The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXIII

The Plumstead Foxes

The letters had been brought into the breakfast-parlour at Plumstead Rectory one morning, and the archdeacon had inspected them all, and then thrown over to his wife her share of the spoil — as was the custom of the house. As to most of Mrs Grantly’s letters, he never made any further inquiry. To letters from her sister, the dean’s wife, he was profoundly indifferent, and rarely made any inquiry as to those which were directed in writing with which he was not familiar. But there were others as to which, as Mrs Grantly knew, he would be sure to ask her questions if she did not show them. No note ever reached her from Lady Harteltop as to which he was not curious, and yet Lady Hartletop’s notes very seldom contained much that was of interest. Now, on this morning, there came a letter which, as a matter of course, Mrs Grantly read at breakfast, and which, she knew, would not be allowed to disappear without inquiry. Nor, indeed, did she wish to keep the letter from her husband. It was too important to be so treated. But she would have been glad to gain time to think in what spirit she would discuss the contents of the letter — if only such time might be allowed to her. But the archdeacon would allow her no time. ‘What does Henry say, my dear?’ he asked, before the breakfast things had been taken away.

‘What does he say? Well, he says — I’ll give you his letter to read by-and-by.’

‘And why not now?’

‘I thought I’d read it again myself, first.’

‘But if you have read it, I suppose you know what’s in it?’

‘Not very clearly, as yet. However, there it is.’ She knew very well that when she had once been asked for it, no peace would be allowed her till he had seen it. And, alas! there was not much probability of peace in the house for some time after he had seen it.

The archdeacon read the three or first lines in silence — and then burst out. ‘He has, has he? Then, by heavens —’

‘Stop, dearest; stop,’ said his wife, rising from her chair and coming over to him; ‘do not say words which you will surely repent.’

‘I will say words which shall make him repent. He shall never have from me a son’s portion.’

‘Do not make threats in anger. Do not! You know that it is wrong. If he has offended you, say nothing about it — even to yourself —-as to threatened punishments, till you can judge of the offence in cool blood.’

‘I am cool,’ said the archdeacon.

‘No, my dear; no; you are angry. And you have not even read his letter through.’

‘I will read his letter.’

‘You will see that the marriage is not imminent. It may be that even yet it will never take place. The young lady has refused him.’

‘Psha!’

‘You will see that she has done so. He tells us so himself. And she has behaved very properly.’

‘Why has she refused him?’

‘There can be no doubt about the reason. She feels that, with this charge hanging over her father, she is not in a position to become the wife of any gentleman. You cannot but respect her for that.’

The archdeacon finished his son’s letter, uttering sundry interjections and ejaculations as he did so.

‘Of course; I knew it. I understood it all,’ he said at last. ‘I’ve nothing to do with the girl. I don’t care whether she be good or bad.’

‘Oh, my dear!’

‘I care not at all — with reference to my own concerns. Of course I would wish that the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman — that the daughter of any neighbour — that the daughter of anyone whatsoever — should be good rather than bad. But as regards Henry and me, and our mutual relation, her goodness can make no difference. Let her be another Grizel, and still such a marriage must estrange him from me, and me from him.’

‘But she has refused him.’

‘Yes; and what does he say? — that he has told her that he will not accept her refusal. Of course we know what it all means. The girl I am not judging. The girl I will not judge. But my own son, to whom I have ever done a father’s duty with a father’s affectionate indulgence — him I will judge. I have warned him, and he declares himself to be careless of my warning. I shall take no notice of this letter. I shall neither write to him about it or speak to him about it. But I charge you to write to him and tell him that if he does this thing he shall not have a child’s portion from me. It is not that I will shorten that which would have been his; but he shall have — nothing!’ Then, having spoken these words with a solemnity which for the moment silenced his wife, he got up and left the room. He left the room and closed the door, but, before he had gone half the length of the hall towards his own study, he returned and addressed his wife again. ‘You understand my instructions, I hope?’

‘What instructions?’

‘That you write to Henry and tell him what I say.’

‘I will speak again to you about it by-and-by.’

‘I will speak no more about it — not a word more. Let there be not a word more said, but oblige me by doing as I ask you.’

Then he was again about to leave the room, but she stopped him. ‘Wait a moment, my dear.’

‘Why should I wait?’

‘That you may listen to me. Surely you will do that, when I ask you. I will write to Henry, of course, if you bid me; and I will give him your message, whatever it may be; but not today, my dear.’

‘Why not today?’

‘Because the sun shall go down on your wrath before I become its messenger. If you choose to write that yourself, I cannot help it. I cannot hinder you. If I am to write to him on your behalf I will take my instructions from you tomorrow morning. When tomorrow morning comes you will not be angry with me because of the delay.’

