Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 39

Mr Cheesacre’s Hospitality

As the winter wore itself away, Mr Cheesacre, happy as he was amidst the sports of Norfolk, and prosperous as he might be with the augean spoils of Oileymead, fretted himself with an intense anxiety to bring to a close that affair which he had on his hands with the widow Greenow. There were two special dangers which disturbed him. She would give herself and all her money to that adventurer, Bellfield; or else she would spend her own money so fast before he got hold upon it, that the prize would be greatly damaged. “I’m — if she hasn’t been and set up a carriage!” he said to himself one day, as, standing on the pavement of Tombland, in Norwich, he saw Mrs Greenow issue forth from the Close in a private brougham, accompanied by one of the Fairstairs girls. “She’s been and set up her carriage as sure as my name’s Cheesacre!”

Whatever reason he might have to fear the former danger, we may declare that he had none whatever as to the latter. Mrs Greenow knew what she was doing with her money as well as any lady in England. The private carriage was only a hired brougham taken by the month, and as to that boy in buttons whom she had lately established, why should she not keep a young servant, and call him a page, if it gave her any comfort to do so? If Mr Cheesacre had also known that she had lent the Fairstairs family fifty pounds to help them through with some difficulty which Joe had encountered with the Norwich tradespeople, he would have been beside himself with dismay. He desired to obtain the prize unmutilated — in all its fair proportions. Any such clippings he regarded as robberies against himself.

But he feared Bellfield more than he feared the brougham. That all is fair in love and war was no doubt, at this period, Captain Bellfield’s maxim, and we can only trust that he found in it some consolation, or ease to his conscience, in regard to the monstrous lies which he told his friend. In war, no doubt, all stratagems are fair. The one general is quite justified in making the other believe that he is far to the right, when in truth he is turning his enemy’s left flank. If successful, he will be put upon a pedestal for his clever deceit, and crowned with laurels because of his lie. If Bellfield could only be successful, and achieve for himself the mastery over those forty thousand pounds, the world would forgive him and place, on his brow also, some not uncomfortable crown. In the mean time, his stratagems were as deep and his lies as profound as those of any general.

It must not be supposed that Cheesacre ever believed him. In the first place, he knew that Bellfield was not a man to be believed in any way. Had he not been living on lies for the last ten years? But then a man may lie in such a way as to deceive, though no one believe him. Mr Cheesacre was kept in an agony of doubt while Captain Bellfield occupied his lodgings in Norwich. He fee’d Jeannette liberally. He even fee’d Charlie Fairstairs — Miss Fairstairs I mean — with gloves, and chickens from Oileymead, so that he might know whether that kite fluttered about his dovecote, and of what nature were the flutterings. He went even further than this, and fee’d the Captain himself — binding him down not to flutter as value given in return for such fees. He attempted even to fee the widow, cautioning her against the fluttering, as he tendered to her — on his knees, a brooch as big as a breast-plate. She waved aside the breast-plate, declaring that the mourning ring which contained poor Greenow’s final grey lock of hair, was the last article from a jeweller’s shop which should ever find a place about her person. At the same time she declared that Captain Bellfield was nothing to her; Mr Cheesacre need have no fears in that quarter. But then, she added, neither was he to have any hope. Her affections were all buried under the cold sod. This was harassing. Nevertheless, though no absolute satisfaction was to be attained in the wooing of Mrs Greenow, there was a pleasantness in the occupation which ought to have reconciled her suitors to their destiny. With most ladies, when a gentleman has been on his knees before one of them in the morning, with outspoken protestations of love, with clearly defined proffers of marriage, with a minute inventory of the offerer’s worldly wealth — down even to the “mahogany-furnitured” bed-chambers, as was the case with Mr Cheesacre, and when all these overtures have been peremptorily declined — a gentleman in such a case, I say, would generally feel some awkwardness in sitting down to tea with the lady at the close of such a performance. But with Mrs Greenow there was no such awkwardness. After an hour’s work of the nature above described she would play the hostess with a genial hospitality, that eased off all the annoyance of disappointment; and then at the end of the evening, she would accept a squeeze of the hand, a good, palpable, long-protracted squeeze, with that sort of “don’t — have done now,” by which Irish young ladies allure their lovers. Mr Cheesacre, on such occasions, would leave the Close, swearing that she should be his on the next market day — or at any rate, on the next Saturday. Then, on the Monday, tidings would reach him that Bellfield had passed all Sunday afternoon with his lady-love — Bellfield, to whom he had lent five pound on purpose that he might be enabled to spend that very Sunday with some officers of the Suffolk volunteers at Ipswich. And hearing this, he would walk out among those rich heaps, at the back of his farmyard, uttering deep curses against the falsehood of men and the fickleness of women.

