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Barnaby Rudge

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Chapter 26

‘And you’re not surprised to hear this, Varden?’ said Mr Haredale. ‘Well! You and she have always been the best friends, and you should understand her if anybody does.’

‘I ask your pardon, sir,’ rejoined the locksmith. ‘I didn’t say I understood her. I wouldn’t have the presumption to say that of any woman. It’s not so easily done. But I am not so much surprised, sir, as you expected me to be, certainly.’

‘May I ask why not, my good friend?’

‘I have seen, sir,’ returned the locksmith with evident reluctance, ‘I have seen in connection with her, something that has filled me with distrust and uneasiness. She has made bad friends, how, or when, I don’t know; but that her house is a refuge for one robber and cut-throat at least, I am certain. There, sir! Now it’s out.’

‘Varden!’

‘My own eyes, sir, are my witnesses, and for her sake I would be willingly half-blind, if I could but have the pleasure of mistrusting ‘em. I have kept the secret till now, and it will go no further than yourself, I know; but I tell you that with my own eyes—broad awake—I saw, in the passage of her house one evening after dark, the highwayman who robbed and wounded Mr Edward Chester, and on the same night threatened me.’

‘And you made no effort to detain him?’ said Mr Haredale quickly.

‘Sir,’ returned the locksmith, ‘she herself prevented me—held me, with all her strength, and hung about me until he had got clear off.’ And having gone so far, he related circumstantially all that had passed upon the night in question.

This dialogue was held in a low tone in the locksmith’s little parlour, into which honest Gabriel had shown his visitor on his arrival. Mr Haredale had called upon him to entreat his company to the widow’s, that he might have the assistance of his persuasion and influence; and out of this circumstance the conversation had arisen.

‘I forbore,’ said Gabriel, ‘from repeating one word of this to anybody, as it could do her no good and might do her great harm. I thought and hoped, to say the truth, that she would come to me, and talk to me about it, and tell me how it was; but though I have purposely put myself in her way more than once or twice, she has never touched upon the subject—except by a look. And indeed,’ said the good-natured locksmith, ‘there was a good deal in the look, more than could have been put into a great many words. It said among other matters “Don’t ask me anything” so imploringly, that I didn’t ask her anything. You’ll think me an old fool, I know, sir. If it’s any relief to call me one, pray do.’

‘I am greatly disturbed by what you tell me,’ said Mr Haredale, after a silence. ‘What meaning do you attach to it?’

The locksmith shook his head, and looked doubtfully out of window at the failing light.

‘She cannot have married again,’ said Mr Haredale.

‘Not without our knowledge surely, sir.’

‘She may have done so, in the fear that it would lead, if known, to some objection or estrangement. Suppose she married incautiously—it is not improbable, for her existence has been a lonely and monotonous one for many years—and the man turned out a ruffian, she would be anxious to screen him, and yet would revolt from his crimes. This might be. It bears strongly on the whole drift of her discourse yesterday, and would quite explain her conduct. Do you suppose Barnaby is privy to these circumstances?’

‘Quite impossible to say, sir,’ returned the locksmith, shaking his head again: ‘and next to impossible to find out from him. If what you suppose is really the case, I tremble for the lad—a notable person, sir, to put to bad uses—’

‘It is not possible, Varden,’ said Mr Haredale, in a still lower tone of voice than he had spoken yet, ‘that we have been blinded and deceived by this woman from the beginning? It is not possible that this connection was formed in her husband’s lifetime, and led to his and my brother’s—’

‘Good God, sir,’ cried Gabriel, interrupting him, ‘don’t entertain such dark thoughts for a moment. Five-and-twenty years ago, where was there a girl like her? A gay, handsome, laughing, bright-eyed damsel! Think what she was, sir. It makes my heart ache now, even now, though I’m an old man, with a woman for a daughter, to think what she was and what she is. We all change, but that’s with Time; Time does his work honestly, and I don’t mind him. A fig for Time, sir. Use him well, and he’s a hearty fellow, and scorns to have you at a disadvantage. But care and suffering (and those have changed her) are devils, sir—secret, stealthy, undermining devils—who tread down the brightest flowers in Eden, and do more havoc in a month than Time does in a year. Picture to yourself for one minute what Mary was before they went to work with her fresh heart and face—do her that justice—and say whether such a thing is possible.’

‘You’re a good fellow, Varden,’ said Mr Haredale, ‘and are quite right. I have brooded on that subject so long, that every breath of suspicion carries me back to it. You are quite right.’

‘It isn’t, sir,’ cried the locksmith with brightened eyes, and sturdy, honest voice; ‘it isn’t because I courted her before Rudge, and failed, that I say she was too good for him. She would have been as much too good for me. But she WAS too good for him; he wasn’t free and frank enough for her. I don’t reproach his memory with it, poor fellow; I only want to put her before you as she really was. For myself, I’ll keep her old picture in my mind; and thinking of that, and what has altered her, I’ll stand her friend, and try to win her back to peace. And damme, sir,’ cried Gabriel, ‘with your pardon for the word, I’d do the same if she had married fifty highwaymen in a twelvemonth; and think it in the Protestant Manual too, though Martha said it wasn’t, tooth and nail, till doomsday!’

If the dark little parlour had been filled with a dense fog, which, clearing away in an instant, left it all radiance and brightness, it could not have been more suddenly cheered than by this outbreak on the part of the hearty locksmith. In a voice nearly as full and round as his own, Mr Haredale cried ‘Well said!’ and bade him come away without more parley. The locksmith complied right willingly; and both getting into a hackney coach which was waiting at the door, drove off straightway.

They alighted at the street corner, and dismissing their conveyance, walked to the house. To their first knock at the door there was no response. A second met with the like result. But in answer to the third, which was of a more vigorous kind, the parlour window-sash was gently raised, and a musical voice cried:

‘Haredale, my dear fellow, I am extremely glad to see you. How very much you have improved in your appearance since our last meeting! I never saw you looking better. HOW do you do?’

Mr Haredale turned his eyes towards the casement whence the voice proceeded, though there was no need to do so, to recognise the speaker, and Mr Chester waved his hand, and smiled a courteous welcome.

‘The door will be opened immediately,’ he said. ‘There is nobody but a very dilapidated female to perform such offices. You will excuse her infirmities? If she were in a more elevated station of society, she would be gouty. Being but a hewer of wood and drawer of water, she is rheumatic. My dear Haredale, these are natural class distinctions, depend upon it.’

Mr Haredale, whose face resumed its lowering and distrustful look the moment he heard the voice, inclined his head stiffly, and turned his back upon the speaker.

‘Not opened yet,’ said Mr Chester. ‘Dear me! I hope the aged soul has not caught her foot in some unlucky cobweb by the way. She is there at last! Come in, I beg!’

Mr Haredale entered, followed by the locksmith. Turning with a look of great astonishment to the old woman who had opened the door, he inquired for Mrs Rudge—for Barnaby. They were both gone, she replied, wagging her ancient head, for good. There was a gentleman in the parlour, who perhaps could tell them more. That was all SHE knew.

‘Pray, sir,’ said Mr Haredale, presenting himself before this new tenant, ‘where is the person whom I came here to see?’

‘My dear friend,’ he returned, ‘I have not the least idea.’

‘Your trifling is ill-timed,’ retorted the other in a suppressed tone and voice, ‘and its subject ill-chosen. Reserve it for those who are your friends, and do not expend it on me. I lay no claim to the distinction, and have the self-denial to reject it.’

‘My dear, good sir,’ said Mr Chester, ‘you are heated with walking. Sit down, I beg. Our friend is—’

‘Is but a plain honest man,’ returned Mr Haredale, ‘and quite unworthy of your notice.’

‘Gabriel Varden by name, sir,’ said the locksmith bluntly.

‘A worthy English yeoman!’ said Mr Chester. ‘A most worthy yeoman, of whom I have frequently heard my son Ned—darling fellow—speak, and have often wished to see. Varden, my good friend, I am glad to know you. You wonder now,’ he said, turning languidly to Mr Haredale, ‘to see me here. Now, I am sure you do.’

Mr Haredale glanced at him—not fondly or admiringly—smiled, and held his peace.

‘The mystery is solved in a moment,’ said Mr Chester; ‘in a moment. Will you step aside with me one instant. You remember our little compact in reference to Ned, and your dear niece, Haredale? You remember the list of assistants in their innocent intrigue? You remember these two people being among them? My dear fellow, congratulate yourself, and me. I have bought them off.’

