The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XCI

The Rivals

During these days the intercourse between Lady Carbury and her daughter was constrained and far from pleasant. Hetta, thinking that she was ill-used, kept herself aloof, and would not speak to her mother of herself or of her troubles. Lady Carbury watching her, but not daring to say much, was at last almost frightened at her girl’s silence. She had assured herself, when she found that Hetta was disposed to quarrel with her lover and to send him back his brooch, that ‘things would come round,’ that Paul would be forgotten quickly — or laid aside as though he were forgotten — and that Hetta would soon perceive it to be her interest to marry her cousin. With such a prospect before her, Lady Carbury thought it to be her duty as a mother to show no tendency to sympathize with her girl’s sorrow. Such heart-breakings were occurring daily in the world around them. Who were the happy people that were driven neither by ambition, nor poverty, nor greed, nor the cross purposes of unhappy love, to stifle and trample upon their feelings? She had known no one so blessed. She had never been happy after that fashion. She herself had within the last few weeks refused to join her lot with that of a man she really liked, because her wicked son was so grievous a burden on her shoulders. A woman, she thought, if she were unfortunate enough to be a lady without wealth of her own, must give up everything, her body, her heart — her very soul if she were that way troubled — to the procuring of a fitting maintenance for herself. Why should Hetta hope to be more fortunate than others? And then the position which chance now offered to her was fortunate. This cousin of hers, who was so devoted to her, was in all respects good. He would not torture her by harsh restraint and cruel temper. He would not drink. He would not spend his money foolishly. He would allow her all the belongings of a fair, free life. Lady Carbury reiterated to herself the assertion that she was manifestly doing a mother’s duty by her endeavours to constrain her girl to marry such a man. With a settled purpose she was severe and hard. But when she found how harsh her daughter could be in response to this — how gloomy, how silent, and how severe in retaliation — she was almost frightened at what she herself was doing. She had not known how stern and how enduring her daughter could be. ‘Hetta,’ she said, ‘why don’t you speak to me?’ On this very day it was Hetta’s purpose to visit Mrs Hurtle at Islington. She had said no word of her intention to any one. She had chosen the Friday because on that day she knew her mother would go in the afternoon to her publisher. There should be no deceit. Immediately on her return she would tell her mother what she had done. But she considered herself to be emancipated from control. Among them they had robbed her of her lover. She had submitted to the robbery, but she would submit to nothing else. ‘Hetta, why don’t you speak to me?’ said Lady Carbury.

‘Because, mamma, there is nothing we can talk about without making each other unhappy.’

‘What a dreadful thing to say! Is there no subject in the world to interest you except that wretched young man?’

‘None other at all,’ said Hetta obstinately.

‘What folly it is — I will not say only to speak like that, but to allow yourself to entertain such thoughts!’

‘How am I to control my thoughts? Do you think, mamma, that after I had owned to you that I loved a man — after I had owned it to him and, worst of all, to myself — I could have myself separated from him, and then not think about it? It is a cloud upon everything. It is as though I had lost my eyesight and my speech. It is as it would be to you if Felix were to die. It crushes me.’

There was an accusation in this allusion to her brother which the mother felt — as she was intended to feel it — but to which she could make no reply. It accused her of being too much concerned for her son to feel any real affection for her daughter. ‘You are ignorant of the world, Hetta,’ she said.

‘I am having a lesson in it now, at any rate,’

‘Do you think it is worse than others have suffered before you? In what little you see around you do you think that girls are generally able to marry the men upon whom they set their hearts?’ She paused, but Hetta made no answer to this. ‘Marie Melmotte was as warmly attached to your brother as you can be to Mr Montague.’

‘Marie Melmotte!’

‘She thinks as much of her feelings as you do of yours. The truth is you are indulging a dream. You must wake from it, and shake yourself, and find out that you, like others, have got to do the best you can for yourself in order that you may live. The world at large has to eat dry bread, and cannot get cakes and sweetmeats. A girl, when she thinks of giving herself to a husband, has to remember this. If she has a fortune of her own she can pick and choose, but if she have none she must allow herself to be chosen.’

‘Then a girl is to marry without stopping even to think whether she likes the man or not?’

