The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXVII

“On My Honour, I Do Not Understand it”

In the meantime Lady Alexandrina endeavoured to realise to herself all the advantages and disadvantages of her own position. She was not possessed of strong affections, nor of depth of character, nor of high purpose; but she was no fool, nor was she devoid of principle. She had asked herself many times whether her present life was so happy as to make her think that a permanent continuance in it would suffice for her desires, and she had always replied to herself that she would fain change to some other life if it were possible. She had also questioned herself as to her rank, of which she was quite sufficiently proud, and had told herself that she could not degrade herself in the world without a heavy pang. But she had at last taught herself to believe that she had more to gain by becoming the wife of such a man as Crosbie than by remaining as an unmarried daughter of her father’s house. There was much in her sister Amelia’s position which she did not envy, but there was less to envy in that of her sister Rosina. The Gazebee house in St. John’s Wood Road was not so magnificent as Courcy Castle; but then it was less dull, less embittered by torment, and was moreover her sister’s own.

“Very many do marry commoners,” she had said to Margaretta.

“Oh, yes, of course. It makes a difference, you know, when a man has a fortune.”

Of course it did make a difference. Crosbie had no fortune, was not even so rich as Mr Gazebee, could keep no carriage, and would have no country house. But then he was a man of fashion, was more thought of in the world than Mr Gazebee, might probably rise in his own profession — and was at any rate thoroughly presentable. She would have preferred a gentleman with L5,000 a year; but then as no gentleman with L5,000 a year came that way, would she not be happier with Mr Crosbie than she would be with no husband at all? She was not very much in love with Mr Crosbie, but she thought that she could live with him comfortably, and that on the whole it would be a good thing to be married.

And she made certain resolves as to the manner in which she would do her duty by her husband. Her sister Amelia was paramount in her own house, ruling indeed with a moderate, endurable dominion, and ruling much to her husband’s advantage. Alexandrina feared that she would not be allowed to rule, but she could at any rate try; She would do all in her power to make him comfortable, and would be specially careful not to irritate him by any insistence on her own higher rank. She would be very meek in this respect; and if children should come she would be as painstaking about them as though her own father had been merely a clergyman or, a lawyer. She thought also much about poor Lilian Dale, asking herself sundry questions, with an idea of being high-principled as to her duty in that respect. Was she wrong in taking Mr Crosbie away from Lilian Dale? In answer to these questions she was able to assure herself comfortably that she was not wrong. Mr Crosbie would not, under any circumstances, marry Lilian Dale. He had told her so more than once, and that in a solemn way. She could therefore be doing no harm to Lilian Dale. If she entertained any inner feeling that Crosbie’s fault in jilting Lilian Dale was less than it would have been had, she herself not been an earl’s daughter — that her own rank did in some. degree extenuate her lover’s falseness — she did not express it in words even to herself.

She did not get very much sympathy from her own family.

“I’m afraid he does not think much of his religious duties. I’m told that young men of that sort seldom do,” said Rosina.

“I don’t say you’re wrong,” said Margaretta.

“By no means. Indeed I think less of it now than I did when Amelia did the same thing. I shouldn’t do it myself, that’s all.” Her father told her that he supposed she knew her own mind. Her mother, who endeavoured to comfort and in some sort to congratulate her, nevertheless, harped constantly on the fact that the was marrying a man without rank and without a fortune, Her congratulations were apologetic, and her comfortings took the guise of consolation.

“Of course you won’t be rich, my dear; but I really think you’ll do very well. Mr Crosbie may be received anywhere, and you never need be ashamed of him.” By which the countess implied that her elder married daughter was occasionally called on to be ashamed of her husband. “I wish he could keep a carriage for you, but perhaps that will come some day.” Upon the whole Alexandrina did not repent, and stoutly told her father that she did know her own mind.

