The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 29

What Would Men Say To You?

“Harry, tell me the truth — tell me all the truth.” Harry Clavering was thus greeted when, in obedience to the summons from Lady Ongar, he went to her almost immediately on his return to London.

It will be remembered that he had remained at Clavering some days after the departure of Hugh and Archie, lacking the courage to face his misfortunes boldly. But though his delay had been cowardly, it had not been easy to him to be a coward. He despised himself for not having written with warm, full-expressed affection to Florence and with honest, clear truth to Julia. Half his misery rose from this feeling of self-abasement, and from the consciousness that he was weak, piteously weak, exactly in that in which he had often boasted to himself that he was strong. But such inward boastings are not altogether bad. They preserve men from succumbing, and make at any rate some attempt to realize themselves. The man who tells himself that he is brave, will struggle much before he flies; but the man who never does so tell himself, will find flying easy unless his heart be of nature very high. Now had come the moment either for flying or not flying; and Harry, swearing that he would stand his ground, resolutely took his hat and gloves, and made his way to Bolton Street with a sore heart.

But as he went he could not keep himself from arguing the matter within his own breast. He knew what was his duty. It was his duty to stick to Florence, not only with his word and his hand, but with his heart. It was his duty to tell Lady Ongar that, not only his word was at Stratton, but his heart also, and to ask her pardon for the wrong that he had done her by that caress. For some ten minutes as he walked through the streets his resolve was strong to do this manifest duty; but, gradually, as he thought of that caress, as he thought of the difficulties of the coming interview, as he thought of Julia’s high-toned beauty — perhaps something also of her wealth and birth — and more strongly still as he thought of her love for him, false, treacherous, selfish arguments offered themselves to his mind — arguments which he knew to he false and selfish. Which of them did he love? Could it he right for him to give his hand without his heart? Could it really be good for Florence — poor injured Florence, that she should be taken by a man who had ceased to regard her more than all other women? Were he to marry her now, would not that deceit be worse than the other deceit? Or, rather, would not that be deceitful, whereas the other course would simply be unfortunate — unfortunate through circumstances for which he was blameless? Damnable arguments! False, cowardly logic, by which all male jilts seek to excuse their own treachery to themselves and to others!

Thus during the second ten minutes of his walk, his line of conduct became less plain to him, and as he entered Piccadilly he was racked with doubts. But instead of settling them in his mind he unconsciously allowed himself to dwell upon the words with which he would seek to excuse his treachery to Florence. He thought how he would tell her — not to her face with spoken words, for that he could not do — but with written skill, that he was unworthy of her goodness, that his love for her had fallen off through his own unworthiness, and had returned to one who was in all respects less perfect than she, but who in old days, as she well knew, had been his first love. Yes! he would say all this, and Julia, let her anger be what it might, should know that he had said it. As he planned this, there came to him a little comfort, for he thought there was something grand in such a resolution. Yes; he would do that, even though he should lose Julia also.

Miserable clap-trap! He knew in his heart that all his logic was false, and his arguments baseless. Cease to love Florence Burton! He had not ceased to love her, nor is the heart of any man made so like a weathercock that it needs must turn itself hither and thither, as the wind directs, and be altogether beyond the man’s control. For Harry, with all his faults, and in spite of his present falseness, was a man. No man ceases to love without a cause. No man need cease to love without a cause. A man may maintain his love, and nourish it, and keep it warm by honest, manly effort, as he may his probity, his courage, or his honor. It was not that he had ceased to love Florence; but that the glare of the candle had been too bright for him and he had scorched his wings. After all, as to that embrace of which he had thought so much, and the memory of which was so sweet to him and so bitter — it had simply been an accident. Thus, writing in his mind that letter to Florence which he knew, if he were an honest man, he would never allow himself to write, he reached Lady Ongar’s door without having arranged for himself any special line of conduct.

