Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 26

Lady Midlothian

A week or ten days after this, Alice, when she came down to the breakfast parlour one morning, found herself alone with Mr Bott. It was the fashion at Matching Priory for people to assemble rather late in the day. The nominal hour for breakfast was ten, and none of the ladies of the party were ever seen before that. Some of the gentlemen would breakfast earlier, especially on hunting mornings; and on some occasions the ladies, when they came together, would find themselves altogether deserted by their husbands and brothers. On this day it was fated that Mr Bott alone should represent the sterner sex, and when Alice entered the room he was standing on the rug with his back to the fire, waiting till the appearance of some other guest should give him the sanction necessary for the commencement of his morning meal. Alice, when she saw him, would have retreated had it been possible, for she had learned to dislike him greatly, and was, indeed, almost afraid of him; but she could not do so without making her flight too conspicuous.

“Do you intend to prolong your stay here, Miss Vavasor?” said Mr Bott, taking advantage of the first moment at which she looked up from a letter which she was reading,

“For a few more days, I think,” said Alice.

“Ah! — I’m glad of that. Mr Palliser has pressed me so much to remain till he goes to the Duke’s, that I cannot get away sooner. As I am an unmarried man myself, I can employ my time as well in one place as in another — at this time of the year, at least.”

“You must find that very convenient,” said Alice.

“Yes, it is convenient. You see in my position — Parliamentary position, I mean — I am obliged, as a public man, to act in concert with others. A public man can be of no service unless he is prepared to do that. We must give and take, you know, Miss Vavasor.”

As Miss Vavasor made no remark in answer to this, Mr Bott continued — “I always say to the men of my party — of course I regard myself as belonging to the extreme Radicals.”

“Oh, indeed!” said Alice.

“Yes. I came into Parliament on that understanding; and I have never seen any occasion as yet to change any political opinion that I have expressed. But I always say to the gentlemen with whom I act, that nothing can be done if we don’t give and take. I don’t mind saying to you, Miss Vavasor, that I look upon our friend, Mr Palliser, as the most rising public man in the country. I do, indeed.”

“I am happy to hear you say so,” said his victim, who found herself driven to make some remark.

“And I, as an extreme Radical, do not think I can serve my party better than by keeping in the same boat with him, as long as it will hold the two. ‘He’ll make a Government hack of you,’ a friend of mine said to me the other day. ‘And I’ll make a Manchester school Prime Minister of him,’ I replied. I rather think I know what I’m about, Miss Vavasor.”

“No doubt,” said Alice.

“And so does he — and so does he. Mr Palliser is not the man to be led by the nose by anyone. But it’s a fair system of give and take. You can’t get on in politics without it. What a charming woman is your relative, Lady Glencowrer! I remember well what you said to me the other evening.”

“Do you?” said Alice.

“And I quite agree with you that confidential intercourse regarding dear friends should not be lightly made.”

“Certainly not,” said Alice.

“But there are occasions, Miss Vavasor; there are occasions when the ordinary laws by which we govern our social conduct must be made somewhat elastic.”

“I don’t think this one of them, Mr Bott.”

“Is it not? Just listen to me for one moment, Miss Vavasor. Our friend, Mr Palliser, I am proud to say, relies much upon my humble friendship. Our first connection has, of course, been political; but it has extended beyond that, and has become pleasantly social — I may say, very pleasantly social.”

“What a taste Mr Palliser must have!” Alice thought to herself.

“But I need not tell you that Lady Glencowrer is — very young; we may say, very young indeed.”

“Mr Bott, I will not talk to you about Lady Glencora Palliser.”

This Alice said in a determined voice, and with all the power of resistance at her command. She frowned too, and looked savagely at Mr Bott. But he was a man of considerable courage, and knew how to bear such opposition without flinching.

“When I tell you, Miss Vavasor, that I speak solely with a view to her domestic happiness!”

“I don’t think that she wishes to have any such guardian of her happiness.”

“But if he wishes it, Miss Vavasor! Now I have the means of knowing that he has the greatest reliance on your judgment.”

Hereupon Alice got up with the intention of leaving the room, but she was met at the door by Mrs Conway Sparkes.

“Are you running from your breakfast, Miss Vavasor?” said she.

“No, Mrs Sparkes; I am running from Mr Bott,” said Alice, who was almost beside herself with anger.

“Mr Bott, what is this?” said Mrs Sparkes. “Ha, ha, ha,” laughed Mr Bott.

Alice returned to the room, and Mrs Sparkes immediately saw that she had in truth been running from Mr Bott. “I hope I shall be able to keep the peace,” said she. “I trust his offence was not one that requires special punishment.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” again laughed Mr Bott, who rather liked his position.

