A week passed over Mr Crosbie’s head at Courcy Castle without much inconvenience to him from the well-known fact of his matrimonial engagement. Both George de Courcy and John de Courcy had in their different ways charged him with his offence, and endeavoured to annoy him by recurring to the subject; but he did not care much for the wit or malice of George or John de Courcy. The countess had hardly alluded to Lily Dale after those few words which she said on the first day of his visit, and seemed perfectly willing to regard his doings at Allington as the occupation natural to a young man in such a position. He had been seduced down to a dull country house, and had, as a matter of course, taken to such amusements as the place afforded. He had shot the partridges and made love to the young lady, taking those little recreations as compensation for the tedium of the squire’s society. Perhaps he had gone a little too far with the young lady; but then no one knew better than the countess how difficult it is for a young man to go far enough without going too far. It was not her business to make herself a censor on a young man’s conduct. The blame, no doubt, rested quite as much with Miss Dale as with him. She was quite sorry that any young lady should be disappointed; but if girls will be imprudent, and set their caps at men above their mark, they must encounter disappointment. With such language did Lady de Courcy speak of the affair among her daughters, and her daughters altogether agreed with her that it was out of the question that Mr Crosbie should marry Lily Dale. From Alexandrina he encountered during the week none of that raillery which he had expected. He had promised to explain to her before he left the castle all the circumstances of his acquaintance with Lily, and she at last showed herself determined to demand the fulfilment of this promise; but, previous to that, she said nothing to manifest either offence or a lessened friendship. And I regret to say, that in the intercourse which had taken place between them, that friendship was by no means less tender that it had been in London.
“And when will you tell me what you promised?” she asked him one afternoon, speaking in a low voice, as they were standing together at the window of the billiard-room, in that idle half-hour which always occurs before the necessity for dinner preparation has come. She had been riding and was still in her habit, and he had returned from shooting. She knew that she looked more than ordinarily well in her tall straight hat and riding gear, and was wont to hang about the house, walking skilfully with her upheld drapery, during this period of the day. It was dusk, but not dark, and there was no artificial light in the billiard-room. There had been some pretence of knocking about the balls, but it had been only pretence.
“Even Diana,” she had said, “could not have played billiards in a habit. “Then she had put down her mace, and they had stood talking together in the recess of a large bow-window.
“And what did I promise?” said Crosbie.
“You know well enough. Not that it is a matter of any special interest to me; only, as you undertook to promise, of course my curiosity has been raised.”
“If it be of no special interest” said Crosbie, “you will not object to absolve me from my promise.”
“That is just like you,” she said. “And how false you men always are. You made up your mind to buy my silence on a distasteful subject by pretending to offer me your future confidence; and now you tell me that you do not mean to confide in me.”
“You begin by telling me that the matter is one that does not in the least interest you.”
“That is so false again! You know very well what I meant. Do you remember what you said to me the day you came? and am I not bound to tell you after that, that your marriage with this or that young lady is not matter of special interest to me? Still, as your friend —”
“Well, as my friend!”
“I shall be glad to know — But I am not going to beg for your confidence; only I tell you this fairly, that no man is so mean in my eyes as a man who fights under false colours.”
“And am I fighting under false colours?”
“Yes, you are.” And now, as she spoke, the Lady Alexandrina blushed beneath her hat; and dull as was the remaining light of the evening, Crosbie, looking into her face, saw her heightened colour.
“Yes, you are. A gentleman is fighting under false colours who comes into a house like this, with a public rumour of his being engaged, and then conducts himself as though nothing of the kind existed. Of course, it is not anything to me specially; but that is fighting under false colours. Now, sir, you may redeem the promise you made me when you first came here — or you may let it alone.”
