Yet he was ostensibly the head, hope, and stay of the family. Alas! many a family has to submit to, and smile under an equally melancholy and fatal sham.
Mr. Ascott was sitting half asleep in his solitary dining room, his face rosy with wine, his heart warmed also, probably from the same cause. Not that he was in the least “tipsy”—that low-word applicable only to low people, and not men of property, who have a right to enjoy all the good things of this life. He was scarcely even “merry,” merely “comfortable,” in that cozy, benevolent state which middle aged or elderly gentlemen are apt to fall into after a good dinner and good wine, when they have no mental resources, and the said good dinner and good wine constitutes their best notion of felicity.
Yet wealth and comfort are not things to be despised. Hilary herself was not insensible to the pleasantness of this warm, well-lit, crimson-atmosphered apartment. She as well as her neighbors liked pretty things about her, soft, harmonious colors to look at and wear, well-cooked food to eat, cheerful rooms to live in. If she could have had all these luxuries with those she loved to share them, no doubt she would have been much happier. But yet she felt to the full that solemn truth that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things that he possesses;” and though hers was outwardly so dark, so full of poverty, anxiety, and pain, still she knew that inwardly it owned many things, one thing especially, which no money could buy, and without which fine houses, fine furniture, and fine clothes—indeed, all the comforts and splendors of existence, would be worse that valueless, actual torment. So as she looked around her she felt not the slightest envy of her sister Selina.
Nor of honest Peter, who rose up from his arm-chair, pulling the yellow silk handkerchief from his sleepy face, and, it must be confessed, receiving his future connections very willingly, and even kindly.
Now how was he to be told? How when she and Ascott sat over the wine and desert he had ordered for them, listening to the rich man’s complaisant pomposities, were they to explain that they had come a begging, asking him, as the climax to his liberalities, to advance a few pounds in order to keep the young man whom he had for years generously and sufficiently maintained out of prison? This, smooth it over as one might, was, Hilary felt, the plain English of the matter, and as minute after minute lengthened, and nothing was said of their errand, she sat upon thorns.
But Ascott drank his wine and ate his walnuts quite composedly.
At last Hilary said, in a sort of desperation, “Mr. Ascott, I want to speak to you.”
“With pleasure, my dear young lady. Will you come to my study?—I have a most elegantly furnished study, I assure you. And any affair of yours—”