‘You have done what?’ said Mr Haredale.

‘Bought them off,’ returned his smiling friend. ‘I have found it necessary to take some active steps towards setting this boy and girl attachment quite at rest, and have begun by removing these two agents. You are surprised? Who CAN withstand the influence of a little money! They wanted it, and have been bought off. We have nothing more to fear from them. They are gone.’

‘Gone!’ echoed Mr Haredale. ‘Where?’

‘My dear fellow—and you must permit me to say again, that you never looked so young; so positively boyish as you do to-night—the Lord knows where; I believe Columbus himself wouldn’t find them. Between you and me they have their hidden reasons, but upon that point I have pledged myself to secrecy. She appointed to see you here to-night, I know, but found it inconvenient, and couldn’t wait. Here is the key of the door. I am afraid you’ll find it inconveniently large; but as the tenement is yours, your good-nature will excuse that, Haredale, I am certain!’






Chapter 27

Mr Haredale stood in the widow’s parlour with the door-key in his hand, gazing by turns at Mr Chester and at Gabriel Varden, and occasionally glancing downward at the key as in the hope that of its own accord it would unlock the mystery; until Mr Chester, putting on his hat and gloves, and sweetly inquiring whether they were walking in the same direction, recalled him to himself.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Our roads diverge—widely, as you know. For the present, I shall remain here.’

‘You will be hipped, Haredale; you will be miserable, melancholy, utterly wretched,’ returned the other. ‘It’s a place of the very last description for a man of your temper. I know it will make you very miserable.’

‘Let it,’ said Mr Haredale, sitting down; ‘and thrive upon the thought. Good night!’

Feigning to be wholly unconscious of the abrupt wave of the hand which rendered this farewell tantamount to a dismissal, Mr Chester retorted with a bland and heartfelt benediction, and inquired of Gabriel in what direction HE was going.

‘Yours, sir, would be too much honour for the like of me,’ replied the locksmith, hesitating.

‘I wish you to remain here a little while, Varden,’ said Mr Haredale, without looking towards them. ‘I have a word or two to say to you.’

‘I will not intrude upon your conference another moment,’ said Mr Chester with inconceivable politeness. ‘May it be satisfactory to you both! God bless you!’ So saying, and bestowing upon the locksmith a most refulgent smile, he left them.

‘A deplorably constituted creature, that rugged person,’ he said, as he walked along the street; ‘he is an atrocity that carries its own punishment along with it—a bear that gnaws himself. And here is one of the inestimable advantages of having a perfect command over one’s inclinations. I have been tempted in these two short interviews, to draw upon that fellow, fifty times. Five men in six would have yielded to the impulse. By suppressing mine, I wound him deeper and more keenly than if I were the best swordsman in all Europe, and he the worst. You are the wise man’s very last resource,’ he said, tapping the hilt of his weapon; ‘we can but appeal to you when all else is said and done. To come to you before, and thereby spare our adversaries so much, is a barbarian mode of warfare, quite unworthy of any man with the remotest pretensions to delicacy of feeling, or refinement.’

He smiled so very pleasantly as he communed with himself after this manner, that a beggar was emboldened to follow for alms, and to dog his footsteps for some distance. He was gratified by the circumstance, feeling it complimentary to his power of feature, and as a reward suffered the man to follow him until he called a chair, when he graciously dismissed him with a fervent blessing.

‘Which is as easy as cursing,’ he wisely added, as he took his seat, ‘and more becoming to the face.—To Clerkenwell, my good creatures, if you please!’ The chairmen were rendered quite vivacious by having such a courteous burden, and to Clerkenwell they went at a fair round trot.

Alighting at a certain point he had indicated to them upon the road, and paying them something less than they expected from a fare of such gentle speech, he turned into the street in which the locksmith dwelt, and presently stood beneath the shadow of the Golden Key. Mr Tappertit, who was hard at work by lamplight, in a corner of the workshop, remained unconscious of his presence until a hand upon his shoulder made him start and turn his head.

‘Industry,’ said Mr Chester, ‘is the soul of business, and the keystone of prosperity. Mr Tappertit, I shall expect you to invite me to dinner when you are Lord Mayor of London.’

‘Sir,’ returned the ‘prentice, laying down his hammer, and rubbing his nose on the back of a very sooty hand, ‘I scorn the Lord Mayor and everything that belongs to him. We must have another state of society, sir, before you catch me being Lord Mayor. How de do, sir?’

‘The better, Mr Tappertit, for looking into your ingenuous face once more. I hope you are well.’

‘I am as well, sir,’ said Sim, standing up to get nearer to his ear, and whispering hoarsely, ‘as any man can be under the aggrawations to which I am exposed. My life’s a burden to me. If it wasn’t for wengeance, I’d play at pitch and toss with it on the losing hazard.’

‘Is Mrs Varden at home?’ said Mr Chester.

‘Sir,’ returned Sim, eyeing him over with a look of concentrated expression,—‘she is. Did you wish to see her?’

Mr Chester nodded.

‘Then come this way, sir,’ said Sim, wiping his face upon his apron. ‘Follow me, sir.—Would you permit me to whisper in your ear, one half a second?’

‘By all means.’

Mr Tappertit raised himself on tiptoe, applied his lips to Mr Chester’s ear, drew back his head without saying anything, looked hard at him, applied them to his ear again, again drew back, and finally whispered—‘The name is Joseph Willet. Hush! I say no more.’

Having said that much, he beckoned the visitor with a mysterious aspect to follow him to the parlour-door, where he announced him in the voice of a gentleman-usher. ‘Mr Chester.’

‘And not Mr Ed’dard, mind,’ said Sim, looking into the door again, and adding this by way of postscript in his own person; ‘it’s his father.’

‘But do not let his father,’ said Mr Chester, advancing hat in hand, as he observed the effect of this last explanatory announcement, ‘do not let his father be any check or restraint on your domestic occupations, Miss Varden.’

‘Oh! Now! There! An’t I always a-saying it!’ exclaimed Miggs, clapping her hands. ‘If he an’t been and took Missis for her own daughter. Well, she DO look like it, that she do. Only think of that, mim!’

‘Is it possible,’ said Mr Chester in his softest tones, ‘that this is Mrs Varden! I am amazed. That is not your daughter, Mrs Varden? No, no. Your sister.’

‘My daughter, indeed, sir,’ returned Mrs V., blushing with great juvenility.

‘Ah, Mrs Varden!’ cried the visitor. ‘Ah, ma’am—humanity is indeed a happy lot, when we can repeat ourselves in others, and still be young as they. You must allow me to salute you—the custom of the country, my dear madam—your daughter too.’

Dolly showed some reluctance to perform this ceremony, but was sharply reproved by Mrs Varden, who insisted on her undergoing it that minute. For pride, she said with great severity, was one of the seven deadly sins, and humility and lowliness of heart were virtues. Wherefore she desired that Dolly would be kissed immediately, on pain of her just displeasure; at the same time giving her to understand that whatever she saw her mother do, she might safely do herself, without being at the trouble of any reasoning or reflection on the subject—which, indeed, was offensive and undutiful, and in direct contravention of the church catechism.

Thus admonished, Dolly complied, though by no means willingly; for there was a broad, bold look of admiration in Mr Chester’s face, refined and polished though it sought to be, which distressed her very much. As she stood with downcast eyes, not liking to look up and meet his, he gazed upon her with an approving air, and then turned to her mother.

‘My friend Gabriel (whose acquaintance I only made this very evening) should be a happy man, Mrs Varden.’

‘Ah!’ sighed Mrs V., shaking her head.

‘Ah!’ echoed Miggs.

‘Is that the case?’ said Mr Chester, compassionately. ‘Dear me!’

‘Master has no intentions, sir,’ murmured Miggs as she sidled up to him, ‘but to be as grateful as his natur will let him, for everythink he owns which it is in his powers to appreciate. But we never, sir’—said Miggs, looking sideways at Mrs Varden, and interlarding her discourse with a sigh—‘we never know the full value of SOME wines and fig-trees till we lose ‘em. So much the worse, sir, for them as has the slighting of ‘em on their consciences when they’re gone to be in full blow elsewhere.’ And Miss Miggs cast up her eyes to signify where that might be.

