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One person and one only had come to her at Desmond Court, whose coming had been a solace to her weariness. Of all those among whom she had lived in cold desolateness for so many years, one only had got near her heart. There had been but one Irish voice that she had cared to hear; and the owner of that voice had loved her child instead of loving her.
And she had borne that wretchedness too, if not well, at least bravely. True, she had separated that lover from her daughter; but the circumstances of both had made it right for her, as a mother, to do so. What mother, circumstanced as she had been, would have given her girl to Owen Fitzgerald? So she had banished from the house the only voice that sounded sweetly in her ears, and again she had been alone.
And then, perhaps, thoughts had come to her, when Herbert Fitzgerald was frequent about the place, a rich and thriving wooer, that Owen might come again to Desmond Court, when Clara had gone to Castle Richmond. Years were stealing over her. Ah, yes. She knew that full well. All her youth and the pride of her days she had given up for that countess-ship which she now wore so gloomily--given up for pieces of gold which had turned to stone and slate and dirt within her grasp. Years, alas! were fast stealing over her. But nevertheless she had something to give. Her woman's beauty was not all faded; and she had a heart which was as yet virgin--which had hitherto loved no other man. Might not that suffice to cover a few years, seeing that in return she wanted nothing but love? And so she had thought, lingering over her hopes, while Herbert was there at his wooing.
It may be imagined with what feelings at her heart she had seen and listened to the frank attempt made by Owen to get back his childish love. But that too she had borne, bravely, if not well. It had not angered her that her child was loved by the only man she had ever loved herself. She had stroked her daughter's hair that day, and kissed her cheek, and bade her be happy with her better, richer lover. And had she not been right in this? Nor had she been angry even with Owen. She could forgive him all, because she loved him. But might there not even yet be a chance for her when Clara should in very truth have gone to Castle Richmond?
But now! How was she to think about all this now? And thinking of these things, how was it possible that she should have heart left to feel for the miseries of Lady Fitzgerald? With all her miseries would not Lady Fitzgerald still be more fortunate than she? Let come what might, Lady Fitzgerald had had a life of prosperity and love. No; she could not think of Lady Fitzgerald, nor of Herbert: she could only think of Owen Fitzgerald, of her daughter, and of herself.
He, Owen, was now the heir to Castle Richmond, and would, as far as she could learn, soon become the actual possessor. He, who had been cast forth from Desmond Court as too poor and contemptible in the world's eye to be her daughter's suitor, would become the rich inheritor of all those broad acres, and that old coveted family honour. And this Owen still loved her daughter--loved her not as Herbert did, with a quiet, gentleman-like, every-day attachment, but with the old, true, passionate love of which she had read in books, and dreamed herself, before she had sold herself to be a countess. That Owen did so love her daughter, she was very sure. And then, as to her daughter; that she did not still love this new heir in her heart of hearts--of that the mother was by no means sure. That her child had chosen the better part in choosing money and a title, she had not doubted; and that having so chosen Clara would be happy,--of that also she did not doubt. Clara was young, she would say, and her heart in a few months would follow her hand.
But now! How was she to decide, sitting here with Herbert Fitzgerald before her, gloomy as death, cold, shivering, and muddy, telling of his own disasters with no more courage than a whipped dog? As she looked at him she declared to herself twenty times in half a second that he had not about him a tithe of the manhood of his cousin Owen. Women love a bold front, and a voice that will never own its master to have been beaten in the world's fight. Had Owen came there with such a story, he would have claimed his right boldly to the lady's hand, in spite of all that the world had done to him.
"Let her have him," said Lady Desmond to herself, and the struggle within her bosom was made and over. No wonder that Herbert, looking into her face for pity, should find that she was harsh and cruel. She had been sacrificing herself, and had completed the sacrifice. Owen Fitzgerald, the heir to Castle Richmond, Sir Owen as he would soon be, should have her daughter. They two, at any rate, should be happy. And she--she would live there at Desmond Court, lonely as she had ever lived. While all this was passing through her mind, she hardly thought of Herbert and his sorrows. That he must be given up and abandoned, and left to make what best fight he could by himself; as to that how was it possible that she as a mother should have any doubt?
