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   Chapter 3 THE PEERAGE CASE.

Lady Hester; Or, Ursula's Narrative By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 27843

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The end came suddenly at last, when we were thinking my dear father more tranquil. He passed away in sleep late one evening, just ten days after Hester's arrival. She had gone back to her lodgings, and we did not send to tell her till the morning; but by nine o'clock she was in the house.

We had crept down to breakfast, Jaquetta and I, feeling very dreary in the half-light, and as if desolation had suddenly come on us; and when we heard her fly drive up to the door, Jaquetta cried out almost angrily, "Torwood, how could you!" and we would have run away, but he said, "Stay, dear girls; it is better to have it over."

As she came in he rang the bell as if for family prayers, and she had only asked one or two questions, which he answered shortly, when all the servants came in, some crying sadly. Fulk read a very few prayers-as much as he had voice for, and then, as all stood up, he had to clear his voice, but he spoke firmly enough.

"It is right that you all should know that a grave doubt has arisen as to my position here. Lord Trevorsham had every reason to believe his first wife had perished by the hands of the Red Indians long before he married my mother. What he did was done in entire ignorance-no breath of blame must light on him. This lady alleges that she can produce proofs that she is his daughter, and that her mother only died in February, '36. If these proofs be considered satisfactory by a committee of the House of Lords, then she and Alured Torwood Trevor will be shown to be his only legitimate children. I shall place the matter in the right hands as soon as possible-that is" (for she was glaring at him), "as soon as the funeral is over. Until that decision is made I request that no one will call me by the title of him who is gone; but I shall remain here to take care of my little brother, whose guardian my father wished me to be; and for the present, at least, I shall make no change in the establishment."

I think everyone held their breath: there was a great stillness over all-a sort of hush of awe-and then some of the maids began sobbing, and the butler tried to say something, but he quite broke down; and just then a troubled voice cried out-

"Torwood, Torwood, what is this?"

And there we saw Bertram in the midst of us, with the haggard look of a man who had travelled all night, and a dismayed air that I can never forget.

He had been quartered at Belfast, and we had written to him the day after my father's illness, to summon him home, but there were no telegraphs nor railways; and there had been some hindrance about his leave, so that it had taken all that length of time to bring him. Fulk had left all to be told on his arrival. He had come by the mail-coach, and walked up from the Trevorsham Arms, where he had been told of our father's death; and so had let himself in noiselessly, and was standing in the dining-room door, hearing all that Fulk said!

Poor fellow! Jaquetta flung herself on him, hiding her face against him, while the servants went, and before any one else could speak, Hester stood forth, and said, to our amazement-

"Captain Trevor! You know me. You can and must bear me witness, and do me justice-"

"You! I have seen you before-but-where? I beg your pardon," he said, bewildered.

"You remember Sault St. Pierre farm?" she said.

"Sault St. Pierre! What? You are Mrs. Lea! Good heavens! Where is your mother?"

"My mother is dead, sir. You were the first person who made known to her that her husband, my father, was not dead, but had taken-or pretended to take-an English woman for his wife."

"Wait!" thundered Fulk, "whatever my father did was ignorantly and honourably done!"

Bertram was as pale as death, and looked from one of us to the other, and at last, he gasped out-

"And that-was what she meant?"

"There, sir," said Hester, turning to Torwood, "You see your brother cannot deny it! You will not refuse justice to me, and my son."

I fancy she expected that the house was to be given up to her, and that we were only to remain there on her sufferance, perhaps till after the funeral.

My brother spoke, "Justice will no doubt be done; but the question does not lie between you and me, but between me and Alured. It is, as I said, a peerage question-and will be decided by the peers. Incidentally, that enquiry will prove what is your position and rank, as well as what may or may not be ours. Any further points depend upon my father's will, and that will be in the hands of Mr. Eagles. I think you can see that it would be impossible, as well as unfeeling, to take any steps until after the funeral."

Whatever Hester Lea was, she was a high-spirited being, standing there, a solitary woman, a stranger, with all of us four, and one whole household, as it must have seemed, against her. I was outraged and shocked at her defiance at the time, but when, some time after, I re-read King John, I saw that there was something of Constance in her.

"That may be," she answered, "but when my child's interests are at stake, I cannot haggle over conventionalities and proprieties. I am the Earl of Trevorsham's only legitimate daughter, and I claim my right to remain in his house, and to take charge of my infant brother."

A sign from Fulk stopped me, as I was going to scream at this.

"Remember," he said, "your identity has yet to be proved."

