The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter III

The Widow Dale of Allington

As Mrs Dale, of the Small House, was not a Dale by birth, there can be no necessity for insisting on the fact that none of the Dale peculiarities should be sought for in her character. These peculiarities were not, perhaps, very conspicuous in her daughters, who had taken more in that respect from their mother than from their father; but a close observer might recognise the girls as Dales. They were constant, perhaps obstinate, occasionally a little uncharitable in their judgment, and prone to think that there was a great deal in being a Dale, though not prone to say much about it. But they had also a better pride than this, which had come to them as their mother’s heritage.

Mrs Dale was certainly a proud woman — not that there was anything appertaining to herself in which she took a pride. In birth she had been much lower than her husband, seeing that her grandfather had been almost nobody. Her fortune had been considerable for her rank in life, and on its proceeds she now mainly depended; but it had not been sufficient to give any of the pride of wealth. And she had been a beauty; according to my taste, was still very lovely; but certainly at this time of life, she, a widow of fifteen years’ standing, with two grown-up daughters, took no pride in her beauty. Nor had she any conscious pride in the fact that she was a lady. That she was a lady, inwards and outwards, from the crown of her head to the sole of her feet, in head, in heart, and in mind, a lady by education and a lady by nature, a lady also by birth in spite of that deficiency respecting her grandfather, I hereby state as a fact — mea periculo. And the squire, though he had no special love for her, had recognised this, and in all respects treated her as his equal.

But her position was one which required that she should either be very proud or else very humble. She was poor, and yet her daughters moved in a position which belongs, as a rule, to the daughters of rich men only. This they did as nieces of the childless squire of Allington, and as his nieces she felt that they were entitled to accept his countenance and kindness, without loss of self-respect either to her or to them. She would have ill done her duty as a mother to them had she allowed any pride of her own to come between them and such advantage in the world as their uncle might be able to give them. On their behalf she had accepted the loan of the house in which she lived, and the use of many of the appurtenances belonging to her brother-in-law; but on her own account she had accepted nothing. Her marriage with Philip Dale had been disliked by his brother the squire, and the squire, while Philip was still living, had continued to show that his feelings in this respect were not to be overcome. They never had been overcome; and now, though the brother-in-law and sister-in-law had been close neighbours for years, living as one may say almost in the same family, they had never become friends. There had not been a word of quarrel between them. They met constantly. The squire had unconsciously come to entertain a profound respect for his brother’s widow. The widow had acknowledged to herself the truth of the affection shown by the uncle to her daughters. But yet they had never come together as friends. Of her own money matters Mrs Dale had never spoken a word to the squire. Of his intention respecting the girls the squire had never spoken a word to the mother. And in this way they had lived and were living at Allington.

The life which Mrs Dale led was not altogether an easy life — was not devoid of much painful effort on her part. The theory of her life one may say was this — that she should bury herself in order that her daughters might live well above ground. And in order to carry out this theory, it was necessary that she should abstain from all complaint or show of uneasiness before her girls. Their life above ground would not be well if they understood that their mother, in this underground life of hers, was enduring any sacrifice on their behalf. It was needful that they should think that the picking of peas in a sun bonnet, or long readings by her own fire-side, and solitary hours spent in thinking, were specially to her mind. “Mamma doesn’t like going out.”

“I don’t think mamma is happy anywhere out of her own drawing-room.” I do not say that the girls were taught to say such words, but they were taught to have thoughts which led to such words, and in the early days of their going out into the world used so to speak of their mother. But a time came to them before long — to one first and then to the other, in which they knew that it was not so, and knew also all that their mother had suffered for their sakes.

And in truth Mrs Dale could have been as young in heart as they were. She, too, could have played croquet, and have coquetted with a haymaker’s rake, and have delighted in her pony, ay, and have listened to little nothings from this and that Apollo, had she thought that things had been conformable thereto. Women at forty do not become ancient misanthropes, or stern Rhadamanthine moralists, indifferent to the world’s pleasures — no, not even though they be widows. There are those who think that such should be the phase of their minds. I profess that I do not so think. I would have women, and men also, young as long as they can be young. It is not that a woman should call herself in years younger than her father’s family Bible will have her to be. Let her who is forty call herself forty; but if she can be young in spirit at forty, let her show that she is so.

I think that Mrs Dale was wrong. She would have joined that party on the croquet ground, instead of remaining among the pea-sticks in her sun bonnet, had she done as I would have counselled her. Not a word was spoken among the four that she did not hear. Those pea-sticks were only removed from the lawn by a low wall and a few shrubs. She listened, not as one suspecting, but simply as one loving. The voices of her girls were very dear to her, and the silver ringing tones of Lily’s tongue were as sweet to her ears as the music of the gods. She heard all that about Lady Hartletop, and shuddered at Lily’s bold sarcasm. And she heard Lily say that mamma would stay at home and eat the peas, and said to herself sadly that that was now her lot in life.

