Mrs. Humphry Ward.

The Mating of Lydia online

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"That's not our affair."

Tatham caught up his hat and stick, and abruptly departed; reflecting
indeed when he reached the street, that he had not been the most
diplomatic of ambassadors on Mrs. Melrose's behalf.

Faversham, after some ten minutes of motionless reflection, heavily
returned to his papers, ordering his horse to be ready in half an hour.
He forced himself to write some ordinary business letters, and to eat
some lunch, and immediately after he started on horseback to find his way
through the October lanes to the village of Mainstairs.

A man more harassed, and yet more resolved, it would have been difficult
to find. For six weeks now he had been wading deeper and deeper into a
moral quagmire from which he saw no issue at all - except indeed by the
death of Edmund Melrose! That event would solve all difficulties.

For some time now he had been convinced, not only that the mother and
daughter were living, but that there had been some recent communication
between them and Melrose. Various trifling incidents and cryptic sayings
of the old man, not now so much on his guard as formerly, had led
Faversham to this conclusion. He realized that he himself had been
haunted of late by the constant expectation that they might turn up.

Well, now they had turned up. Was he at once to make way for them, as
Tatham clearly took for granted? - to advise Melrose to tear up his newly
made will, and gracefully surrender his expectations as Melrose's heir to
this girl of twenty-one? By no means!

What is the claim of birth in such a case, if you come to that? Look at
it straight in the face. A child is born to a certain father; is then
torn from that father against his will, and brought up for twenty years
out of his reach. What claim has that child, when mature, upon the
father - beyond, of course, a claim for reasonable provision - unless
he chooses to acknowledge a further obligation? None whatever. The father
has lived his life, and accumulated his fortune, without the child's
help, without the child's affection or tendance. His possessions are
morally and legally his own, to deal with as he pleases.

In the course of life, other human beings become connected with him,
attached to him, and he to them. Natural claims must be considered and
decently satisfied - agreed! But for the disposal of a man's
superfluities, of such a fortune as Melrose's, there is no law - there
ought to be no law; and the English character, as distinct from the
French, has decided that there shall be no law. "If his liking, or his
caprice even," thought Faversham passionately, "chooses to make me his
heir, he has every right to give, and I to accept. I am a stranger to
him; so, in all but the physical sense, is his daughter. But I am not a
stranger to English life. My upbringing and experience - even such as they
are - are better qualifications than hers. What can a girl of twenty,
partly Italian, brought up away from England, hardly speaking her
father's tongue, do for this English estate, compared to what I could
do - with a free hand, and a million to draw on? Whom do I wrong by
accepting what a miraculous chance has brought me - by standing by it - by
fighting for it? No one - justly considered. And I will fight for
it - though a hundred Tathams call me adventurer!"

So much for the root determination of the man; the result of weeks of
excited brooding over wealth, and what can be done with wealth, amid
increasing difficulties and problems from all sides.

His determination indeed did not protect him from the attacks of
conscience; of certain moral instincts and prepossessions, that is,
natural to a man of his birth and environment.

The mind, however, replied to them glibly enough. "I shall do the just
and reasonable thing! As I promised Tatham, I shall look into the story
of these two women, and if it is what it professes to be, I shall press
Melrose to provide for them."

Conscience objected: "If he refuses?"

"They can enforce their claim legally, and I shall make him realize it."

"Can you?" said Conscience. "Have you any hold upon him at all?"

A flood of humiliation, indeed, rushed in upon him, as he recalled his
effort, while Melrose was away in August, to make at least some temporary
improvement in the condition of the Mainstairs cottages - secretly - out of
his own money - by the help of the cottagers themselves. The attempt had
been reported to Melrose by that spying little beast, Nash, and
peremptorily stopped by telegram - "Kindly leave my property alone. It is
not yours to meddle with."

And that most abominable scene, after Melrose's return to the Tower!
Faversham could never think of it without shame and disgust. Ten times
had he been on the point of dashing down his papers at Melrose's feet,
and turning his back on the old madman, and his house, forever. It was,
of course, the thought of the gifts he had already accepted, and of that
vast heritage waiting for him when Melrose should be in his grave, which
had restrained him - that alone; no cynic could put it more nakedly than
did Faversham's own thoughts. He was tied and bound by his own actions,
and his own desires; he had submitted - grovelled to a tyrant; and he knew
well enough that from that day he had been a lesser and a meaner man.

