Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 11

John Grey goes to London

And what was the whole truth? Alice Vavasor, when she declared to herself that she must tell her lover the whole truth, was expressing to herself her intention of putting an end to her engagement with Mr Grey. She was acknowledging that that which had to be told was not compatible with the love and perfect faith which she owed to the man who was her affianced husband. And yet, why should it be so? She did not intend to tell him that she had been false in her love to him. It was not that her heart had again veered itself round and given itself to that wild cousin of hers. Though she might feel herself constrained to part from John Grey, George Vavasor could never be her husband. Of that she assured herself fifty times during the two days’ grace which had been allowed her. Nay, she went farther than that with herself, and pronounced a verdict against any marriage as possible to her if she now decided against this marriage which had for some months past been regarded as fixed by herself and all her friends.

People often say that marriage is an important thing, and should be much thought of in advance, and marrying people are cautioned that there are many who marry in haste and repent at leisure. I am not sure, however, that marriage may not be pondered over too much; nor do I feel certain that the leisurely repentance does not as often follow the leisurely marriages as it does the rapid ones. That some repent no one can doubt; but I am inclined to believe that most men and women take their lots as they find them, marrying as the birds do by force of nature, and going on with their mates with a general, though not perhaps an undisturbed satisfaction, feeling inwardly assured that Providence, if it have not done the very best for them, has done for them as well as they could do for themselves with all the thought in the world. I do not know that a woman can assure to herself, by her own prudence and taste, a good husband any more than she can add two cubits to her stature; but husbands have been made to be decently good — and wives too, for the most part, in our country — so that the thing does not require quite so much thinking as some people say.

That Alice Vavasor had thought too much about it, I feel quite sure. She had gone on thinking of it till she had filled herself with a cloud of doubts which even the sunshine of love was unable to drive from her heavens. That a girl should really love the man she intends to marry — that, at any rate, may be admitted. But love generally comes easily enough. With all her doubts Alice never doubted her love for Mr Grey. Nor did she doubt his character, nor his temper, nor his means. But she had gone on thinking of the matter till her mind had become filled with some undefined idea of the importance to her of her own life. What should a woman do with her life? There had arisen round her a flock of learned ladies asking that question, to whom it seems that the proper answer has never yet occurred. Fall in love, marry the man, have two children, and live happy ever afterwards. I maintain that answer has as much wisdom in it as any other that can be given — or perhaps more. The advice contained in it cannot, perhaps, always be followed to the letter; but neither can the advice of the other kind, which is given by the flock of learned ladies who ask the question.

A woman’s life is important to her — as is that of a man to him — not chiefly in regard to that which she shall do with it. The chief thing for her to look to is the manner in which that something shall be done. It is of moment to a young man when entering life to decide whether he shall make hats or shoes; but not of half the moment that will be that other decision, whether he shall make good shoes or bad. And so with a woman — if she shall have recognized the necessity of truth and honesty for the purposes of her life, I do not know that she need ask herself many questions as to what she will do with it.

Alice Vavasor was ever asking herself that question, and had by degrees filled herself with a vague idea that there was a something to be done; a something over and beyond, or perhaps altogether beside that marrying and having two children — if she only knew what it was. She had filled herself, or had been filled by her cousins, with an undefined ambition that made her restless without giving her any real food for her mind. When she told herself that she would have no scope for action in that life in Cambridgeshire which Mr Grey was preparing for her, she did not herself know what she meant by action. Had any one accused her of being afraid to separate herself from London society, she would have declared that she went very little into society and disliked that little. Had it been whispered to her that she loved the neighbourhood of the shops, she would have scorned the whisperer. Had it been suggested that the continued rattle of the big city was necessary to her happiness, she would have declared that she and her father had picked out for their residence the quietest street in London because she could not bear noise — and yet she told herself that she feared to be taken into the desolate calmness of Cambridgeshire.

When she did contrive to find any answer to that question as to what she should do with her life — or rather what she would wish to do with it if she were a free agent, it was generally of a political nature. She was not so far advanced as to think that women should be lawyers and doctors, or to wish that she might have the privilege of the franchise for herself; but she had undoubtedly a hankering after some second-hand political manoeuvring. She would have liked, I think, to have been the wife of the leader of a Radical opposition, in the time when such men were put into prison, and to have kept up for him his seditious correspondence while he lay in the Tower. She would have carried the answers to him inside her stays — and have made long journeys down into northern parts without any money, if the cause required it. She would have liked to have around her ardent spirits, male or female, who would have talked of “the cause,” and have kept alive in her some flame of political fire. As it was, she had no cause. Her father’s political views were very mild. Lady Macleod’s were deadly Conservative. Kate Vavasor was an aspiring Radical just now, because her brother was in the same line; but during the year of the love-passages between George and Alice, George Vavasor’s politics had been as Conservative as you please. He did not become a Radical till he had quarrelled with his grandfather. Now, indeed, he was possessed of very advanced views — views with which Alice felt that she could sympathize. But what would be the use of sympathizing down in Cambridgeshire? John Grey had, so to speak, no politics. He had decided views as to the treatment which the Roman Senate received from Augustus, and had even discussed with Alice the conduct of the Girondists at the time of Robespierre’s triumph; but for Manchester and its cares he had no apparent solicitude, and had declared to Alice that he would not accept a seat in the British House of Commons if it were offered to him free of expense. What political enthusiasm could she indulge with such a companion down in Cambridgeshire?

