered hearts we oft are fain to roam, As men go forth who find unquietness at home.'
Michael raised his eyes and looked attentively at the woman before him; but she did not seem to notice him—she was too much absorbed in her miserable recital.
'I had made up my mind to say this to him from the moment I heard he was in prison—he should have nothing more to do with me and the children. It was for their sake I said it.
'He shrank back as though I had stabbed him, and then he began reproaching me in the old way: "I had never loved him; from the first I had helped to ruin him by my coldness; he was the most wretched man on earth, for his own wife had deserted him;" but after a time I stopped him.
'"It is too late to say all this now, Mat; you are quite right—I never loved you. I was mad to marry you; we have never been suited to each other."
'"But I was fond of you. I was always fond of you, Olive."
'But I answered him sternly:
'"Then prove your affection, Mat, by setting me free. Let me go my way and you go yours, for as truly as I stand here I will never live with you again."
'"But what will you do?" he asked; "oh, Olive, do not be so cruelly hard! There is Tom; he will take you and the children, and care for you all."
'But at the mention of his brother I lost all control over myself. Oh, I know I said some hard things then—I am not defending myself—and he begged me at last very piteously not to excite myself, and he would never mention Tom again; only he must know what I meant to do with myself and the children while he was working out his sentence.
'"Then I will tell you," I replied; "for at least you have a right to know that, although from this day I will never acknowledge you as my husband. I will not go near your beggarly relations; but I have a little money of my own, as you know, though you have never been able to touch it. I will manage to keep the children on that."
'Well, we talked—at least I talked—and at last I got him to promise that he would never molest me or the children again. Mat was always weak, and I managed to frighten him. I threatened to make away with myself and the children sooner than have this shame brought home to them, not that I meant it; but I was in one of my passionate moods, when anything seemed possible.
'I told him what I meant to do, for I had planned it all in my head already. I would sell out all my money and change my investments, so that all clue should be lost; and I would take another name, and after a time the children should be told their father was dead. I would give myself out to be a widow, and in this way no disgrace would ever touch them. Would you believe it? Mat was so broken and penitent that he began to think that, after all, this would be best—that it would be kinder to me and the children to cut himself adrift from us.
'I saw him again, and he gave me his promise. "You are a clever woman, Olive," he said; "you will do better for the youngsters than ever I could have done. I have brought disgrace on everyone belonging to me. If you would only have trusted to Tom!—but you will go your own gait. I dare not cross you; I never have dared, lest evil should come of it; but I think no woman ever had a colder heart."
'"You have killed it, Mat," was my answer; and then I said good-bye to him, and we parted.
'Well, I took Biddy into my confidence; she was a faithful creature, and had been devoted to me since my childhood. She had accompanied me to England on my marriage, and had been my one comfort before the children were born. Strange to say, she had always disliked Mat, and if I had only listened to her, his wooing would have been unsuccessful.
'I found a lawyer who would do my business, and then I took a lodging at Richmond and called myself Mrs. Blake, and for a few years we lived quietly and comfortably.'
'The investments had prospered, one especially was yielding a handsome dividend, so I was better off than I expected. I had got rid of some house property, and I put aside this money for my boy's education. I need not tell you that he was my one thought. Sometimes, when I saw him growing so fast, and looking so noble and handsome, my heart would quite swell with pride and happiness to think he was my son; and I forgot Mat and the past wretchedness, and only lived in and for him. My other children were nothing to me compared to him.'
'And you heard nothing of your husband?'
'I tell you I had no husband; he was dead to me. Do you think I would allow a man like Mat to blight my boy's career—a poor creature, weak as water, and never able to keep straight; a man who could be cowed into giving up his own wife and children? I would have died a hundred times over before I would have let Cyril know that his father was a convict.'
Michael held his peace, but he shuddered slightly as he thought of Audrey. 'They will make her give him up,' he said to himself.
'Yes, I was happy then,' she went on. 'I always had an elastic temperament. I did not mind the poverty and shifts as long as Cyril was well and contented. I used to glory in giving up one little comfort after another, and stinting myself that he might have the books he needed when he was at Oxford. I used to live on his letters, and the day when he came home was a red-letter day.'
'And you never trembled at the idea that one day you might come face to face with your husband?'
'Oh no; such a thought never crossed my mind. I knew Mat too well to fear that he would hunt me out and make a scene. Another man would, in his place, but not Mat: he had always been afraid of me, and he dared not try it on. It was accident—mere accident—that made him cross my path yesterday. But I know I can manage him still, and you—you will not betray me, Captain Burnett?'
'I do not understand you,' he returned, almost unable to believe his ears. Could she really think that he would make himself a party to her duplicity?
'I think my meaning is sufficiently clear,' she replied, as though impatient at his denseness. 'Now you have heard my story, you cannot blame me; under the circumstances, you must own that my conduct was perfectly justifiable.'
'I am not your judge, Mrs. Blake,' he answered quietly; 'but in my opinion nothing could justify such an act of deception. None of us have any right to say, "Evil, be thou my good." When you deceived the world and your own children, by wearing widow's weeds, when all the time you knew you had a living husband, you were distinctly living a lie.'
'And I glory in that lie!' she answered passionately.
'Do not—do not!' he returned with some emotion; 'for it will bring you bitter sorrow. Do you think the son for whom you have sacrificed your integrity will thank you for it——' But before he could finish his sentence a low cry, almost of agony, stopped him. Ah, he had touched her there.
'You will kill me,' she gasped, 'if you only hint at such a thing! Captain Burnett, I will say I am sorry—I will say anything—if you will only help me to keep this thing from my boy. Will you go to Mat? Will you ask him, for all our sakes, to go away? He is not a bad man. When he hears about Cyril's prospects he will not spoil them by coming here and making a scene. I will see him if he likes—but I think it would be better not. Tell him if he wants money he shall have it: there is a sum I can lay my hands on, and Cyril will never know.'
'You want me to bribe your husband to go away?'
'Yes. You have promised to help me; and this is the only way.'
'Pardon me! There are limits to anything—an honest man cannot soil his hands with any such acts of deception. When I said I would help you, it was real help I meant—for good, and not for evil. I will not attempt to bribe your husband; neither will I stand by and see you blindfold your son.'
Then she threw herself on her knees before him, with a faint cry for mercy. But he put her back in her seat, and then took her hands in his and held them firmly.
'Hush! you must not do that. I will be as kind to you as I can. Do you think that my heart is not full of pity for you, in spite of your wrong-doing? Try to be reasonable and listen to me. I have only one piece of advice to give you. Tell your son everything, as you have told me.'
'Never, never! I would die first.'
'You do not know what you are saying,' he returned soothingly. 'Do you think a son is likely to judge his own mother harshly? If I can find it in my heart to pity you, will your own flesh and blood be more hard than a stranger?'
'Oh, you do not know Cyril!' she replied with a shudder. 'He is so perfectly truthful. I have heard him say once that nothing can justify a deception. In spite of his goodness, he can be hard—very hard. When Kester was a little boy, he once, told a lie to shield Mollie, and Cyril would not speak to him for days.'
'I do not say that he will not be shocked at first, and that you may not have to bear his displeasure. But it will be better—a hundred times better—for him to hear it from your own lips.'