But - no silly exaggeration! He straightened himself in his saddle. He was
doing plenty of good work elsewhere, work with which Melrose did not
trouble himself to interfere; work which would gradually tell upon the
condition and happiness of the estate. Put that against the other. Men
are not plaster saints - or, still less, live ones, with the power of
miracle; but struggling creatures of flesh and blood, who do, not what
they will, but what they can.

And suddenly he seemed once more to be writing to Lydia Penfold. How
often he had written to her during these two months! He recalled the joy
of the earlier correspondence, in which he had been his natural self,
pleading, arguing, planning; showing all the eagerness - the sincere
eagerness - there was in him, to make a decent job of his agency, to stand
well with his new neighbours - above all with "one slight girl."

And her letters to him - sweet, frank, intelligent, sympathetic - they had
been his founts of refreshing, his manna by the way. Until that fatal
night, when Melrose had crushed in him all that foolish optimism and
self-conceit with which he had entered into the original bargain! Since
then, he knew well that his letters had chilled and disappointed her;
they had been the letters of a slave.

And now this awful business at Mainstairs! Bessie Dobbs, the girl of
eighteen - Lydia's friend - who had been slowly dying since the diphtheria
epidemic of the year before, was dead at last, after much suffering; and
he did not expect to find the child of eight, her little sister, still
alive. There were nearly a score of other cases, and there were three
children down with scarlet fever, besides some terrible attacks of
blood-poisoning - one after childbirth - due probably to some form of the
scarlet fever infection, acting on persons weakened by the long effect of
filthy conditions. What would Lydia say, when she knew - when she came?
From her latest letter it was not clear to him on what day she would
reach home. After making his inspection he would ride on to Green Cottage
and inquire. He dreaded to meet her; and yet he was eager to defend
himself; his mind was already rehearsing all that he would say.

A long lane, shaded by heavy trees, made an abrupt turning, and he saw
before him the Mainstairs village - one straggling street of wretched
houses, mostly thatched, and built of "clay-lump," whitewashed. In a
county of prosperous farming, and good landlords, where cottages had
been largely rebuilt during the preceding century, this miserable
village, with various other hamlets and almost all the cottages attached
to farms on the Melrose estate, were the scandal of the countryside.
Roofs that let in rain and wind, clay floors, a subsoil soaked in every
possible abomination, bedrooms "more like dens for wild animals than
sleeping-places for men and women," to quote a recent Government report,
and a polluted water supply! - what more could reckless human living,
aided by human carelessness and cruelty, have done to make a hell of
natural beauty?

Over the village rose the low shoulder of a grassy fell, its patches of
golden fern glistening under the October sunshine; great sycamores, with
their rounded masses of leaf, hung above the dilapidated roofs, as though
Nature herself tried to shelter the beings for whom men had no care; the
thatched slopes were green with moss and weed; and the blue smoke wreaths
that rose from the chimneys, together with the few flowers that gleamed
in the gardens, the picturesque irregularity of the houses, and the
general setting of wood and distant mountain, made of the poisoned
village a "subject," on which a wandering artist, who had set up his
canvas at the corner of the road, was at the moment, indeed, hard at
work. There might be death in those houses; but out of the beauty which
sunshine strikes from ruin, a man, honestly in search of a few pounds,
was making what he could.

To Faversham's overstrung mind the whole scene was as the blood-stained
palace of the Atreidae to the agonized vision of Cassandra. He saw it
steeped in death - death upon death - and dreaded of what new "murder" he
might hear as soon as he approached the houses. For what was it but
murder? His conscience, arguing with itself, did not dispute the word.
Had Melrose, out of his immense income, spent a couple of thousand pounds
on the village at any time during the preceding years, a score of deaths
would have been saved, and the physical degeneracy of a whole population
would have been prevented.

* * * * *

Heavens! that light figure in Dobbs's garden, talking with the old
shepherd - his heart leapt and then sickened. It was Lydia.

A poignant fear stirred in him. He gave his horse a touch of the whip,
and was at her side.

"Miss Penfold! - you oughtn't to be here! For heaven's sake go home!"

