He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XI

Lady Milborough as Ambassador

‘Of course, I know you are right,’ said Nora to her sister ‘right as far as Colonel Osborne is concerned; but nevertheless you ought to give way.’

‘And be trampled upon?’ said Mrs Trevelyan.

‘Yes; and be trampled upon, if he should trample on you, which, however, he is the last man in the world to do.’

‘And to endure any insult and any names? You yourself you would be a Griselda, I suppose.’

‘I don’t want to talk about myself,’ said Nora, ‘nor about Griselda. But I know that, however unreasonable it may seem, you had better give way to him now and tell him what there was in the note to Colonel Osborne.’

‘Never! He has ordered me not to see him or to write to him, or to open his letters having, mind you, ordered just the reverse a day or two before; and I will obey him. Absurd as it is, I will obey him. But as for submitting to him, and letting him suppose that I think he is right — never! I should be lying to him then, and I will never lie to him. He has said that we must part, and I suppose it will be better so. How can a woman live with a man that suspects her? He cannot take my baby from me.’

There were many such conversations as the above between the two sisters before Mrs Trevelyan received from her husband the communication with which she had been threatened. And Nora, acting on her own judgment in the matter, made an attempt to see Mr Trevelyan, writing to him a pretty little note, and beseeching him to be kind to her. But he declined to see her, and the two women sat at home, with the baby between them, holding such pleasant conversations as that above narrated. When such tempests occur in a family, a woman will generally suffer the least during the thick of the tempest. While the hurricane is at the fiercest, she will be sustained by the most thorough conviction that the right is on her side, that she is aggrieved, that there is nothing for her to acknowledge, and no position that she need surrender. Whereas her husband will desire a compromise, even amidst the violence of the storm. But afterwards, when the wind has lulled, but while the heavens around are still all black and murky, then the woman’s sufferings begin. When passion gives way to thought and memory, she feels the loneliness of her position, the loneliness, and the possible degradation. It is all very well for a man to talk about his name and his honour; but it is the woman’s honour and the woman’s name that are, in truth, placed in jeopardy. Let the woman do what she will, the man can, in truth, show his face in the world and, after awhile, does show his face. But the woman may be compelled to veil hers, either by her own fault, or by his. Mrs Trevelyan was now told that she was to be separated from her husband, and she did not, at any rate, believe that she had done any harm. But, if such separation did come, where could she live, what could she do, what position in the world would she possess? Would not her face be, in truth, veiled as effectually as though she had disgraced herself and her husband?

And then there was that terrible question about the child. Mrs Trevelyan had said a dozen times to her sister that her husband could not take the boy away from her. Nora, however, had never assented to this, partly from a conviction of her own ignorance, not knowing what might be the power of a husband in such a matter, and partly thinking that any argument would be good and fair by which she could induce her sister to avoid a catastrophe so terrible as that which was now threatened.

‘I suppose he could take him, if he chose,’ she said at last.

‘I don’t believe he is wicked like that,’ said Mrs Trevelyan. ‘He would not wish to kill me.’

‘But he will say that he loves baby as well as you do.’

‘He will never take my child from me. He could never be so bad as that.’

‘And you will never be so bad as to leave him,’ said Nora after a pause. ‘I will not believe that it can come to that. You know that he is good at heart, that nobody on earth loves you as he does.’

So they went on for two days, and on the evening the second day there came a letter from Trevelyan to his wife. They had neither of them seen him, although he had been in and out of the house. And on the afternoon of the Sunday a new grievance, a very terrible grievance, was added to those which Mrs Trevelyan was made to bear. Her husband had told one of the servants in the house that Colonel Osborne was not to be admitted. And the servant to whom he had given this order was the cook. There is no reason why a cook should be less trustworthy in such a matter than any other servant; and in Mr Trevelyan’s household there was a reason why she should be more so as she, and she alone, was what we generally call an old family domestic. She had lived with her master’s mother, and had known her master when he was a boy. Looking about him, therefore, for someone in his house to whom he could speak, feeling that he was bound to convey the order through some medium, he called to him the ancient cook, and imparted to her so much of his trouble as was necessary to make the order intelligible. This he did with various ill-worded assurances to Mrs Prodgers that there really was nothing amiss. But when Mrs Trevelyan heard what had been done, which she did from Mrs Prodgers herself, Mrs Prodgers having been desired by her master to make the communication, she declared to her sister that everything was now over. She could never again live with a husband who had disgraced his wife by desiring her own cook to keep a guard upon her. Had the footman been instructed not to admit Colonel Osborne there would have been in such instruction some apparent adherence to the recognised usages of society. If you do not desire either your friend or your enemy to be received into your house, you communicate your desire to the person who has charge of the door. But the cook!

