AFTER Mr. Tresham’s departure Lord Littmass sought to forget his annoyance in wondering why James did not come to prefer his suit himself.
‘Can it be that he is afraid of me?’ he thought. ‘He is not generally timid, but love often makes men so. If he really loves Margaret he will come himself, and not let a clumsy ambassador forestall him. If he knew of his parentage he would scarcely hesitate to use it as a powerful engine against me. By the by, what could Tresham mean when he spoke of natural affection? I sent him off in a huff because I thought at the moment that he was referring to James; but it is quite possible that he was on the wrong scent; perhaps fancied Margaret to be my daughter! – Well, what now?’
‘If you please, my lord, Lady Bevan has sent her carriage, and wishes to know if you would like Miss Margaret to take a drive with her?’
‘Very kind and attentive, I am sure,’ was the half-audible bland comment. Then, aloud, –
‘Say that I am most grateful for the attention, and that Miss Waring regrets that she is unable to avail herself of her ladyship’s kindness this morning, but hopes to do so another day.’
‘What am I to say to these people?’ was the thought that was uttered as soon as the servant had withdrawn. ‘Harriet knows that the girl had a portion, and will find that she is very far from being the imbecile or invalid that I have allowed her to suppose. Sophia will go wild over her, when she once sees and knows her. Indeed, I suspect her of being at the bottom of this scheme of asking her to Linnwood. She and Noel are sworn allies, and he and James have suddenly and mysteriously become allies also. And now his uncle, who has me in his gilded clutches, takes James’s part, too, and comes and prates of “natural affection!” ’ and, like a grand old lion, Lord Littmass almost roared with rage, as he found himself brought to bay, and not an opening for escape visible in the ranks of his tormentors. Yet, after awhile, he had strength of will to ignore his gathering troubles and betake himself to his beloved occupation.
‘Ah, my pen,’ he sighed, sole friend that remains to me;
that never betrayed, never disappointed me yet. Responding to my ideas, thy lifeblood flows in words: and from the marriage of ideas to words, proceed others in quick succession, so soon as thou hast established divine rapport with my paper.’
And so he turned to his work and wrote on until the late afternoon brought him a note, on which he started to see James’s handwriting. For the first time in his life Lord Littmass owned fear. He feared to open and read it. Yet, when he at length summoned courage to do so, he found only this: –
‘MY DEAR LORD LITTMASS,
‘I reached London the night before last, too late to intrude upon you. I was prevented from calling yesterday, and have learnt that you are very busy to-day. Please let me know by the bearer when I may come without inconveniencing you. I am anxious to see you soon about matters of importance, at least to me.
‘Ever yours sincerely,
Sending directions to the messenger to wait a few minutes, Lord Littmass threw himself back in his chair, and, closing his eyes, pondered deeply.
‘Sure of his appointment, he is coming to ask for Margaret. Will she follow my instructions if I allow him to see her?’