It must be acknowledged that the lady was fighting her battle with much courage, and also with some skill. In three or four days Crosbie would be gone; and this victory, if it were ever to be gained, must be gained in those three or four days. And if there were to be no victory, then it would be only fair that Crosbie should be punished for his duplicity, and that she should be avenged as far as any revenge might be in her power. Not that she meditated any deep revenge, or was prepared to feel any strong anger. She liked Crosbie as well as she had ever liked any man. She believed that he liked her also. She had no conception of any very strong passion, but conceived that a married life was more pleasant than one of single bliss. She had no doubt that he had promised to make Lily Dale his wife, but so had he previously promised her, or nearly so. It was a fair game, and she would win it if she could. If she failed, she would show her anger; but she would show it in a mild, weak manner — turning up her nose at Lily before Crosbie’s face, and saying little things against himself behind his back. Her wrath would not carry her much beyond that.
“Now, sir, you may redeem the promise you made me when you first came here — or you may let it alone.” So she spoke, and then she turned her face away from him, gazing out into the darkness.
“Alexandrina!” he said.
“Well, sir? But you have no right to speak to me in that style. You know that you have no right to call me by my name in that way!”
“You mean that you insist upon your title?”
“All ladies insist on what you call their title, from gentlemen, except under the privilege of greater intimacy than you have the right to claim. You did not call Miss Dale by her Christian name till you had obtained permission, I suppose?”
“You used to let me call you so.”
“Never! Once or twice, when you have done so, I have not forbidden it, as I should have done. Very well, sir, as you have nothing to tell me, I will leave you. I must confess that I did not think you were such a coward.” And she prepared to go, gathering up the skirts of her habit, and taking up the whip which she had laid on the window-sill.
“Stay a moment, Alexandrina,” he said;
“I am not happy, and you should not say words intended to make me more miserable.”
“And why are you unhappy?”
“Because I will tell you instantly, if I may believe that I am telling you only, and not the whole household.”
“Of course I shall not talk of it to others. Do you think that I cannot keep a secret?”
“It is because I have promised to marry one woman, and because I love another. I have told you everything now; and if you choose to say again that I am fighting under false colours I will leave the castle before you can see me again.”
“Now you know it all, and may imagine whether or no I am very happy. I think you said it was time to dress — suppose we go?” And without further speech the two went off to their separate rooms.
Crosbie, as soon as he was alone in his chamber, sat himself down in his arm-chair, and went to work striving to make up his mind as to his future conduct. It must not be supposed that the declaration just made by him had been produced solely by his difficulty at the moment. The atmosphere of Courcy Castle had been at work upon him for the last week past. And every word that he had heard, and every word that he had spoken, had tended to destroy all that was good and true within him, and to foster all that was selfish and false. He had said to himself a dozen times during that week that he never could be happy with Lily Dale, and that he never could make her happy. And then he had used the old sophistry in his endeavour to teach himself that it was right to do that which he wished to do. Would it not be better for Lily that he should desert her, than marry her against the dictates of his own heart? And if he really did not love her, would he not be committing a greater crime in marrying her than in deserting her? He confessed to himself that he had been very wrong in allowing the outer world to get such a hold upon him, that the love of a pure girl like Lily could not suffice for his happiness. But there was the fact, and he found himself unable to contend against it. If by any absolute self-sacrifice he could secure Lily’s well-being, he would not hesitate for a moment. But would it be well to sacrifice her as well as himself?
He had discussed the matter in this way within his own breast, till he had almost taught himself to believe that it was his duty to break off his engagement with Lily; and he had also almost taught himself to believe that a marriage with a daughter of the house of Courcy, would satisfy his ambition and assist him in his battle with the world. That Lady Alexandrina would accept him he felt certain, if he could only induce her to forgive him for his sin in becoming engaged to Miss Dale. How very prone she would be to forgiveness in this matter, he had not divined, having not as yet learned how easily such a woman can forgive such a sin, if the ultimate triumph be accorded to herself.
