How Hardress Made a Confidant
"Anne," said Mrs. Chute, "don't let your Aunt suppose that you can be disobliging. What objection is there to your singing that song?"
"One, I am sure, which Aunt Cregan won't blame me for, mamma. Hardress cannot endure to hear it."
"But Hardress is not here now, my dear."
"Ah, ha! aunt! Is that your principle? Would you teach me to take advantage of his absence, then, to foster a little will of my own?"
"Go—go—you giddy girl," said Mrs. Chute. "Have you the impudence to make your aunt blush?"
"My dear Anne," said Mrs. Cregan, "if you never make a more disobedient use of your husband's absence, than that of singing a little song which you love, and which you can't sing in his presence, you will be the best wife in Ireland."
"Very well, aunt, very well. You ought to know the standard of a good wife. You have had some experience, or my uncle (I should say) has had some experience of what a good wife ought to be. Whether his knowledge in that way has been negatively or positively acquired, is more than I'll venture to say."
Hardress heard her run a tender prelude along the keys of her instrument, before she sung the following words:
My Mary of the curling hair,
The laughing teeth, and bashful air,
Our bridal morn is dawning fair,
With blushes in the skies.
Shule! Shule! Shule agra!
Shule, asucur, agus shule, aroon!*
My love! my pearl!
My own dear girl!
My mountain maid arise!
Wake, linnet of the osier grove!
Wake, trembling, stainless, virgin dove!
Wake, nestling of a parent's love!
Let Moran see thine eyes.
Shule! Shule! &c.
I am no stranger, proud and gay,
To win thee from thy home away,
And find thee, for a distant day,
A theme for wasting sighs.
Shule! Shule! &c.
But we were known from infancy,
Thy father's hearth was home to me,
No selfish love was mine for thee,
Unholy and unwise.
Shule! Shule! &c.
And yet, (to see what Love can do!)
Though calm my hope has burned, and true,
My cheek is pale and worn for you,
And sunken are mine eyes!
Shule! Shule! &c.
But soon my love shall be my bride,
And happy by our own fire-side,
My veins shall feel the rosy tide,
That lingering Hope denies.
Shule! Shule! &c.
My Mary of the curling hair,
The laughing teeth and bashful air,
Our bridal morn is dawning fair,
With blushes in the skies.
Shule! Shule! Shule, agra!
Shule asucur, agus shule, aroon!
My love! my pearl!
My own dear girl!
My mountain maid, arise!
After the song was ended, Hardress heard the drawing-room door open and shut, and the stately and measured pace of his mother along the little lobby, and on the short flight of stairs which led to the apartment in which he sat. She appeared at the narrow stone doorway, and used a gesture of surprise when she beheld him.
"What, Hardress!" she exclaimed, "already returned! Have ye had good sport today?"
"Sport?" echoed Hardress, with a burst of low, involuntary laughter, and without unclasping his wreathed hands, or raising his eyes from the earth, "yes, mother, yes—very good sport. Sport, I think, that may bring my neck in danger, one day."
"Have you been hurt, then, child?" said Mrs. Cregan, compassionately bending over her son.
Hardress raised himself in his seat, and fixed his eye upon her's, for a few moments, in gloomy silence.
"I have," he said,"the hurt that I feared so long, I have got at length. I am glad you have come. I wished to speak with you."
"Stay a moment, Hardress. Let me close those doors. Servants are so inquisitive, and apt to pry."
"Aye, now," said Hardress, "now and from this time forth, we must avoid those watchful eyes and ears. What shall I do, mother? Advise me, comfort me! Oh, I am utterly abandoned now, I have no friend, no comforter but you! That terrible hope, that looked more like a fear, that kept my senses on the rack from morn to morn, is fled, at last, for ever! I am all forsaken now."
"My dear Hardress," said his mother, much distressed, "when will you cease to afflict yourself and me with those fancies? Forsaken, do you say? Do your friends deserve this from you? You ask me to advise you, and my advice is this. Lay aside those thoughts, and value as you ought to do, the happiness of your condition. Who, with a love like Anne; with a friend like your amiable college companion, Daly; and with a mother at least devoted in intention, would deliver himself up as you do, to fantastic dreams of desolation and despair? If, as you seem to hint, you have a cause for suffering in your memory, remember Hardress, that you are not left on earth for nothing. All men have something to be pardoned, and all time here is capable of being improved in the pursuit of mercy."
