The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 7

Some Scenes in the Life of a Countess

About the middle of January Harry Clavering went up to London, and settled himself to work at Mr. Beilby’s office. Mr. Beilby’s office consisted of four or five large chambers, overlooking the river from the bottom of Adam Street in the Adeiphi, and here Harry found a table for himself in the same apartment with three other pupils. It was a fine old room, lofty, and with large windows, ornamented on the ceiling with Italian scroll-work, and a flying goddess in the centre. In days gone by the house had been the habitation of some great rich man, who had there enjoyed the sweet breezes from the river before London had become the London of the present days, and when no embankment had been needed for the Thames. Nothing could be nicer than this room, or more pleasant than the table and seat which he was to occupy near a window; but there was something in the tone of the other men toward him which did not quite satisfy him. They probably did not know that he was a fellow of a college, and treated him almost as they might have done had he come to them direct from King’s College, in the Strand, or from the London University. Down at Stratton a certain amount of honor had been paid to him. They had known there who he was, and had felt some deference for him. They had not slapped him on the back, or poked him in the ribs, or even called him old fellow, before some length of acquaintance justified such appellation. But up at Mr. Beilby’s, in the Adelphi, one young man, who was certainly his junior in age, and who did not seem as yet to have attained any high position in the science of engineering, manifestly thought that he was acting in a friendly and becoming way by declaring the stranger to be a lad of wax on the second day of his appearance. Harry Clavering was not disinclined to believe that he was a “lad of wax,” or “a brick,” or “a trump,” or “no small.” But he desired that such complimentary and endearing appellations should be used to him only by those who had known him long enough to be aware that he deserved them. Mr. Joseph Walliker certainly was not as yet among this number.

There was a man at Mr. Beilby’s who was entitled to greet him with endearing terms, and to be so greeted himself, although Harry had never seen him till he attended for the first time at the Adelphi. This was Theodore Burton, his future brother-in-law, who was now the leading man in the London house — the leading man as regarded business, though he was not as yet a partner. It was understood that this Mr. Burton was to come in when his father went out; and in the meantime he received a salary of a thousand a year as managing clerk. A very hard-working, steady, intelligent man was Mr. Theodore Burton, with a bald head, a high forehead, and that look of constant work about him which such men obtain. Harry Clavering could not bring himself to take a liking to him, because he wore cotton gloves, and had an odious habit of dusting his shoes with his pocket-handkerchief. Twice Harry saw him do this on the first day of their acquaintance, and he regretted it exceedingly. The cotton gloves, too, were offensive, as were also the thick shoes which had been dusted; but the dusting was the great sin.

And there was something which did not quite please Harry in Mr. Theodore Burton’s manner, though the gentleman had manifestly intended to be very kind to him. When Burton had been speaking to him for a minute or two, it flashed across Harry’s mind that he had not bound himself to marry the whole Burton family, and that, perhaps, he must take some means to let that fact be known. “Theodore,” as he had so often heard the younger Mr. Burton called by loving lips, seemed to claim him as his own, called him Harry, and upbraided him with friendly warmth for not having come direct to his — Mr. Burton’s house-in Onslow Crescent. “Pray feel yourself at home there,” said Mr. Burton. “I hope you’ll like my wife. You needn’t be afraid of being made to be idle if you spend your evenings there, for we are all reading people. Will you come and dine to-day?” Florence had told him that she was her brother Theodore’s favorite sister, and that Theodore as a husband and a brother, and a man, was perfect. But Theodore had dusted his boots with his handkerchief, and Harry Clavering would not dine with him on that day.