'He will never hear it,' she returned; and now she was weeping wildly. 'The story will never be told by me. How could I bear to hear him tell me that I had ruined him—that his prospects were blasted? Oh, have mercy upon a miserable woman, Captain Burnett! For the sake of my boy—for Kester's and Mollie's sake—help me to send Mat away!'
He made no answer, only looked at her with the same steady gentleness. That look, so calm, yet so inexorable, left her no vestige of hope. A rock would have yielded sooner than Michael Burnett, and she knew it.
'I was wrong to trust you,' she sobbed. 'You are a hard man—I always knew that; you will stand by and see us all ruined, and my boy breaking his heart with shame and misery, and you will not stretch out your hand to save us.'
But he let this pass. Her very despair was making her reckless of her words.
'Mrs. Blake,' he said quietly, 'will you tell your son that he has a father living?'
'No; I will not tell him!'
Then Michael got up from his chair as though the interview were at an end. His movement seemed to alarm Mrs. Blake excessively.
'You are not going? Do you mean that you are actually leaving me in this misery? Captain Burnett, I would not have believed you could be so cruel!'
'There is no use in my staying. I cannot convince you that your best hope for the future is to throw yourself on your son's generosity. I regret that you will not listen to me—you are giving me a very painful task.'
Then she started up and caught him by the arm.
'Do you mean that you will tell him?'
'I suppose so—somebody must do it; but I would rather cut off my right hand than do it.'
'Shall you tell him to-night?'
'No, certainly not to-night.'
'Yes, to-morrow or the next day; but I must speak to Mr. O'Brien and Dr. Ross first.'
Then she left him without saying another word; but it went to his heart to see her cowering over the fire in her old miserable attitude.
'Mrs. Blake,' he said, following her, 'if you think better of this, will you write to me? Two or three words will be enough: "I will tell him myself" just that——' but she made no reply. 'I shall wait in the hope that I may receive such a note; a few hours' delay will not matter, and perhaps a little consideration may induce you to be brave. Remember, there is no wrong-doing except that of heinous and deadly sin that we may not strive to set right. It needs courage to confess to a fellow-creature, but love should give you this courage.'
But still she did not move or speak, and he was forced to leave her. He found Biddy hovering about the dark passage, and he guessed at once that she had been a listener. A moment's consideration induced him to take the old woman by the shoulder and draw her into an empty room close by.
She looked somewhat scared at his action. She had a candle in her hand, and he could see how furtively her wild, hawk-like eyes glanced at him.
'Biddy, I know you are your mistress's trusted friend—that she confides in you.'
'Use every argument in your power, then, to induce her to tell her son about his father.'
'I dare not, sir; she would fly into one of her mad passions and strike me.'
'I have work enough with her sometimes; she has always had her tantrums from a child; but I'm used to them, and I know how to humour her. She will never tell Mr. Cyril; I know them both too well for that.'
'You heard all I said, Biddy. You need not deny it. You have been listening at the door.'
'It is not me who would deny it,' she returned boldly; but there was a flush on her withered cheek. 'There is nothing that my mistress could say that she would wish to keep from me. I have been with her all her life. As a baby she slept in my bosom, and I loved her as my own child. Ah, it was an ill day for Miss Olive when she took up with that good-for-nothing Matthew O'Brien; bad luck to him and his!'
'Nevertheless, he is her husband, Biddy.'
'I don't know about that, sir. I was never married myself, and fourteen years is a long absence. Aren't they more her children than his, when she has slaved and sacrificed herself for them? You meant it well, sir, what you said to the mistress; but I take the liberty of differing from you, and I would sooner bite my tongue out than speak the word that will bring them all to shame.'
'Then I must not look to you for help?'
'I am afraid not, sir. I am on my mistress's side.'
'You are an obstinate old woman, Biddy, and I looked for better sense at your age.'
Nevertheless, he shook her by the hand very kindly, and then she lighted him downstairs.
Mollie came out of the dining-room and looked at him wistfully.
'Is mamma better now, Captain Burnett?'
'Well, no, I am afraid not: but I think you need not trouble. Biddy will look after her.'
'Biddy is dreadfully mysterious, and will hardly let any of us speak to mamma; but I think it is my place, not Biddy's, to wait on her. She has no right to tell me to go downstairs, and to treat me like a child. I am fifteen.'
'Yes; indeed, you are growing quite a woman, Mollie.'
And Michael looked very kindly at Audrey's protegee. He and Mollie were great friends.
'Cyril came in some time ago. He had to dress for the party, you know, and Biddy would not let him go into the drawing-room and interrupt you; she was mounting guard all the time. Cyril was quite cross at last, and asked me what on earth was the matter, and why you and mamma were having a private interview; but of course I could not tell him.'
'I suppose not, my dear.'
'He says he shall ask mamma to-morrow, and that he shall bring Miss Ross to see her, because he is sure she is ill. Will you come in and see Kester, Captain Burnett?—he is busy with his Greek.'
But Michael declined; it was late, and he must hurry home and dress for dinner.
He had forgotten all about the Charringtons' dinner-party and dance, and he was a little startled, as he entered the hall, to see Audrey standing before the fire talking to Cyril. Both of them were in evening dress.
Audrey looked very pretty; she wore a white silk dress. He had seen her in it once before, and he had thought then how wonderfully well it became her; and the sparkling cross rested against her soft throat. Cyril's roses, with their pale pinky tint, gave her just the colour that was needed, and her eyes were very bright; and perhaps her lover's praise had brought that lovely glow to her face.
'You will be late, Michael; the dressing-bell sounded an age ago, and father is in the drawing-room. What have you been doing with yourself all these hours?'
'I had forgotten you were going out,' he returned, parrying her question. 'How nice you look, Audrey! I thought white silk was bridal finery. Cinderella turned into a princess was nothing to you.'
'I feel like a princess with my roses and diamonds;' but she looked at Cyril, not at Michael, as she spoke. Cyril was standing beside her with one arm against the carved mantelpiece; he was looking handsomer than ever. Just then there was the sound of carriage-wheels, and he took up the furred cloak that lay on the settee beside him, and put it gently round her shoulders.
'You must not take cold,' Michael heard him say. There was nothing in the words, but the glance that accompanied this simple remark spoke volumes. Michael drew a deep heavy sigh as he went upstairs. 'Poor fellow! how he worships her!' he thought;' what will be the end of this tangle?' And then he dressed himself hastily and took his place at the table to eat his dinner with what appetite he might, while Mrs. Ross discoursed to him placidly on the baby's beauty and on dear Geraldine's merits as a mother and hostess.
'I MUST THINK OF MY CHILD, MIKE'
'Ah! the problem of grief and evil is, and will be always, the greatest enigma of being, only second to the existence of being itself.'—AMIEL.
Michael listened in a sort of dream. He was telling himself all the time that his opportunity was come, and that it was incumbent on him not to sleep another night under his cousin's roof until he had made known to him this grievous thing.
As soon as they rose from the table, and Dr. Ross was preparing as usual to follow his wife into the drawing-room until the prayer-bell summoned him into the schoolroom, Michael said, a little more seriously than usual:
'Dr. Ross, would you mind giving me half an hour in the study after prayers? I want your advice about something;' for he wished to secure this quiet time before Audrey returned from her party.