"Go on," said Hardress, setting his teeth, and fixing a wild stare upon his parent, "you but remind me of my curses. With a love like Anne? One whisper in your ear. I love her not. While I was mad, I did; and in my senses, now, I am dearly suffering for that frantic treason. She was the cause of all my sin and sorrow, my first and heaviest curse. With such a friend?—Why, how you laugh at me! You know how black and weak a part I have played to him, and yet you will remind me that he was my friend! That's kindly done, mother. Listen!" he continued, laying a firm grasp upon his mother's arm—— "Before my eyes, wherever I turn me, and whether it be dark or light, I see One, painting the hideous portrait of a fiend. Day after day he comes, and adds a deeper and a blacker tint to the resemblance. Mean fear, and selfish pride, the coarser half of love, worthless inconstancy, black falsehood, and red-handed murder, those are the colours that he blends and stamps upon my soul. I am stained in every part. The proud coward that loved and was silent, when already committed by his conduct, and master of the conquest that he feared to claim. The hypocrite that volunteered a friendship, to which he proved false, almost without a trial. The night-brawler, the drunkard, the faithless lover, and the perjured husband! Where, who has ever run a course so swift and full of sin as mine? You speak of heaven and mercy! Do you think I could so long have endured my agonies without remembering that? No, but a cry was at its gates before me, and I never felt that my prayer was heard. What that cry was, I have this morning learned. Mother," he added, turning quickly round with great rapidity of voice and action, "I am a murderer."
Mrs. Cregan never heard the words. The look and gesture, coupled with the foregoing speech had pre-informed her, and she fell back, in a death-like faint, into the chair. "When she recovered, she found Hardress kneeling near her side, pale, anxious and terrified, no longer supported by that hurried energy which he had shown before the revealment of his secret, but helpless, motionless, and desolate, as an exploded mine. For the first time the mother looked upon her child with a shudder, but it was a shudder in which remorse was mingled deeply with abhorrence. She waved her hand two or three times, as if to signify that he should retire from her sight. It was so that Hardress understood, and obeyed the gesture. He took his place behind the chair of his parent, awaiting with gaping lip and absent eye, the renewal of her speech. The unhappy mother, meanwhile, leaned forward in her seat, covering her face with her hands, and maintained for several minutes that silent communion with herself, which was usual with her, when she had received any sudden shock. A long pause succeeded.
"Are you still in the room?" she said, at length, as a slight movement of the guilty youth struck upon her hearing.
Hardress started, as a school-boy might at the voice of his preceptor, and was about to come forward; but the extended arm of his parent arrested his steps.
"Remain where you are," she said, "it will be a long time now before I shall desire to look upon my son."
Hardress fell back, stepping noiselessly on tiptoe, and letting his head hang dejectedly upon his breast.
"If those things are not dreams," Mrs. Cregan again said, in that calm, restrained tone, which she always used when her mind was undergoing the severest struggles; "if you have not been feeding a delirious fancy, and can restrain yourself to plain terms for one quarter of an hour, let me hear you repeat this unhappy accident. Nay, come not forward, stay where you are, and say your story there. Unfortunate boy! We are a miserable pair!"
She again leaned forward with her face buried in her expanded hands, while Hardress, with a low, chidden, and timid voice, and attitude, gave her, in a few words, the mournful history which she desired. So utterly abandoned was he, by that hectoring energy, which he displayed during his former conversations with his parent, that more than half the tale was drawn from him by questions, as from a culprit, fearful of adding to the measure of his punishment.
When he had concluded, Mrs. Cregan raised her head with a look of great and evident relief.
"Why, Hardress," she said, "I have been misled in this. I overleaped the mark in my surmise. You are not then the actual actor of this horrid work!"
"I was not the executioner," said Hardress. "I had a deputy," he added with a ghastly smile.
"Nor did you, by word or act, give warrant for the atrocity of which you speak?"
"Oh, mother, if you esteem it worth your while to waste any kindness on me, forbear to torture my conscience with that wretched subterfuge. I am the murderer of Eily! It matters not that my finger has not griped her throat, nor my hand been reddened with her blood. My heart, my will, has murdered her. My soul was even before-hand with the butcher who has sealed our common ruin by his bloody disobedience. I am the murderer of Eily. No, not in act, as you have said, nor even in word! I breathed my bloody thoughts into no living ear. The dark and hell-born flame was smouldered where it rose, within my own lonely breast. Not through a single chink or cleft in all my conduct, could that unnatural rage be evident. When he tempted me aloud, aloud I answered, scorned, and defied him; and, when at our last fatal interview, I gave him that charge which he has stretched to bloodshed, my speech was urgent for her safety."
"Aye, mother, it is truth! I answer you as I shall answer at that dreadful bar, before that Throne the old man told me of, when he and she shall stand to blast me there!"
