The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XVIII

Lily Dale’s First Love-Letter

Crosbie was rather proud of himself when he went to bed. He had succeeded in baffling the charge made against him, without saying anything as to which his conscience need condemn him. So, at least, he then told himself. The impression left by what he had said would be that there had been some question of an engagement between him and Lilian Dale, but that nothing at this moment was absolutely fixed. But in the morning his conscience was not quite so clear. What would Lily think and say if she knew it all? Could he dare to tell her, or to tell any one the real state of his mind?

As he lay in bed, knowing that an hour remained to him before he need encounter the perils of his tub, he felt that he hated Courcy Castle and its inmates. Who was there, among them all, that was comparable to Mrs Dale and her daughters? He detested both George and John. He loathed the earl. As to the countess herself, he was perfectly indifferent, regarding her as a woman whom it was well to know, but as one only to be known as the mistress of Courcy Castle and a house in London. As to the daughters, he had ridiculed them all from time to time — even Alexandrina, whom he now professed to love. Perhaps in some sort of way he had a weak fondness for her — but it was a fondness that had never touched his heart. He could measure the whole thing at its worth — Courcy Castle with its privileges, Lady Dumbello, Lady Clandidlem, and the whole of it. He knew that he had been happier on that lawn at Allington, and more contented with himself, than ever he had been even under Lady Hartletop’s splendid roof in Shropshire. Lady Dumbello was satisfied with these things, even in the inmost recesses of her soul; but he was not a male Lady Dumbello. He knew that there was something better, and that that something was within his reach.

But, nevertheless, the air of Courcy was too much for him. In arguing the matter with himself he regarded himself as one infected with a leprosy from which there could be no recovery, and who should, therefore, make his whole life suitable to the circumstances of that leprosy. It was of no use for him to tell himself that the Small House at Allington was better than Courcy Castle. Satan knew that heaven was better than hell; but he felt himself to be fitter for the latter place. Crosbie ridiculed Lady Dumbello, even there among her friends, with all the cutting words that his wit could find; but, nevertheless, the privilege of staying in the same house with her was dear to him. It was the line of life into which he had fallen, and he confessed inwardly that the struggle to extricate himself would be too much for him. All that had troubled him while he was yet at Allington, but it overwhelmed him almost with dismay beneath the hangings of Courcy Castle.

Had he not better run from the place at once? He had almost acknowledged to himself that he repented his engagement with Lilian Dale, but he still was resolved that he would fulfil it. He was bound in honour to marry “that little girl,” and he looked sternly up at the drapery over his head, as he assured himself that he was a man of honour. Yes; he would sacrifice himself. As he had been induced to pledge his word, he would not go back from it. He was too much of a man for that!

But had he not been wrong to refuse the result of Lily’s wisdom when she told him in the field that it would be better for them to part? He did not tell himself that he had refused her offer merely because he had not the courage to accept it on the spur of the moment. No. “He had been too good to the poor girl to take her at her word.” It was thus he argued on the matter within his own breast. He had been too true to her; and now the effect would be that they would both be unhappy for life! He could not live in content with a family upon a small income. He was well aware of that. No one could be harder upon him in that matter than was he himself. But it was too late now to remedy the ill effects of an early education.

It was thus that he debated the matter as he lay in bed — contradicting one argument by another over and over again; but still in all of them teaching himself to think that this engagement of his was a misfortune. Poor Lily! Her last words to him had conveyed an assurance that she would never distrust him. And she also, as she lay wakeful in her bed on this the first morning of his absence, thought much of their mutual vows. How true she would be to them! How she would be his wife with all her heart and spirit! It was not only that she would love him — but in her love she would serve him to her utmost; serve him as regarded this world, and if possible as regarded the next.

“Bell,” she said, “I wish you were going to be married too.”

“Thank’ye, dear,” said Bell,” Perhaps I shall some day.”

