The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XII

Consolation

On the following Sunday neither Tudor nor Norman was at Hampton. They had both felt that they could not comfortably meet each other there, and each had declined to go. They had promised to write; and now that the matter was decided, how were they or either of them to keep the promise?

It may be thought that the bitterness of the moment was over with Norman as soon as he gave up; but such was not the case. Let him struggle as he would with himself he could not rally, nor bring himself to feel happy on what had occurred. He would have been better satisfied if Alaric would have triumphed; but Alaric seemed to take it all as a matter of course, and never spoke of his own promotion unless he did so in answer to some remark of his companion; then he could speak easily enough; otherwise he was willing to let the matter go by as one settled and at rest. He had consulted Norman about the purchase of a horse, but he hitherto had shown no other sign that he was a richer man than formerly.

It was a very bitter time for Norman. He could not divest his mind of the subject. What was he to do? Where was he to go? How was he to get away, even for a time, from Alaric Tudor? And then, was he right in wishing to get away from him? Had he not told himself, over and over again, that it behoved him as a man and a friend and a Christian to conquer the bitter feeling of envy which preyed on his spirits? Had he not himself counselled Alaric to stand this examination? and had he not promised that his doing so should make no difference in their friendship? Had he not pledged himself to rejoice in the success of his friend? and now was he to break his word both to that friend and to himself?

Schooling himself, or trying to school himself in this way, he made no attempt at escaping from his unhappiness. They passed the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings together. It was now nearly the end of September, and London was empty; that is, empty as regards those friends and acquaintances with whom Norman might have found some resource. On the Saturday they left their office early; for all office routine had, during this week, been broken through by the immense importance of the ceremony which was going on; and then it became necessary to write to Mrs. Woodward.

‘Will you write to Hampton or shall I?’ said Alaric, as they walked arm-inarm under the windows of Whitehall.

‘Oh! you, of course,’ said Norman; ‘you have much to tell them; I have nothing.’

‘Just as you please,’ said the other. ‘That is, of course, I will if you like it. But I think it would come better from you. You are nearer to them than I am; and it will have less a look of triumph on my part, and less also of disappointment on yours, if you write. If you tell them that you literally threw away your chance, you will only tell them the truth.’

Norman assented, but he said nothing further. What business had Alaric to utter such words as triumph and disappointment? He could not keep his arm, on which Alaric was leaning, from spasmodically shrinking from the touch. He had been beaten by a man, nay worse, had yielded to a man, who had not the common honesty to refuse a bribe; and yet he was bound to love this man. He could not help asking himself the question which he would do. Would he love him or hate him?

But while he was so questioning himself, he got home, and had to sit down and write his letter — this he did at once, but not without difficulty. It ran as follows:—

‘My dear Mrs. Woodward —

‘I write a line to tell you of my discomfiture and Alaric’s success. I gave up at the end of the second day. Of course I will tell you all about it when we meet. No one seemed to doubt that Alaric would get it, as a matter of course. I shall be with you on next Saturday. Alaric says he will not go down till the Saturday after, when I shall be at Normansgrove. My best love to the girls. Tell Katie I shan’t drown either myself or the boat,

‘Yours ever affectionately,

‘H. N.

‘Saturday, September, 185-.

‘Pray write me a kind letter to comfort me.’

Mrs. Woodward did write him a very kind letter, and it did comfort him. And she wrote also, as she was bound to do, a letter of congratulation to Alaric. This letter, though it expressed in the usual terms the satisfaction which one friend has in another’s welfare, was not written in the same warm affectionate tone as that to Norman. Alaric perceived instantly that it was not cordial. He loved Mrs. Woodward dearly, and greatly desired her love and sympathy. But what then? He could not have everything. He determined, therefore, not to trouble his mind. If Mrs. Woodward did not sympathize with him, others of the family would do so; and success would ultimately bring her round. What woman ever yet refused to sympathize with successful ambition?

Alaric also received a letter from Captain Cuttwater, in which that gallant veteran expressed his great joy at the result of the examination —‘Let the best man win all the world over,’ said he, ‘whatever his name is. And they’ll have to make the same rule at the Admiralty too. The days of the Howards are gone by; that is, unless they can prove themselves able seamen, which very few of them ever did yet. Let the best man win; that’s what I say; and let every man get his fair share of promotion.’ Alaric did not despise the sympathy of Captain Cuttwater. It might turn out that even Captain Cuttwater could be made of use.

