41

How the Ill-Temper of Hardress Again Brought Back His Perils

A CIRCUMSTANCE, which occurred during the intervening period, once more put Hardress to a severe probation. It was not the less severe, moreover, that it came like the accesses of a nervous disorder, suddenly, and from a cause extremely disproportioned to its violence.

    He had been conversing with his intended bride, on that day which was fixed upon as the penultimate of their courtship, with a more than usual appearance of enjoyment. Anne, who looked out for those breaks of sunshine in his temper, as anxiously as an agriculturist might for fair weather in a broken autumn, encouraged the symptom of returning peace, and succeeded so happily as to draw him out into quick and lively repartees, and frequent bursts of laughter. Unfortunately, however, in her ecstasy at this display of spirits, she suffered her joy to hurry her unwisely into the forbidden circle which enclosed his secret, and their music turned to discord. She thought this holiday hour afforded a fair opportunity to penetrate into the Blue Chamber of his heart, from which he had so often warned her, and which a better impulse than curiosity urged her to explore. She did not know that the interior was defiled with blood.

    "Well Hardress," she said, with a smile that had as much of feeling as of mirth—"is not this a happier score for counting time, than sitting down to shut our eyes and ears to the pleasant world about us, and opening them on a lonesome past, or a foreboding future?"

    If the clouds of the past, and the future, both, had met and mingled in the mid-heaven of consciousness, they could not have cast a darker or more sudden shade, than that which now overspread the brow of Hardress. The laughter darkened on his cheek, his eye grew stern and dull, and his whole being, from the inmost feeling of his nature, to the exterior on which those feelings were indicated, seemed to have undergone an instantaneous change.

    Anne perceived her error, but did not cease to follow up her claim upon his confidence.

    "Do not let me feel," she said, "that I have brought back your gloom. Dear Hardress, hear me still without uneasiness. My sole intention is that of procuring your health and peace of mind; and surely, it should not be considered an intrusion that I desire your confidence. Do you fear to find in me anything more foreign than a near and interested friend? Believe me you shall not, Hardress. I am driven upon this enquiry in spite of me. There is something hidden from me which it would be kinder to reveal. I see it prey upon your own health and spirits, day after day. I see it even fixing its cruel hold at length upon my aunt. You meet, with a consciousness in your eyes, and you both glance from time to time at me, as if I were a stranger or——I should not say it, perhaps—a spy. If I come upon you when you speak together, there is a hush at my appearance, and sometimes an embarrassed look, and I have often seen trouble in your eyes, and tears in her's. Tell me, my dear Hardress, what is the cause of this? You either apprehend, or you have endured, some terrible misfortune. It is not now the time to treat me as a stranger."

    She ceased to speak, and seemed to expect an answer, but Hardress said not a word. He remained with his hands crossed on the back of the chair, his cheek resting upon these, and his eyes fixed in gloomy silence on the floor.

    "Or if you do not think me worthy of a confidence," Anne resumed, with some warmth, "at least—— Nay, but I am ill- tempered now," she added, suddenly checking herself. "I should not say that. I would say, Hardress, if you really find yourself prevented from admitting me into your confidence, at least assure yourself of this. If it is any thing in your present situation—in—in—I fear to say too much, in your engagements with myself that interferes with your peace of mind, I—I had rather suffer any thing—than—than—be the cause of suffering to you."

    She turned away as she said these words, to hide from him the burst of tears with which they were accompanied. She pressed her handkerchief against her lips, and used a violent, though silent, effort to avoid the convulsive utterance of the grief that struggled at her heart.

    It often happens that the most sensitive persons are those who are most blind to, and make least allowance for, the susceptibility of others. The long habit of brooding over his own wants and sufferings made Hardress incapable, for the moment, of appreciating the generous affection which this speech evinced. He answered gloomily that, "there were many things in the minds of all men which they would hide if possible even from themselves, and which therefore they could not reasonably be expected to communicate over readily to another, however undeniable the claim to confidence might be."

    With this cold answer the conversation ceased. A little, yet but a little, warmed, to find her generous proposal—(a proposal which cost her so much agony,) thus unhandsomely received, Anne dried her tears, and remained for some minutes in that sorrowing and somewhat indignant composure to which in virtuous breasts the sense of unmerited injury gives birth. Subduing, however, as she had long since learned to do, her personal feelings, to a sense of duty, she forced herself to assume an air of cheerfulness, and once more resumed the tone of conversation which had preceded this unfortunate failure. Again her accustomed spirits arose at her desire, and again she was successful in withdrawing Hardress from his mood of dismal meditation.