As Mrs Varden distinctly heard, and was intended to hear, all that Miggs said, and as these words appeared to convey in metaphorical terms a presage or foreboding that she would at some early period droop beneath her trials and take an easy flight towards the stars, she immediately began to languish, and taking a volume of the Manual from a neighbouring table, leant her arm upon it as though she were Hope and that her Anchor. Mr Chester perceiving this, and seeing how the volume was lettered on the back, took it gently from her hand, and turned the fluttering leaves.

‘My favourite book, dear madam. How often, how very often in his early life—before he can remember’—(this clause was strictly true) ‘have I deduced little easy moral lessons from its pages, for my dear son Ned! You know Ned?’

Mrs Varden had that honour, and a fine affable young gentleman he was.

‘You’re a mother, Mrs Varden,’ said Mr Chester, taking a pinch of snuff, ‘and you know what I, as a father, feel, when he is praised. He gives me some uneasiness—much uneasiness—he’s of a roving nature, ma’am—from flower to flower—from sweet to sweet—but his is the butterfly time of life, and we must not be hard upon such trifling.’

He glanced at Dolly. She was attending evidently to what he said. Just what he desired!

‘The only thing I object to in this little trait of Ned’s, is,’ said Mr Chester, ‘—and the mention of his name reminds me, by the way, that I am about to beg the favour of a minute’s talk with you alone—the only thing I object to in it, is, that it DOES partake of insincerity. Now, however I may attempt to disguise the fact from myself in my affection for Ned, still I always revert to this—that if we are not sincere, we are nothing. Nothing upon earth. Let us be sincere, my dear madam—’

‘—and Protestant,’ murmured Mrs Varden.

‘—and Protestant above all things. Let us be sincere and Protestant, strictly moral, strictly just (though always with a leaning towards mercy), strictly honest, and strictly true, and we gain—it is a slight point, certainly, but still it is something tangible; we throw up a groundwork and foundation, so to speak, of goodness, on which we may afterwards erect some worthy superstructure.’

Now, to be sure, Mrs Varden thought, here is a perfect character. Here is a meek, righteous, thoroughgoing Christian, who, having mastered all these qualities, so difficult of attainment; who, having dropped a pinch of salt on the tails of all the cardinal virtues, and caught them every one; makes light of their possession, and pants for more morality. For the good woman never doubted (as many good men and women never do), that this slighting kind of profession, this setting so little store by great matters, this seeming to say, ‘I am not proud, I am what you hear, but I consider myself no better than other people; let us change the subject, pray’—was perfectly genuine and true. He so contrived it, and said it in that way that it appeared to have been forced from him, and its effect was marvellous.

Aware of the impression he had made—few men were quicker than he at such discoveries—Mr Chester followed up the blow by propounding certain virtuous maxims, somewhat vague and general in their nature, doubtless, and occasionally partaking of the character of truisms, worn a little out at elbow, but delivered in so charming a voice and with such uncommon serenity and peace of mind, that they answered as well as the best. Nor is this to be wondered at; for as hollow vessels produce a far more musical sound in falling than those which are substantial, so it will oftentimes be found that sentiments which have nothing in them make the loudest ringing in the world, and are the most relished.

Mr Chester, with the volume gently extended in one hand, and with the other planted lightly on his breast, talked to them in the most delicious manner possible; and quite enchanted all his hearers, notwithstanding their conflicting interests and thoughts. Even Dolly, who, between his keen regards and her eyeing over by Mr Tappertit, was put quite out of countenance, could not help owning within herself that he was the sweetest-spoken gentleman she had ever seen. Even Miss Miggs, who was divided between admiration of Mr Chester and a mortal jealousy of her young mistress, had sufficient leisure to be propitiated. Even Mr Tappertit, though occupied as we have seen in gazing at his heart’s delight, could not wholly divert his thoughts from the voice of the other charmer. Mrs Varden, to her own private thinking, had never been so improved in all her life; and when Mr Chester, rising and craving permission to speak with her apart, took her by the hand and led her at arm’s length upstairs to the best sitting-room, she almost deemed him something more than human.

‘Dear madam,’ he said, pressing her hand delicately to his lips; ‘be seated.’

Mrs Varden called up quite a courtly air, and became seated.

‘You guess my object?’ said Mr Chester, drawing a chair towards her. ‘You divine my purpose? I am an affectionate parent, my dear Mrs Varden.’

‘That I am sure you are, sir,’ said Mrs V.

‘Thank you,’ returned Mr Chester, tapping his snuff-box lid. ‘Heavy moral responsibilities rest with parents, Mrs Varden.’

Mrs Varden slightly raised her hands, shook her head, and looked at the ground as though she saw straight through the globe, out at the other end, and into the immensity of space beyond.

‘I may confide in you,’ said Mr Chester, ‘without reserve. I love my son, ma’am, dearly; and loving him as I do, I would save him from working certain misery. You know of his attachment to Miss Haredale. You have abetted him in it, and very kind of you it was to do so. I am deeply obliged to you—most deeply obliged to you—for your interest in his behalf; but my dear ma’am, it is a mistaken one, I do assure you.’

Mrs Varden stammered that she was sorry—

‘Sorry, my dear ma’am,’ he interposed. ‘Never be sorry for what is so very amiable, so very good in intention, so perfectly like yourself. But there are grave and weighty reasons, pressing family considerations, and apart even from these, points of religious difference, which interpose themselves, and render their union impossible; utterly im-possible. I should have mentioned these circumstances to your husband; but he has—you will excuse my saying this so freely—he has NOT your quickness of apprehension or depth of moral sense. What an extremely airy house this is, and how beautifully kept! For one like myself—a widower so long—these tokens of female care and superintendence have inexpressible charms.’

Mrs Varden began to think (she scarcely knew why) that the young Mr Chester must be in the wrong and the old Mr Chester must be in the right.

‘My son Ned,’ resumed her tempter with his most winning air, ‘has had, I am told, your lovely daughter’s aid, and your open-hearted husband’s.’

‘—Much more than mine, sir,’ said Mrs Varden; ‘a great deal more. I have often had my doubts. It’s a—’

‘A bad example,’ suggested Mr Chester. ‘It is. No doubt it is. Your daughter is at that age when to set before her an encouragement for young persons to rebel against their parents on this most important point, is particularly injudicious. You are quite right. I ought to have thought of that myself, but it escaped me, I confess—so far superior are your sex to ours, dear madam, in point of penetration and sagacity.’

Mrs Varden looked as wise as if she had really said something to deserve this compliment—firmly believed she had, in short—and her faith in her own shrewdness increased considerably.

‘My dear ma’am,’ said Mr Chester, ‘you embolden me to be plain with you. My son and I are at variance on this point. The young lady and her natural guardian differ upon it, also. And the closing point is, that my son is bound by his duty to me, by his honour, by every solemn tie and obligation, to marry some one else.’

‘Engaged to marry another lady!’ quoth Mrs Varden, holding up her hands.

‘My dear madam, brought up, educated, and trained, expressly for that purpose. Expressly for that purpose.—Miss Haredale, I am told, is a very charming creature.’

‘I am her foster-mother, and should know—the best young lady in the world,’ said Mrs Varden.

‘I have not the smallest doubt of it. I am sure she is. And you, who have stood in that tender relation towards her, are bound to consult her happiness. Now, can I—as I have said to Haredale, who quite agrees—can I possibly stand by, and suffer her to throw herself away (although she IS of a Catholic family), upon a young fellow who, as yet, has no heart at all? It is no imputation upon him to say he has not, because young men who have plunged deeply into the frivolities and conventionalities of society, very seldom have. Their hearts never grow, my dear ma’am, till after thirty. I don’t believe, no, I do NOT believe, that I had any heart myself when I was Ned’s age.’

‘Oh sir,’ said Mrs Varden, ‘I think you must have had. It’s impossible that you, who have so much now, can ever have been without any.’

‘I hope,’ he answered, shrugging his shoulders meekly, ‘I have a little; I hope, a very little—Heaven knows! But to return to Ned; I have no doubt you thought, and therefore interfered benevolently in his behalf, that I objected to Miss Haredale. How very natural! My dear madam, I object to him—to him—emphatically to Ned himself.’

Mrs Varden was perfectly aghast at the disclosure.