Mrs. Woodward’s letter to Harry was full of the tenderest affection. It was a flattering, soothing, loving letter, such as no man ever could have written. It was like oil poured into his wounds, and made him feel that the world was not all harsh to him. He had determined not to go to Hampton that Saturday; but Mrs. Woodward’s letter almost made him rush there at once that he might throw himself into her arms — into her arms, and at her daughter’s feet. The time had now come to him when he wanted to be comforted by the knowledge that his love was returned. He resolved that during his next visit he would formally propose to Gertrude.

The determination to do this, and a strong hope that he might do it successfully, kept him up during the interval. On the following week he was to go to his father’s place to shoot, having obtained leave of absence for a month; and he felt that he could still enjoy himself if he could take with him the conviction that all was right at Surbiton Cottage. Mrs. Woodward, in her letter, though she had spoken much of the girls, had said nothing special about Gertrude. Nevertheless, Norman gathered from it that she intended that he should go thither to look for comfort, and that he would find there the comfort that he required.

And Mrs. Woodward had intended that such should be the effect of her letter. It was at present the dearest wish of her heart to see Norman and Gertrude married. That Norman had often declared his love to her eldest daughter she knew very well, and she knew also that Gertrude had never rejected him. Having perfect confidence in her child, she had purposely abstained from saying anything that could bias her opinion. She had determined to leave the matter in the hands of the young people themselves, judging that it might be best arranged as a true love-match between them, without interference from her; she had therefore said nothing to Gertrude on the subject.

Mrs. Woodward, however, discovered that she was in error, when it was too late for her to retrieve her mistake; and, indeed, had she discovered it before that letter was written, what could she have done? She could not have forbidden Harry to come to her house — she could not have warned him not to throw himself at her daughter’s feet. The cup was prepared for his lips, and it was necessary that he should drink of it. There was nothing for which she could blame him; nothing for which she could blame herself; nothing for which she did blame her daughter. It was sorrowful, pitiful, to be lamented, wept for, aye, and groaned for; many inward groans it cost her; but it was at any rate well that she could attribute her sorrow to the spite of circumstances rather than to the ill-conduct of those she loved.

Nor would it have been fair to blame Gertrude in the matter. While she was yet a child, this friend of her mother’s had been thrown with her, and when she was little more than a child, she found that this friend had become a lover. She liked him, in one sense loved him, and was accustomed to regard him as one whom it would be almost wrong in her not to like and love. What wonder then that when he first spoke to her warm words of adoration, she had not been able at once to know her own heart, and tell him that his hopes would be in vain?

She perceived by instinct, rather than by spoken words, that her mother was favourable to this young lover, that if she accepted him she would please her mother, that the course of true love might in their case run smooth. What wonder then that she should have hesitated before she found it necessary to say that she could not, would not, be Harry Norman’s wife?

On the Saturday morning, the morning of that night which was, as he hoped, to see him go to bed a happy lover, so happy in his love as to be able to forget his other sorrows, she was sitting alone with her mother. It was natural that their conversation should turn to Alaric and Harry. Alaric, with his happy prospects, was soon dismissed; but Mrs. Woodward continued to sing the praises of him who, had she been potent with the magi of the Civil Service, would now be the lion of the Weights and Measures.

‘I must say I think it was weak of him to retire,’ said Gertrude. ‘Alaric says in his letter to Uncle Bat, that had he persevered he would in all probability have been successful.’

‘I should rather say that it was generous,’ said her mother.

‘Well, I don’t know, mamma; that of course depends on his motives; but wouldn’t generosity of that sort between two young men in such a position be absurd?’

‘You mean that such regard for his friend would be Quixotic.’

‘Yes, mamma.’

‘Perhaps it would. All true generosity, all noble feeling, is now called Quixotic. But surely, Gertrude, you and I should not quarrel with Harry on that account.’

‘I think he got frightened, mamma, and had not nerve to go through with it.’

Mrs. Woodward looked vexed; but she made no immediate reply, and for some time the mother and daughter went on working without further conversation. At last Gertrude said:—

‘I think every man is bound to do the best he can for himself — that is, honestly; there is something spoony in one man allowing another to get before him, as long as he can manage to be first himself.’

Mrs. Woodward did not like the tone in which her daughter spoke. She felt that it boded ill for Harry’s welfare; and she tried, but tried in vain, to elicit from her daughter the expression of a kinder feeling.

‘Well, my dear, I must say I think you are hard on him. But, probably, just at present you have the spirit of contradiction in you. If I were to begin to abuse him, perhaps I should get you to praise him.’

‘Oh, mamma, I did not abuse him.’

‘Something like it, my dear, when you said he was spoony.’

