The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXX

Sir Felix Meddles with Many Matters

There is no duty more certain or fixed in the world than that which calls upon a brother to defend his sister from ill-usage; but, at the same time, in the way we live now, no duty is more difficult, and we may say generally more indistinct. The ill-usage to which men’s sisters are most generally exposed is one which hardly admits of either protection or vengeance — although the duty of protecting and avenging is felt and acknowledged. We are not allowed to fight duels, and that banging about of another man with a stick is always disagreeable and seldom successful. A John Crumb can do it, perhaps, and come out of the affair exulting; but not a Sir Felix Carbury, even if the Sir Felix of the occasion have the requisite courage. There is a feeling, too, when a girl has been jilted — thrown over, perhaps, is the proper term — after the gentleman has had the fun of making love to her for an entire season, and has perhaps even been allowed privileges as her promised husband, that the less said the better. The girl does not mean to break her heart for love of the false one, and become the tragic heroine of a tale for three months. It is her purpose again to

— trick her beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flame in the forehead of the morning sky.

Though this one has been false, as were perhaps two or three before, still the road to success is open. Uno avulso non deficit alter. But if all the notoriety of cudgels and cutting whips be given to the late unfortunate affair, the difficulty of finding a substitute will be greatly increased. The brother recognizes his duty, and prepares for vengeance. The injured one probably desires that she may be left to fight her own little battles alone.

‘Then, by heaven, he shall answer it to me,’ Sir Felix had said very grandly, when his sister had told him that she was engaged to a man who was, as he thought he knew, engaged also to marry another woman. Here, no doubt, was gross ill-usage, and opportunity at any rate for threats. No money was required and no immediate action — and Sir Felix could act the fine gentleman and the dictatorial brother at very little present expense. But Hetta, who ought perhaps to have known her brother more thoroughly, was fool enough to believe him. On the day but one following, no answer had as yet come from Roger Carbury — nor could as yet have come. But Hetta’s mind was full of her trouble, and she remembered her brother’s threat. Felix had forgotten that he had made a threat — and, indeed, had thought no more of the matter since his interview with his sister.

‘Felix,’ she said, ‘you won’t mention that to Mr Montague!’

‘Mention what? Oh! about that woman, Mrs Hurtle? Indeed I shall. A man who does that kind of thing ought to be crushed; — and, by heavens, if he does it to you, he shall be crushed.’

‘I want to tell you, Felix. If it is so, I will see him no more.’

‘If it is so! I tell you I know it.’

‘Mamma has written to Roger. At least I feel sure she has.’

‘What has she written to him for? What has Roger Carbury to do with our affairs?’

‘Only you said he knew! If he says so, that is, if you and he both say that he is to marry that woman — I will not see Mr Montague again. Pray do not go to him. If such a misfortune does come, it is better to bear it and to be silent. What good can be done?’

‘Leave that to me,’ said Sir Felix, walking out of the room with much fraternal bluster. Then he went forth, and at once had himself driven to Paul Montague’s lodgings. Had Hetta not been foolish enough to remind him of his duty, he would not now have undertaken the task. He too, no doubt, remembered as he went that duels were things of the past, and that even fists and sticks are considered to be out of fashion. ‘Montague,’ he said, assuming all the dignity of demeanour that his late sorrows had left to him, ‘I believe I am right in saying that you are engaged to marry that American lady, Mrs Hurtle.’

‘Then let me tell you that you were never more wrong in your life. What business have you with Mrs Hurtle?’

‘When a man proposes to my sister, I think I’ve a great deal of business,’ said Sir Felix.

‘Well; — yes; I admit that fully. If I answered you roughly, I beg your pardon. Now as to the facts. I am not going to marry Mrs Hurtle. I suppose I know how you have heard her name; — but as you have heard it, I have no hesitation in telling you so much. As you know where she is to be found you can go and ask her if you please. On the other hand, it is the dearest wish of my heart to marry your sister. I trust that will be enough for you.’

‘You were engaged to Mrs Hurtle?’

