The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 30

The Man Who Dusted His Boots With His Handkerchief

When Florence Burton had written three letters to Harry without receiving a word in reply to either of them, she began to be seriously unhappy. The last of these letters, received by him after the scene described in the last chapter, he had been afraid to read. It still remained unopened in his pocket. But Florence, though she was unhappy, was not even yet jealous. Her fears did not lie in that direction, nor had she naturally any tendency to such uneasiness. He was ill, she thought; or if not ill in health, then ill at ease. Some trouble afflicted him of which he could not bring himself to tell her the facts, and as she thought of this she remembered her own stubbornness on the subject of their marriage, and blamed herself in that she was not now with him, to comfort him. If such comfort would avail him anything now, she would be stubborn no longer. When the third letter brought no reply she wrote to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Burton, confessing her uneasiness, and begging for comfort. Surely Cecilia could not but see him occasionally — or at any rate have the power of seeing him. Or Theodore might do so — as, of course, he would be at the office. If anything ailed him would Cecilia tell her all the truth? But Cecilia, when she began to fear that something did ail him, did not find it very easy to tell Florence all the truth.

But there was jealousy at Stratton, though Florence was not jealous. Old Mrs. Burton had become alarmed, and was ready to tear the eyes out of Harry Clavering’s head if Harry should be false to her daughter. This was a misfortune of which, with all her brood, Mrs. Burton had as yet known nothing. No daughter of hers had been misused by any man, and no son of hers had ever misused any one’s daughter. Her children had gone out into the world steadily, prudently, making no brilliant marriages, but never falling into any mistakes. She heard of such misfortunes around her — that a young lady here had loved in vain, and that a young lady there had been left to wear the willow; but such sorrows had never visited her roof; and she was disposed to think — and perhaps to say — that the fault lay chiefly in the imprudence of mothers. What if at last, when her work in this line had been so nearly brought to a successful close, misery and disappointment should come also upon her lamb! In such case Mrs. Burton, we may say, was a ewe who would not see her lamb suffer without many bleatings and considerable exercise of her maternal energies.

And tidings had come to Mrs. Burton which had not as yet been allowed to reach Florence’s ears. In the office at the Adelphi was one Mr. Walliker, who had a younger brother now occupying that desk in Mr. Burton’s office which had belonged to Harry Clavering. Through Bob Walliker Mrs. Burton learned that Harry did not come to the office even when it was known that he had returned to London from Clavering — and she also learned at last that the young men in the office were connecting Harry Clavering’s name with that of a rich and noble widow, Lady Ongar. Then Mrs. Burton wrote to her son Theodore, as Florence had written to Theodore’s wife.

Mrs. Burton, though she had loved Harry dearly, and had, perhaps, in many respects liked him better than any of her sons-in-law, had, nevertheless, felt some misgivings from the first. Florence was brighter, better educated and cleverer than her elder sisters, and therefore when it had come to pass that she was asked in marriage by a man somewhat higher in rank and softer in manners than they who had married her sisters, there had seemed to be some reason for the change — but Mrs. Burton had felt that it was a ground for apprehension. High rank and soft manners may not always belong to a true heart. At first she was unwilling to hint this caution even to herself; but at last, as her suspicions grew, she spoke the words very frequently, not only to herself, but also to her husband. Why, oh why, had she let into her house any man differing in mode of life from those whom she had known to be honest and good? How would her gray hairs be made to go in sorrow to the grave, if after all her old prudence and all her old success, her last pet lamb should be returned to the mother’s side, ill-used, maimed, and blighted!

Theodore Burton, when he received his mother’s letter, had not seen Harry since his return from Clavering. He had been inclined to be very angry with him for his long and unannounced absence from the office. “He will do no good,” he had said to his wile. “He does not know what real work means.” But his anger turned to disgust as regarded Harry, and almost to despair as regarded his sister, when Harry had been a week in town and yet had not shown himself at the Adelphi. But at this time Theodore Burton had heard no word of Lady Ongar, though the clerks in the office had that name daily in their mouths. “Cannot you go to him, Theodore?” said his wife. “It is very easy to say go to him,” he replied. “If I made it my business I could, of course, go to him, and no doubt find him if I was determined to do so — but what more could I do? I can lead a horse to the water, but I cannot make him drink.” “You could speak to him of Florence.” “That is such a woman’s idea,” said the husband. “When every proper incentive to duty and ambition has failed him, he is to be brought into the right way by the mention of a girl’s name!” “May I see him?” Cecilia urged. “Yes — if you can catch him; but I do not advise you to try.”

