Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

“It is Impossible”

The absence of Dr and Mrs Wortle was peculiarly unfortunate on that afternoon, as a visitor rode over from a distance to make a call — a visitor whom they both would have been very glad to welcome, but of whose coming Mrs Wortle was not so delighted to hear when she was told by Mary that he had spent two or three hours at the rectory. Mrs Wortle began to think whether the visitor could have known of her intended absence and the Doctor’s. That Mary had not known that the visitor was coming she was quite certain. Indeed she did not really suspect the visitor, who was one too ingenuous in his nature to preconcert so subtle and so wicked a scheme. The visitor, of course, had been Lord Carstairs.

“Was he here long?” asked Mrs Wortle anxiously.

“Two or three hours, mamma. He rode over from Buttercup where he is staying, for a cricket match, and of course I got him some lunch.”

“I should hope so,” said the Doctor. But I didn’t think that Carstairs was so fond of the Momson lot as all that.”

Mrs Wortle at once doubted the declared purpose of this visit to Buttercup. Buttercup was more than half-way between Carstairs and Bowick.

“And then we had a game of lawn-tennis. Talbot and Monk came through to make up sides.” So much Mary told at once, but she did not tell more till she was alone with her mother.

Young Carstairs had certainly not come over on the sly, as we may call it, but nevertheless there had been a project in his mind, and fortune had favoured him. He was now about nineteen, and had been treated for the last twelve months almost as though he had been a man. It had seemed to him that there was no possible reason why he should not fall in love as well as another. Nothing more sweet, nothing more lovely, nothing more lovable than Mary Wortle had he ever seen. He had almost made up his mind to speak on two or three occasions before he left Bowick; but either his courage or the occasion had failed him. Once, as he was walking home with her from church, he had said one word — but it had amounted to nothing. She had escaped from him before she was bound to understand what he meant. He did not for a moment suppose that she had understood anything. He was only too much afraid that she regarded him as a mere boy. But when he had been away from Bowick two months he resolved that he would not be regarded as a mere boy any longer. Therefore he took an opportunity of going to Buttercup, which he certainly would not have done for the sake of the Momsons or for the sake of the cricket.

He ate his lunch before he said a word, and then, with but poor grace, submitted to the lawn-tennis with Talbot and Monk. Even to his youthful mind it seemed that Talbot and Monk were brought in on purpose. They were both of them boys he had liked, but he hated them now. However, he played his game, and when that was over, managed to get rid of them, sending them back through the gate to the school-ground.

“I think I must say goodbye now,” said Mary, because there are ever so many things in the house which I have got to do.”

“I am going almost immediately,” said the young lord.

“Papa will be so sorry not to have seen you.” This had been said once or twice before.

“I came over”, he said, on purpose to see you. They were now standing on the middle of the lawn, and Mary had assumed a look which intended to signify that she expected him to go. He knew the place well enough to get his own horse, or to order the groom to get it for him. But instead of that, he stood his ground, and now declared his purpose.

“To see me, Lord Carstairs!”

“Yes, Miss Wortle. And if the Doctor had been here, or your mother, I should have told them.”

“Have told them what?” she asked. She knew; she felt sure that she knew; and yet she could not refrain from the question.

“I have come here to ask if you can love me.”

It was a most decided way of declaring his purpose, and one which made Mary feel that a great difficulty was at once thrown upon her. She really did not know whether she could love him or not. Why shouldn’t she have been able to love him? Was it not natural enough that she should be able? But she knew that she ought not to love him, whether able or not. There were various reasons which were apparent enough to her though it might be very difficult to make him see them. He was little more than a boy, and had not yet finished his education. His father and mother would not expect him to fall in love, at any rate till he had taken his degree. And they certainly would not expect him to fall in love with the daughter of his tutor. She had an idea that, circumstanced as she was, she was bound by loyalty both to her own father and to the lad’s father not to be able to love him. She thought that she would find it easy enough to say that she did not love him; but that was not the question. As for being able to love him — she could not answer that at all.

“Lord Carstairs, she said, severely, you ought not to have come here when papa and mamma are away.”

“I didn’t know they were away. I expected to find them here.”

“But they ain’t. And you ought to go away.”

“Is that all you can say to me?”

“I think it is. You know you oughtn’t to talk to me like that. Your own papa and mamma would be angry if they knew it.”

“Why should they be angry? Do you think that I shall not tell them?”

“I am sure they would disapprove it altogether,” said Mary. “In fact it is all nonsense, and you really must go away.”

Then she made a decided attempt to enter the house by the drawing-room window, which opened out on a gravel terrace.

But he stopped her, standing boldly by the window. “I think you ought to give me an answer, Mary,” he said.

“I have; and I cannot say anything more. You must let me go in.”