"Your brother there must needs witness. He has done so."

"What do you witness to, Bertram?" asked Fulk.

"I do not know; I cannot understand," said Bertram. "I saw this person in a farm in Lower Canada, and there was an old lady who seemed to have known my father, and was very much amazed to find he was not killed in 1814. I did not hear her name, nor know whose mother she was, nor anything about her, nor what this dreadful business means."

"At any rate," said Fulk to her, "your claim to remain in the house must depend on the legal proof of the fact. My father's first marriage is undoubted, but absolute legal certainty that you are the child of that marriage alone can entitle you to take rank as his daughter; and, therefore, I am not compelled to admit your claim to remain here, though if you will refrain from renewing this discussion till after the funeral, I will not ask you to leave the house."

"I do not recognize your right to ask or not to ask," she said, undauntedly.

"I am either Lord Trevorsham's rightful heir-and it is not yet shown that I am not-or else I am the guardian he appointed for his son. I know this to be so, and Mr. Eagles, who will soon be here, will show it to you in the will if you wish it. Therefore, until the decision is made, when, if it goes against me, the child will no doubt be made a ward in Chancery, I am the person responsible for him and his property."

"I have no doubt you will take advantage of me and of every quibble against me;" and there at last she began to break down; "but if there is justice in heaven or earth my child shall have it, though you and all were leagued against him."

And there she began to sob. And those brothers of mine, they actually grew compassionate; they ran after wine; they called us to bring salts, and help her. Emily shuddered, and put her hands behind her; but Jaquetta actually ran up to the woman, and coaxed her and comforted her, when I had rather have coaxed a tigress.

But I had to go to the table and pour out tea and give it to her with all the rest. I don't know how we got through that breakfast. But we did, and then I made the housekeeper put her into the very best rooms. Anything if she would only stay there out of the way.

When I came back, I found Fulk explaining why he had spoken at once, and he said he felt that she would have no scruples about taking the initiative, and that everyone would be having surmises.

Poor Bertram was even more cut up than we were. It came more suddenly, and he felt as if it was all his doing. He had no hope, and he took all ours away. There had been something in the old woman that impressed him as genuine, and he had no doubt that she had known and loved our father. Nay, no one could suspect Hester of not believing in her own story; the only question was whether the links of evidence could be substantiated.

The next thing that happened-I can't tell which day it was-was Mrs. Deerhurst's coming, professing to be dreadfully shocked and overcome by my father's death, to take away Emily. She must be so much in our way. I, who saw her first, answered only by begging to keep her-our great comfort and the one thing that cheered and upheld my brother.

Mrs. Deerhurst looked keenly at me; and I began to wonder what she knew, but just then came Fulk into the room, with his calm, set, determined face. I knew he would rather speak without me, so I went away, and only knew what he could bear to tell me afterwards.

Mrs. Deerhurst had been a great deal kinder than he expected. No doubt she would not break the thing off while there was a shred of hope that he was an earl; but he could not drive her to allow, in so many words, that it must depend upon that.

He had quite made up his mind that it was not right to enjoy Emily's presence and the comfort it gave him, unless he was secure of Mrs. Deerhurst's permitting the engagement under his possible circumstances.

I believe he nattered himself she would, and let her deceive him with thinking so, instead of, as we all did, seeing that what she wanted was to secure the credit of being constant and disinterested in case he retained his position. So, although she took Emily home, she left him cheered and hopeful, admiring her, and believing that she so regarded her daughter's happiness that, if he had enough to support her, she would overlook the loss of rank and title. He went on half the evening talking about what a remarkable woman Mrs. Deerhurst was; and, at any rate, it cheered him up through those worst days.

Our Lupton uncles came, and were frightfully shocked and incredulous; at least, Uncle George was. Uncle Lupton himself remembered something of my father having told him of a former affair in America.

They would not let Jaquetta and me go to the funeral; and they were wise, for Hester thrust herself in-but it is of no use to think about that. Indeed, there is not much to tell about that time, and I need not go into the investigation. It was all taken out of our hands, as my brother had said. Perrault came over from Canada, and brought his witnesses, but not Joel Lea. He had nothing to prove, had conscientious scruples about appearing in an English court of justice, and still hoped it would all come to nothing.

We stayed on at the London house-the lawyers said we ought, and that possession was "nine-tenths," &c. Besides, we wanted advice for Baby, who had been worse of late.