‘Oh, mamma, I would not abuse him for worlds — I know how good he is, I know how you love him, but, but —-’ and Gertrude, though very little given to sobbing moods, burst into tears.

‘Come here, Gertrude; come here, my child,’ said Mrs. Woodward, now moved more for her daughter than for her favourite; ‘what is it? what makes you cry? I did not really mean that you abused poor Harry.’

Gertrude got up from her chair, knelt at her mother’s feet, and hid her face in her mother’s lap. ‘Oh, mamma,’ she said, with a half-smothered voice, ‘I know what you mean; I know what you wish; but — but — but, oh, mamma, you must not — must not, must not think of it any more.’

‘Then may God help him!’ said Mrs. Woodward, gently caressing her daughter, who was still sobbing with her face buried in her mother’s lap. ‘May God Almighty lighten the blow to him! But oh, Gertrude, I had hoped, I had so hoped ——’

‘Oh, mamma, don’t, pray don’t,’ and Gertrude sobbed as though she were going into hysterics.

‘No, my child, I will not say another word. Dear as he is to me, you are and must be ten times dearer. There, Gertrude, it is over now; over at least between us. We know each other’s hearts now. It is my fault that we did not do so sooner.’ They did understand each other at last, and the mother made no further attempt to engage her daughter’s love for the man she would have chosen as her daughter’s husband.

But still the worst was to come, as Mrs. Woodward well knew — and as Gertrude knew also; to come, too, on this very day. Mrs. Woodward, with a woman’s keen perception, felt assured that Harry Norman, when he found himself at the Cottage, freed from the presence of the successful candidate, surrounded by the affectionate faces of all her circle, would melt at once and look to his love for consolation. She understood the feelings of his heart as well as though she had read them in a book; and yet she could do nothing to save him from his fresh sorrows. The cup was prepared for him, and it was necessary that he should drink it. She could not tell him, could not tell even him, that her daughter had rejected him, when as yet he had made no offer.

And so Harry Norman hurried down to his fate. When he reached the Cottage, Mrs. Woodward and Linda and Katie were in the drawing-room.

‘Harry, my dear Harry,’ said Mrs. Woodward, rushing to him, throwing her arms round him, and kissing him; ‘we know it all, we understand it all — my fine, dear, good Harry.’

Harry was melted in a moment, and in the softness of his mood kissed Katie too, and Linda also. Katie he had often kissed, but never Linda, cousins though they were. Linda merely laughed, but Norman blushed; for he remembered that had it so chanced that Gertrude had been there, he would not have dared to kiss her.

‘Oh, Harry,’ said Katie, ‘we are so sorry — that is, not sorry about Alaric, but sorry about you. Why were there not two prizes?’

‘It’s all right as it is, Katie,’ said he; ‘we need none of us be sorry at all. Alaric is a clever fellow; everybody gave him credit for it before, and now he has proved that everybody is right.’

‘He is older than you, you know, and therefore he ought to be cleverer,’ said Katie, trying to make things pleasant.

And then they went out into the garden. But where was Gertrude all this time? She had been in the drawing-room a moment before his arrival. They walked out into the lawn, but nothing was said about her absence. Norman could not bring himself to ask for her, and Mrs. Woodward could not trust herself to talk of her.

‘Where is the captain?’ said Harry.

‘He’s at Hampton Court,’ said Linda; ‘he has found another navy captain there, and he goes over every day to play backgammon.’ As they were speaking, however, the captain walked through the house on to the lawn.

‘Well, Norman, how are you, how are you? sorry you couldn’t all win. But you’re a man of fortune, you know, so it doesn’t signify.’

‘Not a great deal of fortune,’ said Harry, looking sheepish.

‘Well, I only hope the best man got it. Now, at the Admiralty the worst man gets it always.’

‘The worst man didn’t get it here,’ said Harry.

‘No, no,’ said Uncle Bat, ‘I’m sure he did not; nor he won’t long at the Admiralty either, I can tell them that. But where’s Gertrude?’

‘She’s in her bedroom, dressing for dinner,’ said Katie.

‘Hoity toity,’ said Uncle Bat, ‘she’s going to make herself very grand today. That’s all for you, Master Norman. Well, I suppose we may all go in and get ready; but mind, I have got no sweetheart, and so I shan’t make myself grand at all;’ and so they all went in to dress for dinner.

When Norman came down, Gertrude was in the drawing-room alone. But he knew that they would be alone but for a minute, and that a minute would not serve for his purpose. She said one soft gentle word of condolence to him, some little sentence that she had been studying to pronounce. All her study was thrown away; for Norman, in his confusion, did not understand a word that she spoke. Her tone, however, was kind and affectionate; and she shook hands with him apparently with cordiality. He, however, ventured no kiss with her. He did not even press her hand, when for a moment he held it within his own.