“If they say that it’s all right at Carstairs, then will you love me?”

“They won’t say that it’s all right; and papa won’t think that it’s right. It’s very wrong. You haven’t been to Oxford yet, and you’ll have to remain there for three years. I think it’s very ill-natured of you to come and talk to me like this. Of course it means nothing. You are only a boy, but yet you ought to know better.”

“It does mean something. It means a great deal. As for being a boy, I am older than you are, and have quite as much right to know my own mind.”

Hereupon she took advantage of some little movement in his position, and, tripping by him hastily, made good her escape into the house. Young Carstairs, perceiving that his occasion for the present was over, went into the yard and got upon his horse. He was by no means contented with what he had done, but still he thought that he must have made her understand his purpose.

Mary, when she found herself safe within her own room, could not refrain from asking herself the question which her lover had asked her. “Could she love him?” She didn’t see any reason why she couldn’t love him. It would be very nice, she thought, to love him. He was sweet-tempered, handsome, bright, and thoroughly good-humoured; and then his position in the world was very high. Not for a moment did she tell herself that she would love him. She did not understand all the differences in the world’s ranks quite as well as did her father, but still she felt that because of his rank — because of his rank and his youth combined — she ought not to allow herself to love him. There was no reason why the son of a peer should not marry the daughter of a clergyman. The peer and the clergyman might be equally gentlemen. But young Carstairs had been there in trust. Lord Bracy had sent him there to be taught Latin and Greek, and had a right to expect that he should not be encouraged to fall in love with his tutor’s daughter. It was not that she did not think herself good enough to be loved by any young lord, but that she was too good to bring trouble on the people who had trusted her father. Her father would despise her were he to hear that she had encouraged the lad, or as some might say, had entangled him. She did not know whether she should not have spoken to Lord Carstairs more decidedly. But she could, at any rate, comfort herself with the assurance that she had given him no encouragement. Of course she must tell it all to her mother, but in doing so could declare positively that she had given the young man no encouragement.

“It was very unfortunate that Lord Carstairs should have come just when I was away,” said Mrs Wortle to her daughter as soon as they were alone together.

“Yes, mamma; it was.”

“And so odd. I haven’t been away from home any day all the summer before.”

“He expected to find you.”

“Of course he did. Had he anything particular to say?”

“Yes, mamma.”

“He had? What was it, my dear?”

“I was very much surprised, mamma, but I couldn’t help it. He asked me — ”

“Asked you what, Mary?”

“Oh, mamma!” Here she knelt down and hid her face in her mother’s lap.

“Oh, my dear, this is very bad — very bad indeed.”

“It needn’t be bad for you, mamma; or for papa.”

“Is it bad for you, my child?”

“No, mamma; except of course that I am sorry that it should be so.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Of course I told him that it was impossible. He is only a boy, and I told him so.”

“You made him no promise?”

“No, mamma; no! A promise! Oh dear no! Of course it is impossible. I knew that. I never dreamed of anything of the kind; but he said it all there out on the lawn.”

“Had he come on purpose?”

“Yes — so he said. I think he had. But he will go to Oxford, and will of course forget it.”

“He is such a nice boy,” said Mrs Wortle, who, in all her anxiety, could not but like the lad the better for having fallen in love with her daughter.

“Yes, mamma; he is. I always liked him. But this is quite out of the question. What would his papa and mamma say?”

“It would be very dreadful to have a quarrel, wouldn’t it — and just at present, when there are so many things to trouble your papa.” Though Mrs Wortle was quite honest and true in the feeling she had expressed as to the young lord’s visit, yet she was alive to the glory of having a young lord for her son-in-law.

“Of course it is out of the question, mamma. It has never occurred to me for a moment as otherwise. He has got to go to Oxford and take his degree before he thinks of such a thing. I shall be quite an old woman by that time, and he will have forgotten me. You may be sure, mamma, that whatever I did say to him was quite plain. I wish you could have been here and heard it all, and seen it all.”

“My darling,” said the mother, embracing her, I could not believe you more thoroughly even though I saw it all, and heard it all.”

That night Mrs Wortle felt herself constrained to tell the whole story to her husband. It was indeed impossible for her to keep any secret from her husband. When Mary, in her younger years, had torn her frock or cut her finger, that was always told to the Doctor. If a gardener was seen idling his time, or a housemaid flirting with the groom, that certainly would be told to the Doctor. What comfort does a woman get out of her husband unless she may be allowed to talk to him about everything? When it had been first proposed that Lord Carstairs should come into the house as a private pupil she had expressed her fear to the Doctor — because of Mary. The Doctor had ridiculed her fears, and this had been the result. Of course she must tell the Doctor. “Oh, dear,” she said, what do you think has happened while we were up in London?”