The Doctor was an observant man, in spite of his occasional absence of mind, and he saw at once that something was amiss.
'Shall you be able to do without us this evening, Emmie?' he said, with his usual old-fashioned politeness, that his wife and daughters thought the very model of perfection: 'it is too bad to leave you alone when Audrey is not here to keep you company.'
But Mrs. Ross assured him that she would not in the least mind such solitude; she was reading the third volume of an exciting novel, and would not be sorry to finish it. And as soon as this was settled and the coffee served, the gong sounded, and they all adjourned to the schoolroom.
Michael never missed this function, as he called it. He liked to sit in his corner and watch the rows of boyish faces before him, and try to imagine what their future would be; and, above all things, he loved to hear the fresh young voices uniting in their evening hymn; but on this evening he regarded them with some degree of sadness.
'They have the best of it,' he thought rather moodily; 'they little know what is before them, poor fellows! and the hard rubs fate has in store for them.' And then, as they filed past him and one little fellow smiled at him, he drew him aside and put him between his knees.
'You look very happy, Willie. I suppose you have not been caned to-day?'—a favourite joke of the Captain's.
'No, sir,' returned Willie proudly; 'but Jefferson minor fought me, and I licked him. You may ask the other fellows, and they would tell you it was all fair. He is a head taller than me, and I licked him,' finished Willie, with an air of immense satisfaction on his chubby baby face.
'Ah, you licked him, did you?' returned Michael absently; 'and Jefferson minor is beaten. I hope you shook hands afterwards; fair fight and no malice, Willie. There's a shilling for you because you did not show the white feather in the face of the enemy. You will be at the head of a brigade yet, my boy.' For all Dr. Ross's lads were bitten with the military fever, and from Willie Sayers to broad-shouldered Jeff Davidson each boy nourished a secret passion and desire to follow the Captain's footsteps, and were ready to be hewed and slashed into small pieces if only the Victoria Cross might be their reward.
As soon as the curly-haired champion had left him, Michael followed his cousin into the study. Dr. Ross had already lighted his lamp, and roused his fire into a cheerful blaze.
'What is it, Mike? you look bothered,' he asked, as Michael drew up his chair. 'Nothing wrong with the money, I hope?'
'What should be wrong about it?' returned Michael rather disdainfully; 'it is about as safe as the Bank of England. No; it is something very different—a matter that I may say concerns us all. I heard something the other day rather uncomfortable about the Blakes.'
'Nothing discreditable, I hope?' returned the Doctor quickly.
'I am afraid I must answer "Yes" to that question; but, at least, I can assure you that there is nothing against Blake.'
Then Dr. Ross looked relieved.
'Whatever blame there is attaches solely to the mother.'
'Humph! With all her good looks, I never quite liked the woman,' ejaculated Dr. Ross sotto voce. Nevertheless, he had always been extremely pleasant with her; but perhaps a man finds it difficult to be otherwise with a pretty woman.
'I have unfortunately found out—but perhaps I ought to say fortunately for us—that Mrs. Blake is not a widow: her husband is living.'
'Neither is her name Blake; she changed it at the time she discarded her husband. I am afraid you must prepare yourself for a shock, Dr. Ross, for the whole thing is distinctly reprehensible.'
'And you mean to tell me,' returned the Doctor, with an anxious blackness gathering on his brow, 'that Cyril—that my future son-in-law is cognisant of this fact?'
'No, no!' replied Michael eagerly; 'you are doing him injustice. Blake is as ignorant of the thing as you are yourself; he has no more to do with it than you or I. Did I not tell you that the sole blame rests with his mother?'
Then the Doctor, in spite of his Christianity, pronounced a malediction against the Blake womankind.
'She is just the sort to get into mischief,' he continued; 'there is a dangerous look in her eyes. Go on, Michael; don't keep me in suspense. There is something disgraceful behind all this. What reason has any woman to allege for giving up her husband?'
'Her excuse is that he brought shame and dishonour on her and on his children, and that she would have nothing more to do with him. He had committed a forgery, and had been condemned to penal servitude for seven years.'
Then the Doctor said 'Good heavens!' again. At certain moments of existence it is not possible to be original—when the roof is falling on one's head, for example, or a deadly avalanche is threatening. But Michael needed no answer; he only wished to finish his story as quickly as possible.
'You know Audrey's friend, Thomas O'Brien?'
'To be sure I do. He is a retired corn-chandler. I went to his shop once, in Peterborough.'
'And you have probably heard of his brother Mat?'
Then Dr. Ross gazed at him with a face of despair. His misfortunes were accumulating; he had a sense of nightmare and oppression. Surely this hideous thing could not be true! no such disgrace could threaten him and his! If an earthquake had opened in the Woodcote grounds, he could not have looked more horrified.
'Do you mean to tell me, Mike, that this Mat O'Brien is Cyril's father?'
Then Michael gave him a detailed and carefully-worded account of his interview with Mrs. Blake.
'Then it is true—quite true?' in a hopeless tone.
'There cannot be a doubt of it; I had it from her own lips. To-morrow I must see O'Brien himself, and hear his side. I cannot help saying that I am sorry for the woman, in spite of her falseness; she is utterly crushed with her misery.' But it may be doubted if Dr. Ross heard this: he was occupied with his own reflections.
'This will break Audrey's heart; she is devoted to the fellow.'
'Oh, I hope not; she has more strength than other girls.'
'Of course I cannot allow this affair to go on: I must see Blake, and tell him so at once.'
'There is no hurry, is there? I think you should let me speak to O'Brien first.'
'Well, if you wish it; but I confess I do not see the necessity.'
'And I hope you will be gentle with Blake: remember that not a vestige of blame attaches to him; it is simply his misfortune that he is the son of such parents. I expect he will be utterly broken-hearted.'
Then Dr. Ross gave vent to an impatient groan. No man had a softer heart than he, and he had liked Cyril from the first.
'I must think of my child, Mike,' he said at last.
'Yes, you must think of her; but you must be merciful to him, too. Think what he will suffer when he knows this; and he is as innocent as a babe! I suppose'—and then he hesitated, and looked at his cousin—'that there will be no way of hushing up things, and letting the engagement go on?'
Then the Doctor nearly sprang out of his chair.
'Are you out of your senses, Michael, to put such a question to me? Is it likely that any man in my position would allow his family to be allied to a convicted criminal? Would any amount of hushing up render such an alliance tolerable?'
'Well, I suppose not.'
'I have never cared much for conventionality, or for the mere show of things; but I suppose that, in some sense, the good opinion of my fellow-men is necessary for my comfort. When Blake came to me, and told me that he had not a shilling in the world beside his earnings as my classical master, I did not let his poverty stand in the way. I told him that, as my girl's happiness was involved, I could not find it in my heart to withhold my consent.
'"You are certainly not in the position in which I should wish to see my son-in-law," I said to him; "but I will speak to Charrington, and see what is to be done."
'Well, I have spoken, and Charrington only promised the other day that he would push him on. I have no doubt at all that, with my interest and standing in the place, Cyril would have had a house in time, and Audrey's position would have been equal to her sister's.'
'And you mean to say that all this is at an end?'
