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to give this other pledge to her mother?
"You do not mean to say that you hesitate?" said Lady Desmond, looking as though she were thunderstruck at the existence of such hesitation. "You do not wish me to suppose that you intend to persevere in such insanity? Clara, I must have from you a distinct promise,--or--"
What might be the dreadful alternative the countess did not at that minute say. She perhaps thought that her countenance might be more effective than her speech, and in thinking so she was probably right.
It must be remembered that Clara Desmond was as yet only seventeen, and that she was young even for that age. It must be remembered also, that she knew nothing of the world's ways, of her own privileges as a creature with a soul and heart of her own, or of what might be the true extent of her mother's rights over her. She had not in her enough of matured thought to teach her to say that she would make no promise that should bind her for ever; but that for the present, in her present state, she would obey her mother's orders. And thus the promise was exacted and given.
"If I find you deceiving me, Clara," said the countess, "I will never forgive you."
Hitherto, Lady Desmond may probably have played her part well;--well, considering her object. But she played it very badly in showing that she thought it possible that her daughter should play her false. It was now Clara's turn to be proud and indignant.
"Mamma!" she said, holding her head high, and looking at her mother boldly through her tears, "I have never deceived you yet."
"Very well, my dear. I will take steps to prevent his intruding on you any further. There may be an end of the matter now. I have no doubt that he has endeavoured to use his influence with Patrick; but I will tell your brother not to speak of the matter further." And so saying, she dismissed her daughter.
Shortly afterwards the earl came in, and there was a conference between him and his mother. Though they were both agreed on the subject, though both were decided that it would not do for Clara to throw herself away on a county Cork squire with eight hundred a-year, a cadet in his family, and a man likely to rise to nothing, still the earl would not hear him abused.
"But, Patrick, he must not come here any more," said the countess.
"Well, I suppose not. But it will be very dull, I know that. I wish Clara hadn't made herself such an ass;" and then the boy went away, and talked kindly over the matter to his poor sister.
But the countess had another task still before her. She must make known the family resolution to Owen Fitzgerald. When her children had left her, one after the other, she sat at the window for an hour, looking at nothing, but turning over her own thoughts in her mind. Hitherto she had expressed herself as being very angry with her daughter's lover; so angry that she had said that he was faithless, a traitor, and no gentleman. She had called him a dissipated spendthrift, and had threatened his future wife, if ever he should have one, with every kind of misery that could fall to a woman's lot; but now she began to think of him perhaps more kindly.
She had been very angry with him;--and the more so because she had such cause to be angry with herself;--with her own lack of judgment, her own ignorance of the man's character, her own folly with reference to her daughter. She had never asked herself whether she loved Fitzgerald--had never done so till now. But now she knew that the sharpest blow she had received that day was the assurance that he was indifferent to herself.
She had never thought herself too old to be on an equality with him,--on such an equality in point of age as men and women feel when they learn to love each other; and therefore it had not occurred to her that he could regard her daughter as other than a child. To Lady Desmond, Clara was a child; how then could she be more to him? And yet now it was too plain that he had looked on Clara as a woman. In what light then must he have thought of that woman's mother? And so, with saddened heart, but subdued anger, she continued to gaze through the window till all without was dusk and dark.
There can be to a woman no remembrance of age so strong as that of seeing a daughter go forth to the world a married woman. If that does not tell the mother that the time of her own youth has passed away, nothing will ever bring the tale home. It had not quite come to this with Lady Desmond;--Clara was not going forth to the world as a married woman. But here was one now who had judged her as fit to be so taken; and this one was the very man of all others in whose estimation Lady Desmond would have wished to drop a few of the years that encumbered her.
She was not, however, a weak woman, and so she performed her task. She had candles brought to her, and sitting down, she wrote a note to Owen Fitzgerald, saying that she herself would call at Hap House at an hour named on the following day.
