Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 63

Mr John Grey in Queen Anne Street

Alice was resolved that she would keep her promise to Kate, and pay her visit to Westmoreland before she started with the Pallisers. Kate had written to her three lines with her left hand, begging her to come, and those three lines had been more eloquent than anything she could have written had her right arm been uninjured. Alice had learned something of the truth as to that accident from her father; or, rather, had heard her father’s surmises on the subject. She had heard, too, low her cousin George had borne himself when the will was read, and how he had afterwards disappeared, never showing himself again at the Hall. After all that had passed she felt that she owed Kate some sympathy. Sympathy may, no doubt, be conveyed by letter; but there are things on which it is almost impossible for any writer to express himself with adequate feeling; and there are things, too, which can be spoken, but which cannot be written. Therefore, though the journey must be a hurried one, Alice sent word down to Westmoreland that she was to be expected there in a day or two. On her return she was to go at once to Park Lane, and sleep there for the two nights which would intervene before the departure of the Pallisers.

On the day before she started for Westmoreland her father came to her in the middle of the day, and told her that John Grey was going to dine with him in Queen Anne Street on that evening.

“Today, papa?” she asked.

“Yes, today. Why not? No man is less particular as to what he eats than Grey.”

“I was not thinking of that, papa,” she said.

To this Mr Vavasor made no reply, but stood for some minutes looking out of the window. Then he prepared to leave the room, getting himself first as far as the table, where he lifted a book, and then on half-way to the door, before Alice arrested him.

“Perhaps, papa, you and Mr Grey had better dine alone.”

“What do you mean by alone?”

“I meant without me — as two men generally like to do.”

“If I wanted that I should have asked him to dine at the club,” said Mr Vavasor, and then he again attempted to go.

“But, papa — ”

“Well, my dear! If you mean to say that because of what has passed you object to meet Mr Grey, I can only tell you it’s nonsense — confounded nonsense. If he chooses to come there can be no reason why you shouldn’t receive him.”

“It will look as though — ”

“Look what?”

“As though he were asked as my guest.”

“That’s nonsense. I saw him yesterday, and I asked him to come. I saw him again today, and he said he would come. He’s not such a fool as to suppose after that, that you asked him.”

“No; not that I asked him.”

“And if you run away you’ll only make more of the thing than it’s worth. Of course I can’t make you dine with me if you don’t like.”

Alice did not like it, but, after some consideration, she thought that she might be open to the imputation of having made more of the thing than it was worth if she ran away, as her father called it. She was going to leave the country for some six or eight months — perhaps for a longer time than that, and it might be as well that she should have an opportunity of telling her plans to Mr Grey. She could do it, she thought, in such a way as to make him understand that her last quarrel with George Vavasor was not supposed to alter the footing on which she stood with him. She did not doubt that her father had told everything to Mr Grey. She knew well enough what her father’s wishes still were. It was not odd that he should be asking John Grey to his house, though such exercises of domestic hospitality were very unusual with him. But — so she declared to herself — such little attempts on his part would be altogether thrown away. It was a pity that he had not yet learned to know her better. She would receive Mr Grey as the mistress of her father’s house now, for the last time; and then, on her return in the following year, he would be at Nethercoats, and the whole thing would be over.

She dressed herself very plainly, simply changing one black frock for another, and then sat herself in her drawing-room awaiting the two gentlemen. It was already past the hour of dinner before her father came upstairs. She knew that he was in the house, and in her heart she accused him of keeping out of the way, in order that John Grey might be alone with her. Whether or no she were right in her suspicions John Grey did not take advantage of the opportunity offered to him. Her father came up first, and had seated himself silently in his armchair before the visitor was announced.

As Mr Grey entered the room Alice knew that she was flurried, but still she managed to carry herself with some dignity. His bearing was perfect. But then, as she declared to herself afterwards, no possible position in life would put him beside himself. He came up to her with his usual quiet smile — a smile that was genial even in its quietness, and took her hand. He took it fairly and fully into his; but there was no squeezing, no special pressure, no love-making. And when he spoke to her he called her Alice, as though his doing so was of all things the most simply a matter of course. There was no tell-tale hesitation in his voice. When did he ever hesitate at anything? “I hear you are going abroad,” he said, “with your cousin, Lady Glencora Palliser.”

“Yes,” said Alice; “I am going with them for a long tour. We shall not return, I fancy, till the end of next winter.”

“Plans of that sort are as easily broken as they are made,” said her father. “You won’t be your own mistress; and I advise you not to count too surely upon getting further than Baden.”

“If Mr Palliser changes his mind of course I shall come home,” said Alice, with a little attempt at a smile.

“I should think him a man not prone to changes,” said Grey.

“But all London is talking about his change of mind at this moment. They say at the clubs that he might have been in the Cabinet if he would, but that he has taken up this idea of going abroad at the moment when he was wanted.”

