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CHAPTER 70 AT WHARTON.
When Mr Wharton and his daughter reached Wharton Hall there were at any rate no Fletchers there as yet. Emily, as she was driven from the station to the house, had not dared to ask a question or even to prompt her father to do so. He would probably have told her that on such an occasion there was but little chance that she would find any visitors, and none at all that she would find Arthur Fletcher. But she was too confused and too ill at ease to think of the probabilities, and to the last was in trepidation, specially lest she should meet her lover. She found, however, at Wharton Hall none but Whartons, and she found also to her great relief that this change in the heir relieved her of much of the attention which must otherwise have added to her troubles. At the first glance her dress and demeanour struck them so forcibly that they could not avoid showing their feeling. Of course they had expected to see her in black, - had expected to see her in widow's weeds. But, with her, her very face and limbs had so adapted themselves to her crape, that she looked like a monument of bereaved woe. Lady Wharton took the mourner up into her own room, and there made her a little speech. 'We have all wept for you,' she said, 'and grieve for you still. But excessive grief is wicked, especially in the young. We will do our best to make you happy, and hope we shall succeed. All this about dear Everett ought to be a comfort to you.' Emily promised that she would do her best, not, however, taking much immediate comfort from the prospects of dear Everett. Lady Wharton certainly had never in her life spoken of dear Everett while the wicked cousin was alive. Then Mary Wharton also made her little speech. 'Dear Emily, I will do all that I can. Pray try to believe me.' But Everett was so much the hero of the hour, that there was not much room for general attention to anyone else.
There was very much room for triumph in regard to Everett. It had already been ascertained that the Wharton who was now dead had had a child, - but that the child was a daughter. Oh, - what salvation or destruction there may be to an English gentleman in the sex of an infant! This poor baby was now little better than a beggar brat, unless the relatives who were utterly disregardful of its fate, should choose, in their charity, to make some small allowance for its maintenance. Had it by chance been a boy Everett Wharton would have been nobody; and the child, rescued from the iniquities of his parents, would have been nursed in the best bedroom of Wharton Hall, and cherished with the warmest kisses, and would have been the centre of all the hopes of the Whartons. But the Wharton lawyer by use of reckless telegrams had certified himself that the infant was a girl, and Everett was the hero of the day. He found himself to be possessed of a thousand graces, even in his father's eyesight. It seemed to be taken as a mark of his special good fortune that he had not clung to any business. To have been a banker immersed in the making of money, or even a lawyer attached to his circuit and his court, would have lessened his fitness, or at any rate his readiness, for the duties which he would have to perform. He would never be a very rich man, but he would have command of ready money, and of course he would go into Parliament.
In his new position as, - not quite head of the family, but head expectant, - it seemed to him to be his duty to lecture his sister. It might be well that someone should lecture her with more severity than her father used. Undoubtedly she was succumbing to the wretchedness of her position in a manner that was repugnant to humanity generally. There is not power so useful to a man as that capacity of recovering himself after a fall, which belongs especially to those who possess a healthy mind in a healthy body. It is not rare to see one, - generally a woman, - whom sorrow gradually kills; and there are those among us, who hardly perhaps envy, but certainly admire, a spirit so delicate as to be snuffed out by a woe. But it is the weakness of the heart rather than the strength of the feeling which has in such cases most often produced the destruction. Some endurance of fibre has been wanting, which power of endurance is a noble attribute. Everett Wharton saw something of this, and being, now, the heir apparent of the family, took his sister to task. 'Emily,' he said, 'you make us all unhappy when we look at you.'
'Do I?' she said. 'I am sorry for that; - but why should you look at me?'
'Because you are one of us. Of course we cannot shake you off. We would not if we could. We have all been very unhappy because, - because of what has happened. But don't you think you ought to make some sacrifice to us, - to our father, I mean, and to Sir Alured and Lady Wharton? When you go on weeping, other people have to weep too. I have an idea that people ought to be happy if it be only for the sake of neighbours.'
