The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXII

‘Ask Himself’

Roger Carbury when he received the letter from Hetta’s mother desiring him to tell her all that he knew of Paul Montague’s connection with Mrs Hurtle found himself quite unable to write a reply. He endeavoured to ask himself what he would do in such a case if he himself were not personally concerned. What advice in this emergency would he give to the mother and what to the daughter, were he himself uninterested? He was sure that, as Hetta’s cousin and asking as though he were Hetta’s brother, he would tell her that Paul Montague’s entanglement with that American woman should have forbidden him at any rate for the present to offer his hand to any other lady. He thought that he knew enough of all the circumstances to be sure that such would be his decision. He had seen Mrs Hurtle with Montague at Lowestoft, and had known that they were staying together as friends at the same hotel. He knew that she had come to England with the express purpose of enforcing the fulfilment of an engagement which Montague had often acknowledged. He knew that Montague made frequent visits to her in London. He had, indeed, been told by Montague himself that, let the cost be what it might, the engagement should be and in fact had been broken off. He thoroughly believed the man’s word, but put no trust whatever in his firmness. And, hitherto, he had no reason whatever for supposing that Mrs Hurtle had consented to be abandoned. What father, what elder brother would allow a daughter or a sister to become engaged to a man embarrassed by such difficulties? He certainly had counselled Montague to rid himself of the trammels by which he had surrounded himself; — but not on that account could he think that the man in his present condition was fit to engage himself to another woman.

All this was clear to Roger Carbury. But then it had been equally clear to him that he could not, as a man of honour, assist his own cause by telling a tale — which tale had become known to him as the friend of the man against whom it would have to be told. He had resolved upon that as he left Montague and Mrs Hurtle together upon the sands at Lowestoft. But what was he to do now? The girl whom he loved had confessed her love for the other man — that man, who in seeking the girl’s love, had been as he thought so foul a traitor to himself! That he would hold himself as divided from the man by a perpetual and undying hostility he had determined. That his love for the woman would be equally perpetual he was quite sure. Already there were floating across his brain ideas of perpetuating his name in the person of some child of Hetta’s — but with the distinct understanding that he and the child’s father should never see each other. No more than twenty-four hours had intervened between the receipt of Paul’s letter and that from Lady Carbury — but during those four-and-twenty hours he had almost forgotten Mrs Hurtle. The girl was gone from him, and he thought only of his own loss and of Paul’s perfidy. Then came the direct question as to which he was called upon for a direct answer. Did he know anything of facts relating to the presence of a certain Mrs Hurtle in London which were of a nature to make it inexpedient that Hetta should accept Paul Montague as her betrothed lover? Of course he did. The facts were all familiar to him. But how was he to tell the facts? In what words was he to answer such a letter? If he told the truth as he knew it how was he to secure himself against the suspicion of telling a story against his rival in order that he might assist himself, or at any rate, punish the rival?

As he could not trust himself to write an answer to Lady Carbury’s letter he determined that he would go to London. If he must tell the story he could tell it better face to face than by any written words. So he made the journey, arrived in town late in the evening, and knocked at the door in Welbeck Street between ten and eleven on the morning after the unfortunate meeting which took place between Sir Felix and John Crumb. The page when he opened the door looked as a page should look when the family to which he is attached is suffering from some terrible calamity. ‘My lady’ had been summoned to the hospital to see Sir Felix who was — as the page reported — in a very bad way indeed. The page did not exactly know what had happened, but supposed that Sir Felix had lost most of his limbs by this time. Yes; Miss Carbury was upstairs; and would no doubt see her cousin, though she, too, was in a very bad condition; and dreadfully put about. That poor Hetta should be ‘put about’ with her brother in the hospital and her lover in the toils of an abominable American woman was natural enough.

‘What’s this about Felix?’ asked Roger. The new trouble always has precedence over those which are of earlier date.

‘Oh Roger, I am so glad to see you. Felix did not come home last night, and this morning there came a man from the hospital in the city to say that he is there.’

‘What has happened to him?’

‘Somebody — somebody has — beaten him,’ said Hetta whimpering. Then she told the story as far as she knew it. The messenger from the hospital had declared that the young man was in no danger and that none of his bones were broken, but that he was terribly bruised about the face, that his eyes were in a frightful condition, sundry of his teeth knocked out, and his lips cut open. But, the messenger had gone on to say, the house surgeon had seen no reason why the young gentleman should not be taken home. ‘And mamma has gone to fetch him,’ said Hetta.

‘That’s John Crumb,’ said Roger. Hetta had never heard of John Crumb, and simply stared into her cousin’s face. ‘You have not been told about John Crumb? No; — you would not hear of him.’

