The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLII

‘Can You Be Ready in Ten Minutes?’

After leaving Melmotte’s house, on Sunday morning Paul Montague, went to Roger Carbury’s hotel and found his friend just returning from church. He was bound to go to Islington on that day, but had made up his mind that he would defer his visit till the evening. He would dine early and be with Mrs Hurtle about seven o’clock. But it was necessary that Roger should hear the news about Ruby Ruggles. ‘It’s not so bad as you thought,’ said he, ‘as she is living with her aunt.’

‘I never heard of such an aunt.’

‘She says her grandfather knows where she is, and that he doesn’t want her back again.’

‘Does she see Felix Carbury?’

‘I think she does,’ said Paul.

‘Then it doesn’t matter whether the woman’s her aunt or not. I’ll go and see her and try to get her back to Bungay.’

‘Why not send for John Crumb?’

Roger hesitated for a moment, and then answered, ‘He’d give Felix such a thrashing as no man ever had before. My cousin deserves it as well as any man ever deserved a thrashing; but there are reasons why I should not like it. And he could not force her back with him. I don’t suppose the girl is all bad — if she could see the truth.’

‘I don’t think she’s bad at all.’

‘At any rate I’ll go and see her,’ said Roger. ‘Perhaps I shall see your widow at the same time.’ Paul sighed, but said nothing more about his widow at that moment. ‘I’ll walk up to Welbeck Street now,’ said Roger, taking his hat. ‘Perhaps I shall see you to-morrow.’ Paul felt that he could not go to Welbeck Street with his friend.

He dined in solitude at the Beargarden, and then again made that journey to Islington in a cab. As he went he thought of the proposal that had been made to him by Melmotte. If he could do it with a clear conscience, if he could really make himself believe in the railway, such an expedition would not be displeasing to him. He had said already more than he had intended to say to Hetta Carbury; and though he was by no means disposed to flatter himself, yet he almost thought that what he had said had been well received. At the moment they had been disturbed, but she, as she heard the sound of her mother coming, had at any rate expressed no anger. He had almost been betrayed into breaking a promise. Were he to start now on this journey, the period of the promise would have passed by before his return. Of course he would take care that she should know that he had gone in the performance of a duty. And then he would escape from Mrs Hurtle, and would be able to make those inquiries which had been suggested to him. It was possible that Mrs Hurtle should offer to go with him — an arrangement which would not at all suit him.

That at any rate must be avoided. But then how could he do this without a belief in the railway generally? And how was it possible that he should have such belief? Mr Ramsbottom did not believe in it, nor did Roger Carbury. He himself did not in the least believe in Fisker, and Fisker had originated the railway. Then, would it not be best that he should take the Chairman’s offer as to his own money? If he could get his £6,000 back and have done with the railway, he would certainly think himself a lucky man. But he did not know how far he could with honesty lay aside his responsibility; and then he doubted whether he could put implicit trust in Melmotte’s personal guarantee for the amount. This at any rate was clear to him — that Melmotte was very anxious to secure his absence from the meetings of the Board.

Now he was again at Mrs Pipkin’s door, and again it was opened by Ruby Ruggles. His heart was in his mouth as he thought of the things he had to say. ‘The ladies have come back from Southend, Miss Ruggles?’

‘Oh yes, sir, and Mrs Hurtle is expecting you all the day.’ Then she put in a whisper on her own account. ‘You didn’t tell him as you’d seen me, Mr Montague?’

‘Indeed I did, Miss Ruggles.’

‘Then you might as well have left it alone, and not have been ill-natured — that’s all,’ said Ruby as she opened the door of Mrs Hurtle’s room.

Mrs Hurtle got up to receive him with her sweetest smile — and her smile could be very sweet. She was a witch of a woman, and, as like most witches she could be terrible, so like most witches she could charm. ‘Only fancy,’ she said, ‘that you should have come the only day I have been two hundred yards from the house, except that evening when you took me to the play. I was so sorry.’

‘Why should you be sorry? It is easy to come again.’

‘Because I don’t like to miss you, even for a day. But I wasn’t well, and I fancied that the house was stuffy, and Mrs Pipkin took a bright idea and proposed to carry me off to Southend. She was dying to go herself. She declared that Southend was Paradise.’

‘A cockney Paradise.’

‘Oh, what a place it is! Do your people really go to Southend and fancy that that is the sea?’

‘I believe they do. I never went to Southend myself — so that you know more about it than I do.’

‘How very English it is — a little yellow river — and you call it the sea! Ah; — you never were at Newport!’

