Sir Richard Ashwoode had never in the whole course of his life denied himself the indulgence of any passion or of any whim. From his childhood upward he had never considered the feelings or comforts of any living being but himself alone. As he advanced in life, this selfishness had improved to a degree of hardness and coldness so intense, that if ever he had felt a kindly impulse at any moment in his existence, the very remembrance of it had entirely faded from his mind: so that generosity, compassion, and natural affection were to him not only unknown, but incredible. To him mankind seemed all either fools, or such as he himself was. Without one particle of principle of any kind, he had uniformly maintained in the world the character of an honourable man. The ordinary rules of honesty and morality he regarded as so many conventional sentiments, to which every gentleman subscribed, as a matter of course, in public, but which in private he had an unquestionable right to dispense with at his own convenience. He was imperious, fiery, and unforgiving to the uttermost; but when he conceived it advantageous to do so, he could practise as well as any man the convenient art of masking malignity, hatred, and inveteracy behind the pleasantest of all pleasant smiles. Capable of any secret meanness for the sake of the smallest advantage to be gained by it, he was yet full of fierce and overbearing pride; and although this world was all in all to him, yet there never breathed a man who could on the slightest provocation risk his life in mortal combat with more alacrity and absolute sang froid than Sir Richard Ashwoode. In his habits he was
p.76unboundedly luxuriousin his expenditure prodigal to recklessness. His own and his son's extravagance, which he had indulged from a kind of pride, was now, however, beginning to make itself sorely felt in formidable and rapidly accumulating pecuniary embarrassments. These had served to embitter and exasperate a temper which at the best had never been a very sweet one, and of whose ordinary pitch the reader may form an estimate, when he hears that in the short glimpses which he has had of Sir Richard, the baronet happened to be, owing to the circumstances with which we have acquainted him, in extraordinarily good humour.
Sir Richard had not married young; and when he did marry it was to pay his debts. The lady of his choice was beautiful, accomplished, and an heiress; and, won by his agreeability, and by his well-assumed devotedness and passion, she yielded to the pressure of his suit. They were married, and she gave birth successively to a son and a daughter. Sir Richard's temper, as we have hinted, was not very placid, nor his habits very domestic; nevertheless, the world thought the match (putting his money difficulties out of the question) a very suitable and a very desirable one, and took it for granted that the gay baronet and his lady were just as happy as a fashionable man and wife ought to beand perhaps they were so; but, for all that, it happened that at the end of some four years the young wife died of a broken heart. Some strange scenes, it is said, followed between Sir Richard and the brother of the deceased lady, Oliver French. It is believed that this gentleman suspected the cause of Lady Ashwoode's deathat all events he had ascertained that she had not been kindly used, and after one or two interviews with the baronet, in which bitter words were exchanged, the matter ended in a fierce and bloodily contested duel, in which the baronet received three desperate wounds. His recovery was long doubtful; but life burns strongly in some breasts; and, contrary to the desponding predictions of his surgeons, the valuable life of Sir Richard Ashwoode was prolonged to his family and friends.
Since then, Sir Richard had by different agencies sought to bring about a reconciliation with his brother-in-law, but without the smallest success. Oliver French was a bachelor, and a very wealthy one. Moreover, he had it in his power to dispose of his lands and money just as he pleased. These circumstances had strongly impressed Sir Richard with a conviction that quarrels among relations are not only unseemly, but un-Christian. He was never in a more forgiving and forgetting mood. He was willing even to make concessionsanything that could be reasonably asked of him, and even more, he was ready to dobut all in vain. Oliver was
p.77obdurate. He knew his man well. He saw and appreciated the baronet's motives, and hated and despised him ten thousand times more than ever.
Repulsed in his first attempt, Sir Richard resolved to give his adversary time to cool a little; and accordingly, after a lapse of twelve or fourteen years, his son Henry being then a handsome lad, he wrote to his brother-in-law a very long and touching epistle, in which he proposed to send his son down to Ardgillagh, the place where the alienated relative resided, with a portrait of his deceased lady, which, of course, with no object less sacred, and to no relative less near and respected, could he have induced himself to part. This, too, was a total failure. Oliver French, Esquire, wrote back a very succinct epistle, but one very full of unpleasant meaning. He said that the portrait would be odious to him, inasmuch as it would be necessarily associated in his mind with a marriage which had killed his sister, and with persons whom he abhorredthat therefore he would not allow it into his house. He stated, that to the motives which prompted his attention he was wide awakethat he was, however, perfectly determined that no person bearing the name or the blood of Sir Richard Ashwoode should ever have one penny of his; adding, that the baronet could leave his son, Mr. Henry Ashwoode, quite enough for a gentleman to live upon respectably; and that, at all events, in his father's virtues the young gentleman would inherit a legacy such as would insure him universal respect, and a general welcome wherever he might happen to go, excepting only one locality, called Ardgillagh.
With the failure of this last attempt, of course, disappeared every hope of success with the rich old bachelor; and the forgiving baronet was forced to content himself, in the absence of all more substantial rewards, with the consciousness of having done what was, under all the circumstances, the most Christian thing he could have done, as well as played the most knowing game, though unsuccessful, which he could have played.
