The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XLVII

Mrs Hurtle at Lowestoft

When Paul got down into the dining-room Mrs Hurtle was already there, and the waiter was standing by the side of the table ready to take the cover off the soup. She was radiant with smiles and made herself especially pleasant during dinner, but Paul felt sure that everything was not well with her. Though she smiled, and talked and laughed, there was something forced in her manner. He almost knew that she was only waiting till the man should have left the room to speak in a different strain. And so it was. As soon as the last lingering dish had been removed, and when the door was finally shut behind the retreating waiter, she asked the question which no doubt had been on her mind since she had walked across the strand to the hotel. ‘Your friend was hardly civil; was he, Paul?’

‘Do you mean that he should have come in? I have no doubt it was true that he had dined.’

‘I am quite indifferent about his dinner — but there are two ways of declining as there are of accepting. I suppose he is on very intimate terms with you?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Then his want of courtesy was the more evidently intended for me. In point of fact he disapproves of me. Is not that it?’ To this question Montague did not feel himself called upon to make any immediate answer. ‘I can well understand that it should be so. An intimate friend may like or dislike the friend of his friend, without offence. But unless there be strong reason he is bound to be civil to his friend’s friend, when accident brings them together. You have told me that Mr Carbury was your beau ideal of an English gentleman.’

‘So he is.’

‘Then why didn’t he behave as such?’ and Mrs Hurtle again smiled. ‘Did not you yourself feel that you were rebuked for coming here with me, when he expressed surprise at your journey? Has he authority over you?’

‘Of course he has not. What authority could he have?’

‘Nay, I do not know. He may be your guardian. In this safe-going country young men perhaps are not their own masters till they are past thirty. I should have said that he was your guardian, and that he intended to rebuke you for being in bad company. I dare say he did after I had gone.’

This was so true that Montague did not know how to deny it. Nor was he sure that it would be well that he should deny it. The time must come, and why not now as well as at any future moment? He had to make her understand that he could not join his lot with her — chiefly indeed because his heart was elsewhere, a reason on which he could hardly insist because she could allege that she had a prior right to his heart; — but also because her antecedents had been such as to cause all his friends to warn him against such a marriage. So he plucked up courage for the battle. ‘It was nearly that,’ he said.

There are many — and probably the greater portion of my readers will be among the number — who will declare to themselves that Paul Montague was a poor creature, in that he felt so great a repugnance to face this woman with the truth. His folly in falling at first under the battery of her charms will be forgiven him. His engagement, unwise as it was, and his subsequent determination to break his engagement, will be pardoned. Women, and perhaps some men also, will feel that it was natural that he should have been charmed, natural that he should have expressed his admiration in the form which unmarried ladies expect from unmarried men when any such expression is to be made at all; — natural also that he should endeavour to escape from the dilemma when he found the manifold dangers of the step which he had proposed to take. No woman, I think, will be hard upon him because of his breach of faith to Mrs Hurtle. But they will be very hard on him on the score of his cowardice — as, I think, unjustly. In social life we hardly stop to consider how much of that daring spirit which gives mastery comes from hardness of heart rather than from high purpose, or true courage. The man who succumbs to his wife, the mother who succumbs to her daughter, the master who succumbs to his servant, is as often brought to servility by a continual aversion to the giving of pain, by a softness which causes the fretfulness of others to be an agony to himself — as by any actual fear which the firmness of the imperious one may have produced. There is an inner softness, a thinness of the mind’s skin, an incapability of seeing or even thinking of the troubles of others with equanimity, which produces a feeling akin to fear; but which is compatible not only with courage, but with absolute firmness of purpose, when the demand for firmness arises so strongly as to assert itself. With this man it was not really that. He feared the woman; — or at least such fears did not prevail upon him to be silent; but he shrank from subjecting her to the blank misery of utter desertion. After what had passed between them he could hardly bring himself to tell her that he wanted her no further and to bid her go. But that was what he had to do. And for that his answer to her last question prepared the way. ‘It was nearly that,’ he said.

