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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThere & Back - Chapter 36. Lady Ann Meditates
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There & Back - Chapter 36. Lady Ann Meditates Post by :Merry_V Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1724

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There & Back - Chapter 36. Lady Ann Meditates

CHAPTER XXXVI. LADY ANN MEDITATES

It would have been difficult for Arthur himself to say whether in his heart rage or contempt was the stronger, when he saw the lady he loved walking in a field, turning and returning, in close talk with the bookbinder-fellow. Never had she so walked and talked with _him_! She preferred the bookbinder's society to his--and made it no secret that she did, for, although evidently desirous of having their interview uninterrupted, they walked in full view of the high road!

What did Barbara mean by it? He could not treat her as a child and lay the matter before Richard! If a lady showed favour to a man, the less worthy he was, the less could he be expected to see the unfitness of the thing. Besides, to acknowledge thus any human relation between Richard and either of them, would be degrading. It was scorn alone that kept Arthur from hating Richard. For Barbara, he attributed her disregard of propriety, and the very possibility of her being interested in such a person, to the modes of life in the half savage country where she had been born and reared--_educated_, he remarked to himself, he could not say. But what did she mean by it? The worst of his torment was that the thought, unreasonable as it was, would yet come--that Richard was a good-looking fellow, and admiration, which in any English girl would have been rendered impossible by his vulgarity, might have a share in her enjoyment of his shop-talk about books. The idea was simply disgusting!

What was he to do? What could any one do? The girl was absolutely uncontrolled: was it likely she would prove controllable? Would she mind him, when she cared no more for his stately mother than for the dairy-woman! How could such a bewitching creature so lack refinement! The more he thought, the more inexplicable and self-contradictory her conduct appeared. Such a jewelled-humming-bird to make friends with a grubbing rook! The smell of the leather, not to mention the paste and glue, would be enough for any properly sensitive girl! Universally fascinating, why did she not correspond all through? Brought out in London, she would be the belle of the season! If he did not secure her, some poor duke would pounce on her!

But again what was he to do? Must he bring scorn on himself by appearing jealous of a tradesman, or must he let the fellow go on casting his greasy shadow about the place? As to her being in love with him, that was preposterous! The notion was an insult! Yet half the attention she gave the bookbinder would be paradise to _him_! He _must put a stop to it! he must send the man away! It would be a pity for the library! It was beginning to look beautiful, and would soon have been the most distinguished in the county: lord Chough's was nothing to it! But there were other book-binders as good as he! And what did the library matter! What did anything matter in such a difficulty!

She might take offence! She would be sure to suspect why the fellow was sent packing! She would know she had the blame of ruining the library, and the bookbinder as well, and would never enter the house again! He must leave the thing alone--for the present! But he would be on his guard! Against what, he did not plainly tell himself.

While the son was thus desiring a good riddance of the man he had brought into the house, and to whom Barbara was so much indebted, the mother was pondering the same thing. Should the man remain in the house or leave it? was the question with her also;--and if leave it, on what pretext? She was growing more and more uncomfortable at the possibilities. The possession of the estate by one born of another woman, and she of low origin; the subjection in which they would all be placed to him as the head of the family--a man used to the low ways of a trade, a man dirty and greasy, hardly in his right place at work in the library, the grandson of a blacksmith with brawny arms and smutty face--the ideas might well be painful to her!