‘My dear Carbury, I don’t think I’m bound to tell you all the details of my past life. At any rate, I don’t feel inclined to do so in answer to hostile questions. I dare say you have heard enough of Mrs Hurtle to justify you, as your sister’s brother, in asking me whether I am in any way entangled by a connection with her. I tell you that I am not. If you still doubt, I refer you to the lady herself. Beyond that, I do not think I am called on to go; and beyond that I won’t go — at any rate, at present.’ Sir Felix still blustered, and made what capital he could out of his position as a brother; but he took no steps towards positive revenge. ‘Of course, Carbury,’ said the other, ‘I wish to regard you as a brother; and if I am rough to you, it is only because you are rough to me.’

Sir Felix was now in that part of town which he had been accustomed to haunt — for the first time since his misadventure — and, plucking up his courage, resolved that he would turn into the Beargarden. He would have a glass of sherry, and face the one or two men who would as yet be there, and in this way gradually creep back to his old habits. But when he arrived there, the club was shut up. ‘What the deuce is Vossner about?’ said he, pulling out his watch. It was nearly five o’clock. He rang the bell, and knocked at the door, feeling that this was an occasion for courage. One of the servants, in what we may call private clothes, after some delay, drew back the bolts, and told him the astounding news; — The club was shut up! ‘Do you mean to say I can’t come in?’ said Sir Felix. The man certainly did mean to tell him so, for he opened the door no more than a foot, and stood in that narrow aperture. Mr Vossner had gone away. There had been a meeting of the Committee, and the club was shut up. Whatever further information rested in the waiter’s bosom he declined to communicate to Sir Felix Carbury.

‘By George!’ The wrong that was done him filled the young baronet’s bosom with indignation. He had intended, he assured himself, to dine at his club, to spend the evening there sportively, to be pleasant among his chosen companions. And now the club was shut up, and Vossner had gone away! What business had the club to be shut up? What right had Vossner to go away? Had he not paid his subscription in advance? Throughout the world, the more wrong a man does, the more indignant is he at wrong done to him. Sir Felix almost thought that he could recover damages from the whole Committee.

He went direct to Mrs Pipkin’s house. When he made that half promise of marriage in Mrs Pipkin’s hearing, he had said that he would come again on the morrow. This he had not done; but of that he thought nothing. Such breaches of faith, when committed by a young man in his position, require not even an apology. He was admitted by Ruby herself who was of course delighted to see him. ‘Who do you think is in town?’ she said. ‘John Crumb; but though he came here ever so smart, I wouldn’t so much as speak to him, except to tell him to go away.’ Sir Felix, when he heard the name, felt an uncomfortable sensation creep over him. ‘I don’t know I’m sure what he should come after me for, and me telling him as plain as the nose on his face that I never want to see him again.’

‘He’s not of much account,’ said the baronet.

‘He would marry me out and out immediately, if I’d have him,’ continued Ruby, who perhaps thought that her honest old lover should not be spoken of as being altogether of no account. ‘And he has everything comfortable in the way of furniture, and all that. And they do say he’s ever so much money in the bank. But I detest him,’ said Ruby, shaking her pretty head, and inclining herself towards her aristocratic lover’s shoulder.

This took place in the back parlour, before Mrs Pipkin had ascended from the kitchen prepared to disturb so much romantic bliss with wretched references to the cold outer world. ‘Well, now, Sir Felix,’ she began, ‘if things is square, of course you’re welcome to see my niece.’

‘And what if they’re round, Mrs Pipkin?’ said the gallant, careless, sparkling Lothario.

‘Well, or round either, so long as they’re honest.’

‘Ruby and I are both honest; — ain’t we, Ruby? I want to take her out to dinner, Mrs Pipkin. She shall be back before late; — before ten; she shall indeed.’ Ruby inclined herself still more closely towards his shoulder. ‘Come, Ruby, get your hat and change your dress, and we’ll be off. I’ve ever so many things to tell you.’

