The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter L

Lady Lufton’s Proposition

It was now known throughout Barchester that a commission was to be held by the bishop’s orders, at which inquiry would be made — that is, ecclesiastical inquiry — as to the guilt imputed to Mr Crawley in the matter of Mr Soames’s cheque. Sundry rumours had gone abroad as to quarrels which had taken place on the subject among certain clergymen high in office; but these were simply rumours, and nothing was in truth known. There was no more discreet clergyman in the diocese than Dr Tempest, and not a word had escaped from him as to the stormy nature of that meeting in the bishop’s palace, at which he had attended with the bishop — and at which Mrs Proudie had attended also. When it is said that the fact of this coming commission was known to all Barsetshire, allusion is of course made to that portion of the inhabitants of Barsetshire to which clerical matters were dear; — and as such matters were specially dear to the inhabitants of the parish of Framley, the commission was discussed very eagerly in that parish, and was specially discussed by the Dowager Lady Lufton.

And there was a double interest attached to the commission in the parish of Framley by the fact that Mr Robarts, the vicar, had been invited by Dr Tempest to be one of the clergymen who were to assist in making the inquiry. ‘I also to propose to ask Mr Oriel of Greshambury to join us,’ said Dr Tempest. ‘The bishop wishes to appoint the other two, and has already named Mr Thumble and Mr Quiverful, who are both residents in the city. Perhaps his lordship may be right in thinking it better that the matter should not be left altogether in the hands of clergymen who hold livings in the diocese. You are no doubt aware that neither Mr Thumble nor Mr Quiverful do hold any benefice.’ Mr Robarts felt — as everybody else did feel who knew anything of the matter — that Bishop Proudie was singularly ignorant of his knowledge of men, and that he showed his ignorance on this special occasion. ‘If he intended to name two such men he should at any rate have named three,’ said Dr Thorne. ‘Mr Thumble and Mr Quiverful will simply be outvoted on the first day, and after that will give in their adhesion to the majority.’ ‘Mr Thumble indeed!’ Lady Lufton had said, with much scorn in her voice. To her thinking, it was absurd in the highest degree that such men as Dr Tempest and her Mr Robarts should be asked to meet Mr Thumble and Mr Quiverful on a matter of ecclesiastical business. Outvoted! Of course whey would be outvoted. Of course they would be so paralysed by fear at finding themselves in the presence of real gentlemen, that they would hardly be able to vote at all. Old Lady Lufton did not in fact utter words so harsh as these; but thoughts as harsh passed through her mind. The reader therefore will understand that much interest was felt in the subject at Framley Court, where Lady Lufton lived with her son and daughter-in-law.

‘They tell me,’ said Lady Lufton, ‘that both the archdeacon and Dr Tempest think it is right that a commission should be held. If so, I have no doubt that it is right.’

‘Mark says that the bishop could hardly do anything else,’ rejoined Mrs Robarts.

‘I daresay not, my dear. I suppose the bishop has somebody near him to tell him what he may do and what he may not do. It would be terrible to think of, if it were not so. But yet, when I hear that he has named such men as Mr Thumble and Mr Quiverful, I cannot but feel that the whole diocese is disgraced.’

‘Oh, Lady Lufton, that is such a strong word,’ said Mrs Robarts.

‘It may be strong, but it is not the less true,’ said Lady Lufton.

And from talking on the subject of the Crawleys, Lady Lufton soon advanced, first to a desire for some action, and than to acting. ‘I think, my dear, I will go over and see Mrs Crawley,’ said Lady Lufton, the elder to Lady Lufton the younger. Lady Lufton the younger had nothing to urge against this; but she did not offer to accompany the elder Lady. I attempted to explain in the earlier part of this story that there still existed a certain understanding between Mrs Crawley and Lord Lufton’s wife, and that kindnesses had occasionally passed from Framley Court to Hogglestock Parsonage; but on this occasion, Lady Lufton — the Lucy Robarts that had once passed certain days of her life with the Crawleys at Hogglestock — did not choose to accompany her mother-in-law; and therefore Mrs Robarts was invited to do so. ‘I think it may comfort her to know that she has our sympathy,’ the elder woman said to the younger as they made their journey together.