And yet it was a pity--a thousand pities. Herbert Fitzgerald, with his domestic virtues. his industry and thorough respectability, would so exactly have suited Clara's taste and mode of life--had he only continued to be the heir of Castle Richmond. She and Owen would not enter upon the world together with nearly the same fair chance of happiness. Who could prophecy to what Owen might be led with his passionate impulses, his strong will, his unbridled temper, and his love of pleasure? That he was noble-hearted, affectionate, brave, and tender in his inmost spirit, Lady Desmond was very sure; but were such the qualities which would make her daughter happy? When Clara should come to know her future lord as Clara's mother knew him, would Clara love him and worship him as her mother did? The mother believed that Clara had not in her bosom heart enough for such a love. But then, as I have said before, the mother did not know the daughter.
"You say that you will break all this to Clara," said Herbert, having during this silence turned over some of his thoughts also in his mind. "If so I may as well leave you now. You can imagine that I am anxious to get back to my mother."
"Yes, it will be better that I should tell her. It is very sad, very sad, very sad indeed."
"Yes, it is a hard load for a man to bear," he answered, speaking very, very slowly. "But for myself I think I can bear it, if--"
"If what?" asked the countess.
"If Clara can bear it."
And now it was necessary that Lady Desmond should speak out. She did not mean to be unnecessarily harsh, but she did mean to be decided, and as she spoke her face became stern and ill-favoured. "That Clara will be terribly distressed," she said, "terribly, terribly distressed," repeating her words with great emphasis, "of that I am quite sure. She is very young, and will, I hope, in time get over it. And then too I think she is one whose feelings, young as she is, have never conquered her judgment. Therefore I do believe that, with God's mercy, she will be able to bear it. But, Mr. Fitzgerald--"
"Of course you feel with me--and I am sure that with your excellent judgment it is a thing of course--that everything must be over between you and Lady Clara." And then she came to a full stop as though all had been said that could be considered necessary.
Herbert did not answer at once, but stood there shivering and shaking in his misery. He was all but overcome by the chill of his wet garments; and though he struggled to throw off the dead feeling of utter cold which struck him to the heart, he was quite unable to master it. He could hardly forgive himself that on such an occasion he should have been so conquered by his own outer feelings, but now he could not help himself. He was weak with hunger too--though he did not know it, for he had hardly eaten food that day, and was nearly exhausted with the unaccustomed amount of hard exercise which he had taken. He was, moreover, thoroughly wet through, and heavy laden with the mud of the road. It was no wonder that Lady Desmond had said to herself that he looked like a whipped dog.
"That must be as Lady Clara shall decide," he said at last, barely uttering the words through his chattering teeth.
"It must be as I say," said the countess firmly; "whether by her decision or by yours--or if necessary by mine. But if your feelings are, as I take them to be, those of a man of honour, you will not leave it to me or to her. What! now that you have the world to struggle with, would you seek to drag her down into the struggle?"
"Our union was to be for better or worse. I would have given her all the better, and--"
"Yes; and had there been a union she would have bravely borne her part in sharing the worst. But who ought to be so thankful as you that this truth has broken upon you before you had clogged yourself with a wife of high birth but without fortune? Alone, a man educated as you are, with your talents, may face the world without fearing anything. But how could you make your way now if my daughter were your wife? When you think of it, Mr. Fitzgerald, you will cease to wish for it."
"Never; I have given my heart to your daughter, and I cannot take back the gift. She has accepted it, and she cannot return it."
"And what would you have her do?" Lady Desmond asked, with anger and almost passion in her voice.
"Wait--as I must wait," said Herbert. "That will be her duty, as I believe it will also be her wish."
"Yes, and wear out her young heart here in solitude for the next ten years, and then learn when her beauty and her youth are gone--. But no, Mr. Fitzgerald; I will not allow myself to contemplate such a prospect either for her or for you. Under the lamentable circumstances which you have now told me it is imperative that this match should be broken off. Ask your own mother and hear what she will say. And if you are a man you will not throw upon my poor child the hard task of declaring that it must be so. You, by your calamity, are unable to perform your contract with her; and it is for you to announce that that contract is therefore over."
Herbert in his present state was unable to argue with Lady Desmond. He had in his brain, and mind, and heart, and soul--at least so he said to himself afterwards, having perhaps but a loose idea of the different functions of these four different properties--a thorough conviction that as he and Clara had sworn to each other that for life they would live together and love each other, no misfortune to either of them could justify the other in breaking that oath;--
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