The end of it was that it went against us. Faith's marriage, her identity, and Hester's, were proved beyond all doubt, and little Alured was served Earl of Trevorsham. Poor child, how ill he was just then! It was declared water on the brain! I could hardly think about anything else; but they all said it seemed like a mockery, and that he would not bear the title a week. And then Lady Hester would have been, not Countess of Trevorsham, but Viscountess Torwood, and at any rate she halved the personal property: all that had been meant for us.

For we already knew that there was nothing in the will that could do us any good. All depended on my mother's marriage settlements, and as the marriage was invalid they were so much waste paper.

My uncles, to whom my poor mother's fortune reverted, would not touch it, and gave every bit back to us; but it was only 10,000 pounds, and what was that among the four of us?

I was in a sort of maze all the time, thinking of very little beyond dear little Alured's struggle for life, and living upon his little faint smiles when he was a shade better.

Jaquetta has told me more of what passed than I heeded at the time.

Our brothers decided not to retain the Trevor name, to which we had no right; but they had both been christened Torwood; after an old family custom, and they thought it best to use this still as a surname.

Bertram felt the shame, as he would call it, the most; but Fulk held up his head more. He said where there was no sin there was no shame; and that to treat ourselves as under a blot of disgrace was insulting our parents, who had been mistaken, but not guilty.

Bertram was determined against returning to his regiment, and it would have been really too expensive. His plan was to keep together, and lay out our capital upon a piece of ground in New Zealand, which was beginning to be settled.

Jaquetta was always ready to be delighted. Dear child, her head was full of log huts and Robinson Crusoe life, and cows to milk herself; and I really think she would have liked to go ashore in the Swiss family's eight tubs!

The thorough change, after all the sorrow, seemed delicious to her! I heard her and Bertram laughing down below, and wondered if they got the length of settling what dogs they would take out!

And Fulk! He really had almost persuaded himself that Emily would go with us; or at the very worst, would wait till he had achieved prosperity and could come home and fetch her.

Mrs. Deerhurst had declared that waiting for the decision was so bad for her nerves, that she must take her to Paris; and actually our dear old stupid fellow had not perceived what that meant, for the woman had let him part tenderly with Emily in London, with promises of writing, &c., the instant the case was decided. It passed his powers to suppose she could expose her daughter's heart to such a wreck. So he held up, cheerful and hopeful, thinking what a treasure of constancy he had! And when they had built their castle in New Zealand, they sent up Jaquey to call me to

share it with them. Baby was asleep, and I went down; but when I heard the plan-it was cross to be so unsympathizing, but I did feel hurt and angry at their forgetting him; and I said, "I shall never leave Alured."

"Ursula! you could not stay by yourself," said Jaquey. And Bertram, who had hardly ever seen him, and could not care for him said it was nonsense, and even if there were a chance of the child living, I could not be left behind.

I was wrought up, and broke out that he would and should live, and that I would come as a stranger, a nursery governess, and watch over him, and never abandon him to Hester.

"Never fear, Ursula," said Fulk, "if he lives, he will be in safe hands."

"Safe hands! What are safe hands for a child like that! Hester's, who only wishes him out of her way?"

"For shame!" the others said, and I answered that, of course, I did not think Hester meant ill by him, but that, where the doctors had said only love and care could save him-no care was safe where he was not loved; and I cried very, very bitterly, more than I had done even for my father, or for anything else before; and I fell into a storm of passion, at the cruelty of leaving the poor little thing, whom his dying mother had trusted to me, and declared I would never, never do it.

I was right in the main, it seems to me, but unjust and naughty in the way I did it; and when Fulk, with some hesitation, began to talk of my not being asked to go just yet-not while the child lived-I turned round in a really violent, naughty fit, with-"You too, Fulk, I thought you loved your little brother better than that? You only want to be rid of him, and leave him to Hester, and he will die in her hands."

Fulk began to say that the Court of Chancery never gave the custody to the next heir. But I rushed away again to the nursery, and sat there, devising plans of disguising myself in a close cap and blue spectacles, and coming to offer myself as Lord Trevorsham's governess.

The child had no relations whatever on his mother's side, and though, if he had been healthy, nurses and tutors might have taken care of this baby lordship, even that would have been sad enough; and for the feeble little creature, whose life hung on a thread, how was it to be thought of? I fully made up my mind to stay, even if they all went. I told Jaquetta, so-in my vehemence dashed all her bright anticipation, and sent her again in tears to bed. I wish unhappiness would not make one so naughty!