We must return for a moment to the fact that Hugh and Archie had returned to town before Harry Clavering. How Archie had been engaged on great doings, the reader, I hope, will remember; and he may as well be informed here that the fifty pounds was duly taken to Mount Street, and were extracted from him by the spy without much difficulty. I do not know that Archie in return obtained any immediate aid or valuable information from Sophie Gordeloup; but Sophie did obtain some information from him which she found herself able to use for her own purposes. As his position with reference to love and marriage was being discussed, and the position also of the divine Julia, Sophie hinted her fear of another Clavering lover. What did Archie think of his cousin Harry? “Why; he’s engaged to another girl,” said Archie, opening wide his eyes and his mouth, and becoming very free with his information. This was a matter to which Sophie found it worth her while to attend, and she soon learned from Archie all that Archie knew about Florence Burton. And this was all that could be known. No secret had been made in the family of Harry’s engagement. Archie told his fair assistant that Miss Burton had been received at Clavering Park openly as Harry’s future wife, and, “by Jove, you know, he can’t be coming it with Julia after that, you know.” Sophie made a little grimace, but did not say much. She, remembering that she had caught Lady Ongar in Harry’s arms, thought that, “by Jove,” he might be coming it with Julia, even after Miss Burton’s reception at Clavering Park. Then, too, she remembered some few words that had passed between her and her dear Julia after Harry’s departure on the evening of the embrace, and perceived that Julia was in ignorance of the very existence of Florence Burton, even though Florence had been received at the Park. This was information worth having — information to be used! Her respect for Harry rose immeasurably. She had not given him credit for so much audacity, so much gallantry, and so much skill. She had thought him to be a pigheaded Clavering, like the rest of them. He was not pigheaded; he was a promising young man; she could have liked him and perhaps aided him — only that he had shown so strong a determination to have nothing to do with her. Therefore the information should be used — and it was used.

The reader will now understand what was the truth which Lady Ongar demanded from Harry Clavering. “Harry, tell me the truth; tell me all the truth.” She had come forward to meet him in the middle of the room when she spoke these words, and stood looking him in the face, not having given him her hand.

“What truth?” said Harry. “Have I ever told you a lie?” But he knew well what was the truth required of him.

“Lies can be acted as well as told. Harry, tell me all at once. Who is Florence Burton; who and what?” She knew it all, then, and things had settled themselves for him without the necessity of any action on his part. It was odd enough that she should not have learned it before, but at any rate she knew it now. And it was well that she should have been told — only how was he to excuse himself for that embrace? “At any rate speak to me,” she said, standing quite erect, and looking as a Juno might have looked. “You will acknowledge at least that I have a right to ask the question. Who is this Florence Burton?”

“She is the daughter of Mr. Burton of Stratton.”

“And is that all that you can tell me? Come, Harry, be braver than that. I was not such a coward once with you. Are you engaged to marry her?”

“Yes, Lady Ongar, I am.”

“Then you have had your revenge on me, and now we are quits.” So saying, she stepped back from the middle of the room, and sat herself down on her accustomed seat. He was left there standing, and it seemed as though she intended to take no further notice of him. He might go if he pleased, and there would be an end of it all. The difficulty would be over, and he might at once write to Florence in what language he liked. It would simply be a little episode in his life, and his escape would not have been arduous.

But he could not go from her in that way. He could not bring himself to leave the room without some further word. She had spoken of revenge. Was it not incumbent on him to explain to her that there had been no revenge; that he had loved, and suffered, and forgiven without one thought of anger — and that then he had unfortunately loved again? Must he not find some words in which to tell her that she had been the light, and he simply the poor moth that had burned his wings.

“No, Lady Ongar,” said he, “there has been no revenge.”

“We will call is justice, if you please. At any rate I do not mean to complain.”

“If you ever injured me —” he began.

“I did injure you,” said she, sharply.

“If you ever injured me, I forgave you freely.”

“I did injure you —” As she spoke she rose again from her seat, showing how impossible to her was that tranquillity which she had attempted to maintain. “I did injure you, but the injury came to you early in life, and sat lightly on you. Within a few months you had learned to love this young lady at the place you went to — the first young lady you saw! I had not done you much harm, Harry. But that which you have done me cannot be undone.”

“Julia,” he said, coming up to her.

“No; not Julia. When you were here before I asked you to call me so, hoping, longing, believing — doing more, so much more than I could have done, but that I thought my love might now be of service to you. You do not think that I had heard of this then.”

“Oh, no.”

“No. It is odd that I should not have known it, as I now hear that she was at my sister’s house; but all others have not been as silent as you have been. We are quits, Harry; that is all that I have to say. We are quits now.”

“I have intended to be true to you — to you and to her.”

