21

How Hardress Met a Strange Trial

"MOTHER, can you tell me why Anne Chute appears so abstracted and so reserved in her manner these few days past? Is she ill? Is she out of spirits? Is she annoyed at any thing?"

    Hardress Cregan, who spoke this speech, was resting with his arm on the sash of one of the cottage windows. Mrs. Cregan was standing at a table in the centre of the room, arranging several small packages of plate, glass, and china, which had been borrowed from various neighbours on occasion of the ball. At a little distance stood old Nancy in her blue cloak and hood, awaiting the commands of her mistress; who as she proceeded with her occupation, glanced, at intervals, a sharp and enquiring eye at her son.

    "Here, Nancy, take this china to Mrs. Geogheghan, with my compliments, and tell her that I'm very much obliged to her—and, for your life, you horrible old creature, take care not to break them."

    "Oyeh, Murther! is it I? Fake 'em sure, that I wont, so."

    "And tell Mike, as you are going down stairs, to come hither. I want to send him with those spoons to Miss Macarthy."

    "Mike isn't come back yet, ma'am, since he wint over with the three-branch candlestick to Mrs. Crasbie."

    "He is a very long time away, then."

    "Can you tell me, mother," said Hardress, after in vain expecting an answer to his former queries, "can you tell me, mother, if Anne Chute has had any unpleasing news from home lately?"

    "Well, Nancy," continued Mrs. Cregan appearing not to have heard her son, "run away with your parcel, and deliver your message as you have been told, and hurry back again, for I have three more places to send you to before dinner."

    "Allilu! my ould bones will be fairly wore from undher me, with the dint o' thrallivantin;" muttered Nancy as she left the room.

    "I beg your pardon, Hardress, my dear. Were you not speaking? My attention is so occupied by those affairs that I have not a head for any thing besides. This is one of the annoyances produced by your father's improvidence. He will not purchase those things, and I am obliged to borrow them, and to invite their owners into the bargain. I should not mind the borrowing but for that, as they are, generally speaking, very inferior in quality to the articles they lend me. In my thoughts, the latter always occupy so much more important a place than their possessors, that in sending a note of invitation to Mrs. Crosbie, (or Crasbie as Nancy calls her,) the other day, I was on the point of writing 'Mrs. Cregan presents her compliments to the three-branched candlestick.' ——But were you not speaking to me?"

    "I merely asked you, mother, if you knew the cause of the change which has lately appeared in Anne Chute's manner, and which I have observed more especially since the night of the ball?"

    "I do," said Mrs. Cregan.

    Hardress turned his face round, and looked as if he expected to hear more.

    "But before I inform you," continued Mrs. Cregan, "you must answer me one question. What do you think of Anne Chute?"

    "Think of her, mother?"

    "Think of her, mother! You echo me, like the ancient in the play. I hope it is not that you have got any such monster in your thoughts as may not meet the light."

    Hardress shook his head with a smile of deep meaning. "Indeed, mother," he said, "it is far otherwise. I am ashamed to trust my lips with my opinion of Anne Chute. She is, in truth, a fascinating girl. If I were to tell you, in the simplest language, all that I think, and all that I feel in her favour, you would say that you had found out a mad son in Hardress. She is indeed an incomparable young woman."

    "A girl," said his mother, who heard this speech with evident satisfaction—"a girl, who is far too amiable to become the victim of disappointed feelings."

    "Of disappointed feelings?"

    "Another echo! Why you seem to have caught the mocking spirit from the lakes. I tell you she is within the danger of such an event."

    "How is that, mother?"

    "Close that door and I will tell you. I see you have remarked the increasing alteration in her manner. If I should entrust you with a lady's secret, do you think you know how to venerate it?"

    "Why so, mother?"

    "Ah, that's a safe answer. Well, I think I may trust you without requiring a pledge. Anne Chute has met with the usual fate of young ladies at her age. She is deep in love."

    Hardress felt the hot blood gather upon his breath, when he heard these words. "You are jesting, mother," he said at length, and with a forced smile.

