Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 18

Alice Vavasor’s Great Relations

Burgo Fitzgerald, of whose hunting experiences something has been told in the last chapter, was a young man born in the purple of the English aristocracy. He was related to half the dukes in the kingdom, and had three countesses for his aunts. When he came of age he was master of a sufficient fortune to make it quite out of the question that he should be asked to earn his bread; and though that, and other windfalls that had come to him, had long since been spent, no one had ever made to him so ridiculous a proposition as that. He was now thirty, and for some years past had been known to be much worse than penniless; but still he lived on in the same circles, still slept softly and drank of the best, and went about with his valet and his groom and his horses, and fared sumptuously every day. Some people said the countesses did it for him, and some said that it was the dukes — while others, again, declared that the Jews were his most generous friends. At any rate he still seemed to live as he had always lived, setting tradesmen at defiance, and laughing to scorn all the rules which regulate the lives of other men.

About eighteen months before the time of which I am now speaking, a great chance had come in this young man’s way, and he had almost succeeded in making himself one of the richest men in England. There had been then a great heiress in the land, on whom the properties of half-a-dozen ancient families had concentrated; and Burgo, who in spite of his iniquities still kept his position in the drawing-rooms of the great, had almost succeeded in obtaining the hand and the wealth — as people still said that he had obtained the heart, of the Lady Glencora M’Cluskie. But sundry mighty magnates, driven almost to despair at the prospect of such a sacrifice, had sagaciously put their heads together, and the result had been that the Lady Glencora had heard reason. She had listened, with many haughty tossings indeed of her proud little head, with many throbbings of her passionate young heart; but in the end she listened and heard reason. She saw Burgo, for the last time, and told him that she was the promised bride of Plantagenet Palliser, nephew and heir of the Duke of Omnium.

He had borne it like a man — never having groaned openly, or quivered once before any comrade at the name of the Lady Glencora. She had married Mr Palliser at St George’s Square, and on the morning of the marriage he had hung about his club door in Pall Mall, listening to the bells, and saying a word or two about the wedding, with admirable courage. It had been for him a great chance — and he had lost it. Who can say, too, that his only regret was for the money? He had spoken once of it to a married sister of his, in whose house he had first met Lady Glencora. “I shall never marry now — that is all,” he said — and then he went about, living his old reckless life, with the same recklessness as ever. He was one of those young men with dark hair and blue eyes — who wear no beard, and are certainly among the handsomest of all God’s creatures. No more handsome man than Burgo Fitzgerald lived in his days; and this merit at any rate was his — that he thought nothing of his own beauty. But he lived ever without conscience, without purpose — with no idea that it behoved him as a man to do anything but eat and drink — or ride well to hounds till some poor brute, much nobler than himself, perished beneath him.

He chiefly concerns our story at this present time because the Lady Glencora who had loved him — and would have married him had not those sagacious heads prevented it — was a cousin of Alice Vavasor’s. She was among those very great relations with whom Alice was connected by her mother’s side — being indeed so near to Lady Macleod, that she was first cousin to that lady, only once removed. Lady Midlothian was aunt to the Lady Glencora, and our Alice might have called cousins, and not been forbidden, with the old Lord of the Isles, Lady Glencora’s father — who was dead, however, some time previous to that affair with Burgo — and with the Marquis of Auld Reekie, who was Lady Glencora’s uncle, and had been her guardian. But Alice had kept herself aloof from her grand relations on her mother’s side, choosing rather to hold herself as belonging to those who were her father’s kindred. With Lady Glencora, however, she had for a short time — for some week or ten days — been on terms of almost affectionate intimacy. It had been then, when the wayward heiress with the bright waving locks had been most strongly minded to give herself and her wealth to Burgo Fitzgerald. Burgo had had money dealings with George Vavasor, and knew him — knew him intimately, and had learned the fact of this cousinship between the heiress and his friend’s cousin. Whereupon in the agony of those weeks in which the sagacious heads were resisting her love, Lady Glencora came to her cousin in Queen Anne Street, and told Alice all that tale. “Was Alice”, she asked, “afraid of the marquises and the countesses, or of all the rank and all the money which they boasted?” Alice answered that she was not at all afraid of them. “Then would she permit Lady Glencora and Burgo to see each other in the drawing-room at Queen Anne Street, just once!” Just once — so that they might arrange that little plan of an elopement. But Alice could not do that for her newly found cousin. She endeavoured to explain that it was not the dignity of the sagacious heads which stood in her way, but her woman’s feeling of what was right and wrong in such a matter.

