The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLII

A Parting Interview

Mrs. Woodward remained with her eldest daughter for two days after the trial, and then she was forced to return to Hampton. She had earnestly entreated Gertrude to accompany her, with her child; but Mrs. Tudor was inflexible. She had, she said, very much to do; so much, that she could not possibly leave London; the house and furniture were on her hands, and must be disposed of; their future plans must be arranged; and then nothing, she said, should induce her to sleep out of sight of her husband’s prison, or to omit any opportunity of seeing him which the prison rules would allow her.

Mrs. Woodward would not have left one child in such extremity, had not the state of another child made her presence at the Cottage indispensable. Katie’s anxiety about the trial had of course been intense, so intense as to give her a false strength, and somewhat to deceive Linda as to her real state. Tidings of course passed daily between London and the Cottage, but for three days they told nothing. On the morning of the fourth day, however, Norman brought the heavy news, and Katie sank completely under it. When she first heard the result of the trial she swooned away, and remained for some time nearly unconscious. But returning consciousness brought with it no relief, and she lay sobbing on her pillow, till she became so weak, that Linda in her fright wrote up to her mother begging her to return at once. Then, wretched as it made her to leave Gertrude in her trouble, Mrs. Woodward did return.

For a fortnight after this there was an unhappy household at Surbiton Cottage. Linda’s marriage was put off till the period of Alaric’s sentence should be over, and till something should be settled as to his and Gertrude’s future career. It was now August, and they spoke of the event as one which perhaps might occur in the course of the following spring. At this time, also, they were deprived for a while of the comfort of Norman’s visits by his enforced absence at Normansgrove. Harry’s eldest brother was again ill, and at last the news of his death was received at Hampton. Under other circumstances such tidings as those might, to a certain extent, have brought their own consolation with them. Harry would now be Mr. Norman of Normansgrove, and Linda would become Mrs. Norman of Normansgrove; Harry’s mother had long been dead, and his father was an infirm old man, who would be too glad to give up to his son the full management of the estate, now that the eldest son was a man to whom that estate could be trusted. All those circumstances had, of course, been talked over between Harry and Linda, and it was understood that Harry was now to resign his situation at the Weights and Measures. But Alaric’s condition, Gertrude’s misery, and Katie’s illness, threw all such matters into the background. Katie became no better; but then the doctors said that she did not become any worse, and gave it as their opinion that she ought to recover. She had youth, they said, on her side; and then her lungs were not affected. This was the great question which they were all asking of each other continually. The poor girl lived beneath a stethoscope, and bore all their pokings and tappings with exquisite patience. She herself believed that she was dying, and so she repeatedly told her mother. Mrs. Woodward could only say that all was in God’s hands, but that the physicians still encouraged them to hope the best.

One day Mrs. Woodward was sitting with a book in her usual place at the side of Katie’s bed; she looked every now and again at her patient, and thought that she was slumbering; and at last she rose from her chair to creep away, so sure was she that she might be spared for a moment. But just as she was silently rising, a thin, slight, pale hand crept out from beneath the clothes, and laid itself on her arm.

‘I thought you were asleep, love,’ said she.

‘No, mamma, I was not asleep. I was thinking of something. Don’t go away, mamma, just now. I want to ask you something.’

Mrs. Woodward again sat down, and taking her daughter’s hand in her own, caressed it.

‘I want to ask a favour of you, mamma,’ said Katie.

‘A favour, my darling! what is it? you know I will do anything in my power that you ask me.’

‘Ah, mamma, I do not know whether you will do this.’

‘What is it, Katie? I will do anything that is for your good. I am sure you know that, Katie.’

‘Mamma, I know I am going to die. Oh, mamma, don’t say anything now, don’t cry now — dear, dear mamma; I don’t say it to make you unhappy; but you know when I am so ill I ought to think about it, ought I not, mamma?’

‘But, Katie, the doctor says that he thinks you are not so dangerously ill; you should not, therefore, despond; it will increase your illness, and hinder your chance of getting well. That would be wrong, wouldn’t it, love?’

‘Mamma, I feel that I shall never again be well, and therefore —’ It was useless telling Mrs. Woodward not to cry; what else could she do? ‘Dear mamma, I am so sorry to make you unhappy, but you are my own mamma, and therefore I must tell you. I can be happy still, mamma, if you will let me talk to you about it.’

‘You shall talk, dearest; I will hear what you say; but oh, Katie, I cannot bear to hear you talk of dying. I do not think you are dying. If I did think so, my child, my trust in your goodness is so strong that I should tell you.’

