Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Herberts of Elfdale - Part 2
THE HERBERTS OF ELFDALE.
A STORY IN SIX CHAPTERS.
BY MRS. CROWE,
Author of “Susan Hopley,” “The Night-Side of Nature,” &c., &c.
It was on the evening of the third day that we arrived at Mr. Carter’s. By him I was received with dry indifference; by his wife with considerate kindness. She had children of her own, and was able to sympathise with the unhappy little urchins who left cheerful homes, tender mothers, and indulgent fathers, and who usually arrived with red eyes and swollen cheeks. But in my case there was no need of her consoling offices, for, barring my shyness and timidity, I had never felt so pleased before. The very excitement of the journey to me, who had not been ten miles from Elfdale in my life, had already done me a great deal of good. It had opened entirely new views of the world, and I began to suspect that it was not altogether such a dreary place as I had hitherto found it. The butler accompanied me, and we travelled by the coaches and mails; and although we met with no adventures, the large towns we passed through, the inns we stopped at, the meals we took in the coffee-rooms, and the variety of travellers we fell in with, kept me constantly astonished and amused, and I wished nothing better than a prolongation ad infinitum of so agreeable a journey. However, on the third day it came to an end; and the butler, having taken his leave, I found myself amongst strangers; but, compared to my grandmother, Mrs. Carter appeared to me an angel of light, and even her husband, though a schoolmaster, had a less disagreeable air and manner than my father. The boys were in the playground, engaged in various sports, and their loud voices and merry laughs, their balls, their tops, their kites, things I had always longed for but never had, would have given me a lively idea of the joys of heaven, had I ever heard of them, which I had not, my grandmother being too eager to impress on my infant mind the pains and penalties I was incurring by my naughtiness, to remember to mention them.
These joyous impressions brightened my countenance, which, from continual rigour, I am sure must have acquired a disagreeable and sullen expression. People do not reflect, when they treat infancy with coldness and severity, that they are not only injuring the character, but that they are impressing the ductile and pliable muscles of the face with an expression that they themselves would be the first to lament in after life. Still the natural consequences of my early experiences remained. I was sullen, cowardly, suspicious, because I always expected to meet with injustice and tyranny, and these characteristics were soon discovered by my superiors and companions, who showed me little mercy, being ignorant of the manner in which these ill germs had been cultivated and developed.
Thus, though now in circumstances not incompatible with happiness—for Mr. Carter, though a rigid disciplinarian, was a well-intentioned man, who wished to act fairly by us—I continued to suffer from the effects of previous harshness and mismanagement. I suppose I was the most unpopular boy in the school, neither liked by my superiors nor my equals; and I remember once overhearing Mrs. Carter benevolently pleading for me, by suggesting that I was “an unfortunately constituted little urchin.” And yet I do not think that Nature had been so niggardly to me as she thought; and I cannot help believing, that had I been kindly and genially treated in my early years, I should have been a different creature. For example, I remember, when I was almost an infant, how I used to long for somebody to love and caress me, as I sometimes saw the women caress their children as we drove through the village; and how I wished my father would toss me up in bis arms as Trotter, the keeper, did his boy. But I never had a toss in my life, nor a caress since my poor mother left home, and from her but few, and stolen ones; for I have since thought that, beside her fear of my father and grandmother, she must have stood in great awe of Gubbins, who waited upon her, and had also the charge of me. I suspect this person was a spy set over her, for I can distinctly remember, one day that she had taken me upon her knee in her own bedroom, the haste and flurry with which she set me down upon the entrance of this woman. However that may be, some feeling restrained her from much exhibition of affection towards me. Perhaps she knew that the condition of my not being taken away from her altogether was that there should not appear too good an understanding betwixt us.