“It’s his wife’s doing, I take it,” said Mr Vavasor,

“That’s the worst of being in Parliament,” said Grey. “A man can’t do anything without giving a reason for it. There must be men for public life, of course; but, upon my word, I think we ought to he very much obliged to them.”

Alice, as she took her old lover’s arm, and walked down with him to dinner, thought of all her former quarrels with him on this very subject. On this very point she had left him. He had never argued the matter with her. He had never asked her to argue with him. He had not condescended so far as that. Had he done so, she thought that she would have brought herself to think as he thought. She would have striven, at any rate, to do so. But she could not become unambitious, tranquil, fond of retirement, and philosophic, without an argument on the matter — without being allowed even the poor grace of owning herself to be convinced. If a man takes a dog with him from the country up to town, the dog must live a town life without knowing the reason why — must live a town life or die a town death. But a woman should not be treated like a dog. “Had he deigned to discuss it with me!” Alice had so often said. “But, no; he will read his books, and I am to go there to fetch him his slippers, and make his tea for him.” All this came upon her again as she walked downstairs by his side; and with it there came a consciousness that she had been driven by this usage into the terrible engagement which she had made with her cousin. That, no doubt, was now over. There was no longer to her any question of her marrying George Vavasor. But the fact that she had been mad enough to think and talk of such a marriage, had of itself been enough to ruin her. “Things of that sort are so often over with you!” After such a speech as that to her from her father, Alice told herself that there could be no more “things of that sort” for her. But all her misery had been brought about by this scornful superiority to the ordinary pursuits of the world — this looking down upon humanity. “It seems to me”, she said, very quietly, while her hand was yet upon his arm, “that your pity is hardly needed. I should think that no persons can be happier than those whom you call our public men.”

“Ah!” said he, that is our old quarrel. He said it as though the quarrel had simply been an argument between them, or a dozen arguments — as arguments do come up between friends; not as though it had served to separate for life two persons who had loved each other dearly. “It’s the old story of the town mouse and the country mouse — as old as the hills. Mice may be civil for a while, and compliment each other; but when they come to speak their minds freely, each likes his own life best.” She said nothing more at the moment, and the three sat down to their small dinner-table. It was astonishing to Alice that he should be able to talk in this way, to hint at such things, to allude to their former hopes and present condition, without a quiver in his voice, or, as far as she could perceive, without any feeling in his heart.

“Alice,” said her father, “I can’t compliment your cook upon her soup.”

“You don’t encourage her, papa, by eating it often enough. And then you only told me at two o’clock today.”

“If a cook can’t make soup between two and seven, she can’t make it in a week.”

“I hope Mr Grey will excuse it,” said Alice.

“Isn’t it good?” said he. “I won’t say that it is, because I should be pretending to have an opinion; but I should not have found out anything against it of myself.”

“Where do you dine usually, now you are in London?” Mr Vavasor asked.

“At the old club, at the corner of Suffolk Street. It’s the oldest club in London, I believe. I never belonged to any other, and therefore can’t compare them; but I can’t imagine anything much nicer.”

“They give you better soup than ours?” said Alice.

“You’ve an excellent cook,” said Mr Vavasor, with great gravity; “one of the best second-class cooks in London. We were very nearly getting him, but you nicked him just in time. I know him well.”

“It’s a great deal more than I do, or hope to do. There’s another branch of public life for which I’m quite unfitted. I’d as soon be called on to choose a Prime Minister for the country, as I would a cook for a club.”

“Of course you would,” said Mr Vavasor. “There may be as many as a dozen cooks about London to be looked up, but there are never more than two possible Prime Ministers about. And as one of them must be going out when the other is coming in, I don’t see that there can be any difficulty. Moreover, nowadays, people do their politics for themselves, but they expect to have their dinners cooked for them.”

The little dinner went on quietly and very easily. Mr Vavasor found fault with nearly everything. But as, on this occasion, the meat and the drink, with the manner of the eating and drinking, did not constitute the difficulty, Alice was indifferent to her father’s censures. The thing needed was that she and Mr Grey should be able to sit together at the same table without apparent consciousness of their former ties. Alice felt that she was succeeding indifferently well while she was putting in little mock defences for the cook. And as for John Grey, he succeeded so well that his success almost made Alice angry with him. It required no effort with him at all to be successful in this matter. “If he can forget all that has passed, so much the better,” said Alice to herself when she got up into the drawing-room. Then she sat herself down on the sofa, and cried. Oh! what had she not lost! Had any woman ever been so mad, so reckless, so heartless as she had been! And she had done it, knowing that she loved him! She cried bitterly, and then went away to wash her eyes, that she might be ready to give him his coffee when he should come upstairs.

“She does not look well,” said Grey as soon as she had left the room.

