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FROM BAD TO WORSE.
As he was returning to Ennis Neville was so far removed from immediate distress as to be able to look forward without fear to his meeting with the two ladies at Ardkill. He could as yet take his Kate in his arms without any hard load upon his heart, such as would be there if he knew that it was incumbent upon him at once to explain his difficulties. His uncle was still living, but was old and still ill. He would naturally make the most of the old man's age and infirmities. There was every reason why they should wait, and no reason why such waiting should bring reproaches upon his head. On the night of his arrival at his quarters he despatched a note to his Kate.
Here I am again in the land of freedom and potatoes. I need not trouble you with writing about home news, as I shall see you the day after to-morrow. All to-morrow and Wednesday morning I must stick close to my guns here. After one on Wednesday I shall be free. I will drive over to Lahinch, and come round in the boat. I must come back here the same night, but I suppose it will be the next morning before I get to bed. I sha'n't mind that if I get something for my pains. My love to your mother. Your own,
In accordance with this plan he did drive over to Lahinch. He might have saved time by directing that his boat should come across the bay to meet him at Liscannor, but he felt that he would prefer not to meet Father Marty at present. It might be that before long he would be driven to tell the priest a good deal, and to ask for the priest's assistance; but at present he was not anxious to see Father Marty. Barney Morony was waiting for him at the stable where he put up his horse, and went down with him to the beach. The ladies, according to Barney, were quite well and more winsome than ever. But,--and this information was not given without much delay and great beating about the bush,--there was a rumour about Liscannor that Captain O'Hara had "turned up." Fred was so startled at this that he could not refrain from showing his anxiety by the questions which he asked. Barney did not seem to think that the Captain had been at Ardkill or anywhere in the neighbourhood. At any rate he, Barney, had not seen him. He had just heard the rumour. "Shure, Captain, I wouldn't be telling yer honour a lie; and they do be saying that the Captain one time was as fine a man as a woman ever sot eyes on;--and why not, seeing what kind the young lady is, God bless her!" If it were true that Kate's father had "turned up," such an advent might very naturally alter Neville's plans. It would so change the position of things as to relieve him in some degree from the force of his past promises.
Nevertheless when he saw Kate coming along the cliffs to meet him, the one thing more certain to him than all other things was that he would never abandon her. She had been watching for him almost from the hour at which he had said that he would leave Ennis, and, creeping up among the rocks, had seen his boat as it came round the point from Liscannor. She had first thought that she would climb down the path to meet him; but the tide was high and there was now no strip of strand below the cliffs; and Barney Morony would have been there to see; and she resolved that it would be nicer to wait for him on the summit. "Oh Fred, you have come back," she said, throwing herself on his breast.
"Yes; I am back. Did you think I was going to desert you?"
"No; no. I knew you would not desert me. Oh, my darling!"
"Dear Kate;--dearest Kate."
"You have thought of me sometimes?"
"I have thought of you always,--every hour." And so he swore to her that she was as much to him as he could possibly be to her. She hung on his arm as she went down to the cottage, and believed herself to be the happiest and most fortunate girl in Ireland. As yet no touch of the sorrows of love had fallen upon her.
He could not all at once ask her as to that rumour which Morony had mentioned to him. But he thought of it as he walked with his arm round her waist. Some question must be asked, but it might, perhaps, be better that he should ask it of the mother. Mrs. O'Hara was at the cottage and seemed almost as glad to see him as Kate had been. "It is very pleasant to have you back again," she said. "Kate has been counting first the hours, and then the minutes."
"And so have you, mother."
"Of course we want to hear all the news," said Mrs. O'Hara. Then Neville, with the girl who was to be his wife sitting close beside him on the sofa,--almost within his embrace,--told them how things were going at Scroope. His uncle was very weak,--evidently failing; but still so much better as to justify the heir in coming away. He might perhaps live for another twelve months, but the doctors thought it hardly possible that he should last longer than that. Then the nephew went on to say that his uncle was the best and most generous man in the world,--and the finest gentleman and the truest Christian. He told also of the tenants who were not to be harassed, and the servants who were not to be dismissed, and the horses that were to be allowed to die in their beds, and the trees that were not to be cut down.
"I wish I knew him," said Kate. "I wish I could have seen him once."
"That can never be," said Fred, sadly.
"No;--of course not."
Then Mrs. O'Hara asked a question. "Has he ever heard of us?"
"Yes;--he has heard of you."