‘But I’ve been at San Francisco.’

‘Yes; you’ve been at San Francisco, and heard the seals howling. Well; that’s better than Southend.’

‘I suppose we do have the sea here in England. It’s generally supposed we’re an island.’

‘Of course; — but things are so small. If you choose to go to the west of Ireland, I suppose you’d find the Atlantic. But nobody ever does go there for fear of being murdered.’ Paul thought of the gentleman in Oregon, but said nothing; — thought, perhaps, of his own condition, and remembered that a man might be murdered without going either to Oregon or the west of Ireland. ‘But we went to Southend, I, and Mrs Pipkin and the baby, and upon my word I enjoyed it. She was so afraid that the baby would annoy me, and I thought the baby was so much the best of it. And then we ate shrimps, and she was so humble. You must acknowledge that with us nobody would be so humble. Of course I paid. She has got all her children, and nothing but what she can make out of these lodgings. People are just as poor with us; — and other people who happen to be a little better off, pay for them. But nobody is humble to another, as you are here. Of course we like to have money as well as you do, but it doesn’t make so much difference.’

‘He who wants to receive, all the world over, will make himself as agreeable as he can to him who can give.’

‘But Mrs Pipkin was so humble. However, we got back all right yesterday evening, and then I found that you had been here — at last.’

‘You knew that I had to go to Liverpool.’

‘I’m not going to scold. Did you get your business done at Liverpool?’

‘Yes; — one generally gets something done, but never anything very satisfactorily. Of course it’s about this railway.’

‘I should have thought that that was satisfactory. Everybody talks of it as being the greatest thing ever invented. I wish I was a man that I might be concerned with a really great thing like that. I hate little peddling things. I should like to manage the greatest bank in the world, or to be Captain of the biggest fleet, or to make the largest railway. It would be better even than being President of a Republic, because one would have more of one’s own way. What is it that you do in it, Paul?’

‘They want me now to go out to Mexico about it,’ said he slowly.

‘Shall you go?’ said she, throwing herself forward and asking the question with manifest anxiety.

‘I think not.’

‘Why not? Do go. Oh, Paul, I would go with you. Why should you not go? It is just the thing for such a one as you to do. The railway will make Mexico a new country, and then you would be the man who had done it. Why should you throw away such a chance as that? It will never come again. Emperors and kings have tried their hands at Mexico and have been able to do nothing. Emperors and kings never can do anything. Think what it would be to be the regenerator of Mexico!’

‘Think what it would be to find one’s self there without the means of doing anything, and to feel that one had been sent there merely that one might be out of the way’

‘I would make the means of doing something.’

‘Means are money. How can I make that?’

‘There is money going. There must be money where there is all this buying and selling of shares. Where does your uncle get the money with which he is living like a prince at San Francisco? Where does Fisker get the money with which he is speculating in New York? Where does Melmotte get the money which makes him the richest man in the world? Why should not you get it as well as the others?’

‘If I were anxious to rob on my own account perhaps I might do it.’

‘Why should it be robbery? I do not want you to live in a palace and spend millions of dollars on yourself. But I want you to have ambition. Go to Mexico, and chance it. Take San Francisco in your way, and get across the country. I will go every yard with you. Make people there believe that you are in earnest, and there will be no difficulty about the money.’

He felt that he was taking no steps to approach the subject which he should have to discuss before he left her — or rather the statement which he had resolved that he would make. Indeed every word which he allowed her to say respecting this Mexican project carried him farther away from it. He was giving reasons why the journey should not be made; but was tacitly admitting that if it were to be made she might be one of the travellers. The very offer on her part implied an understanding that his former abnegation of the engagement had been withdrawn, and yet he shrunk from the cruelty of telling her, in a sideway fashion, that he would not submit to her companionship either for the purpose of such a journey or for any other purpose. The thing must be said in a solemn manner, and must be introduced on its own basis. But such preliminary conversation as this made the introduction of it infinitely more difficult.

‘You are not in a hurry?’ she said.

‘Oh no.’

‘You’re going to spend the evening with me like a good man? Then I’ll ask them to let us have tea.’ She rang the bell and Ruby came in, and the tea was ordered. ‘That young lady tells me that you are an old friend of hers.’

‘I’ve known about her down in the country, and was astonished to find her here yesterday.’

‘There’s some lover, isn’t there; — some would-be husband whom she does not like?’

‘And some won’t-be husband, I fear, whom she does like.’