And then it was perfectly manifest to him that every one in the office knew his destiny with reference to old Burton’s daughter. He had been one of the Stratton men, and no more than any other had he gone unscathed through the Stratton fire. He had been made to do the regular thing, as Granger, Scarness, and others had done it. Stratton would be safer ground now, as Clavering had taken the last. That was the feeling on the matter which seemed to belong to others. It was not that Harry thought in this way of his own Florence. He knew well enough what a lucky fellow he was to have won such a girl He was well aware how widely his Florence differed from Carry Scarness. He denied to himself indignantly that he had any notion of repenting what he had done. But he did wish that these private matters might have remained private, and that all the men at Beilby’s had not known of his engagement. When Walliker, on the fourth day of their acquaintance, asked him if it was all right at Stratton, he made up his mind that he hated Walliker, and that he would hate Walliker to the last day of his life. He had declined the first invitation given to him by Theodore Burton; but he could not altogether avoid his future brother-in-law, and had agreed to dine with him on this day.

On that same afternoon Harry, when he left Mr. Beilby’s cffice, went direct to Bolton Street, that he might call on Lady Ongar. As he went thither he bethought himself that these Wallikers and the like had had no such events in life as had befallen him! They laughed at him about Florence Burton, little guessing that it had been his lot to love, and to be loved by such a one as Julia Brabazon had been — such a one as Lady Ongar now was. But things had gone well with him. Julia Brabazon could have made no man happy, but Florence Burton would be the sweetest, dearest, truest little wife that ever man took to his home. He was thinking of this, and determined to think of it more and more daily, as he knocked at Lady Ongar’s door. “Yes; her ladyship was at home,” said the servant whom he had seen on the railway platform; and in a few moments’ time he found himself in the drawing-room which he had criticized so carefully when he was taking it for its present occupant.

He was left in the room for five or six minutes, and was able to make a full mental inventory of its contents. It was very different in its present aspect from the room which he had seen not yet a month since. She had told him that the apartments had been all that she desired; but since then everything had been altered, at least in appearance. A new piano had been brought in, and the chintz on the furniture was surely new. And the room was crowded with small feminine belongings, indicative of wealth and luxury. There were ornaments about, and pretty toys, and a thousand knickknacks which none but the rich can possess, and which none can possess even among the rich unless they can give taste as well as money to their acquisition. Then he heard a light step; the door opened, and Lady Ongar was there.

He expected to see the same figure that he had seen on the railway platform, the same gloomy drapery, the same quiet, almost deathlike demeanor, nay, almost the same veil over her features; but the Lady Ongar whom he now saw was as unlike that Lady Ongar as she was unlike that Julia Brabazon whom he had known in old days at Clavering Park. She was dressed, no doubt, in black; nay, no doubt, she was dressed in weeds; but in spite of the black and in spite of the weeds there was nothing about her of the weariness or of the solemnity of woe. He hardly saw that her dress was made of crape, or that long white pendants were hanging down from the cap which sat so prettily upon her head. But it was her face at which he gazed. At first he thought she could hardly be the same woman, she was to his eyes so much older than she had been! And yet as he looked at her, he found that she was as handsome as ever — more handsome than she had ever been before. There was a dignity about her face and figure which became her well, and which she carried as though she knew herself to be in very truth a countess. It was a face which bore well such signs of age as those which had come upon it. She seemed to be a woman fitter for womanhood than for girlhood. Her eyes were brighter than of yore, and, as Harry thought, larger; and her high forehead and noble stamp of countenance seemed fitted for the dress and headgear which she wore.

“I have been expecting you,” said she, stepping up to him. “Hermione wrote me word that you were to come up on Monday. Why did you not come sooner?” There was a smile on her face as she spoke, and a confidence in her tone which almost confounded him.

“I have had so many things to do,” said he lamely.

“About your new profession. Yes, I can understand that. And so you are settled in London now? Where are you living — that is, if you are settled yet?” In answer to this, Harry told her he had taken lodgings in Bloomsbury Square, blushing somewhat as he named so unfashionable a locality. Old Mrs. Burton had recommended him to the house in which he was located, but he did not find it necessary to explain that fact to Lady Ongar.

“I have to thank you for what you did for me,” continued she. “You ran away from me in such a hurry on that night that I was unable to speak to you. But to tell the truth, Harry, I was in no mood then to speak to any one. Of course you thought that I treated you ill.”

“Oh, no,” said he.