"No;--not first from me. There are many reasons why I would not have mentioned your names could I have helped it. He has wished me to marry another girl,--and especially a Protestant girl. That was impossible."
"That must be impossible now, Fred," said Kate, looking up into his face.
"Quite so, dearest; but why should I have vexed him, seeing that he is so good to me, and that he must be gone so soon?"
"Who had told him of us?" asked Mrs. O'Hara.
"That woman down there at Castle Quin."
"Foul-tongued old maid that she is," exclaimed Fred. "She writes to my aunt by every post, I believe."
"What evil can she say of us?"
"She does say evil. Never mind what. Such a woman always says evil of those of her sex who are good-looking."
"There, mother;--that's for you," said Kate, laughing. "I don't care what she says."
"If she tells your aunt that we live in a small cottage, without servants, without society, with just the bare necessaries of life, she tells the truth of us."
"That's just what she does say;--and she goes on harping about religion. Never mind her. You can understand that my uncle should be old-fashioned. He is very old, and we must wait."
"Waiting is so weary," said Mrs. O'Hara.
"It is not weary for me at all," said Kate.
Then he left them, without having said a word about the Captain. He found the Captain to be a subject very uncomfortable to mention, and thought as he was sitting there that it might perhaps be better to make his first enquiries of this priest. No one said a word to him about the Captain beyond what he had heard from his boatman. For, as it happened, he did not see the priest till May was nearly past, and during all that time things were going from bad to worse. As regarded any services which he rendered to the army at this period of his career, the excuses which he had made to his uncle were certainly not valid. Some pretence at positively necessary routine duties it must be supposed that he made; but he spent more of his time either on the sea, or among the cliffs with Kate, or on the road going backwards and forwards, than he did at his quarters. It was known that he was to leave the regiment and become a great man at home in October, and his brother officers were kind to him. And it was known also, of course, that there was a young lady down on the sea coast beyond Ennistimon, and doubtless there were jokes on the subject. But there was no one with him at Ennis having such weight of fears or authority as might have served to help to rescue him. During this time Lady Mary Quin still made her reports, and his aunt's letters were full of cautions and entreaties. "I am told," said the Countess, in one of her now detested epistles, "that the young woman has a reprobate father who has escaped from the galleys. Oh, Fred, do not break our hearts." He had almost forgotten the Captain when he received this further rumour which had circulated to him round by Castle Quin and Scroope Manor.
It was all going from bad to worse. He was allowed by the mother to be at the cottage as much as he pleased, and the girl was allowed to wander with him when she would among the cliffs. It was so, although Father Marty himself had more than once cautioned Mrs. O'Hara that she was imprudent. "What can I do?" she said. "Have not you yourself taught me to believe that he is true?"
"Just spake a word to Miss Kate herself."
"What can I say to her now? She regards him as her husband before God."
"But he is not her husband in any way that would prevent his taking another wife an' he plases. And, believe me, Misthress O'Hara, them sort of young men like a girl a dale better when there's a little 'Stand off' about her."
"It is too late to bid her to be indifferent to him now, Father Marty."
"I am not saying that Miss Kate is to lose her lover. I hope I'll have the binding of 'em together myself, and I'll go bail I'll do it fast enough. In the meanwhile let her keep herself to herself a little more."
The advice was very good, but Mrs. O'Hara knew not how to make use of it. She could tell the young man that she would have his heart's blood if he deceived them, and she could look at him as though she meant to be as good as her word. She had courage enough for any great emergency. But now that the lover had been made free of the cottage she knew not how to debar him. She could not break her Kate's heart by expressing doubts to her. And were he to be told to stay away, would he not be lost to them for ever? Of course he could desert them if he would, and then they must die.
It was going from bad to worse certainly; and not the less so because he was more than ever infatuated about the girl. When he had calculated whether it might be possible to desert her he had been at Scroope. He was in County Clare now, and he did not hesitate to tell himself that it was impossible. Whatever might happen, and to whomever he might be false,--he would be true to her. He would at any rate be so true to her that he would not leave her. If he never made her his legal wife, his wife legal at all points, he would always treat her as wife. When his uncle the Earl should die, when the time came in which he would be absolutely free as to his own motions, he would discover the way in which this might best be done. If it were true that his Kate's father was a convict escaped from the galleys, that surely would be an additional reason why she should not be made Countess of Scroope. Even Mrs. O'Hara herself must understand that. With Kate, with his own Kate, he thought that there would be no difficulty.
