Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter the Fifty-First.

The Proposal.

TOWARD sunset, Lady Holchester’s carriage drew up before the gate of the cottage.

Three persons occupied the carriage: Lady Holchester, her eldest son (now Lord Holchester), and Sir Patrick Lundie.

“Will you wait in the carriage, Sir Patrick?” said Julius. “Or will you come in?”

“I will wait. If I can be of the least use to her,, send for me instantly. In the mean time don’t forget to make the stipulation which I have suggested. It is the one certain way of putting your brother’s real feeling in this matter to the test.”

The servant had rung the bell without producing any result. He rang again. Lady Holchester put a question to Sir Patrick.

“If I have an opportunity of speaking to my son’s wife alone,” she said, “have you any message to give?”

Sir Patrick produced a little note.

“May I appeal to your ladyship’s kindness to give her this?” The gate was opened by the servant-girl, as Lady Holchester took the note. “Remember,” reiterated Sir Patrick, earnestly “if I can be of the smallest service to her — don’t think of my position with Mr. Delamayn. Send for me at once.”

Julius and his mother were conducted into the drawing-room. The girl informed them that her master had gone up stairs to lie down, and that he would be with them immediately.

Both mother and son were too anxious to speak. Julius wandered uneasily about the room. Some books attracted his notice on a table in the corner — four dirty, greasy volumes, with a slip of paper projecting from the leaves of one of them, and containing this inscription, “With Mr. Perry’s respects.” Julius opened the volume. It was the ghastly popular record of Criminal Trials in England, called the Newgate Calendar. Julius showed it to his mother.

“Geoffrey’s taste in literature!” he said, with a faint smile.

Lady Holchester signed to him to put the book back.

“You have seen Geoffrey’s wife already — have you not?” she asked.

There was no contempt now in her tone when she referred to Anne. The impression produced on her by her visit to the cottage, earlier in the day, associated Geoffrey’s wife with family anxieties of no trivial kind. She might still (for Mrs. Glenarm’s sake) be a woman to be disliked — but she was no longer a woman to be despised.

“I saw her when she came to Swanhaven,” said Julius. “I agree with Sir Patrick in thinking her a very interesting person.”

“What did Sir Patrick say to you about Geoffrey this afternoon — while I was out of the room?”

“Only what he said to you. He thought their position toward each other here a very deplorable one. He considered that the reasons were serious for our interfering immediately.”

“Sir Patrick’s own opinion, Julius, goes farther than that.”

“He has not acknowledged it, that I know of.”

“How can he acknowledge it — to us?”

The door opened, and Geoffrey entered the room.

Julius eyed him closely as they shook hands. His eyes were bloodshot; his face was flushed; his utterance was thick — the look of him was the look of a man who had been drinking hard.

“Well?” he said to his mother. “What brings you back?”

“Julius has a proposal to make to you,” Lady Holchester answered. “I approve of it; and I have come with him.”

Geoffrey turned to his brother.

“What can a rich man like you want with a poor devil like me?” he asked.

“I want to do you justice, Geoffrey — if you will help me, by meeting me half-way. Our mother has told you about the will?”

“I’m not down for a half-penny in the will. I expected as much. Go on.”

“You are wrong — you are down in it. There is liberal provision made for you in a codicil. Unhappily, my father died without signing it. It is needless to say that I consider it binding on me for all that. I am ready to do for you what your father would have done for you. And I only ask for one concession in return.”

“What may that be?”

“You are living here very unhappily, Geoffrey, with your wife.”

“Who says so? I don’t, for one.”

Julius laid his hand kindly on his brother’s arm.

“Don’t trifle with such a serious matter as this,” he said. “Your marriage is, in every sense of the word, a misfortune — not only to you but to your wife. It is impossible that you can live together. I have come here to ask you to consent to a separation. Do that — and the provision made for you in the unsigned codicil is yours. What do you say?”

Geoffrey shook his brother’s hand off his arm.

“I say — No!” he answered.

