But many things had happened at Abbotsmead since the love-match of Geoffry Fairfax and Elizabeth Bulmer. When Geoffry married, his brothers were both single men. The elder, Frederick, took to himself soon after a wife of rank and fortune; but there was no living issue of the marriage; and the lady, after a few years of eccentricity, went abroad for her health—that is, her husband was obliged to place her under restraint. Her malady was pronounced incurable, though her life might be prolonged. The second son, Laurence, had distinguished himself at Oxford, and had become a knight-errant of the Society of Antiquaries. His father said he would traverse a continent to look at one old stone. He was hardly persuaded to relinquish his liberty and choose a wife, when the failure of heirs to Frederick disconcerted the squire’s expectations, and, with the proverbial ill-luck of learned men, he chose badly. His wife, from a silly, pretty shrew, matured into a most bitter scold; and a blessed man was he, when, after three years of tribulation, her temper and a strong fever carried her off. His Xantippe left no child. Mr. Fairfax urged the obligations of ancient blood, old estate, and a second marriage; but Laurence had suffered conjugal felicity enough, and would no more of it. It was now that the squire first bethought himself seriously of his son Geoffry’s daughter. He proposed to bring her home to Abbotsmead, and to marry her in due time to some poor young gentleman of good family, who would take her name, and give the house of Fairfax a new lease, as had been done thrice before in its long descent, by means of an heiress. The poor young man who might be so obliging was even named. Frederick and Laurence gave consent to whatever promised to mitigate their father’s disappointment in themselves, and the business was put into the hands of their man of law, John Short of Norminster, than whom no man in that venerable city was more respected for sagacity and integrity.
If Mr. Fairfax had listened to John Short in times past, he would not have needed his help now. John Short had urged the propriety of recalling Bessie from Beechhurst when her father died; but no good grandmother or wise aunt survived at Kirkham to insist upon it, and the thing was not done. The man of law did not, however, revert to what was past remedy, but gave his mind to considering how his client might be extricated from his existing dilemma with least pain and offence. Mr. Fairfax had a legal right to the custody of his young kinswoman, but he had not the conscience to plead his legal right against the long-allowed use and custom of her friends. If they were reluctant to let her go, and she were reluctant to come, what then? John Short confessed that Mr. Carnegie and Bessie herself might give them trouble if they were so disposed; but he had a reasonable expectation that they would view the matter through the medium of common sense.
Thus much by way of prelude to the story of Bessie Fairfax’s Vicissitudes, which date from this momentous era of her life.