The archdeacon was by no means satisfied; but he knew his wife too well, and himself too well, and the world too well, to insist on the immediate gratification of his passion. Over his bosom’s mistress he did exercise a certain marital control — which was, for instance, quite sufficiently fixed to enable him to look down with thorough contempt on such a one a Bishop Proudie; but he was not a despot who could exact a passive obedience to every fantasy. His wife would not have written the letter for him on that day, and he knew very well that she would not do so. He knew also that she was right; — and yet he regretted his want of power. His anger at the present moment was very hot — so hot that he wished to wreak it. He knew that it would cool before the morrow; — and, no doubt, knew also theoretically, that it would be most fitting that it should be cool. But not the less was it a matter of regret to him that so much good hot anger should be wasted, and that he could not have his will of his disobedient son while it lasted. He might, no doubt, have written himself, but to have done so would not have suited him. Even in his anger he could not have written to his son without using the ordinary terms of affection, and in his anger he could not bring himself to use those terms. ‘You will find that I shall be of the same mind tomorrow — exactly,’ he said to his wife. ‘I have resolved about it long since; and it is not likely that I shall change in a day.’ Then he went out, about his parish, intending to continue to think of his son’s iniquity, so that he might keep his anger hot — red hot. Then he remembered that the evening would come, and that he would say his prayers; and he shook his head in regret — in a regret of which he was only half conscious, though it was very keen, and which he did not attempt to analyse — as he reflected that his rage would hardly be able to survive that ordeal. How common with us it is to repine that the devil is not stronger over us than he is.

The archdeacon, who was a very wealthy man, had purchased a property at Plumstead, contiguous to the glebe-land, and had thus come to exercise in the parish the double duty of rector and squire. And of this estate in Barsetshire, which extended beyond the confines of Plumstead into the neighbouring parish of Stogpingum — Stoke Pinguium would have been the proper name had not the barbarous Saxon tongues clipped it of its proper proportions — he had always intended that his son Charles should enjoy the inheritance. There was other property, both in land and in money, for his elder son, and other again for the maintenance of his wife, for the archdeacon’s father had been for many years Bishop of Barchester, and such a bishopric as that of Barchester had been in those days worth money. Of his intention in this respect he had never spoken in plain language to either of his sons; but the major had for the last year or two enjoyed the shooting of the Barsetshire covers, giving what orders he pleased about the game; and the father had encouraged him to take something like the management of the property into his hands. There might have been some fifteen hundred acres of it altogether, and the archdeacon had rejoiced over it with his wife scores of times, saying that there was many a squire in the county whose elder son would never find himself so well placed as would his own younger son. Now there was a string of narrow woods called Plumstead Coppices which ran from a point near the church right across the parish, dividing the archdeacon’s land from the Ullathorne estate, and these coppices, or belts of woodland, belonged to the archdeacon. On the morning of which we are speaking, the archdeacon mounted on his cob, still thinking of his son’s iniquity and of his own fixed resolve to punish him as he had said that he would punish him, opened with his whip a woodland gate, from which a green muddy lane led through the trees up to the house of the gamekeeper. The man’s wife was ill, and in his ordinary way of business the archdeacon was about to call and ask after her health. At the door of the cottage he found the man, who was woodman as well as gamekeeper, and was responsible for fences and faggots, as well as for the foxes and pheasants’ eggs.

‘How’s Martha, Flurry?’ said the archdeacon.

‘Thanking your reverence, she be a deal improved since the mistress was here — last Tuesday it was, I think.’

‘I’m glad of that. It was only rheumatism, I suppose?’

‘Just a tich of fever with it, your reverence, the doctor said,’

‘Tell her I was asking after it. I won’t mind getting down today, as I am rather busy. She has had what she wanted from the house?’

‘The mistress has been very good in that way. She always is, God bless her!’

‘Good-day to you, Flurry. I’ll ask Mr Sims to come and read to her a bit this afternoon, or tomorrow morning.’ The archdeacon kept two curates, and Mr Sims was one of them.’

‘She’ll take it very kindly, your reverence. But while you are here, sir, there’s just a word I’d like to say. I didn’t happen to catch Mr Henry when he was here the other day.’

‘Never mind Mr Henry — what is it you have to say?’

‘I do think, I do indeed, sire, that Mr Thorne’s man ain’t dealing fairly along of the foxes. I wouldn’t say a word about it, only that Mr Henry is so particular.’

‘What about the foxes? What is he doing with the foxes?’

‘Well, sire, he’s a trapping on ’em. He is, indeed, your reverence. I wouldn’t speak if I warn’t well nigh mortal sure.’

Now the archdeacon had never been a hunting man, though in his early days many a clergyman had been in the habit of hunting without losing his clerical character by doing so; but he had lived all his life among gentlemen in a hunting county, and had his own very strong ideas about the trapping of foxes. Foxes first, and pheasants afterwards, had always been the rule with him as to any land of which he himself had the management. And no man understood better than he did how to deal with keepers as to this matter of fox-preserving, or knew better that keepers will in truth obey not the words of their employers, but their sympathies. ‘Wish them to have foxes, and pay them, and they will have them.’ Mr Sowerby of Chaldicotes used to say, and he in his day was reckoned to be the best preserver of foxes in Barsetshire. ‘Tell them to have them, and don’t wish it, and pay them well, and you won’t have a fox to interfere with your game. I don’t care what a man says to me, I can read it all like a book when I see his covers drawn.’ That was what poor Mr Sowerby of Chaldicotes used to say, and the archdeacon had heard him say it a score of time, and had learned the lesson. But now his heart was not with the foxes — and especially not with the foxes on behalf of his son Henry. ‘I can’t have any meddling with Mr Thorne,’ he said; ‘I can’t; and I won’t.’