“Dear darling girl — and so it should be!” It was thus her thoughts ran. And then, when her ear had traced them, as they passed across the little bridge into the other grounds, she returned across the lawn to the house with her burden on her arm, and sat herself down on the step of the drawing-room window, looking out on the sweet summer flowers and the smooth surface of the grass before her.

Had not God done well for her to place her where she was? Had not her lines been set for her in pleasant places? Was she not happy in her girls — her sweet, loving, trusting, trusty children? As it was to be that her lord, that best half of herself, was to be taken from her in early life, and that the springs of all the lighter pleasures were to be thus stopped for her, had it not been well that in her bereavement so much had been done to soften her lot in life and give it grace and beauty? Twas so, she argued with herself, and yet she acknowledged to herself that she was not happy. She had resolved, as she herself had said often, to put away childish things, and now she pined for those things which she so put from her. As she sat she could still hear Lily’s voice as they went through the shrubbery — hear it when none but a mother’s ears would have distinguished the sound. Now that those young men were at the Great House it was natural that her girls should be there too. The squire would not have had young men to stay with him had there been no ladies to grace his table. But for her — she knew that no one would want her there. Now and again she must go, as otherwise her very existence, without going, would be a thing disagreeably noticeable. But there was no other reason why she should join the party; nor in joining it would she either give or receive pleasure. Let her daughters eat from her brother’s table and drink of his cup. They were made welcome to do so from the heart. For her there was no such welcome as that at the Great House — nor at any other house, or any other table!

“Mamma will stay at home to eat the peas.” And then she repeated to herself the words which Lily had spoken, sitting there, leaning with her elbow on her knee, and her head upon her hand.

“Please, ma’am, cook says, can we have the peas to shell?” and then her reverie was broken.

Whereupon Mrs Dale got up and gave over her basket. “Cook knows that the young ladies are going to dine at the Great House?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“She needn’t mind getting dinner for me. I will have tea early.” And so, after all, Mrs Dale did not perform that special duty appointed for her.

But she soon set herself to work upon another duty. When a family of three persons has to live upon an income of three hundred a year, and, nevertheless, makes some pretence of going into society, it has to be very mindful of small details, even though that family may consist only of ladies. Of this Mrs Dale was well aware, and as it pleased her that her daughters should be nice and fresh, and pretty in their attire, many a long hour was given up to that care. The squire would send them shawls in winter, and had given them riding habits, and had sent them down brown silk dresses from London — so limited in quantity that the due manufacture of two dresses out of the material had been found to be beyond the art of woman, and the brown silk garments had been a difficulty from that day to this — the squire having a good memory in such matters, and being anxious to see the fruits of his liberality. All this was doubtless of assistance, but had the squire given the amount which he so expended in money to his nieces, the benefit would have been greater. As it was, the girls were always nice and fresh and pretty, they themselves not being idle in that matter; but their tire-woman in chief was their mother. And now she went up to their room and got out their muslin frocks, and — but, perhaps, I should not tell such tales! — She, however, felt no shame in her work, as she sent for a hot iron, and with her own hands smoothed out the creases, and gave the proper set to the crimp flounces, and fixed a new ribbon where it was wanted, and saw that all was as it should be. Men think but little how much of this kind is endured that their eyes may be pleased, even though it be but for an hour.

“Oh! mamma, how good you are,” said Bell, as the two girls came in, only just in time to make themselves ready for returning to dinner.

“Mamma is always good,” said Lily. “I wish, mamma, I could do the same for you oftener,” and then she kissed her mother. But the squire was exact about dinner, so they dressed themselves in haste, and went off again through the garden, their mother accompanying them to the little bridge.

“Your uncle did not seem vexed at my not coming?” said Mrs Dale.

“We have not seen him, mamma,” said Lily. “We have been ever so far down the fields, and forgot altogether what o’clock it was.”

“I don’t think Uncle Christopher was about the place, or we should have met him,” said Bell.

“But I am vexed with you, mamma. Are not you, Bell? It is very bad of you to stay here all alone, and not come.”

“I suppose mamma likes being at home better than up at the Great House,” said Bell, very gently; and as she spoke she was holding her mother’s hand.

“Well; good-bye, dears. I shall expect you between ten and eleven. But don’t hurry yourselves if anything is going on.” And so they went, and the widow was again alone. The path from the bridge ran straight up towards the back of the Great House, so that for a moment or two she could see them as they tripped on almost in a run. And then she saw their dresses flutter as they turned sharp round, up the terrace steps, She would not go beyond the nook among the laurels by which she was surrounded, lest any one should see her as she looked after her girls. But when the last flutter of the pink muslin had been whisked away from her sight, she felt it hard that she might not follow them. She stood there, however, without advancing a step. She would not have Hopkins telling how she watched her daughters as they went from her own home to that of her brother-in-law. It was not within the capacity of Hopkins to understand why she watched them.