‘She should teach herself to like the man, if the marriage be suitable. I would not have you take a vicious man because he was rich, or one known to be cruel and imperious. Your cousin Roger, you know —’

‘Mamma,’ said Hetta, getting up from her seat, ‘you may as well believe me. No earthly inducement shall ever make me marry my cousin Roger. It is to me horrible that you should propose it to me when you know that I love that other man with my whole heart.’

‘How can you speak so of one who has treated you with the utmost contumely?’

‘I know nothing of any contumely. What reasons have I to be offended because he has liked a woman whom he knew before he ever saw me? It has been unfortunate, wretched, miserable; but I do not know that I have any right whatever to be angry with Mr Paul Montague.’ Having so spoken she walked out of the room without waiting for a further reply.

It was all very sad to Lady Carbury. She perceived now that she had driven her daughter to pronounce an absolution of Paul Montague’s sins, and that in this way she had lessened and loosened the barrier which she had striven to construct between them. But that which pained her most was the unrealistic, romantic view of life which pervaded all Hetta’s thoughts. How was any girl to live in this world who could not be taught the folly of such idle dreams?

That afternoon Hetta trusted herself all alone to the mysteries of the Marylebone underground railway, and emerged with accuracy at King’s Cross. She had studied her geography, and she walked from thence to Islington. She knew well the name of the street and the number at which Mrs Hurtle lived. But when she reached the door she did not at first dare to stand and raise the knocker. She passed on to the end of the silent, vacant street, endeavouring to collect her thoughts, striving to find and to arrange the words with which she would commence her strange petition. And she endeavoured to dictate to herself some defined conduct should the woman be insolent to her. Personally she was not a coward, but she doubted her power of replying to a rough speech. She could at any rate escape. Should the worst come to the worst, the woman would hardly venture to impede her departure. Having gone to the end of the street, she returned with a very quick step and knocked at the door. It was opened almost immediately by Ruby Ruggles, to whom she gave her name.

‘Oh laws — Miss Carbury!’ said Ruby, looking up into the stranger’s face. Yes — sure enough she must be Felix’s sister. But Ruby did not dare to ask any question. She had admitted to all around her that Sir Felix should not be her lover any more, and that John Crumb should be allowed to return. But, nevertheless, her heart twittered as she showed Miss Carbury up to the lodger’s sitting-room.

Though it was midsummer Hetta entered the room with her veil down. She adjusted it as she followed Ruby up the stairs, moved by a sudden fear of her rival’s scrutiny. Mrs Hurtle rose from her chair and came forward to greet her visitor, putting out both her hands to do so. She was dressed with the most scrupulous care — simply, and in black, without an ornament of any kind, without a ribbon or a chain or a flower. But with some woman’s purpose at her heart she had so attired herself as to look her very best. Was it that she thought that she would vindicate to her rival their joint lover’s first choice, or that she was minded to teach the English girl that an American woman might have graces of her own? As she came forward she was gentle and soft in her movements, and a pleasant smile played round her mouth. Hetta, at the first moment, was almost dumbfounded by her beauty — by that and by her ease and exquisite self-possession. ‘Miss Carbury,’ she said with that low, rich voice which in old days had charmed Paul almost as much as her loveliness, ‘I need not tell you how interested I am in seeing you. May I not ask you to lay aside your veil, so that we may look at each other fairly?’ Hetta, dumbfounded, not knowing how to speak a word, stood gazing at the woman when she had removed her veil. She had had no personal description of Mrs Hurtle, but had expected something very different from this! She had thought that the woman would be coarse and big, with fine eyes and a bright colour. As it was they were both of the same complexion, both dark, with hair nearly black, with eyes of the same colour. Hetta thought of all that at the moment — but acknowledged to herself that she had no pretension to beauty such as that which this woman owned. ‘And so you have come to see me,’ said Mrs Hurtle. ‘Sit down so that I may look at you. I am glad that you have come to see me, Miss Carbury.’

‘I am glad at any rate that you are not angry.’

‘Why should I be angry? Had the idea been distasteful to me I should have declined. I know not why, but it is a sort of pleasure to me to see you. It is a poor time we women have — is it not — in becoming playthings to men? So this Lothario that was once mine, is behaving badly to you also. Is it so? He is no longer mine, and you may ask me freely for aid, if there be any that I can give you. If he were an American I should say that he had behaved badly to me; — but as he is an Englishman perhaps it is different. Now tell me; — what can I do, or what can I say?’