    "It is a sad jest for poor Anne, however," said Mrs. Cregan with much seriousness. "She is completely caught indeed. I never saw a girl so much in love in my life."

    "He is a happy fellow," said Hardress, after a pause, and in a deep voice, "he is either a very stupid, or a very happy fellow, whom Anne Chute distinguishes with her regard. And happy he must be, for a stupid lover could never press so wearily upon the remembrance of such a girl. He is a very happy fellow."

    "And yet, to look at him, you would suppose he was neither the one nor the other," said his mother.

    "What is his name?"

    "Can you not guess?"

    The name of Kyrle Daly rose to the lips of Hardress, but from some undefinable cause, he was unable to pronounce it. "Guess?" he repeated, "not I. Captain Gibson?"

    "Pooh! what an opinion you have formed of Anne, if you suppose her to be one of those susceptible misses to whom the proximity of a red coat, in country quarters, is an affair of fatal consequence."

    "Kyrle Daly, then?"

    "Poor Kyrle, no. But that I think she has already chosen better, I could wish it were he, poor fellow! But you do not seem inclined to pay your cousin a compliment this morning. Do you not think you guess a little below her worth?"

    "Not in Kyrle Daly. He is a lover for a queen. He is my true friend.

    "That," said his mother with emphasis, "might be some recommendation."

    Hardress gazed on her as if altogether at a loss.

    "Well, have you already come to a stand?" said Mrs. Cregan. "Then I believe I shall not insist on your exposing your own dullness any longer. Come hither, Hardress, and sit near me. The young gentleman took a chair at his mother's side, and awaited her further speech with increasing interest.

    "Hardress," she said, "I have a claim, independent of my natural right, to your obedience; and I must insist, in this one instance at least, on its not being contested. Listen to me. I have now an object in view, to the accomplishment of which I look forward with a passionate interest, for it has no other aim than the completion of your happiness; a concern, my beloved boy, which has always sat closest to my heart, even from your childhood. I have no child but you. My other little babes are with their Maker. I have none left but you, and I think I feel my heart yearn towards you with all the love, which, if those angels had not flown from me, would have been divided amongst them."

    She paused, affected; and Hardress lowered his face in deep and grateful emotion.

    "It is, I think, but reasonable, therefore," Mrs. Cregan continued, "to desire your concurrence in a project which has your own happiness only for its object. Are you really so dull of perception as not to be aware of the impression you have made on the affections of Anne Chute?" "That I—I have made?" exclaimed Hardress, with a confusion and even a wildness in his manner, which looked like a compound of joy and terror. "That I—did you say, mother?"

    "That you have made," repeated his mother. "It is true indeed, Hardress. She loves you. This fascinating girl loves you long and deeply. This incomparable young woman with whose praises you dare not trust your tongue, is pining for your love in the silence of her chamber. This beautiful and gifted creature, who is the wonder of all who see, and the love of all who know her, is ready to pour forth her spirit at your feet in a murmur of expiring fondness. Use your fortunes. The world smiles brightly on you. I say again, Anne Chute is long, deeply, and devotedly your own.

    Hardress drank in every accent of this poisonous speech, with that fatal relish which is felt by the infatuated Eastern, for his draught of stilling tincture. While he lay back in his chair, however, to enjoy the full and swelling rapture of his triumph, a horrid remembrance suddenly darted through his brain, and made him start from his chair as if he had received a blow.

    "Mother," said he, "you are deceived in this. It is not, it cannot be, the fact. I see the object of which you speak, and I am sure your own anxiety fur its accomplishment has led you to miscalculate. My own surmises are not in unison with yours.

    "My dear child," replied his mother, I have a far better authority than surmise for what I say. Do you think, my love, that I would run the hazard of disturbing your peace without an absolute assurance of the truth of my statement? I have an authority that ought to satisfy the most distrustful lover, and I will be guilty of a breach of confidence, in order to set your mind at rest, for I am certain of your honour. It is the confession. the reluctant and hardly won confession, of my darling Anne herself."