She thought too much of all this — and was, if I may say, over-prudent in calculating the chances of her happiness and of his. For, to give her credit for what was her due, she was quite as anxious on the latter head as on the former. “I don’t care for the Roman Senate,” she would say to herself. “I don’t care much for the Girondists. How am I to talk to him day after day, night after night, when we shall be alone together?”

No doubt her tour in Switzerland with her cousin had had some effect in making such thoughts stronger now than they had ever been. She had not again learned to love her cousin. She was as firmly sure as ever that she could never love him more. He had insulted her love; and though she had forgiven him and again enrolled him among her dearest friends, she could never again feel for him that passion which a woman means when she acknowledges that she is in love. That, as regarded her and George Vavasor, was over. But, nevertheless, there had been a something of romance during those days in Switzerland which she feared she would regret when she found herself settled at Nethercoats. She envied Kate. Kate could, as his sister, attach herself on to George’s political career, and obtain from it all that excitement of life which Alice desired for herself. Alice could not love her cousin and marry him; but she felt that if she could do so without impropriety she would like to stick close to him like another sister, to spend her money in aiding his career in Parliament as Kate would do, and trust herself and her career into the boat which he was to command. She did not love her cousin; but she still believed in him — with a faith which he certainly did not deserve.

As the two days passed over her, her mind grew more and more fixed as to its purpose. She would tell Mr Grey that she was not fit to be his wife — and she would beg him to pardon her and to leave her. It never occurred to her that perhaps he might refuse to let her go. She felt quite sure that she would be free as soon as she had spoken the word which she intended to speak. If she could speak it with decision she would be free, and to attain that decision she would school herself with her utmost strength. At one moment she thought of telling all to her father and of begging him to break the matter to Mr Grey; but she knew that her father would not understand her, and that he would be very hostile to her — saying hard, uncomfortable words, which would probably be spared if the thing were done before he was informed. Nor would she write to Kate, whose letters to her at this time were full of wit at the expense of Mrs Greenow. She would tell Kate as soon as the thing was done, but not before. That Kate would sympathize with her, she was quite certain.

So the two days passed by and the time came at which John Grey was to be there. As the minute hand on the drawing-room clock came round to the full hour, she felt that her heart was beating with a violence which she could not repress. The thing seemed to her to assume bigger dimensions than it had hitherto done. She began to be aware that she was about to be guilty of a great iniquity, when it was too late for her to change her mind. She could not bring herself to resolve that she would, on the moment, change her mind. She believed that she could never pardon herself such weakness. But yet she felt herself to be aware that her purpose was wicked. When the knock at the door was at last heard she trembled and feared that she would almost be unable to speak to him. Might it be possible that there should yet be a reprieve for her? No; it was his step on the stairs, and there he was in the room with her.

“My dearest,” he said, coming to her. His smile was sweet and loving as it ever was, and his voice had its usual manly, genial, loving tone. As he walked across the room Alice felt that he was a man of whom a wife might be very proud. He was tall and very handsome, with brown hair, with bright blue eyes, and a mouth like a god. It was the beauty of his mouth — beauty which comprised firmness within itself, that made Alice afraid of him. He was still dressed in his morning clothes; but he was a man who always seemed to be well dressed. “My dearest,” he said, advancing across the room, and before she knew how to stop herself or him, he had taken her in his arms and kissed her.

He did not immediately begin about the letter, but placed her upon the sofa, seating himself by her side, and looked into her face with loving eyes — not as though to scrutinize what might be amiss there, but as though determined to enjoy to the full his privilege as a lover. There was no reproach at any rate in his countenance — none as yet; nor did it seem that he thought that he had any cause for fear. They sat in this way for a moment or two in silence, and during those moments Alice was summoning up her courage to speak. The palpitation at her heart was already gone, and she was determined that she would speak.

“Though I am very glad to see you,” she said, at last, “I am sorry that my letter should have given you the trouble of this journey.”

