The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XV

Norman Returns to Town

Harry Norman made no answer to either of his three letters beyond that of sending Alaric’s back unread; but this, without other reply, was sufficient to let them all guess, nearly with accuracy, what was the state of his mind. Alaric told Gertrude how his missive had been treated, and Gertrude, of course, told her mother.

There was very little of that joy at Surbiton Cottage which should have been the forerunner of a wedding. None of the Woodward circle were content thus to lose their friend. And then their unhappiness on this score was augmented by hearing that Harry had sent up a medical certificate, instead of returning to his duties when his prolonged leave of absence was expired.

To Alaric this, at the moment, was a relief. He had dreaded the return of Norman to London. There were so many things to cause infinite pain to them both. All Norman’s things, his books and clothes, his desks and papers and pictures, his whips and sticks, and all those sundry belongings which even a bachelor collects around him — were strewing the rooms in which Alaric still lived. He had of course felt that it was impossible that they should ever again reside together. Not only must they quarrel, but all the men at their office must know that they had quarrelled. And yet some intercourse must be maintained between them; they must daily meet in the rooms at the Weights and Measures; and it would now in their altered position become necessary that in some things Norman should receive instructions from Alaric as his superior officer. But if Alaric thought of this often, so did Norman; and before the last fortnight had expired, the thinking of it had made him so ill that his immediate return to London was out of the question.

Mrs. Woodward’s heart melted within her when she heard that Harry was really ill. She had gone on waiting day after day for an answer to her letter, but no answer came. No answer came, but in lieu thereof she heard that Harry was laid up at Normansgrove. She heard it, and Gertrude heard it, and in spite of the coming wedding there was very little joy at Surbiton Cottage.

And then Mrs. Woodward wrote again; and a man must have had a heart of stone not to be moved by such a letter. She had ‘heard,’ she said, ‘that he was ill, and the tidings had made her wretched — the more so inasmuch as he had sent no answer to her last letter. Was he very ill? was he dangerously ill? She hoped, she would fain hope, that his illness had not arisen from any mental grief. If he did not reply to this, or get some of his family to do so, there would be nothing for her but to go, herself, to Normansgrove. She could not remain quiet while she was left in such painful doubt about her dearest, well-loved Harry Norman.’ How to speak of Gertrude, or how not to speak of her, Mrs. Woodward knew not — at last she added: ‘The three girls send their kindest love; they are all as wretchedly anxious as I am. I know you are too good to wish that poor Gertrude should suffer, but, if you did, you might have your wish. The tidings of your illness, together with your silence, have robbed her of all her happiness;’ and it ended thus:—‘Dearest Harry! do not be cruel to us; our hearts are all with you.’

This was too much for Norman’s sternness; and he relented, at least as far as Mrs. Woodward was concerned. He wrote to say that though he was still weak, he was not dangerously ill; and that he intended, if nothing occurred amiss, to be in town about the end of the year. He hoped he might then see her to thank her for all her kindness. She would understand that he could not go down to Surbiton Cottage; but as she would doubtless have some occasion for coming up to town, they might thus contrive to meet. He then sent his love to Linda and Katie, and ended by saying that he had written to Charley Tudor to take lodgings for him. Not the slightest allusion was made either to Gertrude or Alaric, except that which might seem to be conveyed in the intimation that he could make no more visits to Hampton.

This letter was very cold. It just permitted Mrs. Woodward to know that Norman did not regard them all as strangers; and that was all. Linda said it was very sad; and Gertrude said, not to her mother but to Alaric, that it was heartless. Captain Cuttwater predicted that he would soon come round, and be as sound as a roach again in six months’ time. Alaric said nothing; but he went on with his wooing, and this he did so successfully, as to make Gertrude painfully alive to what would have been, in her eyes, the inferiority of her lot, had she unfortunately allowed herself to become the victim of Norman’s love.

Alaric went on with his wooing, and he also went on with his share-buying. Undy Scott had returned to town for a week or two to wind up the affairs of his expiring secretaryship, and he made Alaric understand that a nice thing might yet be done in Mary Janes. Alaric had been very foolish to sell so quickly; so at least said Undy. To this Alaric replied that he had bought the shares thoughtlessly, and had felt a desire to get rid of them as quickly as he could. Those were scruples at which Undy laughed pleasantly, and Alaric soon laughed with him.

‘At any rate,’ said Undy, ‘your report is written, and off your hands now: so you may do what you please in the matter, like a free man, with a safe conscience.’

Alaric supposed that he might.

‘I am as fond of the Civil Service as any man,’ said Undy; ‘just as fond of it as Sir Gregory himself. I have been in it, and may be in it again. If I do, I shall do my duty. But I have no idea of having my hands tied. My purse is my own, to do what I like with it. Whether I buy beef or mutton, or shares in Cornwall, is nothing to anyone. I give the Crown what it pays for, my five or six hours a day, and nothing more. When I was appointed private secretary to the First Lord of the Stannaries, I told my friend Whip Vigil that those were the terms on which I accepted office; and Vigil agreed with me.’ Alaric, pupil as he was to the great Sir Gregory, declared that he also agreed with him. ‘That is not Sir Gregory’s doctrine, but it’s mine,’ said Undy; ‘and though it’s my own, I think it by far the honester doctrine of the two.’