‘But I don’t suppose it can be Mr Thorne’s order, your reverence; and Mr Henry is so particular.’

‘Of course it isn’t Mr Thorne’s order. Mr Thorne has been a hunting man all his life.’

‘But he have guv’ up now, your reverence. He ain’t hunted these two years.’

‘I’m sure he wouldn’t have the foxes trapped.’

‘Not if he knowed it, he wouldn’t, your reverence. A gentleman of the likes of him, who’s been a hunting over fifty year, wouldn’t do the likes of that; but the foxes is trapped, and Mr Henry’ll be a putting it on me if I don’t speak out. They is Plumstead foxes, too; and a vixen was trapped just across the field yonder, in Goshall Springs, no later than yesterday morning.’ Flurry was now thoroughly in earnest; and, indeed, the trapping of a vixen in February is a serious thing.

‘Goshall Springs don’t belong to me,’ said the archdeacon.

‘No, your reverence; they’re on the Ullathorne property. But a word from your reverence would do it. Mr Henry thinks more of the foxes than anything. The last word he told me was that it would break his heart if he saw the coppices drawn blank.’

‘Then he must break his heart.’ The words were pronounced, but the archdeacon had so much command over himself as to speak them in such a voice that the man should not hear them. But it was incumbent on him to say something that the man should hear. ‘I will have no meddling in the matter, Flurry. Whether there are foxes or whether there are not, is a matter of no great moment. I will not have a word said to annoy Mr Thorne.’ Then he rode away, back through the wood and out on to the road, and the horse walked with him leisurely on, whither the archdeacon hardly knew — for he was thinking, thinking, thinking. ‘Well; — if that ain’t the darn’dest thing that ever was,’ said Flurry; ‘but I’ll tell the squire about Thorne’s man — darned if I don’t.’ now, ‘the squire’ was young Squire Gresham, the master of the East Barsetshire hounds.

But the archdeacon went on thinking, thinking, thinking. He could have heard nothing of his son to stir him more in his favour than this strong evidence of his partiality for foxes. I do not mean it to be understood that the archdeacon regarded foxes as better than active charity, of a contented mind, or a meek spirit, or than self-denying temperance. No doubt all these virtues did hold in his mind their proper places, altogether beyond contamination of foxes. But he had prided himself on thinking that his son should be a country gentleman, and probably nothing doubting as to the major’s active charity and other virtues, was delighted to receive evidence of those tastes which he had ever wished to encourage in his son’s character. Or rather, such evidence would have delighted him at any other time than the present. Now it only added more gall to his cup. ‘Why should he teach himself to care for such things, when he has not the spirit to enjoy them,’ said the archdeacon to himself. ‘He is a fool — a fool. A man that has been married once, to go crazy after a little girl, that has hardly a dress to her back, and who never was in a drawing-room in her life! Charles is the eldest, and he shall be the eldest. It will be better to keep it together. It is the way in which the country has become what it is.’ He was out nearly all day, and did not see his wife till dinner-time. Her father, Mr Harding, was still with them, but had breakfasted in his own room. Not a word, therefore, was said about Henry Grantly between the father and mother on that evening.

Mrs Grantly was determined that, unless provoked, she would say nothing to him till the following morning. He should sleep upon his wrath before she spoke to him again. And he was equally unwilling to recur to the subject. Had she permitted, the next morning would have passed away, and no word would have been spoken. But this would not have suited her. She had his orders to write, and she had undertaken to obey these orders — with the delay of one day. Were she not to write at all — or in writing to send no message from the father, there would be cause for further anger. And yet this, I think, was what the archdeacon wished.

‘Archdeacon,’ she said, ‘I shall write to Henry today.’

‘Very well.’

‘And what am I to say from you?’

‘I told you yesterday what are my intentions.’

‘I am not asking about that now. We hope there will be years and years to come, in which you may change them, and shape them as you will. What shall I tell him now from you?’

‘I have nothing to say to him — nothing; not a word. He knows what he has to expect from me, for I have told him. He is acting with his eyes open, and so am I. If he married Miss Crawley, he must live on his own means. I told him that so plainly, that he can want no further intimation.’ Then Mrs Grantly knew that she was absolved from the burden of yesterday’s message, and she plumed herself on the prudence of her conduct. On the same morning the archdeacon wrote the following note:—

‘DEAR THORNE — ‘My man tells me that foxes have been trapped on Darvell’s farm, just outside the coppices. I know nothing of it myself, but I am sure you’ll look to it.

‘Yours always, ‘T. GRANTLY.’

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