Lydia, who in the absorption of her talk with the shepherd had not
heard his approach, turned with a start. Her face was one of passionate
grief - there were tears on her cheek.

"Oh, Mr. Faversham - "

"The child?" he asked, as he dismounted.

"She died - last night."

"Aye, an' there's another doon - t' li'le boy - t' three-year-old," said
old Dobbs sharply, straightening himself on his stick, at sight of the
agent.

"The nurses are here?" said Faversham after a pause.

"Aye," said the shepherd, turning toward his cottage, "but they can do
nowt. The childer are marked for deein afore they're sick." And he walked
away, his inner mind shaken with a passion that forbade him to stay and
talk with Melrose's agent.

Two or three labourers who were lounging in front of their houses came
slowly toward the agent. It was evident that there was unemployment as
well as disease in the village, and that the neighbouring farms, where
there were young children, were cutting themselves off, as much as they
could, from the Mainstairs infection, by dismissing the Mainstairs men.

Faversham meanwhile again implored Lydia to go home. "This whole place
reeks with infection. You ought not to be here."

"They say that nothing has been done!"

Her tone was quiet, but her look pierced.

"I tried. It was impossible. The only thing that could be done was that
the people should go. They are under notice. Every single person is here
in defiance of the law. The police will have to be called in."

"And where are we to goa, sir!" cried one of the men who had come up.
"Theer's noa house to be had nearer than Pengarth - yo' know that
yoursen - an' how are we to be waakin' fower mile to our work i' t'
mornin', an' fower mile back i' t' evening? Why, we havena got t'
strength! It isna exactly a health resort - yo' ken - Mainstairs!"

"I'll tell yo' where soom on us might goa, Muster Faversham," said
another older man, removing the pipe he had been stolidly smoking;
"theer's two farmhouses o' Melrose's, within half a mile o' this
place - shut oop - noabody there. They're big houses - yan o' them wor an'
owd manor-house, years agone. A body might put oop five or six families
in 'em at a pinch. Thattens might d√Ђa for a beginnin'; while soom o'
these houses were coomin' doon."

Lydia turned eagerly to Faversham.

"_Couldn't_ that be done - some of the families with young children that
are not yet attacked?" Her eyes hung on him.

He shook his head. He had already proposed something of the sort to
Melrose. It had been vetoed.

The men watched him. At last one of them - a lanky youth, with a frowning,
ironic expression and famous as a heckler at public meetings - said with
slow emphasis:

"There'll coom a day i' this coontry, mates, when men as treat poor foak
like Muster Melrose, 'ull be pulled off t' backs of oos an' our like. And
may aa live to see 't!"

"Aye! aye!" came in deep assent from the others, as they turned away. But
one white and sickly fellow looked back to say:

"An' it's a graat pity for a yoong mon like you, sir, to be doin' Muster
Melrose's dirty work - taakin' o' the police - as though yo' had 'em oop
your sleeve!"

"Haven't I done what I could for you?" cried Faversham, stung by the
reproach, and its effect on Lydia's face.

"Aye - mebbe - but it's nowt to boast on." The man, middle aged but
prematurely old, stood still, trembling from head to foot. "My babe as
wor born yesterday, deed this mornin'; an' they say t' wife 'ull lig
beside it afore night."

There was a sombre silence. Faversham broke it. "I must see the nurses,"
he said to Lydia; "but again, I beg of you to go! I will send you news."

"I will wait for you. Don't be afraid. I won't go indoors."

He went round the houses, watched by the people, as they stood at their
doors. He himself was paying two nurses, and now Lady Tatham had sent two
more. He satisfied himself that they had all the stores which Undershaw
had ordered; he left a donation of money with one of them, and then he
returned to Lydia.

They walked together in silence; while a boy from the village led
Faversham's horse some distance in the rear. All that Faversham had meant
to say had dropped away from him. His planned defence of himself could
find no voice.

"You too blame me?" he said, at last, hoarsely.

She shook her head sadly.

"I don't know what to think. But when we last met - you were so hopeful - "

"Yes - like a fool. But what can you do - with a madman."

"Can you bear - to be still in his employ?"

She looked up, her beautiful eyes bright and challenging.