'Of course it is at an end!' almost shouted the Doctor; 'and Cyril's career is practically at an end, too. Do you suppose any public school in England would employ a master whose relatives are so disreputable that he is obliged to make use of an assumed name? When I refuse to allow him to marry my daughter, I must give him his conge at the same time.'
'Then in that case he is a ruined man;' and to this Dr. Ross gave a sorrowful assent.
'How am I to help myself or him, Mike? I will do all in my power to soften the weight of this blow to him; but when all is at an end between him and Audrey, how am I to keep him in Rutherford? The thing would he impossible. He would not wish it himself. He is very proud and high-spirited by nature, and such a position would be intolerable to him. No, he must go; but if money will help him, he may command me to any reasonable amount.'
'He will not take your money;' and then he added 'Poor beggar!' under his breath.
'You will stand by me, Mike?'
'Most certainly I will; but I mean to befriend Blake, too, as far as he will let me.'
'I should not think he would refuse your sympathy; a man needs someone at such a time. But when I spoke I was thinking of my girl. You have great influence with her, Michael; sometimes I think no brother's influence could be stronger. How would it be if she were to hear the news first from you?'
Then Michael recoiled as though someone had struck him in the face.
'Impossible! I could not tell her. I would rather be shot!' he returned vehemently.
'Well, it is not a pleasant business, and I suppose I must do it myself; only the idea crossed my mind that perhaps it might come better from you. I shall not be able to refrain from indignation; I am apt to get a little warm sometimes.'
But Michael firmly negatived this notion.
'It will go hard with her, whoever tells it,' he said decidedly. 'Nothing can soften such a blow, and it is far better for her to hear it from her father. You see,' he continued rather sadly, 'it will be a fair division, for I have to break it to poor Blake; and I shall have tough work with him, for he worships the ground she walks on.'
'Ay, poor fellow! I know he does. What a cruel affair it is, Mike! That woman's deceit will go far to spoil two lives.'
But to this Michael would not agree. He said, with a great deal of feeling, that Audrey was not the girl to let any love-affair spoil her life; she thought too little of herself, was too considerate and unselfish, to allow any private unhappiness to get too strong a hold over her, and so spoil other people's lives.
'You will see what sort of stuff she has in her,' he said, with the enthusiasm of a lover who can find no flaw at all. 'She will bear her sorrow bravely, and not allow it to interfere with others. She is far too good and noble. You need not fear for her; she has strength enough for a dozen women.'
And Dr. Ross felt himself a little comforted by such words.
'Do you mind waiting up for her to-night?' he asked presently. 'Unfortunately, Emmie has sent all the servants to bed, because I said I had some writing to do. I feel very upset about all this, and she will find out from my manner that something is amiss. Would it bother you, Mike? She will just come in here and warm herself; but if you tell her you are tired, she will not detain you.'
'I can have no objection to do that,' replied Michael, trying to hide his reluctance; and, indeed, Dr. Ross looked so pale and jaded, that Audrey's suspicions would have been excited. 'Go to bed and get a good night's rest; it is nearly twelve now, and they meant to be home by one.'
Then Dr. Ross allowed himself to be persuaded.
'I don't know about the good night's rest,' he replied; 'but I should be glad to think over the whole thing quietly before I see either of them. There is no hurry, as you say, and perhaps you had better get your interview over with O'Brien.'
'Shall you tell Cousin Emmeline?'
'Tell Emmie!' and here the Doctor's voice was somewhat irritable, as one disagreeable detail opened after another. 'Not to-night, certainly. Why, she will be asleep. No, it would never do to tell her before Audrey; it would get round to Geraldine, and there would be the deuce of a row. Tell the child I was tired, and bid her good-night.'
And then Dr. Ross shook Michael's hand with fervour and took himself off.
Michael spent a dreary hour by himself in the study. It was a relief to him when he heard the carriage-wheels, but as he opened the door he was quite dazzled at the scene before him. It was a brilliant moonlight night, and the terrace and wide lawn were bathed in the pure white light. A crisp frost had touched the grass and silvered each blade, and the effect against the dark background of trees and shrubs was intensely beautiful.
And the moonlight shone full on Audrey's upturned face, as she stood talking to her lover, and the silken folds of her dress and her soft furred cloak and hood looked almost of unearthly whiteness. In Michael's bewildered eyes she seemed invested at the present moment with some new and regal beauty; but her light musical laugh dispelled the illusion.
'Why, Michael, what has become of father?'
'He was tired, and went off to bed more than an hour ago. I hope you do not object to his deputy. I suppose you are not coming in, Blake, as it is so late?'
'Of course he is not,' returned Audrey in a tone that allowed of no appeal. 'He has early work to-morrow, and must get as much rest as he can. Good-night, Cyril; we have had a delightful evening, have we not?' And to this Cyril responded gaily—for it was not possible there could be any lingering adieus before Michael; and as Cyril ran down the terrace Audrey waited until Michael had fastened the door, and then accompanied him to the study.
'How nice and warm it is!' she observed in a pleased tone. 'You always keep up such a splendid fire.'
'I am a chilly mortal, you know, and these March nights have a touch of December in them.'
'Yes; it is quite frosty.'
And Audrey threw back her hood and cloak and sat down in Dr. Ross's favourite chair. 'Had she any idea how like a picture she looked,' Michael wondered, 'with all those soft white draperies about her, and the sparkling cross upon her neck?' Then he turned away his head with a mute sensation of pain. How happy, how very happy, she looked!
'We have had such a nice evening, she began in her most animated manner; 'everything was so well arranged. There was a dinner-party first, which was followed by what they called a Cinderella dance; but actually they do not mean to break up for another hour and a half. Mrs. Charrington was quite annoyed because we came home so early.'
'And you enjoyed yourself?'
'Oh, immensely! I waltzed twice with Cyril. Do you know, he dances splendidly—he was certainly my best partner.'
'Yes; he looks as though he would dance well. Would you believe it, Audrey, that when I was a youngster I was considered a good dancer, too? It is rather droll to remember that now.'
'I can very easily believe it—you do everything well, Michael.'
'Pshaw!' And then Michael added, with a pretended yawn: 'I think I could sleep well, though.'
But Audrey refused to take this very broad hint.
'What a hurry you are in! And I have not warmed myself yet. Do stay a little longer, Michael. I so seldom get you to myself.'
'But it is very late,' he returned, unwilling to yield.
'I will only keep you a few minutes,' she replied eagerly; 'but I want to tell you something.'
Then he was obliged to sit down again.
'What is it?' he asked a little languidly, for the spell of her presence was so strong that it threatened to subjugate him. He was never willingly alone with her now. The fear was always upon him that, in some weak moment, he might betray himself. The fear was an idle one—no man was less likely than Michael to lose his self-control; but, nevertheless, it was there.
'It is about Cyril,' she returned softly. 'Dr. Charrington has been so nice to him to-night. He stood out once during the Lancers, and Dr. Charrington came up to him, and they had quite a long talk together. He said father had been speaking to him, and that he had quite made up his mind that Cyril should be in the upper school next year, when Mr. Hanbury left. It would be a better position, and he would be able to have private pupils. And he as good as told him that he would do his best to push him, for father's sake.'
'Blake must have been very pleased at this,' replied Michael; but he spoke in a dull, monotonous way.