“Well, girls, you’re not much too soon. I think your mother might have come with you,” said Uncle Christopher. And this was the manner of the man. Had he known his own wishes he must have acknowledged to himself that he was better pleased that Mrs Dale should stay away. He felt himself more absolutely master and more comfortably at home at his own table without her company than with it. And yet he frequently made a grievance of her not corning, and himself believed in that grievance.

“I think mamma was tired,” said Bell.

“Hem. It’s not so very far across from one house to the other. If I were to shut myself up whenever I’m tired —. But never mind. Let’s go to dinner. Mr Crosbie, will you take my niece Lilian.” And then, offering his own arm to Bell, he walked off to the dining-room.

“If he scolds mamma any more, I’ll go away,” said Lily to her companion; by which it may be seen that they had all become very intimate during the long day that they had passed together.

Mrs Dale, after remaining for a moment on the bridge, went in to her tea. What succedaneum of mutton chop or broiled ham she had for the roast duck and green peas which were to have beers provided for the family dinner we will not particularly inquire. We may, however, imagine that she did not devote herself to her evening repast with any peculiar energy of appetite. She took a book with her as she sat herself down — some novel, probably, for Mrs Dale was not above novels — and read a page or two as she sipped her tea. But the book was soon laid on one side, and the tray on which the warm plate had become cold was neglected, and she threw herself back in her own familiar chair, thinking of herself, and of her girls, and thinking also what might have been her lot in life had he lived who had loved her truly during the few years that they had been together.

It is especially the nature of a Dale to be constant in his likings and his dislikings. Her husband’s affection for her had been unswerving — so much so that he had quarrelled with his brother because his brother would not express himself in brotherly terms about his wife; but, nevertheless, the two brothers had loved each other always. Many years had now gone by since these things had occurred, but still the same feelings remained. When she had first come down to Allington she had resolved to win the squire’s regard, but she had now long known that any such winning was out of the question; indeed, there was no longer a wish for it. Mrs Dale was not one of those soft-hearted women who sometimes thank God that they can love any one. She could once have felt affection for her brother-in-law — affection, and close, careful, sisterly friendship; but she could not do so now. He had been cold to her, and had with perseverance rejected her advances. That was now seven years since; and during those years Mrs Dale had been, at any rate, as cold to him as he had been to her.

But all this was very hard to bear. That her daughters should love their uncle was not only reasonable, but in every way desirable. He was not cold to them. To them he was generous and affectionate. If she were only out of the way, he would have taken them to his house as his own, and they would in all respects have stood before the world as his adopted children. Would it not be better if she were out of the way?

It was only in her most dismal moods that this question would get itself asked within her mind, and then she would recover herself, and answer it stoutly with an indignant protest against her own morbid weakness. It would not be well that she should be away from her girls — not though their uncle should have been twice a better uncle; not though, by her absence, they might become heiresses of all Allington. Was it not above everything to them that they should have a mother near them? And as she asked of herself that morbid question — wickedly asked it, as she declared to herself — did she not know that they loved her better than all the world beside, and would prefer her caresses and her care to the guardianship of any uncle, let his house be ever so great? As yet they loved her better than all the world beside. Of other love, should it come, she would not be jealous. And if it should come, and should be happy, might there not yet be a bright evening of life for herself? If they should marry, and if their lords would accept her love, her friendship, and her homage, she might yet escape from the deathlike coldness of that Great House, and be happy in some tiny cottage, from which she might go forth at times among those who would really welcome her. A certain doctor there was, living not very far from Allington, at Guestwick, as to whom she had once thought that he might fill that place of son-in-law — to be well-beloved. Her quiet, beautiful Bell had seemed to like the man; and he had certainly done more than seem to like her. But now, for some weeks past, this hope, or rather this idea, had faded away. Mrs Dale had never questioned her daughter on the matter; she was not a woman prone to put such questions. But during the month or two last past, she had seen with regret that Bell looked almost coldly on the man whom her mother favoured.

In thinking of all this the long evening passed away, and at eleven o’clock she heard the coming steps across the garden. The young men had, of course, accompanied the girls home; and as she stepped out from the still open window of her own drawing-room, she saw them all on the centre of the lawn before her.

“There’s mamma,” said Lily.” Mamma, Mr Crosbie wants to play croquet by moonlight.”

“I don’t think there is light enough for that,” said Mrs Dale.

“There is light enough for him,” said Lily, “for he plays quite independently of the hoops; don’t you, Mr Crosbie?”

“There’s very pretty croquet light, I should say,” said Mr Crosbie, looking up at the bright moon; “and then it is so stupid going to bed.”