“Were you true when you acted as you did the other night?” He could not explain to her how greatly he had been tempted. “Were you true when you held me in your arms as that woman came in? Had you not made me think that I might glory in loving you, and that I might show her that I scorned her when she thought to promise me her secresy — her secresy, as though I were ashamed of what she had seen. I was not ashamed — not then. Had all the world known it I should not have been ashamed. ‘I have loved him long,’ I should have said, ‘and him only. He is to be my husband, and now at last I need not be ashamed.’” So much she spoke, standing up, looking at him with firm face, and uttering her syllables with a quick clear voice; but at the last word there came a quiver in her tone, and the strength of her countenance quailed, and there was a tear which made dim her eye, and she knew that she could no longer stand before him. She endeavored to seat herself with composure; but the attempt failed, and as she fell back upon the sofa he just heard the sob which had cost her so great and vain an effort to restrain. In an instant he was kneeling at her feet, and grasping at the hand with which she was hiding her face. “Julia,” he said, “look at me; let us at any rate understand each other at last.”

“No, Harry; there must be no more such knowledge — no more such understanding. You must go from me, and come here no more. Had it not been for that other night, I would still have endeavored to regard you as a friend. But I have no right to such friendship. I have sinned and gone astray, and am a thing vile and polluted. I sold myself as a beast is sold, and men have treated me as I treated myself.”

“Have I treated you so?”

“Yes, Harry; you, you. How did you treat me when you took me in your arms and kissed me — knowing, knowing that I was not to be your wife? O God, I have sinned. I have sinned, and I am punished.”

“No, no,” said he, rising from his knees, “it was not as you say.”

“Then how was it, sir? Is it thus that you treat other women — your friends, those to whom you declare friendship? What did you mean me to think?”

“That I loved you.”

“Yes; with a love that should complete my disgrace — that should finish my degradation. But I had not heard of this Florence Burton; and, Harry, that night I was happy in my bed. And in that next week when you were down there for that sad ceremony, I was happy here, happy and proud. Yes, Harry, I was so proud when I thought you still loved me — loved me in spite of my past sin, that I almost forgot that I was polluted. You have made me remember it, and I shall not forget it again.”

It would have been better for him had he gone away at once. Now he was sitting in a chair, sobbing violently, and pressing away the tears from his cheeks with his hands. How could he make her understand that he had intended no insult when he embraced her? Was it not incumbent on him to tell her that the wrong he then did was done to Florence Burton, and not to her? But his agony was too much for him at present, and he could find no words in which to speak to her.

“I said to myself that you would come when the funeral was over, and I wept for poor Hermy as I thought that my lot was so much happier than hers. But people have what they deserve, and Hermy, who has done no such wrong as I have done, is not crushed as I am crushed. It was just, Harry, that the punishment should come from you, but it has come very heavily.”

“Julia, it was not meant to be so.”

“Well; we will let that pass. I cannot unsay, Harry, all that I have said — all that I did not say, but which you must have thought and known when you were here last. I cannot bid you believe that I do not — love you.”

“Not more tenderly or truly than I love you.”

“Nay, Harry, your love to me can be neither true nor tender — nor will I permit it to be offered to me. You do not think that I would rob that girl of what is hers. Mine for you may be both tender and true; but, alas, truth has come to me when it can avail me no longer.”

“Julia, if you will say that you love me, it shall avail you.”

“In saying that, you are continuing to ill-treat me. Listen to me now. I hardly know when it began, for, at first, I did not expect that you would forgive me and let me be dear to you as I used to be; but as you sat here, looking up into my face in the old way, it came on me gradually — the feeling that it might be so; and I told myself that if you would take me I might be of service to you, and I thought that I might forgive myself at last for possessing this money if I could throw it into your lap, so that you might thrive with it in the world; and I said to myself that it might be well to wait awhile, till I should see whether you really loved me; but then came that burst of passion, and though I knew that you were wrong, I was proud to feel that I was still so dear to you. It is all over. We understand each other at last, and you may go. There is nothing to be forgiven between us.”

He had now resolved that Florence must go by the board. If Julia would still take him she should be his wife, and he would face Florence and all the Burtons, and his own family, and all the world in the matter of his treachery. What would he care what the world might say? His treachery to Florence was a thing completed. Now, at this moment, he felt himself to be so devoted to Julia as to make him regard his engagement to Florence as one which must, at all hazards, be renounced. He thought of his mother’s sorrow, of his father’s scorn — of the dismay with which Fanny would hear concerning him a tale which she would believe to be so impossible; he thought of Theodore Burton, and the deep, unquenchable anger of which that brother was capable, and of Cecilia and her outraged kindness; he thought of the infamy which would be attached to him, and resolved that he must bear it all. Even if his own heart did not move him so to act, how could he hinder himself from giving comfort and happiness to this woman who was before him? Injury, wrong, and broken-hearted wretchedness, he could not prevent; but, therefore, this part was as open to him as the other. Men would say that he had done this for Lady Ongar’s money; and the indignation with which he was able to regard this false accusation — for his mind declared such accusation to be damnably false — gave him some comfort. People might say of him what they pleased. He was about to do the best within his power. Bad, alas, was the best, but it was of no avail now to think of that.