‘Mr Carbury did take it upon himself to rebuke you for showing yourself on the sands at Lowestoft with such a one as I am?’

‘He knew of the letter which I wrote to you.’

‘You have canvassed me between you?’

‘Of course we have. Is that unnatural? Would you have had me be silent about you to the oldest and the best friend I have in the world?’

‘No, I would not have had you be silent to your oldest and best friend. I presume you would declare your purpose. But I should not have supposed you would have asked his leave. When I was travelling with you, I thought you were a man capable of managing your own actions. I had heard that in your country girls sometimes hold themselves at the disposal of their friends — but I did not dream that such could be the case with a man who had gone out into the world to make his fortune.’

Paul Montague did not like it. The punishment to be endured was being commenced. ‘Of course you can say bitter things,’ he replied.

‘Is it my nature to say bitter things? Have I usually said bitter things to you? When I have hung round your neck and have sworn that you should be my God upon earth, was that bitter? I am alone and I have to fight my own battles. A woman’s weapon is her tongue. Say but one word to me, Paul, as you know how to say it, and there will be soon an end to that bitterness. What shall I care for Mr Carbury, except to make him the cause of some innocent joke, if you will speak but that one word? And think what it is I am asking. Do you remember how urgent were once your own prayers to me; — how you swore that your happiness could only be secured by one word of mine? Though I loved you, I doubted. There were considerations of money, which have now vanished. But I spoke it — because I loved you, and because I believed you. Give me that which you swore you had given before I made my gift to you.’

‘I cannot say that word.’

‘Do you mean that, after all, I am to be thrown off like an old glove? I have had many dealings with men and have found them to be false, cruel, unworthy, and selfish. But I have met nothing like that. No man has ever dared to treat me like that. No man shall dare.’

‘I wrote to you.’

‘Wrote to me; — yes! And I was to take that as sufficient! No. I think but little of my life and have but little for which to live. But while I do live I will travel over the world’s surface to face injustice and to expose it, before I will put up with it. You wrote to me! Heaven and earth; — I can hardly control myself when I hear such impudence!’ She clenched her fist upon the knife that lay on the table as she looked at him, and raising it, dropped it again at a further distance. ‘Wrote to me! Could any mere letter of your writing break the bond by which we were bound together? Had not the distance between us seemed to have made you safe would you have dared to write that letter? The letter must be unwritten. It has already been contradicted by your conduct to me since I have been in this country.’

‘I am sorry to hear you say that.’

‘Am I not justified in saying it?’

‘I hope not. When I first saw you I told you everything. If I have been wrong in attending to your wishes since, I regret it.’

‘This comes from your seeing your master for two minutes on the beach. You are acting now under his orders. No doubt he came with the purpose. Had you told him you were to be here?’

‘His coming was an accident.’

‘It was very opportune at any rate. Well; — what have you to say to me? Or am I to understand that you suppose yourself to have said all that is required of you? Perhaps you would prefer that I should argue the matter out with your — friend, Mr Carbury.’

‘What has to be said, I believe I can say myself.’

‘Say it then. Or are you so ashamed of it that the words stick in your throat?’

‘There is some truth in that. I am ashamed of it. I must say that which will be painful, and which would not have been to be said, had I been fairly careful.’

Then he paused. ‘Don’t spare me,’ she said. ‘I know what it all is as well as though it were already told. I know the lies with which they have crammed you at San Francisco. You have heard that up in Oregon — I shot a man. That is no lie. I did. I brought him down dead at my feet.’ Then she paused, and rose from her chair, and looked at him. ‘Do you wonder that that is a story that a woman should hesitate to tell? But not from shame. Do you suppose that the sight of that dying wretch does not haunt me? that I do not daily hear his drunken screech, and see him bound from the earth, and then fall in a heap just below my hand? But did they tell you also that it was thus alone that I could save myself — and that had I spared him, I must afterwards have destroyed myself? If I were wrong, why did they not try me for his murder? Why did the women flock around me and kiss the very hems of my garments? In this soft civilization of yours you know nothing of such necessity. A woman here is protected — unless it be from lies.’