It was late in the autumn when I went to Mr. Carter’s, and when Christmas came the boys all went home. Of course, they were as merry as crickets at the approach of the holidays, while I was terrified at the idea of returning to gloomy Elfdale, in comparison of which, notwithstanding all my disadvantages, the school was a paradise. However, I was soon relieved of my apprehensions by Mrs. Carter, who informed me that I was to spend the Christmas with them. She communicated the intelligence with much consideration, expecting it would be a heavy disappointment; but when she saw how my face brightened, she held out her hand and said cheerfully, “I daresay we shall be able to make you very comfortable. You’ll have Charles and George for your companions, and you will have few lessons, for this is a season of recreation.”
Now, I liked Charles and George better than any boys in the school. They were her own sons, a little older than me; and being always under the benign influence of this amiable and gentle-hearted mother, they were, at her instigation, more merciful to me than the others, who had no such constant supervision. They never insulted me, and then made a display of their courage by offering to fight me if I did not like it—a cheap display, for they knew I would not do it. They never took away my playthings and hid them till the play-hours were over; in short, they never took advantage of my weaknesses, which the others were too prone to do. The consequence of this forbearance on their part was, that as soon as I was left alone with them my spirits rose, and a sense of freedom came over me that I had never felt before. I associated with them on more equal terms, feeling that I should have fair play, and not be made to suffer more than my natural inferiority—for inferior I knew I was in acquirements as well as in courage and manliness. They were two fine boys, but I cannot help thinking that the difference between us would not have been so great had I had such a mother as they had to train and form my infant mind, and awaken its affections. Her kindness, even to me especially, during this and the subsequent vacations I spent there, I can never forget. It was at those periods she could venture to show it without incurring the reproof of her husband, or the jealousy of the other boys. I think she had gathered in her conversations with me some notion of the evil influences which made me what I was—or at least contributed to do so, for I suppose Nature was not altogether sinless in the business—and by justice and gentleness, those two wonderful weapons with children when judiciously combined, she sought to repair the evil, and certainly did effect much. I look back upon those vacations with a tender yearning of the heart towards her and her two noble boys—all now dead—while I, whose life was not worth preserving, either as regards myself or others, am still cumbering the earth. Not that I have any right to accuse the fates; my misery in after life, at least, was of my own making; and yet I cannot tell. I look back and reproach myself, but could I have acted otherwise? The feelings that urged me were my masters; I was not theirs. My motives were not bad, though my conduct was. Nay, these very feelings that led me wrong had their root in right and honour, though they went astray on false premises; but, then, how could I avoid—but I must cry a halt, or I shall find myself involved in the question of free-will and necessity, which never fails to arise and perplex me whenever I review the past.
During the many years I spent at Mr. Carter’s, I had never been home, and I had only seen my father twice. Immediately after placing me there he had broken up the establishment, and left England for the continent, whence he only occasionally visited Elfdale. Now, however, I was to join him there, and I cannot say that I felt any great pleasure in the anticipation. This time I travelled by the coaches alone, being committed to the supervision of the guards; and in due time I arrived without accident at the town where my father’s carriage met me.
There was a wild gloomy beauty about Elfdale, which I believe strangers much admired; but, perhaps from association, I saw only the gloom, while I was insensible to the beauty. My heart sank as we drove up the sombre avenue; and the image of my grandmother in her weeds and mysterious cap was so inseparably connected with the place, that I almost expected to find her revived and occupying the black leathern chair, which still stood in its accustomed place. My father, who had only lately arrived there, was sitting at the same table at which I parted with him when I left home. It was now covered with bills and account-books. He raised his eyes when I entered, and held out his hand much as if that parting had taken place the week before; but I observed that he changed colour, and that the hand he gave me shook; and as my own want of confidence and his past conduct forbad me to suppose the source of this agitation was joy or tenderness, I attributed it to aversion, and my demeanour took its tone accordingly. Instead of looking him in the face, and freely answering the few questions he asked me, I cast down my eyes and muttered out “yes” and “no,” not knowing very well which was which; and as I was very tall of my age, I had, no doubt, the air of a stupid sullen lout. My father looked hard at me, perhaps seeking to discern whether there was anything better behind than these external manifestations promised; but I am afraid he saw nothing, my self-distrust and awe of him sitting like an incubus on my shoulders; so he heaved a sigh, and bade me go up-stairs and prepare for dinner.
