The Earl’s Heiress
Soon after the accident among the Glaciers, a new romance in real life amused the public in Scotland. Our readers may not know that in England a second marriage abrogates the first, or is assumed to be an acknowledgment that the first was irregular and insufficient: thus reversing the Scotch custom of receiving any declaration or act of marriage as a proof of its existence from whatever period the parties chose to fix. Whether the licence to cover a folly by a solemn fraud prevents or encourages both, must be judged by its fruits.
On her return to Britain with Henry Stewart’s family, Marianne was coldly and as they thought unwillingly recognized by the Earl of Mornay’s sister as his reputed daughter. He had perished in the avalanche at Arve, no one knew or had heard of Marianne’s mother; the child believed her dead, and before the “funeral feast was cold” a claimant appeared for the title of his widow. A woman gifted with uncommon beauty and with the talent common among the vulgarest, had been the sharer of his idle hours in Scotland where he had presented his Cinderella as his lady to some boon-companions. The folly and the hunting-season ended together, and the English peer probably feared no demands from the profligate mother of many nameless children.
But wealth and rank were worth seeking, and the Scotch sultana appeared with a daughter not inferior to herself in beauty and address, to demand the benefit of her country’s custom, as its unwritten law may be called. The Earl of Mornay had left large estates in Scotland and England. To these the orphan Emilia Douglas advanced her pretensions as his heiress, legitimated by an avowal of marriage. The English freeholds were claimed by Walter Wallace of Dumblaine, this eldest sister’s son, as heir according to the ancient statute by which children born before marriage are held illegitimate and incapable of inheritance in England.
Powerful pleaders were engaged in this important question arising from a new and very difficult point of national law. Among them was a Scotchman whose name had never been heard before except in the common herd at Courts of Session. Fitzjames established evidence, gathered old precedents, and embarrassed his opponents with incessant subtlety. Still the adherents of the English heir relied on the famous protest of the third Henry’s Parliament — “We will not change the laws of England.” But as modern laws are so encumbered with leaves that the root seems forgotten, the Scotch Countess and her daughter appealed boldly to the House of Peers. During the ten years which it consumed, Fitzjames gradually loosened himself from the courts of Edinburgh and advanced in those of English equity. At the final hearing of this high questions, the friends of Scotch beauty were astonished to hear Fitzjames argue for the English claimant. He displayed the most accurate knowledge of those Roman and Saxon codes from whence the courteous laws of France and Scotland derive their origin, aided by the old canons of the Catholic Church. But as policy, he said, seeks to attach landholders to national law, land in inherited only according to the institutions of the realm in which it is situated. And without questioning the merits or the strength of that Scotch custom which legitimates children born before the avowed marriage of their parents, he denied that a child thus legitimated could have been born legitimate according to the demands of English law.
At length Emilia was awarded all the Scotch estates of her supposed father, and his nephew Wallace retained only the lands secured to him in England by entailment. The Countess of Mornay, after sparkling a few seasons, retired to Switzerland insolvent. Marianne, reduced to dependence on her father’s relatives, was soon forgotten; and some whispers that the Advocate Fitzjames had been influenced by compassion for her orphan state or by pique at the ungrateful coquetry of the Scotch Dowager, died a natural death. He became and object of attention to other ladies whose May of life was falling like his own, into the “sear and yellow leaf.” He proved his descent from a Scotch Earl attainted in the last rebellion and regained the coronet of Glenalmond to which his prosperous talents enabled him to add land enough. Many said the dew and sparkle of kindness might be found in the recesses of his character; but except to the Stewart family, his first patrons, its general surface was coarse, dry and barren hardness. He shewed some energy of contempt when Wallace was mentioned and specially abhorred his maiden aunt whose ripe age and meagre income were supposed to require a protector. The crafty bachelor took refuge in absence, and Lady Barbara Dumblaine amused herself with the art of tormenting her niece, the orphan Marianne, still a lovely and loving child.