'What am I to do, Everett?'
'Talk to people a little, and smile sometimes. Move about quicker. Don't look when you come into a room as if you were consecrating it to tears. And, if I may venture to say so, drop something of the heaviness of the mourning.'
'Do you mean that I am a hypocrite?'
'No; - I mean nothing of the kind. You know I don't. But you may exert yourself for the benefit of others without being untrue to your own memories. I am sure you know what I mean. Make a struggle and see if you cannot do something.'
She did make a struggle, and she did do something. No one, not well versed in the mysteries of feminine dress, could say very accurately what it was that she had done; but everyone felt that something of the weight was reduced. At first, as her brother's words came upon her ear, and as she felt the blows which they inflicted on her, she accused him in her heart of cruelty. They were very hard to hear. There was a moment in which she was almost tempted to turn upon him and tell him that he knew nothing of her sorrows. But she restrained herself, and when she was alone she acknowledged to herself that he had spoken the truth. No one has a right to go about the world as Niobe, damping all joys with selfish tears. What did she not owe to her father, who had warned her so often against the evil she had contemplated, and had then, from the first moment after the fault was done, forgiven her the doing of it? She had at any rate learned from her misfortunes the infinite tenderness of his heart, which in the days of the unalloyed prosperity he had never felt the necessity of expressing to her. So she struggled and did do something. She pressed Lady Wharton's hand, and kissed her cousin Mary, and throwing herself in her father's arms when they were alone, whispered to him that she would try. 'What you told me, Everett, was quite right,' she said afterwards to her brother.
'I didn't mean to be savage,' he answered with a smile.
'It was quite right, and I have thought of it, and I will do my best. I will keep it to myself if I can. It is not quite, perhaps, what you think it is, but I will keep it to myself.' She fancied that they did not understand her, and perhaps she was right. It was not only that he had died and left her a young widow; - nor even that his end had been so harsh a tragedy and so foul a disgrace! It was not only that her love had been misbestowed, - not only that she had made so grievous an error in the one great act of her life which she had chosen to perform on her own judgement. Perhaps the most crushing memory of all was that which told her that she, who had through all her youth been regarded as a bright star in the family, had been the one person to bring reproach upon the name of all these people who were so good to her. How shall a person conscious of disgrace, with a mind capable of feeling the crushing weight of personal disgrace, move and look and speak as though the disgrace had been washed away? But she made the struggle, and did not altogether fail.
As regarded Sir Alured, in spite of the poor widow's crape, he was very happy at this time, and his joy did in some degree communicate itself to the old barrister. Everett was taken round to every tenant and introduced as the heir. Mr Wharton had already declared his purpose of abdicating any possible possession of the property. Should he outlive Sir Alured he must be the baronet; but when that sad event should take place, whether Mr Wharton should then be alive or no, Everett should at once be the possessor of Wharton Hall. Sir Alured, under these circumstances, discussed his own death with extreme satisfaction, and insisted on having it discussed by the others. That he should have gone and left everything at the mercy of the spendthrift had been terrible to his old heart; - but now, the man coming to the property would have 60,000 pounds with which to support and foster Wharton, with which to mend, as it were, the crevices, and stop the holes of the estate. He seemed to be almost impatient for Everett's ownership, giving many hints as to what should be done when he himself was gone. He must surely have thought that he would return to Wharton a spirit, and take a ghostly share in the prosperity of the farm. 'You will find John Griffith a very good man,' said the baronet. John Griffith had been a tenant on the estate for the last half-century, and was an older man than his landlord; but the baronet spoke of all this as though he himself were about to leave Wharton for ever in the course of the next week. 'John Griffith has been a good man, and if not always quite ready with his rent, has never been much behind. You won't be hard on John Griffith?'
'I hope I mayn't have the opportunity, sir.'
'Well; - well; - well; that's as may be. But I don't quite know what to say about young John. The farm has gone from father to son, and there's never been any word of a lease.'
'Is there anything wrong about the young man?'