Alice was very angry with herself, feeling that she had told more of the truth to Mrs Sparkes than she should have done, unless she was prepared to tell the whole. As it was, she wanted to say something, and did not know what to say; but her confusion was at once stopped by the entrance of Lady Glencora.

“Mrs Sparkes, good morning,‘said Lady Glencora. I hope nobody has waited breakfast. Good morning, Mr Bott. Oh, Alice!”

“What is the matter?” said Alice, going up to her.

“Oh, Alice; such a blow!” But Alice could see that her cousin was not quite in earnest — that the new trouble, though it might be vexatious, was no great calamity. “Come here,” said Lady Glencora; and they both went into an embrasure of the window. “Now I shall have to put your confidence in me to the test. This letter is from — whom do you think?”

“How can I guess?”

“From Lady Midlothian! and she’s coming here on Monday, on her road to London. Unless you tell me that you are quite sure this is as unexpected by me as by you, I will never speak to you again.”

“I am quite sure of that.”

“Ah! then we can consult. But first we’ll go and have some breakfast.” Then more ladies swarmed into the room — the Duchess and her daughter, and the two Miss Pallisers, and others; and Mr Bott had his hands full in attending — or rather in offering to attend, to their little wants.

The morning was nearly gone before Alice and her cousin had any further opportunity of discussing in private the approach of Lady Midlothian; but Mr Palliser had come in among them, and had been told of the good thing which was in store for him. “We shall be delighted to see Lady Midlothian,” said Mr Palliser.

“But there is somebody here who will not be at all delighted to see her,” said Lady Glencora to her husband.

“Is there, indeed?” said he. Who is that?

“Her most undutiful cousin, Alice Vavasor. But, Alice, Mr Palliser knows nothing about it, and it is too long to explain.”

“I am extremely sorry — ” began Mr Palliser.

“I can assure you it does not signify in the least,” said Alice. “It will only be taking me away three days earlier.”

Upon hearing this Mr Palliser looked very serious. What quarrel could Miss Vavasor have had with Lady Midlothian which should make it impossible for them to be visitors at the same house?

“It will do no such thing,” said Lady Glencora. “Do you mean to say that you are coward enough to run away from her?”

“I’m afraid, Miss Vavasor, that we can hardly bid her not come,” said Mr Palliser. In answer to this, Alice protested that she would not for worlds have been the means of keeping Lady Midlothian away from Matching. “I should tell you, Mr Palliser, that I have never seen Lady Midlothian, though she is my far-away cousin. Nor have I ever quarrelled with her. But she has given me advice by letter, and I did not answer her because I thought she had no business to interfere. I shall go away, not because I am afraid of her, but because, after what has passed, our meeting would be unpleasant to her.”

“You could tell her that Miss Vavasor is here,” said Mr Palliser. “And then she need not come unless she pleased.”

The matter was so managed at last that Alice found herself unable to leave Matching without making more of Lady Midlothian’s coming than it was worth. It would undoubtedly be very disagreeable — this unexpected meeting with her relative; but, as Lady Glencora said, Lady Midlothian would not eat her. In truth, she felt ashamed of herself in that she was afraid of her relative. No doubt she was afraid of her. So much she was forced to admit to herself. But she resolved at last that she would not let her fear drive her out of the house.

“Is Mr Bott an admirer of your cousin?” Mrs Sparkes said that evening to Lady Glencora.

“A very distant one, I should think,” said Lady Glencora.

“Goodness gracious!” exclaimed an old lady who had been rather awed by Alice’s intimacy and cousinship with Lady Glencora; “it’s the very last thing I should have dreamt of.”

“But I didn’t dream it, first or last,” said Mrs Sparkes.

“Why do you ask?” said Lady Glencora.

“Don’t suppose that I am asking whether Miss Vavasor is an admirer of his,” said Mrs Sparkes. “I have no suspicion of that nature. I rather think that when he plays Bacchus she plays Ariadne, with the full intention of flying from him in earnest.”

“Is Mr Bott inclined to play Bacchus?” asked Lady Glencora.

“I rather thought he was this morning. If you observe, he has something of a godlike and triumphant air about him.”

“I don’t think his godship will triumph there,” said Lady Glencora.

“I really think she would be throwing herself very much away,” said the old lady.

“Miss Vavasor is not at all disposed to do that,” said Mrs Sparkes. Then that conversation was allowed to drop.

On the following Monday, Lady Midlothian arrived. The carriage was sent to meet her at the station about three o’clock in the afternoon, and Alice had to choose whether she would undergo her first introduction immediately on her relative’s arrival, or whether she would keep herself out of the way till she should meet her in the drawing-room before dinner.