Driven to despair, he at last resolved to ask Bellfield to come to Oileymead for a month. That drilling at Norwich, or the part of it which was supposed to be profitable, was wearing itself out. Funds were low with the Captain — as he did not scruple to tell his friend Cheesacre, and he accepted the invitation. “I’ll mount you with the harriers, old fellow,” Cheesacre had said; “and give you a little shooting. Only I won’t have you go out when I’m not with you.” Bellfield agreed. Each of them understood the nature of the bargain; though Bellfield, I think, had somewhat the clearer understanding in the matter. He would not be so near the widow as he had been at Norwich, but he would not be less near than his kind host. And his host would no doubt watch him closely — but then he also could watch his host. There was a railway station not two miles from Oileymead, and the journey thence into Norwich was one of half an hour. Mr Cheesacre would doubtless be very jealous of such journeys, but with all his jealousy he could not prevent them. And then, in regard to this arrangement, Mr Cheesacre paid the piper, whereas Captain Bellfield paid nothing. Would it not be sweet to him if he could carry off his friend’s prize from under the very eaves of his friend’s house?

And Mrs Greenow also understood the arrangement. “Going to Oileymead; are you?” she said when Captain Bellfield came to tell her of his departure. Charlie Fairstairs was with her, so that the Captain could not utilize the moment in any special way. “It’s quite delightful,” continued the widow, “to see how fond you two gentlemen are of each other.”

“I think gentlemen always like to go best to gentlemen’s houses where there are no ladies,” said Charlie Fairstairs, whose career in life had not as yet been satisfactory to her.

“As for that,” said Bellfield, “I wish with all my heart that dear old Cheesy would get a wife. He wants a wife badly, if ever a man did, with all that house full of blankets and crockery. Why don’t you set your cap at him, Miss Fairstairs?”

“What — at a farmer!” said Charlie who was particularly anxious that her dear friend, Mrs Greenow, should not marry Mr Cheesacre, and who weakly thought to belittle him accordingly.

“Give him my kind love,” said Mrs Greenow, thereby resenting the impotent interference. “And look here, Captain Bellfield, suppose you both dine with me next Saturday. He always comes in on Saturday, and you might as well come too.”

Captain Bellfield declared that he would only be too happy.

“And Charlie shall come to set her cap at Mr Cheesacre,” said the widow, turning a soft and gracious eye on the Captain.

“I shall be happy to come,” — said Charlie, quite delighted; “but not with that object. Mr Cheesacre is very respectable, I’m sure.” Charlie’s mother had been the daughter of a small squire who had let his land to tenants, and she was, therefore, justified by circumstances in looking down upon a farmer.

The matter was so settled — pending the consent of Mr Cheesacre; and Bellfield went out to Oileymead. He knew the ways of the house, and was not surprised to find himself left alone till after dusk; nor was he much surprised when he learned that he was not put into one of the mahogany-furnitured chambers, but into a back room looking over the farmyard in which there was no fire-place. The Captain had already endured some of the evils of poverty, and could have put up with this easily had nothing been said about it. As it was, Cheesacre brought the matter forward, and apologized, and made the thing difficult.

“You see, old fellow,” he said, “there are the rooms, and of course they’re empty. But it’s such a bore hauling out all the things and putting up the curtains. You’ll be very snug where you are.”

“I shall do very well,” said Bellfield rather sulkily.

“Of course you’ll do very well. It’s the warmest room in the house in one way.” He did not say in what way. Perhaps the near neighbourhood of the stables may have had a warming effect.

Bellfield did not like it; but what is a poor man to do under such circumstances? So he went upstairs and washed his hands before dinner in the room without a fire-place, flattering himself that he would yet be even with his friend Cheesacre.

They dined together not in the best humour, and after dinner they sat down to enjoy themselves with pipes and brandy and water. Bellfield, having a taste for everything that was expensive, would have preferred cigars; but his friend put none upon the table. Mr Cheesacre, though he could spend his money liberally when occasion required such spending, knew well the value of domestic economy. He wasn’t going to put himself out, as he called it, for Bellfield! What was good enough for himself was good enough for Bellfield. “A beggar, you know; just a regular beggar!” as he was betrayed into saying to Mrs Greenow on some occasion just at this period. “Poor fellow! He only wants money to make him almost perfect,” Mrs Greenow had answered — and Mr Cheesacre had felt that he had made a mistake.

Both the men became talkative, if not good humoured, under the effects of the brandy and water, and the Captain then communicated Mrs Greenow’s invitation to Mr Cheesacre. He had had his doubts as to the propriety of doing so — thinking that perhaps it might be to his advantage to forget the message. But he reflected that he was at any rate a match for Cheesacre when they were present together, and finally came to the conclusion that the message should be delivered. “I had to go and just wish her goodbye, you know,” he said apologetically, as he finished his little speech.