Near the “Hall of Flowers” as the little cove of Balmayne was entitled, stood a hovel such as all Scottish peasants thought sufficient thirty years ago. A steep roof of broken thatch covered two tenements — one shared by a half-starved pig and a noisy hen whose brood roosted on the remnant of a rafter above the hearth-stone. There burned a few peats or a heap of furze except when the rain descending through a hole in the roof changed the wretched hearth to a pool and the fire to smoke which strove to escape through a door without hinges and another hole called a window but stuffed with slates or shreds. The small store of peat and furze was hoarded on the top of a wooden bedstead japanned with soot and covered by a blanket almost as black. A huge meal-ark, two stools and a cobwebbed spinning-wheel completed the furniture if a whisky-bottle may be excepted in a snug recess near the bed. The owner was an Irish dyker’s widow, forgotten by one reputed niece now Marianne’s step-mother, and very unwillingly remembered by another employed as her nursery-governess.
The second half of this hut belonged to an aged woman commonly called “Old Susie,” but by her young landlord Stewart “the heroine” because during the bitter winter of 1803 when her garden was buried under snow higher than her roof, she hardly consented to accept the shillings offered by the parish-minister from the poor’s fund, consisting in Scotland chiefly of the alms collected on sabbaths at the kirk in a plate or a ladle — seldom more than thirty shillings for each claimant annually. Her share of this small fund she returned in summer when her brooding hen was sold, saying she could not rob the poor. This act in a country where paupers are a privileged class, travelling daily and publicly from house to house, demanding not soliciting, and receiving alms from all, seemed so meritorious to the young Englishman that he requested his father’s steward to repair her dwelling hovel — that moiety filled by Jib Mcquerie and sometimes by her blooming nieces. Therefore Marianne often found the bathing-season an occasion to increase Old Susie’s comforts and hear her tales of “lang syne”, and the nursery-gouvernante though no longer able to knit woollen hose or make homespun caps, was willing to share the enjoyment of a tea-table in Susan’s neat “ben-house” or under the alder tree near her garden brook. As the brook, though it supplied St. Julian’s Well, was more anciently called the Buck-land Burn in allusion to the quarries sportsmen found near it, the young heir was no stranger to Ivy Cottage or its benefactress.
In Glenalmond’s public life nothing seemed more a “marvel and a mystery” than his attachment — almost devotion to Stewart. It was strange yet beautiful to see this stern cynic, so indifferent or disdainful among men in general, softening into the mirth and benevolence of boyhood with his young friend. Those who saw them together, and in all the recreations manly activities permit, they were seldom separate, always envied Glenalmond his possession of this rare associate, writing the freedom of a younger brother with the docility of a son. And had he chosen a wife, she might have been instructed by the fine tact which guided Stewart among the thorns and bristles of his ex-guardian’s temper. Such was the infinite charm of his gay and bland address, giving with the power of Claude’s pencil, a summer glow and colour to whatever subject it touched. Thus his presence was “a gladness”; and the eloquence which could fascinate, alarm, or kindle his hearers in the senate, was employed with as graceful earnestness to bring life and light into his old friend’s solitude. But solitary men grow selfish, and though Glenalmond rejoiced in Stewart’s power of independence among politicians, he was prouder of the small daily tributes paid to him by those commanding talents. They were like the shreds of gold scattered by a sculptor while employed on an imperial statue, and he probably thought a female unworthy to gather them, unless as pure herself. “Ex cathedra,” he said, “I give you my judgment as you ask it. You have been told the meeting between your reputed wife and presumptive heir was unexpected on her part, and his purpose only to propose a surrender of some shadowy pretence to his inheritance. Could he forget the impotence of such a renouncement on her part, or be ignorant that such a proposal was an admission of her claim? — No matter — You need root up your rosebush to find a snail.”
Stewart drily answered, “These are opinions, not facts.”
“But facts may be governed by opinions, and in this case yours will guide the world’s. By permitting her residence with you, your seal is placed upon the past.”
“Is there no middle path, between public divorce and real union?”
“None, in justice to her and to yourself. You must either doom or acquit her. Would you resign your right to a home-companion, and be her gaoler, not her partner? If deserved, let your divorce be real and declared; if undeserved, why or how impose it?”
Stewart made no reply in words, but his former guardian saw a slight frown followed by a slighter smile. Both were remembered and in after-days, fatally interpreted. A deep pause followed before Stewart added, “You have said my conduct may decide the world’s — at least, it outward and visible signs. If I place my wife in the healthful tide of public and splendid society, she may escape the slander which fattens in small stagnant pools. We will crystallize ourselves.”