"Mainstairs is not the whole estate. If I'm powerless here - I'm not
elsewhere - "

She was silent. He turned upon her.

"If _you_ are to misunderstand and mistrust me - then indeed I shall lose
heart!"

The feeling, one might almost say the anguish, in his dark, commanding
face moved her strangely. Condemnation and pity - aye, and something else
than pity - struggled within her. For the first time Lydia began to know
herself. She was strangely shaken.

"I will try - and understand," she said in a voice that trembled.

"All my power of doing anything depends on it!" he said, passionately. "I
can say truly that things would have been infinitely worse if I had not
been here. And I have worked like a horse to better them - before you
came."

She was silent. His appeal to her as to his judge hurt her poignantly.
Yet what could she do or say? Her natural longing was to console; but
where were the elements of consolation? _Could_ anything be worse than
what she had seen and heard?

The mingled emotion which silenced her, warned her not to continue the
conversation. She perceived the opening of a side-lane leading back to
the river and the Keswick road.

"This is my best way, I think," she said, pausing, and holding out her
hand. "The pony-cart is waiting for me at Whitebeck."

He looked at her in distress, yet also in anger. A friend might surely
have stood by him more cordially, believed in him more simply.

"You are at home again? I may come and see you."

"Please! We shall want to hear."

Her tone was embarrassed. They parted almost coldly.

Lydia walked quickly home, down a sloping lane from which the ravines of
Blencathra, edge behind edge, chasm beyond chasm, were to be seen against
the sunset, and all the intermediate landscape - wood, and stubble, and
ferny slope - steeped in stormy majesties of light. But for once the quick
artist sense was shut against Nature's spectacles. She walked in a blind
anguish of self-knowledge and self-scorn. She who had plumed herself on
the poised mind, the mastered senses!

She moaned to herself.

"Why didn't he tell me - warn me! To sell himself to that man - to act for
him - defend him - apologize for him - and for those awful, awful things! An
agent must."

And she thought of some indignant talk of Undershaw, which she had heard
that morning.

Her moral self was full of repulsion; her heart was torn. Friend? She
owned her weakness, and despised it. Turning aside, she leant a while
against a gate, hiding her face from the glory of the evening. Week by
week - she knew it now! - through that frank interchange of mind with mind,
of heart with heart, represented by that earlier correspondence, still
more perhaps through the checks and disappointments of its later phases,
Claude Faversham had made his way into the citadel.

The puny defences she had built about the freedom of her maiden life and
will lay in ruins. Her theories were scattered like the autumn leaves
that were scuddering over the fields. His voice, the very roughened
bitterness of it; his eyes, with their peremptory challenge, their sore
accusingness; the very contradictions of the man's personality, now
delightful, now repellent, and, breathing through them all, the passion
she must needs divine - of these various impressions, small and great, she
was the struggling captive. Serenity, peace were gone.

Meanwhile, as Faversham rode toward the Tower, absorbed at one moment in
a misery of longing, and the next in a heat of self-defence, perhaps the
strongest feeling that finally emerged was one of dismay that her
abrupt leave-taking had prevented him from telling her of that other
matter of which Tatham's visit had informed him. She must hear of it
immediately, and from those who would judge and perhaps denounce him.

Nevertheless, as he dismounted at the Tower, neither the burden of
Mainstairs, nor the fear of Lydia's disapproval, nor the agitation of the
news from Duddon, had moved him one jot from his purpose. A man surely is
a coward and a weakling, he thought, who cannot grasp the "skirts of
happy chance," while they are there for the grasping; cannot take what
the gods offer, while they offer it, lest they withdraw it forever.

Yet, suppose, that by his own act, he raised a moral barrier between
himself and Lydia Penfold which such a personality would never permit
itself to pass?

His vanity, a touch of natural cynicism, refused, in the end, to let him
believe it. His hope lay in a frank wrestle with her, a frank attack upon
her intelligence. He promised himself to attempt it without delay.




XV


The day following the interview between Tatham and Faversham was a day of
expectation for the inmates of Duddon. On the evening before, Tatham with
much toil had extracted a more or less, coherent statement from Netta
Melrose, persuading her to throw it into the form of an appeal to her
husband. "If we can't do anything by reasoning, why then we must try
pressure," he had said to her, in his suavest County Council manner; "but
we won't talk law to begin with." The statement when finished and written
out in Netta's childish hand was sent by messenger, late in the evening,
within a covering letter to Faversham, written by Tatham.

