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Caldigate felt at the moment that he had been very abrupt,--so abrupt as to have caused infinite dismay. But then it had been necessary that he should be abrupt in order that he might get the matter understood. The ordinary approaches were not open to him, and unless he had taken a more than usually rapid advantage of the occasion which he had made for himself, he would have had to leave the house without having been able to give any of its inmates the least idea of his purpose. And then,--as he said to himself,--matrimony is honest. He was in all worldly respects a fit match for the young lady. To his own thinking there was nothing preposterous in the nature of his request, though it might have been made with some precipitate informality. He did not regard himself exactly as the lady regarded him, and therefore, though he saw her surprise, he still hoped that he might be able to convince her that in all that he was doing he was as anxious for the welfare of her child as she could be herself.
She sat there so long without saying a word that he found himself obliged to renew his suit. 'Of course, Mrs. Bolton, I am aware how very little you know of me.'
'Nothing at all,' she answered, hurriedly;--'or rather too much.'
He blushed up to his eyes, perfectly understanding the meaning of her words; and, knowing that he had not deserved them, he was almost angry. 'If you will make inquiry I think you will find that I have so far succeeded as to justify you in hoping that I may be able to marry and settle myself in my own country.'
'You don't know my daughter at all.'
'It is quite out of the question. She is very young, and such a thing has never occurred to her. And we are not the same sort of people.'
'Why not, Mrs. Bolton? Your husband and my father have been intimate friends for a great many years. It is not as though I had taken up the idea only yesterday. It has been present with me, comforting me, during all my work, for the last five years. I know all your daughter's features as though she had been my constant companion.' The lady shivered and almost trembled at this profanation of her child's name. It was trouble to her that one so holy should ever have been thought about by one so unholy. 'Of course I do not ask for anything at present;--but will you not consult your husband as to the propriety of allowing her to make my acquaintance?'
'I shall tell my husband, of course.'
'And will repeat to him what I say?'
'I shall tell him,--as I should any other most wild proposition that might be made to me. But I am quite sure that he will be very angry.'
'Angry! why should he be angry?'
'Because----' Then she stopped.
'I do not think, Mrs. Bolton, that there can be any cause for anger. If I were a beggar, if I were below her in position, if I had not means to keep a wife,--even if I were a stranger to his name, he might be angry. But I do not think he can be angry with me, now, because, in the most straightforward way, I come to the young lady's parents and tell them that I love their child. Is it a disgrace to me that of all whom I have seen I think her to be the loveliest and best? Her father may reject me; but he will be very unreasonable if he is angry with me.'
She could not tell him about the dove and the kite, or the lamb and the wolf. She could not explain to him that he was a sinner, unregenerated, a wild man in her estimation, a being of quite another kind than herself, and therefore altogether unfitted to be the husband of her girl! Her husband, no doubt, could do all this--if he would. But then she too had her own skeleton in her own cupboard. She was not quite assured of her own husband's regeneration. He went to church regularly, and read his Bible, and said his prayers. But she feared,--she was almost sure,--that he liked the bank-books better than his Bible. That he would reject this offer from John Caldigate, she did not doubt. She had always heard her husband speak of the man with disapprobation and scorn. She had heard the whole story of Davis and the Newmarket debts. She had heard, too, the man's subsequent prosperity spoken of as a thing of chance,--as having come from gambling on an extensive scale. She herself regarded money acquired in so unholy a way as likely to turn to slate-stones, or to fly away and become worse than nothing. She knew that Mr. Bolton, whether regenerate or not, regarded young Caldigate as an adventurer, and that therefore, the idea of such a marriage would be as unpalatable to him as to herself. But she did not dare to tell her visitor that he was an unregenerate kite, lest her husband would not support her.
'Whatever more you have got to say, you had better say it to him,' she replied to the lover when he had come to the end of his defence. At that moment the door opened, and a gentleman entered the room. This was Mr. Robert Bolton, the attorney. Now of all her husband's sons,--who were, of course, not her sons,--Mrs. Bolton saw this one the most frequently and perhaps liked him the least. Or it might be juster to say that she was more afraid of him than of the others. The two eldest, who were both in the bank, were quiet, sober men, who lived affluently and were married to religious wives, and brought up their children plentifully and piously. She did not see very much of them, because her life was not a social life. But among her friends they were the most intimate. But Robert's wife was given to gaiety and dinner-parties and had been seen even at balls. And Robert himself was much oftener at the Grange than either of the other brothers. He managed his father's private affairs, and was, perhaps, of all his sons the best liked by the father. He was prosperous in his business and was reported to be the leading lawyer in the town. In the old Cambridge days he had entertained John Caldigate at his house; and though they had not met since the miner's return from Australia, each at once knew the other, and their greeting was friendly 'Where's Hess?' said Robert, asking at once after his sister.