    Again, a revulsion of frightful rapture rushed through the frame of the listener, and made him resume his chair in silence. "When we came here first," continued Mrs. Cregan, "I could perceive that there was a secret, although I was far from suspecting its nature. The first glimpse of light that broke upon the mystery was produced by accident. You remember poor Dalton, our old huntsman? I happened to speak to Anne of his attachment to you, and could at once observe that her interest for the man was ardently awakened."

    "I remember, I remember like a dream," said Hardress, raising his finger in the manner of one endeavouring to strengthen an indistinct recollection, "Poor Dalton told me Anne had been kind to him. Anne? No, no," he added, with much confusion, "he named no one. He said, a person in this house had been kind to him. I was prevented from enquiring farther."

    "That person," said Mrs. Cregan, "was Anne Chute. From the moment of that conversation my eyes were opened; and I felt like one who has suddenly discovered the principle of an intricate and complicated system. I saw it in her silence, while your arrival was delayed; I saw it, on the morning of your meeting; I saw it, throughout that day; I saw it, in her dissembled grief, in her dissembled joy. Poor, dear girl! I saw it, in the almost childlike happiness that sparkled in her eyes when you came near us, and in the sudden gloom that followed your departure. For shame, my child! Why are you so dull of perception? Have you eyes? Have you ears? Have you a brain to comprehend, or a heart to estimate, your good fortune? It should have been your part, not mine, to draw that dear acknowledgment from the lips of Anne, last night."

    To this observation, Hardress replied only by a low moan, which had in it an expression of deep pain. "How, mother," he at length asked, in a hoarse tone, "by what management did you draw this secret from her?" "By a simple process. By making it worth her while to give me her confidence. By telling her what I have long since perceived, though it may possibly have escaped your own observation, that her passion was not unrequited; that you were as deeply in love with her, as she with you." "

    Me! me in love! You could not, you would not, surely, mother, speak with so much rashness," exclaimed Hardress, in evident alarm.

    "Why—do you not love her, then?"

    "Love her, mother?"

    "I see you have not yet done with the echoes."

    "I love her as a cousin should love a cousin, nothing more."

    "Aye, but she is no cousin of yours. Come! It must be either more or less. Which shall I say'?"

    "Neither. It is in that light I have always looked upon Anne. I could not love her less. I would not, dare not love her more."

    "Dare not? You have got a strange vocabulary for a lover. What do you mean by 'dare not?' What mighty daring is requisite to enable a young man to fall in love with a young lady of whose affection he is already certain? The daring that is necessary for wedlock, is an old bachelor's sneer, which should never be heard on lips that are ruddy with the blood of less than forty summers. Why dare you not love Anne Chute?"

    "Because by doing so, I should break my faith to another."

    Mrs. Cregan fixed her eye on him, as if somewhat stunned. "What do you say, Hardress?" she murmured, just above her breath.

    "I say, mother, that my heart and faith are both already pledged to another, and that I must not break my engagement."

    "Do you speak seriously?"

    "I could not jest on this subject, if I were so inclined."

    "And dare you tell me this?" Mrs. Cregan exclaimed, starting up from her seat with a sudden fierceness of manner. "You have no daring! You dare not love the love that I have chosen for you, and you dare tell me to my face of such a boldness as this! But dare me not too far, I warn you, Hardress. You will not find it safe."

    "I dare tell the truth when I am called on," replied Hardress, who never respected his mother so little, as in her moments of passion and authority; "in all places, and at all hazards, even including that of incurring my mother's displeasure."

    "Listen to me, Hardress," said his mother, returning to her seat, and endeavouring to suppress her anger, "it is better we should fully understand each other."

    "It is, mother; and I cannot choose a better time to be explicit than the present. I was wrong, very wrong, in not taking an earlier opportunity of explaining to you the circumstances in which I stand. But it is better even now than later. Mother," he continued, moving near to her, and taking her hand between his, with a deprecating tenderness of manner, "forgive your own Hardress! I have already fixed my affections, and pledged myself to another."

    Mrs. Cregan pressed her handkerchief against her face, and leaned forward on the table, which position she maintained during the dialogue which followed.