The next day poor Fulk was struck down. A letter came from Mrs. Deerhurst to break off the engagement, and a great parcel containing all the things he had given Emily. She must have packed them up before leaving England, while she was still flattering him. Not a word nor a line was there from Emily herself!-only a supplication from the mother that he would not rend her child's heart by persisting-just as if she had not encouraged him to go on all this time!

Nothing would serve him but that he must dash over to Paris, to see her and Emily.

Railroads were not, and it was a ten days' affair at the shortest; and, with all our prospects doubtful and Alured still so ill, it was very trying. How Bertram did rave at the folly and futility of the expedition! but one comfort was, that Alured was a ward of Chancery, and, in the vast kindness and commiseration everyone bestowed upon us, no one tried to hurry us or turn us out.

Hester used to come continually to inquire after her brother, and there was something in her way that always made me shudder when she asked after him. I knew she could not wish for his life, and gloated over all the reports she could collect of his weakness. I felt more and more horror of her; God forgive me for not having tried not to hate her. I sometimes doubt whether my dread and distrust were not visible, and may not have put it into her head.

And then came Mr. Decies, again and again. He was faithful-I see it now. He cared not if I had neither name nor fortune; he held fast to his proposals. And I? Oh, I was absorbed-I was universally defiant-I did not do him justice in the bitterness I did not realise. I thought he was constant only out of honour and pity, and I did not choose to open my heart to understand his pleadings or accept them as earnest-I was harsh. Oh, how little one knows what one is doing! Too proud to be grateful-that was actually my case. I was enamoured of the blue-spectacle plan; I had romances of watching Alured day and night, and pouring away dangerous draughts. The very fancy, I see now, was playing with edged tools; I feel as if my imagination had put the possibility into the very air.

Once indeed-when Jaquetta had been telling me she did not understand my unkindness; and observed that, even for Alured's sake, she could not see why I did not accept-I did begin to regard him as a possible protector for the boy. But no; the blue spectacles would be the more assiduous guardian, said my foolish fancy.

Before I had thought it over into sense or reason, Fulk came back from Paris. He had not been really crushed till now. He was white, and silent, and resolute, and very gentle; all excitement of manner gone. He did not say one word, but we knew it was all over with him, and that he could not have had one scrap of comfort or hope.

Nor had he, though even to me he told nothing, till we were together in the dark one evening, much later. He did insist upon seeing Emily; but her mother would not leave her, or take her eyes off her, and the timid thing did nothing but sob and cry, in utter helplessness and shame, and never even gave him a look.

It was not the being neglected and cast off that he felt as such a wrong, to both himself and Emily, but the being drawn on with false hopes and promises to expect that she was to belong to him, after all; and he was cruelly disappointed that Emily had not energy to cling to him-he had made so sure of her.

Bertram and Jaquetta had expected all along that he would be the more eager to be off to the Antipodes when everything was swept away from him here, and he did sit after dinner talking it over in a business-like way, while Bertram gave him all the information he had been collecting in his absence.

I would not listen. I was determined against going away from my charge; I had rather have been his housemaid than have left him to Hester, and I must have looked like a stone as I got up, and left them to their talk while I went back to the boy.

I heard Bertram say while I was lighting my candle, "Poor Ursula! she will not see it. Hart told me to-day that the child is dying-would hardly get through the night."

Now I had been thinking all the afternoon that he was better, and I had gone down to dinner cheered. I turned into the doorway, and told Fulk to come and see.

He did come. There was Alured, lying, as he had lain all day, upon his nurse's knees, with her arm under his head. He had not moaned for a long time, and I had left him in a more comfortable sleep. He opened his eyes as we came in, held out his hands more strongly than we thought he could have done, quite smiled-such an intelligent smile-and said, "Tor-Tor-," which was what he had always called his brother, making his gesture to go to him.

The tears came into Fulk's eyes, though he smiled back and spoke in his sweet, strong voice, and held out his arms, while we told him he had better sit down. Poor nurse! she must have been glad enough-she had held him all that live-long day! And he was quite eager to go to his brother, and smiled up and cooed out, "Tor-Tor," again, as he felt himself on the strong arm.

Fulk bade nurse go and lie down, and he would hold him. And so he did. I fed the child, as I had done at intervals all day; and he sometimes slept, sometimes woke and murmured or cooed a little, and Fulk scarcely spoke or stirred, hour after hour. He had been travelling day and night, but, strange to say, that enforced calm-that tender stillness and watching, was better for him than rest. He would only have tossed about awake, if he had gone to bed after a discussion with Bertram.

But in the morning Dr. Hart came, quite surprised to find the child alive; and when he looked at him and felt his pulse, he said, "You have saved him for this time, at least."