'He's a little given to poaching.'
'I've always got him off for his father's sake. They say he's going to marry Sally Jones. That may take it out of him. I do like the farms to go from father to son, Everett. It's the way that everything should go. Of course there's no right.'
'Nothing of that kind, I suppose,' said Everett, who was in his way a reformer, and had radical notions with which he would not for worlds have disturbed the baronet at present.
'No; - nothing of that kind. God in his mercy forbid that a landlord in England should ever be robbed after that fashion.' Sir Alured, when he was uttering this prayer, was thinking of what he had heard of in an Irish land bill, the details of which, however, had been altogether incomprehensible to him. 'But I have a feeling about it, Everett; and I hope you will share it. It is good that things should go from father to son. I never make a promise; but the tenants know what I think about it, and then the father works on the son. Why should he work for a stranger? Sally Jones is a very good young woman, and perhaps John will do better.' There was not field or fence that he did not show to his heir; - hardly a tree which he left without a word. 'That bit of woodland coming in there, - they call it Barnton Spinnies, - doesn't belong to the estate at all.'
'Doesn't it really?'
'And it comes right in between Lane's farm and Paddock's. They've always let me have the shooting as a compliment. Not that there's anything in it. It's only seven acres. But I like the civility.'
'Who does it belong to?'
'It belongs to Benet.'
'What: Corpus Christi?'
'Yes, yes; - they've changed the name. It used to be Benet in my days. Walker and the College would certainly sell, but you'd have to pay for the land and the wood separately. I don't know that you'd get much out of it; but it's unsightly; - on the survey map, I mean.'
'We'll buy it by all means,' said Everett, who was already jingling his 60,000 pounds in his pocket.
'I never had the money, but I think it should be bought.' And Sir Alured rejoiced in the idea that when his ghost should look at the survey map, that hiatus of Barnton Spinnies would not trouble his spectral eyes.
In this way months ran on at Wharton. Our Whartons had come down in the latter half of August, and at the beginning of September Mr Wharton returned to London. Everett, of course, remained, as he was still learning the lesson of which he was in truth becoming a little weary; and at last Emily had also been persuaded to stay in Hertfordshire. Her father promised to return, not mentioning any precise time, but giving her to understand that he would come before the winter. He went, and probably found that his taste for the Eldon and for whist had returned to him. In the middle of November old Mrs Fletcher arrived. Emily was not aware of what was being done; but, in truth, the Fletchers and Whartons combined were conspiring with a view of bringing her back to her former self. Mrs Fletcher had not yielded without some difficulty, - for it was a part of this conspiracy that Arthur was to be allowed to marry the widow. But John had prevailed. 'He'll do it anyway, mother,' he had said, whether you and I like it or not. And why on earth shouldn't he do as he pleases?'
'Think what the man was, John!'
'It's more to the purpose to think what the woman is. Arthur has made up his mind, and if I know him, he's not the man to be talked out of it.' And so the old woman had given in, and had at last consented to go forward as the advanced guard of Fletchers, and lay siege to the affections of the woman whom she had once so thoroughly discarded from her heart.
