The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXIV

Tragedy at Hook Court

Conway Dalrymple had hurried out of the room in Mrs Broughton’s house in which he had been painting Jael and Sisera, thinking that it would be better to meet an angry and perhaps tipsy husband on the stairs, than it would be either to wait for him till he should make his way into his wife’s room, or to hide away from him with the view of escaping altogether from so disagreeable an encounter. He had no fear of the man. He did not think that there would be any violence — nor, as regarded himself, did he much care if there was to be violence. But he felt that he was bound, as far as it might be possible, to screen the poor woman from the ill effects of her husband’s temper and condition. He was, therefore, prepared to stop Broughton on the stairs, and to use some force in arresting him on his way, should he find the man to be really intoxicated. But he had not descended above a stair or two before he was aware that the man below him, whose step had been heard, was not intoxicated, and that he was not Dobbs Broughton. It was Mr Musselboro.

‘It is you, is it?’ said Conway. ‘I thought it was Broughton.’ then he looked into the man’s face and saw that he was ashy pale. All that appearance of low-bred jauntiness which used to belong to him seemed to have been washed out of him. His hair had forgotten to curl, his gloves had been thrown aside, and even his trinkets were out of sight. ‘What has happened,’ said Conway. ‘What is the matter? Something is wrong.’ Then it occurred to him that Musselboro had been sent to the house to tell the wife of the husband’s ruin.

‘The servant told me that I should find you upstairs,’ said Musselboro.

‘Yes; I have a painting here. For some time past I have been doing a picture of Miss Van Siever. Mrs Van Siever has been here today.’ Conway thought that this information would produce some strong effect on Clara’s proposed husband; but he did not seem to regard the matter of the picture nor the mention of Miss Van Siever’s name.

‘She knows nothing of it?’ said he. ‘She doesn’t know yet?’

‘Know what?’ said Conway. ‘She knows that her husband has lost money.’

‘Dobbs has — destroyed himself.’

‘What!’

‘Blew his brains out this morning just inside the entrance at Hook Court. The horror of drink was on him, and he stood just in the pathway and shot himself. Bangles was standing at the top of their vaults and saw him do it. I don’t think Bangles will ever be a man again. Oh lord! I shall never get over it myself. The body was there when I went in.’ Then Musselboro sank back against the wall of the staircase, and stared at Dalrymple as though he still saw before him the terrible sight of which he had just spoken.

Dalrymple seated himself on the stairs and strove to bring his mind to bear on the tale which he had just heard. What was he to do, and how was that poor woman upstairs to be informed? ‘You came here intending to tell her,’ he said in a whisper. He feared every moment that Mrs Broughton would appear on the stairs, and learn from a word or two what had happened without any hint to prepare her for the catastrophe.

‘I thought you would be here. I knew you were doing the picture. He knew it. He’d a letter to say so — one of those anonymous ones.’

‘But that didn’t influence him?’

‘I don’t think it was that,’ said Musselboro. ‘He meant to have had it out with her; but it wasn’t that as brought this about. Perhaps you didn’t know that he was clean ruined?’

‘She had told me.’

‘Then she knew it?’

‘Oh, yes; she knew that. Mrs Van Siever had told her. Poor creature! How are we to break this to her?’

‘You and she are very thick,’ said Musselboro. ‘I suppose you’ll do it best.’ By this time they were in the drawing-room, and the door was closed. Dalrymple had put his hand on the other man’s arm, and had led him downstairs, out of reach of hearing from the room above. ‘You’ll tell her — won’t you?’ said Musselboro. Then Dalrymple tried to think what loving female friend there was who would break the news to the unfortunate woman. He knew of the Van Sievers, and he knew of the Demolines, and he almost knew that there was no other woman within reach whom he was entitled to regard as closely connected with Mrs Broughton. He was well aware that the anonymous letter of which Musselboro had just spoken had come from Miss Demolines, and he could not go there for sympathy and assistance. Nor could he apply to Mrs Van Siever after with had passed this morning. To Clara Van Siever he would have applied, but that it was impossible he should reach Clara except through her mother. ‘I suppose I had better go to her,’ he said, after a while. And then he went, leaving Musselboro in the drawing-room. ‘I’m so bad with it,’ said Musselboro, ‘that I really don’t know how I shall ever go up that court again.’

