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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 33. The Morning Of The Wedding
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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 33. The Morning Of The Wedding Post by :shine4789 Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :1977

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The Honorable Miss: A Story Of An Old-fashioned Town - Chapter 33. The Morning Of The Wedding

CHAPTER XXXIII. THE MORNING OF THE WEDDING

Beatrice had seen Mr. Ingram. She had gone to him, but not to stay.

"You must go to Mrs. Bertram's," she said; "she has a trouble on her mind. Get her to tell it to you. She will be better afterwards. She fears much. I guess a little of what she fears. She does not know that by to-morrow night all her anxieties will be over."

"And the wedding is really to take place in the morning, Beatrice?"

"Really and truly. I will be present as bride's-maid, not as bride."

Beatrice went home, and Mr. Ingram hastened to the Manor.

There was much confusion there. Mrs. Bertram was very ill; she would not see her daughters, she would allow no doctor to be summoned. Mabel was crying in the drawing-room. Catherine was pacing up and down the corridor outside her mother's room.

The Rector came. Bertram saw him for a few moments alone; then he went into Mrs. Bertram's room. He stayed with her for some hours; it was long past midnight when he left her. Catherine and Mabel had gone to bed, but Bertram met the Rector outside his mother's door.

"Come home with me," said Mr. Ingram; "I have a message to give you. I have something to say."

"How is my mother, sir?"

"She is better,--better than she has been for years--she will sleep now--she has carried a heavy burden, but confession has relieved it. She has sent you a message; come to my house, and I will give it to you."

The Rector and Bertram went quickly back to the cozy Rectory study. Mr. Ingram began his story at once.

"Have you any early recollections?" he asked. "Cast your memory back. What are the first things you can recall?"

Bertram raised his eyebrows in astonishment.

"I was born in India," he said; "I was sent home when I was little more than a baby."

"You don't remember your Indian life, nor your--your--father?"

"Of course I remember my father, sir. I was over twenty when he died."

"Ah, yes, your reputed father. You cannot possibly recall, you have no shadowy remembrance of another who bore the name?"

"Good God, Mr. Ingram! what do you mean?"

"Have you any memory? Answer me."

"No, sir, not the faintest. Is this a dream?"

"My poor lad, I don't wonder that you are staggered. Your mother could not bring herself to tell you. She has borne much for your sake, Bertram; you must be tender to her, gentle. She committed sin, she has gone through terrible hours for you. She was wrong, of course; but her motive--you must respect her motive, Loftus Bertram."

"I am in a dream," said Bertram. "General Bertram not my father! Whose son am I then? What is my name? Who am I? Good God, sir, speak! Get me out of this horrible nightmare."

"Bertram, I have a good deal to tell you. You have a very strange story to hear. You must listen as quietly as you can. You must take in the facts as well as you can. The story concerns you deeply--you and another."

"Do you mean my mother?"

"No, I mean Josephine Hart."

"Josephine? This story concerns Josephine. Rector, my brain is whirling."

"Sit down, keep still, listen."

Bertram restrained his impatience with an effort. He sank into a chair; in a moment he rose to his feet.

"I can't keep still," he said. "This story concerns Nina. Does my mother know Nina?"

"I will tell you the whole story, Bertram; I will tell it briefly, and you must listen with patience. You must remember, as you hear, that the woman who played this sorry part is your mother, that she did the wrong out of mistaken love for you, that she has suffered bitterly for her sin."

"Go on, sir; I am listening."

"Remember that the story is about your mother."

"I don't forget."

The Rector poured out a glass of water from a jug which stood on the table, drank it off, and began to speak.

"Your mother, Bertram, was twice married. Her first husband--my poor boy, I am sorry for you--was a scoundrel, a thief, a blackleg. He died in prison. You are his son. Your father died in a Bombay prison; you were in England at the time."

"Stop, sir," said Bertram. "What was my--my--what was the name of the man to whom I owe my being?"

"Your mother has not told me. She says she will never reveal his name. She says that your stepfather gave you legally the name of Bertram. That, at least, need never be disturbed."

"Then Catherine and Mabel are not my sisters."

"They are your half-sisters; that is a small matter."

"True. Everything in the world is a small matter in comparison with the awful fact that I am the son of a felon."

"I am deeply pained for you, Bertram. Your mother knew how this would strike home. Hence her sin."

"I forgot. I have to hear of that. Go on, Mr. Ingram."

"At the time of your father's death she was, she tells me, a very beautiful young woman. She was alone and peculiarly defenceless; Major Bertram, he was a Major at the time, made her acquaintance in Calcutta. You will be startled, Bertram, at the way in which these two made friends. She was asked to take care of Major Bertram's baby daughter."

