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- Castle Richmond - 6/114 -
"Why don't you come and join us, Aunt Letty?" he replied. "It would be just the thing for you."
"God forbid!" said the old maid, turning up her eyes to heaven.
"Oh, you might do worse, you know. With us you'd only drink and play cards, and perhaps hear a little strong language now and again. But what's that to slander, and calumny, and bearing false witness against one's neighbour?" and so saying he ended that interview--not in a manner to ingratiate himself with his relative, Miss Letty Fitzgerald.
After that, in the supper-room, more than one wag of a fellow had congratulated him on his success with the widow. "She's got some some sort of a jointure, I suppose," said one. "She's very young-looking, certainly, to be the mother of that girl," declared another. "Upon my word, she's a handsome woman still," said a third. "And what title will you get when you marry her, Fitz?" asked a fourth, who was rather ignorant as to the phases under which the British peerage develops itself.
Fitzgerald pshawed, and pished, and poohed; and then, breaking away from them, rode home. He felt that he must at any rate put an end to this annoyance about the countess, and that he must put an end also to his state of doubt about the countess's daughter. Clara had been kind and gracious to him in the first part of the evening; nay, almost more than gracious. Why had she been so cold when he went up to her on that last occasion? why had she gathered herself like a snail into its shell for the rest of the evening?
The young earl had also been at the party, and had exacted a promise from Owen that he would be over at Desmond Court on the next day. It had almost been on Owen's lips to tell his friend, not only that he would be there, but what would be his intention when he got there. He knew that the lad loved him well; and almost fancied that, earl as he was, he would favour his friend's suit. But a feeling that Lord Desmond was only a boy, restrained him. It would not be well to induce one so young to agree to an arrangement of which in after and more mature years he would so probably disapprove.
But not the less did Fitzgerald, as he drove home, determine that on the next day he would know something of his fate: and with this resolve he endeavoured to comfort himself as he drove up into his own avenue, and betook himself to his own solitary home.
It had been Clara Desmond's first ball, and on the following morning she had much to occupy her thoughts. In the first place, had she been pleased or had she not? Had she been most gratified or most pained?
Girls when they ask themselves such questions seldom give themselves fair answers. She had liked dancing with Owen Fitzgerald; oh, so much! She had liked dancing with others too, though she had not known them, and had hardly spoken to them. The mere act of dancing, with the loud music in the room, and the gay dresses and bright lights around her, had been delightful. But then it had pained her--she knew not why, but it had pained her--when her mother told her that people would make remarks about her. Had she done anything improper on this her first entry into the world? Was her conduct to be scanned, and judged, and condemned, while she was flattering herself that no one had noticed her but him who was speaking to her?
Their breakfast was late, and the countess sat, as was her wont, with her book beside her teacup, speaking a word every now and again to her son.
"Owen will be over here to-day," said he. "We are going to have a schooling match down on the Callows." Now in Ireland a schooling match means the amusement of teaching your horses to jump.
"Will he?" said Lady Desmond, looking up from her book for a moment. "Mind you bring him in to lunch; I want to speak to him."
"He doesn't care much about lunch, I fancy," said he; "and, maybe, we shall be halfway to Millstreet by that time."
"Never mind, but do as I tell you. You expect everybody to be as wild and wayward as yourself." And the countess smiled on her son in a manner which showed that she was proud even of his wildness and his waywardness.
Clara had felt that she blushed when she heard that Mr. Fitzgerald was to be there that morning. She felt that her own manner became constrained, and was afraid that her mother should look at her. Owen had said nothing to her about love; and she, child as she was, had thought nothing about love. But she was conscious of something, she knew not what. He had touched her hand during those dances as it had never been touched before; he had looked into her eyes, and her eyes had fallen before his glance; he had pressed her waist, and she had felt that there was tenderness in the pressure. So she blushed, and almost trembled, when she heard that he was coming, and was glad in her heart when she found that there was neither anger nor sunshine in her mother's face.
Not long after breakfast, the earl went out on his horse, and met Owen at some gate or back entrance. In his opinion the old house was stupid, and the women in it were stupid companions in the morning. His heart for the moment was engaged on the thought of making his animal take the most impracticable leaps which he could find, and it did not occur to him at first to give his mother's message to his companion. As for lunch, they would get a biscuit and glass of cherry-brandy at Wat M'Carthy's, of Drumban; and as for his mother having anything to say, that of course went for nothing.
Owen would have been glad to have gone up to the house, but in that he was frustrated by the earl's sharpness in catching him. His next hope was to get through the promised lesson in horse-leaping as quickly as possible, so that he might return to Desmond Court, and take his chance of meeting Clara. But in this he found the earl very difficult to manage.
"Oh, Owen, we won't go there," he said, when Fitzgerald proposed a canter through some meadows down by the river-side. "There are only a few gripes"--Irish for small ditches--"and I have ridden Fireball over them a score of times. I want you to come away towards Drumban."
"Drumban! why, Drumban's seven miles from here."
"What matter? Besides, it's not six the way I'll take you. I want to see Wat M'Carthy especially. He has a litter of puppies there out of that black bitch of his, and I mean to make him give me one of them."
But on that morning, Owen Fitzgerald would not allow himself to be taken so far a-field as Drumban, even on a mission so important as this. The young lord fought the matter stoutly; but it ended by his being forced to content himself with picking out all the most dangerous parts of the fences in the river meadows.
"Why, you've hardly tried your own mare at all," said the lad, reproachfully.
"I'm going to hunt her on Saturday," said Owen; "and she'll have quite enough to do then."
"Well, you're very slow to-day. You're done up with the dancing, I think. And what do you mean to do now?"
"I'll go home with you, I think, and pay my respects to the countess."
"By-the-by, I was to bring you in to lunch. She said she wanted to see you. By jingo, I forgot all about it! But you've all become very stupid among you, I know that." And so they rode back to Desmond Court, entering the demesne by one of the straight, dull, level roads which led up to the house.
But it did not suit the earl to ride on the road while the grass was so near him; so they turned off with a curve across what was called the park, thus prolonging their return by about double the necessary distance.
As they were cantering on, Owen saw her of whom he was in quest walking in the road which they had left. His best chance of seeing her alone had been that of finding her outside the house. He knew that the countess rarely or never walked with her daughter, and that, as the governess was gone, Clara was driven to walk by herself.
"Desmond," he said, pulling up his horse, "do you go on and tell your mother that I will be with her almost immediately."
"Why, where are you off to now?"
"There is your sister, and I must ask her how she is after the ball;" and so saying he trotted back in the direction of the road.
Lady Clara had seen them; and though she had hardly turned her head, she had seen also how suddenly Mr. Fitzgerald had stopped his horse, and turned his course when he perceived her. At the first moment she had been almost angry with him for riding away from her, and now she felt almost angry with him because he did not do so.
He slackened his pace as he came near her, and approached her at a walk. There was very little of the faint heart about Owen Fitzgerald at any time, or in anything that he attempted. He had now made up his mind fairly to tell Clara Desmond that he loved her, and to ask for her love in return. He had resolved to do so, and there was very little doubt but that he would carry out his resolution. But he had in nowise made up his mind how he should do it, or what his words should be. And now that he saw her so near him he wanted a moment to collect his thoughts.
He took off his hat as he rode up, and asked her whether she was tired after the ball; and then dismounting, he left his mare to
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