The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXX

Miss Demolines Desires to Be a Finger-Post

John Eames had passed Mrs Thorne in the hall of her own house almost without noticing her as he took his departure from Lily Dale. She had told him as plainly as words could speak that she could not bring herself to be his wife — and he had believed her. He had sworn to himself that if he did not succeed he would never ask again. ‘It would be foolish and unmanly to do so,’ he said to himself as he rushed along the street towards his club. No! That romance was over. At last there had come an end to it! ‘It has taken a good bit out of me,’ he said, arresting his steps suddenly that he might stand still and think of it all. ‘By George, yes! A man doesn’t go through that kind of thing without losing some of the caloric. I couldn’t do it again if an angel came in my way.’ he went to his club, and tried to be jolly. But as he walked home at night, and gave himself time to think over what had taken place with deliberation, he stopped in the gloom of a deserted street and leaning against the rails burst into tears. He had really loved her and she was never to be his. He had wanted her — and it is so painful a thing to miss what you want when you have done your very best to obtain it! To struggle in vain always hurts the pride; but the wound made by the vain struggle for a woman is sorer than any wound so made. He gnashed his teeth, and struck the railings with his stick; and then he hurried home, swearing that he would never give another thought to Lily Dale. In the dead of the night, thinking of it still, he asked himself whether it would not be a fine thing to wait another ten years, and then go to her again. In such a way would he not make himself immortal as a lover beyond any Jacob or Leander?

The next day he went to his office and was very grave. When Sir Raffle complimented him on being back before his time, he simply said that when he had accomplished that for which he had gone, he had, of course, come back. Sir Raffle could not get a word out from him about Mr Crawley. He was very grave, and intent upon his work. Indeed he was so serious that he quite afflicted Sir Raffle — whose mock activity felt itself to be confounded by the official zeal of his private secretary. During the whole of that day, Johnny was resolving that there could be no cure for his malady but hard work. He would not only work hard at the office if he remained there, but he would take to heavy reading. He rather thought that he would go deep into Greek and do a translation, or take up the exact sciences and make a name for himself in that way. But as he had enough for the life of a secluded literary man without his salary, he rather thought he would give up his office altogether. He had a mutton chop at home that evening, and spent his time in endeavouring to read out aloud to himself certain passages from the Iliad — for he had bought a Homer as he returned from his office. At nine o’clock he went, half-price, to the Strand Theatre. How he met there his old friend Boulger and went afterwards to ‘The Cock’ and had a supper need not here be told with more accurate detail.

On the evening of the next day he was bound by his appointment to go to Porchester Terrace. In the moments of his enthusiasm about Homer he had declared to himself that he would never go near Miss Demolines again. Why should he? All that kind of thing was nothing to him now. He would simply send her his compliments and say that he was prevented by business from keeping his engagement. She, of course, would go on writing to him for a time, but he would simply leave her letters unanswered, and the thing, of course, would come to an end at last. He afterwards said something to Boulger about Miss Demolines — but that was during the jollity of their supper — and he then declared that he would follow out that little game. ‘I don’t see why a fellow isn’t to amuse himself, eh, Boulger, old boy?’ Boulger winked and grinned, and said some amusements were dangerous. ‘I don’t think that there is any danger there,’ said Johnny. ‘I don’t believe she is thinking of that kind of thing herself; — not with me at least. What she likes is the pretence of mystery; and as it is amusing I don’t see why a fellow shouldn’t indulge her.’ But that determination was pronounced after two mutton chops at ‘The Cock’, between one and two o’clock in the morning. On the next day he was cooler and wiser. Greek he thought might be tedious as he discovered that he would have to begin again from the very alphabet. He would therefore abandon that idea. Greek was not the thing for him, but he would take up the sanitary condition of the poor in London. A fellow could be of some use in that way. In the meantime he would keep his appointment with Miss Demolines, simply because it was an appointment. A gentleman should always his word to a lady!