"Then he, too, was married before."

"Yes, he had a young wife, who died when the baby was born. Little Nina was six months old when Major Bertram, who had to accompany his regiment up the country, asked your mother to look after her."

"Nina, did you say Nina, Mr. Ingram?"

"Yes. I need not conceal from you who that Nina was."

Bertram covered his face with his hands.

"I can't bear this," he said. "This story unmans me."

"You must listen. I am making the narrative as brief as possible. Your mother tells me that when the baby was given to her to care for she meant to be very good to it. She was miserable at the time, for her sorrows with and about your father had almost maddened her. She was good to the child, and very glad of the money which the Major paid her for giving the little creature a home. She kept the baby for some months, nearly a year; and whenever he could Major Bertram called to see her. Soon the meaning of his visits dawned upon her. He had fallen in love with her. He was, in all respects, a desirable husband; he was of good family; his antecedents were honorable, his own life stainless. She thought of you, she was always thinking about you, you were at a poor little school in England. She thought what your lot might be, if you were really the son of this honorable man. She tells me that at this time her love for you was like a terrible passion within her. Beyond all things in the world she dreaded your learning your father's history--she shuddered as she fancied your baby lips asking her artless questions which she could never answer. Your father's name was, alas, notorious. Bearing that name, you must one day learn the history of your father's ruin, disgrace, dishonor."

"Mr. Ingram," said Bertram, "you are crushing me. How much more must you say about my--my father?"

"Nothing more. I had to say this much to explain your mother's motive. One day Major Bertram called to see her. He was going away. Before he left he asked her to marry him. She refused. He persisted. She told him her history. He said he knew it already. Then she put off her decision. He might speak to her again on his return to Calcutta. It was during Major Bertram's absence that the temptation which led to your mother's sin came to her.

"Little Josephine was now between a year and two years old. On her mother's side she was of low birth. Major Bertram had married beneath him. He had fallen desperately in love with the beautiful daughter of a strolling minstrel. He had married her, found out his mistake when too late, but still, being a chivalrous and honorable man, had done his duty by his ignorant young wife; had never allowed her to guess at his feelings; and after her death had been filled with compunction for not loving her more, and had done everything he could to secure the welfare of their child.

"One person, however, he forbade the premises; with one individual he would have nothing to do. That person was his wife's father. From the moment he laid his young wife in her grave, he ignored the very existence of Hart. Your mother tells me, Bertram, that Hart was in all particuars a disreputable person. He was nothing but a needy adventurer, and he only approached Major Bertram to sponge on him.

"During the Major's absence your mother thought long and seriously of his proposals for her; the more she thought of them, the more desirable did they seem. She thought of herself in the sheltered position of a good man's wife. Above all, she thought of you. This marriage might save you. Suppose Major Bertram, for love of her, consented to adopt you as his son, to give you his name, and to present you to the world as his own lawful child. She thought this might be done; and the only difficulty in the way was the little bright-eyed, fair-haired Nina.

"Your mother did not wish to return to England calling Hart's granddaughter her child. She said she had an insuperable objection and repugnance to the idea, and an aversion for the poor little creature began to grow up in her mind."

Bertram, who had sat during the greater part of this recital with his hand shading his eyes, now started up with an impatient and distressed exclamation. The Rector looked at him, sighed heavily, and said in a voice of sympathy:

"My poor boy, this is a very hard story for you to listen to."

"Go on, Mr. Ingram," said Bertram. "Get it over quickly; that is all I have to ask you."

"While these thoughts were troubling your mother," continued the Rector, "she was one day surprised by a visit from Hart. He said he had come to see his grandchild; and he took little Nina in his arms and kissed her. Your mother says she scarcely knows how it was, but she and Hart began to talk about the child, and both simultaneously revealed to the other his and her real feelings.

"Hart hated Major Bertram, and would like to do him an injury. Your mother had no love for Nina. I nead not lengthily describe this interview. Suffice it to say that they made a plot between them. It was a bad plot. I am sorry to have to use this word to a son about any act of his mother's, but the truth must be told at all hazards. The plot was bad, bad at the time, bad subsequently.

"Your mother arranged to give Nina to her grandfather. She would pay him for delivering her from the child. After receiving his bribe Hart was to leave that part of India at once, When the Major returned your mother would tell him that the child was lost. That she feared her grandfather Hart had stolen her. She would help Major Bertram to make inquiries. These inquiries, she would arrange beforehand, should turn out useless, for Hart was one of those clever individuals, who, when necessary, could hide all trace of his existence.

