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- Castle Richmond - 5/114 -
Fitzgerald; but I do not feel the same interest about them that I do about you. And they are such humdrum, quiet-going people. As for Herbert, I'm afraid he'll turn out a prig."
"Well, Mr. Fitzgerald, if you give me the right I shall use it." And getting up from her chair, and coming to him where he stood, she looked kindly into his face. It was a bonny, handsome face for a woman to gaze on, and there was much kindness in hers as she smiled on him. Nay, there was almost more than kindness, he thought, as he caught her eye. It was like,--almost like the sweetness of motherly love. "And I shall scold you," she continued. "People say that for two or three nights running men have been playing cards at Hap House till morning."
"Yes, I had some men there for a week. I could not take their candles away, and put them to bed; could I, Lady Desmond?"
"And there were late suppers, and drinking of toasts, and headaches in the morning, and breakfast at three o'clock, and gentlemen with very pale faces when they appeared rather late at the meet--eh, Mr. Fitzgerald?" And she held up one finger at him, as she upbraided him with a smile. The smile was so sweet, so unlike her usual look; that, to tell the truth, was often too sad and careworn for her age.
"Such things do happen, Lady Desmond."
"Ah, yes; they do happen. And with such a one as you, heaven knows I do not begrudge the pleasure, if it were but now and then,--once again and then done with. But you are too bright and too good for such things to continue." And she took his hand and pressed it, as a mother or a mother's dearest friend might have done. "It would so grieve me to think that you should be even in danger of shipwreck.
"You will not be angry with me for taking this liberty?" she continued.
"Angry! how could any man be angry for such kindness?"
"And you will think of what I say. I would not have you unsociable, or morose, or inhospitable; but--"
"I understand, Lady Desmond; but when young men are together, one cannot always control them."
"But you will try. Say that you will try because I have asked you."
He promised that he would, and then went his way, proud in his heart at this solicitude. And how could he not be proud? was she not high in rank, proud in character, beautiful withal, and the mother of Clara Desmond? What sweeter friend could a man have; what counsellor more potent to avert those dangers which now hovered round his head?
And as he rode home he was half in love with the countess. Where is the young man who has not in his early years been half in love with some woman older, much older than himself, who has half conquered his heart by her solicitude for his welfare?--with some woman who has whispered to him while others were talking, who has told him in such gentle, loving tones of his boyish follies, whose tenderness and experience together have educated him and made him manly? Young men are so proud, proud in their inmost hearts, of such tenderness and solicitude, as long as it remains secret and wrapt, as it were, in a certain mystery. Such liaisons have the interests of intrigue, without--I was going to say without its dangers. Alas! it may be that it is not always so.
Owen Fitzgerald as he rode home was half in love with the countess. Not that his love was of a kind which made him in any way desirous of marrying her, or of kneeling at her feet and devoting himself to her for ever; not that it in any way interfered with the other love which he was beginning to feel for her daughter. But he thought with pleasure of the tone of her voice, of the pressure of her hand, of the tenderness which he had found in her eye.
It was after that time, as will be understood, that some goodnatured friend had told him that he was regarded in the county as the future husband of Lady Desmond. At first he laughed at this as being--as he himself said to himself--too good a joke. When the report first reached him, it seemed to be a joke which he could share so pleasantly with the countess. For men of three and twenty, though they are so fond of the society of women older than themselves, understand so little the hearts and feelings of such women. In his ideas there was an interval as of another generation between him and the countess. In her thoughts the interval was probably much less striking.
But the accusation was made to him again and again till it wounded him, and he gave up that notion of a mutual joke with his kind friend at Desmond Court. It did not occur to him that she could ever think of loving him as her lord and master; but it was brought home to him that other people thought so.
A year had now passed by since those winter holidays in which Clara Desmond had been sixteen, and during which she was described by epithets which will not, I fear, have pleased my readers. Those epithets were now somewhat less deserved, but still the necessity of them had not entirely passed away. Her limbs were still thin and long, and her shoulders pointed; but the growth of beauty had commenced, and in Owen's eyes she was already very lovely.