After that came the two letters for the husband and wife, each of which was shown to the other; and then for the first time did either of them receive the idea that Lady Ongar with her fortune might be a cause of misery to their sister. “I don’t believe a word of it,” said Cecilia, whose cheeks were burning, half with shame and half with anger. Harry had been such a pet with her — had already been taken so closely to her heart as a brother! “I should not have suspected him of that kind of baseness,” said Theodore, very slowly. “He is not base,” said Cecilia. “He may be idle and foolish, but he is not base.”

“I must at any rate go after him now,” said Theodore. “I don’t believe this — I won’t believe it. I do not believe it. But if it should be true —!”

“Oh, Theodore.”

“I do not think it is true. It is not the kind of weakness I have seen in him. He is weak and vain, but I should have said that he was true.”

“I am sure he is true.”

“I think so. I cannot say more than that I think so.”

“You will write to your mother?”

“Yes.”

“And may I ask Florence to come up? Is it not always better that people should be near to each other when they are engaged?”

“You can ask her, if you like. I doubt whether she will come.”

“She will come if she thinks that anything is amiss with him.”

Cecilia wrote immediately to Florence, pressing her invitation in the strongest terms that she could use. “I tell you the whole truth,” she said. “We have not seen him, and this of course, has troubled us very greatly. I feel quite sure he would come to us if you were here; and this, I think, should bring you, if no other consideration does so. Theodore imagines that he has become simply idle, and that he is ashamed to show himself here because of that. It may be that he has some trouble with reference to his own home, of which we know nothing. But if he has any such trouble you ought to he made aware of it, and I feel sure that he would tell you if you were here.” Much more she said, arguing in the same way, and pressing Florence to come to London.

Mr. Burton did not at once send a reply to his mother, but he wrote the following note to Harry:

ADELPHI— May, 186 —

My Dear Clavering:— I have been sorry to notice your continued absence from the office, and both Cecilia and I have been very sorry that you have discontinued coming to us. But I should not have written to you on this matter, not wishing to interfere in your own concerns, had I not desired to see you specially with reference to my sister. As I have that to say to you concerning her which I can hardly write, will you make an appointment with me here; or at my house? Or, if you cannot do that, will you say when I shall find you at home? If you will come and dine with us we shall like that best, and leave you to name an early day; to-morrow, or the next day, or the day after. “Very truly yours,

“THEODORE BURTON.”

When Cecilia’s letter reached Stratton, and another post came without any letter from Harry, poor Florence’s heart sank low in her bosom. “Well, my dear,” said Mrs. Burton, who watched her daughter anxiously while she was reading the letter. Mrs. Burton had not told Florence of her own letter to her son; and now, having herself received no answer, looked to obtain some reply from that which her daughter-in-law had sent.

“Cecilia wants me to go to London,” said Florence.

“Is there anything the matter that you should go just now?”

“Not exactly the matter, mamma; but you can see the letter.”

Mrs. Burton read it slowly, and felt sure that much was the matter. She knew that Cecilia would have written in that strain only under the influence of some great alarm. At first she was disposed to think that she herself would go to London. She was eager to know the truth — eager to utter her loud maternal bleatings if any wrong were threatened to her lamb. Florence might go with her, but she longed herself to be on the field of action. She felt that she could almost annihilate any man by her words and looks who would dare to ill-treat a girl of hers.

“Well, mamma — what do you think?”

“I don’t know yet, my dear. I will speak to your papa before dinner.” But as Mrs. Burton had been usually autocratic in the management of her own daughters, Florence was aware that her mother simply required a little time before she made up her mind. “It is not that I want to go London for the pleasure of it, mamma.”

“I know that, my dear.”

“Nor yet merely to see him! — though, of course, I do long to see him!”

“Of course you do — why shouldn’t you?”

