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- Castle Richmond - 4/114 -

colour. The plump, rosy girl of fourteen, though she also is very sweet, never rises to such celestial power of feminine grace as she who is angular and bony, whose limbs are long, and whose joints are sharp.

Such was Clara Desmond at sixteen. But still, even then, to those who were gifted with the power of seeing, she gave promise of great loveliness. Her eyes were long and large, and wonderfully clear. There was a liquid depth in them which enabled the gazer to look down into them as he would into the green, pellucid transparency of still ocean water. And then they said so much--those young eyes of hers: from her mouth in those early years words came but scantily, but from her eyes questions rained quicker than any other eyes could answer them. Questions of wonder at what the world contained,--of wonder as to what men thought and did; questions as to the inmost heart, and truth, and purpose of the person questioned. And all this was asked by a glance now and again; by a glance of those long, shy, liquid eyes, which were ever falling on the face of him she questioned, and then ever as quickly falling from it.

Her face, as I have said, was long and thin, but it was the longness and thinness of growing youth. The natural lines of it were full of beauty, of pale silent beauty, too proud in itself to boast itself much before the world, to make itself common among many. Her hair was already long and rich, but was light in colour, much lighter than it grew to be when some four or five more years had passed over her head. At the time of which I speak she wore it in simple braids brushed back from her forehead, not having as yet learned that majestic mode of sweeping it from her face which has in subsequent years so generally prevailed.

And what then of her virtues and her faults--of her merits and defects? Will it not be better to leave them all to time and the coming pages? That she was proud of her birth, proud of being an Irish Desmond, proud even of her poverty, so much I may say of her, even at that early age. In that she was careless of the world's esteem, fond to a fault of romance, poetic in her temperament, and tender in her heart, she shared the ordinary--shall I say foibles or virtues?--of so many of her sex. She was passionately fond of her brother, but not nearly equally so of her mother, of whom the brother was too evidently the favoured child.

She had lived much alone; alone, that is, with her governess and with servants at Desmond Court. Not that she had been neglected by her mother, but she had hardly found herself to be her mother's companion; and other companions there she had had none. When she was sixteen her governess was still with her; but a year later than that she was left quite alone, except inasmuch as she was with her mother.

She was sixteen when she first began to ask questions of Owen Fitzgerald's face with those large eyes of hers; and she saw much of him and he of her, for the twelve months immediately after that. Much of him, that is, as much goes in this country of ours, where four or five interviews in as many months between friends is supposed to signify that they are often together. But this much-seeing occurred chiefly during the young earl's holidays. Now and again he did ride over in the long intervals, and when he did do so was not frowned upon by the countess; and so, at the end of the winter holidays subsequent to that former winter in which the earl had had his tumble, people through the county began to say that he and the countess were about to become man and wife.

It was just then that people in the county were also beginning to talk of the Hay House orgies; and the double scandal reached Owen's ears, one shortly after the other. That orgies scandal did not hurt him much. It is, alas! too true that consciousness of such a reputation does not often hurt a young man's feelings. But the other rumour did wound him. What! he sell himself to a widowed countess almost old enough to be his mother; or bestow himself rather--for what was there in return that could be reckoned as a price? At any rate, he had given no one cause to utter such falsehood, such calumny as that. No; it certainly was not probable that he should marry the countess.

But this set him to ask himself whether it might or might not be possible that he should marry some one else. Might it not be well for him if he could find a younger bride at Desmond Court? Not for nothing had he ridden over there through those bleak mountains; not for nothing, nor yet solely with the view of tying flies for the young earl's summer fishing, or preparing the new nag for his winter's hunting. Those large bright eyes had asked him many questions. Would it not be well that he should answer them?

For many months of that year Clara Desmond had hardly spoken to him. Then, in the summer evening, as he and her brother would lie sprawling together on the banks of the little Desmond river, while the lad was talking of his fish, and his school, and his cricket club, she would stand by and listen, and so gradually she learned to speak.