    One remarkable feature in the mental disease of Hardress, (for such it might now be justly termed,) was, as we have before remarked, the extreme uncertainty, and arbitrariness of its accesses. His existence seemed to be without a basis, his mind without a centre, or a rest. He had no consciousness of duty to support him, no help from heaven, and no trust in man. Even the very passion that ate up his soul was incapable of affording to his mind that firmness of purpose and false strength which passion often gives; for his was merely retrospective, and had no object in the future. He became a passive slave to his imagination. Frequently, while enjoying a degree of comparative tranquillity, the thought would suggest itself to his fancy, that, "perhaps this very day, secure as he believed himself, might see him manacled, and in a dungeon." Instead of quietly turning his attention away to an indifferent subject, or baffling the suggestion (as a guiltless person might,) by resigning himself to a directing Providence, he combatted it with argument, it encreased and fastened on his imagination, until at length his nerves began to thrill, his limbs grew faint, his brow moist, and his whole being disturbed as at the presence of an actual danger. At other times, when sitting alone, it would occur to him that his servant might, notwithstanding his caution, have abused his confidence and remained in the country. The idea of the danger, the ruin, which would most probably attend such disobedience, frequently produced so violent an effect upon his mind, that he would spring from his seat in a transport of phrenzy, sink on one knee, and press both hands with his utmost force against the ground as if in the act of strangling the delinquent. Then, hearing the footstep of Anne or of his mother approaching the door, he would arise suddenly, covered with shame, and reach his chair exactly in time to avoid detection.

    Soon after the conversation we have above detailed, Mr. Cregan entered, and some question arose on the escape of Mr. Warner's prisoner, and the possibility of his recapture. This led naturally to a disquisition on the nature of the crime alleged against him, and of capital punishments in general.

    "People have hinted," said Mr. Cregan, "that this after all might have been a case of suicide, and for my part I don't see the impossibility."

    "I should think it very unlikely," said Anne, "suicide is a very un-Irish crime. The people are too religious for it, and some people say too miserable."

    "Too miserable!" exclaimed Mr. Cregan, "now I should think that the only cause in the world for suicide; the only possible palliative. "I am not metaphysical enough to account for it," returned Anne with a smile, "and I only repeat a sentiment which I heard once from Hardress. But their misery, at all events, is a cause for their piety, and in that way may be a cause of their resignation also."

    "Of all crimes," said Mr. Cregan, "that is the most absurd and unaccountable, and I wonder how jurymen can reconcile it to themselves to bring in their shameless verdicts of insanity so constantly as they do. When you hear of a fellow's cutting his throat, look at the inquest, and if you can't laugh at the evidence, you have nothing in you. The deceased was observed to be rather silent and melancholy the day before, he wore his hat on one side, a fashion which his nearest acquaintances had never observed him to use till then, he called his wife out of her name, and went into the rain without an umbrella. I should like to see how far such evidence would go to prove a case of lunacy in Chancery."

    "Then you would, I suppose, uncle, have the law put in force in all its rigour, confiscation of property, and impaling the body on a cross road?"

    "Impaling the bodies!" exclaimed Cregan in a transport of zeal, "I would almost have 'em impaled alive! Why do you laugh? A bull, is it? adad, and so it is. Then it is time for me to cut and run." So saying, he made his exit with the utmost speed, while his niece leaned aside, and laughed.

    Hardress heard all this with what might be supposed the sensation of one who finds himself struck by death, while witnessing a farce. But he succeeded in concealing his emotions from the observation of his young friend. The time was now arrived for their customary morning walk, and Anne arranged her bonnet and cloak before the large pier-glass, while she continued from time to time to address herself to Hardress. He had already taken his hat and gloves, and not liking the subjects on which she was speaking, paced up and down the room in gloomy and fretful impatience.

    "What a dreadful death hanging must be!" said Anne, as she curled up a wandering tress upon her fingers, "I wonder how any temptation can induce people to run the risk of it."

    "Come—come," said Hardress, "the morning will change, if you delay."

    "An instant only. If you would but deliver yourself up for a moment to such a day-dream, you may imagine something of the horror of it. Suppose yourself now, Hardress, marching along between two priests, with a hangman after you, and the rope about your neck, and a great crowd of people shouldering each other to obtain one glance at you—and—"

    "There's a rain-cloud in the west," said Hardress, "we shall lose the best part of the day."

    "I am just ready," returned Anne, "but let me finish my picture. Imagine yourself, now, at the place of execution; that you feel your elbows tied behind, and that shocking cap put-down upon your eyes."

    "Yes, yes, it is very pretty," said Hardress peevishly, "but I wish you would think of what you are about."

    "You ascend, and there is a dreadful buzz amongst the people, your heart beats, your brain grows dizzy, you feel the hangman's iron fingers on your neck, the drop begins to grow unfirm beneath your feet."

    "You will drive me mad!" roared Hardress, stamping on the floor in a paroxysm of fury. "This is intolerable! I bid you make yourself ready to walk, and instead of doing so, you talk of death and hangmen, halters and ignominy, as if there were not real woe enough on earth, without filling the air around us with imaginary horrors. Forgive me, Anne," he added, observing the air of astonishment and sudden reserve with which she regarded him, as alarming as it was ominous, "forgive me for this ill-tempered language. You know my very being hangs upon you, but I am sick and sad, and full of splenetic thoughts."