During all this time Lily Dale was as yet perfect in her happiness. That delay of a day or two in the receipt of the expected letter from her lover had not disquieted her. She had promised him that she would not distrust him, and she was firmly minded to keep her promises. Indeed no idea of breaking it came to her at this time. She was disappointed when the postman would come and bring no letter for her — disappointed, as the husbandman when the longed — for rain does not come to refresh the parched earth; but she was in no degree angry.

“He will explain it,” she said to herself. And she assured Bell that men never recognised the hunger and thirst after letters which women feel when away from those whom they love.

Then they heard at the Small House that the squire had gone away from Allington. During the last few days Bernard had not been much with them, and now they heard the news, not through their cousin, but from Hopkins.

“I really can’t undertake to say, Miss Bell, where the master’s gone to. Its not likely the master’d tell me where he was going to; not unless it was about seeds, or the likes of that.”

“He has gone very suddenly,” said Bell.

“Well, miss, I’ve nothing to say to that. And why shouldn’t he go sudden if he likes? I only know he had his gig, and went to the station. If you was to bury me alive I couldn’t tell you more.”

“I should like to try,” said Lily as they walked away.

“He is such a cross old thing. I wonder whether Bernard has gone with my uncle.” And then they thought no more about it.

On the day after that Bernard came down to the Small House, but he said nothing by way of accounting for the squire’s absence.

“He is in London, I know,” said Bernard.

“I hope he’ll call on Mr Crosbie,” said Lily. But on this subject Bernard said not a word. He did ask Lily whether she had heard from Adolphus, in answer to which she replied, with as indifferent a voice as she could assume, that she had not had a letter that morning.

“I shall be angry with him if he’s not a good correspondent,” said Mrs Dale, when she and Lily were alone together.

“No, mamma, you mustn’t be angry with him. I won’t let you be angry with him. Please to remember he’s my lover and not yours.”

“But I can see you when you watch for the postman.”

“I won’t watch for the postman any more if it makes you have bad thoughts about him. Yes, they are bad thoughts. I won’t have you think that he doesn’t do everything that is right.”

On the next morning the postman brought a letter, or rather a note, and Lily at once saw that it was from Crosbie. She had contrived to intercept it near the back door, at which the postman called, so that her mother should not watch her watchings, nor see her disappointment if none should come.

“Thank you, Jane,” she said, very calmly, when the eager, kindly girl ran to her with the little missive; and she walked off to some solitude, trying to hide her impatience. The note had seemed so small that it amazed her; but when she opened it the contents amazed her more. There was neither beginning nor end. There was no appellation of love, and no signature. It contained but two lines.

“I will write to you at length tomorrow. This is my first day in London, and I have been so driven about that I cannot write.” That was all, and it was scrawled on half a sheet of note-paper. Why, at any rate, had he not called her his dearest Lily? Why had he not assured her that he was ever her own? Such expressions, meaning so much, may be conveyed in a glance of the pen.

“Ah,” she said, “if he knew how I hunger and thirst after his love!”

She had but a moment left to her before she must join her mother and sister, and she used that moment in remembering her promise.

“I know it is all right,” she said to herself.

“He does not think of these things as I do. He had to write at the last moment — as he was leaving his office.” And then with a quiet, smiling face, she walked into the breakfast-parlour.

“What does he say, Lily?” asked Bell.

“What would you give to know?” said Lily.

“I wouldn’t give twopence for the whole of it,” said Bell.

“When you get anybody to write to you letters, I wonder whether you’ll show them to everybody?”

“But if there’s any special London news, I suppose we might hear it,” said Mrs Dale.

“But suppose there’s no special London news, mamma. The poor man had only been in town one day, you know: and there never is any news at this time of the year.”

“Had he seen Uncle Christopher?”

“I don’t think he had; but he doesn’t say. We shall get all the news from him when he comes. He cares much more about London news than Adolphus does.” And then there was no more said about the letter.

But Lily had read her two former letters over and over again at the breakfast-table; and though she had not read them aloud, she had repeated many words out of them, and had so annotated upon them that her mother, who had heard her, could have almost re-written them. Now, she did not even show the paper; and then her absence, during which she had read the letter, had hardly exceeded a minute or two. All this Mrs Dale observed, and she knew that her daughter had been again disappointed.

