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Lady Scroope thought a great deal about her friend's communication, but at last made up her mind that she could do nothing till Fred should have returned. Indeed she hardly knew what she could do when he did come back. The more she considered it the greater seemed to her to be the difficulty of doing anything. How is a woman, how is even a mother, to caution a young man against the danger of becoming acquainted with a pretty girl? She could not mention Miss O'Hara's name without mentioning that of Lady Mary Quin in connexion with it. And when asked, as of course she would be asked, as to her own information, what could she say? She had been told that he had made himself acquainted with a widow lady who had a pretty daughter, and that was all! When young men will run into such difficulties, it is, alas, so very difficult to interfere with them!
And yet the matter was of such importance as to justify almost any interference. A Roman Catholic Irish girl of whom nothing was known but that her mother was said to be a widow, was, in Lady Scroope's eyes, as formidable a danger as could come in the way of her husband's heir. Fred Neville was, she thought, with all his good qualities, exactly the man to fall in love with a wild Irish girl. If Fred were to write home some day and say that he was about to marry such a bride,--or, worse again, that he had married her, the tidings would nearly kill the Earl. After all that had been endured, such a termination to the hopes of the family would be too cruel! And Lady Scroope could not but feel the injustice of it. Every thing was being done for this heir, for whom nothing need have been done. He was treated as a son, but he was not a son. He was treated with exceptional favour as a son. Everything was at his disposal. He might marry and begin life at once with every want amply supplied, if he would only marry such a woman as was fit to be a future Countess of Scroope. Very little was required from him. He was not expected to marry an heiress. An heiress indeed was prepared for him, and would be there, ready for him at Christmas,--an heiress, beautiful, well-born, fit in every respect,--religious too. But he was not to be asked to marry Sophie Mellerby. He might choose for himself. There were other well-born young women about the world,--duchesses' granddaughters in abundance! But it was imperative that he should marry at least a lady, and at least a Protestant.
Lady Scroope felt very strongly that he should never have been allowed to rejoin his regiment, when a home at Scroope was offered to him. He was a free agent of course, and equally of course the title and the property must ultimately be his. But something of a bargain might have been made with him when all the privileges of a son were offered to him. When he was told that he might have all Scroope to himself,--for it amounted nearly to that; that he might hunt there and shoot there and entertain his friends; that the family house in London should be given up to him if he would marry properly; that an income almost without limit should be provided for him, surely it would not have been too much to demand that as a matter of course he should leave the army! But this had not been done; and now there was an Irish Roman Catholic widow with a daughter, with seal-shooting and a boat and high cliffs right in the young man's way! Lady Scroope could not analyse it, but felt all the danger as though it were by instinct. Partridge and pheasant shooting on a gentleman's own grounds, and an occasional day's hunting with the hounds in his own county, were, in Lady Scroope's estimation, becoming amusements for an English gentleman. They did not interfere with the exercise of his duties. She had by no means brought herself to like the yearly raids into Scotland made latterly by sportsmen. But if Scotch moors and forests were dangerous, what were Irish cliffs! Deer-stalking was bad in her imagination. She was almost sure that when men went up to Scotch forests they did not go to church on Sundays. But the idea of seal-shooting was much more horrible. And then there was that priest who was the only friend of the widow who had the daughter!
On the morning of the day in which Fred was to reach the Manor, Lady Scroope did speak to her husband. "Don't you think, my dear, that something might be done to prevent Fred's returning to that horrid country?"
"What can we do?"
"I suppose he would wish to oblige you. You are being very good to him."
"It is for the old to give, Mary, and for the young to accept. I do all for him because he is all to me; but what am I to him, that he should sacrifice any pleasure for me? He can break my heart. Were I even to quarrel with him, the worst I could do would be to send him to the money-lenders for a year or two."
"But why should he care about his regiment now?"
"Because his regiment means liberty."
"And you won't ask him to give it up?"
