The Duke's Children, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 73

‘I Have Never Loved You.’

Silverbridge had now been in town three or four weeks, and Lady Mabel Grex had also been in London all that time, and yet he had not seen her. She had told him that she loved him and had asked him plainly to make her his wife. He had told her he could not do so — that he was altogether resolved to make another woman his wife. Then she had rebuked him, and had demanded from him how he had dared to treat her as he had done. His conscience was clear. He had his own code or morals as to such matters; and had, as he regarded it, kept within the law. But she thought that she was badly treated, and had declared that she was now left out in the cold for ever through his treachery. Then her last word had been almost the worst of all, ‘Who can tell what may come to pass?’— showing too plainly that she would not even now give up her hope. Before the month was up she wrote to him as follows:

‘DEAR LORD SILVERBRIDGE,

‘Why do you not come and see me? Are friends so plentiful with you that one so staunch as I may be thrown over? But of course I know why you do not come. Put all that aside — and come. I cannot hurt you. I have learned to feel that certain things which the world regards as too awful to be talked of — except in the way of scandal, may be discussed and then laid aside just like other subjects. What though I wear a wig or a wooden leg, I may still be fairly comfortable among my companions unless I crucify myself by trying to hide my misfortune. It is not the presence of the skeleton that crushes us. Not even that will hurt us much if we let him go about the house as he lists. It is the everlasting effort which the horror makes to peep out of his cupboard that robs us of our ease. At any rate come and see me.

‘Of course I know that you are to be married to Miss Boncassen. Who does not know it? The trumpeters have been at work for the last week.

‘Your very sincere Friend, ‘MABEL.’

He wished that she had not written. Of course he must go to her. And though there was a word or two in her letter which angered him, his feelings towards her were kindly. Had not that American angel flown across the Atlantic to his arms he could have been well content to make her his wife. But the interview at the present moment could hardly be other than painful. She could, she said, talk of her own misfortunes, but the subject would be very painful to him. It was not to him a skeleton, to be locked out of sight, but it had been a misfortune, and the sooner that such misfortune could be forgotten the better.

He knew what she meant about trumpeters. She had intended to signify that Isabel in her pride had boasted of her matrimonial prospects. Of course there had been trumpets. Are there not always trumpets when a marriage is contemplated, magnificent enough to be called an alliance? As for that he himself had blown the trumpets. He had told everybody that he was going to be married to Miss Boncassen. Isabel had blown no trumpets. In her own straightforward way she had told the truth to whom it concerned. Of course he would go and see Lady Mabel, but he trusted that for her own sake nothing would be said about trumpets.

‘So you have come at last,’ Mabel said when he entered the room. ‘No; — Miss Cassewary is not here. As I wanted to see you alone I got her to go out this morning. Why did you not come before?’

‘You said in your letter you knew why.’

‘But in saying so I was accusing you of cowardice; — was I not?’

‘It was not cowardice.’

‘Why then did you not come?’

‘I thought you would hardly wish to see me so soon — after what passed.’

‘That is honest at any rate. You felt that I must be too much ashamed of what I said to be able to look you in the face.’

‘Not that exactly.’

‘Any other man would have felt the same, but no other man would be honest enough to tell me so. I do not think that ever in your life you have constrained yourself to the civility of a lie.’

‘I hope not.’

‘To be civil and false is often better than to be harsh and true. I may be soothed by the courtesy and yet not deceived by the lie. But what I told you in my letter — which I hope you have destroyed —’

‘I will destroy it.’

‘Do. It was not intended for the partner of your future joys. As I told you then I can talk freely. Why not? We know it — both of us. How your conscience may be I cannot tell; but mine is clear from that soil with which you think it should be smirched.’

‘I think nothing of the sort.’

‘Yes, Silverbridge, you do. You have said to yourself this; — That girl has determined to get me, and she has not stopped as to how she would do it.’

‘No such idea ever crossed my mind.’