Dinner was soon over, and the autumn evening still admitted of their going out. Norman was not sorry to urge the fact that the ladies had done so, as an excuse to Captain Cuttwater for not sitting with him over his wine. He heard their voices in the garden, and went out to join them, prepared to ascertain his fate if fortune would give him an opportunity of doing so. He found the party to consist of Mrs. Woodward, Linda, and Katie; Gertrude was not there.

‘I think the evenings get warmer as the winter gets nearer,’ said Harry.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Woodward, ‘but they are so dangerous. The night comes on all at once, and then the air is so damp and cold.’

And so they went on talking about the weather.

‘Your boat is up in London, I know, Harry,’ said Katie, with a voice of reproach, but at the same time with a look of entreaty.

‘Yes, it’s at Searle’s,’ said Norman.

‘But the punt is here,’ said Katie.

‘Not this evening, Katie,’ said he.

‘Katie, how can you be such a tease?’ said Mrs. Woodward; ‘you’ll make Harry hate the island, and you too. I wonder you can be so selfish.’

Poor Katie’s eyes became suffused with tears.

‘My dear Katie, it’s very bad of me, isn’t it?’ said Norman, ‘and the fine weather so nearly over too; I ought to take you, oughtn’t I? come, we will go.’

‘No, we won’t,’ said Katie, taking his big hand in both her little ones, ‘indeed we won’t. It was very wrong of me to bother you; and you with — with — with so much to think of. Dear Harry, I don’t want to go at all, indeed I don’t,’ and she turned away from the little path which led to the place where the punt was moored.

They sauntered on for a while together, and then Norman left them. He said nothing, but merely stole away from the lawn towards the drawing-room window. Mrs. Woodward well knew with what object he went, and would have spared him from his immediate sorrow by following him; but she judged that it would be better both for him and for her daughter that he should learn the truth.

He went in through the open drawing-room window, and found Gertrude alone. She was on the sofa with a book in her hand; and had he been able to watch her closely he would have seen that the book trembled as he entered the room. But he was unable to watch anything closely. His own heart beat so fast, his own confusion was so great, that he could hardly see the girl whom he now hoped to gain as his wife. Had Alaric been coming to his wooing, he would have had every faculty at his call. But then Alaric could not have loved as Norman loved.

And so we will leave them. In about half an hour, when the short twilight was becoming dusk, Mrs. Woodward returned, and found Norman standing alone on the hearthrug before the fireplace. Gertrude was away, and he was leaning against the mantelpiece, with his hands behind his back, staring at vacancy; but oh! with such an aspect of dull, speechless agony in his face.

Mrs. Woodward looked up at him, and would have burst into tears, had she not remembered that they would not be long alone; she therefore restrained herself, but gave one involuntary sigh; and then, taking off her bonnet, placed herself where she might sit without staring at him in his sorrow.

Katie came in next. ‘Oh! Harry, it’s so lucky we didn’t start in the punt,’ said she, ‘for it’s going to pour, and we never should have been back from the island in that slow thing.’

Norman looked at her and tried to smile, but the attempt was a ghastly failure. Katie, gazing up into his face, saw that he was unhappy, and slunk away, without further speech, to her distant chair. There, from time to time, she would look up at him, and her little heart melted with ruth to see the depth of his misery. ‘Why, oh why,’ thought she, ‘should that greedy Alaric have taken away the only prize?’

And then Linda came running in with her bonnet ribbons all moist with the big raindrops. ‘You are a nice squire of dames,’ said she, ‘to leave us all out to get wet through by ourselves;’ and then she also, looking up, saw that jesting was at present ill-timed, and so sat herself down quietly at the tea-table.

But Norman never moved. He saw them come in one after another. He saw the pity expressed in Mrs. Woodward’s face; he heard the light-hearted voices of the two girls, and observed how, when they saw him, their light-heartedness was abashed; but still he neither spoke nor moved. He had been stricken with a fearful stroke, and for a while was powerless.

Captain Cuttwater, having shaken off his dining-room nap, came for his tea; and then, at last, Gertrude also, descending from her own chamber, glided quietly into the room. When she did so, Norman, with a struggle, roused himself, and took a chair next to Mrs. Woodward, and opposite to her eldest daughter.