‘He told me that you could tell me the truth.’

‘What truth? I will certainly tell you nothing that is not true. You have quarrelled with him too. It is not so?’

‘Certainly I have quarrelled with him.’

‘I am not curious; — but perhaps you had better tell me of that. I know him so well that I can guess that he should give offence. He can be full of youthful ardour one day, and cautious as old age itself the next. But I do not suppose that there has been need for such caution with you. What is it, Miss Carbury?’

Hetta found the telling of her story to be very difficult.

‘Mrs Hurtle,’ she said, ‘I had never heard your name when he first asked me to be his wife.’

‘I dare say not. Why should he have told you anything of me?’

‘Because — oh, because —. Surely he ought, if it is true that he had once promised to marry you.’

‘That is certainly true.’

‘And you were here, and I knew nothing of it. Of course I should have been very different to him had I known that — that — that —’

‘That there was such a woman as Winifred Hurtle interfering with him. Then you heard it by chance, and you were offended. Was it not so?’

‘And now he tells me that I have been unjust to him and he bids me ask you. I have not been unjust.’

‘I am not so sure of that. Shall I tell you what I think? I think that he has been unjust to me, and that therefore your injustice to him is no more than his due. I cannot plead for him, Miss Carbury. To me he has been the last and worst of a long series of, I think, undeserved misfortune. But whether you will avenge my wrongs must be for you to decide.’

‘Why did he go with you to Lowestoft?’

‘Because I asked him — and because, like many men, he cannot be ill-natured although he can be cruel. He would have given a hand not to have gone, but he could not say me nay. As you have come here, Miss Carbury, you may as well know the truth. He did love me, but he had been talked out of his love by my enemies and his own friends long before he had ever seen you. I am almost ashamed to tell you my own part of the story, and yet I know not why I should be ashamed. I followed him here to England — because I loved him. I came after him, as perhaps a woman should not do, because I was true of heart. He had told me that he did not want me; — but I wanted to be wanted, and I hoped that I might lure him back to his troth. I have utterly failed, and I must return to my own country — I will not say a broken-hearted woman, for I will not admit of such a condition — but a creature with a broken spirit. He has misused me foully, and I have simply forgiven him; not because I am a Christian, but because I am not strong enough to punish one that I still love. I could not put a dagger into him — or I would; or a bullet — or I would. He has reduced me to a nothing by his falseness, and yet I cannot injure him! I, who have sworn to myself that no man should ever lay a finger on me in scorn without feeling my wrath in return, I cannot punish him. But if you choose to do so it is not for me to set you against such an act of justice.’ Then she paused and looked up to Hetta as though expecting a reply.

But Hetta had no reply to make. All had been said that she had come to hear. Every word that the woman had spoken had in truth been a comfort to her. She had told herself that her visit was to be made in order that she might be justified in her condemnation of her lover. She had believed that it was her intention to arm herself with proof that she had done right in rejecting him. Now she was told that however false her lover might have been to this other woman he had been absolutely true to her. The woman had not spoken kindly of Paul — had seemed to intend to speak of him with the utmost severity; but she had so spoken as to acquit him of all sin against Hetta. What was it to Hetta that her lover had been false to this American stranger? It did not seem to her to be at all necessary that she should be angry with her lover on that bead. Mrs Hurtle had told her that she herself must decide whether she would take upon herself to avenge her rival’s wrongs. In saying that, Mrs Hurtle had taught her to feel that there were no other wrongs which she need avenge. It was all done now. If she could only thank the woman for the pleasantness of her demeanour, and then go, she could, when alone, make up her mind as to what she would do next. She had not yet told herself she would submit herself again to Paul Montague. She had only told herself that, within her own breast, she was bound to forgive him. ‘You have been very kind,’ she said at last — speaking only because it was necessary that she should say something.

‘It is well that there should be some kindness where there has been so much that is unkind. Forgive me, Miss Carbury, if I speak plainly to you. Of course you will go back to him. Of course you will be his wife. You have told me that you love him dearly, as plainly as I have told you the same story of myself. Your coming here would of itself have declared it, even if I did not see your satisfaction at my account of his treachery to me.’