'Yes; he is quite excited. Don't you see,' she continued a little shyly, 'it will make all the difference to us if Dr. Charrington pushes Cyril; for of course it will make it possible for him to marry.'
Then Michael felt as though he had accidentally touched a full-charged battery. He waited until the numb, tingling sensation had left him before he answered her.
'I did not know that you wished to shorten your engagement,' he said very quietly; 'I understood that there would be no talk of settling for the next two or three years; but, of course, if your father has no objection——'
'How you talk, Michael!' returned Audrey, blushing with some annoyance at this obvious misunderstanding of her meaning; 'it is Cyril who is in a hurry: for myself, I should be perfectly content to go on as we are for the next five years. Do you not remember my tirade on the pleasures of freedom?'
'I think I do recall something of the kind.' Alas! had he ever forgotten anything she had said to him?
'Well, I am afraid I am of the same opinion still; only I dare not let Cyril know that: he would be so hurt. I suppose,' reflectively, 'men are different from women; they do always seem in such a dreadful hurry about everything. When Cyril complains that he feels unsettled, and that I get between him and his work, I do not pretend to understand him. I am very matter-of-fact, am I not, Michael?'
'I should not have said so.'
'Oh, but I am; and I am afraid Cyril thinks so. Well, as I have told you my good news I will not detain you any longer.' And then Michael rose with a feeling of relief.
But as he followed her a few minutes later upstairs, he wondered what she must have thought of him. With all his efforts, he had been unable to bring himself to utter one word of congratulation. 'It would have been a lie,' he said to himself vehemently; 'how could I find it in my heart to deceive her for a moment? This may be their last happy day, Heaven help them both!' and Michael went to bed in profound wretchedness.
'My roses are withered,' thought Audrey, as she regarded the drooping buds and leaves; 'my poor beautiful roses, and they were Cyril's gift, too. What a pity that flowers must die, and we must grow old—that in this world there must always be decay and change! Shall I ever be happier than I am to-night, with Cyril to love me, and Michael—dear Michael—to be my friend? What makes him so grave? He is always grave now.' And then she sighed and laid down her flowers, and took the glittering cross from her neck. 'My poor Michael! I should like to see him happy, too,' she finished, as she put it away in its case.
'OLIVE WILL ACKNOWLEDGE ANYTHING'
'Evil, like a rolling stone upon a mountain-top, A child may first impel, a giant cannot stop.'—TRENCH.
'By despising himself too much, a man comes to be worthy of his own contempt.'—AMIEL.
Audrey was sure it was the east wind that made everyone so unlike themselves the next morning. Bailey had told her that the wind was decidedly easterly, or, perhaps, more strictly speaking, north-east. She had run down the garden to speak to him about some plants, and perhaps with some intention of intercepting Cyril when he went across to breakfast, and they had had quite a confabulation on the subject.
But when she got back to the house she found rather a subdued state of things. Mrs. Ross looked tired; her husband had kept her awake by his restlessness, and she had got it firmly in her mind that a fit of gout was impending. Dr. Ross had once had a touch of gout—a very slight touch, to be sure—but it had given him a wholesome fear of the complaint, and had implanted in him a deep distrust of other men's port wine; and his devoted wife had never forgotten the circumstance.
'And I am sure,' she observed in an undertone to her daughter, 'that if I were not quite certain that there is nothing troubling your father—for, of course, he would have told me of it at once—I should have said there was something on his mind, for he tossed and groaned so; but mark my words, Audrey, it is his old enemy, the gout; and if only I could induce him to speak to Dr. Pilkington we might ward it off still.'
'What is that you are telling the child, Emmie?' asked the Doctor, who had very sharp ears. 'Gout! stuff and nonsense! I never was better in my life.'
'I think your complexion looks a little sallow this morning, John,' returned Mrs. Ross rather timidly, for she knew her husband's objection to any form of ailment; 'and I am sure you never closed your eyes all night.' But at this Dr. Ross pished impatiently, and it was then that Audrey hazarded her brilliant suggestion about the east wind.
'Michael looks rather limp, too,' she went on; 'and he never could endure an east wind.'
'Have your own way, Audrey,' returned her cousin good-humouredly; but neither to her nor to Mrs. Ross did he confess that his night had been sleepless too. When he had finished his breakfast he went round to the stables, where Dr. Ross joined him. He had ordered the dog-cart to be got ready for him, and he told the groom that there was no need to bring it round to the front door.
Dr. Ross watched him silently as he drew on his driving gloves and turned up the collar of his coat.
'You will have a cold drive, I am afraid,' he said at last, as Michael took the reins and the brown mare began to fidget; 'come to my study the moment you get back.' And Michael nodded.
Much as he disliked the business before him, he was anxious to get it over; so he drove as fast as possible; and as the mare was fresh and skittish, she gave him plenty to think about, and he was quite warm with the exertion of holding her in and restraining her playful antics by the time he pulled up at the village inn, which went by the name of the Cat and Fiddle. Here he had the mare put up, while he walked down the one main street of Brail, and down a lane or two, until he came to Mr. O'Brien's sequestered cottage.
Mr. O'Brien opened the door himself. When he saw Michael, he shook his head with an air of profound sadness, and led the way without speaking into the parlour, where he usually sat, and where Sam was basking before the fire after the luxurious habit of cats.
He got up, however, and rubbed his sleek head against Michael's knee as he sat down in the black elbow-chair; but Mr. O'Brien still stood on the rug, shaking his head sadly.
'You have come, Captain. I made up my mind you would come to-day, to get at the rights of it; I told Mat so. "Depend upon it, the Captain will look us up," I said to him; "he is a man of action, and it is not likely he will let the grass grow under his feet. He will be round, sure enough, and you will have to be ready with your answers."'
'Where is your brother, Mr. O'Brien?'
'He has gone out for a bit, but he will be back presently. I told him not to go far. "You'll be wanted, you may take my word for it—you'll be wanted, Mat," I told him; and then he promised he would be round directly.'
'I am afraid this affair has been a great shock to you, Mr. O'Brien. Miss Ross once told me that you had no idea whom your brother married.'
'Well, sir, I can't say as much as that. Mat told me that the name of the girl he was going to wed was Olive Carrick, and that she came of respectable people; but he did not tell me much more than that. And now I put it to you, Captain—how was I to know that any woman would falsify her husband's name, and that she should be living close to my doors, as one might say?—for what is a matter of three miles? It gave me a sort of shiver—and I have not properly got rid of it yet—when I think of that dear young creature, whom Susan and me have always loved—that she should be entrapped through that woman's falseness into an engagement with Mat's son. It goes to my heart—it does indeed, Captain—to see that dear, sweet lady dragged into a connection that will only disgrace her.'
'My cousin would think it no disgrace to be connected with you, Mr. O'Brien;' for he knew too well Audrey's large-mindedness and absence of conventionality. 'She has always looked upon you as her friend.'
