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- Castle Richmond - 60/114 -

"Yes; that was the man."

Herbert had said that no evidence could be sufficient to make him believe that his mother had been in any way culpable: and such probably was the case. He had that reliance on his mother--that assurance in his mind that everything coming from her must be good--that he could not believe her capable of ill. But, nevertheless, he could not prevent himself from asking within his own breast, how it had been possible that his mother should ever have been concerned with such a wretch as that. It was a question which could not fail to make itself audible. What being on earth was sweeter than his mother, more excellent, more noble, more fitted for the world's high places, more absolutely entitled to that universal respect which seemed to be given to her as her own by right? And what being could be more loathsome, more contemptible than he, who was, as he was now told, his mother's husband? There was in it a want of verisimilitude which almost gave him comfort, one--which almost taught him to think that he might disbelieve the story that was told to him. Poor fellow! he had yet to learn the difference that years may make in men and women--for better as well as for worse. Circumstances had given to the poor half-educated village girl the simple dignity of high station; as circumstances had also brought to the lowest dregs of human existence the man, whose personal bearing and apparent worldly standing had been held sufficient to give warrant that he was of gentle breeding and of honest standing; nay, her good fortune in such a marriage had once been almost begrudged her by all her maiden neighbours.

But Herbert, as he thought of this, was almost discouraged to disbelieve the story. To him, with his knowledge of what his mother was, and with knowledge as he also had of that man, it did not seem possible. "But how is all this known?" he muttered forth at last.

"I fear there is no doubt of its truth," said Mr. Prendergast. "Your father has no doubt whatever; has had none--I must tell you this plainly--for some months."

"For some months! And why have I not been told?"

"Do not be hard upon your father."

"Hard! no; of course I would not be hard upon him."

"The burden he has had to bear has been very terrible. He has thought that by payments of money to this man the whole thing might be concealed. As is always the case when such payments are made, the insatiable love of money grew by what it fed on. He would have poured out every shilling into that man's hands, and would have died, himself a beggar--have died speedily too under such torments--and yet no good would have been done. The harpy would have come upon you; and you--after you had innocently assumed a title that was not your own and taken a property to which you have no right, you then would have had to own--that which your father must own now."

"If it be so," said Herbert, slowly, "it must be acknowledged."

"Just so, Mr. Fitzgerald; just so. I know you will feel that--in such matters we can only sail safely by the truth. There is no other compass worth a man's while to look at."

"Of course not," said Herbert, with hoarse voice. "One does not wish to be a robber and a thief. My cousin shall have what is his own." And then he involuntarily thought of the interview they had had on that very day. "But why did he not tell me when I spoke to him of her?" he said, with something approaching to bitterness in his voice and a slight struggle in his throat that was almost premonitory of a sob.

"Ah! it is there that I fear for you. I know what your feelings are; but think of his sorrows, and do not be hard on him."

"Ah me, ah me!" exclaimed Herbert

"I fear that he will not be with you long. He has already endured till he is now almost past the power of suffering more. And yet there is so much more that he must suffer!"

"My poor father!"

"Think what such as he must have gone through in bringing himself into contact with that man; and all this has been done that he might spare you and your mother. Think of the wound to his conscience before he would have lowered himself to an unworthy bargain with a swindler. But this has been done that you might have that which you have been taught to look on as your own. He has been wrong. No other verdict can be given. But you, at any rate, can be tender to such a fault; you and your mother."

"I will--I will," said Herbert. "But if it had happened a month since I could have borne it." And then he thought of his mother, and hated himself for what he had said. How could he have borne that with patience? "And there is no doubt, you say?"

"I think none. The man carries his proofs with him. An old servant here in the house, too, knows him."

"What, Mrs. Jones?"

"Yes; Mrs. Jones. And the burden of further proof must now, of course, be thrown on us,--not on him. Directly that we believe the statement, it is for us to ascertain its truth. You and your father must not be seen to hold a false position before the world."

"And what are we to do now?"

"I fear that your mother must be told, and Mr. Owen Fitzgerald; and then we must together openly prove the facts, either in one way or in the other. It will be better that we should do this together;--that is, you and your cousin Owen conjointly. Do it openly, before the world,--so that the world may know that each of you desires only what is honestly his own. For myself I tell you fairly that I have no doubt of the truth of what I have told you; but further proof is certainly needed. Had I any doubt I would not propose to tell your mother. As it is I think it will be wrong to keep her longer in the dark."

"Does she suspect nothing?"

"I do not know. She has more power of self-control than your father. She has not spoken to me ten words since I have been in the house, and in not doing so I have thought that she was right."

"My own mother; my dear mother!"

"If you ask me my opinion, I think that she does suspect the truth,--very vaguely, with an indefinite feeling that the calamity which weighs so heavily on your father has come from this source. She, dear lady, is greatly to be pitied. But God has made her of firmer material than your father, and I think that she will bear her sorrow with a higher courage."

"And she is to be told also?"

"Yes, I think so. I do not see how we can avoid it. If we do not tell her we must attempt to conceal it, and that attempt must needs be futile when we are engaged in making open inquiry on the subject. Your cousin, when he hears of this, will of course be anxious to know what his real prospects are."

"Yes, yes. He will be anxious, and determined too."

"And then, when all the world will know it. how is your mother to be kept in the dark? And that which she fears and anticipates is as bad, probably, as the actual truth. If my advice be followed nothing will be kept from her."

"We are in your hands, I suppose, Mr. Prendergast?"

"I can only act as my judgment directs me."

"And who is to tell her?" This he asked with a shudder, and almost in a whisper. The very idea of undertaking such a duty seemed almost too much for him. And yet he must undertake a duty almost as terrible, he himself--no one but him--must endure the anguish of repeating this story to Clara Desmond and to the countess. But now the question had reference to his own mother. "And who is to tell her?" he asked.

For a moment or two Mr. Prendergast stood silent. He had not hitherto, in so many words, undertaken this task--this that would be the most dreadful of all. But if he did not undertake it, who would? "I suppose that I must do it," at last he said, very gently.

"And when?"

"As soon as I have told your cousin. I will go down to him to-morrow after breakfast. Is it probable that I shall find him at home?"

"Yes, if you are there before ten. The hounds meet to-morrow at Cecilstown, within three miles of him, and he will not leave home till near eleven. But it is possible that he may have a house full of men with him."

"At any rate, I will try. On such an occasion as this he may surely let his friends go to the hunt without him."

And then between nine and ten this interview came to an end. "Mr. Fitzgerald," said Mr. Prendergast, as he pressed Herbert's hand, "you have borne all this as a man should do. No loss of fortune can ruin one who is so well able to endure misfortune." But in this Mr. Prendergast was perhaps mistaken. His knowledge of human nature had not carried him sufficiently far. A man's courage under calamity is only tested when he is left in solitude. The meanest among us can bear up while strange eyes are looking at us. And then Mr. Prendergast went away, and he was alone.

It had been his habit during the whole of this period of his father's illness to go to Sir Thomas at or before bedtime. These visits had usually been made to the study, the room in which he was now standing; but when his father had gone to his bedroom at an earlier hour, Herbert had always seen him there. Was he to go to him now--now that he had heard all this? And if so, how was he to bear himself there, in his father's presence? He stood still, thinking of this, till the hand of the clock showed him that it was past ten, and then it struck him that his father might be waiting for him. It would not do for him now, at such a moment, to appear wanting in that attention which he had always shown. He was still his father's son, though he had lost the light to bear his father's name. He was nameless now, a man utterly without respect or standing-place in the

Castle Richmond - 60/114

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