'She is engaged, Robert,' said Mrs. Bolton, very seriously, and very firmly.
'She gave me a commission about some silk, and Margaret says that it can't be executed in Cambridge. She must write to Fanny.' Margaret was Mrs. Robert Bolton, and Fanny was the wife of the barrister brother who lived in London.
'I will tell her, Robert.'
'All the same I should have liked to have seen her.'
'She is engaged, Robert.' This was said almost more seriously and more firmly than before.
'Well, Caldigate,' said the attorney, turning to the visitor, 'so you are the one man who has not only gone to the gold country and found gold, but has brought his gold home with him.'
'I have brought a little home;--but I hope others have done so before.'
'I have never heard of any. You seem to have been uncommonly lucky. Hard work, wasn't it?'
'Hard enough at first.'
'And a good deal of chance?'
'If a man will work steadily, and has backbone enough to stand up against reverses without consoling himself with drink; and if, when the gold comes, he can refrain from throwing it about as though it were endless, I think a man may be tolerably sure to earn something.' Then he told the story of the horse with the golden shoes.
'Shoes of gold upon a horse!' said Mrs. Bolton, holding up both her hands. The man who could even tell such a story must be an adventurer. But, nevertheless the story had interested her so that she had been enticed into taking some part in the conversation.
When Caldigate got up to take his leave, Robert Bolton offered to walk back to the town with him. He had expected to find his father, but would now look for him at the bank. They started together; and as they went Caldigate told his story to the young lady's half-brother. It occurred to him that of all the family Robert Bolton would be the most reasonable in such a matter; and that of all the family he might perhaps be the best able to give assistance. When Robert Bolton had heard it all, at first he whistled. Then he asked the following question. 'What did she say to you?'
'She did not give me much encouragement.'
'I should think not. Though I say it who shouldn't, Hester is the sweetest girl in Cambridgeshire. But her mother thinks her much too good to be given in marriage to any man. This kind of thing was bound to come about some day.'
'But Mrs. Bolton seems to have some personal objection to me.'
'I don't know why she should.'
'She has got one treasure of her own, in enjoying which she is shut out from all the rest of the world. Is it unnatural that she should be a little suspicious about a man who proposes to take her treasure away from her?'
'She must surrender her treasure to some one,--some day.'
'If it be so, she will hope to do so to a man of whose antecedents she may know more than she does of yours. What she does know of you is of a nature to frighten her. You will excuse me.'
'Oh, of course.'
'She has heard that you went away under a cloud, having surrendered your estate. That was against you. Well;--you have come back, and she hears that you have brought some money with you. She does not care very much about money; but she does care about regularity and fixed habits. If Hess is to be married at all she would especially wish that her husband should be a religious man. Perhaps you are.'
'I am neither the one thing nor the other,--especially.'
'And therefore peculiarly dangerous in her eyes It is natural that she should oppose you.'
'What am I to do, then?'
'Ah! How am I to answer that? The whole story is very romantic, and I do not know that we are a romantic family. My father is autocratic in his own house.'
This last assurance seemed to contain some comfort As Mrs. Bolton would be his enemy in the matter, it was well that the power of deciding should be in other hands. 'I do not mean to give it up,' said he.
'I suppose you must if they won't open their doors to you.'
'I think they ought to allow me to have the chance of seeing her.'
'I don't see why they should. Mind I am not saying anything of this for myself. If I were my sister's guardian, I should take the trouble to make many inquiries before I either asked you into my house or declined to do so. I should not give access to you, or to any other gentleman merely because he asked it.'
'Let them make inquiry.'
'Mrs. Bolton probably thinks that she already knows enough. What my father may say I cannot even surmise.'
'Will you tell him?'
'If you wish it.'
'Tell him also that I will wait upon him at once if he desires it. He shall know everything about my affairs,--which indeed require no concealment. I can settle enough upon her for her comfort. If she is to have anything of her own, that will be over and above. As far as I am concerned myself, I ask no question about that. I think that a man ought to earn enough for himself and for his wife too. As to religion----'
'If I were you, I would leave that alone,' said the lawyer.
'I will tell my father. That is all I can say. Good-bye.'