‘You know, mamma, it might have been much worse; suppose I had been drowned, when he, when Charley, you know, saved me;’ and as she mentioned his name a tear for the first time ran down each cheek; ‘how much worse that would have been! think, mamma, what it would be to be drowned without a moment for one’s prayers.’

‘It is quite right we should prepare ourselves for death. Whether we live, or whether we die, we shall be better for doing that.’

Katie still held her mother’s hand in hers, and lay back against the pillows which had been placed behind her back. ‘And now, mamma,’ she said at last, ‘I am going to ask you this favour — I want to see Charley once more.’

Mrs. Woodward was so much astonished at the request that at first she knew not what answer to make. ‘To see Charley!’ she said at last.

‘Yes, mamma; I want to see Charley once more; there need be no secrets between us now, mamma.’

‘There have never been any secrets between us,’ said Mrs. Woodward, embracing her. ‘You have never had any secrets from me?’

‘Not intentionally, mamma; I have never meant to keep anything secret from you. And I know you have known what I felt about Charley.’

‘I know that you have behaved like an angel, my child; I know your want of selfishness, your devotion to others, has been such as to shame me; I know your conduct has been perfect: oh, my Katie, I have understood it, and I have so loved you, so admired you.’

Katie smiled through her tears as she returned her mother’s embrace. ‘Well, mamma,’ she said, ‘at any rate you know that I love him. Oh, mamma, I do love him so dearly. It is not now like Gertrude’s love, or Linda’s. I know that I can never be his wife. I did know before, that for many reasons I ought not to wish to be so; but now I know I never, never can be.’

Mrs. Woodward was past the power of speaking, and so Katie went on.

‘But I do not love him the less for that reason; I think I love him the more. I never, never, could have loved anyone else, mamma; never, never; and that is one reason why I do not so much mind being ill now.’

Mrs. Woodward bowed forward, and hid her face in the counterpane, but she still kept hold of her daughter’s hand.

‘And, mamma,’ she continued, ‘as I do love him so dearly, I feel that I should try to do something for him. I ought to do so; and, mamma, I could not be happy without seeing him. He is not just like a brother or a brother-inlaw, such as Harry and Alaric; we are not bound to each other as relations are; but yet I feel that something does bind me to him. I know he doesn’t love me as I love him; but yet I think he loves me dearly; and if I speak to him now, mamma, now that I am — that I am so ill, perhaps he will mind me. Mamma, it will be as though one came unto him from the dead.’

Mrs. Woodward did not know how to refuse any request that Katie might now make to her, and felt herself altogether unequal to the task of refusing this request. For many reasons she would have done so, had she been able; in the first place she did not think that all chance of Katie’s recovery was gone; and then at the present moment she felt no inclination to draw closer to her any of the Tudor family. She could not but feel that Alaric had been the means of disgracing and degrading one child; and truly, deeply, warmly, as she sympathized with the other, she could not bring herself to feel the same sympathy for the object of her love. It was a sore day for her and hers, that on which the Tudors had first entered her house.

Nevertheless she assented to Katie’s proposal, and undertook the task of asking Charley down to Hampton.

Since Alaric’s conviction Charley led a busy life; and as men who have really something to do have seldom time to get into much mischief, he had been peculiarly moral and respectable. It is not surprising that at such a moment Gertrude found that Alaric’s newer friends fell off from him. Of course they did; nor is it a sign of ingratitude or heartlessness in the world that at such a period of great distress new friends should fall off. New friends, like one’s best coat and polished patent-leather dress boots, are only intended for holiday wear. At other times they are neither serviceable nor comfortable; they do not answer the required purposes, and are ill adapted to give us the ease we seek. A new coat, however, has this advantage, that it will in time become old and comfortable; so much can by no means be predicted with certainty of a new friend. Woe to those men who go through the world with none but new coats on their backs, with no boots but those of polished leather, with none but new friends to comfort them in adversity.

But not the less, when misfortune does come, are we inclined to grumble at finding ourselves deserted. Gertrude, though she certainly wished to see no Mrs. Val and no Miss Neverbends, did feel lonely enough when her mother left her, and wretched enough. But she was not altogether deserted. At this time Charley was true to her, and did for her all those thousand nameless things which a woman cannot do for herself. He came to her everyday after leaving his office, and on one excuse or another remained with her till late every evening.