He did keep his appointment with Miss Demolines, and was with her almost precisely at the hour she had named. She received him with a mysterious tranquillity which almost perplexed him. He remembered, however, that the way to enjoy the society of Miss Demolines was to take her in all her moods with perfect seriousness, and was therefore very tranquil himself. On the present occasion she did not rise as she entered the room, and hardly spoke as she tendered to him the tips of her fingers to be touched. As she said almost nothing, he said nothing at all, but sank into a chair and stretched his legs out comfortably before him. It had been always understood between them that she was to bear the burden of the conversation.

‘You’ll have a cup of tea?’ she said.

‘Yes; — if you do.’ Then the page brought the tea, and John Eames amused himself by swallowing three slices of very thin bread and butter.

‘Non for me — thanks,’ said Madalina. ‘I rarely eat after dinner, and not often much then. I fancy that I should best like a world in which there was no eating.’

‘A good dinner is a very good thing,’ said John. And then there was again silence. He was aware that some great secret was to be told to him this evening, but he was much too discreet to show any curiosity upon that subject. He sipped his tea to the end, and then, having got up to put his cup down, stood on the rug with his back to the fire. ‘Have you been out today?’ he asked.

‘Indeed I have.’

‘And you are tired.’

‘Very tired.’

‘Then perhaps I had better not keep you up.’

‘Your remaining will make no difference in that respect. I don’t suppose that I shall be in bed for the next four hours. But do as you like about going.’

‘I am in no hurry,’ said Johnny. Then he sat down again, stretched out his legs and made himself comfortable.

‘I have been to see that woman,’ said Madalina after a pause.

‘What woman?’

‘Maria Clutterbuck — as I must always call her; for I cannot bring myself to pronounce the name of that poor wretch who was done to death.’

‘He blew his brains out in delirium tremens,’ said Johnny.

‘And what made him drink?’ said Madalina with emphasis. ‘Never mind. I decline altogether to speak of it. Such a scene as I have had! I was driven at last to tell her what I thought of her. Anything so callous, so heartless, so selfish, so stone-cold, and so childish, I never saw before! That Maria was childish and selfish I always knew; — but I thought there was some heart — a vestige of heart. I found today that there was none — none. If you please we won’t speak of her any more.’

‘Certainly not,’ said Johnny.

‘You need not wonder that I am tired and feverish.’

‘That sort of thing is fatiguing, I daresay. I don’t know whether we do not lose more than we gain by those strong emotions.’

‘I would rather die and go beneath the sod at once, than live without them,’ said Madalina.

‘It’s a matter of taste,’ said Johnny.

‘It is there that the poor wretch is so deficient. She is thinking now, this moment, of nothing but her creature comforts. That tragedy has not even stirred her pulses.’

‘If her pulses were stirred ever so, that would not make her happy.’

‘Happy! Who is happy? Are you happy?’

Johnny thought of Lily Dale and paused before he answered. No; certainly he was not happy. But he was not going to talk about his unhappiness with Miss Demolines! ‘Of course I am; — as jolly as a sandboy,’ he said.

‘Mr Eames,’ said Madalina raising herself on her sofa, ‘if you can not express yourself in language more suitable to the occasion and to the scene than that, I think that you had better —’

‘Hold my tongue.’

‘Just so; — though I should not have chosen myself to use words so abruptly discourteous.’

‘What did I say:— jolly as a sandboy? There is nothing wrong in that. What I meant was that I think that the world is a very good sort of world, and that a man can get along in it very well if he minds his p’s and q’s.’

‘But suppose it’s a woman?’

‘Easier still.’

‘And suppose she does not mind her p’s and q’s?’

‘Women always do.’

‘Do they? Your knowledge of women goes as far as that, does it? Tell me fairly; — do you think you know anything about women?’ Madalina as she asked the question, looked full into his face, and shook her locks and smiled. When she shook her locks and smiled, there was a certain attraction about her of which John Eames was fully sensible. She could throw a special brightness into her eyes, which, though it probably betokened nothing beyond ill-natured mischief, seemed to convey a promise of wit and intellect.