Conway Dalrymple made his way up the stairs with very slow steps, and as he did so he could not but think seriously of the nature of his friendship with this woman, and could not but condemn himself heartily for the folly and iniquity of his own conduct. Scores of times he had professed his love to her with half-expressed words, intended to mean nothing, as he said to himself when he tried to excuse himself, but enough to turn her head, even if they did not reach her heart. Now, this woman was a widow, and it came to be his duty to tell her that she was so. What if she should claim from him now the love which he had so often proffered to her! It was not that he feared that she would claim anything from him at this moment — neither now, nor tomorrow, nor the next day — but the agony of the present meeting would produce others in which there would be some tenderness mixed with the agony; and so from one meeting to another the thing would progress. But in this danger before him, it was not of himself that he was thinking, but of her. How could he assist her at such a time without doing her more injury than benefit? And, if he did not assist her, who would do so? He knew her to be heartless; but even heartless people have hearts which can be touched and almost broken by certain sorrows. Her heart would not be broken by her husband’s death, but it would become very sore if she were utterly neglected. He was now at the door, with his hand on the lock, and was wondering why she should remain so long within without making herself heard. Then he opened it, and found her seated in a lounge-chair, with her back to the door, and he could see that she had a volume of a novel in her hand. He understood it all. She was pretending to be indifferent to her husband’s return. He walked up to her, thinking that she would recognise his step; but she made no sign of turning towards him. He saw the motion of her hair over the back of the chair as she affected to make herself luxuriously comfortable. She was striving to let her husband see that she cared nothing for him, or for his condition, or for his jealousy, if he were jealous — or even of his ruin. ‘Mrs Broughton,’ he said, when he was close to her. Then she jumped up quickly, and turned round facing him. ‘Where is Dobbs?’ she said. ‘Where is Dobbs?’

‘He is not here.’

‘He is in the house, for I heard him. Why have you come back?’

Dalrymple’s eye fell on the tattered canvas, and he thought of the doings of the past month. He thought of the picture of the three Graces, which was hanging in the room below, and he thoroughly wished that he had never been introduced to the Broughton establishment. How was he to get through his present difficulty? ‘No,’ said he, ‘Broughton did not come. It was Mr Musselboro whose steps you heard below.’

‘What is he here for? What is he doing here? Where is Dobbs? Conway, there is something the matter. Has he gone off?’

‘Yes; — he has gone off.’

‘The coward!’

‘No; he was not a coward; — not in that way.’

The use of the past tense, unintentional as it had been, told the story to the woman at once. ‘He is dead,’ she said. Then he took both her hands in his and looked into her face, without speaking a word. And she gazed at him with fixed eyes, and rigid mouth, while the quick coming breath just moved the curl of her nostrils. It occurred to him at that moment that he had never before seen her so wholly unaffected, and had never before observed that she was so totally deficient in all the elements of real beauty. She was the first to speak again. ‘Conway,’ she said, ‘tell me all. Why do you not speak to me?’

‘There is nothing further to tell,’ he said.

Then she dropped her hands and walked away from him to the window — and stood there looking out upon the stuccoed turret of a huge house that stood opposite. As she did so she was employing herself in counting the windows. Her mind was paralysed by the blow, and she knew not how to make any exertion with it for any purpose. Everything was changed with her — and was changed in such a way that she could make no guess as to her future mode of life. She was suddenly a widow, a pauper, and utterly desolate — while the only person in the whole world that she really liked was standing close to her. But in the midst of it all she counted the windows of the house opposite. Had it been possible for her she would have put her mind altogether to sleep.

He let her stand for a few minutes and then joined her at the window. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘what shall I do for you?’

‘Do?’ she said. ‘What do you mean by — doing?’

‘Come and sit down and let me talk to you,’ he replied. Then he led her to the sofa, and as she seated herself I doubt whether she had not almost forgotten that her husband was dead.

‘What a pity it was to cut it up,’ she said, pointing to the rags of Jael and Sisera.

‘Never mind the picture now. Dreadful as it is, you must allow yourself to think of him for a few minutes.’

‘Think of what! Oh, God! Yes. Conway, you must tell me what to do. Was everything gone? It isn’t about myself. I don’t mind about myself. I wish it was me instead of him. I do. I do.’

‘No wishing is of any avail.’

‘But, Conway, how did it happen? Do you think it is true? That man would say anything to gain his object. Is he here now?’

‘I believe he is here still.’

‘I won’t see him. Remember that. Nothing on earth can make me see him.’

‘It may be necessary, but I do not think it will be; — at any rate, not yet.’

‘I will never see him. I believe that he has murdered my husband. I do. I feel sure of it. Now I think of it I am quite sure of it. And he will murder you too; — about that girl. He will. I tell you I know the man.’ Dalrymple simply shook his head, smiling sadly. ‘Very well! You will see. But, Conway, how do you know that it is true? Do you believe it yourself?’

‘I do believe it.’

‘And how did it happen?’

‘He could not bear the ruin that he had brought upon himself and you.’

‘Then; — then —’ She went no further in her speech; but Dalrymple assented by a slight motion of his head, and she had been informed sufficiently that her husband had perished by his own hand. ‘What am I to do?’ she said. ‘Oh, Conway, you must tell me. Was there ever so miserable a woman! Was it — poison?’

He got up and walked quickly across the room and back again to the place where she was sitting. ‘Never mind about that now. You shall know all that in time. Do not ask me any questions about that. If I were you I think I would go to bed. You will be better there than up, and this shock will make you sleep.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I will not go to bed. How should I know that that man would not come and kill me? I believe he murdered Dobbs; — I do. You are not going to leave me, Conway?’