He was not a little surprised one morning on receiving Mrs. Woodward’s invitation to Hampton. Mrs. Woodward in writing had had some difficulty in wording her request. She hardly liked asking Charley to come because Katie was ill; nor did she like to ask him without mentioning Katie’s illness. ‘I need not explain to you,’ she said in her note, ‘that we are all in great distress; poor Katie is very ill, and you will understand what we must feel about Alaric and Gertrude. Harry is still at Normansgrove. We shall all be glad to see you, and Katie, who never forgets what you did for her, insists on my asking you at once. I am sure you will not refuse her, so I shall expect you tomorrow.’ Charley would not have refused her anything, and it need hardly be said that he accepted the invitation.

Mrs. Woodward was at a loss how to receive him, or what to say to him. Though Katie was so positive that her own illness would be fatal — a symptom which might have confirmed those who watched her in their opinion that her disease was not consumption — her mother was by no means so desponding. She still thought it not impossible that her child might recover, and so thinking could not but be adverse to any declaration on Katie’s part of her own feelings. She had endeavoured to explain this to her daughter; but Katie was so carried away by her enthusiasm, was at the present moment so devoted, and, as it were, exalted above her present life, that all that her mother said was thrown away upon her. Mrs. Woodward might have refused her daughter’s request, and have run the risk of breaking her heart by the refusal; but now that the petition had been granted, it was useless to endeavour to teach her to repress her feelings.

‘Charley,’ said Mrs. Woodward, when he had been some little time in the house, ‘our dear Katie wants to see you; she is very ill, you know.’

Charley said he knew she was ill.

‘You remember our walk together, Charley.’

‘Yes,’ said Charley, ‘I remember it well. I made you a promise then, and I have kept it. I have now come here only because you have sent for me.’ This he said in the tone which a man uses when he feels himself to have been injured.

‘I know it, Charley; you have kept your promise; I knew you would, and I know you will. I have the fullest trust in you; and now you shall come and see her.’

Charley was to return to town that night, and they had not therefore much time to lose; they went upstairs at once, and found Linda and Uncle Bat in the patient’s room. It was a lovely August evening, and the bedroom window opening upon the river was unclosed. Katie, as she sat propped up against the pillows, could look out upon the water and see the reedy island, on which in happy former days she had so delighted to let her imagination revel.

‘It is very good of you to come and see me, Charley,’ said she, as he made his way up to her bedside.

He took her wasted hand in his own and pressed it, and, as he did so, a tear forced itself into each corner of his eyes. She smiled as though to cheer him, and said that now she saw him she could be quite happy, only for poor Alaric and Gertrude. She hoped she might live to see Alaric again; but if not, Charley was to give him her best-best love.

‘Live to see him! of course you will,’ said Uncle Bat.

‘What’s to hinder you?’ Uncle Bat, like the rest of them, tried to cheer her, and make her think that she might yet live.

After a while Uncle Bat went out of the room, and Linda followed him. Mrs. Woodward would fain have remained, but she perfectly understood that it was part of the intended arrangement with Katie, that Charley should be alone with her. ‘I will come back in a quarter of an hour,’ she said, rising to follow the others. ‘You must not let her talk too much, Charley: you see how weak she is.’

‘Mamma, when you come, knock at the door, will you?’ said Katie. Mrs. Woodward, who found herself obliged to act in complete obedience to her daughter, promised that she would; and then they were left alone.

‘Sit down, Charley,’ said she; he was still standing by her bedside, and now at her bidding he sat in the chair which Captain Cuttwater had occupied. ‘Come here nearer to me,’ said she; ‘this is where mamma always sits, and Linda when mamma is not here.’ Charley did as he was bid, and, changing his seat, came and sat down close to her bed-head.

‘Charley, do you remember how you went into the water for me?’ said she, again smiling, and pulling her hand out and resting it on his arm which lay on the bed beside her.

‘Indeed I do, Katie — I remember the day very well.’

‘That was a very happy day in spite of the tumble, was it not, Charley? And do you remember the flower-show, and the dance at Mrs. Val’s?’

Charley did remember them all well. Ah me! how often had he thought of them!

‘I think of those days so often — too often,’ continued Katie. ‘But, dear Charley, I cannot remember too often that you saved my life.’

Charley once more tried to explain to her that there was nothing worthy of notice in his exploit of that day.

‘Well, Charley, I may think as I like, you know,’ she said, with something of the obstinacy of old days. ‘I think you did save my life, and all the people in the world won’t make me think anything else; but, Charley, I have something now to tell you.’