“But Cecilia is so very prudent, and she thinks that it will be better. And she would not have pressed it, unless Theodore had thought so too!”

“I thought Theodore would have written to me!”

“But he writes so seldom.”

“I expected a letter from him now, as I had written to him.”

“About Harry, do you mean?”

“Well; yes. I did not mention it, as I was aware I might make you uneasy. But I saw that you were unhappy at not hearing from him.”

“Oh, mamma, do let me go.”

“Of course you shall go if you wish it; but let me speak to papa before anything is quite decided.”

Mrs. Burton did speak to her husband, and it was arranged that Florence should go up to Onslow Crescent. But Mrs. Burton, though she had been always autocratic about her unmarried daughters, had never been autocratic about herself. When she hinted that she also might go, she saw that the scheme was not approved, and she at once abandoned it.

“It would look as if we were all afraid,” said Mr. Burton; “and, after all, what does it come to? A young gentleman does not write to his sweetheart for two or three weeks. I used to think myself the best lover in the world if I wrote once a month.”

“There was no penny post then, Mr. Burton.”

“And I often wish there was none now,” said Mr. Burton. That matter was therefore decided, and Florence wrote back to her sister-in-law, saying that she would go up to London on the third day from that. In the meantime, Harry Clavering and Theodore Burton had met.

Has it ever been the lot of any unmarried male reader of these pages to pass three or four days in London, without anything to do — to have to get through them by himself — and to have that burden on his shoulder, with the additional burden of some terrible, wearing misery, away from which there seems to be no road, and out of which there is apparently no escape? That was Harry Clavering’s condition for some few days after the evening which he last passed in the company of Lady Ongar; and I will ask any such unmarried man whether, in such a plight, there was for him any other alternative but to wish himself dead? In such a condition, a man can simply walk the streets by himself, and declare to himself that everything is bad, and rotten, and vile, and worthless. He wishes himself dead, and calculates the different advantages of prussic acid and pistols. He may the while take his meals very punctually at his club, may smoke his cigars, and drink his bitter beer, or brandy-and-water; but he is all the time wishing himself dead, and making that calculation as to the best way of achieving that desirable result. Such was Harry Clavering’s condition now. As for his office, the doors of that place were absolutely closed against him, by the presence of Theodore Burton. When he attempted to read, he could not understand a word, or sit for ten minutes with a book in his hand. No occupation was possible to him. He longed to go again to Bolton Street, but he did not even do that. If there, he could act only as though Florence had been deserted for ever; and if he so acted, he would be infamous for life. And yet he had sworn to Julia that such was his intention. He hardly dared to ask himself which of the two he loved. The misery of it all had become so heavy upon him, that he could take no pleasure in the thought of his love. It must always be all regret, all sorrow, and all remorse. Then there came upon him the letter from Theodore Burton, and he knew that it was necessary that he should see the writer.

Nothing could be more disagreeable than such an interview, but he could not allow himself to be guilty of the cowardice of declining it. Of a personal quarrel with Burton he was not afraid. He felt, indeed, that he might almost find relief in the capability of being himself angry with any one. But he must positively make up his mind before such an interview. He must devote himself either to Florence or to Julia; and he did not know how to abandon the one or the other. He had allowed himself to be so governed by impulse that he had pledged himself to Lady Ongar, and had sworn to her that he would be entirely hers. She, it is true, had not taken him altogether at his word, but not the less did he know — did he think that he knew — that she looked for the performance of his promise. And she had been the first that he had sworn to love!

In his dilemma he did at last go to Bolton Street, and there found that Lady Ongar had left town for three or four days. The servant said that she had gone, he believed, to the Isle of Wight; and that Madam Gordeloup had gone with her. She was to be back in town early in the following week. This was on a Thursday, and he was aware that he could not postpone his interview with Burton till after Julia’s return. So he went to his club, and nailing himself as it were to the writing-table, made an appointment for the following morning. He would be with Burton at the Adelphi at twelve o’clock. He had been in trouble, he said, and that trouble had kept him from the office and from Onslow Crescent. Having written this, he sent it off, and then played billiards, and smoked, and dined, played more billiards, and smoked and drank till the usual hours of the night had come. He was not a man who liked such things. He had not become what he was by passing his earlier years after this fashion. But his misery required excitement, and, billiards, with tobacco, were better than the desolation of solitude.