‘And now, Nora, if it were you, do you mean to say that you would remain with him?’ asked Mrs Trevelyan.

Nora simply replied that anything under any circumstances would be better than a separation.

On the morning of the third day there came the following letter:

‘Wednesday, June 1, 12 midnight.

Dearest Emily,

You will readily believe me when I say that I never in my life was so wretched as I have been during the last two days. That you and I should be in the same house together and not able to speak to each other is in itself a misery, but this is terribly enhanced by the dread lest this state of things should be made to continue.

I want you to understand that I do not in the least suspect you of having as yet done anything wrong or having even said anything injurious either to my position as your husband, or to your position as my wife. But I cannot but perceive that you are allowing yourself to be entrapped into an intimacy with Colonel Osborne which, if it be not checked, will be destructive to my happiness and your own. After what had passed before, you cannot have thought it right to receive letters from him which I was not to see, or to write letters to him of which I was not to know the contents. It must be manifest to you that such conduct on your part is wrong as judged by any of the rules by which a wife’s conduct can be measured. And yet you have refused even to say that this shall be discontinued! I need hardly explain to you that if you persist in this refusal you and I cannot continue to live together as man and wife. All my hopes and prospects in life will be blighted by such a separation. I have not as yet been able to think what I should do in such wretched circumstances. And for you, as also for Nora, such a catastrophe would be most lamentable. Do, therefore, think of it well, and write me such a letter as may bring me back to your side.

There is only one friend in the world to whom I could endure to talk of this great grief, and I have been to her and told her everything. You will know that I mean Lady Milborough. After much difficult conversation I have persuaded her to see you, and she will call in Curzon Street tomorrow about twelve. There can be no kinder-hearted, or more gentle woman in the world than Lady Milborough; nor did any one ever have a warmer friend than both you and I have in her. Let me implore you then to listen to her, and be guided by her advice.

Pray believe, dearest Emily, that I am now, as ever, your most affectionate husband, and that I have no wish so strong as that we should not be compelled to part.

Louis Trevelyan.’

This epistle was, in many respects, a very injudicious composition. Trevelyan should have trusted either to the eloquence of his own written words, or to that of the ambassador whom he was about to despatch; but by sending both he weakened both. And then there were certain words in the letter which were odious to Mrs Trevelyan, and must have been odious to any young wife. He had said that he did not ‘as yet’ suspect her of having done anything wrong. And then, when he endeavoured to explain to her that a separation would be very injurious to herself, he had coupled her sister with her, thus seeming to imply that the injury to be avoided was of a material kind. She had better do what he told her, as, otherwise, she and her sister would not have a roof over their head! That was the nature of the threat which his words were supposed to convey.

The matter had become so serious, that Mrs Trevelyan, haughty and stiff-necked as she was, did not dare to abstain from showing the letter to her sister. She had no other counsellor, at any rate, till Lady Milborough came, and the weight of the battle was too great for her own unaided spirit. The letter had been written late at night, as was shown by the precision of the date, and had been brought to her early in the morning. At first she had determined to say nothing about it to Nora, but she was not strong enough to maintain such a purpose. She felt that she needed the poor consolation of discussing her wretchedness. She first declared that she would not see Lady Milborough. ‘I hate her, and she knows that I hate her, and she ought not to have thought of coming,’ said Mrs Trevelyan.