“Julia,” he said, “between us at least there shall be nothing to be forgiven.”

“There is nothing,” said she.

“And there shall be no broken love. I am true to you now — as ever.”

“And, what, then, of your truth to Miss Florence Burton?”

“It will not be for you to rebuke me with that. We have, both of us, played our game badly, but not for that reason need we both be ruined and broken-hearted. In your folly you thought that wealth was better than love; and I, in my folly — I thought that one love blighted might be mended by another. When I asked Miss Burton to be my wife you were the wife of another man. Now that you are free again I cannot marry Miss Burton.”

“You must marry her, Harry.”

“There shall be no must in such a case. You do not know her, and cannot understand how good, how perfect she is. She is too good to take a hand without a heart.”

“And what would men say of you?”

“I must bear what men say. I do not suppose that I shall be all happy — not even with your love. When things have once gone wrong they cannot be mended without showing the patches. But yet men stay the hand of ruin for a while, tinkering here and putting in a nail there, stitching and cobbling; and so things are kept together. It must be so for you and me. Give me your hand, Julia, for I have never deceived you, and you need not fear that I shall do so now. Give me your hand, and say that you will be my wife.”

“No, Harry; not your wife. I do not, as you say, know that perfect girl, but I will not rob one that is so good.”

“You are bound to me, Julia. You must do as I bid you. You have told me that you love me; and I have told you — and I tell you now, that I love none other as I love you — have never loved any other as I loved you. Give me your hand.” Then, coming to her, he took her hand, while she sat with her face averted from him. “Tell me that you will be my wife.” But she would not say the words. She was less selfish than he, and was thinking — was trying to think what might be best for them all, but, above all, what might be best for him. “Speak to me,” he said, “and acknowledge that you wronged me when you thought that the expression of my love was an insult to you.”

“It is easy to say, speak. What shall I say?”

“Say that you will be my wife.”

“No — I will not say it.” She rose again from her chair, and took her hand away from him. “I will not say it. Go now and think over all that you have done; and I also will think of it. God help me. What evil comes when evil has been done. But, Harry, I understand you now, and I at least will blame you no more. Go and see Florence Burton; and if when you see her, you find that you can love her, take her to your heart, and be true to her. You shall never hear another reproach from me. Go now, go; there is nothing more to be said.”

He paused a moment as though he were going to speak, but he left the room without another word. As he went along the passage and turned on the stairs he saw her standing at the door of the room, looking at him, and it seemed that her eyes were imploring him to be true to her in spite of the words that she had spoken. “And I will be true to her,” he said to himself. “She was the first that I ever loved, and I will be true to her.”

He went out, and for an hour or two wandered about the town, hardly knowing whither his steps were taking him. There had been a tragic seriousness in what had occurred to him this evening, which seemed to cover him with care, and make him feel that his youth was gone from him. At any former period of his life his ears would have tingled with pride to hear such a woman as Lady Ongar speak of her love for him in such terms as she had used; but there was no room now for pride in his bosom. Now at least he thought nothing of her wealth or rank. He thought of her as a woman between whom and himself there existed so strong a passion as to make it impossible that he should marry another, even though his duty plainly required it. The grace and graciousness of his life were over; but love still remained to him, and of that he must make the most. All others whom he regarded would revile him, and now he must live for this woman alone. She had said that she had injured him. Yes, indeed, she had injured him! She had robbed him of his high character, of his unclouded brow, of that self-pride which had so often told him that he was living a life without reproach among men. She had brought him to a state in which misery must be his bedfellow, and disgrace his companion; but still she loved him, and to that love he would be true.

And as to Florence Burton — how was he to settle matters with her? That letter for which he had been preparing the words as he went to Bolton Street, before the necessity for it had become irrevocable, did not now appear to him to be very easy. At any rate he did not attempt it on that night.

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