‘That’s quite of course, if the other is true. Miss Ruby isn’t the girl to have come to her time of life without a preference. The natural liking of a young woman for a man in a station above her, because he is softer and cleaner and has better parts of speech — just as we keep a pretty dog if we keep a dog at all — is one of the evils of the inequality of mankind. The girl is content with the love without having the love justified, because the object is more desirable. She can only have her love justified with an object less desirable. If all men wore coats of the same fabric, and had to share the soil of the work of the world equally between them, that evil would come to an end. A woman here and there might go wrong from fantasy and diseased passions, but the ever-existing temptation to go wrong would be at an end.’

‘If men were equal to-morrow and all wore the same coats, they would wear different coats the next day.’

‘Slightly different. But there would be no more purple and fine linen, and no more blue woad. It isn’t to be done in a day of course, nor yet in a century — nor in a decade of centuries; but every human being who looks into it honestly will see that his efforts should be made in that direction. I remember; you never take sugar; give me that.’

Neither had he come here to discuss the deeply interesting questions of women’s difficulties and immediate or progressive equality. But having got on to these rocks — having, as the reader may perceive, been taken on to them wilfully by the skill of the woman — he did not know how to get his bark out again into clear waters. But having his own subject before him, with all its dangers, the wild-cat’s claws, and the possible fate of the gentleman in Oregon, he could not talk freely on the subjects which she introduced, as had been his wont in former years. ‘Thanks,’ he said, changing his cup. ‘How well you remember!’

‘Do you think I shall ever forget your preferences and dislikings? Do you recollect telling me about that blue scarf of mine, that I should never wear blue?’

She stretched herself out towards him, waiting for an answer, so that he was obliged to speak. ‘Of course I do. Black is your colour; — black and grey; or white — and perhaps yellow when you choose to be gorgeous; crimson possibly. But not blue or green.’

‘I never thought much of it before, but I have taken your word for gospel. It is very good to have an eye for such things — as you have, Paul. But I fancy that taste comes with, or at any rate forebodes, an effete civilization.’

‘I am sorry that mine should be effete,’ he said smiling.

‘You know what I mean, Paul. I speak of nations, not individuals. Civilization was becoming effete, or at any rate men were, in the time of the great painters; but Savonarola and Galileo were individuals. You should throw your lot in with a new people. This railway to Mexico gives you the chance.’

‘Are the Mexicans a new people?’

‘They who will rule the Mexicans are. All American women I dare say have bad taste in gowns — and so the vain ones and rich ones send to Paris for their finery; but I think our taste in men is generally good. We like our philosophers; we like our poets; we like our genuine workmen; — but we love our heroes. I would have you a hero, Paul.’ He got up from his chair and walked about the room in an agony of despair. To be told that he was expected to be a hero at the very moment in his life in which he felt more devoid of heroism, more thoroughly given up to cowardice than he had ever been before, was not to be endured! And yet, with what utmost stretch of courage — even though he were willing to devote himself certainly and instantly to the worst fate that he had pictured to himself — could he immediately rush away from these abstract speculations, encumbered as they were with personal flattery, into his own most unpleasant, most tragic matter! It was the unfitness that deterred him and not the possible tragedy. Nevertheless, through it all, he was sure — nearly sure — that she was playing her game, and playing it in direct antagonism to the game which she knew that he wanted to play. Would it not be better that he should go away and write another letter? In a letter he could at any rate say what he had to say; — and having said it he would then strengthen himself to adhere to it.

‘What makes you so uneasy?’ she asked; still speaking in her most winning way, caressing him with the tones of her voice. ‘Do you not like me to say that I would have you be a hero?’

‘Winifred,’ he said, ‘I came here with a purpose, and I had better carry it out.’

‘What purpose?’ She still leaned forward, but now supported her face on her two hands, with her elbows resting on her knees, looking at him intently. But one would have said that there was only love in her eyes; — love which might be disappointed, but still love. The wild cat, if there, was all within, still hidden from sight. Paul stood with his hands on the back of a chair, propping himself up and trying to find fitting words for the occasion. ‘Stop, my dear,’ she said. ‘Must the purpose be told to-night?’

‘Why not to-night?’

‘Paul, I am not well; — I am weak now. I am a coward. You do not know the delight to me of having a few words of pleasant talk to an old friend after the desolation of the last weeks. Mrs Pipkin is not very charming. Even her baby cannot supply all the social wants of my life. I had intended that everything should be sweet to-night. Oh, Paul, if it was your purpose to tell me of your love, to assure me that you are still my dear, dear friend, to speak with hope of future days, or with pleasure of those that are past — then carry out your purpose. But if it be cruel, or harsh, or painful; if you had come to speak daggers; — then drop your purpose for to-night. Try and think what my solitude must have been to me, and let me have one hour of comfort.’