'Thank you, Captain; that is very handsomely said, and I wish my Prissy could have heard it, for she has done nothing but cry since the news reached her. "Rachel refusing to be comforted" is nothing compared to Prissy when the mood is on her; she literally waters all her meals with her tears. Yes, you mean it handsomely; but I am an old man, Captain Burnett, and know the world a bit, and I have the sense to see that Thomas O'Brien—honest and painstaking as he may be—is no fit connection for Dr. Ross's daughter. Why, to think she might be my niece and call me "uncle"!' and here the old man's face flushed as he spoke. 'It is not right; it is not as it should be. She must give him up—she must indeed, Captain!'
'I am afraid Dr. Ross holds that opinion, Mr. O'Brien. You will understand that he means no disrespect to you; but it is simply intolerable to him that any daughter of his should marry Matthew O'Brien's son. You see, I am speaking very plainly.'
'Yes, sir; and I am speaking just as plainly to you. In this sort of case it is no use beating about the bush. Mat has made his bed, and he must just lie on it; and his children—Heaven help them, poor young things!—must just lie on theirs too. Dear, dear! to think that when she was talking to me so pleasantly about Mollie and Kester, and—what is her lad's name?—that neither she nor I had an idea that she was speaking to their uncle! There, it beats me, Captain—it does indeed!' And there were tears in the old man's eyes.
'I am afraid there is heavy trouble in store for them all, and for my cousin, too; she will be very unwilling to give up Blake.'
'Humph! that is what he calls himself! Well, she was always faithful, Captain; she is made of good stout stuff, and that sort wears best in the long-run. If she is a bit difficult, send her to me, and I'll talk to her. I will put things before her in a light she won't be able to resist.'
In spite of the sadness of the conversation, Michael could hardly forbear a smile.
'I hardly know what you would say to her, Mr. O'Brien.'
'You leave that to me, Captain; it is best not to be too knowing about things. But I don't mind telling you one thing that I would say: "My dear young lady, you have been a good and true friend to Thomas O'Brien, and I am grateful and proud to call you my friend; but I will not have you for my niece. Mat's son may be good as gold—I have nothing to say against the poor lad, who, after all, is my own flesh and blood; but it would be a sin and shame to wed him, when his father picked oakum in a felon's cell." Don't you think that will fetch her, sir? Women are mostly proud, and like their menkind to have clean hands; and I'll say it, too!' And here Mr. O'Brien thumped the arm of his chair so emphatically, that Sam woke and uttered a reproachful mew.
'I hope you will not be put to the pain of saying this to her,' returned. Michael, in a low voice.
What a fine old fellow this was! He wondered what Dr. Ross would say when he repeated this speech to him. Nature must have intended Tom O'Brien for a gentleman. Could anything be more touching than the way he sought to shield his girl-friend, even putting aside the natural claims of his own flesh and blood to prevent her from being sullied by any contact with him and his?
Michael felt as though he longed to shake hands with him, and tell him how he honoured and respected him; but he instinctively felt that any such testimony would hardly be understood. One word he did venture to say:
'I think it is very good of you to take our side.'
'Nay, sir, I can see nought of goodness in it. As my Susan used to say, you should not praise people for walking along a straight road, and for not taking the first crooked path that offers itself. Susan and I thought alike there—we were neither of us fond of crooked turnings. "There can only be one right and one wrong, Tom," as she would say; and I hope, Captain, that I shall always tell the truth and shame the devil as long as I am a living man.'
'I should think there would be no doubt of that,' returned Michael heartily. And then a faint smile crossed the old man's face; but it faded in a moment, as footsteps sounded in the passage outside.
'That is Mat; he has kept his word in coming back so soon. I had better fetch him in, and then you'll get it over.'
'You need not leave the room, Mr. O'Brien; this is your business as well as ours.'
'I know it, sir. But, thank you kindly, I feel as if I had said my say, and that I may as well bide quiet with Prissy. Mat has had it all out with me; we were up half the night talking. I always hoped I was a Christian, Captain; but I doubt it when I think of the words I spoke about that woman. She married that poor lad to serve her own purposes and to spite her lover; and while he doted on her, she just looked down on him, and scouted his people because they were in trade. She pretty nearly ruined him with her fine lady-like ways, and with pestering him for money that he had not got; and then, when he made that slip of his, and was almost crazy with the sin and the shame, she just gives him up—will have nothing more to do with him. And that is the woman that the Almighty made so fair outside that our poor foolish lad went half wild for the love of her! No, sir; if you will excuse me, I will just send Mat along, and keep in the background a bit. It makes me grind my teeth with pain and anger to hear how she treated the poor fellow, almost driving him mad with her bitter tongue!'
'Then in that case I will certainly not keep you.' And as he spoke he noticed how the vigorous old man seemed to totter as he rose from his chair; but he only shook his head with the same gentle smile as Michael offered him his arm.
'Nay, Captain; that is not needed. I am only a bit shaken with all that's passed, and you must give me time to right myself. Now I will send Mat in; and when you have finished I'll see you again.'
Michael did not have to wait long. He had only crossed the room to look at a photograph of Susan O'Brien which always stood on a little round table in the corner, when he found the light suddenly intercepted, as Matthew O'Brien's tall figure blocked up the little window.
To his surprise, Mat commenced the conversation quite easily:
'You are looking at Susan, Captain Burnett? That was taken twelve or thirteen years ago. Isn't it a kind, true face?—that is better than a handsome one in the long-run. She does not look as though she would desert a man when his head is under water—eh, Captain?'
'No, indeed!' returned Michael, falling at once into the other man's humour. 'Mrs. O'Brien must have been a thoroughly good woman, for her husband never seems to have got over her loss; he is always talking about her.'
'That is so like Tom! He was never given to keep a silent tongue in his head: he must always speak out his thoughts, good or bad. That is rather different from me. Why, I have often spent days without opening my mouth, except to call to my dog. I think Tom finds it a relief to talk; the sound of his own tongue soothes him.'
'Very likely. Shall we sit down, Mr. O'Brien? the fireside is rather a pleasant place this bitter March day.'
'As you like,' returned Mat indifferently; 'for myself, I prefer to stand;' and as he spoke he propped his tall figure against the wooden mantelpiece, and, half shielding his face with one arm, looked down into the blaze.
In this attitude Michael could only see his side-face, and he was startled at the strong likeness to Cyril—the profile was nearly as finely cut; and it was only when he turned his full face that the resemblance ceased to be so striking. Cyril had the same dark eyes and low, broad forehead; but his beautifully-formed mouth and chin were very different from his father's, which expressed far too clearly a weak, irresolute character. But he was a handsome man, and, in spite of his shabby coat, there was something almost distinguished in his appearance. Anyone seeing the man for the first time would have guessed he had a story; very probably, looking at his broad chest and closely-cropped gray hair and black moustache, they would have taken him for a soldier, as Michael did.
Somehow, he found it a little difficult to begin the conversation; he hoped Matthew O'Brien would speak again; but he seemed disinclined to break the silence that had grown up between them.
'You are not much like your brother, Mr. O'Brien.'
'No, sir; Tom and I are not much alike, and more's the pity. Tom has been an honest man all his life.'
Michael was about to reply that that was not saying much in his favour; but he felt that under the circumstances this would be awkward, so he held his peace.