‘He has, if he honourably fulfils this solemn obligation of which I have told you—and he must be honourable, dear Mrs Varden, or he is no son of mine—a fortune within his reach. He is of most expensive, ruinously expensive habits; and if, in a moment of caprice and wilfulness, he were to marry this young lady, and so deprive himself of the means of gratifying the tastes to which he has been so long accustomed, he would—my dear madam, he would break the gentle creature’s heart. Mrs Varden, my good lady, my dear soul, I put it to you—is such a sacrifice to be endured? Is the female heart a thing to be trifled with in this way? Ask your own, my dear madam. Ask your own, I beseech you.’

‘Truly,’ thought Mrs Varden, ‘this gentleman is a saint. But,’ she added aloud, and not unnaturally, ‘if you take Miss Emma’s lover away, sir, what becomes of the poor thing’s heart then?’

‘The very point,’ said Mr Chester, not at all abashed, ‘to which I wished to lead you. A marriage with my son, whom I should be compelled to disown, would be followed by years of misery; they would be separated, my dear madam, in a twelvemonth. To break off this attachment, which is more fancied than real, as you and I know very well, will cost the dear girl but a few tears, and she is happy again. Take the case of your own daughter, the young lady downstairs, who is your breathing image’—Mrs Varden coughed and simpered—‘there is a young man (I am sorry to say, a dissolute fellow, of very indifferent character) of whom I have heard Ned speak—Bullet was it—Pullet—Mullet—’

‘There is a young man of the name of Joseph Willet, sir,’ said Mrs Varden, folding her hands loftily.

‘That’s he,’ cried Mr Chester. ‘Suppose this Joseph Willet now, were to aspire to the affections of your charming daughter, and were to engage them.’

‘It would be like his impudence,’ interposed Mrs Varden, bridling, ‘to dare to think of such a thing!’

‘My dear madam, that’s the whole case. I know it would be like his impudence. It is like Ned’s impudence to do as he has done; but you would not on that account, or because of a few tears from your beautiful daughter, refrain from checking their inclinations in their birth. I meant to have reasoned thus with your husband when I saw him at Mrs Rudge’s this evening—’

‘My husband,’ said Mrs Varden, interposing with emotion, ‘would be a great deal better at home than going to Mrs Rudge’s so often. I don’t know what he does there. I don’t see what occasion he has to busy himself in her affairs at all, sir.’

‘If I don’t appear to express my concurrence in those last sentiments of yours,’ returned Mr Chester, ‘quite so strongly as you might desire, it is because his being there, my dear madam, and not proving conversational, led me hither, and procured me the happiness of this interview with one, in whom the whole management, conduct, and prosperity of her family are centred, I perceive.’

With that he took Mrs Varden’s hand again, and having pressed it to his lips with the highflown gallantry of the day—a little burlesqued to render it the more striking in the good lady’s unaccustomed eyes—proceeded in the same strain of mingled sophistry, cajolery, and flattery, to entreat that her utmost influence might be exerted to restrain her husband and daughter from any further promotion of Edward’s suit to Miss Haredale, and from aiding or abetting either party in any way. Mrs Varden was but a woman, and had her share of vanity, obstinacy, and love of power. She entered into a secret treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, with her insinuating visitor; and really did believe, as many others would have done who saw and heard him, that in so doing she furthered the ends of truth, justice, and morality, in a very uncommon degree.

Overjoyed by the success of his negotiation, and mightily amused within himself, Mr Chester conducted her downstairs in the same state as before; and having repeated the previous ceremony of salutation, which also as before comprehended Dolly, took his leave; first completing the conquest of Miss Miggs’s heart, by inquiring if ‘this young lady’ would light him to the door.

‘Oh, mim,’ said Miggs, returning with the candle. ‘Oh gracious me, mim, there’s a gentleman! Was there ever such an angel to talk as he is—and such a sweet-looking man! So upright and noble, that he seems to despise the very ground he walks on; and yet so mild and condescending, that he seems to say “but I will take notice on it too.” And to think of his taking you for Miss Dolly, and Miss Dolly for your sister—Oh, my goodness me, if I was master wouldn’t I be jealous of him!’

Mrs Varden reproved her handmaid for this vain-speaking; but very gently and mildly—quite smilingly indeed—remarking that she was a foolish, giddy, light-headed girl, whose spirits carried her beyond all bounds, and who didn’t mean half she said, or she would be quite angry with her.

‘For my part,’ said Dolly, in a thoughtful manner, ‘I half believe Mr Chester is something like Miggs in that respect. For all his politeness and pleasant speaking, I am pretty sure he was making game of us, more than once.’

‘If you venture to say such a thing again, and to speak ill of people behind their backs in my presence, miss,’ said Mrs Varden, ‘I shall insist upon your taking a candle and going to bed directly. How dare you, Dolly? I’m astonished at you. The rudeness of your whole behaviour this evening has been disgraceful. Did anybody ever hear,’ cried the enraged matron, bursting into tears, ‘of a daughter telling her own mother she has been made game of!’

What a very uncertain temper Mrs Varden’s was!






Chapter 28

Repairing to a noted coffee-house in Covent Garden when he left the locksmith’s, Mr Chester sat long over a late dinner, entertaining himself exceedingly with the whimsical recollection of his recent proceedings, and congratulating himself very much on his great cleverness. Influenced by these thoughts, his face wore an expression so benign and tranquil, that the waiter in immediate attendance upon him felt he could almost have died in his defence, and settled in his own mind (until the receipt of the bill, and a very small fee for very great trouble disabused it of the idea) that such an apostolic customer was worth half-a-dozen of the ordinary run of visitors, at least.

A visit to the gaming-table—not as a heated, anxious venturer, but one whom it was quite a treat to see staking his two or three pieces in deference to the follies of society, and smiling with equal benevolence on winners and losers—made it late before he reached home. It was his custom to bid his servant go to bed at his own time unless he had orders to the contrary, and to leave a candle on the common stair. There was a lamp on the landing by which he could always light it when he came home late, and having a key of the door about him he could enter and go to bed at his pleasure.

He opened the glass of the dull lamp, whose wick, burnt up and swollen like a drunkard’s nose, came flying off in little carbuncles at the candle’s touch, and scattering hot sparks about, rendered it matter of some difficulty to kindle the lazy taper; when a noise, as of a man snoring deeply some steps higher up, caused him to pause and listen. It was the heavy breathing of a sleeper, close at hand. Some fellow had lain down on the open staircase, and was slumbering soundly. Having lighted the candle at length and opened his own door, he softly ascended, holding the taper high above his head, and peering cautiously about; curious to see what kind of man had chosen so comfortless a shelter for his lodging.

With his head upon the landing and his great limbs flung over half-a-dozen stairs, as carelessly as though he were a dead man whom drunken bearers had thrown down by chance, there lay Hugh, face uppermost, his long hair drooping like some wild weed upon his wooden pillow, and his huge chest heaving with the sounds which so unwontedly disturbed the place and hour.

He who came upon him so unexpectedly was about to break his rest by thrusting him with his foot, when, glancing at his upturned face, he arrested himself in the very action, and stooping down and shading the candle with his hand, examined his features closely. Close as his first inspection was, it did not suffice, for he passed the light, still carefully shaded as before, across and across his face, and yet observed him with a searching eye.

While he was thus engaged, the sleeper, without any starting or turning round, awoke. There was a kind of fascination in meeting his steady gaze so suddenly, which took from the other the presence of mind to withdraw his eyes, and forced him, as it were, to meet his look. So they remained staring at each other, until Mr Chester at last broke silence, and asked him in a low voice, why he lay sleeping there.

‘I thought,’ said Hugh, struggling into a sitting posture and gazing at him intently, still, ‘that you were a part of my dream. It was a curious one. I hope it may never come true, master.’

‘What makes you shiver?’

‘The—the cold, I suppose,’ he growled, as he shook himself and rose. ‘I hardly know where I am yet.’

‘Do you know me?’ said Mr Chester.

‘Ay, I know you,’ he answered. ‘I was dreaming of you—we’re not where I thought we were. That’s a comfort.’

He looked round him as he spoke, and in particular looked above his head, as though he half expected to be standing under some object which had had existence in his dream. Then he rubbed his eyes and shook himself again, and followed his conductor into his own rooms.

Mr Chester lighted the candles which stood upon his dressing-table, and wheeling an easy-chair towards the fire, which was yet burning, stirred up a cheerful blaze, sat down before it, and bade his uncouth visitor ‘Come here,’ and draw his boots off.