Alaric did not sift the matter very deeply, nor did he ask Undy, or himself either, whether in using the contents of his purse in the purchase of shares he would be justified in turning to his own purpose any information which he might obtain in his official career. Nor did he again offer to put that broad test to himself which he had before proposed, and ask himself whether he would dare to talk of what he was doing in the face of day, in his own office, before Sir Gregory, or before the Neverbends of the Service. He had already learnt the absurdity of such tests. Did other men talk of such doings? Was it not notorious that the world speculated, and that the world was generally silent in the matter? Why should he attempt to be wiser than those around him? Was it not sufficient for him to be wise in his generation? What man had ever become great, who allowed himself to be impeded by small scruples? If the sportsman returned from the field laden with game, who would scrutinize the mud on his gaiters? ‘Excelsior!’ said Alaric to himself with a proud ambition; and so he attempted to rise by the purchase and sale of mining shares.

When he was fairly engaged in the sport, his style of play so fascinated Undy that they embarked in a sort of partnership, pro hoc vice, good to the last during the ups and downs of Wheal Mary Jane. Mary Jane, no doubt, would soon run dry, or else be drowned, as had happened to New Friendship. But in the meantime something might be done.

‘Of course you’ll be consulted about those other papers,’ said Undy. ‘It might be as well they should be kept back for a week or two.’

‘Well, I’ll see,’ said Alaric; and as he said it, he felt that his face was tinged with a blush of shame. But what then? Who would look at the dirt on his gaiters, if he filled his bag with game?

Mrs. Woodward was no whit angered by the coldness of Norman’s letter. She wished that he could have brought himself to write in a different style, but she remembered his grief, and knew that as time should work its cure upon it, he would come round and again be gentle and affectionate, at any rate with her.

She misdoubted Charley’s judgement in the choice of lodgings, and therefore she talked over the matter with Alaric. It was at last decided that he, Alaric, should move instead of driving Norman away. His final movement would soon take place; that movement which would rob him of the freedom of lodginghood, and invest him with all the ponderous responsibility and close restraint of a householder. He and Gertrude were to be married in February, and after spending a cold honeymoon in Paris and Brussels, were to begin their married life amidst the sharp winds of a London March. But love, gratified love, will, we believe, keep out even an English east wind. If so, it is certainly the only thing that will.

Charley, therefore, wrote to Norman, telling him that he could remain in his old home, and humbly asking permission to remain there with him. To this request he received a kind rejoinder in the affirmative. Though Charley was related to Alaric, there had always apparently been a closer friendship between him and Norman than between the two cousins; and now, in his fierce unbridled quarrel with Alaric, and in his present coolness with the Woodwards, he seemed to turn to Charley with more than ordinary affection.

Norman made his appearance at the office on the first Monday of the new year. He had hitherto sat at the same desk with Alaric, each of them occupying one side of it; on his return he found himself opposite to a stranger. Alaric had, of course, been promoted to a room of his own.

The Weights and Measures had never been a noisy office; but now it became more silent than ever. Men there talked but little at any time, and now they seemed to cease from talking altogether. It was known to all that the Damon and Pythias of the establishment were Damon and Pythias no longer; that war waged between them, and that if all accounts were true, they were ready to fly each at the other’s throat. Some attributed this to the competitive examination; others said it was love; others declared that it was money, the root of evil; and one rash young gentleman stated his positive knowledge that it was all three. At any rate something dreadful was expected; and men sat anxious at their desks, fearing the coming evil.

On the Monday the two men did not meet, nor on the Tuesday. On the next morning, Alaric, having acknowledged to himself the necessity of breaking the ice, walked into the room where Norman sat with three or four others. It was absolutely necessary that he should make some arrangement with him as to a certain branch of office-work; and though it was competent for him, as the superior, to have sent for Norman as the inferior, he thought it best to abstain from doing so, even though he were thereby obliged to face his enemy, for the first time, in the presence of others.

‘Well, Mr. Embryo,’ said he, speaking to the new junior, and standing with his back to the fire in an easy way, as though there was nothing wrong under the sun, or at least nothing at the Weights and Measures, ‘well, Mr. Embryo, how do you get on with those calculations?’

‘Pretty well, I believe, sir; I think I begin to understand them now,’ said the tyro, producing for Alaric’s gratification five or six folio sheets covered with intricate masses of figures.

‘Ah! yes; that will do very well,’ said Alaric, taking up one of the sheets, and looking at it with an assumed air of great interest. Though he acted his part pretty well, his mind was very far removed from Mr. Embryo’s efforts.

Norman sat at his desk, as black as a thunder-cloud, with his eyes turned intently at the paper before him; but so agitated that he could not even pretend to write.

‘By the by, Norman,’ said Alaric, ‘when will it suit you to look through those Scotch papers with me?’

‘My name, sir, is Mr. Norman,’ said Harry, getting up and standing by his chair with all the firmness of a Paladin of old.