Of course he was conquered for that night, and could only have that solace which a most injurious reprieve could give him. ‘I will not harass you, if you are ill,’ he said.

‘I am ill. It was because I was afraid that I should be really ill that I went to Southend. The weather is hot, though of course the sun here is not as we have it. But the air is heavy — what Mrs Pipkin calls muggy. I was thinking if I were to go somewhere for a week, it would do me good. Where had I better go?’ Paul suggested Brighton. ‘That is full of people; is it not? — a fashionable place?’

‘Not at this time of the year.’

‘But it is a big place. I want some little place that would be pretty. You could take me down; could you not? Not very far, you know; — not that any place can be very far from here.’ Paul, in his John Bull displeasure, suggested Penzance, telling her, untruly, that it would take twenty-four hours. ‘Not Penzance then, which I know is your very Ultima Thule; — not Penzance, nor yet Orkney. Is there no other place except Southend?’

‘There is Cromer in Norfolk — perhaps ten hours.’

‘Is Cromer by the sea?’

‘Yes; — what we call the sea.’

‘I mean really the sea, Paul?’

‘If you start from Cromer right away, a hundred miles would perhaps take you across to Holland. A ditch of that kind wouldn’t do perhaps.’

‘Ah — now I see you are laughing at me. Is Cromer pretty?’

‘Well, yes; — I think it is. I was there once, but I don’t remember much. There’s Ramsgate.’

‘Mrs Pipkin told me of Ramsgate. I don’t think I should like Ramsgate.’

‘There’s the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight is very pretty.’

‘That’s the Queen’s place. There would not be room for her and me too.’

‘Or Lowestoft. Lowestoft is not so far as Cromer, and there is a railway all the distance.’

‘And sea?’

‘Sea enough for anything. If you can’t see across it, and if there are waves, and wind enough to knock you down, and shipwrecks every other day, I don’t see why a hundred miles isn’t as good as a thousand.’

‘A hundred miles is just as good as a thousand. But, Paul, at Southend it isn’t a hundred miles across to the other side of the river. You must admit that. But you will be a better guide than Mrs Pipkin. You would not have taken me to Southend when I expressed a wish for the ocean; — would you? Let it be Lowestoft. Is there an hotel?’

‘A small little place.’

‘Very small? uncomfortably small? But almost any place would do for me.’

‘They make up, I believe, about a hundred beds; but in the States it would be very small.’

‘Paul,’ said she, delighted to have brought him back to this humour, ‘if I were to throw the tea things at you, it would serve you right. This is all because I did not lose myself in awe at the sight of the Southend ocean. It shall be Lowestoft.’ Then she rose up and came to him, and took his arm. ‘You will take me down, will you not? It is desolate for a woman to go into such a place all alone. I will not ask you to stay. And I can return by myself.’ She had put both hands on one arm, and turned herself round, and looked into his face. ‘You will do that for old acquaintance sake?’ For a moment or two he made no answer, and his face was troubled, and his brow was black. He was endeavouring to think; — but he was only aware of his danger, and could see no way through it. ‘I don’t think you will let me ask in vain for such a favour as that,’ she said.

‘No;’ he replied. ‘I will take you down. When will you go?’ He had cockered himself up with some vain idea that the railway carriage would be a good place for the declaration of his purpose, or perhaps the sands at Lowestoft.

‘When will I go? when will you take me? You have Boards to attend, and shares to look to, and Mexico to regenerate. I am a poor woman with nothing on hand but Mrs Pipkin’s baby. Can you be ready in ten minutes? — because I could.’ Paul shook his head and laughed. ‘I’ve named a time and that doesn’t suit. Now, sir, you name another, and I’ll promise it shall suit.’ Paul suggested Saturday, the 29th. He must attend the next Board, and had promised to see Melmotte before the Board day. Saturday of course would do for Mrs Hurtle. Should she meet him at the railway station? Of course he undertook to come and fetch her.

Then, as he took his leave, she stood close against him, and put her cheek up for him to kiss. There are moments in which a man finds it utterly impossible that he should be prudent — as to which, when he thought of them afterwards, he could never forgive himself for prudence, let the danger have been what it may. Of course he took her in his arms, and kissed her lips as well as her cheeks.

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