When the carriage stopped before the little wicker-gate, from whence a path led through a ragged garden from the road to Mr Crawley’s house, Lady Lufton hardly knew how to proceed. The servant came to the door of the carriage, and asked for her orders. ‘H— m — m, ha, yes; I think I’ll send in my card; — and say that I hope Mrs Crawley will be able to see me. Won’t that be best; eh, Fanny?’ Fanny, otherwise Mrs Robarts, said that she thought that would be best; and the card and message were carried in.

It was happily the case that Mr Crawley was not at home. Mr Crawley was away at Hoggle End, reading to the brickmakers, or turning the mangles of their wives, or teaching them theology, or politics, or history, after his fashion. In these days he spent, perhaps, the happiest hours of his life down at Hoggle End. I say that his absence was a happy chance, because, had he been at home, he would certainly have said something, or done something, to offend Lady Lufton. He would either have refused to see her, or when seeing her he would have bade her hold her peace and not interfere with matters which did not concern her, or — more probable still — he would have sat still and sullen, and have spoken not at all. But he was away and Mrs Crawley sent out word by the servant that she would be most proud to see her ladyship, if her ladyship would be pleased to alight. Her ladyship did alight, and walked into the parsonage, followed by Mrs Robarts.

Grace was with her mother. Indeed Jane had been there also when the message was brought in, but she fled into the back regions, overcome by shame as to her frock. Grace, I think, would have fled too, had she not been bound in honour to support her mother. Lady Lufton, as she entered, was very gracious, struggling with all the power of her womanhood so to carry herself that there should be no outwardly visible sign of her rank or her wealth — but not altogether succeeding. Mrs Robarts, on her first entrance, said only a word or two of greeting to Mrs Crawley, and kissed Grace, whom she had known intimately in early years. ‘Lady Lufton,’ said Mrs Crawley, ‘I am afraid this is a very poor place for you to come to; but you have known that of old, and therefore I need hardly apologise.’

‘Sometimes I like poor places best,’ said Lady Lufton. Then there was a pause, after which Lady Lufton addressed herself to Grace, seeking some subject for immediate conversation. ‘You have been down in Allington, my dear, have you not?’ Grace, in a whisper, said that she had. ‘Staying with the Dales, I believe? I know the Dales well by name, and I have always heard that they are charming people.’

‘I like them very much,’ said Grace. And then there was another pause.

‘I hope your husband is pretty well, Mrs Crawley?’ said Lady Lufton.

‘He is pretty well — not quite strong. I daresay you know, Lady Lufton, that he has things to vex him?’ Mrs Crawley felt that it was the need of the moment that the only possible subject of conversation in that house should be introduced; and therefore she brought it in at once, not loving the subject, but being strongly conscious of the necessity. Lady Lufton meant to be good-natured, and therefore Mrs Crawley would do all in her power to make Lady Lufton’s mission easy to her.

‘Indeed yes,’ said her ladyship; ‘we do know that.’

‘We feel so much for you and Mr Crawley,’ said Mrs Robarts; ‘and are so sure that your sufferings are unmerited.’ This was not discreet on the part of Mrs Robarts, as she was the wife of one of the clergymen who had been selected to form the commission of inquiry; and so Lady Lufton told her on the way home.

‘You are very kind,’ said Mrs Crawley. ‘We must only bear it with such fortitude as God will give us. We are told that He tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.’

‘And so He does my dear,’ said her ladyship very solemnly. ‘So He does. Surely you have felt that it is so?’

‘I struggle not to complain,’ said Mrs Crawley.