‘I don’t mean to make any boast about it,’ said Johnny.

‘I doubt whether you know anything. The pretty simplicity of your excellent Lily Dale has sufficed for you.’

‘Never mind about her,’ said Johnny impatiently.

‘I do not mind about her in the least. But an insight into that sort of simplicity will not teach the character of a real woman. You cannot learn the flavour of wines by sipping sherry and water. For myself I do not think that I am simple. I own it fairly. If you must have simplicity, I cannot be to your taste.’

‘Nobody likes partridge always,’ said Johnny, laughing.

‘I understand you, sir. And though what you say is not complimentary, I am willing to forgive that fault for its truth. I don’t consider myself to be always a partridge, I can assure you. I am as changeable as the moon.’

‘And as fickle?’

‘I say nothing about that, sir. I leave you to find that out. It is a man’s business to discover that for himself. If you really do know aught of women —’

‘I did not say that I did.’

‘But if you do, you will perhaps have discovered that a woman may be as changeable as the moon, and yet as true as the sun; — that she may flit from flower to flower, quite unheeding while no passion exists, but that a passion fixes her at once. Do you believe me?’ Now she looked into his eyes again, but did not smile and did not shake her locks.

‘Oh, yes; — that’s true enough. And when they have a lot of children, then they become steady as milestones.’

‘Children!’ said Madalina, getting up and walking about the room.

‘They do have them, you know,’ said Johnny.

‘Do you mean to say, sir, that I should be a milestone?’

‘A finger-post,’ said Johnny, ‘to show a fellow the way he ought to go.’

She walked twice across the room without speaking. Then she came and stood opposite him, still without speaking — and then she walked about again. ‘What could a woman better be, than a finger-post, as you call it, with such a purpose?’

‘Nothing better, of course; — though a milestone to tell a fellow his distances, is very good.’

‘Psha!’

‘You don’t like the idea of being a milestone?’

‘No!’

‘Then you can make up your mind to be a finger-post.’

‘John, shall I be finger-post for you?’ She stood and looked at him for a moment or two, with her eyes full of love, as though she were going to throw herself into his arms. And she would have done so, no doubt, instantly, had he risen to his legs. As it was, after having gazed at him for the moment with her love-laden eyes, she flung herself on the sofa, and hid her face among the cushions.

He had felt that it was coming for the last quarter of an hour — and he had felt also, that he was quite unable to help himself. He did not believe that he should ever be reduced to marrying Miss Demolines, but he did see plainly enough that he was getting into trouble; and yet, for his life, he could not help himself. The moth who flutters round the light knows that he is being burned, and yet he cannot fly away from it. When Madalina had begun to talk to him about woman in general, and then about herself, and had told him that such a woman as herself — even one so liable to the disturbance of violent emotions — might yet be as true and honest as the sun, he knew he ought to get up and make his escape. He did not exactly know how the catastrophe would come, but he was quite sure that if he remained there he would be called in some way for a declaration of his sentiments — and that the call would be one which all his wit would not enable him to answer with any comfort. It was very well jesting about milestones, but every jest brought him nearer to the precipice. He perceived that however ludicrous might be the image which his words produced, she was clever enough in some way to turn that image to her own purpose. He had called a woman a finger-post, and forthwith she had offered to come to him and be a finger-post to him for life! What was he to say to her? It was clear that he must say something. As at this moment she was sobbing violently, he could not pass the offer by as a joke. Women will say that his answer should have been very simple, and his escape very easy. But men will understand that it is not easy to reject even a Miss Demolines when she offers herself for matrimony. And, moreover — as Johnny bethought himself at this crisis of his fate — Lady Demolines was no doubt at the other side of the drawing-room door, ready to stop him, should he attempt to run away. In the meantime the sobs on the sofa became violent, and still more violent. He had not even yet made up his mind what to do, when Madalina, springing to her feet, stood before him, with her curls wildly waving and her arms extended. ‘Let it be as though it were unsaid,’ she exclaimed. John Eames had not the slightest objection; but, nevertheless, there was a difficulty even in this. Were he simply to assent to this latter proposition, it could not be that the feminine nature of Miss Demolines would be outraged by so uncomplimentary an acquiescence. He felt that he ought at least to hesitate a little — to make some pretence at closing upon the rich offer that had been made to him; only that were he to show any such pretence the rich offer would, no doubt, be repeated. His Madalina had twitted him in the earlier part of their interview with knowing nothing of the nature of women. He did know enough to feel assured that any false step on his part now would lead him into very serious difficulties. ‘Let it be as though it were unsaid! Why, oh why, have I betrayed myself?’ exclaimed Madalina.