“Yes, it is stupid going to bed,” said Lily;” but people in the country are stupid, you know. Billiards, that you can play all night by gas, is much better, isn’t it?”

“Your arrows fall terribly astray there, Miss Dale, for I never touch a cue; you should talk to your cousin about billiards.”

“Is Bernard a great billiard player,” asked Bell.

“Well, I do play now and again; about as well as Crosbie does croquet. Come, Crosbie, we’ll go home and smoke a cigar.”

“Yes,” said Lily; “and then, you know, we stupid people can go to bed. Mamma, I wish you had a little smoking-room here for us. I don’t like being considered stupid.” And then they parted — the ladies going into the house, and the two men returning across the lawn.

“Lily, my love,” said Mrs Dale, when they were all together in her bedroom, “it seems to me that you are very hard upon Mr Crosbie.”

“She has been going on like that all the evening,” said Bell.

“I’m sure we are very good friends,” said Lily.

“Oh, very,” said Bell.

“Now, Bell, you’re jealous; you know you are.” And then, seeing that her sister was in some slight degree vexed, she went up to her and kissed her. “She shan’t be called jealous; shall she, mamma?”

“I don’t think she deserves it,” said Mrs Dale.

“Now, you don’t mean to say that you think I meant anything,” said Lily. “As if I cared a buttercup about Mr Crosbie.”

“Or I either, Lily.”

“Of course you don’t. But I do care for him very much, mamma. He is such a duck of an Apollo. I shall always call him Apollo; Phoebus Apollo! And when I draw his picture he shall have a mallet in his hand instead of a bow. Upon my word I am very much obliged to Bernard for bringing him down here; and I do wish he was not going away the day after tomorrow.”

“The day after tomorrow!” said Mrs Dale. “It was hardly worth coming for two days.”

“No, it wasn’t — disturbing us all in our quiet little ways just for such a spell as that — not giving one time even to count his rays.” “But he says he shall perhaps come again,” said Bell.

“There is that hope for us,” said Lily. “Uncle Christopher asked him to come down when he gets his long leave of absence. This is only a short sort of leave. He is better off than poor Johnny Eames. Johnny Eames only has a month, but Mr Crosbie has two months just whenever he likes it; and seems to be pretty much his own master all the year round besides.”

“And Uncle Christopher asked him to come down for the shooting in September,” said Bell.

“And though he didn’t say he’d come I think he meant it,” said Lily. “There is that hope for us, mamma.”

“Then you’ll have to draw Apollo with a gun instead of a mallet.”

“That is the worst of it, mamma. We shan’t see much of him or of Bernard either. They wouldn’t let us go out into the woods as beaters, would they?”

“You’d make too much noise to be of any use.”

“Should I? I thought the beaters had to shout at the birds. I should get very tired of shouting at birds, so I think I’ll stay at home and look after my clothes.”

“I hope he will come, because Uncle Christopher seems to like him so much,” said Bell.

“I wonder whether a certain gentleman at Guestwick will like his coming,” said Lily. And then, as soon as she had spoken the words, she looked at her sister, and saw that she had grieved her.

“Lily, you let your tongue run too fast,” said Mrs Dale.

“I didn’t mean anything, Bell,” said Lily.” I beg your pardon.”

“It doesn’t signify,” said Bell. “Only Lily says things without thinking.” And then that conversation came to an end, and nothing more was said among them beyond what appertained to their toilet, and a few last words at parting. But the two girls occupied the same room, and when their own door was closed upon them, Bell did allude to what had passed with some spirit.

“Lily, you promised me,” she said, “that you would not say anything more to me about Dr Crofts.”

“I know I did, and I was very wrong. I beg your pardon, Bell; and I won’t do it again — not if I can help it.”

“Not help it, Lily!”

“But I’m sure I don’t know why I shouldn’t speak of him — only not in the way of laughing at you. Of all the men I ever saw in my life I like him best. And only that I love you better than I love myself I could find it in my heart to grudge you his —”

“Lily, what did you promise just now?”

“Well; after to-night. And I don’t know why you should turn against him.”

“I have never turned against him or for him.”

“There’s no turning about him. He’d give his left hand if you’d only smile on him. Or his right either — and that’s what I should like to see; so now you’ve heard it.”

“You know you are talking nonsense.”

“So I should like to see it. And so would mamma too, I’m sure; though I never heard her say a word about him. In my mind he’s the finest fellow I ever saw. What’s Mr Apollo Crosbie to him? And now, as it makes you unhappy, I’ll never say another word about him.” As Bell wished her sister good-night with perhaps more than her usual affection, it was evident that Lily’s words and eager tone had in some way pleased her, in spite of their opposition to the request which she had made. And Lily was aware that it was so.

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