I found the establishment greatly reduced; but amongst those that remained I was rather surprised to observe my former enemy Phibbs, who, I thought, looked twenty years older than when I last saw him.
I remained about six weeks at Elfdale, during which time the intercourse between my father and myself never assumed the ease and familiarity that could have rendered it agreeable to either party; however, we did not quarrel, for I was a quiet boy, and I found books enough in the library of an amusing description to keep me occupied. At the end of this time we crossed the channel, and I was placed at St. Omer to continue my studies and learn French. Here I formed the acquaintance of several young men who were there for the same purpose, English as well as natives, under whose auspices I was inducted into the usual pleasures and pursuits of youth; and here I, for the first time, began to assume somewhat the tone and manners of the world. There was a French family of rank in the neighbourhood to whose good offices my father had recommended me. This led to other acquaintances; and as I was always introduced as the heir of a distinguished house, I was well received, and fêted accordingly. In short, at the end of the term I spent at the college, I fancy nobody would have recognised in me the timid, slouching boy that my father had brought there; though I fear my old faults were rather in abeyance than extinguished.
Amongst other things that I had learnt, I had learnt that I was the heir of Elfdale and a person of consequence, and with that information came the conviction that I was a free member of society, master of my own actions, and not bound to consider anybody’s gratification but my own. I was independent of my father, who could not disinherit me if he would; and I owed him nothing, for he had done nothing for me but the bare cold duty of feeding, clothing, and educating me. As for his loving me as I observed some parents loved their children, I had never seen the slightest symptoms of it, and certainly I had no love for him; nor I fear for any one; although I had that sort of liking for some of my young companions that in school and college is dignified with the name of friendship.
At the same time, I had no evil intentions. Nature had left me tolerably free of vicious inclinations; and except a little lying, which had been taught me by terror very early in life, my moral character had stood well both at Mr. Carter’s and St. Omer. But my temper was sullen and suspicious—sournois, the French called me; and although these faults were in some degree modified as I grew to manhood, the germs of them, if not born with me, were too deeply implanted in infancy to be afterwards eradicated. The strongest passion I had was to be my own master, and the greatest enjoyment I was sensible of was the feeling that I was so; my early years of subjection at home, and even at Mr. Carter’s, having inspired me with hatred of authority. Not that I designed to make any ill use of my liberty, but I hugged myself with exulting selfishness when I felt I was the slave of other people’s wills no longer, and that I need not even obey my father if I did not like it; for being now one-and-twenty, I found I was to be put into possession of a little estate which devolved to me by the death of my mother, which circumstance had taken place some time previously, although I had never been made acquainted with it. The property had been bequeathed to her by an aunt subsequent to her marriage.
As my father’s presence and mine were necessary in England on this occasion, he came from Pau, where he usually resided, and we crossed the channel together. Although I could not altogether conquer the awe I felt in his presence, I took a pride in concealing it, and in the endeavour to do so, I fancy I assumed a somewhat exaggerated air of manhood and independence, since he threw out some severe animadversions on vulgar swagger and self-importance, which were not thrown away upon me; and I exchanged these characteristics for a quiet, imperturbable demeanour which more gracefully veiled my self-will and determination to do as I pleased.
When our business was settled, my father informed me that a gentleman who had dined with us once or twice at the coffee-house where he lodged, was engaged as my travelling tutor; and that his (my father’s) intention was, that I should set off immediately on the grand tour. Now, as far as the grand tour went, this was exactly my own intention, though I did not like having it imposed upon me, and the idea of a tutor was by no means agreeable, although the man himself pleased me as a companion. However, I thought it was not worth a dispute, even had I courage to enter on one with my father, since, if he assumed any airs of authority, I could throw him over, and, in short, dismiss him.