‘I know that you struggle bravely. I hear of you, and I admire you for it, and I love you.’ It was still the old lady who was speaking and now she had at last been roused out of her difficulty as to words, and had risen from her chair, and was standing before Mrs Crawley. ‘It is because you do not complain, because you are so great and so good, because your character is so high, and your spirit so firm, that I could not resist the temptation of coming to you. Mrs Crawley, if you will let me be your friend, I shall be proud of your friendship.’

‘Your ladyship is too good,’ said Mrs Crawley.

‘Do not talk to me after that fashion,’ said Lady Lufton. ‘If you do I shall be disappointed, and feel myself thrown back. You know what I mean.’ She paused for an answer; but Mrs Crawley had no answer to make. She simply shook her head, not knowing why she did so. But we may know. We can understand that she had felt that the friendship offered to her by Lady Lufton was an impossibility. She had decided within her own breast that it was so, though she did not know that she had come to such decision. ‘I wish you to take me at my word, Mrs Crawley,’ continued Lady Lufton. ‘What can we do for you? We know that you are distressed.’

‘Yes — we are distressed.’

‘And we know how cruel circumstances have been to you. Will you not forgive me for being plain?’

‘I have nothing to forgive,’ said Mrs Crawley.

‘Lady Lufton means,’ said Mrs Robarts, ‘that in asking you to talk openly of your affairs, she wishes you to remember that — I think you know what I mean,’ said Mrs Robarts, knowing very well herself what she did mean, but not knowing at all how to express herself.

‘Lady Lufton is very kind,’ said Mrs Crawley, ‘and so are you, Mrs Robarts. I know how good you both are, and for how much it behoves me to be grateful.’ These words were very cold, and the voice in which they were spoken were very cold. They made Lady Lufton feel that it was beyond her power to proceed with the work of her mission in its intended spirit. It is ever so much easier to proffer kindness graciously than to receive it with grace. Lady Lufton had intended to say, ‘Let us be women together; — women bound by humanity, and not separated by rank, and let us open our hearts freely. Let us see how we may be of comfort to each other.’ And could she have succeeded in this, she would have spread out her little plans of succour with so loving a hand that she would have conquered the woman before her. But the suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its dais to receive pity and kindness. A consciousness of undeserved woe produces a grandeur of its own, with which the high-souled sufferer will not easily part. Baskets full of eggs, pounds of eleemosynary butter, quarters of given pork, even second-hand clothing from the wardrobe of some richer sister — even money, unsophisticated money, she could accept. She had learned how that it was her portion of her allotted misery to take such things — for the sake of her children and her husband — and to be thankful for them. She did take them and was thankful; and in the taking she submitted herself to the rod of cruel circumstances; but she could not even yet bring herself to accept spoken pity from a stranger, and to kiss the speaker.

‘Can we not do something to help you?’ said Mrs Robarts. She would not have spoken but she perceived that Lady Lufton had completed her appeal, and that Mrs Crawley did not seem prepared to answer it.

‘You have done so much to help us,’ said Mrs Crawley. ‘The things you have sent us have been very serviceable.’

‘But we mean something more than that,’ said Lady Lufton.

‘I do not know what there is more,’ said Mrs Crawley. ‘A bit to eat and something to wear; — that seems to be all that we have to care for now.’

‘But we were afraid that this coming trial must cause you much anxiety.’

‘Of course it causes anxiety; — but what can we do? It must be so. It cannot be put off or avoided. We have made up our minds to it now, and almost wish that it would come quicker. If it were once over, I think that he would be better whatever the result might be.’

Then there was another lull in the conversation, and Lady Lufton began to be afraid that her visit would be a failure. She thought that perhaps she might get on better if Grace were not in the room, and she turned over in her mind various schemes for sending her away. And perhaps her task would be easier if Mrs Robarts also could be banished for a time. ‘Fanny, my dear,’ she said at last, boldly, ‘I know you have a little plan to arrange with Miss Crawley. Perhaps you will be more likely to be successful if you can take a turn with her alone.’ There was not much subtlety in her ladyship’s scheme; but it answered the proposed purpose, and the two elder ladies were soon left face to face, so that Lady Lufton had a fair pretext for making another attempt. ‘Dear Mrs Crawley,’ she said, ‘I do so long to say a word to you, but I fear that I may be thought to interfere.’