"I think not. If I were to ask him I should expect him to yield, and then I should be disappointed were he to refuse. I do not wish him to think me a tyrant." This was the end of the conversation, for Lady Scroope did not as yet dare to speak to the Earl about the widow and her daughter. She must now try her skill and eloquence with the young man himself.
The young man arrived and was received with kindest greetings. Two horses had preceded him, so that he might find himself mounted as soon as he chose after his arrival, and two others were coming. This was all very well, but his aunt was a little hurt when he declared his purpose of going down to the stables just as she told him that Sophia Mellerby was in the house. He arrived on the 23rd at 4 P.M., and it had been declared that he was to hunt on the morrow. It was already dark, and surely he might have been content on the first evening of his arrival to abstain from the stables! Not a word had been said to Sophie Mellerby of Lady Scroope's future hopes. Lady Scroope and Lady Sophia would each have thought that it was wicked to do so. But the two women had been fussy, and Miss Mellerby must have been less discerning than are young ladies generally, had she not understood what was expected of her. Girls are undoubtedly better prepared to fall in love with men whom they have never seen, than are men with girls. It is a girl's great business in life to love and to be loved. Of some young men it may almost be said that it is their great business to avoid such a catastrophe. Such ought not to have been the case with Fred Neville now;--but in such light he regarded it. He had already said to himself that Sophie Mellerby was to be pitched at his head. He knew no reason,--none as yet,--why he should not like Miss Mellerby well enough. But he was a little on his guard against her, and preferred seeing his horses first. Sophie, when according to custom, and indeed in this instance in accordance with special arrangement, she went into Lady Scroope's sitting-room for tea, was rather disappointed at not finding Mr. Neville there. She knew that he had visited his uncle immediately on his arrival, and having just come in from the park she had gone to her room to make some little preparation for the meeting. If it was written in Fate's book that she was to be the next Lady Scroope, the meeting was important. Perhaps that writing in Fate's book might depend on the very adjustment which she was now making of her hair.
"He has gone to look at his horses," said Lady Scroope, unable not to shew her disappointment by the tone of her voice.
"That is so natural," said Sophie, who was more cunning. "Young men almost idolize their horses. I should like to go and see Dandy whenever he arrives anywhere, only I don't dare!" Dandy was Miss Mellerby's own horse, and was accustomed to make journeys up and down between Mellerby and London.
"I don't think horses and guns and dogs should be too much thought of," said Lady Scroope gravely. "There is a tendency I think at present to give them an undue importance. When our amusements become more serious to us than our business, we must be going astray."
"I suppose we always are going astray," said Miss Mellerby. Lady Scroope sighed and shook her head; but in shaking it she shewed that she completely agreed with the opinion expressed by her guest.
As there were only two horses to be inspected, and as Fred Neville absolutely refused the groom's invitation to look at the old carriage horses belonging to the family, he was back in his aunt's room before Miss Mellerby had gone upstairs to dress for dinner. The introduction was made, and Fred did his best to make himself agreeable. He was such a man that no girl could, at the first sight of him, think herself injured by being asked to love him. She was a good girl, and would have consented to marry no man without feeling sure of his affections; but Fred Neville was bold and frank as well as handsome, and had plenty to say for himself. It might be that he was vicious, or ill-tempered, or selfish, and it would be necessary that she should know much of him before she would give herself into his keeping; but as far as the first sight went, and the first hearing, Sophie Mellerby's impressions were all in Fred's favour. It is no doubt a fact that with the very best of girls a man is placed in a very good light by being heir to a peerage and a large property.
"Do you hunt, Miss Mellerby?" he asked. She shook her head and looked grave, and then laughed. Among her people hunting was not thought to be a desirable accomplishment for young ladies. "Almost all girls do hunt now," said Fred.
"Do you think it is a nice amusement for young ladies?" asked the aunt in a severe tone.
"I don't see why not;--that is if they know how to ride."
"I know how to ride," said Sophie Mellerby.