‘But you have never told yourself of the engagement which you gave me. Such condemnation as I have spoken of would have been just if my efforts had been sanctioned by no words, no looks, no deeds from you. Did you give me warrant for thinking that you were my lover?’

That theory by which he had justified himself to himself seemed to fall away from him under her questioning. He could not now remember his words to her in those old days before Miss Boncassen had crossed his path; but he did know that he had once intended to make her understand that he loved her. She had not understood him; — or understanding, had not accepted his words; and therefore he had thought himself free. But it now seemed that he had not been entitled so to regard himself. There she sat, looking at him, waiting for his answer; and he who had been so sure that he had committed no sin against her, had not a word to say to her.

‘I want you to answer that, Lord Silverbridge. I have told you that I would have no skeleton in the cupboard. Down at Matching, and before that at Killancodlem, I appealed to you, asking you to take me as your wife.’

‘Hardly that.’

‘Altogether that! I will have nothing denied what I have done — nor will I be ashamed of anything. I did do so — even after this infatuation. I thought then that one so volatile might perhaps fly back again.’

‘I shall not do that,’ said he, frowning at her.

‘You need trouble yourself with no assurance, my friend. Let us understand each other now. I am not now supposing that you can fly back again. You have found your perch, and you must settle on it like a good domestic barn-door fowl.’ Again he scowled. If she were too hard upon him he would certainly turn upon her. ‘No; you will not fly back again now; — but was I, or was I not, justified when you came to Killancodlem in thinking that my lover had come there?’

‘How can I tell? It is my own justification I am thinking of.’

‘I see all that. But we cannot both be justified. Did you mean me to suppose that you were speaking to me words in earnest when there — sitting in that very spot — you spoke to me of your love.’

‘Did I speak of my love?’

‘Did you speak of your love! And now, Silverbridge — for if there be an English gentleman on earth I think you are one — as a gentleman tell me this. Did you not even tell your father that I should be your wife? I know you did.’

‘Did he tell you?’

‘Men such as you and he, who cannot even lie with your eyelids, who will not condescend to cover up a secret by a moment of feigned inanimation, have many voices. He did tell me; but he broke no confidence. He told me, but did not mean to tell me. Now you also have told me.’

‘I did. I told him so. And then I changed my mind.’

‘I know you changed your mind. Men often do. A pinker pink, a whiter white — a finger that will press you just half an ounce the closer — a cheek that will consent to let itself come just a little nearer-!’

‘No; no; no! It was because Isabel had not easily consented to such approaches!’

‘Trifles such as these will do it; — and some such trifles have done it with you. It would be beneath me to make comparisons where I might seem to be the gainer. I grant her beauty. She is very lovely. She has succeeded.’

‘I have succeeded.’

‘But; — I am justified, and you are condemned. Is it not so? Tell me like a man.’

‘You are justified.’

‘And you are condemned? When you told me that I should be your wife, and then told your father the same story, was I to think it all meant nothing? Have you deceived me?’

‘I did not mean it.’

‘Have you deceived me? What; you cannot deny it, and yet have not the manliness to own it to a poor woman who can only save herself from humiliation by extorting the truth from you!’

‘Oh, Mabel, I am so sorry that it should be so.’

‘I believe you are — with a sorrow that will last till she is again sitting close to you. Nor, Silverbridge, do I wish it to be longer. No; — no; — no. Your fault after all has not been great. You deceived, but did not mean to deceive me?’

‘Never, never.’

‘And I fancy you have never known how much you bore about with you. Your modesty has been so perfect that you have not thought of yourself as more than other men. You have forgotten that you have had in your hand the disposal to some one woman of a throne in Paradise.’

‘I don’t suppose you thought of that.’

‘But I did. Why should I tell falsehoods now. I have determined that you should know everything — but I could better confess to you my own sins, when I had shown that you too have not been innocent. Not think of it! Do not men think of high titles and great wealth and power and place? And if men, why should not women? Do not men try to get them; — and are they not even applauded for their energy? A woman has but one way to try. I tried.’