'My dear,' she said, when they first met, 'if there has been anything wrong between you and me, let it be among the things that are past. You always used to kiss me. Give me a kiss now.' Of course Emily kissed her; and after that Mrs Fletcher patted her and petted her, and gave her lozenges, which she declared in private to be 'the sovereignest thing on earth' for debilitated nerves. And then it came out by degrees that John Fletcher and his wife and all the little Fletchers were coming to Wharton for the Christmas weeks. Everett had gone, but was also to be back for Christmas, and Mr Wharton's visit was also postponed. It was absolutely necessary that Everett should be at Wharton for the Christmas festivities, and expedient that Everett's father should be there to see them. In this way Emily had no means of escape. Her father wrote telling her of his plans, saying that he would bring her back after Christmas. Everett's heirship had made these Christmas festivities, - which were, however, to be confined to the two families, - quite a necessity. In all this not a word was said about Arthur, nor did she dare to ask whether he was expected. The younger Mrs Fletcher, John's wife, opened her arms to the widow in a manner that almost plainly said that she regarded Emily as her future sister-in-law. John Fletcher talked to her about Longbarns, and the children, - complete Fletcher talk, - as though she were already one of them, never, however, mentioning Arthur's name. The old lady got down a fresh supply of the lozenges from London because those she had by her might perhaps be a little stale. And then there was another sign which after a while became plain to Emily. No one in either family ever mentioned her name. It was not singular that none of them should call her Mrs Lopez, as she was Emily to all of them. But they never so described her even in speaking to the servants. And the servants themselves, as far as possible, avoided that odious word. The thing was to be buried, if not into oblivion, yet in some speechless grave. And it seemed that her father was joined in this attempt. When writing to her he usually made some excuse for writing also to Everett, or, in Everett's absence, to the baronet, - so that the letter for his daughter might be enclosed and addressed simply to 'Emily'.
She understood it all, and though she was moved to continual solitary tears by this ineffable tenderness, yet she rebelled against them. They should never cheat her back into happiness by such wiles as that! It was not fit that she should yield to them. As a woman utterly disgraced it could not become her again to laugh and be joyful, to give and take loving embraces, to sit and smile, perhaps a happy mother, at another man's hearth. For their love she was grateful. For his love she was more than grateful. How constant must be his heart, how grand his nature, how more than manly his strength of character, when he was thus true to her through all the evil she had done! Love him! Yes;-she would pray for him, worship him, fill the remainder of her days with thinking of him, hoping for him, and making his interests her own. Should he ever be married, - and she would pray that he might, - his wife, if possible, should be her friend, his children should be her darlings, and he should always be her hero. But they should not, with all their schemes, cheat her into disgracing him by marrying him.
At last her father came, and it was he who told her that Arthur was expected on the day before Christmas. 'Why did you not tell me before, papa, so that I might have asked you to take me away?'
'Because I thought, my dear, that it was better that you should be constrained to meet him. You would not wish to live all your life in terror of seeing Arthur Fletcher?'
'Not all my life.'
'Take the plunge and it will be over. They have all been very good to you.'
'Too good, papa. I didn't want it.'
'They are your oldest friends. There isn't a young man in England I think so highly of as John Fletcher. When I am gone, where are you to look for friends?'
'I'm not ungrateful, papa.'
'You can't know them all, and yet keep yourself altogether separate from Arthur. Think what it would be to me never to be able to ask him to the house. He is the only one of the family that lives in London, and now it seems that Everett will spend most of his time down here. Of course it is better that you should meet him and have done with it.' There was no answer to be made to this, but still she was fixed in her resolution that she would never meet him as her lover.
Then came the morning of the day on which he was to arrive, and his coming was for the first time spoken openly of at breakfast. 'How is Arthur to be brought from the station,' asked old Mrs Fletcher.
'I'm going to take the dog-cart,' said Everett. 'Giles will go for the luggage with the pony. He is bringing down a lot of things; - a new saddle and gun for me.' It had all been arranged for her, this question and answer, and Emily blushed as she felt that it was so.
'We shall be glad to see Arthur,' said young Mrs Fletcher to her.
'Of course you will.'
'He has not been down here since the Session was over, and he has got to be quite a speaking man now. I do so hope he'll become something some day.'
'I am sure he will,' said Emily.
'Not a judge, however. I hate wigs. Perhaps he might be Lord Chancellor in time.' Mrs Fletcher was not more ignorant than some other ladies in being unaware of the Lord Chancellor's wig and exact position.
At last he came. The 9am express for Hereford, - express, at least, for the first two or three hours out of London, - brought passengers for Wharton to the nearest station at 3pm, and the distance was not above five miles. Before four o'clock Arthur was standing before the drawing-room fire, with a cup of tea in his hand, surrounded by Fletchers and Whartons, and being made much of as the young family member of Parliament. But Emily was not in the room. She had studied her Bradshaw, and learned the hours of the trains, and was now in her bedroom. He had looked around the moment he entered the room, but had not dared to ask for her suddenly. He had said one word about her to Everett in the cart, and that had been all. She was in the house, and he must, at any rate, see her before dinner.