So they parted; and Caldigate, getting on his horse, rode back to Folking. Looking back at what he had done that day, he was almost disposed to be contented with it. The lady's too evident hostility was, of course, to be deprecated;--but then he had expected it. As Robert Bolton had explained to him very clearly, it was almost impossible that he should, at the first, be regarded by her with favourable eyes. But he thought that the brother had been quite as favourable to him as he could have expected, and the ice was broken. The Bolton family generally would know what he was about. Hester would not be told, of course;--at any rate, not at once. But the first steps had been taken, and it must be for him now so to press the matter that the ultimate decision should be made to rest in her hands as soon as possible.
'What did Mr. Bolton say to you?' asked the squire.
'I did not see him.'
'And what did the young lady say?'
'I did not see her.'
'Or the mamma?'
'I did see her, and told her my project.'
'I should think she would be startled?'
'She was not very propitious, sir; but that was not to be expected.'
'She is a poor melancholy half-crazed creature, I take it,' said the squire; 'at least, that is what I hear. The girl, I should think, would be glad to get away from such a home. But I am afraid you will find a good many obstacles.' After that nothing more was said about the matter at Folking for some days.
But there was a great deal said upon the matter both in Cambridge and at Chesterton. Robert Bolton found his father at the bank on the same afternoon, and performed his promise. 'Did he see your step-mother?' asked the old man.
'Oh yes; and as far as I can understand, did not receive very much favour at her hands.'
'But he did not see Hester?'
'Certainly not to-day.'
Then the old man looked up into his son's face, as though seeking some expression there from which he might take some counsel. His own nature had ever been imperious; but he was old now, and, in certain difficulties which environed him, he was apt to lean on his son Robert. It was Robert who encouraged him still to keep in his hands some share of the management of the bank; and it was to Robert that he could look for counsel when the ceremonious strictness of his wife at home became almost too hard even for him.
'It is natural to suppose that Hester should be married some day,' said the lawyer.
'Her mother will never wish it.'
'She will never wish it at any given moment, but she would probably assent to the proposition generally. Why not Hester as well as another girl? It is the happiest life for women.'
'I am not sure. I am not sure.'
'Women think so themselves, and Hester will probably be the same as others. She will, of course, have an opinion of her own.'
'She will be guided by her mother.'
'Not altogether. It will only be fair that she should be consulted on a matter of such importance to herself.'
'You would not tell her what this man has been saying?'
'Not necessarily. I say that she should be consulted generally as to her future life. In regard to this man, I see no objection to him if he be a good man.'
'He was here at college. You know what he did then?'
'Yes; and I know, too, something of what he has done since. He went away disinherited and almost degraded. He has come back, as I hear, comparatively a rich man. He has got back his inheritance, which might probably be settled on his children if he were to be married. And all this he has done off his own bat. Where other men stumble so frequently, he has stood on his legs. No doubt, he has lived with rough people, but still he seems to be a gentleman. Hester will be well off, no doubt, some day.'
'She will have something,--something,' said the old man.
'But this suitor asks for nothing. It is not as though he were coming to you to prop him up in the world. It does not look like that at least. Of course, we ought to make inquiry as to his means.'
'The mortgage has been paid off.'
'So much we know, and the rest may be found out. I do not mean at all to say that he should be allowed to have his own way. I think too much of my sister for that. But, in this matter, we ought to regard simply her happiness and her welfare;--and in considering that you ought to be prepared for her coming marriage. You may take it for granted that she will choose to give herself, sooner or later, to some man. Give a girl good looks, and good sense, and good health, and she is sure to wish to be some man's wife,--unless she be deterred by some conventual superstition.'
If there were any words capable of conveying horror to the mind of the old banker, they were convents, priests, and papacy,--of which the lawyer was well aware when speaking thus of his sister. Mrs. Bolton was certainly not addicted to papistical observances, nor was she at all likely to recommend the seclusion of her daughter in a convent. All her religious doctrines were those of the Low Church. But she had a tendency to arrive at similar results by other means. She was so afraid of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that she would fain shut up her child so as to keep her from the reach of all evil. Vowed celibacy was abominable to her, because it was the resource of the Roman Catholics; and because she had been taught to believe that convent-walls were screens for hiding unheard-of wickedness. But yet, on behalf of her child, she desired seclusion from the world, fancying that so and so only might security be ensured. Superstition was as strong with her as with any self-flagellated nun. Fasting, under that name, she held in abhorrence. But all sensual gratifications were wicked in her sight. She would allow all home indulgences to her daughter, each under some separate plea,--constrained to do so by excessive love; but she did so always in fear and trembling, lest she was giving some foothold to Satan. All of which Robert Bolton understood better even than did his father when he gave the above advice in reference to this lover.
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