“Of course you did. If I thought you did not, I should be angry with you now. But had it been to save my life I could not have helped it. Why did not Sir Hugh Clavering come to meet me? Why did not my sister’s husband come to me?” To this question Harry could make no answer. He was still standing with his hat in his hand, and now turned his face away from her and shook his head.

“Sit down, Harry,” said she, “and let me talk to you like a friend — unless you are in a hurry to go away.”

“Oh, no,” said he, seating himself.

“Or unless you, too, are afraid of me.”

“Afraid of you, Lady Ongar?”

“Yes, afraid; but I don’t mean you. I don’t believe that you are coward enough to desert a woman who was once your friend because misfortune has overtaken her, and calumny has been at work with her name.”

“I hope not,” said he.

“No, Harry; I do not think it of you. But if Sir Hugh be not a coward, why did he not come and meet me? Why has he left me to stand alone, now that he could be of service to me? I knew that money was his god, but I have never asked him for a shilling, and should not have done so now. Oh, Harry, how wicked you were about that check? Do you remember?”

“Yes; I remember.”

“So shall I; always, always. If I had taken that money how often should I have heard of it since?”

“Heard of it?” he asked. “Do you mean from me?”

“Yes; how often from you? Would you have dunned me, and told me of it once a week? Upon my word, Harry, I was told of it more nearly every day. Is it not wonderful that men should be so mean?”

It was clear to him now that she was talking of her husband who was dead, and on that subject he felt himself at present unable to speak a word. He little dreamed at that moment how openly she would soon speak to him of Lord Ongar and of Lord Ongar’s faults?

“Oh, how I have wished that I had taken your money! But never mind about that now, Harry. Wretched as such taunts were, they soon became a small thing. But it has been cowardly in your cousin, Hugh; has it not? If I had not lived with him as one of his family, it would not have mattered. People would not have expected it. It was as though my own brother had cast me forth.”

“Lady Clavering has been with you; has she not?”

“Once, for half an hour. She came up for one day, and came here by herself; cowering as though she were afraid of me. Poor Hermy! She has not a good time of it either. You lords of creation lead your slaves sad lives when it pleases you to change your billing and cooing for matter-of-fact masterdom and rule. I don’t blame Hermy. I suppose she did all she could, and I did not utter one word of reproach of her. Nor should I to him. Indeed, if he came now the servant would deny me to him. He has insulted me. and I shall remember the insult.”

Harry Clavering did not clearly understand what it was that Lady Ongar had desired of her brother-in-law — what aid she had required; nor did he know whether it would be fitting for him to offer to act in Sir Hugh’s place. Anything that he could do, he felt himself at that moment willing to do, even though the necessary service should demand some sacrifice greater than prudence could approve. “If I had thought that anything was wanted, I should have come to you sooner,” said he.

“Everything is wanted, Harry. Everything is wanted — except that check for six hundred pounds which you sent me so treacherously. Did you ever think what might have happened if a certain person had heard of that? All the world would have declared that you had done it for your own private purposes — all the world, except one.”

Harry, as he heard this, felt that he was blushing. Did Lady Ongar know of his engagement with Florence Burton? Lady Clavering knew it, and might probably have told the tidings; but then, again, she might not have told them. Harry at this moment wished that he knew how it was. All that Lady Ongar said to him would come with so different a meaning according as he did or did not know that fact. But he had no mind to tell her of the fact himself. He declared to himself that he hoped she knew it, as it would serve to make them both more comfortable together; but he did not think it would do for him to bring forward the subject, neck and heels as it were. The proper thing would be that she should congratulate him, but this she did not do. “I certainly meant no ill,” he said, in answer to the last words she had spoken.

“You have never meant ill to me, Harry; though you know you have abused me dreadfully before now. I daresay you forget the hard names you have called me. You men do forget such things.”

“I remember calling you one name.”

“Do not repeat it now, if you please. If I deserved it, it would shame me; and if I did not, it should shame you.”

“No; I will not repeat it.”

