Upon the day following, O'Connor had not yet received any answer to his letter. He was, however, not a little surprised instead to receive a second visit from young Ashwoode.
I am very glad, my dear O'Connor, said the young man as he entered, to have found you alone. I have been wishing very much for this opportunity, and was half afraid as I came upstairs that I should again have been disappointed. The fact is, I wish much to speak to you upon a subject of great difficulty and delicacyone in which, however, I naturally feel so strong an interest, that I may speak to you upon it, and freely, too, without impertinence. I allude to your attachment to my sister. Do not imagine, my dear O'Connor, that I am going to lecture you on prudence and all that; and above all, my dear fellow, do not think I want to tax your confidence more deeply than you are willing I should; I know quite enough for all I would suggest; I know the plain fact that you love my I have long known it, and this is enough.
Well, sir, what follows? said O'Connor, dejectedly.
Do not call me sircall me friendfellowfoolanything you please but that, replied Ashwoode, kindly; and after a brief pause, he continued: I need not, and cannot disguise it from you, that I was much opposed to this, and vexed extremely at the girl's encouragement of what I considered a most imprudent suit. I have, however, learned to think differentlyvery differently. After all my littlenesses and pettishness, for which you must have, if not abhorred, at least despised me from your very heartafter all this, I say, your noble conduct in risking your own life to save my worthless blood is what I never can enough admire, and honour, and thank. Here he grasped O'Connor's hand, and shook it warmly. After this, I tell you, O'Connor, that were there offered to me, on my sister's behoof, on the one side the most brilliant alliance in wealth and rank that ever ambition dreamed of, and upon the other side this hand of yours, I
p.89would, so heaven is my witness, forego every allurement of titles, rank, and riches, and give my sister to you. I have come here, O'Connor, frankly to offer you my aid and adviceto prove to you my sincerity, and, if possible, to realize your wishes.
O'Connor could hardly believe his senses. Here was the man who, scarcely six days since, he felt assured, would more readily have suffered him to thrust him through the body than consent to his marriage with Mary Ashwoode, now not merely consenting to it, but offering cordially and spontaneously all the assistance in his power towards effecting that very object. Had he heard him aright? One look at his expressive facethe kindly pressure of his handeverything assured him that he had justly comprehended all that Ashwoode had spoken, and a glow of hope, warmer than had visited him for years, cheered his heart.
In the meantime, continued Ashwoode, I must tell you exactly how matters stand at Morley Court. The Earl of Aspenly, of whom you may have heard, is paying his addresses to my sister.
The Earl of Aspenly, echoed O'Connor, slightly colouring. I had not heard of this beforeshe did not name him.
Yet she has known it a good while, returned Ashwoode, with well-affected surprisea month, I believe, or more. He's now at Morley Court, and means to make some stayare you sure she never mentioned him?
Titled, and, of course, rich, said O'Connor, scarce hearing the question. Why should I have heard of this by chance, and from anotherwhy this reservethis silence?
Nay, nay, replied Henry, you must not run away with the matter thus. Mary may have forgotten it, oror not liked to tell younot cared to give you needless uneasiness.
I wish she hadI wish she hadI amI am, indeed, Ashwoode, very, very unhappy, said O'Connor, with extreme dejection. Forgive meforgive my folly, since folly it seemsI fear I weary you.
Well, well, since it seems you have not heard of it, rejoined Henry, carelessly throwing himself back in his chair, you may as well learn it nownot that there is any real cause of alarm in the matter, as I shall presently show you, but simply that you may understand the position of the enemy. Lord Aspenly, then, is at present at Morley Court, where he is received as Mary's loverobserve me, only as her lovenot yet, and I trust never as her accepted lover.
Go onpray go on, said O'Connor, with suppressed but agonized anxiety.