“Why should I not marry him?” said Lady Glencora, with her eyes flashing. “He is my equal.”

Alice explained that she had no word to say against such a marriage. She counselled her cousin to be true to her love if her love was in itself true. But she, an unmarried woman, who had hitherto not known her cousin, might not give such help as that! “If you will not help me, I am helpless!” said the Lady Glencora, and then she kneeled at Alice’s knees and threw her wavy locks abroad on Alice’s lap. “How shall I bribe you?” said Lady Glencora. “Next to him I will love you better than all the world.” But Alice, though she kissed the fair forehead and owned that such reward would be worth much to her, could not take any bribe for such a cause. Then Lady Glencora had been angry with her, calling her heartless, and threatening her that she too might have sorrow of her own and want assistance. Alice told nothing of her own tale — how she had loved her cousin and had been forced to give him up, but said what kind words she could, and she of the waving hair and light blue eyes had been pacified. Then she had come again — had come daily while the sagacious heads were at work — and Alice in her trouble had been a comfort to her.

But the sagacious heads were victorious, as we know, and Lady Glencora M’Cluskie became Lady Glencora Palliser with all the propriety in the world, instead of becoming wife to poor Burgo, with all imaginable impropriety. And then she wrote a letter to Alice, very short and rather sad; but still with a certain sweetness in it. “She had been counselled that it was not fitting for her to love as she had thought to love, and she had resolved to give up her dream. Her cousin Alice, she knew, would respect her secret. She was going to become the wife of the best man, she thought, in all the world; and it should be the one care of her life to make him happy.” She said not a word in all her letter of loving this newly found lord. “She was to be married at once. Would Alice be one among the bevy of bridesmaids who were to grace the ceremony?”

Alice wished her joy heartily — “heartily,” she said, but had declined that office of bridesmaid. She did not wish to undergo the cold looks of the Lady Julias and Lady Janes who all would know each other, but none of whom would know her. So she sent her cousin a little ring, and asked her to keep it amidst all that wealthy tribute of marriage gifts which would be poured forth at her feet.

From that time to this present Alice had heard no more of Lady Glencora. She had been married late in the preceding season and had gone away with Mr Palliser, spending her honeymoon amidst the softnesses of some Italian lake. They had not returned to England till the time had come for them to encounter the magnificent Christmas festivities of Mr Palliser’s uncle, the Duke. On this occasion Gatherum Castle, the vast palace which the Duke had built at a cost of nearly a quarter of a million, was opened, as it had never been opened before; for the Duke’s heir had married to the Duke’s liking, and the Duke was a man who could do such things handsomely when he was well pleased. Then there had been a throng of bridal guests, and a succession of bridal gaieties which had continued themselves even past the time at which Mr Palliser was due at Westminster — and Mr Palliser was a legislator who served his country with the utmost assiduity. So the London season commenced, progressed, and was consumed; and still Alice heard nothing more of her friend and cousin Lady Glencora.

But this had troubled her not at all. A chance circumstance, the story of which she had told to no one, had given her a short intimacy with this fair child of the gold mines, but she had felt that they two could not live together in habits of much intimacy. She had, when thinking of the young bride, only thought of that wild love episode in the girl’s life. It had been strange to her that she should in one week have listened to the most passionate protestations from her friend of love for one man, and then have been told in the next that another man was to be her friend’s husband! But she reflected that her own career was much the same — only with the interval of some longer time.

But her own career was not the same. Glencora had married Mr Palliser — had married him without pausing to doubt; but Alice had gone on doubting till at last she had resolved that she would not marry Mr Grey. She thought of this much in those days at Cheltenham, and wondered often whether Glencora lived with her husband in the full happiness of conjugal love.

One morning, about three days after Mr Grey’s visit, there came to her two letters, as to neither of which did she know the writer by the handwriting. Lady Macleod had told her, with some hesitation, indeed, for Lady Macleod was afraid of her — but had told her, nevertheless, more than once, that those noble relatives had heard of the treatment to which Mr Grey was being subjected, and had expressed their great sorrow, if not dismay or almost anger. Lady Macleod, indeed, had gone as far as she dared, and might have gone further without any sacrifice of truth. Lady Midlothian had said that it would be disgraceful to the family, and Lady Glencora’s aunt, the Marchioness of Auld Reekie, had demanded to be told what it was the girl wanted.