But she was at last beaten out of this purpose by Nora’s argument, that all the world would be against her if she refused to see her husband’s old friend. And then, though the letter was an odious letter, as she declared a dozen times, she took some little comfort in the fact that not a word was said in it about the baby. She thought that if she could take her child with her into any separation, she could endure it, and her husband would ultimately be conquered.

‘Yes; I’ll see her,’ she said, as they finished the discussion. ‘As he chooses to send her, I suppose I had better see her. But I don’t think he does much to mend matters when he sends the woman whom he knows I dislike more than any other in all London.’

Exactly at twelve o’clock Lady Milborough’s carriage was at the door. Trevelyan was in the house at the time and heard the knock at the door. During those two or three days of absolute wretchedness, he spent most of his hours under the same roof with his wife and sister-inlaw, though he spoke to neither of them. He had had his doubts as to the reception of Lady Milborough, and was, to tell the truth, listening with most anxious ear, when her Ladyship was announced. His wife, however, was not so bitterly contumacious as to refuse admittance to his friend, and he heard the rustle of the ponderous silk as the old woman was shown upstairs. When Lady Milborough reached the drawing-room, Mrs Trevelyan was alone.

‘I had better see her by myself,’ she had said to her sister.

Nora had then left her, with one word of prayer that she would be as little defiant as possible.

‘That must depend,’ Emily had said, with a little shake of her head.

There had been a suggestion that the child should be with her, but the mother herself had rejected this.

‘It would be stagey,’ she had said, ‘and clap-trap. There is nothing I hate so much as that.’

She was sitting, therefore, quite alone, and as stiff as a man in armour, when Lady Milborough was shown up to her.

And Lady Milborough herself was not at all comfortable as she commenced the interview. She had prepared many wise words to be spoken, but was not so little ignorant of the character of the woman with whom she had to deal, as to suppose that the wise words would get themselves spoken without interruption. She had known from the first that Mrs Trevelyan would have much to say for herself, and the feeling that it would be so became stronger than ever as she entered the room. The ordinary feelings between the two ladies were cold and constrained, and then there was silence for a few moments when the Countess had taken her seat. Mrs Trevelyan had quite determined that the enemy should fire the first shot.

‘This is a very sad state of things,’ said the Countess.

‘Yes, indeed, Lady Milborough.’

‘The saddest in the world and so unnecessary is it not?’

‘Very unnecessary, indeed, as I think.’

‘Yes, my dear, yes. But, of course, we must remember.’

Then Lady Milborough could not clearly bring to her mind what it was that she had to remember.

‘The fact is, my dear, that all this kind of thing is too monstrous to be thought of. Goodness, gracious, me; two young people like you and Louis, who thoroughly love each other, and who have got a baby, to think of being separated! Of course it is out of the question.’

‘You cannot suppose, Lady Milborough, that I want to be separated from my husband?’

‘Of course not. How should it be possible? The very idea is too shocking to be thought of. I declare I haven’t slept since Louis was talking to me about it. But, my dear, you must remember, you know, that a husband has a right to expect some sort of submission from his wife.’

‘He has a right to expect obedience, Lady Milborough.’

‘Of course; that is all one wants.’

‘And I will obey Mr Trevelyan in anything reasonable.’

‘But, my dear, who is to say what is reasonable? That, you see, is always the difficulty. You must allow that your husband is the person who ought to decide that.’

‘Has he told you that I have refused to obey him, Lady Milborough?’

The Countess paused a moment before she replied. ‘Well, yes; I think he has,’ she said. ‘He asked you to do something about a letter, a letter to that Colonel Osborne, who is a man, my dear, really to be very much afraid of; a man who has done a great deal of harm, and you declined. Now in a matter of that kind of course the husband —’

‘Lady Milborough, I must ask you to listen to me. You have listened to Mr Trevelyan, and I must ask you to listen to me. I am sorry to trouble you, but as you have come here about this unpleasant business, you must forgive me if I insist upon it.’

‘Of course I will listen to you, my dear.’