Ever so many things to tell her! They must be to fix a day for the marriage, and to let her know where they were to live, and to settle what dress she should wear — and perhaps to give her the money to go and buy it! Ever so many things to tell her! She looked up into Mrs Pipkin’s face with imploring eyes. Surely on such an occasion as this an aunt would not expect that her niece should be a prisoner and a slave. ‘Have it been put in writing, Sir Felix Carbury?’ demanded Mrs Pipkin with cruel gravity. Mrs Hurtle had given it as her decided opinion that Sir Felix would not really mean to marry Ruby Ruggles unless he showed himself willing to do so with all the formality of a written contract.

‘Writing be bothered,’ said Sir Felix.

‘That’s all very well, Sir Felix. Writing do bother, very often. But when a gentleman has intentions, a bit of writing shows it plainer nor words. Ruby don’t go nowhere to dine unless you puts it into writing.’

‘Aunt Pipkin!’ exclaimed the wretched Ruby.

‘What do you think I’m going to do with her?’ asked Sir Felix.

‘If you want to make her your wife, put it in writing. And if it be as you don’t, just say so, and walk away — free.’

‘I shall go,’ said Ruby. ‘I’m not going to be kept here a prisoner for any one. I can go when I please. You wait, Felix, and I’ll be down in a minute.’ The girl, with a nimble spring, ran upstairs, and began to change her dress without giving herself a moment for thought.

‘She don’t come back no more here, Sir Felix,’ said Mrs Pipkin, in her most solemn tones. ‘She ain’t nothing to me, no more than she was my poor dear husband’s sister’s child. There ain’t no blood between us, and won’t be no disgrace. But I’d be loth to see her on the streets.’

‘Then why won’t you let me bring her back again?’

‘‘Cause that’d be the way to send her there. You don’t mean to marry her.’ To this Sir Felix said nothing. ‘You’re not thinking of that. It’s just a bit of sport — and then there she is, an old shoe to be chucked away, just a rag to be swept into the dust-bin. I’ve seen scores of ’em, and I’d sooner a child of mine should die in a workus’, or be starved to death. But it’s all nothing to the likes o’ you.’

‘I haven’t done her any harm,’ said Sir Felix, almost frightened.

‘Then go away, and don’t do her any. That’s Mrs Hurtle’s door open. You go and speak to her. She can talk a deal better nor me.’

‘Mrs Hurtle hasn’t been able to manage her own affairs very well.’

‘Mrs Hurtle’s a lady, Sir Felix, and a widow, and one as has seen the world.’ As she spoke, Mrs Hurtle came downstairs, and an introduction, after some rude fashion, was effected between her and Sir Felix. Mrs Hurtle had heard often of Sir Felix Carbury, and was quite as certain as Mrs Pipkin that he did not mean to marry Ruby Ruggles. In a few minutes Felix found himself alone with Mrs Hurtle in her own room. He had been anxious to see the woman since he had heard of her engagement with Paul Montague, and doubly anxious since he had also heard of Paul’s engagement with his sister. It was not an hour since Paul himself had referred him to her for corroboration of his own statement.

‘Sir Felix Carbury,’ she said, ‘I am afraid you are doing that poor girl no good, and are intending to do her none.’ It did occur to him very strongly that this could be no affair of Mrs Hurtle’s, and that he, as a man of position in society, was being interfered with in an unjustifiable manner. Aunt Pipkin wasn’t even an aunt; but who was Mrs Hurtle? ‘Would it not be better that you should leave her to become the wife of a man who is really fond of her?’

He could already see something in Mrs Hurtle’s eye which prevented his at once bursting into wrath; — but! who was Mrs Hurtle, that she should interfere with him? ‘Upon my word, ma’am,’ he said, ‘I’m very much obliged to you, but I don’t quite know to what I owe the honour of your — your —’

‘Interference you mean.’

‘I didn’t say so, but perhaps that’s about it.’

‘I’d interfere to save any woman that God ever made,’ said Mrs Hurtle with energy. ‘We’re all apt to wait a little too long, because we’re ashamed to do any little good that chance puts in our way. You must go and leave her, Sir Felix.’

‘I suppose she may do as she pleases about that.’