When the letters came Lady Macleod was not present, and I am disposed to think that one of them had been written by concerted arrangement with her. But if so she had not dared to watch the immediate effect of her own projectile. This one was from Lady Midlothian. Of the other Lady Macleod certainly knew nothing, though it also had sprung out of the discussions which had taken place as to Alice’s sins in the Auld Reekie-Midlothian set. This other letter was from Lady Glencora. Alice opened the two, one without reading the other, very slowly. Lady Midlothian’s was the first opened, and there came a spot of anger on Alice’s cheeks as she saw the signature, and caught a word or two as she allowed her eye to glance down the page. Then she opened the other, which was shorter, and when she saw her cousin’s signature, “Glencora Palliser,” she read that letter first — read it twice before she went back to the disagreeable task of perusing Lady Midlothian’s lecture. The reader shall have both the letters, but that from the Countess shall have precedence.

Castle Reekie, N. B. — Oct. 186-.

MY DEAR MISS VAVASOR,

I have not the pleasure of knowing you personally, though I have heard of you very often from our dear mutual friend and relative Lady Macleod, with whom I understand that you are at present on a visit. Your grandmother — by the mother’s side — Lady Flora Macleod, and my mother the Countess of Leith, were half-sisters; and though circumstances since that have prevented our seeing so much of each other as is desirable, I have always remembered the connection, and have ever regarded you as one in whose welfare I am bound by ties of blood to take a warm interest.

(“‘Since that!’ — what does she mean by ‘since that’?” said Alice to herself. “She has never set eyes on me at all. Why does she talk of not having seen as much of me as is desirable?”)

“I had learned with great gratification that you were going to be married to a most worthy gentleman, Mr John Grey of Nethercoats, in Cambridgeshire. When I first heard this I made it my business to institute some inquiries, and I was heartily glad to find that your choice had done you so much credit.” (If the reader has read Alice’s character as I have meant it should be read, it will thoroughly be understood that this was wormwood to her.) “I was informed that Mr Grey is in every respect a gentleman — that he is a man of most excellent habits, and one to whom any young woman could commit her future happiness with security, that his means are very good for his position, and that there was no possible objection to such a marriage. All this gave great satisfaction to me, in which I was joined by the Marchioness of Auld Reekie, who is connected with you almost as nearly as I am, and who, I can assure you, feels a considerable interest in your welfare. I am staying with her now, and in all that I say, she agrees with me.

“You may feel then how dreadfully we were dismayed when we were told by dear Lady Macleod that you had told Mr Grey that you intended to change your mind! My dear Miss Vavasor, can this be true? There are things in which a young lady has no right to change her mind after it has been once made up; and certainly when a young lady has accepted a gentleman, that is one of them. He cannot legally make you become his wife, but he has a right to claim you before God and man. Have you considered that he has probably furnished his house in consequence of his intended marriage — and perhaps in compliance with your own especial wishes?” (I think that Lady Macleod must have told the Countess something that she had heard about the garden.) “Have you reflected that he has of course told all his friends? Have you any reason to give? I am told, none! Nothing should ever be done without a reason; much less such a thing as this in which your own interests and, I may say, respectability are involved. I hope you will think of this before you persist in destroying your own happiness and perhaps that of a very worthy man.

“I had heard, some years ago, when you were much younger, that you had become imprudently attached in another direction — with a gentleman with none of those qualities to recommend him which speak so highly for Mr Grey. It would grieve me very much, as it would also the Marchioness, who in this matter thinks exactly as I do, if I were led to suppose that your rejection of Mr Grey had been caused by any renewal of that project. Nothing, my dear Miss Vavasor, could be more unfortunate — and I might almost add a stronger word.

“I have been advised that a line from me as representing your poor mother’s family, especially as I have at the present moment the opportunity of expressing Lady Auld Reekie’s sentiments as well as my own, might be of service. I implore you, my dear Miss Vavasor, to remember what you owe to God and man, and to carry out an engagement made by yourself, that is in all respects comme il faut, and which will give entire satisfaction to your friends and relatives.