‘I have never refused to obey my husband, and I do not refuse now. The gentleman of whom you have been speaking is an old friend of my father’s, and has become my friend. Nevertheless, had Mr Trevelyan given me any plain order about him, I should have obeyed him. A wife does not feel that her chances of happiness are increased when she finds that her husband suspects her of being too intimate with another man. It is a thing very hard to bear. But I would have endeavoured to bear it, knowing how important it is for both our sakes, and more especially for our child. I would have made excuses, and would have endeavoured to think that this horrid feeling on his part is nothing more than a short delusion.’

‘But, my dear —’

‘I must ask you to hear me out, Lady Milborough. But when he tells me first that I am not to meet the man, and so instructs the servants; then tells me that I am to meet him, and go on just as I was going before, and then again tells me that I am not to see him, and again instructs the servants and, above all, the cook that Colonel Osborne is not to come into the house, then obedience becomes rather difficult.’

‘Just say now that you will do what he wants, and then all will be right.’

‘I will not say so to you, Lady Milborough. It is not to you that I ought to say it. But as he has chosen to send you here, I will explain to you that I have never disobeyed him. When I was free, in accordance with Mr Trevelyan’s wishes, to have what intercourse I pleased with Colonel Osborne, I received a note from that gentleman on a most trivial matter. I answered it as trivially. My husband saw my letter, closed, and questioned me about it. I told him that the letter was still there, and that if he chose to be a spy upon my actions he could open it and read it.’

‘My dear, how could you bring yourself to use the word spy to your husband?’

‘How could he bring himself to accuse me as he did? If he cares for me let him come and beg my pardon for the insult he has offered me.’

‘Oh, Mrs Trevelyan!’

‘Yes; that seems very wrong to you, who have not had to bear it. It is very easy for a stranger to take a husband’s part, and help to put down a poor woman who has been ill used. I have done nothing wrong, nothing to be ashamed of; and I will not say that I have. I never have spoken a word to Colonel Osborne that all the world might not hear.’

‘Nobody has accused you, my dear.’

‘Yes; he has accused me, and you have accused me, and you will make all the world accuse me. He may put me out of his house if he likes, but he shall not make me say I have been wrong, when I know I have been right. He cannot take my child from me.’

‘But he will.’

‘No,’ shouted Mrs Trevelyan, jumping up from her chair, ‘no; he shall never do that. I will cling to him so that he cannot separate us. He will never be so wicked, such a monster as that. I would go about the world saying what a monster he had been to me.’ The passion of the interview was becoming too great for Lady Milborough’s power of moderating it, and she was beginning to feel herself to be in a difficulty. ‘Lady Milborough,’ continued Mrs Trevelyan, ‘tell him from me that I will bear anything but that. That I will not bear.’

‘Dear Mrs Trevelyan, do not let us talk about it.’

‘Who wants to talk about it? Why do you come here and threaten me with a thing so horrible? I do not believe you. He would not dare to separate me and my child.’

‘But you have only to say that you will submit yourself to him.’

‘I have submitted myself to him, and I will submit no further. What does he want? Why does he send you here? He does not know what he wants. He has made himself miserable by an absurd idea, and he wants everybody to tell him that he has been right. He has been very wrong; and if he desires to be wise now, he will come back to his home, and say nothing further about it. He will gain nothing by sending messengers here.’

Lady Milborough, who had undertaken a most disagreeable task from the purest motives of old friendship, did not like being called a messenger; but the woman before her was so strong in her words, so eager, and so passionate, that she did not know how to resent the injury. And there was coming over her an idea, of which she herself was hardly conscious, that after all, perhaps, the husband was not in the right. She had come there with the general idea that wives, and especially young wives, should be submissive. She had naturally taken the husband’s part; and having a preconceived dislike to Colonel Osborne, she had been willing enough to think that precautionary measures were necessary in reference to so eminent, and notorious, and experienced a Lothario. She had never altogether loved Mrs Trevelyan, and had always been a little in dread of her. But she had thought that the authority with which she would be invested on this occasion, the manifest right on her side, and the undeniable truth of her grand argument, that a wife should obey, would carry her, if not easily, still successfully through all difficulties. It was probably the case that Lady Milborough when preparing for her visit, had anticipated a triumph. But when she had been closeted for an hour with Mrs Trevelyan, she found that she was not triumphant. She was told that she was a messenger, and an unwelcome messenger; and she began to feel that she did not know how she was to take herself away.