Sir Richard Ashwoode limped downstairs to receive his intended son-in-law, Lord Aspenly, on the day following the events which we have detailed in our last and the preceding chapters. That nobleman had intimated his intention to be with Sir Richard about noon. It was now little more than ten, and the baronet was, nevertheless, restless and fidgety. The room he occupied was a large parlour, commanding a view of the approach to the house. Again and again he consulted his watch, and as often hobbled over, as well as he could, to the window, where he gazed in evident discontent down the long, straight avenue, with its double row of fine old giant lime-trees.
Nearly half-past ten, muttered Sir Richard, to himself, for at his desire he had been left absolutely alone ay, fully half-past, and the fellow not come yet. No less than two notes since eight this morning, both of them with gratuitous mendacity renewing the appointment for ten o'clock; and ten o'clock comes and goes, and half-an-hour more along with it, and still no sign of Mr. Craven. If I had fixed ten o'clock to pay his accursed, unconscionable bill of costs, he'd have been prowling about the grounds from sunrise, and pounced upon me before the last stroke of the clock had sounded.
While thus the baronet was engaged in muttering his discontent, and venting secret imprecations on the whole race of attorneys, a vehicle rolled up to the hall-door. The bell pealed, and the knocker thundered, and in a moment a servant entered, and announced Mr. Cravena square-built man of low stature, wearing his own long, grizzled hair instead of a wighaving a florid complexion, hooked nose, beetle brows, and long-cut, Jewish, black eyes, set close under the bridge of his nosewho stepped with a velvet tread into the room. An unvarying smile sate upon his thin lips, and about his whole air and manner there was a certain indescribable sanctimoniousness,
p.79which was rather enhanced by the puritanical plainness of his attire.
Sir Richard, I beg pardonrather late, I fear, said he, in a dulcet, insinuating tone hard work, nevertheless, I do assure youninety-seven skinssplendidly engrossedquite a treatfive of my young men up all nightI have got one of them outside to witness it along with me. Some reading in the thing, I promise you; but I hopeI do hope, I am not very late?
Not at allnot at all, my dear Mr. Craven, said Sir Richard, with his most engaging smile; for, as we have hinted, dear Mr. Craven had not made the science of conveyancing peculiarly cheap in practice to the baronet, who accordingly owed him more costs than it would have been quite convenient to pay upon a short notice I'll just, with your assistance, glance through these parchments, though to do so be but a matter of form. Pray take a chair beside methere. Now then to business.
Accordingly to business they went. Practice, they say, makes perfect, and the baronet had had, unfortunately for himself, a great deal of it in such matters during the course of his life. He knew how to read a deed as well as the most experienced counsel at the Irish bar, and was able consequently to detect with wonderfully little rummaging and fumbling in the ninety-seven skins of closely written verbiage, the seven lines of sense which they enveloped. Little more than half-an-hour had therefore satisfied Sir Richard that the mass of parchment before him, after reciting with very considerable accuracy the deeds and process by which the lands of Glenvarlogh were settled upon his daughter, went on to state that for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings, good and lawful money, she, being past the age of twenty-one, in every possible phrase and by every word which tautology could accumulate, handed over the said lands, absolutely to her father, Sir Richard Ashwoode, Bart., of Morley Court, in the county of Dublin, to have, and to hold, and to make ducks and drakes of, to the end of time, constantly affirming at the end of every sentence that she was led to do all this for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings, good and lawful money. As soon as Sir Richard had seen all this, which was, as we have said, in little more than half-an-hour, he pulled the bell, and courteously informing Mr. Craven, the immortal author of the interesting document which he had just perused, that he would find chocolate and other refreshments in the library, and intimating that he would perhaps disturb him in about ten minutes, he consigned that gentleman to the guidance of the servant, whom he also directed to summon Miss Ashwoode to his presence.
Her signing this deed, thought he, as he awaited her arrival, will make her absolutely dependent upon meit will make rebellion, resistance, murmuring, impossible; she then must do as I would have her, or Ah? my dear child, exclaimed the baronet, as his daughter entered the room, addressing her in the sweetest imaginable voice, and instantaneously dismissing the sinister menace which had sat upon, his countenance, and clothing it instead as suddenly with an absolute radiance of affection, come here and kiss me and sit down by my sideare you well to-day? you look paleyou smilewell, well! it cannot be anything very bad. You shall run out just now with Emily. But first, I must talk with you for a little, and, strange enough, on business too. The old gentleman paused for an instant to arrange the order of his address, and then continued. Mary, I will tell you frankly more of my affairs than I have told to almost any person breathing. In my early days, and indeed after my marriage, I was far, far too careless in money matters. I involved myself considerably, and owing to various circumstances, tiresome now to dwell upon, I have never been able to extricate myself from these difficulties. Henry too, your brother, is fearfully prodigalfearfully; and has within the last three or four years enormously aggravated my embarrassments, and of course multiplied my anxieties most grievously, most distractingly. I feel that my spirits are gone, my health declining, and, worse than all, my temper, yesmy temper soured. You do not know, you cannot know, how bitterly I feel, with what intense pain, and sorrow, and contrition, andand remorse, I reflect upon those bursts of ill-temper, of acrimony, of passion, to which, spite of every resistance, I am becoming every day more and more prone. Here the baronet paused to call up a look of compunctious anguish, an effort in which he was considerably assisted by an acute twinge in his great toe.