‘You have been drinking again, my fine fellow,’ he said, as Hugh went down on one knee, and did as he was told.

‘As I’m alive, master, I’ve walked the twelve long miles, and waited here I don’t know how long, and had no drink between my lips since dinner-time at noon.’

‘And can you do nothing better, my pleasant friend, than fall asleep, and shake the very building with your snores?’ said Mr Chester. ‘Can’t you dream in your straw at home, dull dog as you are, that you need come here to do it?—Reach me those slippers, and tread softly.’

Hugh obeyed in silence.

‘And harkee, my dear young gentleman,’ said Mr Chester, as he put them on, ‘the next time you dream, don’t let it be of me, but of some dog or horse with whom you are better acquainted. Fill the glass once—you’ll find it and the bottle in the same place—and empty it to keep yourself awake.’

Hugh obeyed again even more zealously—and having done so, presented himself before his patron.

‘Now,’ said Mr Chester, ‘what do you want with me?’

‘There was news to-day,’ returned Hugh. ‘Your son was at our house—came down on horseback. He tried to see the young woman, but couldn’t get sight of her. He left some letter or some message which our Joe had charge of, but he and the old one quarrelled about it when your son had gone, and the old one wouldn’t let it be delivered. He says (that’s the old one does) that none of his people shall interfere and get him into trouble. He’s a landlord, he says, and lives on everybody’s custom.’

‘He’s a jewel,’ smiled Mr Chester, ‘and the better for being a dull one.—Well?’

‘Varden’s daughter—that’s the girl I kissed—’

‘—and stole the bracelet from upon the king’s highway,’ said Mr Chester, composedly. ‘Yes; what of her?’

‘She wrote a note at our house to the young woman, saying she lost the letter I brought to you, and you burnt. Our Joe was to carry it, but the old one kept him at home all next day, on purpose that he shouldn’t. Next morning he gave it to me to take; and here it is.’

‘You didn’t deliver it then, my good friend?’ said Mr Chester, twirling Dolly’s note between his finger and thumb, and feigning to be surprised.

‘I supposed you’d want to have it,’ retorted Hugh. ‘Burn one, burn all, I thought.’

‘My devil-may-care acquaintance,’ said Mr Chester—‘really if you do not draw some nicer distinctions, your career will be cut short with most surprising suddenness. Don’t you know that the letter you brought to me, was directed to my son who resides in this very place? And can you descry no difference between his letters and those addressed to other people?’

‘If you don’t want it,’ said Hugh, disconcerted by this reproof, for he had expected high praise, ‘give it me back, and I’ll deliver it. I don’t know how to please you, master.’

‘I shall deliver it,’ returned his patron, putting it away after a moment’s consideration, ‘myself. Does the young lady walk out, on fine mornings?’

‘Mostly—about noon is her usual time.’

‘Alone?’

‘Yes, alone.’

‘Where?’

‘In the grounds before the house.—Them that the footpath crosses.’

‘If the weather should be fine, I may throw myself in her way to-morrow, perhaps,’ said Mr Chester, as coolly as if she were one of his ordinary acquaintance. ‘Mr Hugh, if I should ride up to the Maypole door, you will do me the favour only to have seen me once. You must suppress your gratitude, and endeavour to forget my forbearance in the matter of the bracelet. It is natural it should break out, and it does you honour; but when other folks are by, you must, for your own sake and safety, be as like your usual self as though you owed me no obligation whatever, and had never stood within these walls. You comprehend me?’

Hugh understood him perfectly. After a pause he muttered that he hoped his patron would involve him in no trouble about this last letter; for he had kept it back solely with the view of pleasing him. He was continuing in this strain, when Mr Chester with a most beneficent and patronising air cut him short by saying:

‘My good fellow, you have my promise, my word, my sealed bond (for a verbal pledge with me is quite as good), that I will always protect you so long as you deserve it. Now, do set your mind at rest. Keep it at ease, I beg of you. When a man puts himself in my power so thoroughly as you have done, I really feel as though he had a kind of claim upon me. I am more disposed to mercy and forbearance under such circumstances than I can tell you, Hugh. Do look upon me as your protector, and rest assured, I entreat you, that on the subject of that indiscretion, you may preserve, as long as you and I are friends, the lightest heart that ever beat within a human breast. Fill that glass once more to cheer you on your road homewards—I am really quite ashamed to think how far you have to go—and then God bless you for the night.’

‘They think,’ said Hugh, when he had tossed the liquor down, ‘that I am sleeping soundly in the stable. Ha ha ha! The stable door is shut, but the steed’s gone, master.’

‘You are a most convivial fellow,’ returned his friend, ‘and I love your humour of all things. Good night! Take the greatest possible care of yourself, for my sake!’

It was remarkable that during the whole interview, each had endeavoured to catch stolen glances of the other’s face, and had never looked full at it. They interchanged one brief and hasty glance as Hugh went out, averted their eyes directly, and so separated. Hugh closed the double doors behind him, carefully and without noise; and Mr Chester remained in his easy-chair, with his gaze intently fixed upon the fire.

‘Well!’ he said, after meditating for a long time—and said with a deep sigh and an uneasy shifting of his attitude, as though he dismissed some other subject from his thoughts, and returned to that which had held possession of them all the day—‘the plot thickens; I have thrown the shell; it will explode, I think, in eight-and-forty hours, and should scatter these good folks amazingly. We shall see!’

He went to bed and fell asleep, but had not slept long when he started up and thought that Hugh was at the outer door, calling in a strange voice, very different from his own, to be admitted. The delusion was so strong upon him, and was so full of that vague terror of the night in which such visions have their being, that he rose, and taking his sheathed sword in his hand, opened the door, and looked out upon the staircase, and towards the spot where Hugh had lain asleep; and even spoke to him by name. But all was dark and quiet, and creeping back to bed again, he fell, after an hour’s uneasy watching, into a second sleep, and woke no more till morning.






Chapter 29

The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning.

It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain. The man who lives but in the breath of princes, has nothing in his sight but stars for courtiers’ breasts. The envious man beholds his neighbours’ honours even in the sky; to the money-hoarder, and the mass of worldly folk, the whole great universe above glitters with sterling coin—fresh from the mint—stamped with the sovereign’s head—coming always between them and heaven, turn where they may. So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.

Everything was fresh and gay, as though the world were but that morning made, when Mr Chester rode at a tranquil pace along the Forest road. Though early in the season, it was warm and genial weather; the trees were budding into leaf, the hedges and the grass were green, the air was musical with songs of birds, and high above them all the lark poured out her richest melody. In shady spots, the morning dew sparkled on each young leaf and blade of grass; and where the sun was shining, some diamond drops yet glistened brightly, as in unwillingness to leave so fair a world, and have such brief existence. Even the light wind, whose rustling was as gentle to the ear as softly-falling water, had its hope and promise; and, leaving a pleasant fragrance in its track as it went fluttering by, whispered of its intercourse with Summer, and of his happy coming.

The solitary rider went glancing on among the trees, from sunlight into shade and back again, at the same even pace—looking about him, certainly, from time to time, but with no greater thought of the day or the scene through which he moved, than that he was fortunate (being choicely dressed) to have such favourable weather. He smiled very complacently at such times, but rather as if he were satisfied with himself than with anything else: and so went riding on, upon his chestnut cob, as pleasant to look upon as his own horse, and probably far less sensitive to the many cheerful influences by which he was surrounded.

In the course of time, the Maypole’s massive chimneys rose upon his view: but he quickened not his pace one jot, and with the same cool gravity rode up to the tavern porch. John Willet, who was toasting his red face before a great fire in the bar, and who, with surpassing foresight and quickness of apprehension, had been thinking, as he looked at the blue sky, that if that state of things lasted much longer, it might ultimately become necessary to leave off fires and throw the windows open, issued forth to hold his stirrup; calling lustily for Hugh.

‘Oh, you’re here, are you, sir?’ said John, rather surprised by the quickness with which he appeared. ‘Take this here valuable animal into the stable, and have more than particular care of him if you want to keep your place. A mortal lazy fellow, sir; he needs a deal of looking after.’

‘But you have a son,’ returned Mr Chester, giving his bridle to Hugh as he dismounted, and acknowledging his salute by a careless motion of his hand towards his hat. ‘Why don’t you make HIM useful?’

‘Why, the truth is, sir,’ replied John with great importance, ‘that my son—what, you’re a-listening are you, villain?’