Glenalmond only laughed at this excuse for an amnesty he believed already granted. “Well,” he said, changing his judicial tone to one of quaint sarcasm, “Mystery, peril, and suspense are great refreshers; there is much to win and to defend, therefore much to love. My first client was an example. Phineas Mole, a lean sharp-nosed tailor worthy his name, found his wife had two husbands. Fineass talked of his conscience, the first fool shewed him a purse — the woman eased both by taking neither, and half-starving herself to death. I was a clerk then, in old M’Casquill’s den, and your Philippe taught me French that the sixpences I gave him might give her bread. You made him rich enough to wed her when she was fairly widowed, and here is the gold medal La Blonde sent him as a legacy. I go to claim my fee for bringing it.”
“I envy the giver of that medal,” said Stewart, “he has found a worthy heir.”
“La Blonde nursed a poor old woman eighteen years — I envy him more for finding a good one. We want lanthorns.”
* * *
“He is right,” said Glenalmond to himself after this conference with Stewart. “If electric touches can bring crystals on rude metals, and metals rightly mingled may produce life, why may no this fine spirit — this divine benevolence create some generous sympathies in a baser nature? Beautiful spirit! how have I lost thee!”
Thus speculating, not unpleasingly, he pursued his solitary way along the windings of a wild shore. Years had passed since he had seen it, and as the shadows of aged trees almost encompassed him, he remembered the desolate beginning of his life. On this very spot he had journeyed alone and in darkness after witnessing the first examination of an idiot girl’s body, found in her father’s hovel with tokens of singular and mysterious cruelty. He felt, even now, the thrill of horror which crept over him when, mounted on a miserable steed, he had been sent by the sheriff’s deputy with those ghastly tokens and at midnight, to the nearest town for aid. As he rode on the verge of the sea and saw through masses of tangled trees the profile of some gaunt grey rock, he smiled at his own remembrance of the ruffian shapes he had expected to see starting from their ambush to arrest him. Presently the scene changed, and as the moonlight mingled with the dull haze of evening, softer thoughts prevailed over these horrors. There was the cottage he had built for his aged parents in the little glen where they had reared him. His path was close to the brook where his first trout-basket had been filled in the delicious pause between school-hours. That dial-stone had been his first work and the sycamore which sheltered it was of his planting. He alighted to look at it once more. How many unremembered shadows had passed over it! Tears, perhaps the first he had shed since his boyhood, fell on the rude index he had carved for this, the seventh hour of a calm night, was the fiftieth anniversary of his farewell visit to his father’s hearth, where moss and a few scattered stones were still its memorials. Of all the flaunting flowers and trees he had once assembled in this garden, only one remained — the dwarf sycamore near the dial-stone. “But this Black Dwarf shall not conquer time,” he said to himself. “I will root up the low melancholy which obscures my life. It has not been useless.” And he remembered with a smile at his vain fancy, that the surviving tree had been often pruned and watered by the poor client he came to seek — a client he had found and served when his pen scarcely earned bread and water, and his lodging was among the poorest tenants of the barony he now possessed.
Philippe’s wife, one of those kind and gentle creatures from whom “no secrets are hidden,” possessed a dwelling full as herself of pleasantness and peace. Its walls seemed a mass of roses; its windows always sparkling in sunshine or open to receive sweet airs and sounds from her garden in the cleft of a giant cliff overhanging the western sea. To this almost unknown cave Glenalmond turned his horse with thoughts very remote from its simple beauty. He had considered his last discourse with Stewart and thought he saw ready and convenient means to end the dilemma. Connecting the incidents of Marianne’s childhood with facts he knew and probabilities he suspected, Philippe’s wife appeared to hold the clue of a most important secret. If this woman had witnessed any act which confirmed the fatal words spoken by Wallace “This is my Wife” — he knew those words, though uttered only before boy-witnesses, might raise in Scotland an impassable bar to Marianne’s marriage with any other, and finally release Stewart. With some love of power and professional delight in unravelling mysteries, Glenalmond led his horse to the little cleft in St. Julian’s cove, and suffering it to taste the well which sparkled under an arch of wild flowers, began to ascend the steps hewn among rocks. The owner of the “Dove’s Nest” answered his courteous knock by a ready opening of her garden-gate and a caution to beware of her beehives.
“I am only a drone,” he answered laughing. “You are right, dame, in your warning. But I may consider the Ant’s way and be wise. He cuts off his wife’s wings to keep her at home.”