“If you do this you will always find me to be your sincere,

“MARGARET M. MIDLOTHIAN. ”

I think that Lady Macleod had been wrong in supposing that this could do any good. She should have known Alice better; and should also have known the world better. But her own reverence for her own noble relatives was so great that she could not understand, even yet, that all such feeling was wanting to her niece. It was to her impossible that the expressed opinion of such an one as the Countess of Midlothian, owning her relationship and solicitude, and condescending at the same time to express friendship — she could not, I say, understand that that voice of such an one, so speaking, should have no weight whatever. But I think that she had been quite right in keeping out of Alice’s way at the moment of the arrival of the letter. Alice read it, slowly and then replacing it in its envelope, leaned back quietly in her chair — with her eyes fixed upon the teapot on the table. She had, however the other letter on which to occupy her mind, and thus relieve her from the effects of too deep an animosity against the Countess.

The Lady Glencora’s letter was as follows:

“Matching Priory, Thursday.

“DEAR COUSIN,

“I have just come home from Scotland, where they have been telling me something of your little troubles. I had little troubles once too, and you were so good to me! Will you come to us here for a few weeks? We shall be here till Christmas-time, when we go somewhere else. I have told my husband that you are a great friend of mine as well as a cousin, and that he must be good to you. He is very quiet, and works very hard at politics; but I think you will like him. Do come! There will be a good many people here, so that you will not find it dull. If you will name the day we will send the carriage for you to Matching Station, and I dare say I can manage to come myself.

“Yours affectionately, G. PALLISER.”

“P.S. I know what will be in your mind. You will say, why did not she come to me in London? She knew the way to Queen Anne Street well enough. Dear Alice, don’t say that. Believe me, I had much to do and think of in London. And if I was wrong, yet you will forgive me. Mr Palliser says I am to give you his love — as being a cousin — and say that you must come!”

This letter was certainly better than the other, but Alice, on reading it, came to a resolve that she would not accept the invitation. In the first place, even that allusion to her little troubles jarred upon her feelings; and then she thought that her rejection of Mr Grey could be no special reason why she should go to Matching Priory. Was it not very possible that she had been invited that she might meet Lady Midlothian there, and encounter all the strength of a personal battery from the Countess? Lady Glencora’s letter she would of course answer, but to Lady Midlothian she would not condescend to make any reply whatever.

About eleven o’clock Lady Macleod came down to her. For half-an-hour or so Alice said nothing; nor did Lady Macleod ask any question. She looked inquisitively at Alice, eyeing the letter which was lying by the side of her niece’s workbasket, but she said no word about Mr Grey or the Countess. At last Alice spoke.

“Aunt,” she said, “I have had a letter this morning from your friend, Lady Midlothian.”

“She is my cousin, Alice; and yours as much as mine.”

“Your cousin then, aunt. But it is of more moment that she is your friend. She certainly is not mine, nor can her cousinship afford any justification for her interfering in my affairs.”

“Alice — from her position — ”

“Her position can be nothing to me, aunt. I will not submit to it. There is her letter, which you can read if you please. After that you may burn it. I need hardly say that I shall not answer it.”

“And what am I to say to her, Alice?”

“Nothing from me, aunt — from yourself, whatever you please, of course.” Then there was silence between them for a few minutes. “And I have had another letter, from Lady Glencora, who married Mr Palliser, and whom I knew in London last spring.”

“And has that offended you, too?”

“No, there is no offence in that. She asks me to go and see her at Matching Priory, her husband’s house; but I shall not go.”

But at last Alice agreed to pay this visit, and it may be as well to explain here how she was brought to do so. She wrote to Lady Glencora, declining, and explaining frankly that she did decline, because she thought it probable that she might there meet Lady Midlothian. Lady Midlothian, she said, had interfered very unwarrantably in her affairs, and she did not wish to make her acquaintance. To this Lady Glencora replied, post haste, that she had intended no such horrid treachery as that for Alice; that neither would Lady Midlothian be there, nor any of that set; by which Alice knew that Lady Glencora referred specially to her aunt the Marchioness; that no one would be at Matching who could torment Alice, either with right or without it, “except so far as I myself may do so,” Lady Glencora said; and then she named an early day in November, at which she would herself undertake to meet Alice at the Matching Station. On receipt of this letter, Alice, after two days’ doubt, accepted the invitation.

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