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FRED NEVILLE MAKES A PROMISE.
Fred Neville felt that he had not received from his brother the assistance or sympathy which he had required. He had intended to make a very generous offer,--not indeed quite understanding how his offer could be carried out, but still of a nature that should, he thought, have bound his brother to his service. But Jack had simply answered him by sermons;--by sermons and an assurance of the impracticability of his scheme. Nevertheless he was by no means sure that his scheme was impracticable. He was at least sure of this,--that no human power could force him to adopt a mode of life that was distasteful to him. No one could make him marry Sophie Mellerby, or any other Sophie, and maintain a grand and gloomy house in Dorsetshire, spending his income, not in a manner congenial to him, but in keeping a large retinue of servants and taking what he called the "heavy line" of an English nobleman. The property must be his own,--or at any rate the life use of it. He swore to himself over and over again that nothing should induce him to impoverish the family or to leave the general affairs of the house of Scroope worse than he found them. Much less than half of that which he understood to be the income coming from the estates would suffice for him. But let his uncle or aunt,--or his strait-laced methodical brother, say what they would to him, nothing should induce him to make himself a slave to an earldom.
But yet his mind was much confused and his contentment by no means complete. He knew that there must be a disagreeable scene between himself and his uncle before he returned to Ireland, and he knew also that his uncle could, if he were so minded, stop his present very liberal allowance altogether. There had been a bargain, no doubt, that he should remain with his regiment for a year, and of that year six months were still unexpired. His uncle could not quarrel with him for going back to Ireland; but what answer should he make when his uncle asked him whether he were engaged to marry Miss O'Hara,--as of course he would ask; and what reply should he make when his uncle would demand of him whether he thought such a marriage fit for a man in his position. He knew that it was not fit. He believed in the title, in the sanctity of the name, in the mysterious grandeur of the family. He did not think that an Earl of Scroope ought to marry a girl of whom nothing whatever was known. The pride of the position stuck to him;--but it irked him to feel that the sacrifices necessary to support that pride should fall on his own shoulders.
One thing was impossible to him. He would not desert his Kate. But he wished to have his Kate, as a thing apart. If he could have given six months of each year to his Kate, living that yacht-life of which he had spoken, visiting those strange sunny places which his imagination had pictured to him, unshackled by conventionalities, beyond the sound of church bells, unimpeded by any considerations of family,--and then have migrated for the other six months to his earldom and his estates, to his hunting and perhaps to Parliament, leaving his Kate behind him, that would have been perfect. And why not? In the days which must come so soon, he would be his own master. Who could impede his motions or gainsay his will? Then he remembered his Kate's mother, and the glances which would come from the mother's eyes. There might be difficulty even though Scroope were all his own.
He was not a villain;--simply a self-indulgent spoiled young man who had realized to himself no idea of duty in life. He never once told himself that Kate should be his mistress. In all the pictures which he drew for himself of a future life everything was to be done for her happiness and for her gratification. His yacht should be made a floating bower for her delight. During those six months of the year which, and which only, the provoking circumstances of his position would enable him to devote to joy and love, her will should be his law. He did not think himself to be fickle. He would never want another Kate. He would leave her with sorrow. He would return to her with ecstasy. Everybody around him should treat her with the respect due to an empress. But it would be very expedient that she should be called Mrs. Neville instead of Lady Scroope. Could things not be so arranged for him;--so arranged that he might make a promise to his uncle, and yet be true to his Kate without breaking his promise? That was his scheme. Jack said that his scheme was impracticable. But the difficulties in his way were not, he thought, so much those which Jack had propounded as the angry eyes of Kate O'Hara's mother.
At last the day was fixed for his departure. The Earl was already so much better as to be able to leave his bedroom. Twice or thrice a day Fred saw his uncle, and there was much said about the affairs of the estate. The heir had taken some trouble, had visited some of the tenants, and had striven to seem interested in the affairs of the property. The Earl could talk for ever about the estate, every field, every fence, almost every tree on which was familiar to him. That his tenants should be easy in their circumstances, a protestant, church-going, rent-paying people, son following father, and daughters marrying as their mothers had married, unchanging, never sinking an inch in the social scale, or rising,--this was the wish nearest to his heart. Fred was well disposed to talk about the tenants as long as Kate O'Hara was not mentioned. When the Earl would mournfully speak of his own coming death, as an event which could not now be far distant, Fred with fullest sincerity would promise that his wishes should be observed. No rents should be raised. The axe should be but sparingly used. It seemed to him strange that a man going into eternity should care about this tree or that;--but as far as he was concerned the trees should stand while Nature supported them. No servant should be dismissed. The carriage horses should be allowed to die on the place. The old charities should be maintained. The parson of the parish should always be a welcome guest at the Manor. No promise was difficult for him to make so long as that one question were left untouched.
But when he spoke of the day of his departure as fixed,--as being "the day after to-morrow,"--then he knew that the question must be touched. "I am sorry,--very sorry, that you must go," said the Earl.
"You see a man can't leave the service at a moment's notice."
"I think that we could have got over that, Fred."
"Perhaps as regards the service we might, but the regiment would think ill of me. You see, so many things depend on a man's staying or going. The youngsters mayn't have their money ready. I said I should remain till October."