‘It was not that only,’ he whispered.

‘No; they told you other things,’ she continued, still standing over him. ‘They told you of quarrels with my husband. I know the lies, and who made them, and why. Did I conceal from you the character of my former husband? Did I not tell you that he was a drunkard and a scoundrel? How should I not quarrel with such a one? Ah, Paul; you can hardly know what my life has been.’

‘They told me that — you fought him.’

‘Psha; — fought him! Yes; — I was always fighting him. What are you to do but to fight cruelty, and fight falsehood, and fight fraud and treachery — when they come upon you and would overwhelm you but for fighting? You have not been fool enough to believe that fable about a duel? I did stand once, armed, and guarded my bedroom door from him, and told him that he should only enter it over my body. He went away to the tavern and I did not see him for a week afterwards. That was the duel. And they have told you that he is not dead.’

‘Yes; — they have told me that.’

‘Who has seen him alive? I never said to you that I had seen him dead. How should I?’

‘There would be a certificate.’

‘Certificate; — in the back of Texas; — five hundred miles from Galveston! And what would it matter to you? I was divorced from him according to the law of the State of Kansas. Does not the law make a woman free here to marry again — and why not with us? I sued for a divorce on the score of cruelty and drunkenness. He made no appearance, and the Court granted it me. Am I disgraced by that?’

‘I heard nothing of the divorce.’

‘I do not remember. When we were talking of these old days before, you did not care how short I was in telling my story. You wanted to hear little or nothing then of Caradoc Hurtle. Now you have become more particular. I told you that he was dead — as I believed myself, and do believe. Whether the other story was told or not I do not know.’

‘It was not told.’

‘Then it was your own fault — because you would not listen. And they have made you believe I suppose that I have failed in getting back my property?’

‘I have heard nothing about your property but what you yourself have said unasked. I have asked no question about your property.’

‘You are welcome. At last I have made it again my own. And now, sir, what else is there? I think I have been open with you. Is it because I protected myself from drunken violence that I am to be rejected? Am I to be cast aside because I saved my life while in the hands of a reprobate husband, and escaped from him by means provided by law; — or because by my own energy I have secured my own property? If I am not to be condemned for these things, then say why am I condemned.’

She had at any rate saved him the trouble of telling the story, but in doing so had left him without a word to say. She had owned to shooting the man. Well; it certainly may be necessary that a woman should shoot a man — especially in Oregon. As to the duel with her husband — she had half denied and half confessed it. He presumed that she had been armed with a pistol when she refused Mr Hurtle admittance into the nuptial chamber. As to the question of Hurtle’s death — she had confessed that perhaps he was not dead. But then — as she had asked — why should not a divorce for the purpose in hand be considered as good as a death? He could not say that she had not washed herself clean; — and yet, from the story as told by herself, what man would wish to marry her? She had seen so much of drunkenness, had become so handy with pistols, and had done so much of a man’s work, that any ordinary man might well hesitate before he assumed to be her master. ‘I do not condemn you,’ he replied.

‘At any rate, Paul, do not lie,’ she answered. ‘If you tell me that you will not be my husband, you do condemn me. Is it not so?’

‘I will not lie if I can help it. I did ask you to be my wife —’

‘Well — rather. How often before I consented?’

‘It matters little; at any rate, till you did consent. I have since satisfied myself that such a marriage would be miserable for both of us.’

‘You have.’

‘I have. Of course, you can speak of me as you please and think of me as you please. I can hardly defend myself.’

‘Hardly, I think.’

‘But, with whatever result, I know that I shall now be acting for the best in declaring that I will not become — your husband.’

‘You will not?’ She was still standing, and stretched out her right hand as though again to grasp something.

He also now rose from his chair. ‘If I speak with abruptness it is only to avoid a show of indecision. I will not.’