“I don’t see that at all,” said Cheesacre.

“Why, my dear fellow, how foolishly jealous you are. If I were to be downright uncivil to her, as you would have me be, it would only call attention to the thing.”

“I’m not a bit jealous. A man who sits upon his own ground as I do hasn’t any occasion to be jealous.”

“I don’t know what your own ground has to do with it — but we’ll let that pass.”

“I think it has a great deal to do with it. If a man does intend to marry he ought to have things comfortable about him; unless he wants to live on his wife, which I look upon as about the meanest thing a man can do. By George, I’d sooner break stones than that.”

This was hard for any captain to bear — even for Captain Bellfield; but he did bear it — looking forward to revenge.

“There’s no pleasing you, I know,” said he. “But there’s the fact. I went to say goodbye to her, and she asked me to give you that message. Shall we go or not?”

Cheesacre sat for some time silent, blowing out huge clouds of smoke while he meditated a little plan. “I’ll tell you what it is, Bellfield,” he said at last. “She’s nothing to you, and if you won’t mind it, I’ll go. Mrs Jones shall get you anything you like for dinner — and — and — I’ll stand you a bottle of the 34 port!”

But Captain Bellfield was not going to put up with this. He had not sold himself altogether to work Mr Cheesacre’s will. “No, old fellow,” said he; “that cock won’t fight. She has asked me to dine with her on Saturday, and I mean to go. I don’t intend that she shall think that I’m afraid of her — or of you either.”

“You don’t — don’t you?”

“No, I don’t,” said the Captain stoutly.

“I wish you’d pay me some of that money you owe me,” said Cheesacre.

“So I will — when I’ve married the widow. Ha — ha — ha.”

Cheesacre longed to turn him out of the house. Words to bid him go, were, so to say, upon his tongue. But the man would only have taken himself to Norwich, and would have gone without any embargo upon his suit; all their treaties would then be at an end. “She knows a trick worth two of that,” said Cheesacre at last.

“I dare say she does; and if so, why shouldn’t I go and dine with her next Saturday?”

“I’ll tell you why — because you’re in my way. The deuce is in it if I haven’t made the whole thing clear enough. I’ve told you all my plans because I thought you were my friend, and I’ve paid you well to help me, too; and yet it seems to me you’d do anything in your power to throw me over — only you can’t.”

“What an ass you are,” said the Captain after a pause; “just you listen to me. That scraggy young woman, Charlie Fairstairs, is to be there of course.”

“How do you know?”

“I tell you that I do know. She was present when the whole thing was arranged, and I heard her asked, and heard her say that she would come — and for the matter of that I heard her declare that she wouldn’t set her cap at you, because you’re a farmer.”

“Upon my word she’s kind. Upon my word she is,” said Cheesacre, getting very angry and very red. “Charlie Fairstairs, indeed! I wouldn’t pick her out of a gutter with a pair of tongs. She ain’t good enough for my bailiff, let alone me.”

“But somebody must take her in hand on Saturday, if you’re to do any good,” said the crafty Bellfield.

“What the deuce does she have that nasty creature there for?” said Cheesacre, who thought it very hard that everything should not be arranged exactly as he would desire.

“She wants a companion, of course. You can get rid of Charlie, you know, when you make her Mrs Cheesacre.”

“Get rid of her! You don’t suppose she’ll ever put her foot in this house. Not if I know it. I’ve detested that woman for the last ten years.” Cheesacre could forgive no word of slight respecting his social position, and the idea of Miss Fairstairs having pretended to look down upon him, galled him to the quick.

“You’ll have to dine with her at any rate,” said Bellfield, “and I always think that four are better company than three on such occasions.”

Mr Cheesacre grunted an unwilling assent, and after this it was looked upon as an arranged thing that they two should go into Norwich on the Saturday together, and that they should both dine with the widow. Indeed, Mrs Greenow got two notes, one from each of them, accepting the invitation. Cheesacre wrote in the singular number, altogether ignoring Captain Bellfield, as he might have ignored his footman had he intended to take one. The Captain condescended to use the plural pronoun. “We shall be so happy to come,” said he. “Dear old Cheesy is out of his little wits with delight,” he added, “and has already begun to polish off the effects of the farmyard.”

“Effects of the farmyard,” said Mrs Greenow aloud, in Jeannette’s hearing, when she received the note. “It would be well for Captain Bellfield if he had a few such effects himself.”

“You can give him enough, ma’am,” said Jeannette, “to make him a better man than Mr Cheesacre any day. And for a gentleman — of course I say nothing, but if I was a lady, I know which should be the man for me.”

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