At Christmas-time during that winter a ball was given at Castle Richmond, to celebrate the coming of age of the young heir. It was not a very gay affair, for the Castle Richmond folk, even in those days, were not very gay people. Sir Thomas, though only fifty, was an old man for his age; and Lady Fitzgerald, though known intimately by the poor all round her, was not known intimately by any but the poor. Mary and Emmeline Fitzgerald, with whom we shall become better acquainted as we advance in our story, were nice, good girls, and handsome withal; but they had not that special gift which enables some girls to make a party in their own house bright in spite of all obstacles.
We should have but little to do with this ball, were it not that Clara Desmond was here first brought out, as the term goes. It was the first large party to which she had been taken, and it was to her a matter of much wonder and inquiry with those wondering, speaking eyes.
And Owen Fitzgerald was there;--as a matter of course, the reader will say. By no means so. Previous to that ball Owen's sins had been commented upon at Castle Richmond, and Sir Thomas had expostulated with him. These expostulations had not been received quite so graciously as those of the handsome countess, and there had been anger at Castle Richmond.
Now there was living in the house of Castle Richmond one Miss Letty Fitzgerald, a maiden sister of the baronet's, older than her brother by full ten years. In her character there was more of energy, and also much more of harsh judgment, and of consequent ill-nature, than in that of her brother. When the letters of invitation were being sent out by the two girls, she had given a decided opinion that the reprobate should not be asked. But the reprobate's cousins, with that partiality for a rake which is so common to young ladies, would not abide by their aunt's command, and referred the matter both to mamma and papa. Mamma thought it very hard that their own cousin should be refused admittance to their house, and very dreadful that his sins should be considered to be of so deep a dye as to require so severe a sentence; and then papa, much balancing the matter, gave final orders that the prodigal cousin should be admitted.
He was admitted, and dangerously he used the privilege. The countess, who was there, stood up to dance twice, and twice only. She opened the ball with young Herbert Fitzgerald the heir; and in about an hour afterwards she danced again with Owen. He did not ask her twice; but he asked her daughter three or four times, and three or four times he asked her successfully.
"Clara," whispered the mother to her child, after the last of these occasions, giving some little pull or twist to her girl's frock as she did so, "you had better not dance with Owen Fitzgerald again to-night. People will remark about it."
"Will they?" said Clara, and immediately sat down, checked in her young happiness.
Not many minutes afterwards, Owen came up to her again. "May we have another waltz together, I wonder?" he said.
"Not to-night, I think. I am rather tired already." And so she did not waltz again all the evening, for fear she should offend him.
But the countess, though she had thus interdicted her daughter's dancing with the master of Hap House, had not done so through absolute fear. To her, her girl was still a child; a child without a woman's thoughts, or any of a woman's charms. And then it was so natural that Clara should like to dance with almost the only gentleman who was not absolutely a stranger to her. Lady Desmond had been actuated rather by a feeling that it would be well that Clara should begin to know other persons.
By that feeling,--and perhaps unconsciously by another, that it would be well that Owen Fitzgerald should be relieved from his attendance on the child, and enabled to give it to the mother. Whether Lady Desmond had at that time realized any ideas as to her own interest in this young man, it was at any rate true that she loved to have him near her. She had refused to dance a second time with Herbert Fitzgerald; she had refused to stand up with any other person who had asked her; but with Owen she would either have danced again, or have kept him by her side, while she explained to him with flattering frankness that she could not do so lest others should be offended.
And Owen was with her frequently through the evening. She was taken to and from supper by Sir Thomas, but any other takings that were incurred were done by him. He led her from one drawing-room to another; he took her empty coffee-cup; he stood behind her chair, and talked to her; and he brought her the scarf which she had left elsewhere; and finally, he put a shawl round her neck while old Sir Thomas was waiting to hand her to her carriage. Reader, good-natured, middle-aged reader, remember that she was only thirty-eight, and that hitherto she had known nothing of the delights of love. By the young, any such hallucination on her part, at her years, will be regarded as lunacy, or at least frenzy.
Owen Fitzgerald drove home from that ball in a state of mind that was hardly satisfactory. In the first place, Miss Letty had made a direct attack upon his morals, which he had not answered in the most courteous manner.
"I have heard a great deal of your doings. Master Owen," she said to him. "A fine house you're keeping."
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