“Does it not seem odd, Harry, that you and I should be sitting, talking together in this way?” She was leaning now toward him, across the table, and one hand was raised to her forehead while her eyes were fixed intently upon his. The attitude was one which he felt to express extreme intimacy. She would not have sat in that way, pressing back her hair from her brow, with all the appearance of widowhood banished from her face, in the presence of any but a dear and close friend. He did not think of this, but he felt that it was so, almost by instinct. “I have such a tale to tell you,” she said; “such a tale! Why should she tell it to him? Of course he asked himself this question. Then he remembered that she had no brother — remembered also that her brother-in-law had deserted her, and he declared to himself that, if necessary, he would be her brother. “I fear that you have not been happy,” said he, “since I saw you last.”

“Happy!” she replied. “I have lived such a life as I did not think any man or woman could be made to live on this side the grave. I will be honest with you, Harry. Nothing but the conviction that it could not be for long has saved me from destroying myself. I knew that he must die!”

“Oh, Lady Ongar!”

“Yes, indeed; that is the name he gave me; and because I consented to take it from him, he treated me — O heavens! how am I to find words to tell you what he did, and the way in which he treated me. A woman could not tell it to a man. Harry, I have no friend that I trust but you, but to you I cannot tell it. When he found that he had been wrong in marrying me, that he did not want the thing which he had thought would suit him, that I was a drag upon him rather than a comfort — what was his mode, do you think, of ridding himself of the burden?” Clavering sat silent looking at her. Both her hands were now up to her forehead, and her large eyes were gazing at him till he found himself unable to withdraw his own for a moment from her face. “He strove to get another man to take me off his hands; and when he found he was failing — he charged me with the guilt which he himself had contrived for me.”

“Lady Ongar!”

“Yes; you may well stare at me. You may well speak hoarsely and look like that. It may be that even you will not believe me; but by the God in whom we both believe, I tell you nothing but the truth. He attempted that and he failed; and then he accused me of the crime which he could not bring me to commit.”

“And what then?”

“Yes; what then? Harry, I had a thing to do, and a life to live, that would have tried the bravest; but I went through it. I stuck to him to the last! He told me before he was dying — before that last frightful illness, that I was staying with him for his money. ‘For your money, my lord,’ I said, ‘and for my own name.’ And so it was. Would it have been wise in me, after all that I had gone through, to have given up that for which I had sold myself? I had been very poor, and had been so placed that poverty, even, such poverty as mine, was a curse to me. You know what I gave up because I feared that curse. Was I to be foiled at last, because such a creature as that wanted to shirk out of his bargain? I knew there would be some who would say I had been false. Hugh Clavering says so now, I suppose. But they never should say I had left him to die alone in a foreign land.”

“Did he ask you to leave him?”

“No; but he called me that name which no woman should hear and stay. No woman should do so unless she had a purpose such as mine. He wanted back the price he had paid, and I was determined to do nothing that should assist him in his meanness! And then, Harry, his last illness! Oh, Harry, you would pity me if you could know all!”

“It was his own intemperance!”

“Intemperance! It was brandy — sheer brandy. He brought himself to such a state that nothing but brandy would keep him alive, and in which brandy was sure to kill him — and it did kill him. Did you ever hear of the horrors of drink?”

“Yes; I have heard of such a state.”

“I hope you may never live to see it. It is a sight that would stick by you for ever. But I saw it, and tended him through the whole, as though I had been his servant. I remained with him when that man who opened the door for you could no longer endure the room. I was with him when the strong woman from the hospital, though she could not understand his words, almost fainted at what she saw and heard. He was punished, Harry. I need wish no farther vengeance on him, even for all his cruelty, his injustice, his unmanly treachery. Is it not fearful to think that any man should have the power of bringing himself to such an end as that?”

Harry was thinking rather how fearful it was that a man should have it in his power to drag any woman through such a Gehenna as that which this lord had created. He felt that had Julia Brabazon been his, as she had once promised him, he never would have allowed himself to speak a harsh word to her, to have looked at her except with loving eyes. But she had chosen to join herself to a man who had treated her with a cruelty exceeding all that his imagination could have conceived. “It is a mercy that he has gone,” said he at last.