“Trouble!” he said. “Nay, you ought to know that it is no trouble. I have not enough to do down at Nethercoats to make the running up to you at any time an unpleasant excitement. So your Swiss journey went off pleasantly?”

“Yes; it went off very pleasantly.” This she said in that tone of voice which clearly implies that the speaker is not thinking of the words spoken.

“And Kate has now left you?”

“Yes; she is with her aunt, at the seaside.”

“So I understand — and your cousin George?”

“I never know much of George’s movements. He may be in Town, but I have not seen him since I came back.”

“Ah! that is the way with friends living in London. Unless circumstances bring them together, they are in fact further apart than if they lived fifty miles asunder in the country. And he managed to get through all the trouble without losing your luggage for you very often?”

“If you were to say that we did not lose his, that would be nearer the mark. But, John, you have come up to London in this sudden way to speak to me about my letter to you. Is it not so?”

“Certainly it is so. Certainly I have.”

“I have thought much, since, of what I then wrote, very much — very much, indeed; and I have learned to feel sure that we had better — ”

“Stop, Alice; stop a moment, love. Do not speak hurriedly. Shall I tell you what I learned from your letter?”

“Yes; tell me, if you think it better that you should do so.”

“Perhaps it may be better. I learned, love, that something had been said or done during your journey — or perhaps only something thought, that had made you melancholy, and filled your mind for a while with those unsubstantial and indefinable regrets for the past which we are all apt to feel at certain moments of our life. There are few of us who do not encounter, now and again, some of that irrational spirit of sadness which, when over-indulged, drives men to madness and self-destruction. I used to know well what it was before I knew you; but since I have had the hope of having you in my house, I have banished it utterly. In that I think I have been stronger than you. Do not speak under the influence of that spirit till you have thought whether you, too, cannot banish it.”

“I have tried, and it will not be banished.”

“Try again, Alice. It is a damned spirit, and belongs neither to heaven nor to earth. Do not say to me the words that you were about to say till you have wrestled with it manfully. I think I know what those words were to be. If you love me, those words should not be spoken. If you do not — ”

“If I do not love you, I love no one upon earth.”

“I believe it. I believe it as I believe in my own love for you. I trust your love implicitly, Alice. I know that you love me. I think I can read your mind. Tell me that I may return to Cambridgeshire, and again plead my cause for an early marriage from thence. I will not take such speech from you to mean more than it says!”

She sat quiet, looking at him — looking full into his face. She had in no wise changed her mind, but after such words from him, she did not know how to declare to him her resolution. There was something in his manner that awed her — and something also that softened her.

“Tell me,” said he “that I may see you again tomorrow morning in our usual quiet, loving way, and that I may return home tomorrow evening. Pronounce a yea to that speech from me, and I will ask for nothing further.”

“No; I cannot do so,” she said. And the tone of her voice, as she spoke, was different to any tone that he had heard before from her mouth.

“Is that melancholy fiend too strong for you?” He smiled as he said this, and as he smiled, he took her hand. She did not attempt to withdraw it, but sat by him in a strange calmness, looking straight before her into the middle of the room. “You have not struggled with it. You know, as I do, that it is a bad fiend and a wicked one — a fiend that is prompting you to the worst cruelty in the world. Alice! Alice! Alice! Try to think of all this as though some other person were concerned. If it were your friend, what advice would you give her?”

“I would bid her tell the man who had loved her — that is, if he were noble, good, and great — that she found herself to be unfit to be his wife; and then I would bid her ask his pardon humbly on her knees.” As she said this, she sank before him on the floor, and looked up into his face with an expression of sad contrition which almost drew him from his purposed firmness.

He had purposed to be firm — to yield to her in nothing, resolving to treat all that she might say as the hallucination of a sickened imagination — as the effect of absolute want of health, for which some change in her mode of life would be the best cure. She might bid him be gone in what language she would. He knew well that such was her intention. But he would not allow a word coming from her in such a way to disturb arrangements made for the happiness of their joint lives. As a loving husband would treat a wife, who, in some exceptionable moment of a melancholy malady, should declare herself unable to remain longer in her home, so would he treat her. As for accepting what she might say as his dismissal, he would as soon think of taking the fruit trees from the southern wall because the sun sometimes shines from the north. He could not treat either his interests or hers so lightly as that.

“But what if he granted no such pardon, Alice? I will grant none such. You are my wife, my own, my dearest, my chosen one. You are all that I value in the world, my treasure and my comfort, my earthly happiness and my gleam of something better that is to come hereafter. Do you think that I shall let you go from me in that way? No, love. If you are ill I will wait till your illness is gone by; and, if you will let me, I will be your nurse.”