‘Oh, no, Lady Lufton; I have no feeling of that kind.’

‘I have asked your daughter and Mrs Robarts to go out because I can speak to you more easily alone. I wish I could teach you to trust me.’

‘I do trust you.’

‘As a friend, I mean; — as a real friend. If it should be the case, Mrs Crawley, that a jury should give a verdict against your husband — what will you do then? Perhaps I should not suppose that it is possible.’

‘Of course we know that it is possible,’ said Mrs Crawley. Her voice was stern, and there was in it a tone almost of offence. As she spoke she did not look at her visitor, but sat with her face averted and her arms akimbo on the table.

‘Yes; — it is possible,’ said Lady Lufton. ‘I suppose there is not one in the county who does not truly wish it may not be so. But it is right to be prepared for all alternatives. In such case have you thought what you will do?’

‘I do not know what they would do to him,’ said she.

‘I suppose that for some time he would be —’

‘Put in prison,’ said Mrs Crawley, speaking very quickly, bringing out the words with a sharp eagerness that was quite unusual to her. ‘They will send him to gaol. Is it not so, Lady Lufton?’

‘I suppose it would be so; not for long I should hope; but I presume that such would be the sentence for some short period.’

‘And I might not go with him?’

‘No, that would be impossible.’

‘And the house, and the living; would they let him have them again when he came out?’

‘Ah; that I cannot say. That will depend much, probably, in what these clergymen will report. I hope he will not put himself in opposition to them.’

‘I do not know. I cannot say. It is probable that he may do so. It is not easy for a man so injured as he has been, and one at the same time so great in intelligence, to submit himself gently to such inquiries. When ill is being done to himself or others he is very prone to oppose it.’

‘But these gentlemen do not wish to do him ill, Mrs Crawley.’

‘I cannot say. I do not know. When I think of it I see that there is nothing but ruin on every side. What is the use of talking of it? Do not be angry, Lady Lufton, if I say that it is of no use.’

‘But I desire to be of use — of real use. If it should be the case, Mrs Crawley, that your husband should be — detained at Barchester —’

‘You mean imprisoned, Lady Lufton.’

‘Yes, I mean imprisoned. If it should be so, then do you bring yourself and your children — all of them — over to Framley, and I will find a home for you while he is lost to you.’

‘Oh, Lady Lufton, I could not do that.’

‘Yes, you can. You have not heard me yet. It would not be a comfort to you in such a home as that to sit at table with people who are partly strangers to you. But there is a cottage nearly adjoining to the house, which you shall have all to yourself. The bailiff lived in it once, and others have lived in it who belong to the place; but it is empty now and it shall be made comfortable.’ The tears were now running down Mrs Crawley’s face, so that she could not answer a word. ‘Of course it is my son’s property, and not mine, but he has commissioned me to say that it is most heartily at your service. He begs that in such a case you will occupy it. And I beg the same. And your old friend Lucy has desired me also to ask you in her name.’

‘Lady Lufton, I could not do that,’ said Mrs Crawley through her tears.