‘Who’s listening?’ returned Hugh angrily. ‘A treat, indeed, to hear YOU speak! Would you have me take him in till he’s cool?’

‘Walk him up and down further off then, sir,’ cried old John, ‘and when you see me and a noble gentleman entertaining ourselves with talk, keep your distance. If you don’t know your distance, sir,’ added Mr Willet, after an enormously long pause, during which he fixed his great dull eyes on Hugh, and waited with exemplary patience for any little property in the way of ideas that might come to him, ‘we’ll find a way to teach you, pretty soon.’

Hugh shrugged his shoulders scornfully, and in his reckless swaggering way, crossed to the other side of the little green, and there, with the bridle slung loosely over his shoulder, led the horse to and fro, glancing at his master every now and then from under his bushy eyebrows, with as sinister an aspect as one would desire to see.

Mr Chester, who, without appearing to do so, had eyed him attentively during this brief dispute, stepped into the porch, and turning abruptly to Mr Willet, said,

‘You keep strange servants, John.’

‘Strange enough to look at, sir, certainly,’ answered the host; ‘but out of doors; for horses, dogs, and the likes of that; there an’t a better man in England than is that Maypole Hugh yonder. He an’t fit for indoors,’ added Mr Willet, with the confidential air of a man who felt his own superior nature. ‘I do that; but if that chap had only a little imagination, sir—’

‘He’s an active fellow now, I dare swear,’ said Mr Chester, in a musing tone, which seemed to suggest that he would have said the same had there been nobody to hear him.

‘Active, sir!’ retorted John, with quite an expression in his face; ‘that chap! Hallo there! You, sir! Bring that horse here, and go and hang my wig on the weathercock, to show this gentleman whether you’re one of the lively sort or not.’

Hugh made no answer, but throwing the bridle to his master, and snatching his wig from his head, in a manner so unceremonious and hasty that the action discomposed Mr Willet not a little, though performed at his own special desire, climbed nimbly to the very summit of the maypole before the house, and hanging the wig upon the weathercock, sent it twirling round like a roasting jack. Having achieved this performance, he cast it on the ground, and sliding down the pole with inconceivable rapidity, alighted on his feet almost as soon as it had touched the earth.

‘There, sir,’ said John, relapsing into his usual stolid state, ‘you won’t see that at many houses, besides the Maypole, where there’s good accommodation for man and beast—nor that neither, though that with him is nothing.’

This last remark bore reference to his vaulting on horseback, as upon Mr Chester’s first visit, and quickly disappearing by the stable gate.

‘That with him is nothing,’ repeated Mr Willet, brushing his wig with his wrist, and inwardly resolving to distribute a small charge for dust and damage to that article of dress, through the various items of his guest’s bill; ‘he’ll get out of a’most any winder in the house. There never was such a chap for flinging himself about and never hurting his bones. It’s my opinion, sir, that it’s pretty nearly allowing to his not having any imagination; and that if imagination could be (which it can’t) knocked into him, he’d never be able to do it any more. But we was a-talking, sir, about my son.’

‘True, Willet, true,’ said his visitor, turning again towards the landlord with his accustomed serenity of face. ‘My good friend, what about him?’

It has been reported that Mr Willet, previously to making answer, winked. But as he was never known to be guilty of such lightness of conduct either before or afterwards, this may be looked upon as a malicious invention of his enemies—founded, perhaps, upon the undisputed circumstance of his taking his guest by the third breast button of his coat, counting downwards from the chin, and pouring his reply into his ear:

‘Sir,’ whispered John, with dignity, ‘I know my duty. We want no love-making here, sir, unbeknown to parents. I respect a certain young gentleman, taking him in the light of a young gentleman; I respect a certain young lady, taking her in the light of a young lady; but of the two as a couple, I have no knowledge, sir, none whatever. My son, sir, is upon his patrole.’

‘I thought I saw him looking through the corner window but this moment,’ said Mr Chester, who naturally thought that being on patrole, implied walking about somewhere.

‘No doubt you did, sir,’ returned John. ‘He is upon his patrole of honour, sir, not to leave the premises. Me and some friends of mine that use the Maypole of an evening, sir, considered what was best to be done with him, to prevent his doing anything unpleasant in opposing your desires; and we’ve put him on his patrole. And what’s more, sir, he won’t be off his patrole for a pretty long time to come, I can tell you that.’

When he had communicated this bright idea, which had its origin in the perusal by the village cronies of a newspaper, containing, among other matters, an account of how some officer pending the sentence of some court-martial had been enlarged on parole, Mr Willet drew back from his guest’s ear, and without any visible alteration of feature, chuckled thrice audibly. This nearest approach to a laugh in which he ever indulged (and that but seldom and only on extreme occasions), never even curled his lip or effected the smallest change in—no, not so much as a slight wagging of—his great, fat, double chin, which at these times, as at all others, remained a perfect desert in the broad map of his face; one changeless, dull, tremendous blank.

Lest it should be matter of surprise to any, that Mr Willet adopted this bold course in opposition to one whom he had often entertained, and who had always paid his way at the Maypole gallantly, it may be remarked that it was his very penetration and sagacity in this respect, which occasioned him to indulge in those unusual demonstrations of jocularity, just now recorded. For Mr Willet, after carefully balancing father and son in his mental scales, had arrived at the distinct conclusion that the old gentleman was a better sort of a customer than the young one. Throwing his landlord into the same scale, which was already turned by this consideration, and heaping upon him, again, his strong desires to run counter to the unfortunate Joe, and his opposition as a general principle to all matters of love and matrimony, it went down to the very ground straightway, and sent the light cause of the younger gentleman flying upwards to the ceiling. Mr Chester was not the kind of man to be by any means dim-sighted to Mr Willet’s motives, but he thanked him as graciously as if he had been one of the most disinterested martyrs that ever shone on earth; and leaving him, with many complimentary reliances on his great taste and judgment, to prepare whatever dinner he might deem most fitting the occasion, bent his steps towards the Warren.

Dressed with more than his usual elegance; assuming a gracefulness of manner, which, though it was the result of long study, sat easily upon him and became him well; composing his features into their most serene and prepossessing expression; and setting in short that guard upon himself, at every point, which denoted that he attached no slight importance to the impression he was about to make; he entered the bounds of Miss Haredale’s usual walk. He had not gone far, or looked about him long, when he descried coming towards him, a female figure. A glimpse of the form and dress as she crossed a little wooden bridge which lay between them, satisfied him that he had found her whom he desired to see. He threw himself in her way, and a very few paces brought them close together.

He raised his hat from his head, and yielding the path, suffered her to pass him. Then, as if the idea had but that moment occurred to him, he turned hastily back and said in an agitated voice:

‘I beg pardon—do I address Miss Haredale?’

She stopped in some confusion at being so unexpectedly accosted by a stranger; and answered ‘Yes.’

‘Something told me,’ he said, LOOKING a compliment to her beauty, ‘that it could be no other. Miss Haredale, I bear a name which is not unknown to you—which it is a pride, and yet a pain to me to know, sounds pleasantly in your ears. I am a man advanced in life, as you see. I am the father of him whom you honour and distinguish above all other men. May I for weighty reasons which fill me with distress, beg but a minute’s conversation with you here?’

Who that was inexperienced in deceit, and had a frank and youthful heart, could doubt the speaker’s truth—could doubt it too, when the voice that spoke, was like the faint echo of one she knew so well, and so much loved to hear? She inclined her head, and stopping, cast her eyes upon the ground.

‘A little more apart—among these trees. It is an old man’s hand, Miss Haredale; an honest one, believe me.’

She put hers in it as he said these words, and suffered him to lead her to a neighbouring seat.

‘You alarm me, sir,’ she said in a low voice. ‘You are not the bearer of any ill news, I hope?’

‘Of none that you anticipate,’ he answered, sitting down beside her. ‘Edward is well—quite well. It is of him I wish to speak, certainly; but I have no misfortune to communicate.’

She bowed her head again, and made as though she would have begged him to proceed; but said nothing.

‘I am sensible that I speak to you at a disadvantage, dear Miss Haredale. Believe me that I am not so forgetful of the feelings of my younger days as not to know that you are little disposed to view me with favour. You have heard me described as cold-hearted, calculating, selfish—’

‘I have never, sir,’—she interposed with an altered manner and a firmer voice; ‘I have never heard you spoken of in harsh or disrespectful terms. You do a great wrong to Edward’s nature if you believe him capable of any mean or base proceeding.’