‘Why should John Crumb beat Felix like that?’

‘They say, Hetta, that women are the cause of most troubles that occur in the world.’ The girl blushed up to her eyes, as though the whole story of Felix’s sin and folly had been told to her. ‘If it be as I suppose,’ continued Roger, ‘John Crumb has considered himself to be aggrieved and has thus avenged himself.’

‘Did you — know of him before?’

‘Yes indeed; — very well. He is a neighbour of mine and was in love with a girl, with all his heart; and he would have made her his wife and have been good to her. He had a home to offer her, and is an honest man with whom she would have been safe and respected and happy. Your brother saw her and, though he knew the story, though he had been told by myself that this honest fellow had placed his happiness on the girl’s love, he thought — well, I suppose he thought that such a pretty thing as this girl was too good for John Crumb.’

‘But Felix has been going to marry Miss Melmotte!’

‘You’re old-fashioned, Hetta. It used to be the way — to be off with your old love before you are on with the new; but that seems to be all changed now. Such fine young fellows as there are now can be in love with two at once. That I fear is what Felix has thought; — and now he has been punished.’

‘You know all about it then?’

‘No; — I don’t know. But I think it has been so. I do know that John Crumb had threatened to do this thing, and I felt sure that sooner or later he would be as good as his word. If it has been so, who is to blame him?’

Hetta as she heard the story hardly knew whether her cousin, in his manner of telling the story, was speaking of that other man, of that stranger of whom she had never heard, or of himself. He would have made her his wife and have been good to her. He had a home to offer her. He was an honest man with whom she would have been safe and respected and happy! He had looked at her while speaking as though it were her own case of which he spoke. And then, when he talked of the old-fashioned way, of being off with the old love before you are on with the new, had he not alluded to Paul Montague and this story of the American woman? But, if so, it was not for Hetta to notice it by words. He must speak more plainly than that before she could be supposed to know that he alluded to her own condition. ‘It is very shocking,’ she said.

‘Shocking; — yes. One is shocked at it all. I pity your mother, and I pity you.’

‘It seems to me that nothing ever will be happy for us,’ said Hetta. She was longing to be told something of Mrs Hurtle, but she did not as yet dare to ask the question.

‘I do not know whether to wait for your mother or not,’ said he after a short pause.

‘Pray wait for her if you are not very busy.’

‘I came up only to see her, but perhaps she would not wish me to be here when she brings Felix back to the house.’

‘Indeed she will. She would like you always to be here when there are troubles. Oh, Roger, I wish you could tell me.’

‘Tell you what?’

‘She has written to you; — has she not?’

‘Yes; she has written to me.’

‘And about me?’

‘Yes; — about you, Hetta. And, Hetta, Mr Montague has written to me also.’

‘He told me that he would,’ whispered Hetta.

‘Did he tell you my answer?’

‘No; — he has told me of no answer. I have not seen him since.’

‘You do not think that it can have been very kind, do you? I also have something of the feeling of John Crumb, though I shall not attempt to show it after the same fashion.’

‘Did you not say the girl had promised to love that man?’

‘I did not say so; — but she had promised. Yes, Hetta; there is a difference. The girl then was fickle and went back from her word. You never have done that. I am not justified in thinking even a hard thought of you. I have never harboured a hard thought of you. It is not you that I reproach. But he — he has been if possible more false than Felix.’

‘Oh, Roger, how has he been false?’

Still he was not wishful to tell her the story of Mrs Hurtle. The treachery of which he was speaking was that which he had thought had been committed by his friend towards himself. ‘He should have left the place and never have come near you,’ said Roger, ‘when he found how it was likely to be with him. He owed it to me not to take the cup of water from my lips.’

How was she to tell him that the cup of water never could have touched his lips? And yet if this were the only falsehood of which he had to tell, she was bound to let him know that it was so. That horrid story of Mrs Hurtle; — she would listen to that if she could hear it. She would be all ears for that. But she could not admit that her lover had sinned in loving her. ‘But, Roger,’ she said — ‘it would have been the same.’

‘You may say so. You may feel it. You may know it. I at any rate will not contradict you when you say that it must have been so. But he didn’t feel it. He didn’t know it. He was to me as a younger brother — and he has robbed me of everything. I understand, Hetta, what you mean. I should never have succeeded! My happiness would have been impossible if Paul had never come home from America. I have told myself so a hundred times, but I cannot therefore forgive him. And I won’t forgive him, Hetta. Whether you are his wife, or another man’s, or whether you are Hetta Carbury on to the end, my feeling to you will be the same. While we both live, you must be to me the dearest creature living. My hatred to him —’

‘Oh, Roger, do not say hatred.’