He stood erect, and held up his hand, as if already pleading to the charge. Mrs. Cregan at the same moment rose, and was about to address him with equal energy and decision of manner.
"But still," he added, preventing her, "still 1am Eily's murderer. If I had an enemy, who wished to find me a theme for lasting misery, he could not choose a way more certain than that of starting a doubt upon that subtle and worthless distinction. I am Eily's murderer. That thought will ring upon my brain, awake or asleep, for evermore. Are these things dreams, said you? Oh, I would give all the whole world of realities to find that I had dreamed a horrid dream, and wake, and die!"
"You overrate the measure of your guilt," said Mrs. Cregan, and was about to proceed, when Hardress interrupted her.
"Fool that I was!" he exclaimed, with a burst of grief and self-reproach, "fool, mad fool, and idiot that I was! How blind to my own happiness! For ever longing for that which was beyond my reach, and never able to appreciate that which I possessed. In years gone by, the present seemed always stale, and flat, and dreary; the future and the past alone looked beautiful. Now, I must see them all with altered eyes. The present is my refuge, for the past is red with blood, and the future burning hot with shame and fire!"
"Sit down, and hear me, Hardress, for one moment."
"Oh, Eily!" the wretched youth continued, stretching out his arms to their full extent, and seeming to apostrophize some listening spirit. "Oh, Eily, my lost, deceived, and murdered love! Oh, let it not be thus without recal! Tell me not that the things done in those hideous months are wholly without remedy! Come back! Come back! my own abused and gentle love! If tears, and groans, and years of self-inflicted penitence, can wash away that one accursed thought, you shall be satisfied. Look there!" he suddenly exclaimed, grasping his mother's arm with one hand, and pointing with the other to a distant corner of the room. "That vision comes to answer me!" He followed a certain line with his finger through the air, as if tracing the course of some hallucination. "As vivid, and as ghastly real, as when I saw it lying, an hour hence, on the wet, cold bank, the yellow hair uncurled, the feet exposed (the feet that I first taught to stray from duty!) the dank, blue mantle, covering and clinging round the horrid form of death that lay beneath. Four times I have seen it since I left the spot, and every time it grows more deadly vivid. From this time forth, my fancies shall be changed; for gloomy visions, gloomier realities; for ghastly fears, a ghastlier certainty."
Here he sunk down into the chair which his mother had drawn near her own, and remained for some moments buried in deep silence. Mrs. Cregan took this opportunity of gently bringing him into a more temperate vein of feeling; but her feelings carried her beyond the limit which she contemplated.
"Mistake me not," she said, "unhappy boy! I would not have you slight your guilt. It is black and deadly, and such as Heaven will certainly avenge. But neither must you fly to the other and worse extreme, where you can only cure presumption by despair. You are not so guilty as you deem. That you willed her death was a dark and deadly sin; but nothing so hideous as the atrocious act itself. One thing, indeed, is certain, that however this affair may terminate, we are an accursed and miserable pair for this world. I in you, and you in me! Most weak and wicked boy! It was the study of my life to win your love and confidence, and my reward has been distrust, concealment, and——"
"Do you reproach me then?" cried Hardress, springing madly to his feet, clenching his hand, and darting an audacious scowl upon his parent, "Beware, I warn you! I am a fiend, I grant you, but it was by your temptation that I changed my nature. You, my mother! You have been my fellest foe! I drank in pride with your milk, and passion under your indulgence. You sport with one possessed and desperate. This whole love-scheme, that has begun in trick and cunning and ended in blood, was all your work! And do you now——"
"Hold!" cried his mother, observing the fury of his eye, and his hand raised and trembling, though not with the impious purpose she affected to think, "Monster, would you dare to strike your parent?"
As if he had received a sudden blow, Hardress sunk down at her feet, which he pressed between his hands, while he lowered his forehead to the very dust. "Mother!" he said in a changed and humbled voice, "my first, my constant, and forbearing friend, you are right. I am not quite a demon yet. My brain may fashion wild and impious words, but it is your son's heart that still beats within my bosom. I did not dream of such a horrid purpose.
After a silence of some minutes, the wretched young man arose, with tears in his eyes, and took his seat in the chair. Here he remained fixed in the same absent posture, and listening, but with a barren attention, to the many soothing speeches which were addressed to him by his mother. At length, rising hastily from his seat, with a look of greater calmness than he had hitherto shown, he said: "Mother, there is one way left for reparation. I will give myself up." "Hold, madman!" "Nay, hold, mother. I will do it. I will not bear this fire upon my brain. I will not still add crime to crime for ever. If I have outraged justice, it is enough. I will not cheat her. Why do you hang upon me? I am weak and exhausted; a child could stay me now,—a flaxen thread could fetter me. Release me, mother! There is peace and hope and comfort in this thought. Elsewhere I can find nought but fire and scourges. Oh, let me make this offering of a wretched life to buy some chance of quiet. You are tying me down to misery. I never shall close an eye in sleep again, until I lie upon a dungeon floor. I never more shall smile, until I stand upon the scaffold. Well, well, you will prevail, you will prevail," he added, as his mother forced him back into the chair which he had left, "but I may find a time. My life, I know, is forfeited."