In fact that day Lily was very serious, but she did not appear to be unhappy. Early after breakfast Bell went over to the parsonage, and Mrs Dale and her youngest daughter sat together over their work.

“Mamma,” she said, “I hope you and I are not to be divided when I go to live in London.”

“We shall never be divided in heart, my love.”

“Ah, but that will not be enough for happiness, though perhaps enough to prevent absolute unhappiness. I shall want to see you, touch you, and pet you as I do now.” And she came and knelt on the cushion at her mother’s feet.

“You will have some one else to caress and pet — perhaps many others.”

“Do you mean to say that you are going to throw me off, mamma?”

“God forbid, my darling. It is not mothers that throw off their children. What shall I have left when you and Bell are gone from me?”

“But we will never be gone. That’s what I mean. We are to be just the same to you always, even though we are married. I must have my right to be here as much as I have it now; and, in return, you shall have your right to be there. His house must be a home to you — not a cold place which you may visit now and again, with your best clothes on. You know what I mean, when I say that we must not be divided.”

“But Lily —”

“Well, mamma?”

“I have no doubt we shall be happy together — you and I.”

“But you were going to say more than that.”

“Only this — that your house will be his house, and will be full without me. A daughter’s marriage is always a painful parting.”

“Is it, mamma?”

“Not that I would have it otherwise than it is. Do not think that I would wish to keep you at home with me. Of course you will both marry and leave me. I hope that he to whom you are going to devote yourself may be spared to love you and protect you.” Then the widow’s heart became too full, and she put away her child from her that she might hide her face.

“Mamma, mamma, I wish I was not going from you.”

“No, Lily; do not say that. I should not be contented with life if I did not see both my girls married. I think that it is the only lot which can give to a woman perfect content and satisfaction. I would have you both married. I should be the most selfish being alive if I wished otherwise.”

“Bell will settle herself near you, and then you will see more of her and love her better than you do me.”

“I shall not love her better.”

“I wish she would marry some London man, and then you would come with us, and be near to us. Do you know, mamma I sometimes think you don’t like this place here.”

“Your uncle has been very kind to give it to us.”

“I know he has; and we have been very happy here. But if Bell should leave you —”

“Then should I go also. Your uncle has been very kind, but I sometimes feel that his kindness is a burden which I should not be strong enough to bear solely on my own shoulders. And what should keep me here, then?” Mrs Dale as she said this felt that the “here” of which she spoke extended beyond the limits of the home which she held through the charity of her brother-in-law. Might not all the world, far as she was concerned in it, be contained in that here? How was she to live if both her children should be taken away from her? She had already realised the fact that Crosbie’s house could never be a home to her — never even a temporary home. Her visits there must be of that full-dressed nature to which Lily had alluded. It was impossible that she could explain this to Lily. She would not prophesy that the hero of her girl’s heart would be inhospitable to his wife’s mother; but such had been her reading of Crosbie’s character. Alas, alas, as matters were to go, his hospitality or inhospitality would be matter of small moment to them.

Again in the afternoon the two sisters were together, and Lily was still more serious than her wont. It might almost have been gathered from her manner that this marriage of hers was about to take place at once, and that she was preparing to leave her home.

“Bell,” she said,

“I wonder why Dr Crofts never comes to see us now?”

“It isn’t a month since he was here, at our party.” “A month! But there was a time when he made some pretext for being here every other day.”

“Yes, when mamma was ill.”

“Ay, and since mamma was well, too. But I suppose I must not break the promise you made me give you. He’s not to be talked about even yet, is he?”

“I didn’t say he was not to be talked about. You know what I meant, Lily; and what I meant then, I mean now.”

“And how long will it be before you mean something else? I do hope it will come some day — I do indeed.”