My father said he was going to Elfdale, and we took leave of him in London the evening before we were to start for the continent. After touching upon pecuniary matters, a darker cloud than usual deepened the gloom of his features, and he said, with evident pain and restraint,—“There is one thing I wish to guard you against—some people that you must avoid; they are always moving about on the continent, and you might fall in with them anywhere—the Wellwoods, I mean. There is an inextinguishable feud between our family and theirs. Avoid them, as you wish to escape my curse and your own ruin.” How little judgment elderly people evince in dealing with youth!
I answered, “Very well;” but immediately the image of the pretty little Clara, the object of my boyish passion, arose vividly before me; and I resolved, if I fell in with the family, to seek their acquaintance without delay. As for my father’s threat, I inwardly smiled at it. He could not ruin me, for the estate was entailed: and for his curse I did not care sixpence, having no superstitious feelings on the subject to alarm me, and no affection to be pained.
“No, no,” said I to myself; “here are the very people I should like to know, and in every place we go to, I’ll enquire for them.”
While I was making this resolution, my father, who had uttered the last words with a voice choked by agitation, shook hands with me, and left the room, his cheek still pale, and his hand so unsteady that he could not turn the handle of the door. I advanced to help him, and he left the room without opening his lips again, or even raising his eyes to my face.
I am afraid—for this is a confession as well as a warning—I am afraid my only feeling was, that I was glad he was gone, and a hope that I had seen the last of him, which did not seem improbable, as he had aged very fast within my memory, and was much shrunk in size, and even apparently in height.
As I have said before, I had no particularly vicious propensities. I had no taste for excesses of any sort; I neither gambled nor drank, nor even kept late hours, so that my tutor and I got on very well together; for when he saw that I did not require his supervision, he took to his own pursuits, which were altogether literary, and left me to go my own way. One thing, I, however, observed, which was, that he was curious to know the names of any new acquaintance I made, especially if they were English; and I suspected that he had had a hint from my father about the Wellwoods, whom, though not in his hearing, I never failed to enquire for at every place we came to, but without success.
I spent two years in this way agreeably enough; and I believe I was not a little improved, both by travel, and by the companionship of Mr. Westland, who, as he never interfered with me, I really liked. I even did not disdain to benefit by his learning and accomplishments, for I had no distaste to literature, now that I was free to do as I liked; and we occasionally read together. He, doubtless soon observed my objections to him in the character of tutor, and that my toleration of his presence depended on his sinking that character altogether; so that, as he wished to avoid a dismissal, he never even asked me to read, but always waited till the proposition came from myself. He was a judicious man: if he had taken the other tack, we should not have continued together six weeks. As it was, he remained with me the whole two years; and at the end of that period, I presented him with a hundred pounds over and above the salary my father had agreed to give him, and we parted in Paris the best friends in the world.
As I intended to make some stay in the capital, I took a small appartement au second on the Boulevard, not far from where the Madeleine now stands. I had picked up several acquaintances while on my tour, and these, with some of my old friends from St. Omer, gave me society enough, which was fortunate; for, be it remembered, I had not a single hereditary friend or acquaintance, male or female; and I had passed three months very pleasantly, when I was awakened one night by a loud ringing at the porte cochère, and a noise of heavy wheels in the court below, into which my windows looked. Then there arose a great uproar; voices in loud contention, each trying to outscream the other. There was evidently a quarrel; and I learnt from my servant the next morning that a famille Hongroise had arrived, and that part of their baggage was missing; and that while they accused the valet of neglect in not looking after it, he accused the courier of stealing it, at which the latter was furious. A violent quarrel ensued betwixt them, and, the gates being open, the gensdarmes, hearing the row, had come into the court, and carried them both off to the police office. This much, Benoit, who had been disturbed by the noise as well as myself, had learnt from the concièrge. I afterwards heard, from the same authority, that the missing object was a casket containing objects of value, and that the two servants having promised to keep the peace were set at liberty, and Monsieur de Vilvorde, who suspected neither, had taken them both back.