    "And who is that other?" she asked, with a calmness that astonished her son. "Is she superior to Anne Chute in rank or fortune?"

    "Far otherwise, mother."

    "In talent then, or manner?"

    "Still far beneath my cousin."

    "In what then consists the motive of preference, for I am at a loss?"

    "In every thing that relates to acquirement," said Hardress, "she is not even to he compared to Anne Chute. It is in virtue, alone, and in gentleness of disposition, that she can pretend to an equality. I once believed her lovelier, but I was prejudiced."

    Mrs. Cregan now raised her head, and showed by the change in her appearance what passionate struggles she had been endeavouring to over-come. The veins had started out upon her forehead, a dull fire shone in her eyes, and one dark tress of hair, uncurled by dampness and agitation, was swept cross her temples. "Poor, low-born, silly, and vulgar!" she repeated with an air of perplexity and suppressed anger. Then, assuming an attitude of easy dignity, and forcing a smile, she said, "Oh, my dear Hardress, you must he jesting, for I am sure you could not make such a choice as you describe."

    "If it is a misfortune," replied Hardress, "I must only summon up my philosophy, mother, for there is no escaping it."

    Mrs. Cregan again pressed her hand upon her brow for some moments, and then said, "Well, Hardress, let us conduct this discussion calmly. I have got a violent shooting in my head, and cannot say so much as I desire. But listen to me, as I have done to you. My honour is pledged to your cousin for the truth of what I have told her. I have made her certain that her wishes shall be all accomplished, and I will not have my child's heart broken. If you are serious, Hardress, you have acted a most dishonourable part. Your conduct to Anne Chute would have deceived—it has deceived, the most unbiased amongst your acquaintances. You have paid her attentions which no honourable man could offer while he entertained only a feeling of indifference towards their object."

    "Mother! Mother! how can you make such a charge as that? Was it not entirely, and reluctantly, in compliance with your own injunctions that I did so?"

    "Aye," replied Mrs. Cregan, a little struck, "but I was not then aware of your position. Why did you not then inform me of all this? Let the consequences, sir, of your duplicity fall on your own head, not on my poor girl's, nor mine. I could not have believed you capable of such a meanness. Had you then discovered all, it would have been in time for the safety of your cousin's happiness, and for my own honour, for that too is staked in the issue. What, sir? Is your vanity so egregious that, for its gratification merely, you would interfere with a young girl's prospects in life, by filling up the place at her side to which others, equal in merit and more sincere in their intentions, might have aspired? Is not that consideration alone (putting aside the keener disappointment to which you have subjected her) enough to make your conduct appear hideous?"

    The truth and justice of this speech left Hardress without a word.

    "You are already contracted, at every fireside in Kerry and Limerick also," continued his mother, "and I am determined that there shall be no whispering about my own sweet Anne. You must perform the promise that your conduct has given."

    "And my engagement?—"

    "Break it off!" exclaimed Mrs. Cregan, with a burst of anger, scarcely modified by her feeling of decorum. "If you have been base enough to make a double pledge, and if there must be a victim, I am resolved it shall not be Anne Chute. I must not have to reproach myself with having bound it for the sacrifice. Now take your choice. I tell you, I had rather die, nay, I had rather see you in your coffin than matched below your rank. You are yet unable to cater for your own happiness, and you would assuredly lay up a fund of misery for all your coming years. Now, take your choice. If you wed as I desire, you shall have all the happiness that rank, and wealth, and honour, and domestic affection, can secure you.—If against my wish—if you resist me, enjoy your vulgar taste, and add to it all the wretchedness that extreme poverty can furnish, for whether I live or die, (as indeed I shall be careless on that subject henceforward,) you never shall possess a guinea of your inheritance. So now, take your choice."

    "It is already made," said Hardress, rising with a mournful dignity, and moving towards the door. "My fortunes are already decided, whatever way my inclinations move. Farewell, then, mother. I am grateful to you for all your former kindness, but it is impossible that I can please you in this. As to the poverty with which you intend to punish me, I can face that consequence without much anxiety, after I have ventured to incur the hazard of your anger."