John had now risen from his chair, and coming up to her took her by the arm and spoke a word. ‘Compose yourself,’ he said. He spoke in his most affectionate voice, and he stood very close to her.

‘How easy it is to bid me to do that,’ said Madalina. ‘Tell the sea to compose itself when it rages.’

‘Madalina!’ said he.

‘Well — what of Madalina? Madalina has lost her own respect — for ever.’

‘Do not say that.’

‘Oh, John — why did you ever come here? Why? Why did we meet at that fatal woman’s house? Or, meeting so, why did we not part as strangers? Sir, why have you come here to my mother’s house day after day, evening after evening, if — Oh, heavens, what am I saying? I wonder whether you will scorn me always?’

‘I will never scorn you.’

‘And you will pardon me?’

‘There is nothing to pardon.’

‘And — you will love me?’ Then, without waiting for any more encouraging reply — unable, probably, to wait a moment longer, she sunk upon his bosom. He caught her of course — and at that moment the drawing-room door was opened, and Lady Demolines entered the chamber. John Eames detected a glance at the skirt of the old white dressing gown which he had seen whisking away on the occasion of his last visit to Porchester Terrace. But on the present occasion Lady Demolines wore over it a short red opera cloak, and the cap on her head was ornamented with coloured ribbons. ‘What is this,’ she said, ‘and why am I thus disturbed?’ Madalina lay motionless in Johnny’s arms, while the old woman glowered at him from under the coloured ribbons. ‘Mr Eames, what is that I behold?’ she said.

‘Your daughter, madam, seems to be a little unwell,’ said Johnny. Madalina kept her feet firm on the ground, but did not for a moment lose her purchase against Johnny’s waistcoat. Her respiration came very strong, but they came a good deal stronger when he mentioned the fact that she was not so well as she might be.

‘Unwell!’ said Lady Demolines. And John was stricken at the moment with a conviction that her ladyship must have passed the early part of her life upon the stage. ‘You would trifle with me, sir. Beware that you do not trifle with her — with Madalina.’

‘My mother,’ said Madalina; but still she did not give up her purchase, and the voice seemed to come half from her and half from Johnny. ‘Come to me, my mother.’ Then Lady Demolines hastened to her daughter, and Madalina between them was gradually laid at her length upon the sofa. The work of laying her out, however, was left almost entirely to the strong arm of Mr John Eames. ‘Thanks, mother,’ said Madalina; but she had not as yet opened her eyes, even for an instant. ‘Perhaps I had better go now,’ said Johnny. The old woman looked at him with eyes which asked whether ‘he didn’t wish he might get it’ as plainly as though the words had been pronounced. ‘Of course I’ll wait if I can be of any service,’ said Johnny.

‘I must know more of this, sir, before you leave the house,’ said Lady Demolines. He saw that between them both there might probably be a very bad quarter of an hour in store for him; but he swore to himself that no union of dragon and tigress should extract from him a word that could be taken as a promise of marriage.

The old woman was now kneeling by the head of the sofa, and Johnny was standing close by her side. Suddenly Madalina opened her eyes — opened them very wide, and gazed around her. Then slowly she raised herself on the sofa, and turned her face first upon her mother and then upon Johnny. ‘You here, mamma!’ she said.