“Ma foi, monsieur,” said Benoit, “il me semble que ce courier là a mauvaise mine. Je ne me fierais pas à lui—c’est un Italien.”
“Vous croyez donc qu’il a volé la cassette?”
“Je ne dis pas ça, monsieur; mais il a l’air sournois, et à ce que je crois, il ne voit pas ce valet, qui l’a accusé, de bon œil.”
The word sournois struck me, and I felt a curiosity to see the man. I remembered that they used to call me sournois at St. Omer; and at Mr. Carter’s I went by the name of “Sulky;” I must therefore, no doubt, have merited the appellation; but the different sort of life I had been leading for some time, I flattered myself, had cured me of this fault. I was an independent individual, moving from place to place, having no particular interest in any one, and coming into collision with no one. There were no jealousies, no rivalries, no little offences, such as domestic life, contending interests, and daily intercourse are apt to engender.
As I was very little at my lodgings—for I took all my meals abroad, and seldom came home but to dress and sleep—I never happened to see this man, nor, indeed, any member of the family who occupied the first floor; but about six weeks afterwards, on my return at a late hour from St. Germains, where I had been spending the day, I found Benoit missing, and the concièrge informed me he had gone to the wedding of Monsieur Vilvorde’s coachman, with the other servants, and that none of them had returned. I felt angry with the fellow; but the next morning he appeared and accounted for himself as follows. He said that this being the day fixed for the marriage of Auguste with Mamselle Fifine, the Blanchisseuse en fin, he had invited the other servants, including Benoit, with whom he had formed a sort of acquaintance, to the wedding festivity, at a little guingette in the Champs Elysées. They feasted and danced, as is usual on such occasions, but towards the close of the evening, as ill-luck would have it, a pretty grisette, on whom the courier, Rosetti, had fixed his affections, exhibited such an evident preference for the attentions of Pierre, the valet, that Rosetti lost his temper; and Pierre, willing to exhibit his spirit before the fair subject of their rivalry, having too recklessly provoked the anger of the Italian, a quarrel had ensued, in which the latter had attempted to stab his antagonist with a knife he had snatched off the table. Of course, the never-failing gensdarmes were at hand, who immediately broke up the company, closed the guingette, and conducted the whole of the party to the police office, where they had been detained all night, but had been released in the morning. Benoit added that he was not surprised; that he always thought the courier harboured a desire for revenge, but that certainly Pierre, who was un fier gaillard, avait promené his advantages in a somewhat irritating manner before his discomfited rival.
I read a short notice of this affair in one of the papers the next morning, in which it described the family as English. This, I thought, was an error; but in the course of the afternoon I heard some of my countrymen at the club alluding to the circumstance, in connection with the name of Wellwood. “Yes,” they said, “the French call them Vilvorde, and it was so printed in the ‘Journaux,’ but it is, in fact, Sir Ralph Wellwood’s valet that is wounded. He had accused the courier of stealing a casket, and the courier bore him a spite, they say.”
What a fatality! Here were the very people I had been warned against, and that I had inquired for in every city on the continent, living under the same roof with me, and I not to find it out all this while! Well, I resolved to make their acquaintance without delay. Why should I adopt my father’s quarrels? I had no sympathy with him or his resentments; and so eager I was to do it, that I went home immediately, rang at the bell au premier, and sent in my card. Sir Ralph was absent, but I was received by a middle-aged lady, and a very pretty young one, both in deep mourning, whom I immediately concluded to be Lady Wellwood and my old friend Clara. As Elfdale was on my card, I had no occasion to explain who I was. The elder lady was very polite. She inquired how my father was, and whether he was in Paris, and then turned the conversation on my travels, and the accident that had brought us acquainted, without making the slightest allusion to the family feud.
When I asked Clara if she recollected the love passages of our childhood, she laughed and blushed, and owned that she did; whilst I privately resolved that, as far as it depended on me, our courtship should not terminate with those early flirtations, but be resumed now in real earnest.