“Carstairs was here.”

“Oh, yes; he was here. He came on purpose to make a regular declaration of love to Mary.”

“Nonsense.”

“But he did, Jeffrey.”

“How do you know he came on purpose?”

“He told her so.”

“I did not think the boy had so much spirit in him,” said the Doctor. This was a way of looking at it which Mrs Wortle had not expected. Her husband seemed rather to approve than otherwise of what had been done. At any rate, he had expressed none of that loud horror which she had expected. “Nevertheless,” continued the Doctor, “he’s a stupid fool for his pains.”

“I don’t know that he is a fool,” said Mrs Wortle.

“Yes; he is. He is not yet twenty, and he has all Oxford before him. How did Mary behave?”

“Like an angel,” said Mary’s mother.

“That’s of course. You and I are bound to believe so. But what did she do, and what did she say?”

“She told him that it was simply impossible.”

“So it is — I’m afraid. She at any rate was bound to give him no encouragement.”

“She gave him none. She feels quite strongly that it is altogether impossible. What would Lord Bracy say?”

“If Carstairs were but three or four years older,” said the Doctor, proudly, “Lord Bracy would have much to be thankful for in the attachment on the part of his son, if it were met by a return of affection on the part of my daughter. What better could he want?”

“But he is only a boy,” said Mrs Wortle.

“No; that’s where it is. And Mary was quite right to tell him that it is impossible. It is impossible. And I trust, for her sake, that his words have not touched her young heart.”

“Oh, no,” said Mrs Wortle.

“Had it been otherwise how could we have been angry with the child?”

Now this did seem to the mother to be very much in contradiction to that which the Doctor had himself said when she had whispered to him that Lord Carstairs’s coming might be dangerous. “I was afraid of it, as you know,” said she.

“His character has altered during the last twelve months.”

“I suppose when boys grow into men it is so with them.”

“Not so quickly,” said the Doctor. A boy when he leaves Eton is not generally thinking of these things.”

“A boy at Eton is not thrown into such society,” said Mrs Wortle.

“I suppose his being here and seeing Mary every day has done it. Poor Mary!”

“I don’t think she is poor at all,” said Mary’s mother.

“I am afraid she must not dream of her young lover.”

“Of course she will not dream of him. She has never entertained any idea of the kind. There never was a girl with less nonsense of that kind than Mary. When Lord Carstairs spoke to her today I do not suppose she had thought about him more than any other boy that has been here.”

“But she will think now.”

“No — not in the least. She knows it is impossible.”

“Nevertheless she will think about it. And so will you.”

“I!”

“Yes — why not? Why should you be different from other mothers? Why should I not think about it as other fathers might do? It is impossible. I wish it were not. For Mary’s sake, I wish he were three or four years older. But he is as he is, and we know that it is impossible. Nevertheless, it is natural that she should think about him. I only hope that she will not think about him too much.” So saying he closed the conversation for that night.

Mary did not think very much about “it” in such a way as to create disappointment. She at once realised the impossibilities, so far as to perceive that the young lord was the top brick of the chimney as far as she was concerned. The top brick of the chimney may be very desirable, but one doesn’t cry for it, because it is unattainable. Therefore Mary did not in truth think of loving her young lover. He had been to her a very nice boy; and so he was still; that — that, and nothing more. Then had come this little episode in her life which seemed to lend it a gentle tinge of romance. But had she inquired of her bosom she would have declared that she had not been in love. With her mother there was perhaps something of regret. But it was exactly the regret which may be felt in reference to the top brick. It would have been so sweet had it been possible; but then it was so evidently impossible.

With the Doctor the feeling was somewhat different. It was not quite so manifest to him that this special brick was altogether unattainable, nor even that it was quite at the top of the chimney. There was no reason why his daughter should not marry an earl’s son and heir. No doubt the lad had been confided to him in trust. No doubt it would have been his duty to have prevented anything of the kind, had anything of the kind seemed to him to be probable. Had there been any moment in which the duty had seemed to him to be a duty, he would have done it, even though it had been necessary to caution the Earl to take his son away from Bowick. But there had been nothing of the kind. He had acted in the simplicity of his heart, and this had been the result. Of course it was impossible. He acknowledged to himself that it was so, because of the necessity of those Oxford studies and those long years which would be required for the taking of the degree. But to his thinking there was no other ground for saying that it was impossible. The thing must stand as it was. If this youth should show himself to be more constant than other youths — which was not probable — and if, at the end of three or four years, Mary should not have given her heart to any other lover — which was also improbable — why, then, it might come to pass that he should some day find himself father-in-law to the future Earl Bracy. Though Mary did not think of it, nor Mrs Wortle, he thought of it — so as to give an additional interest to these disturbed days.

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