“It is a mercy for both. Perhaps you can understand now something of my married life. And through it all I had but one friend — if I may call him a friend who had come to terms with my husband, and who was to have been his agent in destroying me. But when this man understood from me that I was not what he had been taught to think me — which my husband told him I was — he relented.”

“May I ask what was that man’s name?”

“His name is Pateroff. He is a Pole, but he speaks English like an Englishman. In my presence he told Lord Ongar that he was false and brutal. Lord Ongar laughed, with that little, low, sneering laughter which was his nearest approach to merriment, and told Count Pateroff that that was of course his game before me. There, Harry, I will tell you nothing more of it. You will understand enough to know what I have suffered; and if you can believe that I have not sinned —”

“Oh, Lady Ongar!”

“Well, I will not doubt you again. But as far as I can learn you are nearly alone in your belief. What. Hermy thinks I cannot tell, but she will soon come to think as Hugh may bid her. And I shall not blame her. What else can she do, poor creature?”

“I am sure she believes no ill of you.”

“I have one advantage, Harry — one advantage over her and some others. I am free. The chains have, hurt me sorely during my slavery; but I am free, and the price of my servitude remains. He had written home-would you believe that? while I was living with him he had written home to say that evidence should be collected for getting rid of me. And yet he would sometimes be civil, hoping to cheat me into inadvertencies. He would ask that man to dine, and then of a sudden would be absent; and during this he was ordering that evidence should be collected! Evidence, indeed! The same servants have lived with me through it all If I could now bring forward evidence I could make it all clear as the day. But there needs no care for a woman’s honor, though a man may have to guard his by collecting evidence!”

“But what he did cannot injure you.”

“Yes, Harry, it has injured me; it has all but destroyed me. Have not reports reached even you? Speak out like a man, and say whether it is not so!”

“I have heard something.”

“Yes, you have heard something! If you heard something of your sister where would you be? All the world would be a chaos to you till you had pulled out somebody’s tongue by the roots. Not injured me! For two years your cousin Hugh’s house was my home. I met Lord Ongar in his house. I was married from his house. He is my brother-in-law, and it so happens that of all men he is the nearest to me. He stands well before the world, and at this time could have done me real service. How is it that he did not welcome me home; that I am not now at his house with my sister; that he did not meet me so that the world might know that I was received back among my own people? Why is it, Harry, that I am telling this to you — to you, who are nothing to me; my sister’s husband’s cousin; a young man, from your position, not fit to be my confidant? Why am I telling this to you, Harry?”

“Because we are old friends,” said he, wondering again at this moment whether she knew of his engagement with Florence Burton.

“Yes, we are old friends, and we have always liked each other; but you must know that, as the world judges, I am wrong to tell all this to you. I should be wrong, only that the world has cast me out, so that I am no longer bound to regard it. I am Lady Ougar, and I have my share of that man’s money. They have given me up Ongar Park, having satisfied themselves that it is mine by right, and must be mine by law. But he has robbed me of every friend I had in the world, and yet you tell me he has not injured me!”

“Not every friend.”

“No, Harry, I will not forget you, though I spoke so slightingly of you just now. But your vanity need not be hurt. It is only the world — Mrs. Grundy, you know, that would deny me such friendship as yours; not my own taste or choice. Mrs. Grundy always denies us exactly those things which we ourselves like best. You are clever enough to understand that.”

He smiled and looked foolish, and declared that he only offered his assistance because perhaps it might be convenient at the present moment. What could he do for her? How could he show his friendship for her now at once?

“You have done it, Harry, in listening to me and giving me your sympathy. It is seldom that we want any great thing from our friends. I want nothing of that kind. No one can hurt me much further now. My money and my rank are safe; and, perhaps, by degrees, acquaintances, if not friends, will form themselves round me again. At present, of course, I see no one; but because I see no one, I wanted some one to whom I could speak. Poor Hermy is worse than no one. Good-by, Harry; you look surprised and bewildered now, but you will soon get over that. Don’t be long before I see you again.” Then, feeling that he was bidden to go, he wished her good-by, and went.

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