‘I am sure I have done everything for the best,’ she said, getting up from her chair.

‘The best will be to send him back, and make him feel the truth.’

‘The best for you, my dear, will be to consider well what should be the duty of a wife.’

‘I have considered, Lady Milborough. It cannot be a wife’s duty to acknowledge that she has been wrong in such a matter as this.’

Then Lady Milborough made her curtsey and got herself away in some manner that was sufficiently awkward, and Mrs Trevelyan curtseyed also as she rang the bell; and, though she was sore and wretched, and, in truth, sadly frightened, she was not awkward. In that encounter, so far as it had gone, she had been the victor.

As soon as she was alone and the carriage had been driven well away from the door, Mrs Trevelyan left the drawing-room and went up to the nursery. As she entered she clothed her face with her sweetest smile. ‘How is his own mother’s dearest, dearest, darling duck’ she said, putting out her arms and taking the boy from the nurse. The child was at this time about ten months old, and was a strong, hearty, happy infant, always laughing when he was awake and always sleeping when he did not laugh, because his little limbs were free from pain and his little stomach was not annoyed by internal troubles. He kicked, and crowed, and sputtered, when his mother took him, and put up his little fingers to clutch her hair, and was to her as a young god upon the earth. Nothing in the world had ever been created so beautiful, so joyous, so satisfactory, so divine! And they told her that this apple of her eye was to be taken away from her! No that must be impossible. ‘I will take him into my own room, nurse, for a little while — you have had him all the morning,’ she said; as though the ‘having baby’ was a privilege over which there might almost be a quarrel. Then she took her boy away with her, and when she was alone with him, went through such a service in baby-worship as most mothers will understand. Divide these two! No; nobody should do that. Sooner than that, she, the mother, would consent to be no more than a servant in her husband’s house. Was not her baby all the world to her?

On the evening of that day the husband and wife had an interview together in the library, which, unfortunately, was as unsatisfactory as Lady Milborough’s visit. The cause of the failure of them all lay probably in this, that there was no decided point which, if conceded, would have brought about a reconciliation. Trevelyan asked for general submission, which he regarded as his right, and which in the existing circumstances he thought it necessary to claim, and though Mrs Trevelyan did not refuse to be submissive she would make no promise on the subject. But the truth was that each desired that the other should acknowledge a fault, and that neither of them would make that acknowledgment. Emily Trevelyan felt acutely that she had been ill-used, not only by her husband’s suspicion, but by the manner in which he had talked of his suspicion to others, to Lady Milborough and the cook, and she was quite convinced that she was right herself, because he had been so vacillating in his conduct about Colonel Osborne. But Trevelyan was equally sure that justice was on his side. Emily must have known his real wishes about Colonel Osborne; but when she had found that he had rescinded his verbal orders about the admission of the man to the house, which he had done to save himself and her from slander and gossip, she had taken advantage of this and had thrown herself more entirely than ever into the intimacy of which he disapproved!

When they met, each was so sore that no approach to terms was made by them.

‘If I am to be treated in that way, I would rather not live with you,’ said the wife. ‘It is impossible to live with a husband who is jealous.’

‘All I ask of you is that you shall promise me to have no further communication with this man.’

‘I will make no promise that implies my own disgrace.’

‘Then we must part; and if that be so, this house will be given up. You may live where you please in the country, not in London; but I shall take steps that Colonel Osborne does not see you.’

‘I will not remain in the room with you to be insulted thus,’ said Mrs Trevelyan. And she did not remain, but left the chamber, slamming the door after her as she went.

‘It will be better that she should go,’ said Trevelyan, when he found himself alone. And so it came to pass that that blessing of a rich marriage, which had as it were fallen upon them at the Mandarins from out of heaven, had become, after an interval of but two short years, anything but an unmixed blessing.

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