“Ah; but I’m not joking. It seems such a serious thing. And I can’t expect you to talk to me about it now as you would if you were in the same position yourself. Do you think I shall make him happy?”

“Yes, I do, certainly.”

“Happier than he would be with any one else that he might meet? I dare not think that. I think I could give him up tomorrow, if I could see any one that would suit him better.” What would Lily have said had she been made acquainted with all the fascinations of Lady Alexandrina de Courcy?

The countess was very civil to him, saying nothing about his engagement, but still talking to him a good deal about his sojourn at Allington. Crosbie was a pleasant man for ladies in a large house. Though a sportsman, he was not so keen a sportsman as to be always out with the gamekeepers. Though a politician, he did not sacrifice his mornings to the perusal of blue-books or the preparation of party tactics. Though a reading man, he did not devote himself to study. Though a horseman, he was not often to be found in the stables. He could supply conversation when it was wanted, and could take himself out of the way when his presence among the women was not needed. Between breakfast and lunch on the day following his arrival he talked a good deal to the countess, and made himself very agreeable. She continued to ridicule him gently for his prolonged stay among so primitive and rural a tribe of people as the Dales, and he bore her little sarcasm with the utmost good-humour.

“Six weeks at Allington without a move! Why, Mr Crosbie, you must have felt yourself to be growing there.”

“So I did — like an ancient tree. Indeed, I was so rooted that I could hardly get away.”

“Was the house full of people all the time?”

“There was nobody there but Bernard Dale, Lady Julia’s nephew.” “Quite a case of Damon and Pythias. Fancy your going down to the shades of Allington to enjoy the uninterrupted pleasures of friendship for six weeks.”

“Friendship and the partridges.”

“There was nothing else, then?”

“Indeed there was. There was a widow with two very nice daughters, living, not exactly in the same house, but on the same grounds.”

“Oh, indeed. That makes such a difference; doesn’t it? You are not a man to bear much privation on the score of partridges, nor a great deal, I imagine, for friendship. But when you talk of pretty girls —”

“It makes a difference, doesn’t it?

“A very great difference. I think I have heard of that Mrs Dale before. And so her girls are nice?

“Very nice indeed.”

“Play croquet, I suppose, and eat syllabubs on the lawn? But, really, didn’t you get very tired of it?

“Oh dear, no. I was happy as the day was long.”

“Going about with a crook, I suppose?”

“Not exactly a live crook; but doing all that kind of thing. I learned a great deal about pigs.”

“Under the guidance of Miss Dale?”

“Yes; under the guidance of Miss Dale.”

“I’m sure one is very much obliged to you for tearing yourself away from such charms, and coming to such unromantic people as we are. But I fancy men always do that sort of thing once or twice in their lives — and then they talk of their souvenirs. I suppose it won’t go beyond a souvenir with you.”

This was a direct question, but still admitted of a fencing answer. “It has, at any rate, given me one,” said he,” which will last me my life!”

The countess was quite contented. That Lady Julia’s statement was altogether true she had never for a moment doubted. That Crosbie should become engaged to a young lady in the country, whereas he had shown signs of being in love with her daughter in London, was not at all wonderful. Nor, in her eyes, did such practice amount to any great sin. Men did so daily, and girls were prepared for their so doing. A man in her eyes was not to be regarded as safe from attack because he was engaged. Let the young lady who took upon herself to own him have an eye to that. When she looked back on the past careers of her own flock, she had to reckon more than one such disappointment for her own daughters. Others besides Alexandrina had been so treated. Lady de Courcy had had her grand hopes respecting her girls, and after them moderate hopes, and again after them bitter disappointments. Only one had been married, and she was married to an attorney. It was not to be supposed that she would have any very high-toned feelings as to Lily’s rights in this matter.