    "Hardress," said Anne, after a long pause, "I have borne a great deal from you, but—"

    "Nay, Anne," said Hardress, taking her hand with much anxiety and submissiveness of look, "do not say more at present. If I could tell you what is passing in my mind, you would pity, and not blame, me. You are almost the only thing in this world, in my present state of ill health, in which my heart is interested, and if you look cold upon me, my life will indeed grow wintry. This will not, I hope, continue under a sunnier sky, and more indulgent air. You must not be angry with me for having a set of clamorous nerves."

    After an interval of silent reflection, Anne took his arm without reply, and they proceeded on their walk. She did not, however, cease to meditate seriously and deeply on the scene which had just taken place.

    The morning was fair, and freshened by a gentle wind. The boats sped rapidly along the shores, the sea-gull sailed with wings outspread, and motionless, upon the breeze. The sealark twittered at the water's edge, the murmur of the waves, as they broke upon the strand, sounded sweet and distant, the green leaves quivered and sparkled against the sunshine, the peasants laughed and jested at their labour in the fields, and all was cheering, tender, and pastoral around them.

    On a sudden, as they approached an angle in the road, the attention of our loiterers was caught by sounds of boisterous mirth, and rustic harmony. In a few seconds, on reaching the turn, they beheld the persons from whom the noise (for we dare not call it music), proceeded. A number of young peasants, dressed out in mumming masquerade, with their coats off, their waistcoats turned the wrong side outward, their hats, shoulders, and knees, decorated with gay ribbands, (borrowed for the occasion, from their fair friends), their faces streaked with paint of various colours, and their waists encircled with shawls and sashes, procured most probably from the same tender quarter. Many of them held in their hands long poles with handkerchiefs fluttering at the top, and forming a double file on either side of half a dozen persons, who composed the band, and whose attire was no less gaudy than that of their companions. One held a pipolo, another a fiddle, another a bagpipe. a fourth made a dildorn* serve for tambourine, and a fifth was beating with a pair of spindles on the bottom of an inverted tin-can, while he imitated with much drollery, the important strut and swagger of the military Kettle-drum. Behind, and on each side, were a number of boys and girls, who, by their shrill clamour, made the discord, that prevailed among the musicians, somewhat less intolerable. Every face was bright with health and gaiety, and not a few were handsome.

    They came to a halt, and formed a semi-circle across the road, as Anne and Hardress came in sight. The musicians struck up a jig, and one of the young men, dragging out of the crowd, with both hands, a bashful and unwilling country girl, began to time the music with a rapid movement of heel and toe, which had a rough grace of its own, and harmonized well with the vigorous and rough-hewn exterior of the peasant.

    It is the custom at dances of this kind, for the gentleman to find a partner for his fair antagonist after he has finished his own jig, and that partner, if he be a person of superior rank, is expected to show his sense of the honour done him, by dropping something handsome, as he is going, into the piper's hat. Neither is it in the power of a stranger to decline the happiness that is offered to him, for the people have a superstition, that such a churlishness (to say nothing of its utter want of politeness) is ominous of evil to the lady, betokening the loss of her lover at some future day. Hardress was com- pelled, though much against his will, to comply with the established usage, the bashful fair one, insisting with a great deal of good humour on her claim, and appealing to Miss Chute for her influence, with a supplicating tone and eye.

    While he was dancing, Anne passed the May-day mummers (for so were the merry makers termed) and strolled on alone. On a sudden the music ceased, and she heard a clamour commence which had the sound of strife. Turning hastily round, she beheld a strange hurry amongst the crowd, and Hardress in the midst, griping one of the mummers by the throat, and then flinging him back with extreme violence against the dry-stone wall on the road-side. The man rose again, and looking after Hardress, tossed his hand above his head, and shook it in a menacing way.

    Hardress hurried away from the group, many of whom remained gazing after him in astonishment, while others gathered around the injured man, and seemed to enquire the cause of this singular and unprovoked assault. The same inquiry was made by Anne, who was astonished at the appearance of terror, rage, and agitation, that were mingled in the demeanour of Hardress. He made some confused and unsatisfactory answer, talked of the fellow's insolence and his own warm temper, and hurried toward the castle by a shorter way than that which they had taken in leaving it.

    The wedding feast was appointed for the evening of the following day, and it was determined that the ceremony should take place early on the morning after the entertainment. The articles had been already signed by Anne, with a pale cheek, and a trembling, though not reluctant, hand. These circumstances made it impossible for her to think of altering her intentions, nor did she, with consciousness, even admit the idea to fasten on her mind. Still, however, her anxiety became every hour more trying and oppressive, and when she retired to rest upon this evening, she could not avoid murmuring in the words of the plebeian elector of Coriolanus: "If 't were to give again—but 'tis no matter."

    






 







* A vessel used in winnowing wheat, made of sheepskin stretched over a hoop.