(Everybody was lavish of pronouns, and chary of proper names. Nobody knew what to call anybody.)

His little lordship was able to be laid in his cot, and Fulk, almost blind now with sheer sleep, stumbled off to his room, threw himself on his bed, and slept for seven hours in his clothes without so much as moving. He confessed that he had never had such unbroken, dreamless sleep since he had first seen Hester Lea's face.

That little murmur of "Tor-Tor" had settled all our fates. I don't think he had realised before how love was the one thing that the child's life hung upon, and that the boy himself must have that love and trust. Then, too, when he had waked and dressed and come down, the first person he met was Hester, with her hard, glittering eyes, trying to condole, and not able to hide how the exulting look went out of her face on hearing that the Earl (as she chose to term him) was better.

She supposed some arrangement would soon be made, and Fulk said he should see the lawyers at once about it, and arrange for the personal guardianship of Lord Trevorsham.

"Of course I am the only proper person while he lives, poor child," she said.

I broke in with, "The next heir is never allowed the custody."

I wish I had not. She hastily and proudly said "What do you mean?" and Fulk quickly added that "the Lord Chancellor would decide."

The next day he went out, and on returning came up to me in the nursery, and called me into the study.

"Ursula," he said, "I find that, considering the circumstances, there will be no objection made to our retaining the personal charge of our little brother. Everyone is very kind. Ours is not a common case of illegitimacy, and my father's well-known express wishes will be allowed to prevail."

"And your character," I could not help saying; and he owned that it did go for something, that he was known to everybody, and had some standing of his own, apart from the rank he had lost.

Then he went on to say that this would of course put an end to the emigration plan, so far as he was concerned. No doubt in the restless desire of change coming after such a fall and disappointment it was a great sacrifice; but as he said, "There did not seem anything left for him in life but just to try to do what seemed most like one's duty." And then he said it did not seem a worthy thing to do nothing, but just exist on a confined income, and the only thing he did know anything about, and was not too old to learn, was farming, and managing an estate.

Trevorsham would want an agent, for old Hall was so old, that my brother had really done all his work for a year or two past; and he had felt his way enough to know he could get appointed to the agency, if he chose. The house was to be let, but there was a farm to be had about two miles off, with a good house, and he thought of taking it, and stocking it, and turning regular farmer on his own account; while looking after the property, and bringing Alured up among his own people and interests.

Bertram did not like this at all. "Among all our old friends and acquaintance? Impossible! unbearable!" he said.

But Fulk's answer, was-"Better so! If we went to a strange place, and tried to conceal it, it would always be oozing out, and be supposed disgraceful. If my sisters can bear it, I had rather confront it straightforwardly-"

"And be pitied"-said Bertram, with such a contemptuous tone.

Nobody, however, thought it would be advisable for him to give up the New Zealand plan, nor did he ever mean it for a moment; indeed, he declared that he should go and prepare for us; for that we should very soon get tired of Skimping's Farm, and come out to him; meaning, of course, that our dear charge would be over.

He even wanted Jaquetta to come with him at once, and the log huts and fern trees danced before her eyes as the blue spectacles had done before mine; but she did not like to leave me, and Fulk would not encourage it, for we both thought her much too young and too tenderly brought up to be sent out to a wild settler's life alone with Bertram, and without a friend near.

To be farmers' sisters where we had been the Earl's daughters-well, I had much rather then that it had been somewhere else; but I saw it was best for Baby and still more so for Fulk, and clear little Jaquey held fast to me and to him, and so it was settled!

Our friends and relatives had much rather we had all emigrated. They did not know what to do with us, and would have been glad to have had us all out of sight for ever, "damaged goods shipped off to the colonies." We felt this and it heartened us up to stay out of the spirit of opposition.

Old Aunt Amelia, who fussed and cried over us, and our two uncles, who gave us good advice by the yard! Alas! I fear we were equally ungrateful to them, both cold and impatient. No, we did not bear it really well, though they said we did. We had plenty of pride and self-respect, and that carried us on; but there was no submission, no notion of taking it religiously. I don't mean that we did not go to church, and in the main try to do right. Any one more upright than my brother it would have been hard to find; but as to any notion that religious feeling could help us, and that our reverse might be blessed to us, that would have seemed a very strange language indeed!

And so we were hard, we would bear no sympathy but from one another, and even among ourselves we never gave way.

People admired us, I fancy, but were alienated and disappointed, and we were quite willing then to have it so.

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