"I don't at all wish to act the tyrant to you."
"I know that, uncle."
Then there was a pause. "I haven't spoken to you yet, Fred, on a matter which has caused me a great deal of uneasiness. When you first came I was not strong enough to allude to it, and I left it to your aunt." Neville knew well what was coming now, and was aware that he was moved in a manner that hardly became his manhood. "Your aunt tells me that you have got into some trouble with a young lady in the west of Ireland."
"No trouble, uncle, I hope."
"Who is she?"
Then there was another pause, but he gave a direct answer to the question. "She is a Miss O'Hara."
"A Roman Catholic?"
"A girl of whose family you know nothing?"
"I know that she lives with her mother."
"In absolute obscurity,--and poverty?"
"They are not rich," said Fred.
"Do not suppose that I regard poverty as a fault. It is not necessary that you should marry a girl with any fortune."
"I suppose not, Uncle Scroope."
"But I understand that this young lady is quite beneath yourself in life. She lives with her mother in a little cottage, without servants,--"
"There is a servant."
"You know what I mean, Fred. She does not live as ladies live. She is uneducated."
"You are wrong there, my lord. She has been at an excellent school in France."
"In France! Who was her father, and what?"
"I do not know what her father was;--a Captain O'Hara, I believe."
"And you would marry such a girl as that;--a Roman Catholic; picked up on the Irish coast,--one of whom nobody knows even her parentage or perhaps her real name? It would kill me, Fred."
"I have not said that I mean to marry her."
"But what do you mean? Would you ruin her;--seduce her by false promises and then leave her? Do you tell me that in cold blood you look forward to such a deed as that?"
"I hope not, my boy; I hope not that. Do not tell me that a heartless scoundrel is to take my name when I am gone."
"I am not a heartless scoundrel," said Fred Neville, jumping up from his seat.
"Then what is it that you mean? You have thought, have you not, of the duties of the high position to which you are called? You do not suppose that wealth is to be given to you, and a great name, and all the appanages and power of nobility, in order that you may eat more, and drink more, and lie softer than others. It is because some think so, and act upon such base thoughts, that the only hereditary peerage left in the world is in danger of encountering the ill will of the people. Are you willing to be known only as one of those who have disgraced their order?"
"I do not mean to disgrace it."
"But you will disgrace it if you marry such a girl as that. If she were fit to be your wife, would not the family of Lord Kilfenora have known her?"
"I don't think much of their not knowing her, uncle."
"Who does know her? Who can say that she is even what she pretends to be? Did you not promise me that you would make no such marriage?"
He was not strong to defend his Kate. Such defence would have been in opposition to his own ideas, in antagonism with the scheme which he had made for himself. He understood, almost as well as did his uncle, that Kate O'Hara ought not to be made Countess of Scroope. He too thought that were she to be presented to the world as the Countess of Scroope, she would disgrace the title. And yet he would not be a villain! And yet he would not give her up! He could only fall back upon his scheme. "Miss O'Hara is as good as gold," he said; "but I acknowledge that she is not fit to be mistress of this house."
"Fred," said the Earl, almost in a passion of affectionate solicitude, "do not go back to Ireland. We will arrange about the regiment. No harm shall be done to any one. My health will be your excuse, and the lawyers shall arrange it all."
"I must go back," said Neville. Then the Earl fell back in his chair and covered his face with his hands. "I must go back; but I will give you my honour as a gentleman to do nothing that shall distress you."
"You will not marry her?"
"And, oh, Fred, as you value your own soul, do not injure a poor girl so desolate as that. Tell her and tell her mother the honest truth. If there be tears, will not that be better than sorrow, and disgrace, and ruin?" Among evils there must always be a choice; and the Earl thought that a broken promise was the lightest of those evils to a choice among which his nephew had subjected himself.
And so the interview was over, and there had been no quarrel. Fred Neville had given the Earl a positive promise that he would not marry Kate O'Hara,--to whom he had sworn a thousand times that she should be his wife. Such a promise, however,--so he told himself--is never intended to prevail beyond the lifetime of the person to whom it is made. He had bound himself not to marry Kate O'Hara while his uncle lived, and that was all.
Or might it not be better to take his uncle's advice altogether and tell the truth,--not to Kate, for that he could not do,--but to Mrs. O'Hara or to Father Marty? As he thought of this he acknowledged to himself that the task of telling such a truth to Mrs. O'Hara would be almost beyond his strength. Could he not throw himself upon the priest's charity, and leave it all to him? Then he thought of his own Kate, and some feeling akin to genuine love told him that he could not part with the girl in such fashion as that. He would break his heart were he to lose his Kate. When he looked at it in that light it seemed to him that Kate was more to him than all the family of the Scroopes with all their glory. Dear, sweet, soft, innocent, beautiful Kate! His Kate who, as he knew well, worshipped the very ground on which he trod! It was not possible that he should separate himself from Kate O'Hara.
On his return to Ireland he turned that scheme of his over and over again in his head. Surely something might be done if the priest would stand his friend! What if he were to tell the whole truth to the priest, and ask for such assistance as a priest might give him? But the one assurance to which he came during his journey was this;--that when a man goes in for adventures, he requires a good deal of skill and some courage too to carry him through them.
THE END of VOLUME I.
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