“I shall receive her when she comes,” said Lady Glencora, “and of course will tell her that you are here.”

“Yes, that will be best; and — dear me, I declare I don’t know how to manage it.”

“I’ll bring her to you in my room if you like it.”

“No; that would be too solemn,” said Alice. “That would make her understand that I thought a great deal about her.”

“Then we’ll let things take their chance, and you shall come across her just as you would any other stranger.” It was settled at last that this would be the better course, but that Lady Midlothian was to be informed of Alice’s presence at the Priory as soon as she should arrive.

Alice was in her own room when the carriage in which sat the unwelcome old lady was driven up to the hall door. She heard the wheels plainly, and knew well that her enemy was within the house. She had striven hard all the morning to make herself feel indifferent to this arrival, but had not succeeded; and was angry with herself at finding that she sat up stairs with an anxious heart, because she knew that her cousin was in the room down stairs. What was Lady Midlothian to her that she should be afraid of her? And yet she was very much afraid of Lady Midlothian. She questioned herself on the subject over and over again, and found herself bound to admit that such was the fact. At last, about five o’clock, having reasoned much with herself, and rebuked herself for her own timidity, she descended into the drawing-room — Lady Glencora having promised that she would at that hour be there — and on opening the door became immediately conscious that she was in the presence of her august relative. There sat Lady Midlothian in a great chair opposite the fire, and Lady Glencora sat near to her on a stool. One of the Miss Pallisers was reading in a further part of the room, and there was no one else present in the chamber.

The Countess of Midlothian was a very little woman, between sixty and seventy years of age, who must have been very pretty in her youth. At present she made no pretension either to youth or beauty — as some ladies above sixty will still do — but sat confessedly an old woman in all her external relations. She wore a round bonnet which came much over her face — being accustomed to continue the use of her bonnet till dinner time when once she had been forced by circumstances to put it on. She wore a short cloak which fitted close to her person, and, though she occupied a great armchair, sat perfectly upright, looking at the fire. Very small she was, but she carried in her grey eyes and sharp-cut features a certain look of importance which saved her from being considered as small in importance. Alice, as soon as she saw her, knew that she was a lady over whom no easy victory could be obtained,

“Here is Alice,” said Lady Glencora, rising as her cousin entered the room. “Alice, let me introduce you to Lady Midlothian.”

Alice, as she came forward, was able to assume an easy demeanour, even though her heart within was failing her. She put out her hand, leaving it to the elder lady to speak the first words of greeting.

“I am glad at last to be able to make your acquaintance, my dear,” said Lady Midlothian; “very glad.” But still Alice did not speak. “Your aunt, Lady Macleod, is one of my oldest friends, and I have heard her speak of you very often.”

“And Lady Macleod has often spoken to me of your ladyship,” said Alice.

“Then we know each other’s names,” said the Countess; “and it will be well that we should be acquainted with each other’s persons. I am becoming an old woman, and if I did not learn to know you now, or very shortly, I might never do so.”

Alice could not help thinking that even under those circumstances neither might have had, so far as that was concerned, much cause of sorrow, but she did not say so. She was thinking altogether of Lady Midlothian’s letter to her, and trying to calculate whether or no it would be well for her to rush away at once to the subject. That Lady Midlothian would mention the letter, Alice felt well assured; and when could it be better mentioned than now, in Glencora’s presence — when no other person was near them to listen to her? “You are very kind,” said Alice.

“I would wish to be so,” said Lady Midlothian. “Blood is thicker than water, my dear; and I know no earthly ties that can bind people together if those of family connection will not do so. Your mother, when she and I were young, was my dearest friend.”

“I never knew my mother,” said Alice — feeling, however, as she spoke, that the strength of her resistance to the old woman was beginning to give way.

“No, my dear, you never did — and that is to my thinking another reason why they who loved her should love you. But Lady Macleod is your nearest relative, on your mother’s side, I mean — and she has done her duty by you well.”

“Indeed she has, Lady Midlothian.”

“She has, and others, therefore, have been the less called upon to interfere. I only say this, my dear, in my own vindication — feeling, perhaps, that my conduct needs some excuse.”

“I’m sure Alice does not think that,” said Lady Glencora.

“It is what I think rather than what Alice thinks that concerns my own shortcomings,” said Lady Midlothian, with a smile which was intended to be pleasant. “But I have wished to make up for former lost opportunities.” Alice knew that she was about to refer to her letter, and trembled. “I am very anxious now to be reckoned one of Alice Vavasor’s friends, if she will allow me to become so.”