‘Do you mean to make her your wife?’ asked Mrs Hurtle sternly.

‘Does Mr Paul Montague mean to make you his wife?’ rejoined Sir Felix with an impudent swagger. He had struck the blow certainly hard enough, and it had gone all the way home. She had not surmised that he would have heard aught of her own concerns. She only barely connected him with that Roger Carbury who, she knew, was Paul’s great friend, and she had as yet never heard that Hetta Carbury was the girl whom Paul loved. Had Paul so talked about her that this young scamp should know all her story?

She thought awhile — she had to think for a moment — before she could answer him. ‘I do not see,’ she said, with a faint attempt at a smile, ‘that there is any parallel between the two cases. I, at any rate, am old enough to take care of myself. Should he not marry me, I am as I was before. Will it be so with that poor girl if she allows herself to be taken about the town by you at night?’ She had desired in what she said to protect Ruby rather than herself. What could it matter whether this young man was left in a belief that she was, or that she was not, about to be married?

‘If you’ll answer me, I’ll answer you,’ said Sir Felix. ‘Does Mr Montague mean to make you his wife?’

‘It does not concern you to know,’ said she, flashing upon him. ‘The question is insolent.’

‘It does concern me — a great deal more than anything about Ruby can concern you. And as you won’t answer me, I won’t answer you.’

‘Then, sir, that girl’s fate will be upon your head.’

‘I know all about that,’ said the baronet.

‘And the young man who has followed her up to town will probably know where to find you,’ added Mrs Hurtle.

To such a threat as this, no answer could be made, and Sir Felix left the room. At any rate, John Crumb was not there at present. And were there not policemen in London? And what additional harm would be done to John Crumb, or what increase of danger engendered in that true lover’s breast, by one additional evening’s amusement? Ruby had danced with him so often at the Music Hall that John Crumb could hardly be made more bellicose by the fact of her dining with him on this evening. When he descended, he found Ruby in the hall, all arrayed. ‘You don’t come in here again to-night,’ said Mrs Pipkin, thumping the little table which stood in the passage, ‘if you goes out of that there door with that there young man.’

‘Then I shall,’ said Ruby linking herself on to her lover’s arm.

‘Baggage! Slut!’ said Mrs Pipkin; ‘after all I’ve done for you, just as one as though you were my own flesh and blood.’

‘I’ve worked for it, I suppose; — haven’t I?’ rejoined Ruby.

‘You send for your things to-morrow, for you don’t come in here no more. You ain’t nothing to me no more nor no other girl. But I’d ‘ve saved you, if you’d but a’ let me. As for you,’— and she looked at Sir Felix — ‘only because I’ve lodgings to let, and because of the lady upstairs, I’d shake you that well, you’d never come here no more after poor girls.’ I do not think that she need have feared any remonstrance from Mrs Hurtle, even had she put her threat into execution.

Sir Felix, thinking that he had had enough of Mrs Pipkin and her lodger, left the house with Ruby on his arm. For the moment, Ruby had been triumphant, and was happy. She did not stop to consider whether her aunt would or would not open her door when she should return tired, and perhaps repentant. She was on her lover’s arm, in her best clothes, and going out to have a dinner given to her. And her lover had told her that he had ever so many things — ever so many things to say to her! But she would ask no impertinent questions in the first hour of her bliss. It was so pleasant to walk with him up to Pentonville; — so joyous to turn into a gay enclosure, half public-house and half tea-garden; so pleasant to hear him order the good things, which in his company would be so nice! Who cannot understand that even an urban Rosherville must be an Elysium to those who have lately been eating their meals in all the gloom of a small London underground kitchen? There we will leave Ruby in her bliss.

At about nine that evening John Crumb called at Mrs Pipkin’s, and was told that Ruby had gone out with Sir Felix Carbury. He hit his leg a blow with his fist, and glared out of his eyes. ‘He’ll have it hot some day,’ said John Crumb. He was allowed to remain waiting for Ruby till midnight, and then, with a sorrowful heart, he took his departure.

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