‘With all my heart,’ said Alaric. ‘In speaking to you I can have but one wish, and that is to do so in any way that may best please you.’

‘Any instructions you may have to give I will attend to, as far as my duty goes,’ said Norman.

And then Alaric, pushing Mr. Embryo from his chair without much ceremony, sat down opposite to his former friend, and said and did what he had to say and do with an easy unaffected air, in which there was, at any rate, none of the usual superciliousness of a neophyte’s authority. Norman was too agitated to speak reasonably, or to listen calmly, but Alaric knew that though he might not do so today, he would tomorrow, or if not tomorrow, then the next day; and so from day to day he came into Norman’s room and transacted his business. Mr. Embryo got accustomed to looking through the window at the Council Office for the ten minutes that he remained there, and Norman also became reconciled to the custom. And thus, though they never met in any other way, they daily had a kind of intercourse with each other, which, at last, contrived to get itself arranged into a certain amount of civility on both sides.

Immediately that Norman’s arrival was heard of at Surbiton Cottage, Mrs. Woodward hastened up to town to see him. She wrote to him to say that she would be at his lodgings at a certain hour, and begged him to come thither to her. Of course he did not refuse, and so they met. Mrs. Woodward had much doubted whether or no she would take Linda or Katie with her, but at last she resolved to go alone. Harry, she thought, would be more willing to speak freely to her, to open his heart to her, if there were nobody by but herself.

Their meeting was very touching, and characteristic of the two persons. Mrs. Woodward was sad enough, but her sadness was accompanied by a strength of affection that carried before it every obstacle. Norman was also sad; but he was at first stern and cold, and would have remained so to the last, had not his manly anger been overpowered by her feminine tenderness.

It was singular, but not the less true, that at this period Norman appeared to have forgotten altogether that he had ever proposed to Gertrude, and been rejected by her. All that he said and all that he thought was exactly what he might have said and thought had Alaric taken from him his affianced bride. No suitor had ever felt his suit to be more hopeless than he had done; and yet he now regarded himself as one whose high hopes of happy love had all been destroyed by the treachery of a friend and the fickleness of a woman.

This made the task of appeasing him very difficult to Mrs. Woodward. She could not in plain language remind him that he had been plainly rejected; nor could she, on the other hand, permit her daughter to be branded with a fault of which she had never been guilty.

Mrs. Woodward had wished, though she had hardly hoped, so to mollify Norman as to induce him to promise to be at the wedding; but she soon found that this was out of the question. There was no mitigating his anger against Alaric.

‘Mrs. Woodward,’ said he, standing very upright, and looking very stiff, ‘I will never again willingly put myself in any position where I must meet him.’

‘Oh! Harry, don’t say so — think of your close friendship, think of your long friendship.’

‘Why did he not think of it?’

‘But, Harry — if not for his sake, if not for your own, at any rate do so for ours; for my sake, for Katie’s and Linda’s, for Gertrude’s sake.’

‘I had rather not speak of Gertrude, Mrs. Woodward.’

‘Ah! Harry, Gertrude has done you no injury; why should you thus turn your heart against her? You should not blame her; if you have anyone to blame, it is me.’

‘No; you have been true to me.’

‘And has she been false? Oh! Harry, think how we have loved you! You should be more just to us.’

‘Tush!’ he said. ‘I do not believe in justice; there is no justice left. I would have given everything I had for him. I would have made any sacrifice. His happiness was as much my thought as my own. And now — and yet you talk to me of justice.’

‘And if he had injured you, Harry, would you not forgive him? Do you repeat your prayers without thinking of them? Do you not wish to forgive them that trespass against you?’ Norman groaned inwardly in the spirit. ‘Do you not think of this when you kneel every night before your God?’

‘There are injuries which a man cannot forgive, is not expected to forgive.’

‘Are there, Harry? Oh! that is a dangerous doctrine. In that way every man might nurse his own wrath till anger would make devils of us all. Our Saviour has made no exceptions.’

‘In one sense, I do forgive him, Mrs. Woodward. I wish him no evil. But it is impossible that I should call a man who has so injured me my friend. I look upon him as disgraced for ever.’

She then endeavoured to persuade him to see Gertrude, or at any rate to send his love to her. But in this also he was obdurate. ‘It could,’ he said, ‘do no good.’ He could not answer for himself that his feelings would not betray him. A message would be of no use; if true, it would not be gracious; if false, it had better be avoided. He was quite sure Gertrude would be indifferent as to any message from him. The best thing for them both would be that they should forget each other.

He promised, however, that he would go down to Hampton immediately after the marriage, and he sent his kindest love to Linda and Katie. ‘And, dear Mrs. Woodward,’ said he, ‘I know you think me very harsh, I know you think me vindictive — but pray, pray believe that I understand all your love, and acknowledge all your goodness. The time will, perhaps, come when we shall be as happy together as we once were.’

Mrs. Woodward, trying to smile through her tears, could only say that she would pray that that time might soon come; and so, bidding God bless him, as a mother might bless her child, she left him and returned to Hampton, not with a light heart.

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