From bad to worse! Alas, alas; there came a day in which the pricelessness of the girl he loved sank to nothing, vanished away, and was as a thing utterly lost, even in his eyes. The poor unfortunate one,--to whom beauty had been given, and grace, and softness,--and beyond all these and finer than these, innocence as unsullied as the whiteness of the plumage on the breast of a dove; but to whom, alas, had not been given a protector strong enough to protect her softness, or guardian wise enough to guard her innocence! To her he was godlike, noble, excellent, all but holy. He was the man whom Fortune, more than kind, had sent to her to be the joy of her existence, the fountain of her life, the strong staff for her weakness. Not to believe in him would be the foulest treason! To lose him would be to die! To deny him would be to deny her God! She gave him all;--and her pricelessness in his eyes was gone for ever.
He was sitting with her one day towards the end of May on the edge of the cliff, looking down upon the ocean and listening to the waves, when it occurred to him that he might as well ask her about her father. It was absurd he thought to stand upon any ceremony with her. He was very good to her, and intended to be always good to her, but it was essentially necessary to him to know the truth. He was not aware, perhaps, that he was becoming rougher with her than had been his wont. She certainly was not aware of it, though there was a touch of awe sometimes about her as she answered him. She was aware that she now shewed to him an absolute obedience in all things which had not been customary with her; but then it was so sweet to obey him; so happy a thing to have such a master! If he rebuked her, he did it with his arm round her waist, so that she could look into his face and smile as she promised that she would be good and follow his behests in all things. He had been telling her now of some fault in her dress, and she had been explaining that such faults would come when money was so scarce. Then he had offered her gifts. A gift she would of course take. She had already taken gifts which were the treasures of her heart. But he must not pay things for her till,--till--. Then she again looked up into his face and smiled. "You are not angry with me?" she said.
"Kate,--I want to ask you a particular question."
"You must not suppose, let the answer be what it may, that it can make any difference between you and me."
"Oh,--I hope not," she replied trembling.
"It shall make none," he answered with all a master's assurance and authority. "Therefore you need not be afraid to answer me. Tidings have reached me on a matter as to which I ought to be informed."
"What matter? Oh Fred, you do so frighten me. I'll tell you anything I know."
"I have been told that--that your father--is alive." He looked down upon her and could see that her face was red up to her very hair. "Your mother once told me that she had never been certain of his death."
"I used to think he was dead."
"But now you think he is alive?"
"I think he is;--but I do not know. I never saw my father so as to remember him; though I do remember that we used to be very unhappy when we were in Spain."
"And what have you heard lately? Tell me the truth, you know."
"Of course I shall tell you the truth, Fred. I think mother got a letter, but she did not shew it me. She said just a word, but nothing more. Father Marty will certainly know if she knows."
"And you know nothing?"
"I think I must ask Father Marty."
"But will it matter to you?" Kate asked.
"At any rate it shall not matter to you," he said, kissing her. And then again she was happy; though there had now crept across her heart the shadow of some sad foreboding, a foretaste of sorrow that was not altogether bitter as sorrow is, but which taught her to cling closely to him when he was there and would fill her eyes with tears when she thought of him in his absence.
On this day he had not found Mrs. O'Hara at the cottage. She had gone down to Liscannor, Kate told him. He had sent his boat back to the strand near that village, round the point and into the bay, as it could not well lie under the rocks at high tide, and he now asked Kate to accompany him as he walked down. They would probably meet her mother on the road. Kate, as she tied on her hat, was only too happy to be his companion. "I think," he said, "that I shall try and see Father Marty as I go back. If your mother has really heard anything about your father, she ought to have told me."
"Don't be angry with mother, Fred."
"I won't be angry with you, my darling," said the master with masterful tenderness.
Although he had intimated his intention of calling on the priest that very afternoon, it may be doubted whether he was altogether gratified when he met the very man with Mrs. O'Hara close to the old burying ground. "Ah, Mr. Neville," said the priest, "and how's it all wid you this many a day?"
"The top of the morning to you thin, Father Marty," said Fred, trying to assume an Irish brogue. Nothing could be more friendly than the greeting. The old priest took off his hat to Kate, and made a low bow, as though he should say,--to the future Countess of Scroope I owe a very especial respect. Mrs. O'Hara held her future son-in-law's hand for a moment, as though she might preserve him for her daughter by some show of affection on her own part. "And now, Misthress O'Hara," said the priest, "as I've got a companion to go back wid me, I'm thinking I'll not go up the hill any further." Then they parted, and Kate looked as though she were being robbed of her due because her lover could not give her one farewell kiss in the priest's presence.
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