Emily, in order that she might not seem to escape abruptly, had retired early to her solitude. But she, too, knew that the meeting could not be long postponed. She sat thinking of it all, and at last heard the wheels of the vehicle before the door. She paused, listening with all her ears, that she might recognize his voice, or possibly his footstep. She stood near the window, behind the curtain, with her hand pressed to her heart. She heard Everett's voice plainly as he gave some directions to the groom, but from Arthur she heard nothing. Yet she was sure that he was come. The very manner of the approach and her brother's word made her certain that there had been no disappointment. She stood thinking for a quarter of an hour, making up her mind how best they might meet. Then suddenly, with slow but certain step, she walked down into the drawing-room.
No one expected her then, or something perhaps might have been done to encourage her coming. It had been thought that she must meet him before dinner, and her absence till then was to be excused. But now she opened the door, and with much dignity of mien walked into the middle of the room. Arthur at that moment was discussing the Duke's chance for the next session, and Sir Alured was asking with rapture whether the Conservative party would not come in. Arthur Fletcher heard the step, turned round, and saw the woman he loved. He went at once to meet her, very quickly, and put out both his hands. She gave him hers, of course. There was no excuse for her refusal. He stood for an instant pressing them, looking eagerly into her sad face, and then he spoke. 'God bless you, Emily!' he said. 'God bless you!' He had thought of no words, and at the moment nothing else occurred to him to be said. The colour had covered all his face, and his heart beat so strongly that he was hardly his own master. She let him hold her two hands, perhaps for a minute, and then, bursting into tears, tore herself from him, and, hurrying out of the room, made her way again into her own chamber. 'It will be better so,' said old Mrs Fletcher. 'It will be better so. Do not let anyone follow her.'
On that day John Fletcher took her out to dinner, and Arthur did not sit near her. In the evening he came to her as she was working close to his mother, and seated himself on a low chair close to her knees. 'We are all glad to see you; are we not, mother?'
'Yes, indeed,' said Mrs Fletcher. Then, after a while, the old woman got up to make a rubber at whist with the two old men and her elder son, leaving Arthur sitting at the widow's knees. She would willingly have escaped, but it was impossible that she should move.
'You need not be afraid of me,' he said, not whispering, but in a voice which no one else could hear. 'Do not seem to avoid me, and I will say nothing to trouble you. I think that you must wish that we should be friends.'
'Come out, then, to-morrow, when we are walking. In that way we shall get used to each other. You are troubled now, and I will go.' Then he left her, and she felt herself to be bound to him by infinite gratitude.
A week went on and she had become used to his company. A week passed and he had spoken no word to her that a brother might not have spoken. They had walked together when no one else had been within hearing, and yet he had spared her. She had begun to think that he would spare her altogether, and she was certainly grateful. Might it not be that she had misunderstood him, and had misunderstood the meaning of them all? Might it not be that she had troubled herself with false anticipations? Surely it was so; for how could it be that such a man should wish to make such a woman his wife?
'Well, Arthur?' said his brother to him one day.
'I have nothing to say about it,' said Arthur.
'You haven't changed your mind?'
'Never! Upon my word, to me, in that dress, she is more beautiful than ever.'
'I wish you would make her take it off.'
'I dare not ask her yet.'
'You know what they say about widows generally.'
'That is all very well when one talks about widows in general. It is easy to chaff about women when one hasn't got any woman in one's mind. But as it is now, having her here, loving her as I do, - by Heaven! I cannot hurry her. I don't dare ask to speak to her after that fashion. I shall do it in time, I suppose;-but I must wait till the time comes.'
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER 71 THE LADIES AT LONGBARNS DOUBT.