I was exceedingly struck with her. She was the first woman—I may, now that I am an old man, add—the only woman, that ever made a serious impression on my heart; and the circumstance that she was the very one of all others that my father would object to as my wife, gave—shall I confess it?—an additional zest to the prospect of making her so.
But was she free? She was very pretty—beautiful in my eyes; two-and-twenty, and well dowered. My heart sank, and I actually turned pale; for I was standing opposite the mirror in my dressing-room, contemplating my own person, and calculating the chances of success, when the idea struck me that she might be engaged—perhaps on the very eve of marriage. I would have given the world to go and ask herself or Lady Wellwood immediately, but as that could not be, I went back to the club, thinking I might learn something amongst the English there; but though the family were slightly known to some, they could probably not have resolved my distressing doubt, even had I ventured to make inquiries on the subject, which, for fear of betraying myself, I did not.
The next day Benoit told me, when I came home to dress, that a jeune seigneur had called, and I found Sir Ralph Wellwood’s card on my table.
“Il est jeune, ce monsieur?” said I, with surprise.
“Oui, monsieur; il est jeune.”
The Sir Ralph, then, of whom I had a faint recollection, must be dead, and this must be his son. I did not know even that he had a son. The short time I was at Elfdale, after leaving Mr. Carter’s, I was aware that Staughton was shut up, and I was told that the family had been abroad for years. I believe they had gone away before I went to school, and the son was probably born after that period; though, indeed, he might have been born before, and I not hear of it, as the very name of Wellwood was never uttered in my presence.
However, I returned the visit, and found him a youth of seventeen or eighteen, apparently; and on making a remark to him about my foregone acquaintance with his sister, I was surprised to hear him say, “But you know Clara is not my sister; she is my cousin. I have no sister or brother either.”
“Indeed!” I said; “but I think I remember she was called Clara Wellwood at the time of our infantine flirtation?”
“Oh, yes,” said he; “she is the daughter of a younger brother of my father’s, who was killed in the American war, at the taking of some place—I forget what, I’m sure—but my father always considered Clara as his child; and as she is called Miss Wellwood, almost everybody supposes she is my sister, and, indeed, we seldom take the trouble of contradicting it. But I should have thought you must have known it.”
“No,” said I; “I did not. To say the truth, nobody can be more ignorant than I am of our neighbours at Elfdale. As far as my childish recollections go, we seemed to live as in a monastery, seeing and knowing nothing of the world outside the Park walls. I hated the place, and everybody in it, especially my grandmother, who was the principal figure there; and even now it is the last place on God’s earth I should choose to reside in.”
“I have never seen it,” said the young man. “Strange to say, I have never been to Staughton since I was old enough to remember. My father said it did not agree with him, and he could not live there. I want my mother to let us go there now; or, at all events, to let me go—but she objects that the sight of the place would give her so much pain, and that she cannot part from me. However, I must go by-and-by; but I am very fond of Paris, and we are become so thoroughly continental in our habits and tastes, that probably none of us would like England.”
“But your sister—I mean Clara, will be getting married,” said I, with a beating heart, seizing the first opportunity to sound him.
“Well, I suppose she will,” said he; “she has had several admirers already.”
“And has she fixed her affections on any of them?” said I with assumed carelessness. It was an important question, for what business had I to inquire into the state of the young lady’s affections? However, he did not seem to see it in that light; and answered, laughing, that he did not know; but there was a little Italian marquis that he was in the habit of quizzing her about.
I need not say that in my secret soul, I sent him, the marquis, to the infernal regions, with all dispatch: aloud I hinted that I had frequently heard it observed that it was a bad thing for English girls to marry foreigners.
“Well,” he said, “but we are foreigners ourselves—all our ideas are foreign; I don’t think Clara would like to marry an Englishman—at least, not to live in England. She was in London a year or two ago, and she could not bear it.”