“It never will, Lily. I once fancied that I cared for Dr Crofts, but it was only fancy. I know it, because —” She was going to explain that her knowledge on that point was assured to her, because since that day she had felt that she might have learned to love another man. But that other man had been Mr Crosbie, and so she stopped herself.

“I wish he would come and ask you himself.”

“He will never do so. He would never ask such a question without encouragement, and I shall give him none. Nor will he ever think of marrying till he can do so without — without what he thinks to be imprudence as regards money. He has courage enough to be poor himself without unhappiness, but he has not courage to endure poverty with a wife. I know well what his feelings are.”

“Well, we shall see,” said Lily.

“I shouldn’t wonder if you were married first now, Bell. For my part I’m quite prepared to wait for three years.”

Late on that evening the squire returned to Allington, Bernard having driven over to meet him at the station. He had telegraphed to his nephew that he would be back by a late train, and no more than this had been heard from him since he went. On that day Bernard had seen none of the ladies at the Small House. With Bell at the present moment it was impossible that he should be on easy terms. He could not meet her alone without recurring to the one special subject of interest between them, and as to that he did not choose to speak without much forethought. He had not known himself, when he had gone about his wooing so lightly, thinking it a slight thing, whether or no he might be accepted. Now it was no longer a slight thing to him. I do not know that it was love that made him so eager; not good, honest, downright love. But he had set his heart upon the object, and with the wilfulness of a Dale was determined that it should be his. He had no remotest idea of giving up his cousin, but he had at last persuaded himself that she was not to be won without some toil, and perhaps also some delay.

Nor had he been in a humour to talk either to Mrs Dale or to Lily. He feared that Lady Julia’s news was true — that at any rate there might be in it something of truth; and while thus in doubt he could not go down to the Small House. So he hung about the place by himself, with a cigar in his mouth, fearing that something evil was going to happen, and when the message came for him, almost shuddered as he seated himself in the gig. What would it become him to do in this emergency if Crosbie had truly been guilty of the villany with which Lady Julia had charged him? Thirty years ago he would have called the man out, and shot at him till one of them was hit. Nowadays it was hardly possible for a man to do that; and yet what would the world say of him if he allowed such an injury as this to pass without vengeance?

His uncle, as he came forth from the station with his travelling-bag in his hand, was stem, gloomy, and silent. He came out and took his place in the gig almost without speaking. There were strangers about, and therefore his nephew at first could ask no question, but as the gig turned the corner out of the station-house yard he demanded the news.

“What have you heard?” he said.

But even then the squire did not answer at once. He shook his head, and turned away his face, as though he did not choose to be interrogated.

“Have you seen him, sir?” asked Bernard.

“No, he has not dared to see me.”

“Then it is true?

“True? — yes, it is all true. Why did you bring the scoundrel here? It has been your fault.”

“No, sir; I must contradict that. I did not know him for a scoundrel.”

“But it was your duty to have known him before you brought him here among them. Poor girl! how is she to be told?”

“Then she does not know it?”

“I fear not. Have you seen them?

“I saw them yesterday, and she did not know it then; she may have heard it today.”

“I don’t think so. I believe he has been too great a coward to write to her. A coward indeed! How can any man find the courage to write such a letter as that?”

By degrees the squire told his tale. How he had gone to Lady Julia, had made his way to London, had tracked Crosbie to his club, and had there learned the whole truth from Crosbie’s friend, Fowler Pratt, we already know.

“The coward escaped me while I was talking to the man he sent down,” said the squire.

“It was a concerted plan, and I think he was right. I should have brained him in the hall of the club.” On the following morning Pratt had called upon him at his inn with Crosbie’s apology.

“His apology!” said the squire.

“I have it in my pocket. Poor reptile; wretched worm of a man! I cannot understand it. On my honour, Bernard, I do not understand it. I think men are changed since I knew much of them. It would have been impossible for me to write such a letter as that.” He went on telling how Pratt had brought him this letter, and had stated that Crosbie declined an interview.

