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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWeighed And Wanting - Chapter 38. In The House
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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 38. In The House Post by :voltaire11 Category :Long Stories Author :George Macdonald Date :May 2012 Read :1546

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Weighed And Wanting - Chapter 38. In The House

CHAPTER XXXVIII. IN THE HOUSE

The two were silent on their way, but from different causes. Lord Gartley was uneasy at finding Hester in such a position--led into it by her unreflecting sympathies, no doubt, so unbefitting the present century of the world's history! He had gathered from the looks and words of the following remnants of the crowd that she had been involved in some street-quarrel--trying to atone it no doubt, or to separate the combatants. For a woman of her refinement, she had the strangest proclivity for low company!

Hester was silent, thinking how to begin her communication about Cornelius. Uncomfortable from the contretemps, as well as from what she had now to do, and irritated at the tone in which his lordship had expressed the surprise he could not help feeling at sight of her so accompanied and attended, she had felt for a moment as if the best thing would be to break with him at once. But she was too just, had she not had too much regard for him, to do so. She felt, however, for that one moment very plainly, that the relation between them was far from the ideal. Another thing was yet clearer: if he could feel such surprise and annoyance at the circumstances in which he had just met her, it would be well to come to a clearer understanding at once concerning her life-ideal and projects. But she would make up her mind to nothing till she saw how he was going to carry himself now his surprise had had time to pass off: perhaps it would not be necessary to tell him anything about Corney! they might part upon other grounds! In the one case it would be she, in the other it would be he that broke off the engagement: she would rather it were his doing than hers! No doubt she would stand better in the eyes of the world if she dismissed him; but that was an aspect of the affair she would never have deigned to heed had it presented itself.

These thoughts, with what of ratiocination was in them, hardly passed through her mind; it was filled, rather, with a confused mass of tangled thought and feeling, which tossed about in it like the nets of a fishing fleet rolled together by a storm.

Not before they reached the house did lord Gartley speak, and Hester began to wonder if he might not already have heard of Cornelius. It was plain he was troubled; plain too he was only waiting for the coverture of the house to speak. It should be easy, oh, very easy for him to get rid of her. He need not be anxious about that!

It was doubtless shock upon shock to the sensitive nature of his lordship to find, when they reached the house, that, instead of ringing the bell, she took a latch-key from her pocket, opened the door herself, and herself closed it behind them. It was just as a bachelor might enter his chambers! It did not occur to him that it was just such as his bachelor that ought not to have the key, and such as Hester that ought to have it, to let them come and go as the angels. She led the way up the stair. Not a movement of life was audible in the house! The stillness was painful.

"Did no one come up with you?" he asked.

"No one but major Marvel," she answered, and opened the door of the drawing-room.

As she opened it, she woke to the consciousness that she was very cross, and in a mood to make her unfair to Gartley: the moment she had closed it, she turned to him and said,

"Forgive me, Gartley; I am in trouble; we are all in trouble. When I have told you about it, I shall be more at ease."

Without preamble, or any attempt to influence the impression of the dreadful news, she began her story, softening the communication only by making it as the knowledge had come to her--telling first her mother's distress at Sarah's letter, then the contents of that letter, and then those of her uncle's. She could not have done it with greater fairness to her friend: his practised self-control had opportunity for perfect operation. But the result was more to her satisfaction than she could have dared to hope. He held out his hand with a smile, and said,

"I am very sorry. What is there I can do?"

She looked up in his eyes. They were looking down kindly and lovingly.

"Then--then--," she said, "you don't--I mean there's no--I mean, you don't feel differently towards me?"

"Towards you, my angel!" exclaimed Gartley, and held out his arms.

She threw herself into them, and clung to him. It was the first time either of them had shown anything approaching to _abandon_. Gartley's heart swelled with delight, translating her confidence into his power. He was no longer the second person in the compact, but had taken the place belonging to the male contracting party! For he had been painfully conscious now and then that he played but second fiddle.

They sat down and talked the whole thing over.

Now that Hester was at peace she began to look at it from Gartley's point of view.

"I am so sorry for you!" she said. "It is very sad you should have to marry into a family so disgraced. What _will your aunt say?"

"My aunt will treat the affair like the sensible woman she is," replied the earl. "But there is no fear of disgrace; the thing will never be known. Besides, where is the family that hasn't one or more such loose fishes about in its pond? The fault was committed inside the family too, and that makes a great difference. It is not as if he'd been betting, and couldn't pay up!"

From the heaven of her delight Hester fell prone. Was this the way her almost husband looked at these things? But, poor fellow! how could he help looking at them so? Was it not thus he had been from earliest childhood taught to look at them? The greater was his need of all she could do for him! He was so easy to teach anything! What she saw clear as day it could not be hard to communicate to one who loved as he loved! She would say nothing now--would let him see no sign of disappointment in her!