Tatham afterward devoted himself till nearly midnight to composing a
letter to Lydia. He had unaccountably missed her that afternoon, for when
he arrived at the cottage from Pengarth she was out, and neither Mrs.
Penfold nor Susy knew where she was. In fact she was at Mainstairs, and
with Faversham. She had mistaken a phrase in Tatham's note of the
morning, and did not expect him till later. He had waited an hour for
her, under the soft patter of Mrs. Penfold's embarrassed conversation;
and had then ridden home, sorely disappointed, but never for one instant
blaming the beloved.

But later, in the night silence, he poured out to her all his budget: the
arrival of the Melroses; their story; his interview with Faversham; and
his plans for helping them to their rights. To a "friend" it was only
allowed, besides, to give restrained expression to his rapturous joy in
being near her again, and his disappointment of the afternoon. He thought
over every word, as he wrote it down, his eyes sometimes a little dim in
the lamp-light. The very reserve imposed upon him did but strengthen his
passion. Nor could young hopes believe in ultimate defeat.

At the same time, the thought of Faversham held the background of his
mind. Though by now he himself cordially disliked Faversham, he was quite
aware of the attraction the new agent's proud and melancholy personality
might have for women. He had seen it working in Lydia's case, and he had
been uncomfortably aware at one time of the frequent references to
Faversham in Lydia's letters. It was evident that Faversham had pushed
the acquaintance with the Penfolds as far as he could; that he was
Lydia's familiar correspondent, and constantly appealing for help to her
knowledge of the country folk. An excellent road to intimacy, as Tatham
uneasily admitted, considering Lydia's love for the people of the dales,
and her passionate sympathy with the victims of Melrose's ill-deeds.

Ah! but the very causes which had been throwing her into an intimacy with
Faversham must surely now be chilling and drawing her back? Tatham, the
young reformer, felt an honest indignation with the failure of Claude
Faversham to do the obvious and necessary work he had promised to do.
Tatham, the lover, knew very well that if he had come back to find
Faversham the hero of the piece, with a grateful countryside at his feet,
his own jealous anxiety would have been even greater than it was. For it
was great, argue with himself as he might. A dread for which he could not
account often overshadowed him. It was caused perhaps by his constant
memory of Faversham and Lydia on the terrace at Threlfall - of the two
faces turned to each other - of the sudden fusion as it were of the two
personalities in a common rush of memories, interests, and sympathies, in
which he himself had no part....

He put up his letter on the stroke of midnight, and then walked his room
a while longer, struggling with himself and the passion of his desire;
praying that he might win her. Finally he took a well-worn Bible from a
locked drawer, and read some verses from the Gospel of St. John, quieting
himself. He never went to sleep without reading either a psalm or some
portion of the New Testament. The influence of his Eton tutor had made
him a Christian of a simple and convinced type; and his mother's
agnosticism had never affected him. But he and she never talked of
religion.

Nothing arrived from Threlfall the following day during the morning.
After luncheon, Victoria announced her intention of going to call on the
Penfolds.

"You can follow me there in the motor," she said to her son; "and if any
news comes, bring it on."

They were in the drawing-room. Netta, white and silent, was stretched on
the sofa, where Victoria had just spread a shawl over her. Felicia
appeared to be turning over an illustrated paper, but was in reality
watching the mother and son out of the corners of her eyes. Everything
that was said containing a mention of the Penfolds struck in her an
attentive ear. The casual conversation of the house had shown her already
that there were three ladies - two of them young - who were living not far
from Duddon, and were objects of interest to both Lady Tatham and her
son. Flowers were sent them, and new books. They were not relations; and
not quite ordinary acquaintances. All this had excited a furious
curiosity in Felicia. She wished - was determined indeed - to see these
ladies for herself.

"You will hardly want to go out," said Victoria gently, standing by
Netta's sofa, and looking down with kind eyes on the weary woman lying
there.

Netta shook her head; then putting out her hand she took Victoria's and



Online LibraryMrs. Humphry WardThe Mating of Lydia → online text (page 20 of 31)