'There aren't many men to beat Tom,' continued Mat. 'Few folk would be so stanch to their own flesh and blood when only disgrace would come of it; but Tom is too fine-hearted to trample on a fellow when he is down and other folk are crying "Fie! for shame!" on him. Would you believe it, sir,' stretching out a sinewy thin hand as he spoke, 'that that brother of mine never said an unkind word to me in my life; and when I came back to him that night, feeling none too sure of my welcome, it was just a grip of the hand and "Come in, my lad," as though I were the young chap I used to be coming home to spend my holiday with him and Susan.'
'I think your brother one of the best men living, Mr. O'Brien.'
'And so he is, sir; and so he is; but you have not come all this way to talk about Tom;' and here he paused, and again the shielding hand went over his eyes, and Michael could see a twitching of the mouth under the moustache. 'It is about Olive that you want to see me.'
'You are right. Will you kindly give me the date and place of your marriage?'
Matthew O'Brien nodded and drew a folded paper from his breast-pocket.
'There it is. Tom told me I had better write it down in black and white to save us all trouble. I have put down the date and the name of the church where we were married. Strange to say, I can even recollect the name of the parson who did the job; he was a little black-haired man, and his name was Craven. It was a runaway match, you know. Olive was stopping with some friends in Dublin, and I met her early one morning and took her to St. Patrick's. You will find it all right in the register—Matthew Robert O'Brien and Olive Carrick. There were only two witnesses: an old pew-opener, and a friend of mine, Edgar Boyle. Boyle is dead now, poor chap! but you will find his name all right.'
'Can you tell me also, Mr. O'Brien, where I can find the entries of your children's baptism? It may be necessary for them to know this some day.'
'Well, sir, I believe I can satisfy you on that point, too. We were living at Stoke Newington when the children were born. You will find their names in the register at St. Philip's—Cyril Langton Carrick: that was a bit of her pride; she wanted the boy to have her family names. Kester and Mary Olivia—my little Mollie as we meant to call her—I have not seen her since she was a baby;' and here Michael was sure Mat dashed away a tear. 'It was a barbarous thing to rob me of my children, and I was so fond of the little chaps, too. I think I took most to Kester; he was such a cunning, clever little rogue, and his mother did not make half the fuss about him that she did about Cyril.'
'She has acknowledged that to me.'
'I don't doubt it, sir. Olive will acknowledge anything; she will have her flare-up one minute and frighten you to death with her tantrums, and the next she will be as placid and sweet-tongued as ever. She was never the same for two days running; it would be always some scheme or other, something for which she needed money. I used to tell her she never opened her lips to me except to ask me for money; and woe betide me if I told her I was hard up.'
'But she had money of her own?'
'Yes; but she muddled it away. She was always a bad manager. I never saw such a woman; and Biddy was just as bad. We might have had a comfortable home, and I might have kept out of trouble, if she had listened to me; but I might as well have spoken to that wall.'
'But surely it was your duty as her husband to restrain her? Her son manages her quite easily now.'
'Perhaps so,' a little sullenly; 'maybe she cares for her son, though she turned against her husband; her heart was always like flint stone to me. I was afraid of her, Captain Burnett, and she knew it; and that gave her a handle over me. A man ought not to fear his own wife—it is against nature; but, there, when she looked at me in her cold, contemptuous way, and dared me to dictate to her, I felt all my courage ooze out of me. I could have struck her when she looked at me like that; and I think she wanted me to, just to make out a case against me: but, fool that I was, I was too fond of her and the children to do it. I bore it all, and perilled my good name for her sake; and this is how she has treated me—spurned me away from her as though I were a dog!'
'She has not been a good wife to you; but, all the same, I do not understand why you took her at her word. Did you never in all these years make an effort to be reconciled with her for the sake of your children?'
'You do not know Olive when you put such a question. There will be no reconciliation possible in this world. I may compel her to own herself my wife, but I could not force her to say a kind word to me. She talked me over into setting her free, and made me promise not to hunt her out. She got over me. Olive is a rare talker; she told me it would be better for the little chaps not to bear their father's name—she would take them away and bring them up to be good, honest men, and she would take care no shame should ever touch them; and would you believe it, sir, I was so cowed and broken with the thought of all those years I was to spend in prison, that for the time I agreed with her. It was just as though I had made her a promise to commit suicide. I was to let her and the children go, and not to put in my claims when they set me free; and as she talked and I answered her, it seemed to me as though Mat O'Brien were already dead.'
'HOW CAN I BEAR IT?'
'Through that gloom he will see but a shadow appearing, Perceive but a voice as I come to his side; But deeper their voice grows, and nobler their bearing, Whose youth in the fires of anguish hath died.'
Michael was trying to frame a suitable reply to this speech, that was at once so tragic and hopeless, when Mat suddenly turned to him and said, in a strangely altered voice:
'I want you to tell me one thing, sir. Why does she call herself Blake?'
'I am afraid I cannot enlighten you on that point,' returned Michael, after a moment's consideration; 'probably it was the first name that occurred to her. You will allow that it is short and handy, and that it is by no means conspicuous.' But this answer did not seem to satisfy Matthew O'Brien. An uneasy, almost suspicious look came into his eyes.
'I suppose it does not mean,' he continued, hesitating over his words, 'that she—Olive—has put herself under another man's protection?'
'Good heavens, O'Brien!' exclaimed Michael, in a shocked voice. 'How can you wrong your wife so? With all her sins, I do not believe she is that sort of woman.'
'You mistake me, sir,' returned Mat doggedly. 'And, in a way, you mistake Olive too. She has not got the notions of other women. She would not think things wrong that would horrify other folk. When she gave me up, she said that she should consider herself free, and she might even make it straight with her conscience to marry another man, who would be a better protector to her and the children. I do not say Olive has done this. But if it be so, by the powers above, Captain Burnett, I will have the law of her there! So let her and the other fellow look out for themselves!'
'There is no need to excite yourself so, O'Brien. Your wife is too much a woman of the world to get herself into that sort of trouble. Her love for her eldest son is her master passion. And I do not suppose she has even given a thought to another man.'
'I am glad to hear it, Captain. But Olive has fooled me once, and I doubted but she might have done it again. Perhaps you may not have heard it, but she would never have married me if Darrell—Major Darrell, he was—had not jilted her. She told me once, to spite me, that she worshipped the ground the fellow trod on. And he was a cad—confound him!—one of those light-hearted gentry who dance with girls and make love to them, and then boast of their conquests. But he had a way with him, and she never cared for anyone again. She has told me so again and again in her tantrums.'
'My poor fellow,' returned Michael pityingly, 'you may at least be easy on one point. Mrs. Blake—or Mrs. O'Brien, as I suppose we must call her—has certainly led an exemplary life since she left you, devoting herself to her children, and especially to her eldest son.'
Mat made no answer. His brief excitement had faded, and he now resumed his old dejection of manner. He leant his head on his hand again and looked into the fire; but by and by he roused himself from his abstraction.
'Cyril has grown up a fine, handsome fellow, I hear. I suppose he has Olive's good looks?'
'He is very like her, certainly. He is a good-looking man, and exceedingly clever. Any father might feel proud of such a son.'
'And he is to marry the young lady I saw here the other day. I forget her name, but she is the daughter of the chief boss down here.'
Michael gave a faint shudder.
'Her name is Miss Ross.'
'Oh yes, I remember now. Tom says the marriage will be broken off; but we will talk of that presently. I want to hear something about the other little chap—Kester.'