‘I think I had better, for a while. There are things which should be done. Shall I send one of the women for you?’

‘There is not one of them that cares for me in the least. Oh, Conway, do not go; not yet. I will not be left alone in the house with him. You will be very cruel if you go and leave me now — when you have so often said that you — that you — that you were my friend.’ And now, at last, she began to weep.

‘I think it will be best,’ he said, ‘that I should go to Mrs Van Siever. If I can manage it, I will get Clara to come to you.’

‘I do not want her,’ said Mrs Broughton. ‘She is a heartless cold creature, and I do not want to have her near me. My poor husband was ruined among them; — yes, ruined among them. It has all been done that she may marry that horrid man and live here in this house. I have known ever so long that he has not been safe among them.’

‘You need fear nothing from Clara,’ said Dalrymple, with some touch of anger in his voice.

‘Of course you will say so. I can understand that very well. And it is natural that you should wish to be with her. Pray go.’

Then he sat beside her, and took her hand, and endeavoured to speak to her so seriously, that she herself might become serious, and if it might be possible, in some degree contemplative. He told her how necessary it was that she should have some woman near her in her trouble, and explained to her that as far as he knew her female friends, there would be no one who would be so considerate with her as Clara Van Siever. She at one time mentioned the name of Miss Demolines; but Dalrymple altogether opposed the notion of sending for that lady — expressing his opinion that the amiable Madalina had done all in her power to create quarrels between Mrs Broughton and her husband and between Dobbs Broughton and Mrs Van Siever. And he spoke his opinion very fully about Miss Demolines. ‘And yet you liked her once,’ said Mrs Broughton. ‘I never liked her,’ said Dalrymple with energy. ‘But all that matters nothing now. Of course you can send for her if you please; but I do not think her trustworthy, and I will not willingly come in contact with her.’ Then Mrs Broughton gave him to understand that of course she must give way, but that in giving way she felt herself to be submitting to ill-usage which is the ordinary lot of women, and to which she, among women, had been specially subjected. She did not exactly say as much, fearing that if she did he would leave her altogether; but that was the gist of he plaints and wails, and final acquiescence.

‘And are you going?’ she said, catching hold of his arm.

‘I will employ myself altogether and only about your affairs, till I see you again.’

‘But I want you to stay.’

‘It would be madness. Look here; — lie down till Clara comes or till I return. Do not go beyond this room and your own. If she cannot come this evening I will return. Good-bye now. I will see the servants as I go out, and tell them what ought to be told.’

‘Oh, Conway,’ she said, clutching hold of him again. ‘I know that you despise me.’

‘I do not despise you, and I will be as good a friend to you as I can. God bless you.’ Then he went, and as he descended the stairs he could not refrain from telling himself that he did in truth despise her.

His first object was to find Musselboro, and to dismiss that gentleman from the house. For though he himself did not attribute to Mrs Van Siever’s favourite any of those terrible crimes and potentialities for crime with which Mrs Dobbs Broughton had invested him, still he thought it reasonable that the poor woman upstairs should not be subjected to the necessity of either seeing him or hearing him. But Musselboro had gone, and Dalrymple could not learn from the head woman-servant whom he saw, whether before going he had told to anyone in the house the tale of the catastrophe which had happened in the City. Servants are wonderful actors, looking often as though they knew nothing when they knew everything — as though they understood nothing, when they understood all. Dalrymple made known all that was necessary, and the discreet upper servant listened to the tale, with the proper amount of awe and horror and commiseration. ‘Shot hisself in the City; — laws! You’ll excuse me, sir, but we all know’d as master was coming to no good.’ But she promised to do her best with her mistress — and kept her promise. It is seldom that servants are not good in such straits as that.

From Mrs Broughton’s house Dalrymple went directly to Mrs Van Siever’s, and learned that Musselboro had been there about half an hour before, and had then gone off in a cab with Mrs Van Siever. It was now nearly four o’clock in the afternoon, and no one in the house knew when Mrs Van Siever would be back. Miss Van Siever was out, and had been out when Mr Musselboro had called, but was expected every minute. Conway therefore said that he would call again, and on returning found Clara alone. She had not then heard a word of the fate of Dobbs Broughton. Of course she would go at once to Mrs Broughton, and if necessary stay with her during the night. She wrote a line at once to her mother, saying where she was, and went across to Mrs Broughton leaning on Dalrymple’s arm. ‘Be good to her,’ said Conway, as he left her at the door. ‘I will,’ said Clara. ‘I will be as kind as nature will allow me.’ ‘And remember,’ said Conway, whispering into her ear as he pressed her hand at leaving her, ‘that you are the all the world to me.’ It was perhaps not a proper time for an expression of love, but Clara Van Siever forgave the impropriety.

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