‘Oh, Mrs Hurtle, do not say that of me!’

‘But it is true, and I do not in the least quarrel with you on that account. He has preferred you to me, and as far as I am concerned there is an end of it. You are a girl, whereas I am a woman — and he likes your youth. I have undergone the cruel roughness of the world, which has not as yet touched you; and therefore you are softer to the touch. I do not know that you are very superior in other attractions; but that has sufficed, and you are the victor. I am strong enough to acknowledge that I have nothing to forgive in you; — and am weak enough to forgive all his treachery.’ Hetta was now holding the woman by the hand, and was weeping, she knew not why. ‘I am so glad to have seen you,’ continued Mrs Hurtle, ‘so that I may know what his wife was like. In a few days I shall return to the States, and then neither of you will ever be troubled further by Winifred Hurtle. Tell him that if he will come and see me once before I go, I will not be more unkind to him than I can help.’

When Hetta did not decline to be the bearer of this message she must have at any rate resolved that she would see Paul Montague again — and to see him would be to tell him that she was again his own. She now got herself quickly out of the room, absolutely kissing the woman whom she had both dreaded and despised. As soon as she was alone in the street she tried to think of it all. How full of beauty was the face of that American female — how rich and glorious her voice in spite of a slight taint of the well-known nasal twang; — and above all how powerful and at the same time how easy and how gracious was her manner! That she would be an unfit wife for Paul Montague was certain to Hetta, but that he or any man should have loved her and have been loved by her, and then have been willing to part from her, was wonderful. And yet Paul Montague had preferred herself, Hetta Carbury, to this woman! Paul had certainly done well for his own cause when he had referred the younger lady to the elder.

Of her own quarrel of course there must be an end. She had been unjust to the man, and injustice must of course be remedied by repentance and confession. As she walked quickly back to the railway station she brought herself to love her lover more fondly than she had ever done. He had been true to her from the first hour of their acquaintance. What truth higher than that has any woman a right to desire? No doubt she gave to him a virgin heart. No other man had ever touched her lips, or been allowed to press her hand, or to look into her eyes with unrebuked admiration. It was her pride to give herself to the man she loved after this fashion, pure and white as snow on which no foot has trodden. But, in taking him, all that she wanted was that he should be true to her now and henceforward. The future must be her own work. As to the ‘now,’ she felt that Mrs Hurtle had given her sufficient assurance.

She must at once let her mother know this change in her mind. When she re-entered the house she was no longer sullen, no longer anxious to be silent, very willing to be gracious if she might be received with favour — but quite determined that nothing should shake her purpose. She went at once into her mother’s room, having heard from the boy at the door that Lady Carbury had returned.

‘Hetta, wherever have you been?’ asked Lady Carbury.

‘Mamma,’ she said, ‘I mean to write to Mr Montague and tell him that I have been unjust to him.’

‘Hetta, you must do nothing of the kind,’ said Lady Carbury, rising from her seat.

‘Yes, mamma. I have been unjust, and I must do so.’

‘It will be asking him to come back to you.’

‘Yes, mamma:— that is what I mean. I shall tell him that if he will come, I will receive him. I know he will come. Oh, mamma, let us be friends, and I will tell you everything. Why should you grudge me my love?’

‘You have sent him back his brooch,’ said Lady Carbury hoarsely.

‘He shall give it me again. Hear what I have done. I have seen that American lady.’

‘Mrs Hurtle!’

‘Yes; — I have been to her. She is a wonderful woman.’

‘And she has told you wonderful lies.’

‘Why should she lie to me? She has told me no lies. She said nothing in his favour.’

‘I can well believe that. What can any one say in his favour?’

‘But she told me that which has assured me that Mr Montague has never behaved badly to me. I shall write to him at once. If you like I will show you the letter.’

‘Any letter to him, I will tear,’ said Lady Carbury, full of anger.

‘Mamma, I have told you everything, but in this I must judge for myself.’ Then Hetta, seeing that her mother would not relent, left the room without further speech, and immediately opened her desk that the letter might be written.

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