Such a man as Crosbie was certainly no great match for an earl’s daughter. Such a marriage, indeed, would, one may say, be but a poor triumph. When the countess, during the last season in town, had observed how matters were going with Alexandrina, she had cautioned her child, taking her to task for her imprudence. But the child had been at this work for fourteen years, and was weary of it. Her sisters had been at the work longer, and had almost given it up in despair. Alexandrina did not tell her parent that her heart was now beyond her control, and that she had devoted herself to Crosbie for ever; but she pouted, saying that she knew very well what she was about, scolding her mother in return, and making Lady de Courcy perceive that the struggle was becoming very weary. And then there were other considerations. Mr Crosbie had not much certainly in his own possession, but he was a man out of whom something might be made by family influence and his own standing. He was not a hopeless, ponderous man, whom no leaven could raise. He was one of whose position in society the countess and her daughters need not be ashamed. Lady de Courcy had given no expressed consent to the arrangement, but it had come to be understood between her and her daughter that the scheme was to be entertained as admissible.

Then came these tidings of the little girl down at Allington. She felt no anger against Crosbie. To be angry on such a subject would be futile, foolish, and almost indecorous. It was a part of the game which was as natural to her as fielding is to a cricketer. One cannot have it all winnings at any game. Whether Crosbie should eventually become her own son-in-law or not it came to her naturally, as a part of her duty in life, to howl down the stumps of that young lady at Allington. If Miss Dale knew the game well and could protect her own wicket, let her do so.

She had no doubt as to Crosbie’s engagement with Lilian Dale, but she had as little as to his being ashamed of that engagement. Had he really cared for Miss Dale he would not have left her to come to Courcy Castle. Had he been really resolved to marry her, he would not have warded all questions respecting his engagement with fictitious answers. He had amused himself with Lily Dale, and it was to be hoped that the young lady had not thought very seriously about it. That was the most charitable light in which Lady de Courcy was disposed to regard the question.

It behoved Crosbie to write to Lily Dale before dinner. He had promised to do so immediately on his arrival, and he was aware that he would be regarded as being already one day beyond his promise. Lily had told him that she would live upon his letters, and it was absolutely necessary that he should furnish her with her first meal. So he betook himself to his room in sufficient time before dinner, and got out his pen, ink, and paper.

He got out his pen, ink, and paper, and then he found that his difficulties were beginning. I beg that it may be understood that Crosbie was not altogether a villain. He could not sit down and write a letter as coming from his heart, of which as he wrote it he knew the words to be false, He was an ungenerous, worldly, inconstant man, very prone to think well of himself, and to give himself credit for virtues which he did not possess; but he could not be false with premeditated cruelty to a woman he had sworn to love. He could not write an affectionate, warm-hearted letter to Lily, without bringing himself, at any rate for the time, to feel towards her in an affectionate, warmhearted way. Therefore he now sat himself to work, while his pen yet remained dry in his hand, to remodel his thoughts, which had been turned against Lily and Allington by the craft of Lady de Courcy. It takes some time before a man can do this. He has to struggle with himself in a very uncomfortable way, making efforts which are often unsuccessful. It is sometimes easier to lift a couple of hundredweights than to raise a few thoughts in one’s mind which at other moments will come galloping in without a whistle,

He had just written the date of his letter when a little tap came at his door, and it was opened.

“I say, Crosbie,” said the Honourable John, “didn’t you say something yesterday about a cigar before dinner?

“Not a word,” said Crosbie, in rather an angry tone.

“Then it must have been me,” said John.” But bring your case with you, and come down to the harness-room, if you won’t smoke here. I’ve had a regular little snuggery fitted up there; and we can go in and see the fellows making up the horses.”

Crosbie wished the Honourable John at the mischief.

“I have letters to write,” said he. “Besides, I never smoke before dinner.”

“That’s nonsense. I’ve smoked hundreds of cigars with you before dinner. Are you going to turn curmudgeon, too, like George and the rest of them? I don’t know what’s coming to the world! I suppose the fact is, that little girl at Allington won’t let you smoke.”

