« EelmineJätka »
THE SHADOW OF ASHLYDYAT.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “ EAST LYNNE.”
PART THE TWENTIETH.
MY LADY WASHES HER HANDS. THE summer was drawing towards its close ; and so was the bankruptcy of Godolphin, Crosse, and Godolphin.-If we adhere to the style of the old firm, we only do as Prior's Ash did. Mr. Crosse, you have heard, was out of it actually and officially, but people, in speaking or writing of the firm, forgot to leave out his name. One or two maddened sufferers raised a question of his liability in their hopeless desperation ; but they gained nothing by the motion : Mr. Crosse was as legally separated from the Godolphins as if he had never been connected with them.—The labour, the confusion, and the doubt, attendant upon most bankruptcies, was nearly over, and creditors knew the best and the worst. The dividends would be, to use a common expression, shamefully small, when all was told: they might have been even smaller (not much, though) but that Lord Averil's claim on the sixteen thousand pounds, the value of the bonds, was not allowed to enter into it. Those bonds and all connected with them were sunk in silence so complete, that at length some outsiders began to ask whether they and their reported loss had not been a myth altogether.
Thomas Godolphin had given up everything, even to the watch in his pocket, the signet ring upon his finger. The latter was returned to him. The jewellery of the Miss Godolphins was given up. Maria's jewellery was given up. In short, there was nothing that was not given up. The fortune of the Miss Godolphins, consisting of money and bank shares, was of course gone with the rest. The money had been in the bank at interest; the shares were now worthless. Janet alone had an annuity of about a hundred a year, which nothing could deprive her of: the rest of the Godolphins were reduced to beggary. Worse off, were they, than any of their clamorous creditors; since, for them, all had gone : houses, lands, money, furniture, personal be. longings. But that Thomas Godolphin would not long be in a land where these things are required, it might bave been a question how he was for the future to get sufficient of them to live.
The arrangement hinted at by Lord Averil had been carried out, and that nobleman was now the owner of Ashlydyat and all that it contained. It may have been a little departing from the usual order of the law in such cases, to dispose of it by private arrangement; but it had been done with the full consent of all parties concerned. Even the creditors, who of course showed themselves ready to cavil at everything, were glad that the cost of a public sale by auction should be avoided. A price had been put upon Ashlydyat, and Lord Averil
gave it without a dissentient word; and the purchase of the furniture, as it stood, was undoubtedly advantageous to the sellers.
Yes, Ashlydyat had gone from the Godolphins. But Thomas and bis sisters remained in it. There had been no battle with Thomas on the score of his remaining. Lord Averil had clasped his friend's hands within his own, and in a word or two of emotion had given him to understand that his chief satisfaction in its purchase had been the thought that he, Thomas, would remain in his own home, as long as long - Thomas Godolphin understood the broken words : as long as he had need of one. “ Nothing would induce me to enter upon my habitation in it until then," continued Lord Averil. “So be it,” said Thomas, quietly, for he fully comprehended the feeling, and the grati. fication it brought to the conferrer of the obligation. “I shall not keep you out of it long, Averil.” The same words, almost the same words that Sir George Godolphin had once spoken to his son: “I shall not keep you and Ethel long out of Ashlydyat."
So Thomas remained at Ashlydyat with his broken health, and the weeks had gone on; and the summer was now drawing to an end, and more things beside it. Thomas Godolphin was beginning to be better understood than he had been at the time of the crash, and people were repenting of the cruel blame they had so freely hurled upon him. The early smart of the blow had faded away, and with it the prejudice which had unjustly, though not unnaturally, distorted their judgment, and buried for the time all kindly impulse. Perhaps there was not a single creditor, whatever might be the extent of the damage he had suffered by the bank, but would have stretched out his hand and given more gold, if by that means he could have saved the life of Thomas Godolphin. They learnt to remember that the fault had not lain with him : they believed that if by the sacrifice of his own life he could have averted the calamity he would have cheerfully sacrificed it; they knew that his days were as one long mourning, for them, individually-and they took shame to themselves for having been so bitter against him, Thomas Godolphin.
