The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXVI

Mr Broune’s Perils

Lady Carbury had allowed herself two days for answering Mr Broune’s proposition. It was made on Tuesday night and she was bound by her promise to send a reply some time on Thursday. But early on the Wednesday morning she had made up her mind; and at noon on that day her letter was written. She had spoken to Hetta about the man, and she had seen that Hetta had disliked him. She was not disposed to be much guided by Hetta’s opinion. In regard to her daughter she was always influenced by a vague idea that Hetta was an unnecessary trouble. There was an excellent match ready for her if she would only accept it. There was no reason why Hetta should continue to add herself to the family burden. She never said this even to herself — but she felt it, and was not therefore inclined to consult Hetta’s comfort on this occasion. But nevertheless, what her daughter said had its effect. She had encountered the troubles of one marriage, and they had been very bad. She did not look upon that marriage as a mistake — having even up to this day a consciousness that it had been the business of her life, as a portionless girl, to obtain maintenance and position at the expense of suffering and servility. But that had been done. The maintenance was, indeed, again doubtful, because of her son’s vices; but it might so probably be again secured — by means of her son’s beauty! Hetta had said that Mr Broune liked his own way. Had not she herself found that all men liked their own way? And she liked her own way. She liked the comfort of a home to herself. Personally she did not want the companionship of a husband. And what scenes would there be between Felix and the man! And added to all this there was something within her, almost amounting to conscience, which told her that it was not right that she should burden any one with the responsibility and inevitable troubles of such a son as her son Felix. What would she do were her husband to command her to separate herself from her son? In such circumstances she would certainly separate herself from her husband. Having considered these things deeply, she wrote as follows to Mr Broune:—

DEAREST FRIEND,

I need not tell you that I have thought much of your generous and affectionate offer. How could I refuse such a prospect as you offer me without much thought? I regard your career as the most noble which a man’s ambition can achieve. And in that career no one is your superior. I cannot but be proud that such a one as you should have asked me to be his wife. But, my friend, life is subject to wounds which are incurable, and my life has been so wounded. I have not strength left me to make my heart whole enough to be worthy of your acceptance. I have been so cut and scotched and lopped by the sufferings which I have endured that I am best alone. It cannot all be described; — and yet with you I would have no reticence. I would put the whole history before you to read, with all my troubles past and still present, all my hopes, and all my fears — with every circumstance as it has passed by and every expectation that remains, were it not that the poor tale would be too long for your patience. The result of it would be to make you feel that I am no longer fit to enter in upon a new home. I should bring showers instead of sunshine, melancholy in lieu of mirth.

I will, however, be bold enough to assure you that could I bring myself to be the wife of any man I would now become your wife. But I shall never marry again.

Nevertheless, I am your most affectionate friend,

MATILDA CARBURY.

About six o’clock in the afternoon she sent this letter to Mr Broune’s rooms in Pall Mall East, and then sat for awhile alone — full of regrets. She had thrown away from her a firm footing which would certainly have served her for her whole life. Even at this moment she was in debt — and did not know how to pay her debts without mortgaging her life income. She longed for some staff on which she could lean. She was afraid of the future. When she would sit with her paper before her, preparing her future work for the press, copying a bit here and a bit there, inventing historical details, dovetailing her chronicle, her head would sometimes seem to be going round as she remembered the unpaid baker, and her son’s horses, and his unmeaning dissipation, and all her doubts about the marriage. As regarded herself, Mr Broune would have made her secure — but that now was all over. Poor woman! This at any rate may be said for her — that had she accepted the man her regrets would have been as deep.

Mr Broune’s feelings were more decided in their tone than those of the lady. He had not made his offer without consideration, and yet from the very moment in which it had been made he repented it. That gently sarcastic appellation by which Lady Carbury had described him to herself when he had kissed her best explained that side of Mr Broune’s character which showed itself in this matter. He was a susceptible old goose. Had she allowed him to kiss her without objection, the kissing might probably have gone on; and, whatever might have come of it, there would have been no offer of marriage. He had believed that her little manoeuvres had indicated love on her part, and he had felt himself constrained to reciprocate the passion. She was beautiful in his eyes. She was bright. She wore her clothes like a lady; and — if it was written in the Book of the Fates that some lady was to sit at the top of his table — Lady Carbury would look as well there as any other. She had repudiated the kiss, and therefore he had felt himself bound to obtain for himself the right to kiss her.