“I quite agree with her,” said I, eagerly, resolved not to lose an opportunity of recommending myself. “I very much prefer continental life, though I took to it later than you. It is not my intention to reside at Elfdale—in short, I detest the place; it’s associated with all sorts of disagreeable recollections in my mind;—besides, it is very gloomy, although I believe it has a romantic kind of beauty; but I don’t care for that sort of thing.” As he never alluded to the family feud my father spoke of, I took care not to do so either; and I earnestly hoped that neither he nor the ladies knew of its existence, lest it should be an obstacle to the realisation of my wishes.
From this period our intimacy advanced with rapid strides. We were almost like one family, and I could not but see that my unremitting attentions to Clara were most welcome to all. Indeed I might be considered as an unexceptionable parti, while the close vicinity of our estates rendered the union particularly eligible.
It is unnecessary to dilate on our courtship; suffice it to say that the day appointed for our marriage was fixed, and everything satisfactorily arranged; Lady Wellwood and her son, knowing me to be the heir of Elfdale I supposed, raising no difficulties on the score of the settlement.
It just wanted a week of the one I anticipated as the happiest of my life. I had been spending the evening as usual, with the Wellwoods, sitting beside Clara with her hand in mine, in the possession of something as much like perfect felicity as it is possible, I imagine, for a human being to enjoy here below, when I was awakened out of my first sleep by a furious ringing and knocking at the porte cochère. As the apartments au troisième were vacant, I concluded the disturbance arose from the arrival of the locataire; and turning to the other side, I addressed myself again to that sweet and peaceful rest that, alas! I was to seek henceforth in vain.
Presently, I heard feet ascending the stairs, but instead of passing my door, as I expected, they paused there, and the bell was rung. “They’ve mistaken the door,” thought I; and so thought Benoit; for I heard him calling out:
“Ce n’est pas ici—montez au troisième!”
Then a voice answered something that I could not distinguish, and immediately afterwards I heard Benoit turn the key and admit the stranger.
“Qu’est ce que c’est?” I cried, jumping out of bed, and opening my door, with an apprehension that some accident had happened to Sir Ralph, who had gone out late in the evening to take a stroll on the Boulevards.
“Voici un homme qui vous demande, monsieur. Il dit, qu’il vient de la part de monsieur votre père qui vient d’ arriver.”
“Comment donc! Mon père! C’est impossible!” said I, reflecting that even if he had arrived in Paris, he would not have sent for me at that time of night.
“C’est ici que loge Monsieur Herbert fils,” said the man.
“Oui,” said Benoit.
“Eh bien, c’est Monsieur Herbert, père, qui est arrivé ce soir à l’Hotel d’Angleterre, avec son valet de chambre; et il était en train de se coucher, quand il est tombé à terre, frappé de je ne sais pas quel mal—et on m’ a dépêché ici chercher monsieur.”
This looked like truth, for the Hotel d’Angleterre was the one my father frequented when in Paris; and, indeed, we had been there together, and were known to the people of the house.
I called the man into my room, and questioned him. He said the gentleman had arrived at six o’clock. He, himself, was one of the porters and had unloaded the carriage. “Un monsieur pâle et maigre, il paraissait très frêle.” He had gone out, and probably dined somewhere; he, the porter, had been talking to the valet who was sitting up for his master; he told him they came from Pau and asked if he knew Monsieur Herbert, fils. He saw nothing of them till he heard people calling out for a doctor; and presently the valet came down and dispatched him to fetch me.
I dressed myself with a strange mixture of feelings. I do not know what was the prevailing one. I had often contemplated the probability of my father’s death—for he had become, as the man said, très frêle, and his living or dying concerned me little. I was not eager for the inheritance, and the sentiments I entertained towards him were certainly those of aversion tinctured with fear. I had, it is true, nothing to be afraid of, for he had no power to injure me in any way. I was thoroughly and entirely independent of him, but yet, such is the force of early implanted habit, that I was never at ease in his presence, and my comfort and enjoyment depended altogether on living apart from him.