Now, though my father is very hot about the match, resumed his visitor, it may appear strange enough to you
p.90that I never was. There are a fewa very fewadvantages in the matter, of course, viewing it merely in its worldly aspect. But Lord Aspenly's property is a good deal embarrassed, and he is of violently Whig politics and connections, the very thing most hated by my old Tory uncle, Oliver French, whom my father has been anxious to cultivate; besides, the disparity in years is so very great that it is ridiculousI might almost say indecent and this even in point of family standing, and indeed of reputation, putting aside every better consideration, is objectionable. I have urged all these things upon my father, and perhaps we should not find any insurmountable obstacle there; but the fact is, there is another difficulty, one of which until this morning I never dreamedthe most whimsical difficulty imaginable. Here the young man raised his eyebrows, and laughed faintly, while he looked upon the floor, and O'Connor, with increasing earnestness, implored him to proceed. It appears so very absurd and perverse an obstacle, continued Ashwoode, with a very quizzical expression, that one does not exactly know how to encounter itto say the truth, I think that the girl is a littleperhaps the least imaginable degreetakendazzledcaught by the notion of being a countess; it's very natural, you know, but then I would have expected better from her.
By heavens, it is impossible! exclaimed O'Connor, starting to his feet; I cannot believe it; you must, indeed, my dear Ashwoode, you must have been deceived.
Well, then, rejoined the young man, I have lost my skill in reading young ladies' mindsthat's all; but even though I should be rightand never believe me if I am not rightit does not follow that the giddy whim won't pass away just as suddenly as it came; her most lasting impressionswith, I should hope, one exceptionwere never very enduring. I have been talking to her for nearly half an hour this morninglaughing with her about Lord Aspenly's suit, and building castles in the air about what she will and what she won't do when she's a countess. But, by the way, how did you let her know that you intend returning to France at the end of this month, only, as she told me, however, for a few weeks? She mentioned it yesterday incidentally. Well, it is a comfort that I hear your secrets, though you won't entrust them to me. But do not, my dear fellowdo not look so very blackyou very much overrate the firmness of women's minds, and greatly indeed exaggerate that of my sister's character if you believe that this vexatious whim which has entered her giddy pate will remain there longer than a week. The simple fact is that the excitement and bustle of all this has produced an unusual flow of high spirits, which will, of course, subside with the novelty of the occasion. Pshaw! why so cast down?there is
p.91nothing in the matter to surprise onethe caprice of women knows no rule. I tell you I would almost stake my reputation as a prophet, that when this giddy excitement passes away, her feelings will return to their old channel. O'Connor still paced the room in silence. Meanwhile, continued the young man, if anything occur to youif I can be useful to you in any way, command me absolutely, and till you see me next, take heart of grace. He grasped O'Connor's handit was cold as clay; and bidding him farewell, once more took his departure.
Well, thought he, as he threw his leg across his high-bred gelding at the inn door, I have shot the first shaft home.
And so he had, for the heart at which it was directed, unfenced by suspicion, lay open to his traitorous practices. O'Connor's letter, an urgent and a touching one, was still unanswered; it never for a moment crossed his mind that it had not reached the hand for which it was intended. The maid who had faithfully delivered all the letters which had passed between them had herself received it; and young Ashwoode had but the moment before mentioned, from his sister's lips, the subject on which it was writtenhis meditated departure for France. This, too, it appeared, she had spoken of in the midst of gay and light-hearted trifling, and projects of approaching magnificence and dissipation with his rich and noble rival. Twice since the delivery of that letter had his servant seen Miss Ashwoode's maid; and in the communicative colloquy which had ensued she had toldno doubt according to well-planned instructionshow gay and unusually merry her mistress was, and how she passed whole hours at her toilet, and the rest of her time in the companionship of Lord Aspenlyso that between his lordship's society, and her own preparations for it, she had scarcely allowed herself time to read the letter in question, much less to answer it.
All these things served to fill O'Connor's mind with, vague but agonizing doubtsdoubts which he vainly strove to combat; fears which had not their birth in an alarmed imagination, but which, alas! were but too surely approved by reason. The notion of a systematic plot, embracing so many agents, and conducted with such deep and hellish hypocrisy, with the sole purpose of destroying affections the most beautiful, and of alienating hearts the truest, was a thought so monstrous and unnatural that it never for a second flashed upon his mind; still his heart struggled strongly against despair. Spite of all that looked gloomy in what he sawspite of the boding suggestions of his worst fears, he would not believe her false to himthat she who had so long and so well loved and trusted himshe whose gentle heart he knew unchanged and unchilled by years, and distance, and
p.92misfortunethat she should, after all, have fallen away from him, and given up that heart, which once was his, to vanity and the hollow glitter of the worldthis he could hardly bring himself to believe, yet what was he to think? alas! what?