“The gentleman had the goodness to assure me that no good could come from such a meeting. ‘You mean,’ I answered, that I cannot touch pitch and not be defiled!’ He acknowledged that the man was pitch. Indeed, he could not say a word for his friend.”

“I know Pratt. He is a gentleman. I am sure he would not excuse him.”

“Excuse him! How could any one excuse him? Words could not be found to excuse him.” And then he sat silent for some half mile.

“On my honour, Bernard, I can hardly yet bring myself to believe it. It is so new to me. It makes me feel that the world is changed, and that it is no longer worth a man’s while to live in it.”

“And he is engaged to this other girl?

“Oh, yes; with the full consent of the family. It is all arranged, and the settlements, no doubt, in the lawyer’s hands by this time. He must have gone away from here determined to throw her over. Indeed, I don’t suppose he ever meant to marry her. He was just passing away his time here in the country.”

“He meant it up to the time of his leaving.”

“I don’t think it. Had he found me able and willing to give her a fortune he might, perhaps, have married her. But I don’t think he meant it for a moment after I told him that she would have nothing. Well, here we are. I may truly say that I never before came back to my own house with so sore a heart.”

They sat silently over their supper, the squire showing more open sorrow than might have been expected from his character.

“What am I to say to them in the morning?” he repeated over and over again.

“How am I to do it? And if I tell the mother, how is she to tell her child?”

“Do you think that he has given no intimation of his purpose?”

“As far as I can tell, none. That man Pratt knew that he had not done so yesterday afternoon. I asked him what were the intentions of his blackguard friend, and he said that he did not know — that Crosbie would probably have written to me. Then he brought me this letter. There it is,” and the squire threw the letter over the table; “read it and let me have it back. He thinks probably that the trouble is now over as far as he is concerned.”

It was a vile letter to have written — not because the language was bad, or the mode of expression unfeeling, or the facts falsely stated — but because the thing to be told was in itself so vile. There are deeds which will not bear a gloss — sins as to which the perpetrator cannot speak otherwise than as a reptile; circumstances which change a man and put upon him the worthlessness of vermin. Crosbie had struggled hard to write it, going home to do it after his last interview on that night with Pratt. But he had sat moodily in his chair at his lodgings, unable to take the pen in his hand. Pratt was to come to him at his office on the following morning, and he went to bed resolving that he would write it at his desk. On the next day Pratt was there before a word of it had been written.

“I can’t stand this kind of thing,” said Pratt.

“If you mean me to take it, you must write it at once.” Then, with inward groaning, Crosbie sat himself at his table, and the words at last were forthcoming. Such words as they were!

“I know that I can have no excuse to make to you — or to her. But, circumstanced as I now am, the truth is the best. I feel that I should not make Miss Dale happy; and, therefore, as an honest man, I think I best do my duty by relinquishing the honour which she and you had proposed for me.” There was more of it, but we all know of what words such letters are composed, and how men write when they feel themselves constrained to write as reptiles.

“As an honest man!” repeated the squire.

“On my honour, Bernard, as a gentleman, I do not understand it. I cannot believe it possible that the man who wrote that letter was sitting the other day as a guest at my table.”

“What are we to do to him?” said Bernard, after a while.

“Treat him as you would a rat. Throw your stick at him, if he comes under your feet; but beware, above all things, that he does not get into your house. That is too late for us now.”

“There must be more than that, uncle.”

“I don’t know what more. There are deeds for committing which a man is doubly damned, because he has screened himself from overt punishment by the nature of his own villany. We have to remember Lily’s name, and do what may best tend to her comfort. Poor girl! poor girl!”

Then they were silent, till the squire rose and took his bed candle.

“Bernard,” he said, “let my sister-in-law know early tomorrow that I will see her here, if she will be good enough to come to me after breakfast. Do not have anything else said at the Small House. It may be that he has written today.”

Then the squire went to bed, and Bernard sat over the dining-room fire, meditating on it all. How would the world expect that he should behave to Crosbie? and what should he do when he met Crosbie at the club?

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