Then I wondered whether the rumour of my intended marriage had reached him, and whether he had come to Paris in the hope of preventing it; and smiled contemptuously at the idea. Nevertheless, I wished he had not come, but had died quietly at Pau, if he was going to die, instead of undertaking this fruitless journey to disturb my tranquillity.
These were not dutiful, nor indeed humane, reflections; but, I repeat, this is a confession; and as parents sow they must expect to reap.
The memory of those early sufferings and injustices had never faded; and as I danced round my grandmother’s body when she lay expiring on the floor at Elfdale, so should I now have contemplated with feelings, I believe, very much allied to satisfaction, my father’s remains, had I been unexpectedly summoned to view them after his death.
But he lived; he had probably heard of my defiance of his injunctions, and though I was determined not to yield an inch, but to marry Clara on the appointed day, I quailed before the prospect of the struggle that awaited me. My hand shook so visibly as I buttoned my waistcoat, that I thought it advisable to remark to Benoit that it was very cold; to which he objected, au contraire, it was extremely sultry; but that, no doubt, the sudden intelligence had unnerved me.
On reaching the hotel, I learnt that two physicians had already arrived, and that my father had recovered from the fit, and had spoken—desiring that I might be sent for; which they told him they had done already. He had also expressed a wish to see a notary; but they had waited till I came, being uncertain who to send for; whereupon I desired them to fetch Monsieur Duval, both because he was near at hand; and, because he was known to me from being employed by the Wellwoods, and having had some little business to do, in connection with my approaching marriage.
When I entered my father’s room, I saw that he had been bled; the physicians were standing one on each side of the bed, watching his countenance. He opened his eyes, and a spasm passed over his features when he saw it was I. He moved his lips and slightly raised his hand to beckon me towards him. I approached and knelt down beside him. The physicians stood aside.
“Remember my curse and beware!” he murmured. “I had hoped to have explained, but you’ll find—”
His face, which had been very pale, flushed and became distorted as he uttered the last words, and the physicians stepped forward, motioning me away.
I retreated, too glad to obey them; and a silence ensued, during which a cadaverous hue succeeded to the momentary flush, and I thought his last moments had arrived. Not wishing to see him expire, I sat down at the window which was open, while the attendants applied wet cloths to his head.
Presently, M. Duval arrived, and was introduced into the room; I took him aside and explained that the patient was my father, who had had a sudden seizure, but that I feared he was not in a state to transact any business; indeed, he seemed to be dying.
“Is he sensible?” inquired the notary.
“Oh! yes,” I answered; “but the doctors won’t let him speak.”
“But if he’s dying, and has affairs unsettled!” objected the notary, taking a professional view of the case. “You had better tell him I’m here.”
So I approached the bed, and said to the physicians: “I understand my father desired to see a notary—this is Monsieur Duval, who—”
Whereupon my father opened his eyes and said:
“I must see him.”
The notary who had come provided with ink and parchment drew near.
“I hereby declare,” said my father—then there was a long pause.
“Is it a will you wish to make?” inquired Duval.
“I will and bequeath,” said my father, vacantly.
Duval tapped his own forehead, implying that he thought the head was beginning to wander.
Then after another pause during which my father appeared to be making an effort to collect his thoughts, he continued. “The marriage of my son—”
“Ah, c’est le mariage de votre fils avec Mademoiselle Wellwood, dont vous voulez parler;” interrupted the brisk little notary, drawing his pen across the words “I will and bequeath;” “J’y suis; c’est même moi qui ai fait les écrits,” which was literally true, as he had been employed to settle some little property in the French funds which her uncle had left her.
At these words of Duval’s my father raised himself in the bed by a spasmodic effort, while he extended his arm towards me, and with an expression of horror on his features, he opened his lips to speak; but the agitation, or the motion, or both, were too much for him; the blood gushed in torrents from the arm, and he fell back in a state of insensibility, from which he never returned to consciousness, but expired a few hours afterwards.