‘Pardon me, my sweet young lady, but your uncle—’

‘Nor is it my uncle’s nature either,’ she replied, with a heightened colour in her cheek. ‘It is not his nature to stab in the dark, nor is it mine to love such deeds.’

She rose as she spoke, and would have left him; but he detained her with a gentle hand, and besought her in such persuasive accents to hear him but another minute, that she was easily prevailed upon to comply, and so sat down again.

‘And it is,’ said Mr Chester, looking upward, and apostrophising the air; ‘it is this frank, ingenuous, noble nature, Ned, that you can wound so lightly. Shame—shame upon you, boy!’

She turned towards him quickly, and with a scornful look and flashing eyes. There were tears in Mr Chester’s eyes, but he dashed them hurriedly away, as though unwilling that his weakness should be known, and regarded her with mingled admiration and compassion.

‘I never until now,’ he said, ‘believed, that the frivolous actions of a young man could move me like these of my own son. I never knew till now, the worth of a woman’s heart, which boys so lightly win, and lightly fling away. Trust me, dear young lady, that I never until now did know your worth; and though an abhorrence of deceit and falsehood has impelled me to seek you out, and would have done so had you been the poorest and least gifted of your sex, I should have lacked the fortitude to sustain this interview could I have pictured you to my imagination as you really are.’

Oh! If Mrs Varden could have seen the virtuous gentleman as he said these words, with indignation sparkling from his eyes—if she could have heard his broken, quavering voice—if she could have beheld him as he stood bareheaded in the sunlight, and with unwonted energy poured forth his eloquence!

With a haughty face, but pale and trembling too, Emma regarded him in silence. She neither spoke nor moved, but gazed upon him as though she would look into his heart.

‘I throw off,’ said Mr Chester, ‘the restraint which natural affection would impose on some men, and reject all bonds but those of truth and duty. Miss Haredale, you are deceived; you are deceived by your unworthy lover, and my unworthy son.’

Still she looked at him steadily, and still said not one word.

‘I have ever opposed his professions of love for you; you will do me the justice, dear Miss Haredale, to remember that. Your uncle and myself were enemies in early life, and if I had sought retaliation, I might have found it here. But as we grow older, we grow wiser—bitter, I would fain hope—and from the first, I have opposed him in this attempt. I foresaw the end, and would have spared you, if I could.’

‘Speak plainly, sir,’ she faltered. ‘You deceive me, or are deceived yourself. I do not believe you—I cannot—I should not.’

‘First,’ said Mr Chester, soothingly, ‘for there may be in your mind some latent angry feeling to which I would not appeal, pray take this letter. It reached my hands by chance, and by mistake, and should have accounted to you (as I am told) for my son’s not answering some other note of yours. God forbid, Miss Haredale,’ said the good gentleman, with great emotion, ‘that there should be in your gentle breast one causeless ground of quarrel with him. You should know, and you will see, that he was in no fault here.’

There appeared something so very candid, so scrupulously honourable, so very truthful and just in this course—something which rendered the upright person who resorted to it, so worthy of belief—that Emma’s heart, for the first time, sunk within her. She turned away and burst into tears.

‘I would,’ said Mr Chester, leaning over her, and speaking in mild and quite venerable accents; ‘I would, dear girl, it were my task to banish, not increase, those tokens of your grief. My son, my erring son,—I will not call him deliberately criminal in this, for men so young, who have been inconstant twice or thrice before, act without reflection, almost without a knowledge of the wrong they do,—will break his plighted faith to you; has broken it even now. Shall I stop here, and having given you this warning, leave it to be fulfilled; or shall I go on?’

‘You will go on, sir,’ she answered, ‘and speak more plainly yet, in justice both to him and me.’

‘My dear girl,’ said Mr Chester, bending over her more affectionately still; ‘whom I would call my daughter, but the Fates forbid, Edward seeks to break with you upon a false and most unwarrantable pretence. I have it on his own showing; in his own hand. Forgive me, if I have had a watch upon his conduct; I am his father; I had a regard for your peace and his honour, and no better resource was left me. There lies on his desk at this present moment, ready for transmission to you, a letter, in which he tells you that our poverty—our poverty; his and mine, Miss Haredale—forbids him to pursue his claim upon your hand; in which he offers, voluntarily proposes, to free you from your pledge; and talks magnanimously (men do so, very commonly, in such cases) of being in time more worthy of your regard—and so forth. A letter, to be plain, in which he not only jilts you—pardon the word; I would summon to your aid your pride and dignity—not only jilts you, I fear, in favour of the object whose slighting treatment first inspired his brief passion for yourself and gave it birth in wounded vanity, but affects to make a merit and a virtue of the act.’

She glanced proudly at him once more, as by an involuntary impulse, and with a swelling breast rejoined, ‘If what you say be true, he takes much needless trouble, sir, to compass his design. He’s very tender of my peace of mind. I quite thank him.’

‘The truth of what I tell you, dear young lady,’ he replied, ‘you will test by the receipt or non-receipt of the letter of which I speak. Haredale, my dear fellow, I am delighted to see you, although we meet under singular circumstances, and upon a melancholy occasion. I hope you are very well.’

At these words the young lady raised her eyes, which were filled with tears; and seeing that her uncle indeed stood before them, and being quite unequal to the trial of hearing or of speaking one word more, hurriedly withdrew, and left them. They stood looking at each other, and at her retreating figure, and for a long time neither of them spoke.

‘What does this mean? Explain it,’ said Mr Haredale at length. ‘Why are you here, and why with her?’

‘My dear friend,’ rejoined the other, resuming his accustomed manner with infinite readiness, and throwing himself upon the bench with a weary air, ‘you told me not very long ago, at that delightful old tavern of which you are the esteemed proprietor (and a most charming establishment it is for persons of rural pursuits and in robust health, who are not liable to take cold), that I had the head and heart of an evil spirit in all matters of deception. I thought at the time; I really did think; you flattered me. But now I begin to wonder at your discernment, and vanity apart, do honestly believe you spoke the truth. Did you ever counterfeit extreme ingenuousness and honest indignation? My dear fellow, you have no conception, if you never did, how faint the effort makes one.’

Mr Haredale surveyed him with a look of cold contempt. ‘You may evade an explanation, I know,’ he said, folding his arms. ‘But I must have it. I can wait.’

‘Not at all. Not at all, my good fellow. You shall not wait a moment,’ returned his friend, as he lazily crossed his legs. ‘The simplest thing in the world. It lies in a nutshell. Ned has written her a letter—a boyish, honest, sentimental composition, which remains as yet in his desk, because he hasn’t had the heart to send it. I have taken a liberty, for which my parental affection and anxiety are a sufficient excuse, and possessed myself of the contents. I have described them to your niece (a most enchanting person, Haredale; quite an angelic creature), with a little colouring and description adapted to our purpose. It’s done. You may be quite easy. It’s all over. Deprived of their adherents and mediators; her pride and jealousy roused to the utmost; with nobody to undeceive her, and you to confirm me; you will find that their intercourse will close with her answer. If she receives Ned’s letter by to-morrow noon, you may date their parting from to-morrow night. No thanks, I beg; you owe me none. I have acted for myself; and if I have forwarded our compact with all the ardour even you could have desired, I have done so selfishly, indeed.’

‘I curse the compact, as you call it, with my whole heart and soul,’ returned the other. ‘It was made in an evil hour. I have bound myself to a lie; I have leagued myself with you; and though I did so with a righteous motive, and though it cost me such an effort as haply few men know, I hate and despise myself for the deed.’

‘You are very warm,’ said Mr Chester with a languid smile.

‘I AM warm. I am maddened by your coldness. ‘Death, Chester, if your blood ran warmer in your veins, and there were no restraints upon me, such as those that hold and drag me back—well; it is done; you tell me so, and on such a point I may believe you. When I am most remorseful for this treachery, I will think of you and your marriage, and try to justify myself in such remembrances, for having torn asunder Emma and your son, at any cost. Our bond is cancelled now, and we may part.’

Mr Chester kissed his hand gracefully; and with the same tranquil face he had preserved throughout—even when he had seen his companion so tortured and transported by his passion that his whole frame was shaken—lay in his lounging posture on the seat and watched him as he walked away.