Not so in regard to George. He did not regain his place in their estimation: and if they could have hoisted Mr. George on a pole in front of the bank and cast at him a few rotten eggs and other agreeable missiles, it had been a comforting relief to their spleen. Had George been condemned to stand at the bar of a public tribunal by the nobleman he had so defrauded, half Prior's Ash would have gone to recreate their feelings by staring at him during the trial, and made it into a day of jubilee. Harsh epithets, exceedingly unpleasant when taken personally, were freely lavished on him, and would be for a long while to come. He had wronged them: and time alone will suffice to wash the ever-present remembrance of such wrongs out.
He had been at Prior's Ash. Gay George still. So far as could be seen, the calamity had not much affected him. Not a line showed itself on his fair, smooth brow, not a shade less of colour on bis bright cheek, not a grey thread in his luxuriant hair, not a cloud in his dark blue eye. Handsome, fascinating, attractive as ever was George Godolphin: and he really seemed to be as gay and light of temperament. When any ill-used creditor attacked him outright--as some did, through a casual meeting in the street, or other lucky chance George was triumphant George still. Not a bit of shame did he seem to take to himself—but so sunny, so fascinating was he, as he held the hands of the half-reluctant grumbler, and protested it should all come right sometime, that the enemy was won over to conciliation for the passing moment. It was impossible to help admiring George Godolphin; it was impossible, when brought face to face with him, not to be taken with his frank plausibility: the crustiest sufferer of them all was in a degree subdued by it. Prior's Ash understood that the officers of the bankruptcy “badgered” George a great deal when under his examinations, but George only seemed to come out of it the more triumphant. Safe on the score of Lord Averil, all the rest was in comparison light; and easy George never lost his good humour or his self-possession. He appeared to come scot-free out of everything. Those falsified accounts in the bank books, that many another might have been held responsible for and punished, he emerged from harmless. It was conjectured that the fuīl extent of these false entries never was discovered by the commissioners: Thomas Godolphin and Mr. Hurde alone could have told it: and Thomas preferred to let the odium of loosely-kept books, of reckless expenditure of money, fall upon himself, rather than betray George. Were the whole thing laid bare and declared, it could not bring a single fraction of benefit to the creditors, so, in that point of view, it was as well to let it rest. Are these careless, sanguine, gaytempered men always lucky? It has been so asserted; and I do think there's a great deal of truth in it. Most unequivocally lucky in this instance was George Godolphin.
It was of no earthly use asking him where all the money had gone - to what use this sum had been put, to what use the other-George could not tell. He could not tell any more than they could; he was as much perplexed over it as they were. He ran his white hand unconsciously through his shining golden hair, hopelessly trying his best to account for a great many items that nobody living could have accounted for. All in vain. Heedless, off-handed George Godolphin! He appeared before those inquisitive officials somewhat gayer in attire than was needful. A sober suit, rather of the seedy order, than bran new, might be deemed appropriate at such a time; but George Godolphin gave no indication of consulting any such rules of propriety. George Godolphin's refined good taste had kept him from falling into the loose and easy style of dress which some men so strangely favour in the present day, putting a gentleman in outward aspect on a level with the roughs of society. George, though no coxcomb, had been addicted to dress well and expensively; and George appeared inclined to do the same thing still. They could not take him to task on the score of his fine broadcloth, or of his neatly-finished boot; but they did bend their eyes meaningly on the massive gold chain which crossed his white waistcoat; on the costly appendages which dangled from it; on the handsome gold repeater which he more than once took out, as if weary of the passing hours. Mr. George received a gentle hint that those articles, however ornamental to himself, must be confiscated to the bankruptcy; and he resigned them with a good grace. The news of this little incident travelled abroad, as an interesting anecdote con. nected with the proceedings, and the next time George saw Charlotte Pain, she told him he was a fool to walk into the camp of the Philistines with pretty things about him. But George was not wilfully dishonest (if you can by any possibility understand that assertion, after what you know of his past doings), and he replied to Charlotte that it was only right the creditors should make spoil of bis watch and any. thing else be possessed. The truth, were it defined, being, that George was only dishonest when driven so to be. He had made free with the bonds of Lord Averil, but he could not be guilty of the meanness of hiding his personal trinkets.
Three or four times now had George been at Prior's Ash. People wondered why he did not remain; what it was that took him again and again to London. The very instant he found that he could be dispensed with at Prior's Ash, away he flew; not to return to it again until imperatively demanded. The plain fact was that Mr. George did not like to face Prior's Ash. For all the easy self-possession, the gay good humour he displayed to its inhabitants, the place had become utterly distasteful to him, almost unbearable; he shunned it and hated it as a pious Roman Catholic hates and shuns purgatory. For that reason, and for no other, George did his best to escape from it.