“And his son too,” said the good woman with unconscious aptness.
“Why, that is true. We bachelor drones, however, may keep our wings as we have no mates. Do you not remember, Susan Blair, the writer’s clerk sent to offer your second mate a note of thanks from your first?”
As Glenalmond resumed his native accent and addressed her, according to Scottish custom, by her own family name, remembrance came on her mind. While she paused he added, “There is in France an institution to recompense honest servants. Philippe’s uncle, La Blonde, received a gold prize-medal, which he bequeathed to him. Keep it for your husband, though he has a better prize.”
Susan’s eyes glistened with joy and pride as she gazed at the gold which Glenalmond, unconscious of a spy, laid on her table.
“Eh, sir! but ye were always gamesome and spoke kindly.”
“Honestly, you mean. Deal in as plain truth with me now! Was no silly pair in these wild wood-walks as forgetful as your first mate?”
Susan hesitated as if her intellects had been somewhat dimmed or disturbed, and humbly asked the motive of his questions. The ex-lawyer suited his replies to her simplicity and his own purpose. After acute examination he learned the date of a marriage hastily performed, or to use more accurate words, confessed in her presence by one of the name he expected to hear, with another so absolutely beyond his calculations that even his practised features betrayed amazement — almost dismay. “Is this the contract — these the signatures you saw?”
“Read it, sir, and keep it for them who may need what it proves; and lose no time for there is a strange coldness in this arm and I know not what makes my speech so slow. If it should fail quite, who could tell what nobody guesses?”
Glenalmond hardly heard this speech, in his haste to secure her evidence with a magistrate’s formality. He possessed himself of all she knew, and warning her against the free-traders too familiar with that coast, noticed the late hour and lonely road, and departed promising protection. Twice as he urged his horse among the trees which overhung its windings, he saw or imagined a figure lurking in the underwood, and remembered again his first perilous journey in the same hour and place.
Glenalmond’s return to his baronial residence on that wild coast was after unusual absence and his servants noted the strange haggardness of his aspect. He locked his chamber-door, unfolded the double screen, and resting his head on his clenched hands, looked sternly on the documents he had gathered. His ruminations seemed deep and bitter. He had laboured to fix shame on an innocent woman, and bereaved her of more than her birthright by selfish stubbornness in his own opinion. How should this fatal error by retrieved? If he became her advocate too suddenly, his judgment must be avowedly changed or he must confess his views of justice depended on private feelings. Nor was the evidence he possessed sufficient to displace established prejudice. Other witnesses must be sought and the principals more closely questioned. It might be too late to alter Stewart’s determination. Then a long and sad review must be taken of the past, and the secrets of the dead torn up. Himself, a judge and minister of the laws he held infallible, must exhibit proofs of their error and abuse in and among his dearest relatives. This was the deepest wound to his self-love. The world would suppose him stooping to knit up the ravelled honour of his family by debasing his friends. He must silently assent to the divorce he had urged and justified, or be compelled to acknowledge an outcast as his . . . . The pause could not be filled up even in thought. He could submit to secret remorse sooner than to public shame — the womanly cowardice he had so often scorned.
“Ay!” said Aunt Barbara, uttering her broad kindness in as broad Scotch, “these partings wring the life out of young hearts, but we’ll meet again somewhere. We must, we must — or why should we be let love so well?” Her words were soon justified by a brief letter from Stewart written hastily, almost illegibly, on the eve of battle. “We are before Bayonne and a few days may bring us to Paris. Come to Coblentz — the Rhine-boats are safe, and living or dead, you shall see me. Let Cologne or Coblentz be your home.”
Perhaps no moment in a woman’s life acquaints her more entirely with the solemn change in her condition than when first summoned to a new home by the superior to whom a few words have submitted her name, her property and her happiness. Home! — that word brought no feeling of hope or gladness to cheer the awful hazard of a bride’s first step into the world. The Rhine was in a peaceful country, but the volcanoes within and around it only slept. Her aunt was infirm, herself inexperienced, and the instant urgency of his demand was not softened by any reference to her will. But delay availed nothing. Lady Barbara readily accompanied her to Rotterdam, but sudden illness caused by fatigue and fear, determined her to go no farther. Crowds of strangers occupied the best inns, and an official messenger offered his escort to Coblentz, where she arrived while the streets were thronged with soldiers bringing the most wild and contradictory reports. Some said the Emperor was dethroned and the allies in Paris — others that the English army had been half-slaughtered at Bayonne. Should she linger or go back? It was too late. Lady Barbara, timid and ignorant, had hastily re-embarked for England. Dispatches came from the army at Toulouse. She was a widow.