Then first the thought struck her, that it must be his grandfather's doing that he was in the house! and there he was, at their very door, eager to bear testimony to the bookbinder as his grandson and heir to Mortgrange! Alas, the thing must be a fact, a horrible fact! All was over!--But she would do battle for her rights! She would not allow that the child was found! The thing was a conspiracy to supplant the true heir! How ruinous were the low tastes of gentlemen! If sir Wilton had but kept to his own rank, and made a suitable match, nothing of all this misery would have befallen them! If her predecessor had been a lady, her son would have been a gentleman, and there would have been nothing to complain of! To lady Ann, her feeling had the force of a conviction, that the son of Robina Armour could not, in the nature of things divinely ordained, have the same rights as her son. Lady Ann's God was the head of the English aristocracy. There was nothing selfish that lady Ann was not capable of wishing; there was nothing selfish she might not by degrees become capable of doing. She could not at that moment commit murder; neither could lady Macbeth have done so when she was a girl. The absurd falsity of her notions as to her rights, came from lack of love to her neighbour, and consequent insensibility to his claims. At the same time she had not keen, she had only absorbing feelings of her rights; there was nothing _keen in lady Ann; neither sense nor desire, neither hope nor fear, neither joy nor sorrow, neither love nor hate. Beyond her own order, beyond indeed her own circle in that order, the universe hardly existed. An age-long process of degeneration had been going on in her race, and she was the result: she was well born and well bred for feeling nothing. There is something fearful in the thought that through the generations the body may go on perfecting, while the heart goes on degenerating; that, while the animal beauty is growing complete in the magic of proportion, the indescribable marvel that can even give charm to ugliness, is as steadily vanishing. Such a woman, like Branca d'Oria in the Inferno, is already damned, and only seems to live. Lady Ann was indeed born capable of less than most; but had she attempted to do the little she could, one would not have been where she was; she would have beep toiling up the hill of truth, with a success to be measured, like the widow's mite, by what she had not.

All her thoughts were now occupied with the _rights of her son, and through him of the family. Sir Wilton had been for some time ailing, and when he went, they would be at the mercy of any other heir than Arthur, just as miserably whether he were the true heir or an impostor; the one was as bad as the other from her point of view! For the right, lady Ann cared nothing, except to have it or to avoid it. The law of the land was to be respected no doubt, but your own family--most of all when land was concerned--was worthier still!

It were better to rid the place of the bookbinder--but how? As to whether he was the legal heir or not, she would rather remain ignorant, only that, assured on the point, she would better understand how to deal with his pretension! But she could not consult sir Wilton, because she suspected him of a lingering regard for the dead wife which would naturally influence his feeling for the live son--if live he were: no doubt he had enjoyed the company of the low-born woman more than hers, for she, a woman of society, knew what was right! She had reason therefore to fear him prejudiced for any pretender! Arthur and he got on quite as well as could be expected of father and son--their differences never came to much; but on the other hand sir Wilton had a demoniacal pleasure in frustrating! To make a man he disliked furious, was honey and nuts to sir Wilton; and she knew a woman whose disappointment would be dearer to him than that of all his enemies together! It was better therefore that he should have no hint, and especially from her, of what was in the air!

Lady Ann thought herself a good woman because she never felt interest enough to be spiteful like sir Wilton; yet, very strangely, not knowing in herself what repentance meant, she judged him capable of doing her the wrong of atoning to his first wife for his neglect of her, by being good to her child! Thinking over her talk with Barbara, she could not, after all, feel certain that Richard knew, or that he had incited Barbara to take his part. But in any case it was better to get rid of him! It was dangerous to have him in the house! He might be spending his nights in trumping up evidence! At any moment he might appeal to sir Wilton as his father! But at the worst, he would be unable to prove the thing right off, and if her husband would but act like a man, they might impede the attempt beyond the possibility of its success!

One comfort was, that, she was all but confident, the child was not already baptized when stolen from Mortgrange; neither were such as would steal children likely to have them baptized; therefore the God who would not allow the unbaptized to lie in his part of the cemetery, would never favour his succession to the title and estate of Mortgrange! The fact must have its weight with Providence!--whom lady Ann always regarded us a good churchman: he would never take the part of one that had not been baptized! Besides, the fellow was sure to turn out a socialist, or anarchist, or positivist, or radical, or something worse! She would dispute his identity to the last, and assert his imposture beyond it! Her duty to society demanded that she should not give in!

Suddenly she remembered the description her husband had given her of the ugliness of the infant: this man was decidedly handsome! Then she remembered that sir Wilton had told her of a membrane between certain of his fingers--horrible creature: she must examine the impostor!

Arthur was very moody at dinner: his mother feared some echo of the same report as caused her own anxiety had reached him, and took the first opportunity of questioning him. But neither of lady Ann's sons had learned such faith in their mother as to tell her their troubles. Arthur would confess to none. She in her turn was far too prudent to disclose what was in her mind: the folly of his youth might take the turn of an unthinking generosity! the notion of an elder brother might even be welcome to him!

In another generation no questions would be asked! Many estates were in illegal possession! There was a claim superior to the legal! Theirs was a _moral claim!

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