    He was already at the door when his mother recalled him with a softened voice. 'Hardress," she said, with tears in her eyes,"I mistake my heart entirely. It cannot afford to lose a son so easily. Come hither, and sit by me, my own beloved boy. You know not, Hardress, how I have loved, and love you. Why will you anger me, my child? I never angered you, even when you were an infant at my bosom. I never denied you any thing, in all my life. I never gave you a hard word, or look, since you were a child in my arms. What have I done to you', Hardress? Even supposing that I have acted with any rashness in this, why' will you insist on my suffering for it?"

    "My dear mother——"

    "If you knew how I have loved you, Hardress; but you can never know it, for it was shown most frequently and fondly when you were incapable of acknowledging or appreciating it. If you knew how disinterestedly I have watched and laboured for your happiness, even from your boyhood, you would not so calmly resign your mind to the idea of such a separation. Come, Hardress, we must yet be friends. I do not press you for an immediate answer, but tell me you will think of it, and think more kindly. Bid me but smile on Anne when I meet her next. Nay, don't look troubled, I shall not speak to her until I have your answer, I will only smile upon her—that's my darling Hardress."

    "But, mother——"

    "Not one word more. At least, Hardress, my wishes are worth a little consideration. Look there!" she suddenly exclaimed, laying her hand on the arm of her son, and pointing through the open window, "Is that not worth a little consideration?"

    Hardress looked in that direction, and beheld a sight which might have proved dangerous to the resolution of a more self-regulated spirit. It was the figure of his cousin standing under the shade of a lofty arbutus, (a tree which acknowledges Killarney alone of all our northern possessions, for its natal region.) A few streaks of the golden sunshine streamed in upon her figure, through the boughs, and quivered over the involutions of her drapery. She was without a bonnet, and her short black ringlets, blown loose about her rather pale and careful countenance, gave it somewhat of the character of an Ariadne, or a Penthesilea. She walked towards the house, and every motion of her frame seemed instinct with a natural intelligence. Hardress could not (without a nobler effort than he would use) remove his eyes from this beautiful vision, until a turn in the gravel walk concealed it from his view, and it disappeared among the foliage, as a lustrous star is lost in a mass of autumnal clouds.

    "Mother," said Hardress, "I will think on what you have said. May heaven defend and guide me! I am a miserable wretch, but I will think of it. Oh, mother, my dear mother, if I had confided in you, or you in me! Why have we been thus secret to each other? But pardon me! It is I alone that am deserving of that reproach, for you were contriving for my happiness only. Happiness! What a vain word that is! I never shall be happy more! Never indeed! I have destroyed my fortunes."

    "Hush, boy, I hear Anne's foot upon the lobby. I told her you would walk with her to-day."

    "Me walk with her?" said Hardress with a shudder. "No, no, I cannot, mother. It would be wrong. I dare not, indeed."

    "Dare not again?" said Mrs. Cregan, smiling. "Come, come, forget this conversation for the present, and consider it again at your leisure."

    "I will, I will think of it," repeated the young man, with some wildness of manner. "May heaven defend and guide me! I am a wretch already."

    "Hush! hush!" said his mother, who did not attach too much importance to those exclamations of mental distress; "you must not let your mistress hear, you praying in that way, or she will suppose she has frightened you."

    "My mistress, mother!"

    "Pooh, pooh! your cousin, then. Don't look so terrified. Well, Hardress, I am obliged to you.

    "Aye, mother, but don't be misled by—"

    "Oh, be in no pain for that. I understand you perfectly. Remain here and I will send your cousin to you in a few minutes."

    It would have at once put an end to all discussion of this subject, if Hardress had informed his mother that he was in fact already married. He was aware of this, and yet he could not tell her that it was so. It was not that he feared her anger, for that he had already dared. He knew that he was called on in honour, in justice, and in conscience, to make his parent aware of the full extent of his position, and yet he shunned the avowal, as he would have done a sentence of despair.