“I am not ill.”

“Not ill with any defined sickness. You do not shake with ague, nor does your head rack you with aching; but yet you may be ill. Think of what has passed between us. Must you not be ill when you seek to put an end to all that without any cause assigned?”

“You will not hear my reasons,” — she was still kneeling before him and looking up into his face.

“I will hear them if you will tell me that they refer to any supposed faults of my own.”

“No, no, no!”

“Then I will not hear them. It is for me to find out your faults, and when I have found out any that require complaint, I will come and make it. Dear Alice, I wish you knew how I long for you.” Then he put his hand upon her hair, as though he would caress her.

But this she would not suffer, so she rose slowly, and stood with her hand upon the table in the middle of the room. “Mr Grey — ” she said.

“If you will call me so, I shall think it only a part of your malady.”

“Mr Grey,” she continued, “I can only hope that you will take me at my word.”

“Oh, but I will not; certainly I will not, if that would be adverse to my own interests.”

“I am thinking of your interests; I am, indeed — at any rate as much as of my own. I feel quite sure that I should not make you happy as your wife — quite sure; and feeling that, I think that I am right, even after all that has passed, to ask your forgiveness, and to beg that our engagement may be over.”

“No, Alice, no; never with my consent. I cannot tell you with what contentment I would marry you tomorrow — tomorrow, or next month, or the month after. But if it cannot be so, then I will wait. Nothing but your marriage with someone else would convince me.”

“I cannot convince you in that way,” she said, smiling.

“You will convince me in no other. You have not spoken to your father of this as yet?”

“Not as yet.”

“Do not do so, at any rate for the present. You will own that it might be possible that you would have to unsay what you had said.”

“No; it is not possible.”

“Give yourself and me the chance. It can do no harm. And, Alice, I ask you now for no reasons. I will not ask your reasons, or even listen to them, because I do not believe that they will long have effect even on yourself. Do you still think of going to Cheltenham?”

“I have decided nothing as yet.”

“If I were you, I would go. I think a change of air would be good for you.”

“Yes; you treat me as though I were partly silly, and partly insane; but it is not so. The change you speak of should be in my nature, and in yours.”

He shook his head and still smiled. There was something in the imperturbed security of his manner which almost made her angry with him. It seemed as though he assumed so great a superiority that he felt himself able to treat any resolve of hers as the petulance of a child. And though he spoke in strong language of his love, and of his longing that she should come to him, yet he was so well able to command his feelings, that he showed no sign of grief at the communication she had made to him. She did not doubt his love, but she believed him to be so much the master of his love — as he was the master of everything else, that her separation from him would cause him no uncontrollable grief. In that she utterly failed to understand his character. Had she known him better, she might have been sure that such a separation now would with him have carried its mark to the grave. Should he submit to her decision, he would go home and settle himself to his books the next day; but on no following day would he be again capable of walking forth among his flowers with an easy heart. He was a strong, constant man, perhaps over-conscious of his own strength; but then his strength was great. “He is perfect!” Alice had said to herself often. “Oh that he were less perfect!” He did not stay with her long after the last word that has been recorded. “Perhaps,” he said, as for a moment he held her hand at parting, “I had better not come tomorrow.”

“No, no; it is better not.”

“I advise you not to tell your father of this, and doubtless you will think of it before you do so. But if you do tell him, let me know that you have done so.”

“Why that?”

“Because in such case I also must see him. God bless you, Alice! God bless you, dearest, dearest Alice!” Then he went, and she sat there on the sofa without moving, till she heard her father’s feet as he came up the stairs.

“What, Alice, are you not in bed yet?”

“Not yet, papa.”

“And so John Grey has been here. He has left his stick in the hall. I should know it among a thousand.”

“Yes; he has been here.”

“Is anything the matter, Alice?”

“No, papa, nothing is the matter.”

“He has not made himself disagreeable, has he?”

“Not in the least. He never does anything wrong. He may defy man or woman to find fault with him.”

“So that is it, is it? He is just a shade too good. Well, I have always thought that myself. But it’s a fault on the right side.”

“It’s no fault, papa. If there be any fault, it is not with him. But I am yawning and tired, and I will go to bed.”

“Is he to be here tomorrow?”

“No; he returns to Nethercoats early. Good-night, papa.”

Mr Vavasor, as he went up to his bedroom, felt sure that there had been something wrong between his daughter and her lover. “I don’t know how she’ll ever put up with him,” he said to himself, “he is so terribly conceited. I shall never forget how he went on about Charles Kemble, and what a fool he made of himself.”

Alice, before she went to bed, sat down and wrote a letter to her cousin Kate.

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