‘Oh, God! what have I done that it should be my lot to meet man after man false and cruel as this! You tell me to my face that I am to bear it! Who is the jade that has done it? Has she money? — or rank? Or is it that you are afraid to have by your side a woman who can speak for herself — and even act for herself if some action be necessary? Perhaps you think that I am — old.’ He was looking at her intently as she spoke, and it did seem to him that many years had been added to her face. It was full of lines round the mouth, and the light play of drollery was gone, and the colour was fixed and her eyes seemed to be deep in her head. ‘Speak, man — is it that you want a younger wife?’

‘You know it is not.’

‘Know! How should any one know anything from a liar? From what you tell me I know nothing. I have to gather what I can from your character. I see that you are a coward. It is that man that came to you, and who is your master, that has forced you to this. Between me and him you tremble, and are a thing to be pitied. As for knowing what you would be at, from anything that you would say — that is impossible. Once again I have come across a mean wretch. Oh, fool! — that men should be so vile, and think themselves masters of the world! My last word to you is, that you are — a liar. Now for the present you can go. Ten minutes since, had I had a weapon in my hand I should have shot another man.’

Paul Montague, as he looked round the room for his hat, could not but think that perhaps Mrs Hurtle might have had some excuse. It seemed at any rate to be her custom to have a pistol with her — though luckily, for his comfort, she had left it in her bedroom on the present occasion. ‘I will say good-bye to you,’ he said, when he had found his hat.

‘Say no such thing. Tell me that you have triumphed and got rid of me. Pluck up your spirits, if you have any, and show me your joy. Tell me that an Englishman has dared to ill-treat an American woman. You would — were you not afraid to indulge yourself.’ He was now standing in the doorway, and before he escaped she gave him an imperative command. ‘I shall not stay here now,’ she said —‘I shall return on Monday. I must think of what you have said, and must resolve what I myself will do. I shall not bear this without seeking a means of punishing you for your treachery. I shall expect you to come to me on Monday.’

He closed the door as he answered her. ‘I do not see that it will serve any purpose.’

‘It is for me, sir, to judge of that. I suppose you are not so much a coward that you are afraid to come to me. If so, I shall come to you; and you may be assured that I shall not be too timid to show myself and to tell my story.’ He ended by saying that if she desired it he would wait upon her, but that he would not at present fix a day. On his return to town he would write to her.

When he was gone she went to the door and listened awhile. Then she closed it, and turning the lock, stood with her back against the door and with her hands clasped. After a few moments she ran forward, and falling on her knees, buried her face in her hands upon the table. Then she gave way to a flood of tears, and at last lay rolling upon the floor.

Was this to be the end of it? Should she never know rest; — never have one draught of cool water between her lips? Was there to be no end to the storms and turmoils and misery of her life? In almost all that she had said she had spoken the truth, though doubtless not all the truth — as which among us would in giving the story of his life? She had endured violence, and had been violent. She had been schemed against, and had schemed. She had fitted herself to the life which had befallen her. But in regard to money, she had been honest and she had been loving of heart. With her heart of hearts she had loved this young Englishman; — and now, after all her scheming, all her daring, with all her charms, this was to be the end of it! Oh, what a journey would this be which she must now make back to her own country, all alone!

But the strongest feeling which raged within her bosom was that of disappointed love. Full as had been the vials of wrath which she had poured forth over Montague’s head, violent as had been the storm of abuse with which she had assailed him, there had been after all something counterfeited in her indignation. But her love was no counterfeit. At any moment if he would have returned to her and taken her in his arms, she would not only have forgiven him but have blessed him also for his kindness. She was in truth sick at heart of violence and rough living and unfeminine words. When driven by wrongs the old habit came back upon her. But if she could only escape the wrongs, if she could find some niche in the world which would be bearable to her, in which, free from harsh treatment, she could pour forth all the genuine kindness of her woman’s nature — then, she thought she could put away violence and be gentle as a young girl. When she first met this Englishman and found that he took delight in being near her, she had ventured to hope that a haven would at last be open to her. But the reek of the gunpowder from that first pistol shot still clung to her, and she now told herself again, as she had often told herself before, that it would have been better for her to have turned the muzzle against her own bosom.