Marianne was now alone in the truest and saddest sense of the word — alone in a land where she had no friends or relatives on whom decency might impose the semblance of friendship. But the hostess of the homely hostelry where she was compelled to lodge had Flemish kindness under her professional and patrician coarseness, and after many reconnoitrings through the keyhole, she entered on the third evening with her consolation.
“Well, well, young madam, the tree’s not bare though the topmost branch is broke off — a comely young blossom it is and come in right time. See, the nurse has brought it safe by the Rhine-boat and a friend with ’em — good physicians, I warrant! — best in Antwerp.”
And before Marianne’s glazed eye could express half her amaze, Dame, or as he now called herself Leddy Mcquerie entered followed by a brown, sturdy staring Swiss girl carrying an infant two or three weeks old, whose white shrunk features and feeble cry gave no proof of its nurse’s ability.
“See here!” she said, cunningly fixing the landlady’s gaze by unfolding the babe’s rich and delicate mantles, “no medicine like a bairn’s kiss to make its mother’s heart warm. Will ye not look at the comforter?”
“She’s in a faint — ’twas too sudden a coming,” interrupted the hostess — “put it near her breast.” But its stony coldness startled the infant whose piteous cry seemed to awaken her. She thrust it from her bosom, as if an adder had been thrown on her, shrieking, “It is not mine — wicked, wicked woman! Why do you come here?”
“I have seen this before,” Mcquerie whispered to the staring hostess: “grief turns the heart against the nearest and dearest - take the bairn, tawpie!” Her mountain-nurse obeyed the gesture without changing her attitude of curious wonder and stupid dismay while Marianne seized Dame Ghron’s arm crying, “Do not leave the room — stay, I command you — she is an impostor — I have no —” And unable to finish the denial of so much shame, she covered her face in disgust and agony. The Scotchwoman knew her pupil only as a playful child and a soft, timid girl, accustomed rather to endure than act. The chances of confounding or appalling her in this season of dreary affliction, or at least of entangling her in circumstances which might render even resistance in vain, were all in favor of this attempt, and when Vrow Ghronipaut was compelled to leave the room by her spouse’s summons, Mcquerie renewed her skill. “Nay, nay, my leddy Stewart, but these are strange cantrips to a friend like me! Ye will never deny the bairn! Ye have been light-headed, the folk say, and small wonder when we know what’s been and past. But let bygones be bygones, and take the young flower. See, how it smiles and curls its white finger about yours — ye would na ruin us all by denying it?”
Marianne’s ghastly silence encouraged her to proceed: “And where’s the use of words? Who would believe ye, and why should ye say nay? Would it not keep up the good name and save the land from passing to other folk and heirs?”
She was still speechless, gazing at the infant as if to search for some semblance in its features, or touched by its innocent beauty. Vrow Ghronipaut entered at this instant, as Mcquerie hoped, to witness what might and must seem a tacit assent to its admission.
“Ay, the heart melts now — poor young widow! It would have been strange to see it all hard.” But her silent stupor changed suddenly and she seized the landlady’s strong arm. “Woman, you have said your husband is an officer of justice! Secure those wretches and bring a magistrate, or take me to the nearest. Let them answer for this child at their peril.”
Though Ghronipaut understood imperfectly, the speaker’s tone was irresistible, and she beckoned the strangers to follow her notwithstanding Mcquerie’s expressive hints of insanity. But before she left the room, the Scotchwoman threw the babe by Marianne’s side, muttering with a fierce gesture, “He who saw how ye spent midnight years ago, and heard you wooing his wolf-dog, would not have seen aught strange in this wolfishness to your own kin.”