‘My scapegoat and my drudge at school,’ he said, raising his head to look after him; ‘my friend of later days, who could not keep his mistress when he had won her, and threw me in her way to carry off the prize; I triumph in the present and the past. Bark on, ill-favoured, ill-conditioned cur; fortune has ever been with me—I like to hear you.’

The spot where they had met, was in an avenue of trees. Mr Haredale not passing out on either hand, had walked straight on. He chanced to turn his head when at some considerable distance, and seeing that his late companion had by that time risen and was looking after him, stood still as though he half expected him to follow and waited for his coming up.

‘It MAY come to that one day, but not yet,’ said Mr Chester, waving his hand, as though they were the best of friends, and turning away. ‘Not yet, Haredale. Life is pleasant enough to me; dull and full of heaviness to you. No. To cross swords with such a man—to indulge his humour unless upon extremity—would be weak indeed.’

For all that, he drew his sword as he walked along, and in an absent humour ran his eye from hilt to point full twenty times. But thoughtfulness begets wrinkles; remembering this, he soon put it up, smoothed his contracted brow, hummed a gay tune with greater gaiety of manner, and was his unruffled self again.






Chapter 30

A homely proverb recognises the existence of a troublesome class of persons who, having an inch conceded them, will take an ell. Not to quote the illustrious examples of those heroic scourges of mankind, whose amiable path in life has been from birth to death through blood, and fire, and ruin, and who would seem to have existed for no better purpose than to teach mankind that as the absence of pain is pleasure, so the earth, purged of their presence, may be deemed a blessed place—not to quote such mighty instances, it will be sufficient to refer to old John Willet.

Old John having long encroached a good standard inch, full measure, on the liberty of Joe, and having snipped off a Flemish ell in the matter of the parole, grew so despotic and so great, that his thirst for conquest knew no bounds. The more young Joe submitted, the more absolute old John became. The ell soon faded into nothing. Yards, furlongs, miles arose; and on went old John in the pleasantest manner possible, trimming off an exuberance in this place, shearing away some liberty of speech or action in that, and conducting himself in his small way with as much high mightiness and majesty, as the most glorious tyrant that ever had his statue reared in the public ways, of ancient or of modern times.

As great men are urged on to the abuse of power (when they need urging, which is not often), by their flatterers and dependents, so old John was impelled to these exercises of authority by the applause and admiration of his Maypole cronies, who, in the intervals of their nightly pipes and pots, would shake their heads and say that Mr Willet was a father of the good old English sort; that there were no new-fangled notions or modern ways in him; that he put them in mind of what their fathers were when they were boys; that there was no mistake about him; that it would be well for the country if there were more like him, and more was the pity that there were not; with many other original remarks of that nature. Then they would condescendingly give Joe to understand that it was all for his good, and he would be thankful for it one day; and in particular, Mr Cobb would acquaint him, that when he was his age, his father thought no more of giving him a parental kick, or a box on the ears, or a cuff on the head, or some little admonition of that sort, than he did of any other ordinary duty of life; and he would further remark, with looks of great significance, that but for this judicious bringing up, he might have never been the man he was at that present speaking; which was probable enough, as he was, beyond all question, the dullest dog of the party. In short, between old John and old John’s friends, there never was an unfortunate young fellow so bullied, badgered, worried, fretted, and brow-beaten; so constantly beset, or made so tired of his life, as poor Joe Willet.

This had come to be the recognised and established state of things; but as John was very anxious to flourish his supremacy before the eyes of Mr Chester, he did that day exceed himself, and did so goad and chafe his son and heir, that but for Joe’s having made a solemn vow to keep his hands in his pockets when they were not otherwise engaged, it is impossible to say what he might have done with them. But the longest day has an end, and at length Mr Chester came downstairs to mount his horse, which was ready at the door.

As old John was not in the way at the moment, Joe, who was sitting in the bar ruminating on his dismal fate and the manifold perfections of Dolly Varden, ran out to hold the guest’s stirrup and assist him to mount. Mr Chester was scarcely in the saddle, and Joe was in the very act of making him a graceful bow, when old John came diving out of the porch, and collared him.

‘None of that, sir,’ said John, ‘none of that, sir. No breaking of patroles. How dare you come out of the door, sir, without leave? You’re trying to get away, sir, are you, and to make a traitor of yourself again? What do you mean, sir?’

‘Let me go, father,’ said Joe, imploringly, as he marked the smile upon their visitor’s face, and observed the pleasure his disgrace afforded him. ‘This is too bad. Who wants to get away?’

‘Who wants to get away!’ cried John, shaking him. ‘Why you do, sir, you do. You’re the boy, sir,’ added John, collaring with one hand, and aiding the effect of a farewell bow to the visitor with the other, ‘that wants to sneak into houses, and stir up differences between noble gentlemen and their sons, are you, eh? Hold your tongue, sir.’

Joe made no effort to reply. It was the crowning circumstance of his degradation. He extricated himself from his father’s grasp, darted an angry look at the departing guest, and returned into the house.

‘But for her,’ thought Joe, as he threw his arms upon a table in the common room, and laid his head upon them, ‘but for Dolly, who I couldn’t bear should think me the rascal they would make me out to be if I ran away, this house and I should part to-night.’

It being evening by this time, Solomon Daisy, Tom Cobb, and Long Parkes, were all in the common room too, and had from the window been witnesses of what had just occurred. Mr Willet joining them soon afterwards, received the compliments of the company with great composure, and lighting his pipe, sat down among them.

‘We’ll see, gentlemen,’ said John, after a long pause, ‘who’s the master of this house, and who isn’t. We’ll see whether boys are to govern men, or men are to govern boys.’

‘And quite right too,’ assented Solomon Daisy with some approving nods; ‘quite right, Johnny. Very good, Johnny. Well said, Mr Willet. Brayvo, sir.’

John slowly brought his eyes to bear upon him, looked at him for a long time, and finally made answer, to the unspeakable consternation of his hearers, ‘When I want encouragement from you, sir, I’ll ask you for it. You let me alone, sir. I can get on without you, I hope. Don’t you tackle me, sir, if you please.’

‘Don’t take it ill, Johnny; I didn’t mean any harm,’ pleaded the little man.

‘Very good, sir,’ said John, more than usually obstinate after his late success. ‘Never mind, sir. I can stand pretty firm of myself, sir, I believe, without being shored up by you.’ And having given utterance to this retort, Mr Willet fixed his eyes upon the boiler, and fell into a kind of tobacco-trance.

The spirits of the company being somewhat damped by this embarrassing line of conduct on the part of their host, nothing more was said for a long time; but at length Mr Cobb took upon himself to remark, as he rose to knock the ashes out of his pipe, that he hoped Joe would thenceforth learn to obey his father in all things; that he had found, that day, he was not one of the sort of men who were to be trifled with; and that he would recommend him, poetically speaking, to mind his eye for the future.

‘I’d recommend you, in return,’ said Joe, looking up with a flushed face, ‘not to talk to me.’

‘Hold your tongue, sir,’ cried Mr Willet, suddenly rousing himself, and turning round.

‘I won’t, father,’ cried Joe, smiting the table with his fist, so that the jugs and glasses rung again; ‘these things are hard enough to bear from you; from anybody else I never will endure them any more. Therefore I say, Mr Cobb, don’t talk to me.’

‘Why, who are you,’ said Mr Cobb, sneeringly, ‘that you’re not to be talked to, eh, Joe?’

To which Joe returned no answer, but with a very ominous shake of the head, resumed his old position, which he would have peacefully preserved until the house shut up at night, but that Mr Cobb, stimulated by the wonder of the company at the young man’s presumption, retorted with sundry taunts, which proved too much for flesh and blood to bear. Crowding into one moment the vexation and the wrath of years, Joe started up, overturned the table, fell upon his long enemy, pummelled him with all his might and main, and finished by driving him with surprising swiftness against a heap of spittoons in one corner; plunging into which, head foremost, with a tremendous crash, he lay at full length among the ruins, stunned and motionless. Then, without waiting to receive the compliments of the bystanders on the victory he had won, he retreated to his own bedchamber, and considering himself in a state of siege, piled all the portable furniture against the door by way of barricade.

‘I have done it now,’ said Joe, as he sat down upon his bedstead and wiped his heated face. ‘I knew it would come at last. The Maypole and I must part company. I’m a roving vagabond—she hates me for evermore—it’s all over!’