‘Dearest one, I am near you. Be not afraid,’ said her ladyship.

‘Afraid! Why should I be afraid? John! My own John! Mamma, he is my own.’ And she put out her arms to him, as though calling to him to come to her. Things were now very bad with John Eames — so bad that he would have given a very considerable lump out of Lord De Guest’s legacy to be able to escape at once into the street. The power of a woman, when she chooses to use it recklessly, is, for the moment, almost unbounded.

‘I hope you find yourself a little better,’ said John, struggling to speak, as though he were not utterly crushed by the occasion.

Lady Demolines slowly raised herself from her knees, helping herself with her hands against the shoulder of the sofa — for though still very clever, she was old and stiff — and then offered both her hands to Johnny. Johnny cautiously took one of them, finding himself unable to decline them both. ‘My son!’ she exclaimed; and before he knew where he was the old woman had succeeded in kissing his nose and whiskers. ‘My son!’ she said again.

Now that the time had come for facing the dragon and the tigress in their wrath. If they were to be faced at all, the time for facing them had certainly arrived. ‘I don’t quite understand,’ he said, almost in a whisper. Madalina put out one arm towards him, and the fingers trembled. Her lips were opened, and the white row of interior ivory might be seen plainly; but at the present conjuncture of affairs she spoke not a word. She spoke not a word; but her arm remained stretched towards him, and her fingers did not cease to tremble.

‘You do not understand!’ said Lady Demolines, drawing herself back and looking, in her short open cloak, like a knight who has donned his cuirass, but has forgotten to put on his leg-gear. And she shook the bright ribbons of her cap, as a knight in his wrath shakes the crest of his helmet. ‘You do not understand, Mr Eames! What is it, sir, that you do not understand?’

‘There is some misconception, I mean,’ said Johnny.

‘Mother!’ said Madalina, turning her eyes from her recent lover to her tender parent; trembling all over, but still keeping her hand extended. ‘Mother!’

‘My darling! But leave him to me, dearest. Compose yourself.’

‘’Twas the word that he said — this moment; before he pressed me to his heart.’

‘I thought you were fainting,’ said Johnny.

‘Sir!’ said Lady Demolines, as she spoke, shook her crest, and glared at him, and almost flew at him in her armour.

‘It may be that nature has given way with me, and that I have been in a dream,’ said Madalina.

‘That which mine eyes saw was no dream,’ said Lady Demolines. ‘Mr Eames, I have given you the sweetest name that can fall from an old woman’s lips. I have called you my son.’

‘Yes, you did, I know. But, as I said before, there is some mistake. I know how proud I ought to be, and how happy, and all that kind of thing. But —’ Then there came a screech from Madalina, which would have awakened the dead, had there been any dead in that house. The page and cook, however, took no notice of it, whether they were awakened or not. And having screeched, Madalina stood erect upon the floor, and she also glared at her recreant lover. The dragon and the tiger were there before him now, and he knew that it behoved him to look to himself. As he had a battle to fight, might it not be best to put a bold face upon it? ‘The truth is,’ said he, ‘that I don’t understand this kind of thing.’

‘Not understand it, sir?’ said the dragon.

‘Leave him to me, mother,’ said the tigress, shaking her head again, but with a kind of shake differing from that which she had used before. ‘This is my business, and I’ll have it out for myself. If he thinks I am going to put up with this kind of nonsense he’s mistaken. I’ve been straightforward and above board with you, Mr Eames, and I expect to be treated in the same way in return. Do you mean to tell my mother that you deny that we are engaged?’

‘Well; yes; I do. I’m very sorry, you know, if I seem to be uncivil —’

‘It’s because I’ve no brother,’ said the tigress. ‘He thinks that I have no man near me to protect me. But he shall find that I can protect myself. John Eames, why are you treating me like this?’