Lady Holchester interfered for the first time.

“Your brother’s generous offer deserves a better answer than that,” she said.

“My answer,” reiterated Geoffrey, “is — No!”

He sat between them with his clenched fists resting on his knees — absolutely impenetrable to any thing that either of them could say.

“In your situation,” said Julius, “a refusal is sheer madness. I won’t accept it.”

“Do as you like about that. My mind’s made up. I won’t let my wife be taken away from me. Here she stays.”

The brutal tone in which he had made that reply roused Lady Holchester’s indignation.

“Take care!” she said. “You are not only behaving with the grossest ingratitude toward your brother — you are forcing a suspicion into your mother’s mind. You have some motive that you are hiding from us.”

He turned on his mother with a sudden ferocity which made Julius spring to his feet. The next instant his eyes were on the ground, and the devil that possessed him was quiet again.

“Some motive I’m hiding from you?” he repeated, with his head down, and his utterance thicker than ever. “I’m ready to have my motive posted all over London, if you like. I’m fond of her.”

He looked up as he said the last words. Lady Holchester turned away her head — recoiling from her own son. So overwhelming was the shock inflicted on her that even the strongly rooted prejudice which Mrs. Glenarm had implanted in her mind yielded to it. At that moment she absolutely pitied Anne!

“Poor creature!” said Lady Holchester.

He took instant offense at those two words. “I won’t have my wife pitied by any body.” With that reply, he dashed into the passage; and called out, “Anne! come down!”

Her soft voice answered; her light footfall was heard on the stairs. She came into the room. Julius advanced, took her hand, and held it kindly in his. “We are having a little family discussion,” he said, trying to give her confidence. “And Geoffrey is getting hot over it, as usual.”

Geoffrey appealed sternly to his mother.

“Look at her!” he said. “Is she starved? Is she in rags? Is she covered with bruises?” He turned to Anne. “They have come here to propose a separation. They both believe I hate you. I don’t hate you. I’m a good Christian. I owe it to you that I’m cut out of my father’s will. I forgive you that. I owe it to you that I’ve lost the chance of marrying a woman with ten thousand a year. I forgive you that. I’m not a man who does things by halves. I said it should be my endeavor to make you a good husband. I said it was my wish to make it up. Well! I am as good as my word. And what’s the consequence? I am insulted. My mother comes here, and my brother comes here — and they offer me money to part from you. Money be hanged! I’ll be beholden to nobody. I’ll get my own living. Shame on the people who interfere between man and wife! Shame! — that’s what I say — shame!”

Anne looked, for an explanation, from her husband to her husband’s mother.

“Have you proposed a separation between us?” she asked.

“Yes — on terms of the utmost advantage to my son; arranged with every possible consideration toward you. Is there any objection on your side?”

“Oh, Lady Holchester! is it necessary to ask me? What does he say?”

“He has refused.”

“Refused!”

“Yes,” said Geoffrey. “I don’t go back from my word; I stick to what I said this morning. It’s my endeavor to make you a good husband. It’s my wish to make it up.” He paused, and then added his last reason: “I’m fond of you.”

Their eyes met as he said it to her. Julius felt Anne’s hand suddenly tighten round his. The desperate grasp of the frail cold fingers, the imploring terror in the gentle sensitive face as it slowly turned his way, said to him as if in words, “Don’t leave me friendless to-night!”

“If you both stop here till domesday,” said Geoffrey, “you’ll get nothing more out of me. You have had my reply.”

With that, he seated himself doggedly in a corner of the room; waiting — ostentatiously waiting — for his mother and his brother to take their leave. The position was serious. To argue the matter with him that night was hopeless. To invite Sir Patrick’s interference would only be to provoke his savage temper to a new outbreak. On the other hand, to leave the helpless woman, after what had passed, without another effort to befriend her, was, in her situation, an act of downright inhumanity, and nothing less. Julius took the one way out of the difficulty that was left — the one way worthy of him as a compassionate and an honorable man.