‘You must think better of it, my dear. I do not scruple to advise you, because I am older than you, and have experience of the world.’ This, I think, taken in the ordinary sense of the words, was a boast on the part of Lady Lufton, for which but little true pretence existed. Lady Lufton’s experience of the world at large was not perhaps extensive. Nevertheless she knew what one women might offer to another, and what one woman might receive from another. ‘You would be better over with me, my dear, than you could be elsewhere. You will not misunderstand me if I say that, under such circumstances, it would do your husband good that you and your children should be under our protection during his period of temporary seclusion. We stand well in the county. Perhaps I ought not to say so, but I do not know how otherwise to explain myself; and when it is known, by the bishop and others, that you have come to us during that sad time, it will be understood that we think well of Mr Crawley, in spite of anything a jury may say of him. Do you see that, my dear? And we do think well of him. I have known of your husband for many years, though I have not personally had the pleasure of much acquaintance with him. He was over at Framley once at my request, and I had great occasion to respect him. I do respect him; and I shall feel grateful to him if he will allow you to put yourself and your children under my wing, as being an old woman, should this misfortune fall upon him. We hope that it will not fall upon him; but it is always well to be provided for the worst.’

In this way Lady Lufton at last made her speech and opened out the proposal with which she had come laden to Hogglestock. While she was speaking Mrs Crawley’s shoulder was still turned to her; but the speaker could see that the quick tears were pouring themselves down the cheeks of the woman whom she addressed. There was a downright honesty of thorough-going well-wishing charity about the proposition which overcame Mrs Crawley altogether. She did not feel for a moment that it would be possible for her to go to Framley in such circumstances as those which had been suggested. As she thought of it all at the present moment, it seemed to her that her only appropriate home during the terrible period which was coming upon her, would be under the walls of the prison in which her husband would be incarcerated. But she fully appreciated the kindness which had suggested a measure, which, if carried into execution, would make the outside world feel that her husband was respected in the county, despite the degradation to which he was subjected. She felt all this, but her heart was too full to speak.

‘Say that it shall be so, my dear,’ continued Lady Lufton. ‘Just give me one nod of assent, and the cottage shall be ready for you should it so chance that you should require it.’

But Mrs Crawley did not give the nod of assent. With her face still averted, while the tears were still running down her cheeks, she muttered but a word or two. ‘I could not do that, Lady Lufton; I could not do that.’

‘You know at any rate what my wishes are, and as you become calmer you will think of it. There is quite time enough, and I am speaking of an alternative which may never happen. My dear friend Mrs Robarts, who is now with your daughter, wishes Miss Crawley to go over to Framley Parsonage while this inquiry among the clergymen is going on. They all say it is the most ridiculous thing in the world — this inquiry. But the bishop you know is so silly! We all think that if Miss Crawley would go for a week or so to Framley Parsonage, that it will show how happy we all are to receive her. It should be while Mr Robarts is employed in his part of the work. What do you say, Mrs Crawley? We at Framley are all clearly of the opinion that it will be best that it should be known that the people in the county uphold your husband. Miss Crawley would be back, you know, before the trial comes on. I hope you will let her come, Mrs Crawley?’

But even to this proposition Mrs Crawley could give no assent, though she expressed no direct dissent. As regarded her own feelings, she would much preferred to have been left to live through her misery alone; but she could not but appreciate the kindness which endeavoured to throw over and hers in their trouble the aegis of first-rate county respectability. She was saved from the necessity of giving a direct answer to this suggestion by the return of Mrs Robarts and Grace herself. The door was opened slowly, and they crept into the room as though they were aware that their presence would be hardly welcomed.

‘Is the carriage there, Fanny?’ said Lady Lufton. ‘It is almost time for us to think of returning home.’

Mrs Robarts said that the carriage was standing within twenty yards of the door.

‘Then I think we will make a start,’ said Lady Lufton. ‘Have you succeeded in persuading Miss Crawley to come over to Framley in April?’

Mrs Robarts made no answer to this, but looked at Grace; and Grace looked down upon the ground.

‘I have spoken to Mrs Crawley,’ said Lady Lufton, ‘and they will think of it.’ Then the two ladies took their leave, and walked out to their carriage.

‘What does she say about your plan?’ Mrs Robarts asked.

‘She is too broken-hearted to say anything.’ Lady Lufton answered. ‘Should it happen that he is convicted, we must come over and take her. She will have no power to resist us in anything.’

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