Yes, he continued, when the pain had subsided, I am now growing old, I am breaking very fast, sinking, I feel itI cannot be very long a trouble to anybodyembarrassments are closing around me on all sidesI have not the means of extricating myselfdespondency, despair have come upon me, and with them loss of spirits, loss of health, of strength, of everything which makes life a blessing; and, all these privations rendered more horrible, more agonizing, by the reflection that my ill-humour, my peevish temper, are continually taxing the patience, wounding the feelings, perhaps alienating the affections of those who are nearest and dearest to me.
Here the baronet became very much affected; but, lest his agitation should be seen, he turned his head away, while he
p.81grasped his daughter's hand convulsively: the poor girl covered his with kisses. He had wrung her very heart.
There is one course, continued he, by adopting which I might extricate myself from all my difficultieshere he raised his eyes with a haggard expression, and glared wildly along, the cornicebut I confess I have great hesitation in leaving you.
He wrung her hand very hard, and groaned slightly.
Father, dear father, said she, do not speak thusdo notyou frighten me.
I was wrong, my dear child, to tell you of struggles of which none but myself ought to have known anything, said the baronet, gloomily. One person indeed has the power to assist, I may say, to save me.
And who is that person, father? asked the girl.
Yourself, replied Sir Richard, emphatically.
How?I! said she, turning very pale, for a dreadful suspicion crossed her mindhow can I help you, father?
The old gentleman explained briefly; and the girl, relieved of her worst fears, started joyously from her seat, clapped her hands together with gladness, and, throwing her arms about her father's neck, exclaimed,
And is that all?oh, father; why did you defer telling me so long? you ought to have known how delighted I would have been to do anything for you; indeed you ought; tell them to get the papers ready immediately.
They are ready, my dear, said Sir Richard, recovering his self-possession wonderfully, and ringing the bell with a good deal of hurryfor he fully acknowledged the wisdom of the old proverb, which inculcates the expediency of striking while the iron's hotyour brother had them prepared yesterday, I believe. Inform Mr. Craven, he continued, addressing the servant, that I would be very glad to see him now, and say he may as well bring in the young gentleman who has accompanied him.
Mr. Craven accordingly appeared, and the young gentleman, who had but one eye, and a very seedy coat, entered along with him. The latter personage bustled about a good deal, slapped the deeds very emphatically down on the table, and rumpled the parchments sonorously, looked about for pen and ink, set a chair before the document, and then held one side of the parchment, while Mr. Craven screwed his knuckles down upon the other, and the parties forthwith signed; whereupon Mr. Craven and the one-eyed young gentleman both sat down, and began to sign away with a great deal of scratching and flourishing on the places allotted for witnesses; after all which, Mr. Craven, raising himself with a smile, told Miss Ashwoode, facetiously, that the Chancellor
p.82could not have done so much for the deed as she had done; and the one-eyed young gentleman held his nose contemplatively between his finger and thumb, and reviewed the signatures with his solitary optic.
Miss Ashwoode then withdrew, and Mr. Craven and the young gentleman made their bows. Sir Richard beckoned to Mr. Craven, and he glided back and closed the door, having commanded the young gentleman to see if the coach was ready.
You see, Mr. Craven, said Sir Richard, who, spite of all his philosophy, felt a little ashamed even that the attorney should have seen the transaction which had just been completedyou see, sir, I may as well tell you candidly: my daughter, who has just signed this deed, is about immediately to be married to Lord Aspenly; he kindly offered to lend me some fifteen thousand pounds, or thereabouts, and I converted this offer (which I, of course, accepted), into the assignment, from his bride, that is to be, of this little property, giving, of course, to his lordship my personal security for the debt which I consider as owed to him: this arrangement his lordship preferred as the most convenient possible. I thought it right, in strict confidence, of course, to explain the real state of the case to you, as at first sight the thing looks selfish, and I do not wish to stand worse in my friends' books than I actually deserve to do. This was spoken with Sir Richard's most engaging smile, and Mr. Craven smiled in return, most artlesslyat the same time he mentally ejaculated, dd sly! You'll bring this security, my dear Mr. Craven, continued the baronet, into the market with all dispatchdo you think you can manage twenty thousand upon it?
I fear not more than fourteen, or perhaps, sixteen, with an effort. I do not think Glenvarlogh would carry much moreI fear not; but rely upon me, Sir Richard; I'll do everything that can be doneat all events, I'll lose no time about it, depend upon itI may as well take this deed along with meI have the rest; and title is veryvery satisfactorygood-morning, Sir Richard, and the man of parchments withdrew, leaving Sir Richard in a more benevolent mood than he had experienced for many a long day.
The attorney had not been many seconds gone, when a second vehicle thundered up to the door, and a perfect storm of knocking and ringing announced the arrival of Lord Aspenly himself.