"Your mother sold some jewellery to raise the necessary money for Hart. He came the next day and carried off the child. Major Bertram returned. He believed your mother's story, he was wild with grief at the loss of his child, and did everything in his power to recover her. In vain. Your mother and Hart were too clever for him.

"After a time he renewed his proposals to your mother. She made her conditions. You were to be acknowledged as his son.

"Soon after their marriage they returned to England, and Major Bertram retired from foreign service. His friends received them. The old story was never raked up. No suspicion attached to your mother. All the world believed you to be Major Bertram's son. No plot could have turned out better, and your mother rejoiced in her success.

"Her daughters were born, and she began to consider herself the happiest of living beings. The serpent, however, which she fondly thought killed, was once more to awake and torment her. She got a letter from Hart, who was then in Egypt. Nina was not dead, she was alive, and strong, and handsome. He would bring her back to her father and all the past would be known, if Mrs. Bertram did not buy his silence at a price.

"For some years after this letter she had to keep the old man quiet with money. Then suddenly, with no apparent reason, he ceased to trouble her. She believed that his silence was caused by Nina's death. She assured herself that the child must be dead, and once more her outward prosperity brought her happiness.

"Your father died, and his will was read. There was a codicil to his will which only his wife and the solicitors knew about. It was briefly to the effect that if by any chance the child of his first marriage was recovered, and her identity proved, she was to inherit one-half of his personal estate. He left her this large share of his property as compensation for the unavoidable neglect he had shown her all her life, and also in sorrow for having ever confided her to the care of another.

"That codicil tortured your mother's proud spirit. She felt that her husband had never really forgiven her for allowing his child to be stolen while under her care. Still she believed that the child now was dead.

"Her hour of terrible awakening came. Hart had returned to England. A couple of months ago he wrote to her here. Knowing that Nina's father was dead he had gone to Somerset House, paid a shilling and read a copy of the will. From that moment your mother knew no peace. Hart had all the necessary letters to prove Nina's identity. He had a copy of her baptismal certificate, and of the registration of her birth. Mrs. Bertram had now to bribe the old man heavily. She did so. She gave him and Nina a third of her income. Wretched, miserable, defiant, she yet hoped against hope. To-night, for the first time, she tasted despair."

The Rector ceased to speak. Bertram began to pace the floor.

"I can't forgive my mother," he said, at last. "I shall marry Josephine to-morrow morning and take her away, but I never want to see my mother again."

"Then she will die. She is weak now, weak and crushed. If you refuse your forgiveness you will have her death to answer for. I don't exonerate your mother's sin, but I do plead for your mercy. She sinned to shield and save you. You must not turn from her. Are you immaculate yourself?"

"I am not, Mr. Ingram. I am in no sense of the word good. I have been extravagant, reckless, I have been untruthful. I have caused my mother many a pang, and she has invariably been an angel of goodness and kindness to me. But her cruelty to Nina cuts me like a sword, and I cannot forgive her."

The Rector went over to the window, drew up the blinds, and looked out.

"Come here," he said to the young man. "Do you see that faint light in the east?"

"Yes, sir, the day is breaking."

"The day of your wedding, and of your new life. To-day you realize what true love means. You take the hand of the girl who is all the world to you, and you promise to love and reverence and defend her. To-day you put away the past life. You rise out of the ashes of the past, and put on manliness, and honor, and those virtues which good men prize, like an armor, Beatrice tells me you have promised her all this."

"Beatrice--God bless Beatrice:" Bertram's eyes were misty. "I will be a good husband, and a true man," he said with fervor. "I have been a wretch in the past, and with God's help I'll show Nina, and Beatrice too, what stuff they have made of me. I'll be a true man for their sakes. But my mother--Mr. Ingram, you have given me a cruel shock on my wedding morning."

"Bertram, all that you have said to me now will end in failure, will wither up like the early dew if you cherish hard feelings towards your mother. Did she ever cherish them to you? What about that bill she had to meet? That bill would have ruined her."

"Beatrice met the bill."

"Had there been no Beatrice?"

Bertram turned his head away.

"I have been a scoundrel," he said at last.

The Rector laid his hand on his arm.

"You have been something uncommonly like it, my dear fellow. And the spirit of revenge does not sit well on you. Come, your mother is waiting. Change her despair to peace. Say some of the good things you have said to me to her, and the blessing of God will descend on you, Bertram, and on the young girl whom you will call your wife to-day. Give me your hand. Come."

Bertram went.

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