‘My hostility to him can make no difference in my feeling to you. I tell you that should you become his wife you will still be my love. As to not coveting — how is a man to cease to covet that which he has always coveted? But I shall be separated from you. Should I be dying, then I should send for you. You are the very essence of my life. I have no dream of happiness otherwise than as connected with you. He might have my whole property and I would work for my bread, if I could only have a chance of winning you to share my toils with me.’

But still there was no word of Mrs Hurtle. ‘Roger,’ she said, ‘I have given it all away now. It cannot be given twice.’

‘If he were unworthy would your heart never change?’

‘I think — never. Roger, is he unworthy?’

‘How can you trust me to answer such a question? He is my enemy. He has been ungrateful to me as one man hardly ever is to another. He has turned all my sweetness to gall, all my flowers to bitter weeds; he has choked up all my paths. And now you ask me whether he is unworthy! I cannot tell you.’

‘If you thought him worthy you would tell me,’ she said, getting up and taking him by the arm.

‘No; — I will tell you nothing. Go to some one else, not to me;’ and he tried with gentleness but tried ineffectually to disengage himself from her hold.

‘Roger, if you knew him to be good you would tell me, because you yourself are so good. Even though you hated him you would say so. It would not be you to leave a false impression even against your enemies. I ask you because, however it may be with you, I know I can trust you. I can be nothing else to you, Roger; but I love you as a sister loves, and I come to you as a sister comes to a brother. He has my heart. Tell me; — is there any reason why he should not also have my hand?’

‘Ask himself, Hetta.’

‘And you will tell me nothing? You will not try to save me though you know that I am in danger? Who is — Mrs Hurtle?’

‘Have you asked him?’

‘I had not heard her name when he parted from me. I did not even know that such a woman lived. Is it true that he has promised to marry her? Felix told me of her, and told me also that you knew. But I cannot trust Felix as I would trust you. And mamma says that it is so; — but mamma also bids me ask you. There is such a woman?’

‘There is such a woman certainly.’

‘And she has been — a friend of Paul’s?’

‘Whatever be the story, Hetta, you shall not hear it from me. I will say neither evil nor good of the man except in regard to his conduct to myself. Send for him and ask him to tell you the story of Mrs Hurtle as it concerns himself. I do not think he will lie, but if he lies you will know that he is lying.’

‘And that is all?’

‘All that I can say, Hetta. You ask me to be your brother; — but I cannot put myself in the place of your brother. I tell you plainly that I am your lover, and shall remain so. Your brother would welcome the man whom you would choose as your husband. I can never welcome any husband of yours. I think if twenty years were to pass over us, and you were still Hetta Carbury, I should still be your lover — though an old one. What is now to be done about Felix, Hetta?’

‘Ah what can be done? I think sometimes that it will break mamma’s heart.’

‘Your mother makes me angry by her continual indulgence.’

‘But what can she do? You would not have her turn him into the street?’

‘I do not know that I would not. For a time it might serve him perhaps. Here is the cab. Here they are. Yes; you had better go down and let your mother know that I am here. They will perhaps take him up to bed, so that I need not see him.’

Hetta did as she was bid, and met her mother and her brother in the hall. Felix having the full use of his arms and legs was able to descend from the cab, and hurry across the pavement into the house, and then, without speaking a word to his sister, hid himself in the dining-room. His face was strapped up with plaister so that not a feature was visible; and both his eyes were swollen and blue; part of his beard had been cut away, and his physiognomy had altogether been so treated that even the page would hardly have known him. ‘Roger is upstairs, mamma,’ said Hetta in the hall.

‘Has he heard about Felix; — has he come about that?’

‘He has heard only what I have told him. He has come because of your letter. He says that a man named Crumb did it.’

‘Then he does know. Who can have told him? He always knows everything. Oh, Hetta, what am I to do? Where shall I go with this wretched boy?’

‘Is he hurt, mamma?’

‘Hurt; — of course he is hurt; horribly hurt. The brute tried to kill him. They say that he will be dreadfully scarred for ever. But oh, Hetta; — what am I to do with him? What am I to do with myself and you?’