Summoning a servant he sent to tell Margaret that he desired to speak with her in the drawing-room. On being informed that she was awaiting him, Lord Littmass went to her. Taking her gently by the hand he led her to a sofa and seated himself by her. Still holding her hand, he said, –
‘Are you equal to the performance of the duty which I have prescribed to you?’ and, before she could frame a reply, continued in his most paternal tone:
‘Your welfare, you will believe me, has ever been near my heart. It has been my occupation through life to study the elements which go to constitute human happiness for various dispositions. To do this is the duty of parents who are blest with children of their own, and who have higher aims for those children than are appreciable by a merely conventional standard. Many consider their duty performed when they get their children married. They must be wedded; but whether to happiness or misery is no concern of the parents. In short, in this distorted
world, of which you have as yet been fortunate enough to see but a very little, many parents are only too glad to get their children taken off their hands; leaving the responsibility of examining their respective characters and dispositions to the inexperience of the parties concerned. Regarding myself in the light of a parent to you, I value your future happiness far too dearly to copy such evil precedents. It thus becomes my business to pay regard to the characters both of yourself and of any who may pretend to address you; to warn off those who may be ineligible, and to advise you with respect to those who may persist. I would have you avoid the rocks upon which so many fair and blameless lives are wrecked. You are not one to contract hasty and shallow preferences. It would be a happiness could I feel sure that neither are you one to sacrifice yourself on the useless altar of a fancied duty. Now I would ask you to mark and remember these words: It is even more a woman’s duty to refuse a man if she does not love him, than to accept him if she does. To take a man out of pity to his feelings without corresponding feelings of her own, may, to a woman of pure and unselfish disposition, seem a very noble sacrifice. But it is the cruellest way in the world of showing her pity. Better far a thousand times, by her refusal of him, to drive him even to quick madness, despair, and death, than to curse his whole life with the ever-present bitterness of a love unreturned. Finding his caresses abhorred, his very children the objects of his jealousy, – God help the man whose adoration for his wife is met by aversion or indifference. Vain for her to strive with tears or prayers to fulfil his wishes, or to feign a tenderness which she cannot feel. The vision of a man in such plight is preternaturally sharpened. His mental surfaces are in a chronic condition of intensest irritation. He sees through all disguises. And so his very words of affection become converted into taunts at what he deems her coldness, her hypocrisy, or her unwomanliness. The very industry by which she seeks to escape the contemplation of their unhappiness excites his opposition, and scarce a friend or relative, whether man or woman, can approach without rousing her husband’s jealousy, for he is jealous of whatever may be welcomed by her as a brief relief from him.
‘So much for blind obedience to a fancied duty; for marrying from motives of mere esteem or compassion, and without any abiding sense of likeness or identity of sympathy.
‘And the infinite danger to a woman in such a case! Yearning
to escape and to be in peace; feeling a capacity for loving, ever unsatisfied, because unevoked, by reason of the natural antagonism of their natures; – the greatest happiness that can come to a woman is converted into misery and woe. The true love is found at last! revealed only when too late, in the person of one whom now she dare not love, for love now would be sin! Then, indeed, does she learn by bitterest experience that to wed for pity one that is unloved is to court misery for three! And more than this. It is to defraud the one – the one only possible love that Providence is keeping in reserve for her.’
And Lord Littmass paused, as if overcome by emotion, having produced on his hearer’s mind the impression that he was relating an experience nearly touching himself, and encountering the pain of the reminiscence for her especial benefit. Had Margaret really known her guardian, his history and his character, while she would have compassionated him less as a man, she would have admired him more as an artist. For it was her own imaginary history, as developed in the book he was writing, that he was quoting in the hope of encouraging her to refuse Maynard decidedly and finally. He did not seem to expect her to reply when he paused. He was satisfied to hear her draw a long breath and murmur, –
‘Who then would be married?’
Presently he resumed, –
‘I have reason to believe that you will very shortly be required to express your decision in respect to Mr. Maynard. I am aware that in his intercourse with you he has been friendly and brotherly, and I can quite believe that it will be painful to you to deny him. But, as I understand your respective characters, no real sympathy exists, or can exist, between you to make such a connection desirable, and it would be a vast relief to you to be freed from the liability to be again addressed by him to such an end. Do not hesitate to tell me if I am wrong.’
‘You are not wrong, Lord Littmass,’ said Margaret, in a tone that was low, yet so firm and distinct as to surprise him.
‘And you have strength and courage to tell him so yourself?’
‘I shrink so much from giving him pain that I distrust myself.’
‘Yet he will scarcely accept a denial from me without an appeal to you. In such case, let the reflection that in consenting to be his wife without loving him you will be laying up for him misery in store infinitely surpassing any that your present
refusal can bring him, steel your heart into firmness. You can thus show also a little of that regard for me, which he has thought fit to refuse. For reasons which I cannot recount to you, an engagement between him and you would cause me infinite pain and serious inconvenience. I will be at hand to sustain you. I expect him this evening.’
Finding herself dismissed, Margaret rose, and with a sad yet grateful glance towards her guardian returned to her room; while Lord Littmass went back to his study, and despatched a message to Maynard, saying that he would be at his service that evening at nine o’clock.