Every nerve in Marianne’s frame thrilled at this new wrench given to the wheel of torture, but it was final. Her spirit survived the rack and was freed. She lost at once her sense of pain and fear as if a new life had begun. She would appeal to the municipal court for protection and convict the agents of a purpose easily guessed. The names of her dead father and husband would be less stained by such exposure than by her connivance in a fraud. What names? Born in darkness and hastily affianced, she was an orphan and a widow without rights of either. But her integrity was her own, her safety, her strength, her very self. She looked at the forlorn child — it had no will in this outrage — it should be sheltered. Its wailing had ceased and it lay half-hidden on her bed by her side. She lifted its covering — the features were changed — it was dead.
Her terrible cry brought the mistress of the inn, and hers summoned her husband. “Look to the women,” was all he said, but they were gone.
“What shall we do with this wonderwork?” said the brow to the husband as they sat in their chimney corner — “Keep the doors and your tongue fast.”
“But the Jungfrau! She would fain seek a burgomaster.”
“Am not I one? We will have no uproar to shame our inn. Heard ye not what the banker Mengs’s clerk said? She may draw for a thousand six-dollars.”
“But she never spoke of money.”
“Therefore I see no fault in her. A misdoer would have shewn gold, and thought little of wronging a dead man for a living babe. Jacobina saith this was in the dead-thraw when those bold women came into our hostelry.”
“Shall Herr Onderdonk bring a gilt coffin?”
“Bring the Schenkan and Jacobina’s bachelor. It shall have a coffin but no grave here. She is going, they say, to a great Herr’s house in Savoy. Claude knows it, and his home is there. Let him follow her close and take the secret with him. He is a shrewd dealer in such wares when they bring money.”
The Flemish man of puncheons was rightly told. Marianne had consented to accept the offered hospitality of the Sieur de Salency and his wife, her father’s only friends on the frontiers of these troubled lands; and the day of Mcquerie’s baleful visit had been appointed for her departure with a hired vetturino to Savoy. Bu though no obstacle was offered to her removal, she demanded Herr Ghronipaut’s attestation of the facts. And subduing her feminine horror of the subject, she compelled herself to address a detail to Glenalmond, Stewart’s former guardian and supposed executor. Her letter was entrusted to the banker by whom her necessities were amply supplied, and the turbulence of public events seemed a cause, not ungracious though unsought, of the slight notice given to private accidents. With a heart which the furnace of trial had made firmer, yet not without an awful consciousness of her new perils, she resumed her journey towards the place where those of her earliest childhood had begun.
* * *
At the Pass near Chamonix, the “worst inn’s worst room” was occupied that night by a Scotchman who had gone to bed greatly that owl’s egg which ancient sages deemed a remedy for too much wine. There he dreamed, or perhaps did not dream, that he heard murmurs, threats, and cries. Though Justice is blind, she may use here ears, and following his professional instinct, he listened, and heard a cabriolet driven rapidly away. To his questions the innkeeper replied it contained some travellers to Salency. The cabriolet went on uninterrupted till the driver was stopped, even thrilled, by a woman’s scream for help. “She is mad!” said a muffled man grasping her throat as she sprang from the carriage. A flash crossed the darkness and he fell. There was a crash among the crisp snow, then a hollow sound, and all was silent.
* * *
“And Wallace will be served Heir, will he!” said Aunt Barbara as she laid her knitting needles on a fair round table graced with the abundance of a Scotch tea-dinner. “Preserve us! that would be a sorer hurt to auld Dromore than to see his son laid by his side, an he could see it in his grave.”
“He will not see it, madam,” answered Glenalmond hoarsely, “therein he is happier than his survivors.”
“Very well spoken,” pursued the old lady, eyeing the executor’s new sables, “considering ye are to be curator of the gear. And ye may discriminate as Robin Mucklequack used to say, many a good day afore all’s done. But sin’ poor Stewart died we canna just tell how or where, maybe ye winna confirm a register his deed this twal-month.”
“Nor the next Lady Barbara, if I can find hope. Wallace or his creditors must wait for the land — the widow shall have maintenance.”
“Ay, the poor young thing! And what will your English statutes as ye call ’em, give her?”
“One third, and half the moveables as we in Scotland say — therefore Scotch and English widows are comforted alike — Canny York and polished Middlesex add a room’s furniture.”
“Small comfort Glenalmond! when ya think of the off-sets — just when the poor woman is beginning to wipe her eyes and gather the crumbs, ye come to make an inventory, and seek out the debts and the next of kin, and she has nought but a tythe of the residue.”