And the mother also would sometimes be there; or else she would welcome Fitzgerald in to tea, and let him stay there talking as though they were all at home, till he would have to make a midnight ride of it before he reached Hap House. It seemed that no fear as to he daughter had ever crossed the mother's mind; that no idea had ever come upon her that her favoured visitor might learn to love the young girl with whom he was allowed to associate on so intimate a footing. Once or twice he had caught himself calling her Clara, and had done so even before her mother; but no notice had been taken of it. In truth, Lady Desmond did not know her daughter, for the mother took her absolutely to be a child, when in fact she was a child no longer.

"You take Clara round by the bridge," said the earl to his friend one August evening, as they were standing together on the banks of the river, about a quarter of a mile distant from the sombre old pile in which the family lived. "You take Clara round by the bridge, and I will get over the stepping-stones." And so the lad, with his rod in his hand, began to descend the steep bank.

"I can get over the stepping-stones, too, Patrick," said she.

"Can you though, my gay young woman? You'll be over your ankles if you do. That rain didn't come down yesterday for nothing."

Clara as she spoke had come up to the bank, and now looked wistfully down at the stepping-stones. She had crossed them scores of times, sometimes with her brother, and often by herself. Why was it that she was so anxious to cross them now?

"It's no use your trying," said her brother who was now half across, and who spoke from the middle of the river. "Don't you let her, Owen. She'll slip in, and then there will be no end of a row up at the house."

"You had better come round by the bridge," said Fitzgerald. "It is not only that the stones are nearly under water, but they are wet, and you would slip."

So cautioned, Lady Clara allowed herself to be persuaded, and turned upwards along the river by a little path that led to a foot bridge. It was some quarter of a mile thither, and it would be the same distance down the river again before she regained her brother.

"I needn't bring you with me, you know," she said to Fitzgerald. "You can get over the stones easily, and I can go very well by myself."

But it was not probable that he would let her do so. "Why should I not go with you?" he said. "When I get there I have nothing to do but see him fish. Only if we were to leave him by himself he would not be happy."

"Oh, Mr. Fitzgerald, how very kind you are are! I do so often think of it. How dull his holidays would be in this place if it were not for you!"

"And what a godsend his holidays are to me!" said Owen. "When they come round I can ride over here and see him, and you--and your mother. Do you think that I am not dull also, living alone at Hap House, and that this is not an infinite blessing to me?"

He had named them all--son, daughter, and mother; but there had been a something in his voice, an almost inappreciable something in his tone, which had seemed to mark to Clara's hearing that she herself was not the least prized of the three attractions. She had felt this rather than realized it, and the feeling was not unpleasant.

"I only know that you are very goodnatured," she continued, "and that Patrick is very fond of you. Sometimes I think he almost takes you for a brother." And then a sudden thought flashed across her mind, and she said hardly a word more to him that evening.

This had been at the close of the summer holidays. After that he had been once or twice at Desmond Court, before the return of the boy from Eton; but on these occasions he had been more with the countess than with her daughter On the last of these visits, just before the holidays commenced, he had gone over respective a hunter he had bought for Lord Desmond, and on this occasion he did not even see Clara.

The countess, when she had thanked him for his trouble in the matter of the purchase, hesitated a moment, and then went on to speak of other matters.

"I understand, Mr. Fitzgerald," said she. "that you have been very gay at Hap House since the hunting commenced."

"Oh, I don't know," said Owen, half laughing and half blushing. "It's a convenient place for some of the men, and one must be sociable."

"Sociable! yes, one ought to be sociable certainly. But I am always afraid of the sociability of young men without ladies. Do not be angry with me if I venture as a friend to ask you not to be too sociable."

"I know what you mean, Lady Desmond. People have been accusing us of--of being rakes. Isn't that it?"

"Yes, Mr. Fitzgerald, that is it. But then I know that I have no right to speak to you on such a--such a subject."

"Yes, yes; you have every right," said he, warmly; "more right than any one else."

"Oh no; Sir Thomas, you know----"

"Well, yes, Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas is very ill, and so also is Lady

Castle Richmond - 4/114

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