"Riding is all very well," said Lady Scroope. "I quite approve of it for girls. When I was young, everybody did not ride as they do now. Nevertheless it is very well, and is thought to be healthy. But as for hunting, Sophie, I'm sure your mamma would be very much distressed if you were to think of such a thing."
"But, dear Lady Scroope, I haven't thought of it, and I am not going to think of it;--and if I thought of it ever so much, I shouldn't do it. Poor mamma would be frightened into fits,--only that nobody at Mellerby could possibly be made to believe it, unless they saw me doing it."
"Then there can be no reason why you shouldn't make the attempt," said Fred. Upon which Lady Scroope pretended to look grave, and told him that he was very wicked. But let an old lady be ever so strict towards her own sex, she likes a little wickedness in a young man,--if only he does not carry it to the extent of marrying the wrong sort of young woman.
Sophia Mellerby was a tall, graceful, well-formed girl, showing her high blood in every line of her face. On her mother's side she had come from the Ancrums, whose family, as everybody knows, is one of the oldest in England; and, as the Earl had said, the Mellerbys had been Mellerbys from the time of King John, and had been living on the same spot for at least four centuries. They were and always had been Mellerbys of Mellerby,--the very name of the parish being the same as that of the family. If Sophia Mellerby did not shew breeding, what girl could shew it? She was fair, with a somewhat thin oval face, with dark eyes, and an almost perfect Grecian nose. Her mouth was small, and her chin delicately formed. And yet it can hardly be said that she was beautiful. Or, if beautiful, she was so in women's eyes rather than in those of men. She lacked colour and perhaps animation in her countenance. She had more character, indeed, than was told by her face, which is generally so true an index of the mind. Her education had been as good as England could afford, and her intellect had been sufficient to enable her to make use of it. But her chief charm in the eyes of many consisted in the fact, doubted by none, that she was every inch a lady. She was an only daughter, too,--with an only brother; and as the Ancrums were all rich, she would have a very pretty fortune of her own. Fred Neville, who had literally been nobody before his cousin had died, might certainly do much worse than marry her.
And after a day or two they did seem to get on very well together. He had reached Scroope on the 21st, and on the 23rd Mrs. Neville arrived with her youngest son Jack Neville. This was rather a trial to the Earl, as he had never yet seen his brother's widow. He had heard when his brother married that she was fast, fond of riding, and loud. She had been the daughter of a Colonel Smith, with whom his brother, at that time a Captain Neville, had formed acquaintance;--and had been a beauty very well known as such at Dublin and other garrison towns. No real harm had ever been known of her, but the old Earl had always felt that his brother had made an unfortunate marriage. As at that time they had not been on speaking terms, it had not signified much;--but there had been a prejudice at Scroope against the Captain's wife, which by no means died out when the late Julia Smith became the Captain's widow with two sons. Old reminiscences remain very firm with old people,--and Lord Scroope was still much afraid of the fast, loud beauty. His principles told him that he should not sever the mother from the son, and that as it suited him to take the son for his own purposes, he should also, to some extent, accept the mother also. But he dreaded the affair. He dreaded Mrs. Neville; and he dreaded Jack, who had been so named after his gallant grandfather, Colonel Smith. When Mrs. Neville arrived, she was found to be so subdued and tame that she could hardly open her mouth before the old Earl. Her loudness, if she ever had been loud, was certainly all gone,--and her fastness, if ever she had been fast, had been worn out of her. She was an old woman, with the relics of great beauty, idolizing her two sons for whom all her life had been a sacrifice, in weak health, and prepared, if necessary, to sit in silent awe at the feet of the Earl who had been so good to her boy.
"I don't know how to thank you for what you have done," she said, in a low voice.
"No thanks are required," said the Earl. "He is the same to us as if he were our own." Then she raised the old man's hand and kissed it,--and the old man owned to himself that he had made a mistake.
As to Jack Neville--. But Jack Neville shall have another chapter opened on his behalf.
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