“The little girl at Allington —” began Crosbie; and then he reflected that it would not be well for him to say anything to his present companion about that little girl.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” said he.

“I really have got letters to write which must go by this post. There’s my cigar-case on the dressing-table.”

“I hope it will be long before I’m brought to such a state,” said John, taking up the cigars in his hand.

“Let me have the case back,” said Crosbie.

“A present from the little girl, I suppose?” said John.

“All right, old fellow! you shall have it.”

“There would be a nice brother-in-law for a man,” said Crosbie to himself, as the door closed behind the retreating scion of the De Courcy family. And then, again, he took up his pen. The letter must be written, and therefore he threw himself upon the table, resolved that the words should come and the paper be filled.

COURCY CASTLE, October, 186-.

DEAREST LILY— This is the first letter I ever wrote to you, except those little notes when I sent you my compliments discreetly — and it sounds so odd. You will think that this does not come as soon as it should; but the truth is that after all I only got in here just before dinner yesterday. I stayed ever so long at Barchester, and came across such a queer character. For you most know I went to church, and afterwards fraternised with the clergyman who did the service; such a gentle old soul — and, singularly enough, he is the grandfather of Lady Dumbello, who is staying here. I wonder what you’d think of Lady Dumbello, or how you’d like to be shut up in the same house with her for a week?

But with reference to my staying at Barchester, I most tell you the truth now, though I was a gross impostor the day that I went away. I wanted to avoid a parting on that last morning, and therefore I started much sooner than I need have done. I know you will be very angry with me; but open confession is good for the soul. You frustrated all my little plan by your early rising; and as I saw you standing on the terrace, looking after us as we went, I acknowledged that you had been right, and that I was wrong. When the time came, I was very glad to have you with me at the last moment.

My own dearest Lily, you cannot think how different this place is from the two houses at Allington, or how much I prefer the sort of life which belongs to the latter. I know that I have been what the world calls worldly, but you will have to cure me of that. I have questioned myself very much since I left you, and I do not think that I am quite beyond the reach of a cure. At any rate, I will put myself trustingly into the doctor’s hands. I know it is hard for a man to change his habits; but I can with truth say this for myself, that I was happy at Allington, enjoying every hour of the day, and that here I am _ennuye_ by everybody and nearly by everything. One of the girls of the house I do like; but as to other people, I can hardly find a companion among them, let alone a friend. However, it would not have done for me to have broken away from all such alliance too suddenly.

When I get up to London — and now I really am anxious to get there — I can write to you more at my ease, and more freely than I do here. I know that I am hardly myself among these people — or rather, I am hardly myself as you know me, and as I hope you always will know me. But, nevertheless, I am not so overcome by the miasma but what I can tell you how truly I love you. Even though my spirit should be here, which it is not, my heart would be on the Allington lawns. That dear lawn and that dear bridge!

Give my kind love to Bell and your mother. I feel already that I might almost say my mother. And Lily, my darling, write to me at once. I expect your letters to me to be longer, and better, and brighter than mine to you. But I will endeavour to make mine nicer when I get back to town.

God bless you.

Yours, with all my heart,

A. C.

As he waxed warm with his writing he had forced himself to be affectionate, and, as he flattered himself, frank and candid. Nevertheless, he was partly conscious that he was preparing for himself a mode of escape in those allusions of his to his own worldliness; if escape should ultimately be necessary. “I have tried,” he would then say; “I have struggled honestly, with my best efforts for success; but I am not good enough for such success.” I do not intend to say that he wrote with a premeditated intention of thus using his words; but as he wrote them he could not keep himself from reflecting that they might be used in that way.

He read his letter over, felt satisfied with it, and resolved that he might now free his mind from that consideration for the next forty-eight hours. Whatever might he his sins he had done his duty by Lily! And with this comfortable reflection he deposited his letter in the Courcy Castle letter-box.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43