“We will drop it for to-night, Geoffrey,” he said. “But I am not the less resolved, in spite of all that you have said, to return to the subject to-morrow. It would save me some inconvenience — a second journey here from town, and then going back again to my engagements — if I staid with you to-night. Can you give me a bed?”

A look flashed on him from Anne, which thanked him as no words could have thanked him.

“Give you a bed?” repeated Geoffrey. He checked himself, on the point of refusing. His mother was watching him; his wife was watching him — and his wife knew that the room above them was a room to spare. “All right!” he resumed, in another tone, with his eye on his mother. “There’s my empty room up stairs. Have it, if you like. You won’t find I’ve changed my mind to-morrow — but that’s your look-out. Stop here, if the fancy takes you. I’ve no objection. It don’t matter to Me. — Will you trust his lordship under my roof?” he added, addressing his mother. “I might have some motive that I’m hiding from you, you know!” Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Anne. “Go and tell old Dummy to put the sheets on the bed. Say there’s a live lord in the house — she’s to send in something devilish good for supper!” He burst fiercely into a forced laugh. Lady Holchester rose at the moment when Anne was leaving the room. “I shall not be here when you return,” she said. “Let me bid you good-night.”

She shook hands with Anne — giving her Sir Patrick’s note, unseen, at the same moment. Anne left the room. Without addressing another word to her second son, Lady Holchester beckoned to Julius to give her his arm. “You have acted nobly toward your brother,” she said to him. “My one comfort and my one hope, Julius, are in you.” They went out together to the gate, Geoffrey following them with the key in his hand. “Don’t be too anxious,” Julius whispered to his mother. “I will keep the drink out of his way to-night — and I will bring you a better account of him to-morrow. Explain every thing to Sir Patrick as you go home.”

He handed Lady Holchester into the carriage; and re-entered, leaving Geoffrey to lock the gate. The brothers returned in silence to the cottage. Julius had concealed it from his mother — but he was seriously uneasy in secret. Naturally prone to look at all things on their brighter side, he could place no hopeful interpretation on what Geoffrey had said and done that night. The conviction that he was deliberately acting a part, in his present relations with his wife, for some abominable purpose of his own, had rooted itself firmly in Julius. For the first time in his experience of his brother, the pecuniary consideration was not the uppermost consideration in Geoffrey’s mind. They went back into the drawing-room. “What will you have to drink?” said Geoffrey.

“Nothing.”

“You won’t keep me company over a drop of brandy-and-water?”

“No. You have had enough brandy-and-water.”

After a moment of frowning self-consideration in the glass, Geoffrey abruptly agreed with Julius “I look like it,” he said. “I’ll soon put that right.” He disappeared, and returned with a wet towel tied round his head. “What will you do while the women are getting your bed ready? Liberty Hall here. I’ve taken to cultivating my mind —— I’m a reformed character, you know, now I’m a married man. You do what you like. I shall read.”

He turned to the side-table, and, producing the volumes of the Newgate Calendar, gave one to his brother. Julius handed it back again.

“You won’t cultivate your mind,” he said, “with such a book as that. Vile actions recorded in vile English, make vile reading, Geoffrey, in every sense of the word.”

“It will do for me. I don’t know good English when I see it.”

With that frank acknowledgment — to which the great majority of his companions at school and college might have subscribed without doing the slightest injustice to the present state of English education — Geoffrey drew his chair to the table, and opened one of the volumes of his record of crime.

The evening newspaper was lying on the sofa. Julius took it up, and seated himself opposite to his brother. He noticed, with some surprise, that Geoffrey appeared to have a special object in consulting his book. Instead of beginning at the first page, he ran the leaves through his fingers, and turned them down at certain places, before he entered on his reading. If Julius had looked over his brother’s shoulder, instead of only looking at him across the table, he would have seen that Geoffrey passed by all the lighter crimes reported in the Calendar, and marked for his own private reading the cases of murder only.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30