Who could describe the intense discomfiture of that tea-party, or paint in fitting colours the different misery of each one there assembled? Even Captain Cuttwater at once knew that something was wrong, and munched his bread-and-butter and drank his tea in silence. Linda surmised what had taken place; though she was surprised, she was left without any doubt. Poor Katie was still in the dark, but she also knew that there was cause for sorrow, and crept more and more into her little self. Mrs. Woodward sat with averted face, and ever and anon she put her handkerchief to her eyes. Gertrude was very pale, and all but motionless, but she had schooled herself, and managed to drink her tea with more apparent indifference than any of the others. Norman sat as he had before been standing, with that dreadful look of agony upon his brow.

Immediately after tea Mrs. Woodward got up and went to her dressing-room. Her dressing-room, though perhaps not improperly so called, was not an exclusive closet devoted to combs, petticoats, and soap and water. It was a comfortable snug room, nicely furnished, with sofa and easy chairs, and often open to others besides her handmaidens. Thither she betook herself, that she might weep unseen; but in about twenty minutes her tears were disturbed by a gentle knock at the door.

Very soon after she went, Gertrude also left the room, and then Katie crept off.

‘I have got a headache to-night,’ said Norman, after the remaining three had sat silent for a minute or two; ‘I think I’ll go across and go to bed.’

‘A headache!’ said Linda. ‘Oh, I am so sorry that you have got to go to that horrid inn.’

‘Oh! I shall do very well there,’ said Norman, trying to smile.

‘Will you have my room?’ said the captain good-naturedly; ‘any sofa does for me.’

Norman assured them as well as he could that his present headache was of such a nature that a bed at the inn would be the best thing for him; and then, shaking hands with them, he moved to the door.

‘Stop a moment, Harry,’ said Linda, ‘and let me tell mamma. She’ll give you something for your head.’ He made a sign to her, however, to let him pass, and then, creeping gently upstairs, he knocked at Mrs. Woodward’s door.

‘Come in,’ said Mrs. Woodward, and Harry Norman, with all his sorrows still written on his face, stood before her.

‘Oh! Harry,’ said she, ‘come in; I am so glad that you have come to me. Oh! Harry, dear Harry, what shall I say to comfort you? What can I say — what can I do?’

Norman, forgetting his manhood, burst into tears, and throwing himself on a sofa, buried his face on the arm and sobbed like a young girl. But the tears of a man bring with them no comfort as do those of the softer sex. He was a strong tall man, and it was dreadful to see him thus convulsed.

Mrs. Woodward stood by him, and put her hand caressingly on his shoulder. She saw he had striven to speak, and had found himself unable to do so. ‘I know how it is,’ said she, ‘you need not tell me; I know it all. Would that she could have seen you with my eyes; would that she could have judged you with my mind!’

‘Oh, Mrs. Woodward!’

‘To me, Harry, you should have been the dearest, the most welcome son. But you are so still. No son could be dearer. Oh, that she could have seen you as I see you!’

‘There is no hope,’ said he. He did not put it as a question; but Mrs. Woodward saw that it was intended that she should take it as such if she pleased. What could she say to him? She knew that there was no hope. Had it been Linda, Linda might have been moulded to her will. But with Gertrude there could now be no hope. What could she say? She knelt down and kissed his brow, and mingled her tears with his.

‘Oh, Harry — oh, Harry! my dearest, dearest son!’

‘Oh, Mrs. Woodward, I have loved her so truly.’

What could Mrs. Woodward do but cry also? what but that, and throw such blame as she could upon her own shoulders? She was bound to defend her daughter.

‘It has been my fault, Harry,’ she said; ‘it is I whom you must blame, not poor Gertrude.’

‘I blame no one,’ said he.

‘I know you do not; but it is I whom you should blame. I should have learnt how her heart stood, and have prevented this — but I thought, I thought it would have been otherwise.’

Norman looked up at her, and took her hand, and pressed it. ‘I will go now,’ he said, ‘and don’t expect me here tomorrow. I could not come in. Say that I thought it best to go to town because I am unwell. Good-bye, Mrs. Woodward; pray write to me. I can’t come to the Cottage now for a while, but pray write to me: do not you forget me, Mrs. Woodward.’

Mrs. Woodward fell upon his breast and wept, and bade God bless him, and called him her son and her dearest friend, and sobbed till her heart was nigh to break. ‘What,’ she thought, ‘what could her daughter wish for, when she repulsed from her feet such a suitor as Harry Norman?’

He then went quietly down the stairs, quietly out of the house, and having packed up his bag at the inn, started off through the pouring rain, and walked away through the dark stormy night, through the dirt and mud and wet, to his London lodgings; nor was he again seen at Surbiton Cottage for some months after this adventure.

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