“Well — no: how can she look well after what she has gone through? I sometimes think, that of all the people I ever knew, she has been the most foolish. But, of course, it is not for me to say anything against my own child; and, of all people, not to you.”

“Nothing that you could say against her would make any difference to me. I sometimes fancy that I know her better than you do.”

“And you think that she’ll still come round again?”

“I cannot say that I think so. No one can venture to say whether or not such wounds as hers may be cured. There are hearts and bodies so organised, that in them severe wounds are incurable, whereas in others no injury seems to be fatal. But I can say that if she be not cured it shall not be from want of perseverance on my part.”

“Upon my word, Grey, I don’t know how to thank you enough. I don’t, indeed.”

“It doesn’t seem to me to be a case for thanking.”

“Of course it isn’t. I know that well enough. And in the ordinary way of the world no father would think of thanking a man for wanting to marry his daughter. But things have come to such a pass with us, that, by George! I don’t feel like any other father. I don’t mind saying anything to you, you know. That claret isn’t very good, but you might as well take another glass.”

“Thank you, I will. I should have said that that was rather good wine now.”

“It’s not just the thing. What’s the use of my having good wine here, when nobody comes to drink it? But, as I was saying about Alice, of course I’ve felt all this thing very much. I feel as though I were responsible, and yet what could I do? She’s her own mistress through it all. When she told me she was going to marry that horrible miscreant, my nephew, what could I do?”

“That’s over now, and we need not talk about it.”

“It’s very kind of you to say so — very. I believe she’s a good girl. I do, indeed, in spite of it all.”

“I’ve no doubt of her being what you call a good girl — none in the least. What she has done to me does not impair her goodness. I don’t think you have ever understood how much all this has been a matter of conscience with her.”

“Conscience!” said the angry father. “I hate such conscience. I like the conscience that makes a girl keep her word, and not bring disgrace upon those she belongs to.”

“I shall not think that I am disgraced,” said Grey, quietly, “if she will come and be my wife. She has meant to do right, and has endeavoured to take care of the happiness of other people rather than her own.”

“She has taken very little care of mine,” said Mr Vavasor.

“I shall not be at all afraid to trust mine to her — if she will let me do so. But she has been wounded sorely, and it must take time.”

“And, in the meantime, what are we to do when she tells us that Mr George Vavasor wants another remittance? Two thousand pounds a quarter comes heavy, you know!”

“Let us hope that he has had enough.”

“Enough! Did such a man ever have enough?”

“Let us hope, then, that she thinks he has had enough. Come — may I go upstairs?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll follow you. She’ll think that I mean something if I leave you together.”

From all this it will be seen that Alice’s father and her lover still stood together on confidential terms. Not easily had Mr Vavasor brought himself to speak of his daughter to John Grey in such language as he had now used; but he had been forced by adverse circumstances to pass the Rubicon of parental delicacy; he had been driven to tell his wished-for son-in-law that he did wish to have him as a son-in-law; he had been compelled to lay aside those little airs of reserve with which a father generally speaks of his daughter — and now all was open between them.

“And you really start tomorrow?” said Grey, as he stood close over Alice’s work-table. Mr Vavasor had followed him into the drawing-room, but had seated himself in an easy chair on the other side of the fire. There was no tone of whispering in Grey’s voice, but yet he spoke in a manner which showed that he did not intend to be audible on the other side of the room.

“I start for Westmoreland tomorrow. We do not leave London for the continent till the latter end of next week.”

“But you will not be here again?”

“No; I shall not come back to Queen Anne Street.”

“And you will be away for many months?”

“Mr Palliser talked of next Easter as the term of his return. He mentioned Easter to Lady Glencora. I have not seen him myself since I agreed to go with him.”

“What should you say if you met me somewhere in your travels?” He had now gently seated himself on the sofa beside her — not so close to her as to give her just cause to move away, but yet so near as to make his conversation with her quite private.

“I don’t think that will be very likely,” she replied, not knowing what to say.

“I think it is very likely. For myself, I hate surprises. I could not bring myself to fall in upon your track unawares. I shall go abroad, but it will not be till the late autumn, when the summer heats are gone — and I shall endeavour to find you.”

“To find me, Mr Grey!” There was a quivering in her voice, as she spoke, which she could not prevent, though she would have given worlds to prevent it. “I do not think that will be quite fair.”

“It will not be unfair, I think, if I give you notice of my approach. I will not fall upon you and your friends unawares.”

“I was not thinking of them. They would be glad to know you, of course.”

“And equally, of course! — Or, rather, much more of course, you will not be glad to see me? That’s what you mean?”

“I mean that we had better not meet more than we can help.”

“I think differently, Alice — quite differently. The more we meet the better — that is what I think. But I will not stop to trouble you now. Goodnight!” Then he got up and went away, and her father went with him. Mr Vavasor, as he rose from his chair, declared that he would just walk through a couple of streets; but Alice knew that he was gone to his club.

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