"If he don't improve," continued his lordship, "we must get him out of the country. In the meantime he will go home, and not a suspicion will be roused. What else should he do, with such a property to look after?"

"My father will not see it so," answered Hester. "I doubt if he will ever speak to him again. Certainly he will not except he show some repentance."

"Has your father refused to have him home?"

"He has not had the chance. Nobody knows what has become of him."

"He'll have to condone, or compromise, or compound, or what do they call it, for the sake of his family--for your sake, and my sake, my darling! He can't be so vindictive as expose his own son! We won't think more about it! Let us talk of ourselves!"

"If only we could find him!" returned Hester.

"Depend upon it he is not where you would like to find him. Men don't come to grief without help! We must wait till he turns up."

Far as this was from her purpose, Hester was not inclined to argue the point: she could not expect him or any one out of their own family to be much interested in the fate of Cornelius. They began to talk about other things; and if they were not the things Hester would most readily have talked about, neither were they the things lord Gartley had entered the house intending to talk about. He too had been almost angry, only by nature he was cool and even good-tempered. To find Hester, the moment she came back to London, and now in the near prospect of marriage with himself, yielding afresh to a diseased fancy of doing good; to come upon her in the street of a low neighbourhood, followed by a low crowd, supported and championed by a low fellow--well, it was not agreeable! His high breeding made him mind it less than a middle-class man of like character would have done; but with his cold dislike to all that was poor and miserable, he could not fail to find it annoying, and had entered the house intending to exact a promise for the future--not the future after marriage, for a change then went without saying.

But when he had heard her trouble, and saw how deeply it affected her, he knew this was not the time to say what he had meant; and there was the less occasion now that he was near to take care of her!

He had risen to go, and was about to take a loving farewell, when Hester, suddenly remembering, drew back, with almost a guilty look.

"Oh, Gartley!" she said, "I thought not to have let you come near me! Not that _I am afraid of anything! But you came upon me so unexpectedly! It is all very well for one's self, but one ought to heed what other people may think!"

"What _can you mean, Hester?" exclaimed Gartley, and would have laid his hand on her arm, but again she drew back.

"There was small-pox in the house I had just left when you met me," she said.

He started back and stood speechless--manifesting therein no more cowardice than everyone in his circle would have justified: was it not reasonable and right he should be afraid? was it not a humiliation to be created subject to such a loathsome disease? The disgrace of fearing anything except doing wrong, few human beings are capable of conceiving, fewer still of actually believing.

"Has it never occurred to you what you are doing in going to such places, Hester?" he faltered. "It is a treachery against every social claim. I am sorry to use such hard words, but--really--I--I--cannot help being a little surprised at you! I thought you had more--more--sense!"

"I am sorry to have frightened you."

"Frightened!" repeated Gartley, with an attempt at a smile, which closed in a yet more anxious look, "--you do indeed frighten me! The whole world would agree you give me good cause to be frightened. I should never have thought _you capable of showing such a lack of principle. Don't imagine I am thinking of myself; _you are in most danger! Still, you may carry the infection without taking it yourself!"

"I didn't know it was there when I went to the house--only I should have gone all the same," said Hester. "But if seeing you so suddenly had not made me forget, I should have had a bath as soon as I got home. I _am sorry I let you come near me!"

"One has no right either to take or carry infection," insisted lord Gartley, perhaps a little glad of the height upon which an opportunity of finding fault set him for the first time above her. "But there is no time to talk about it now. I hope you will use what preventives you can. It is very wrong to trifle with such things!"

"Indeed it is!" answered Hester; "and I say again I am sorry I forgot. You see how it was--don't you? It was you made me forget!"

But his lordship was by no means now in a smiling mood. He bade her a somewhat severe good night, then hesitated, and thinking it hardly signified now, and he must not look too much afraid, held out his hand. But Hester drew back a third time, saying, "No, no; you must not," and with solemn bow he turned and went, his mind full of conflicting feelings and perplexing thoughts:--What a glorious creature she was!--and what a dangerous! He recalled the story of the young woman brought up on poisons, whom no man could come near but at the risk of his life. What a spirit she had! but what a pity it was so ill-directed! It was horrible to think of her going into such abominable places--and all alone too! How ill she had been trained!--in such utter disregard of social obligation and the laws of nature! It was preposterous! He little thought what risks he ran when he fell in love with _her_! If he got off now without an attack he would be lucky! But--good heavens! if she were to take it herself! "I wonder when she was last vaccinated!" he said. "I was last year; I daresay I'm all right! But if she were to die, or lose her complexion, I should kill myself! I know I should!" Would honor compel him to marry her if she were horribly pock-marked? Those dens ought to be rooted out! Philanthropy was gone mad! It was strict repression that was wanted! To sympathize with people like that was only to encourage them! Vice was like hysterics--the more kindness you showed the worse grew the patient! They took it all as their right! And the more you gave, the more they demanded--never showing any gratitude so far as he knew!

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