She had written three or four letters before she had made up her mind exactly as to the one she would send. At first she had desired him to come to her there at Desmond Court; but then she thought of the danger there might be of Clara seeing him;--of the danger, also, of her own feelings towards him when he should be there with her, in her own house, in the accustomed way. And she tried to say by letter all that it behoved her to say, so that there need be no meeting. But in this she failed. One letter was stern and arrogant, and the next was soft-hearted, so that it might teach him to think that his love for Clara might yet be successful. At last she resolved to go herself to Hap House; and accordingly she wrote her letter and despatched it.
Fitzgerald was of course aware of the subject of the threatened visit. When he determined to make his proposal to Clara, the matter did not seem to him to be one in which all chances of success were desperate. If, he thought, he could induce the girl to love him, other smaller difficulties might be made to vanish from his path. He had now induced the girl to own that she did love him; but not the less did he begin to see that the difficulties were far from vanishing. Lady Desmond would never have taken upon herself to make a journey to Hap House, had not a sentence of absolute banishment from Desmond Court been passed against him.
"Mr. Fitzgerald," she began, as soon as she found herself alone with him, "you will understand what has induced me to seek you here. After your imprudence with Lady Clara Desmond, I could not of course ask you to come to Desmond Court."
"I may have been presumptuous, Lady Desmond, but I do not think that I have been imprudent. I love your daughter dearly and I told her so. Immediately afterwards I told the same to her brother; and she, no doubt, has told the same to you."
"Yes, she has, Mr. Fitzgerald. Clara, as you are well aware, is a child, absolutely a child; much more so than is usual with girls of her age. The knowledge of this should, I think, have protected her from your advances."
"But I absolutely deny any such knowledge. And more than that, I think that you are greatly mistaken as to her character."
"Mistaken, sir, as to my own daughter?"
"Yes, Lady Desmond; I think you are. I think--"
"On such a matter, Mr. Fitzgerald, I need not trouble you for an expression of your thoughts. Nor need we argue that subject any further. You must of course be aware that all ideas of any such marriage as this must be laid aside."
"On what grounds, Lady Desmond?"
Now this appeared to the countess to be rather impudent on the part of the young squire. The reasons why he, Owen Fitzgerald of Hap House, should not marry a daughter of an Earl of Desmond, seemed to her to be so conspicuous and conclusive, that it could hardly be necessary to enumerate them. And such as they were, it might not be pleasant to announce them in his hearing. But though Owen Fitzgerald was so evidently an unfit suitor for an earl's daughter, it might still be possible that he should be acceptable to an earl's widow. Ah! if it might be possible to teach him the two lessons at the same time!
"On what grounds, Mr. Fitzgerald!" she said, repeating his question; "surely I need hardly tell you. Did not my son say the same thing to you yesterday, as he walked with you down the avenue?"
"Yes; he told me candidly that he looked higher for his sister; and I liked him for his candour, But that is no reason that I should agree with him; or, which is much more important, that his sister should do so. If she thinks that she can be happy in such a home as I can give her, I do not know why he or why you should object."
"You think, then, that I might give her to a blacksmith, if she herself were mad enough to wish it?"
"I thank you for the compliment, Lady Desmond."
"You have driven me to it, sir."
"I believe it is considered in the world," said he,--"that is, in our country, that the one great difference is between gentlemen and ladies, and those who are not gentlemen or ladies. A lady does not degrade herself if she marry a gentleman, even though that gentleman's rank be less high than her own."
"It is not a question of degradation, but of prudence;--of the ordinary caution which I, as a mother, am bound to use as regards my daughter. Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald!" and she now altered her tone as she spoke to him; "we have all been so pleased to know you, so happy to have you there; why have you destroyed all this by one half-hour's folly?"
"The folly, as you call it, Lady Desmond, has been premeditated for the last twelve months."
"For twelve months!" said she, taken absolutely by surprise, and in her surprise believing him.
"Yes, for twelve months. Ever since I began to know your daughter, I have loved her. You say that your daughter is a child. I also thought so this time last year, in our last winter holidays. I
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