He sat and listened. It seemed to him as though he were only there to listen; as though, were he to make his own voice audible, he would violate the sanctity of the place. His thoughts were serious enough, but he could not pitch his voice so as to suit the tone in which she addressed him.

‘We were always friends, were we not?’ said she; ‘we were always good friends, Charley. Do you remember how you were to build a palace for me in the dear old island out there? You were always so kind, so good to me.’

Charley said he remembered it all — they were happy days; the happiest days, he said, that he had ever known.

‘And you used to love me, Charley?’

‘Used!’ said he, ‘do you think I do not love you now?’

‘I am sure you do. And, Charley, I love you also. That it is that I want to tell you. I love you so well that I cannot go away from this world in peace without wishing you farewell. Charley, if you love me, you will think of me when I am gone; and then for my sake you will be steady.’

Here were all her old words over again —‘You will be steady, won’t you, Charley? I know you will be steady, now.’ How much must she have thought of him! How often must his career have caused her misery and pain! How laden must that innocent bosom have been with anxiety on his account! He had promised her then that he would reform; but he had broken his promise. He now promised her again, but how could he hope that she would believe him?

‘You know how ill I am, don’t you? You know that I am dying, Charley?’

Charley of course declared that he still hoped that she would recover.

‘If I thought so,’ said she, ‘I should not say what I am now saying; but I feel that I may tell the truth. Dear Charley, dearest Charley, I love you with all my heart — I do not know how it came so; I believe I have always loved you since I first knew you; I used to think it was because you saved my life; but I know it was not that. I was so glad it was you that came to me in the water, and not Harry; so that I know I loved you before that.’

‘Dear Katie, you have not loved me, or thought of me, more than I have loved and thought of you.’

‘Ah, Charley,’ she said, smiling in her sad sweet way —‘I don’t think you know how a girl can love; you have so many things to think of, so much to amuse you up in London; you don’t know what it is to think of one person for days and days, and nights and nights together. That is the way I have thought of you, I don’t think there can be any harm,’ she continued, ‘in loving a person as I have loved you. Indeed, how could I help it? I did not love you on purpose. But I think I should be wrong to die without telling you. When I am dead, Charley, will you think of this, and try — try to give up your bad ways? When I tell you that I love you so dearly, and ask you on my deathbed, I think you will do this.’

Charley went down on his knees, and bowing his head before her and before his God, he made the promise. He made it, and we may so far anticipate the approaching end of our story as to declare that the promise he then made was faithfully kept.

‘Katie, Katie, my own Katie, my own, own, own Katie — oh, Katie, you must not die, you must not leave me! Oh, Katie, I have so dearly loved you! Oh, Katie, I do so dearly love you! If you knew all, if you could know all, you would believe me.’

At this moment Mrs. Woodward knocked at the door, and Charley rose from his knees. ‘Not quite yet, mamma,’ said Katie, as Mrs. Woodward opened the door. ‘Not quite yet; in five minutes, mamma, you may come.’ Mrs. Woodward, not knowing how to refuse, again went away.

‘Charley, I never gave you anything but once, and you returned it to me, did you not?’

‘Yes,’ said he, ‘the purse — I put it in your box, because ——’

And then he remembered that he could not say why he had returned it without breaking in a manner that confidence which Mrs. Woodward had put in him.

‘I understand it all. You must not think I am angry with you. I know how good you were about it. But Charley, you may have it back now; here it is;’ and putting her hand under the pillow, she took it out, carefully folded up in new tissue paper. ‘There, Charley, you must never part with it again as long as there are two threads of it together; but I know you never will; and Charley, you must never talk of it to anybody but to your wife; and you must tell her all about it.’

He took the purse, and put it to his lips, and then pressed it to his heart. ‘No,’ said he, ‘I will never part with it again. I think I can promise that.’ ‘And now, dearest, good-bye,’ said she; ‘dearest, dearest Charley, good-bye; perhaps we shall know each other in heaven. Kiss me, Charley, before you go,’ So he stooped down over her, and pressed his lips to hers.

Charley, leaving the room, found Mrs. Woodward at the other end of the passage, standing at the door of her own dressing-room. ‘You are to go to her now,’ he said. ‘Good-bye,’ and without further speech to any of them he hurried out of the house.

None but Mrs. Woodward had seen him; but she saw that the tears were streaming down his cheeks as he passed her, and she expressed no surprise that he had left the Cottage without going through the formality of making his adieux.

And then he walked up to town, as Norman once had done after a parting interview with her whom he had loved. It might be difficult to say which at the moment suffered the bitterest grief.

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