'He has not got his brother's good health, I am sorry to say.' And here Michael gave a short sketch of Kester's boyish accident, and the results that followed. 'He can walk very fairly now,' he continued, 'and will soon lay aside his crutch; but I fear he will never make a strong man.'
'Dear, dear!' returned Mat in a sorrowful tone. 'And to think of the active little monkey he used to be! Why, I can see him now, mounted aloft on my shoulder and holding me round the neck till I was fairly choked, and the other lad clasping me round the knee, and hallooing out that he wanted to ride dada, too, though Olive never seemed to care to see me play with them—we made so much noise, she said. Dear, dear! and to think of the poor chap on crutches! And there is Mollie, too; she was only a baby when I saw her last—such a fat, rosy little thing!'
'Mollie is a fine-grown girl, and as nice a child as you would wish to see. We are all very fond of her.'
'Well, she has kept her word, and done her duty to them. And now look here, sir. You just bring me somewhere where I can see the youngsters, and hear them talk, and I will promise you to keep dark, and not let out to them that I am their father. I will just have a look at them, and then I will never trouble them again.'
'What on earth do you mean, O'Brien?'
'I mean that Olive is right, and that they are better without me,' returned Mat dejectedly. 'Do you suppose they would have any love in their hearts for a father who could only bring disgrace on them? No, sir; I am not going to stand in their light and spoil their lives for them. I have given them up to Olive, and she seems to have done her best for them. Let the youngster have his sweetheart, and I will just bide here quietly with Tom; or, if you think that Brail is too near, I will put the seas between us again; and you can tell Olive so, if you like.'
'I shall tell her nothing of the kind, O'Brien,' returned Michael, much touched at this generosity on the part of the poor prodigal. 'I will not deny that this is the very thing she suggested; she even begged me to propose this to you, but I refused. Do you suppose that either I or my cousin, Dr. Ross, would connive at such deceit and falsehood? It is quite true that Mrs. Blake and her children may refuse to have anything to do with you, but that is solely their affair. In a few hours, Mr. O'Brien, your eldest son will be made aware of his father's existence.'
'I am sorry to hear it, sir,' returned Mat, in a weak, hopeless voice. 'You will make a great mistake, and nothing good will come of it. She will teach the youngsters to loathe my very name, and as for the lad'—here he spoke with strong emotion—'he will be ready to curse me for spoiling his life. No, no, sir; let sleeping dogs lie. Better let me keep dark, and bring trouble to no one.'
But Michael shook his head. Such double-dealing and deceit could only deepen the mischief.
'Dr. Ross will never give his sanction to his daughter's marriage; he has assured me so most solemnly. Whatever trouble comes will be of your wife's causing.'
But Mat would not agree to this.
'She meant no harm, sir. Olive always had curious ideas of right and wrong, and she did her best for the youngsters. According to your account, she has brought them up well, and sent the lad to Oxford. Fancy a son of mine being such a swell, and engaged to that young lady, too! Lord! when I think of it, I am ready to wish I had never left the bush.'
'It is no use wishing that now, Mr. O'Brien.'
'No, sir; and it is no use talking over what can't be mended. If you have made up your mind to tell the lad, it is pretty plain that I can't hinder you; but I will not lift a finger to help you. I will just stop where I am.'
'I think perhaps that will be best under the circumstances.'
'But, all the same, it makes me uncommon restless to feel that Olive and the youngsters are only three miles off, and I can't get at them. Put yourself in my place, sir, and you would not find it very pleasant. And there's Tom, too—with all his fine-hearted Christianity—vowing vengeance on Olive, and threatening to turn her away from the door if she ever dares to show her face here.'
'I do not think that she will ever molest you or your brother.'
'I am quite of your opinion, Captain. Olive will give me a pretty wide berth, unless it is her interest to see me; and then all Tom's rough speeches wouldn't turn her from her purpose. For tenacity and getting her own way, I'd back her against any woman.'
'Well, as you say, there is nothing to be gained by talking.' returned Michael, rising from his chair; but at this moment Mr. O'Brien entered.
'I hope I am not interrupting you, Captain; but it is getting late, and I was thinking you would take a snack with us. The women are dishing up the dinner—just a baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. We are plain folk, but Prissy and I will be glad and proud if you will join us, sir;' and, after a moment's hesitation, Michael consented.
He had had no idea how late it was; they would already be sitting down to luncheon at Woodcote. It would be better for him to take some food before he set out on his cold drive home.
'If you will allow me to leave you directly afterwards,' he observed; and, as Mat left the room that moment, he took the opportunity to give Mr. O'Brien a brief resume of the conversation.
'He begged me to keep it all dark,' he finished; 'he is thinking more of his children than himself. But I told him that such a course would be impossible.'
'And you spoke the truth, sir; and no good would come of such crookedness. But Mat meant well; the lad has a good heart, and I do not doubt he has a sore conscience when he thinks of all the evil he has wrought. Leave him with me, sir; I can manage him best. There, I hear Prissy calling to us, and we will just take our places.'
Michael felt faint and weary, and the homely viands seemed very palatable to him; but he noticed how Matthew O'Brien's want of appetite seemed to distress his brother.
'You are eating nought, lad,' he kept saying at intervals, and once he bade Prissy fetch the remains of a meat pie that Mat had enjoyed the previous days; 'maybe he will find it more toothsome,' he said in his hearty way; but Mat would have nothing to say to it.
'You let me be, Tom,' he said at last; 'a man has not always got stomach for his food. The Captain has taken away my appetite with his talk, and the sight of the meat makes me sick;' and then he got up from the table, and they saw him pacing up and down the garden with his pipe.
Michael got away as soon as possible, and Mr. O'Brien walked with him to the inn. When the dogcart was brought out, he shook his hand very heartily.
'Let me know how things go on, Captain, and God bless you!' and then, as though by an afterthought: 'If the girl gives you trouble, send her to me, and I will just talk the sense into her.' And then he stood in the road and watched until the dogcart and driver were out of sight.
Afternoon work had begun as Michael entered Woodcote, but he found Dr. Ross alone in the study.
'I have only a few minutes to give you, Michael,' he said, looking up from the letter he was writing; 'I expected you back at least two hours ago.' Then Michael gave him a concise account of his interview with the brothers.
'Thomas O'Brien is a grand old fellow,' he said enthusiastically; 'you should have heard him talk, Dr. Ross; and as for poor Mat, he has the makings of a good fellow about him, too, only the devil somehow spoilt the batch. Would you believe it?—the poor beggar wanted to efface himself—to clear out altogether for the sake of the youngsters, as he called them. He was not very polished in his language, but what can you expect? Still, he meant well.'
'I daresay he did,' returned the Doctor with a sigh; 'you had better keep that paper to show Cyril. I must send you away now, as Carter and the other boys are coming to me. I will see you later on.'
And then Michael took himself off. He could hear Audrey's voice as he passed the door of her sitting-room; Mollie was with her. A few minutes later, as he stood at his window wondering what he should do with himself, he saw her walk down the terrace towards the gate with Mollie hanging on her arm; they seemed laughing and talking. 'How long will she wear that bright face?' he said to himself as he threw himself into his easy-chair and took up the paper.