“None such are here to vex the lady, madam, or to diminish a tythe of her black trimmings. He left no debts — he has no parents, no brothers and sisters or their children, no uncles and aunts to perplex an Administrator. His mother’s nephew may claim his right of succession to a few Scotch acres, and a few old servants are the only legatees except —”
“Deed, Glenalmond, they’re no few. Muckmyre, and Luckinkin, and Foolsacre and all the pertinents of Dundupe — ye’ll mind the bonny glen ahint old Susie’s cot-house? And maybe ye’ll sell the stock and crop seeing they’re moveables? I want a quey and two or three calves.”
“There are none but Wallace’s creditors on this occasion, Lady Barbara! If he dreams of the land, he may probably find the owner alive —”
“Eh, but ye jest sure! I was just thinking he might wed the widow and wind up tangled pirns.”
Glenalmond’s eye cast one glance of withering scorn at the speaker and returned to the huge schedule of estates and grass-parks he had been arranging for a Scotch Book of Registration.
“First, madam, we must know whether she is a widow or a wife — both, perhaps, or either might be questioned. He might not find so much gold thread in the knot as to render it worth disentangling.”
“Why that’s leal truth. Ye are executor as the Inglishers call ye — and she cannot minister as she might if the man had died as he ought. An if she could, how could she ken what debts to pay first, and what ye call heritable and moveable, and what to do with the kinsfolk?”
“Certainly — certainly — ladies must not learn, I suppose, the difference between a book-debt and a bond — a leasehold and a freehold — they are always to be piquet-players and doll-dressers, never heiresses or widows — Mothers, guardians, or executrixes —”
“What for should they dress, then I trow?”
Glenalmond muttered no very gracious answer and departed, as he said, to learn whether Marianne needed the wisdom of an Administratix or the protection of an Executor. “My friend’s son is dead,” he was heard murmuring to himself. “Who will be mine?”
The Lord of Session was not mistaken. He received a formal notice from a man of law that Stewart’s heir was not disposed to admit Marianne’s rights as a widow without proofs. Glenalmond was too well practised in law to make any reply to this menace of which he sent a copy without note or counsel to Marianne. It reached her a few weeks after her perilous journey had ended at the Chateau de Salency, a safe but comfortless asylum. Its owners were officious without sympathy and hospitable only for amusement. There was none with whom she could hold the entire and confiding communion which had been the charm and bond of her affiance to the dead. Therefore she felt bitterly the insult sent by Glenalmond in such cold bareness when her appeal to his judgment shewed neither indifference nor distrust. Already the grave of his friend seemed the common highway to other men’s fortunes, trodden without remembrance or respect. She felt with wonder, almost with shame, the dull, tearless and dizzy indifference which possessed her. But under its influence she wrote a brief reply to Glenalmond declining any contest with those who valued Stewart’s inheritance more than the honour of his name. A few days brought this rejoinder.
“I am not surprised at the languor and love of rest which are the consequence of violent sensations. You have made what seems a womanly choice of long secret sufferance rather than a painful remedy. Whether in this case such sufferance may not invite and strengthen injustice — Whether in any case it is wise to endure what might be remedied, is a question perhaps too seldom considered. This meek surrender of rights which you ought to assert and preserve, is not rendering good for evil, but a manifest evil itself by giving power of success to fraud. If I am mistaken in your rights — if the contract of a former marriage is not void, your abandonment of the second ought not to be on a false pretext. Why was the first husband — or if that word is too rash — why was Stewart’ heir so early in attendance on his widow? Why that meeting at an obscure inn on the Alpine road? Perhaps to give him the earliest intelligence of an infant’s birth and death — intelligence usually most interesting to a Father — But in this case I am not required to be either advocate or judge. Only remember an older lawyer’s maxim — a secret is too much for one — enough for two — too little for three.”
At this terrible allusion to the night in Flanders, Marianne’s spirit rose from the dead as if “the stone had been rolled away.” Had a spy been at work, or had her own statement been prevented from reaching him by the stormy state of Belgium? It was not too late to ascertain, nor too late as he said, to assert and preserve her rights. She would do both, and not deserve to be reproached for what he called the womanly submission which gives power to cruelty. If she failed, she had still health and talents sufficient to win bread less bitter than any gained by abject dependence — even if such dependence could ever be a guiltless woman’s doom or duty.