‘I shall consult my cousin the serjeant tomorrow,’ said the dragon. ‘In the meantime he must remain in this house. I shall not allow the front door to be unlocked for him.’

This, I think, was the bitterest moment of all for Johnny. To be confined all night in Lady Demolines’s drawing-room would, of itself, be an intolerable nuisance. And then the absurdity of the thing, and the story that would go abroad! And what would he say to the dragon’s cousin the serjeant, if the serjeant should be brought upon the field before he was able to escape from it? He did not know what a serjeant might not do to him in such circumstances. There was one thing no serjeant should do, and no dragon! Between them all they should never force him to marry the tigress. At this moment Johnny heard a tramp along the pavement, and he rushed to the window. Before the dragon or even the tigress could arrest him, he had thrown open the sash, and had appealed in his difficulty to the guardian of the night. ‘I say, old fellow,’ said Johnny, ‘don’t you stir from that till I tell you.’ The policeman turned his bull’s-eye upon the window, and stood perfectly motionless. ‘Now, if you please, I’ll say good-night,’ said Johnny. But, as he spoke he still held the open window in his hand.

‘What means this violence in my house?’ said the dragon.

‘Mamma, you had better let him go,’ said the tigress. ‘We shall know where to find him.’

‘You will certainly be able to find me,’ said Johnny.

‘Go,’ said the dragon, shaking her crest — shaking all her armour at him —‘dastard, go!’

‘Policeman,’ shouted Johnny, while he still held the open window in his hand, ‘mind you don’t stir till I come out.’ The bull’s-eye was shifted a little, but the policeman never said a word.

‘I wish you a good-night, Lady Demolines,’ said Johnny. ‘Good-night, Miss Demolines.’ Then he left the window and made a run for the door. But the dragon was there before him.

‘Let him go, mamma,’ said the tigress as she closed the window. ‘We shall only have a rumpus.’

‘That will be all,’ said Johnny. ‘There isn’t the slightest use in your trying to keep me here.’

‘And are we never to see you again?’ said the tigress, almost languishing again with one eye.

‘Well; no. What would be the use? No man likes to be shut in, you know.’

‘Go, then,’ said the tigress; ‘but if you think that this is to be the end of it you’ll find yourself wonderfully mistaken. You poor false, drivelling creature! Lily Dale won’t touch you with a pair of tongs. It’s no use your going to her.’

‘Go away, sir, this moment, and don’t contaminate my room an instant longer by your presence,’ said the dragon, who had observed through the window the bull’s-eye was still in full force before the house. Then John Eames withdrew, and descending into the hall made his way in the dark to the front door. For aught he knew there might still be treachery in regard to the lock; but his heart was comforted as he heard the footfall of the policeman on the door-step. With much fumbling he succeeded at last in turning the key and drawing the bolt, and then he found himself at liberty in the street. Before he even spoke a word to the policeman he went out into the road and looked up at the window. He could just see the figure of the dragon’s helmet as she was closing the shutters. It was the last he ever saw of Lady Demolines or her daughter.

‘What was it all about?’ said the policeman.

‘I don’t know that I can just tell you,’ said Johnny, searching in his pocket-book for half a sovereign which he tendered to the man. ‘There was a little difficulty, and I’m obliged to you for waiting.’

‘There ain’t nothing wrong?’ said the man suspiciously, hesitating for a moment before he accepted the coin.

‘Nothing on earth. I’ll wait with you, while you have the house opened and inquire, if you wish it. The truth is somebody inside refused to have the door opened, and I didn’t want to stay there all night.’

‘They’re a rummy couple, if what I hear is true.’

‘They are a rummy couple,’ said Johnny.

‘I suppose it’s all right,’ said the policeman, taking the money. And then John walked off home by himself, turning his mind all the circumstances of his connection with Miss Demolines. Taking his own conduct as a whole, he was rather proud of it; but he acknowledged to himself that it would be well that he should keep himself free from the society of Madalinas for the future.

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