On this occasion Roger was saved from the annoyance of any personal intercourse with his cousin Felix. The unfortunate one was made as comfortable as circumstances would permit in the parlour, and Lady Carbury then went up to her cousin in the drawing-room. She had learned the truth with some fair approach to accuracy, though Sir Felix himself had of course lied as to every detail. There are some circumstances so distressing in themselves as to make lying almost a necessity. When a young man has behaved badly about a woman, when a young man has been beaten without returning a blow, when a young man’s pleasant vices are brought directly under a mother’s eyes, what can he do but lie? How could Sir Felix tell the truth about that rash encounter? But the policeman who had brought him to the hospital had told all that he knew. The man who had thrashed the baronet had been Crumb, and the thrashing had been given on the score of a young woman called Ruggles. So much was known at the hospital, and so much could not be hidden by any lies which Sir Felix might tell. And when Sir Felix swore that a policeman was holding him while Crumb was beating him, no one believed him. In such cases the liar does not expect to be believed. He knows that his disgrace will be made public, and only hopes to be saved from the ignominy of declaring it with his own words.

‘What am I to do with him?’ Lady Carbury said to her cousin. ‘It is no use telling me to leave him. I can’t do that. I know he is bad. I know that I have done much to make him what he is.’ As she said this the tears were running down her poor worn cheeks. ‘But he is my child. What am I to do with him now?’

This was a question which Roger found it almost impossible to answer. If he had spoken his thoughts he would have declared that Sir Felix had reached an age at which, if a man will go headlong to destruction, he must go headlong to destruction. Thinking as he did of his cousin he could see no possible salvation for him. ‘Perhaps I should take him abroad,’ he said.

‘Would he be better abroad than here?’

‘He would have less opportunity for vice, and fewer means of running you into debt.’

Lady Carbury, as she turned this counsel in her mind, thought of all the hopes which she had indulged — her literary aspirations, her Tuesday evenings, her desire for society, her Brounes, her Alfs, and her Bookers, her pleasant drawing-room, and the determination which she had made that now in the afternoon of her days she would become somebody in the world. Must she give it all up and retire to the dreariness of some French town because it was no longer possible that she should live in London with such a son as hers? There seemed to be a cruelty in this beyond all cruelties that she had hitherto endured. This was harder even than those lies which had been told of her when almost in fear of her life she had run from her husband’s house. But yet she must do even this if in no other way she and her son could be together. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I suppose it would be so. I only wish that I might die, so that were an end of it.’

‘He might go out to one of the Colonies,’ said Roger.

‘Yes; — be sent away that he might kill himself with drink in the bush, and so be got rid of. I have heard of that before. Wherever he goes I shall go.’

As the reader knows, Roger Carbury had not latterly held this cousin of his in much esteem. He knew her to be worldly and he thought her to be unprincipled. But now, at this moment, her exceeding love for the son whom she could no longer pretend to defend, wiped out all her sins. He forgot the visit made to Carbury under false pretences, and the Melmottes, and all the little tricks which he had detected, in his appreciation of an affection which was pure and beautiful. ‘If you like to let your house for a period,’ he said, ‘mine is open to you.’

‘But, Felix?’

‘You shall take him there. I am all alone in the world. I can make a home for myself at the cottage. It is empty now. If you think that would save you you can try it for six months.’

‘And turn you out of your own house? No, Roger. I cannot do that. And, Roger; — what is to be done about Hetta?’ Hetta herself had retreated, leaving Roger and her mother alone together, feeling sure that there would be questions asked and answered in her absence respecting Mrs Hurtle, which her presence would prevent. She wished it could have been otherwise — that she might have been allowed to hear it all herself — as she was sure that the story coming through her mother would not savour so completely of unalloyed truth as if told to her by her cousin Roger.

‘Hetta can be trusted to judge for herself,’ he said.

‘How can you say that when she has just accepted this young man? Is it not true that he is even now living with an American woman whom he has promised to marry?’

‘No; — that is not true.’

‘What is true then? Is he not engaged to the woman?’ Roger hesitated a moment. ‘I do not know that even that is true. When last he spoke to me about it he declared that the engagement was at an end. I have told Hetta to ask himself. Let her tell him that she has heard of this woman from you, and that it behoves her to know the truth. I do not love him, Lady Carbury. He has no longer any place in my friendship. But I think that if Hetta asks him simply what is the nature of his connexion with Mrs Hurtle, he will tell her the truth.’

Roger did not again see Hetta before he left the house, nor did he see his cousin Felix at all. He had now done all that he could do by his journey up to London, and he returned on that day back to Carbury. Would it not be better for him, in spite of the protestations which he had made, to dismiss the whole family from his mind? There could be no other love for him. He must be desolate and alone. But he might then save himself from a world of cares, and might gradually teach himself to live as though there were no such woman as Hetta Carbury in the world. But no! He would not allow himself to believe that this could be right. The very fact of his love made it a duty to him — made it almost the first of his duties — to watch over the interests of her he loved and of those who belonged to her.

But among those so belonging he did not recognise Paul Montague.

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