"It is not forfeited!"
"Not forfeited! Hear you, just Heaven, and judge!—The ragged wretch, that pilfers for his food, must die;—the starving father, who counterfeits a wealthy name to save his children from a horrid death, must die;—the goaded slave, who, driven from the holding of his fathers, avenges his wrong upon the usurper's property, must die; and I, who have pilfered for my passion, I, the hypocrite, the false friend, the fickle husband,—the coward, traitor, and murderer, (I am disgusted while I speak!) my life has not been forfeited! I, alone, stand harmless beneath these bloody laws! I said I should not smile again, but this will force a laugh in spite of me."
Mrs. Cregan prudently refrained from urging the subject farther for the present, and contented herself with appealing to his affectionate consideration of her own feelings, rather than reminding him of his interest in the transaction. This seemed more effectually to work upon his mind. He listened calmly and with less reluctance, and was about to express his acquiescence, when a loud and sudden knocking at the outer door of the chamber made him start from his chair, turn pale, and shake in every limb like one convulsed. Mrs. Cregan, who had herself been startled, was advancing towards the door, when the knocking was heard again, though not so loud, against that which led to the drawing-room. Imagining that her ear, in the first instance, had deceived her, she turned on her steps, and was proceeding toward the latter entrance, when the sound was heard at both doors together, and with encreased loudness. Slight as this accident appeared, it produced so violent an effect upon the nerves of Hardress, that it was with difficulty he was able to reach the chair which he had left, without falling to the ground. The doors were opened—the one to Anne Chute, and the other to Mr. Cregan.
"I am come to tell you, aunt, that dinner is on the table," said the former.
"And I am come on the very point of time, to claim a neighbour's share of it," said Mr. Cregan.
"We are more fortunate than we expected," said Anne, "We thought you would have dined with Mr. Connolly."
"Thank you for that hint, my good niece."
"Oh, sir, don't be alarmed; you will not find us unprovided, notwithstanding. Mr. Hardress Cregan," she continued, moving towards his chair, with a lofty and yet playful carriage, "will you allow me to lead you to the dining room?"
"He is ill, Anne, a little ill," said Mrs. Cregan, in a low voice.
"Dear Hardress! you have been thrown!" exclaimed Anne, suddenly stooping over him with a look of tender interest and alarm.
"No, Anne," said Hardress, shaking her hand in grateful kindness.
"I am not so indifferent a horseman. I shall be better presently."
"Go in—go in, ladies," said Mr. Cregan. "I have a word on business to say to Hardress. We will follow you in three minutes."
The ladies left the room, and Mr. Cregan, drawing his son into the light, looked on his face for some moments with silent scrutiny.
"I don't know what to make of it," he said, at length, tossing his head, "you're not flagging, Hardress, are you?"
"Yes. You do not feel a little queer about the heart, now, in consequence of this affair?"
Hardress started, and shrunk back.
"Whew!"—the old sportsman gave utterance to a prolonged sound that bore some resemblance to a whistle.—"'Tis all up! That start spoke volumes. You've dished yourself, for ever; let nobody see you.—Go! go along into some corner, and hide yourself; go to the ladies, that's the place for you. What a fool I was to leave a pleasant dinner party, and come here to look after a —Well, I have seen you stand fire stoutly once. But so it is with all cowards. The worm will turn when trod upon; and you were primed with strong drink, moreover. But how dared you—this is my chief point, this—how dared you stand up, and give any gentleman the lie, when you have not the heart to hold to your words?—What do you stare at? Answer me!"
"Give any gentleman the lie!" echoed Hardress.
"Yes, to be sure. Didn't you give Warner the lie, while ago, upon the corcass?"
"Not I, I am sure."
"No! What was your quarrel then?"
"We had no quarrel. You are under some mistake."
"That's very strange. That's another affair. It passes all that I have ever heard. The report all over the ground was that you had exchanged the lie, and some even went so far as to say that you had horsewhipped him. It leaves me at my wit's end."
At this moment, Falvey put in his head at the door, and said:—
"Dinner, if ye plase, gentlemen, the ladies is waitin' for ye."