The offer had no sooner been made than he met her son reeling in, drunk, at the front door. As he made his escape the lad had insulted him. This perhaps helped to open his eyes. When he woke the next morning, or rather late in the next day, after his night’s work, he was no longer able to tell himself that the world was all right with him. Who does not know that sudden thoughtfulness at waking, that first matutinal retrospection, and prospection, into things as they have been and are to be; and the lowness of heart, the blankness of hope which follows the first remembrance of some folly lately done, some word ill-spoken, some money misspent — or perhaps a cigar too much, or a glass of brandy and soda-water which he should have left untasted? And when things have gone well, how the waker comforts himself among the bedclothes as he claims for himself to be whole all over, teres atque rotundus — so to have managed his little affairs that he has to fear no harm, and to blush inwardly at no error! Mr Broune, the way of whose life took him among many perils, who in the course of his work had to steer his bark among many rocks, was in the habit of thus auditing his daily account as he shook off sleep about noon — for such was his lot, that he seldom was in bed before four or five in the morning. On this Wednesday he found that he could not balance his sheet comfortably. He had taken a very great step and he feared that he had not taken it with wisdom. As he drank the cup of tea with which his servant supplied him while he was yet in bed, he could not say of himself, teres atque rotundus, as he was wont to do when things were well with him. Everything was to be changed. As he lit a cigarette he bethought himself that Lady Carbury would not like him to smoke in her bedroom. Then he remembered other things. ‘I’ll be d ——— if he shall live in my house,’ he said to himself.

And there was no way out of it. It did not occur to the man that his offer could be refused. During the whole of that day he went about among his friends in a melancholy fashion, saying little snappish uncivil things at the club, and at last dining by himself with about fifteen newspapers around him. After dinner he did not speak a word to any man, but went early to the office of the newspaper in Trafalgar Square at which he did his nightly work. Here he was lapped in comforts — if the best of chairs, of sofas, of writing tables, and of reading lamps can make a man comfortable who has to read nightly thirty columns of a newspaper, or at any rate to make himself responsible for their contents.

He seated himself to his work like a man, but immediately saw Lady Carbury’s letter on the table before him. It was his custom when he did not dine at home to have such documents brought to him at his office as had reached his home during his absence; — and here was Lady Carbury’s letter. He knew her writing well, and was aware that here was the confirmation of his fate. It had not been expected, as she had given herself another day for her answer — but here it was, beneath his hand. Surely this was almost unfeminine haste. He chucked the letter, unopened, a little from him, and endeavoured to fix his attention on some printed slip that was ready for him. For some ten minutes his eyes went rapidly down the lines, but he found that his mind did not follow what he was reading. He struggled again, but still his thoughts were on the letter. He did not wish to open it, having some vague idea that, till the letter should have been read, there was a chance of escape. The letter would not become due to be read till the next day. It should not have been there now to tempt his thoughts on this night. But he could do nothing while it lay there. ‘It shall be a part of the bargain that I shall never have to see him,’ he said to himself, as he opened it. The second line told him that the danger was over.

When he had read so far he stood up with his back to the fireplace, leaving the letter on the table. Then, after all, the woman wasn’t in love with him! But that was a reading of the affair which he could hardly bring himself to look upon as correct. The woman had shown her love by a thousand signs. There was no doubt, however, that she now had her triumph. A woman always has a triumph when she rejects a man — and more especially when she does so at a certain time of life. Would she publish her triumph? Mr Broune would not like to have it known about among brother editors, or by the world at large, that he had offered to marry Lady Carbury and that Lady Carbury had refused him. He had escaped; but the sweetness of his present safety was not in proportion to the bitterness of his late fears.

He could not understand why Lady Carbury should have refused him! As he reflected upon it, all memory of her son for the moment passed away from him. Full ten minutes had passed, during which he had still stood upon the rug, before he read the entire letter. ‘“Cut and scotched and lopped!” I suppose she has been,’ he said to himself. He had heard much of Sir Patrick, and knew well that the old general had been no lamb. ‘I shouldn’t have cut her, or scotched her, or lopped her.’ When he had read the whole letter patiently there crept upon him gradually a feeling of admiration for her, greater than he had ever yet felt — and, for awhile, he almost thought that he would renew his offer to her. ‘“Showers instead of sunshine; melancholy instead of mirth,”’ he repeated to himself. ‘I should have done the best for her, taking the showers and the melancholy if they were necessary.’

He went to his work in a mixed frame of mind, but certainly without that dragging weight which had oppressed him when he entered the room. Gradually, through the night, he realized the conviction that he had escaped, and threw from him altogether the idea of repeating his offer. Before he left he wrote her a line:

‘Be it so. It need not break our friendship.

‘N. B.’

This he sent by a special messenger, who returned with a note to his lodgings long before he was up on the following morning.

‘No; — no; certainly not. No word of this will ever pass my mouth.

‘M. C.’

Mr Broune thought that he was very well out of the danger, and resolved that Lady Carbury should never want anything that his friendship could do for her.

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