On the following morning he did not breakfast till near eleven. Why should he get up as long as it was possible to obtain the relief which was to be had from dozing? As far as possible he would not think of the matter till he had put his hat upon his head to go to The Adelphi. But the time for taking his hat soon came, and he started on his short journey. But even as he walked, he could not think of it. He was purposeless, as a ship without a rudder, telling himself that he could only go as the winds might direct him. How he did hate himself for his one weakness! And yet he hardly made an effort to overcome it. On one point only did he seem to have a resolve. If Burton attempted to use with him anything like a threat, he would instantly resent it.

Punctually at twelve he walked into the outer office, and was told that Mr. Burton was in his room.

“Halloa, Clavering,” said Walliker, who was standing with his back to the fire, “I thought we had lost you for good and all. And here you are come back again!”

Harry had always disliked this man, and now hated him worse than ever. “Yes; I am here,” said he, “for a few minutes; but I believe I need not trouble you.”

“All right, old fellow,” said Walliker; and then Harry passed through into the inner room.

“I am very glad to see you, Harry,” said Burton, rising, and giving his hand cordially to Clavering. “And I am sorry to hear that you have been in trouble. Is it anything in which we can help you?”

“I hope — Mrs. Burton is well,” said Harry, hesitating.

“Pretty well.”

“And the children?”

“Quite well. They say you are a very bad fellow not to go and see them.”

“I believe I am a bad fellow,” said Harry.

“Sit down, Harry. It will be best to come at the point at once; will it not? Is there anything wrong between you and Florence?”

“What do you mean by wrong?”

“I should call it very wrong — hideously wrong — if, after all that has passed between you, there should now be any doubt as to your affection for each other. If such doubt were now to arise with her, I should almost disown my sister.”

“You will never have to blush for her.”

“I think not. I thank God that hitherto there have been no such blushes among us. And I hope, Harry, that my heart may never have to bleed for her. Come, Harry, let me tell you all at once like an honest man. I hate subterfuges and secrets. A report has reached the old people at home — not Florence, mind — that you are untrue to Florence, and are passing your time with that lady who is the sister of your cousin’s wife.”

“What right have they to ask how I pass my time?”

“Do not be unjust, Harry. If you simply tell me that your visits to that lady imply no evil to my sister, I, knowing you to be a gentleman, will take your word for all that it can mean.” He paused, and Harry hesitated, and could not answer. “Nay, dear friend — brother as we both of us have thought you — come once more to Onslow Crescent and kiss the bairns, and kiss Cecilia, too, and sit with us at our table, and talk as you used to do, and I will ask no further question; nor will she. Then you will come back here to your work, and your trouble will be gone, and your mind will be at ease; and, Harry, one of the best girls that ever gave her heart into a man’s keeping will be there to worship you, and to swear when your back is turned that any one who says a word against you shall be no brother, and no sister, and no friend of hers.”

And this was the man who had dusted his boots with his pocket-handkerchief and whom Harry had regarded as being, on that account, hardly fit to be his friend! He knew that the man was noble, and good, and generous, and true; and knew also that in all that Burton said he simply did his duty as a brother. But not on that account was it the easier for him to reply.

“Say that you will come to us this evening,” said Burton. “Even if you have an engagement, put it off.”

“I have none,” said Harry.

“Then say that you will come to us, and all will be well.”

Harry understood of course that his compliance with this invitation would be taken as implying that all was right. It would be so easy to accept the invitation, and any other answer was so difficult! But yet he would not bring himself to tell the lie.

“Burton,” he said, “I am in trouble.”

“What is the trouble?” The man’s voice was now changed, and so was the glance of his eye. There was no expression of anger — none as yet; but the sweetness of his countenance was gone — a sweetness that was unusual to him, but which still was at his command when he needed it.

“I cannot tell you all here. If you will let me come to you this evening I will tell you everything — you and to Cecilia too. Will you let me come?”

“Certainly. Will you dine with us?”

“No; after dinner; when the children are in bed.” Then he went, leaving on the mind of Theodore Burton an impression that though something was much amiss, his mother had been wrong in her fears respecting Lady Ongar.

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