After receiving his letter she had run over on what she had told herself was a vain chance. Though angry enough when that letter first reached her, she had, with that force of character which marked her, declared to herself that such a resolution on his part was natural. In marrying her he must give up all his old allies, all his old haunts. The whole world must be changed to him. She knew enough of herself, and enough of Englishwomen, to be sure that when her past life should be known, as it would be known, she would be avoided in England. With all the little ridicule she was wont to exercise in speaking of the old country there was ever mixed, as is so often the case in the minds of American men and women, an almost envious admiration of English excellence. To have been allowed to forget the past and to live the life of an English lady would have been heaven to her. But she, who was sometimes scorned and sometimes feared in the eastern cities of her own country, whose name had become almost a proverb for violence out in the far West — how could she dare to hope that her lot should be so changed for her?

She had reminded Paul that she had required to be asked often before she had consented to be his wife; but she did not tell him that that hesitation had arisen from her own conviction of her own unfitness. But it had been so. Circumstances had made her what she was. Circumstances had been cruel to her. But she could not now alter them. Then gradually, as she came to believe in his love, as she lost herself in love for him, she told herself that she would be changed. She had, however, almost known that it could not be so. But this man had relatives, had business, had property in her own country. Though she could not be made happy in England, might not a prosperous life be opened for him in the far West? Then had risen the offer of that journey to Mexico with much probability that work of no ordinary kind might detain him there for years. With what joy would she have accompanied him as his wife! For that at any rate she would have been fit.

She was conscious, perhaps too conscious, of her own beauty. That at any rate, she felt, had not deserted her. She was hardly aware that time was touching it. And she knew herself to be clever, capable of causing happiness, and mirth and comfort. She had the qualities of a good comrade — which are so much in a woman. She knew all this of herself. If he and she could be together in some country in which those stories of her past life would be matter of indifference, could she not make him happy? But what was she that a man should give up everything and go away and spend his days in some half-barbarous country for her alone? She knew it all and was hardly angry with him in that he had decided against her. But treated as she had been she must play her game with such weapons as she possessed. It was consonant with her old character, it was consonant with her present plans that she should at any rate seem to be angry.

Sitting there alone late into the night she made many plans, but the plan that seemed best to suit the present frame of her mind was the writing of a letter to Paul bidding him adieu, sending him her fondest love, and telling him that he was right. She did write the letter, but wrote it with a conviction that she would not have the strength to send it to him. The reader may judge with what feeling she wrote the following words:—

DEAR PAUL

You are right and I am wrong. Our marriage would not have been fitting. I do not blame you. I attracted you when we were together; but you have learned and have learned truly that you should not give up your life for such attractions. If I have been violent with you, forgive me. You will acknowledge that I have suffered.

Always know that there is one woman who will love you better than any one else. I think too that you will love me even when some other woman is by your side. God bless you, and make you happy. Write me the shortest, shortest word of adieu. Not to do so would make you think yourself heartless. But do not come to me.

For ever

W. H.

This she wrote on a small slip of paper, and then having read it twice, she put it into her pocket-book. She told herself that she ought to send it; but told herself as plainly that she could not bring herself to do so. It was early in the morning before she went to bed but she had admitted no one into the room after Montague had left her.

Paul, when he escaped from her presence, roamed out on to the sea-shore, and then took himself to bed, having ordered a conveyance to take him to Carbury Manor early in the morning. At breakfast he presented himself to the squire. ‘I have come earlier than you expected,’ he said.

‘Yes, indeed; — much earlier. Are you going back to Lowestoft?’

Then he told the whole story. Roger expressed his satisfaction, recalling however the pledge which he had given as to his return. ‘Let her follow you, and bear it,’ he said. ‘Of course you must suffer the effects of your own imprudence.’ On that evening Paul Montague returned to London by the mail train, being sure that he would thus avoid a meeting with Mrs Hurtle in the railway-carriage.

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