‘I do not think it was well for that.’

‘How shall I answer that without a confession which even I am not hardened enough to make? In truth, Silverbridge, I have never loved you.’

He drew himself up slowly before he answered her, and gradually assumed a look very different from that easy boyish smile which was customary to him. ‘I am glad of that,’ he said.

‘Why are you glad?’

‘Now I can have no regrets.’

‘You need have none. It was necessary to me that I should have my little triumph; — that I should show you that I knew how far you had wronged me! But now I wish you should know everything. I have never loved you.’

‘There is an end of it then.’

‘But I have liked you so well; — so much better than all others! A dozen men have asked me to marry them. And though they might be nothing till they made the request, then they became — things of horror to me. But you were not a thing of horror. I could have become your wife, and I think I would have learned to love you.’

‘It is best as it is.’

‘I ought to say so too; but I have a doubt I should have liked to be Duchess of Omnium, and perhaps I might have fitted the place better than one who can as yet know but little of its duties or its privileges. I may, perhaps, think that that other arrangement would have been better even for you.’

‘I can take care of myself in that.’

‘I should have married you without loving you, but I should have done so determined to serve you with a devotion which a woman who does love hardly thinks necessary. I would have so done my duty that you should never have guessed that my heart had been in the keeping of another man.’

‘Another man!’

‘Yes; of course. If there had been no other man, why not you? Am I so hard, do you think that I can love no one? Are you not such a one that a girl would naturally love — were she not preoccupied? That a woman should love seems as necessary as that a man should not.’

‘A man can love too.’

‘No; — hardly. He can admire, and he can like, and he can fondle and be fond. He can admire, and approve, and perhaps worship. He can know of a woman that she is part of himself, the most sacred part, and therefore will protect her from the very winds. But all that will not make love. It does not come to a man that to be separated from a woman is to be dislocated from his very self. A man has but one centre, and that is himself. A woman has two. Though the second may never be seen by her, may live in the arms of another, may do all for that other that man can do for a woman — still, still, though he be half the globe asunder from her, still he is to her the other half of her existence. If she really love, there is, I fancy, no end of it. To the end of time I shall love Frank Tregear.’

‘Tregear!’

‘Who else?’

‘He is engaged to Mary.’

‘Of course he is. Why not; — to her or to whomsoever else he might like best? He is as true I doubt not to your sister as you are to your American beauty — or as you would have been to me had fancy held. He used to love me.’

‘You were always friends.’

‘Always; — dear friends. And he would have loved me if a man were capable of loving. But he could sever himself from me easily, just when he was told to do so. I thought that I could do the same. But I cannot. A jackal is born a jackal, and not lion, and cannot help himself. So is a woman born — a woman. They are clinging, parasite things, which cannot but adhere; though they destroy themselves by adhering. Do not suppose that I take pride in it. I would give one of my eyes to be able to disregard him.’

‘Time will do it.’

‘Yes; time — that brings wrinkles and rouge-pots and rheumatism. Though I have so hated those men as to be unable to endure them, still I want some man’s house, and his name — some man’s bread and wine — some man’s jewels and titles and woods and parks and gardens — if I can get them. Time can help a man in his sorrow. If he begins at forty to make speeches, or to win races, or to breed oxen, he can yet live a prosperous life. Time is but a poor consoler for a young woman who has to be married.’

‘Oh Mabel.’

‘And now let there be not a word more about it. I know — that I can trust you.’

‘Indeed you may.’

‘Though you will tell her everything else you will not tell her this.’

‘No; — not this.’

‘And surely you will not tell your sister!’

‘I shall tell no one.’

‘It is because you are so true that I have dared to trust you. I had to justify myself — and then to confess. Had I at that moment taken you at your word, you would have never have known anything of all this. “There is a tide in the affairs of men-!” But I let the flood go by! I shall not see you again before you are married; but come to me afterwards.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/anthony/duke/chapter73.html

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