“I can only be too proud — if — ”

“If what, my dear?” said the old lady. I believe that she meant to be gracious, but there was something in her manner, or, perhaps, rather in her voice, so repellent, that Alice felt that they could hardly become true friends. “If what, my dear?”

“Alice means — ” began Lady Glencora.

“Let Alice say what she means herself,” said Lady Midlothian.

“I hardly know how to say what I do mean,” said Alice, whose spirit within her was rising higher as the occasion for using it came upon her. “I am assured that you and I, Lady Midlothian, differ very much as to a certain matter; and as it is one in which I must be guided by my own opinion, and not that of any other person, perhaps — ”

“You mean about Mr Grey?”

“Yes,” said Alice; I mean about Mr Grey.

“I think so much about that matter, and your happiness as therein concerned, that when I heard that you were here I was determined to take Matching in my way to London, so that I might have an opportunity of speaking to you.”

“Then you knew that Alice was here,” said Lady Glencora.

“Of course I did. I suppose you have heard all the history, Glencora?”

Lady Glencora was forced to acknowledge that she had heard the history — “the history” being poor Alice’s treatment of Mr Grey.

“And what do you think of it?” Both Alice and her hostess looked round to the further end of the room in which Miss Palliser was reading, intending thus to indicate that that lady knew as yet none of the circumstances, and that there could be no good reason why she should be instructed in them at this moment. “Perhaps another time and another place may be better,” said Lady Midlothian; “but as I must go the day after tomorrow — indeed, I thought of going tomorrow.”

“Oh, Lady Midlothian!” exclaimed Lady Glencora.

“You must regard this as merely a passing visit, made upon business. But, as I was saying, when shall I get an opportunity of speaking to Alice where we need not be interrupted?” Lady Glencora suggested her room upstairs, and offered the use of it then, or on that night when the world should be about to go to bed. But the idea of this premeditated lecture was terrible to Alice, and she determined that she would not endure it.

“Lady Midlothian, it would really be of no use.”

“Of no use, my dear!”

“No, indeed. I did get your letter, you know.”

“And as you have not answered it, I have come all this way to see you.”

“I shall be so sorry if I give offence, but it is a subject which I cannot bring myself to discuss” — she was going to say with a stranger, but she was able to check herself before the offensive word was uttered — “which I cannot bring myself to discuss with anyone.”

“But you don’t mean to say that you won’t see me?”

“I will not talk upon that matter,” said Alice. “I will not do it even with Lady Macleod.”

“No,” said Lady Midlothian, and her sharp grey eyes now began to kindle with anger; “and therefore it is so very necessary that other friends should interfere.”

“But I will endure no interference,” said Alice, “either from persons who are friends or who are not friends.” And as she spoke she rose from her chair. “You must forgive me, Lady Midlothian, if I say that I can have no conversation with you on this matter.” Then she walked out of the room, leaving the Countess and Lady Glencora together. As she went Miss Palliser lifted her eyes from her book, and knew that there had been a quarrel, but I doubt if she had heard any of the words which had been spoken.

“The most self-willed young woman I ever met in my life,” said Lady Midlothian, as soon as Alice was gone.

“I knew very well how it would be,” said Lady Glencora.

“But it is quite frightful, my dear. She has been engaged, with the consent of all her friends, to this young man.”

“I know all about it.”

“But you must think she is very wrong.”

“I don’t quite understand her, but I suppose she fears they would not be happy together.”

“Understand her! I should think not; nobody can understand her. A young woman to become engaged to a gentleman in that way — before all the world, as one may say — to go to his house, as I am told, and talk to the servants, and give orders about the furniture, and then turn round and simply say that she has changed her mind! She hasn’t given the slightest reason to my knowledge.” And Lady Midlothian, as she insisted on the absolute iniquity of Alice’s proceedings, almost startled Lady Glencora by the eagerness of her countenance. Lady Midlothian had been one of those who, even now not quite two years ago, had assisted in obtaining the submission of Lady Glencora herself. Lady Midlothian seemed on the present occasion to remember nothing of this, but Lady Glencora remembered it very exactly. “I shall not give it up,” continued Lady Midlothian. “I have the greatest possible objection to her father, who contrived to connect himself with our family in a most shameful manner, without the slightest encouragement. I don’t think I have spoken to him since, but I shall see him now and tell him my opinion.”

Alice held her ground, and avoided all further conversation with Lady Midlothian. A message came to her through Lady Glencora imploring her to give way, but she was quite firm.

“Good-bye to you,” Lady Midlothian said to her as she went.

“Even yet I hope that things may go right, and if so you will find that I can forget and forgive.”

“If perseverance merits success,” said Lady Glencora to Alice, “she ought to succeed.”

“But she won’t succeed,” said Alice.

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