He had seen Lord Averil. And his fair face had betrayed its shame as he said a few words of apology for what he had done of thanks for the clemency shown him-of promises for the future. “If I live, I'll make it good to you," he murmured. “I did not think to steal them, Averil; I did not, on my solemn word of honour. I thought I should have replaced them before anything could be known. Your asking for them immediately-that you should do so seemed like a fatality-upset everything. But for that I might have weathered it all, and the house would not have gone. It was no light pressure that forced me to touch them-Heaven alone knows the need and the temptation."
And the meeting between the brothers ? No eye saw it; no ear heard it. Good Thomas Godolphin was dying from the blow, dying before his time; but not a word of harsh reproach was thrown to George. How George defended himself-or whether be attempted to defend himself, or whether he let it wholly alone—the public never knew.
Lady Godolphin's Folly was no longer in the occupancy of the Verralls or of Mrs. Pain : Lady Godolphin had returned to it. Not a day aged ; not a day altered. Time fitted most lightly over Lady Godolphin. Her bloom-tinted complexion was delicately fresh as ever; her dress was as becoming, her flaxen locks were as youthful. She came with her servants and her carriages, and she took up her abode at the Folly, in all the splendour of the old days. Her income was large, and the misfortunes which had recently fallen on the family did not affect it. Lady Godolphin washed her hands of these misfortunes. She washed her hands of Ġeorge. She told the world that she did so. She spoke of them openly to the public in general, to her acquaintance in particular, in a slighting, contemptuous sort of manner, as we are all apt to speak of the ill doings of other people. They don't concern us, and it's rather a condescension on our part to blame them at all. This was no concern of Lady Godolphin's. She told everybody it was
not. George's disgrace did not reflect itself upon the family, and of him sbe-washed her bands. No: Lady Godolphin could not see that this break-up caused by George should be any reason whatever why she or the Miss Godolphins should hide their heads and go mourning in sackcloth and ashes. Many of her old acquaintances in the county agreed with Lady Godolphin in her view of things, and helped by their visits to make the Folly gay again.
To wash her hands of Mr. George was, equitably speaking, no more than that gentleman deserved: but Lady Godolphin also washed her hands of Maria. On her return to Prior's Ash she bad felt inclined to espouse Maria's part; to sympathise with, and pity her; and she drove down in state one day and left ber carriage with its powdered coachman and footman to pace to and fro before the bank, while she went in. She openly avowed to Maria that she considered herself in a remote degree the cause which had led to her union with George Godolphin: she supposed that it was her having had Maria so much at the Folly, and afterwards on the visit at Broomhead, which had led to the attachment. As a matter of course she regretted this, and wished there had been no marriage, now that George had turned out so gracelessly. If she could do anything to repair it she would : and, as a first step, she offered the Folly as a present asylum to Maria. She would be safe there from worry, and—from George.
Maria scarcely at first understood. And when she did, her only answer was to thank Lady Godolphin, and to stand out, in her quiet, gentle manner, but untiringly and firmly, for her husband. Not a shade of blame would she acknowledge to be due to him; not a rere. rence would she render him the less : her place was with him, she said, though the whole world turned against bim. It vexed Lady Godolphin.
"Do you know," she asked, “ that you must choose between your husband and the world ?”
“In what way?" replied Maria.
“In what way! When a man acts in the manner that George Godolphin has acted, he puts a barrier between himself and society. But there's no necessity for the barrier to extend to you, Maria. If you will come to my house for a while, you will find this to be the case --that it will not extend to you."
“ You are very kind, Lady Godolphin. My husband is more to me than the world."
“ Do you approve of what he has done ?"
“ No," replied Maria. “But it is not my place to show that I blame."
“I think it is,” said Lady Godolphin, in the hard tone she used when her opinion was crossed.
Maria was silent. She never could contend with any one.
“ Then you prefer to hold out against the world,” resumed Lady Godolphin ; " to put yourself beyond its pale! It is a bold step, Maria.”
" What can I do?” was Maria's pleading answer. “If the world throws me over because I will not turn against my husband, I cannot belp it. I married him for better and for worse, Lady Godolphin.”