And there was another reason which operated much with Crosbie, urging him on in his present mood and wishes, though it should have given an exactly opposite impulse to his heart. He had hesitated as to marrying Lily Dale at once, because of the smallness of his income. Now he had a prospect of considerable increase to that income. One of the commissioners at his office had been promoted to some greater commissionership, and it was understood by everybody that the secretary at the General Committee Office would be the new commissioner. As to that there was no doubt. But then the question had arisen as to the place of secretary. Crosbie had received two or three letters on the subject, and it seemed that the likelihood of his obtaining this step in the world was by no means slight. It would increase his official income from seven hundred a year to twelve, and would place him altogether above the world. His friend, the present secretary, had written to him, assuring him that no other probable competitor was spoken of as being in the field against him. If such good fortune awaited him, would it not smooth any present difficulty which lay in the way of his marriage with Lily Dale? But, alas, he had not looked at the matter in that light! Might not the countess help him to this preferment? And if his destiny intended for him the good things of this world — secretaryships, commissionerships, chairmanships, and such like, would it not be well that he should struggle on in his upward path by such assistance as good connections might give him?
He sat thinking over it all in his own room on that evening. He had written twice to Lily since his arrival at Courcy Castle. His first letter has been given. His second was written much in the same tone; though Lily, as she had read it, had unconsciously felt somewhat less satisfied than she had been with the first. Expressions of love were not wanting, but they were vague and without heartiness. They savoured of insincerity, though there was nothing in the words themselves to convict them. Few liars can lie with the full roundness and self-sufficiency of truth; and Crosbie, bad as he was, had not yet become bad enough to reach that perfection. He had said nothing to Lily of the hopes of promotion which had been opened to him; but he had again spoken of his own worldliness — acknowledging that he received an unsatisfying satisfaction from the pomps and vanities of Courcy Castle. In fact he was paving the way for that which he had almost resolved that he would do, now he had told Lady Alexandrina that he loved her; and he was obliged to confess to himself that the die was cast.
As he thought of all this, there was not wanting to him some of the satisfaction of an escape. Soon after making that declaration of love at Allington he had begun to feel that in making it he had cut his throat. He had endeavoured to persuade himself that he could live comfortably with his throat cut in that way; and as long as Lily was with him he would believe that he could do so; but as soon as he was again alone he would again accuse himself of suicide. This was his frame of mind even while he was yet at Allington, and his ideas on the subject had become stronger during his sojourn at Courcy. But the self-immolation had not been completed, and he now began to think that he could save himself. I need hardly say that this was not all triumph to him. Even had there been no material difficulty as to his desertion of Lily — no uncle, cousin, and mother whose anger he must face — no vision of a pale face, more eloquent of wrong in its silence than even uncle, cousin, and mother, with their indignant storm of words — he was not altogether heartless. How should he tell all this to the girl who had loved him so well; who had so loved him, that, as he himself felt, her love would fashion all her future life either for weal or for woe?
“I am unworthy of her, and will tell her so,” he said to himself. How many a false hound of a man has endeavoured to salve his own conscience by such mock humility? But he acknowledged at this moment, as he rose from his seat to dress himself, that the die was cast, and that it was open to him now to say what he pleased to Lady Alexandrina.
“Others have gone through the same fire before,” he said to himself, as he walked downstairs, “and have come out scatheless.” And then he recalled to himself the names of various men of high repute in the world who were supposed to have committed in their younger days some such little mistake as that into which he had been betrayed.
In passing through the hail he overtook Lady Julia de Guest, and was in time to open for her the door of the drawing-room. He then remembered that she had come into the billiard-room at one side, and had gone out at the other, while he was standing with Alexandrina at the window. He had not, however, then thought much of Lady Julia; and as he now stood for her to pass by him through the door-way, he made to her some indifferent remark.
But Lady Julia was on some subjects a stern woman, and not without a certain amount of courage. In the last week she had seen what had been going on, and had become more and more angry. Though she had disowned any family connection with Lily Dale, nevertheless she now felt for her sympathy and almost affection. Nearly every day she had repeated stiffly to the countess some incident of Crosbie’s courtship and engagement to Miss Dale — speaking of it as with absolute knowledge, as a thing settled at all points. This she had done to the countess alone, in the presence of the countess and Alexandrina, and also before all the female guests of the castle. But what she had said was received simply with an incredulous smile.
“Dear me! Lady Julia,” the countess had replied at last,
“I shall begin to think you are in love with Mr Crosbie yourself; you harp so constantly on this affair of his. One would think that young ladies in your part of the world must find it very difficult to get husbands, seeing that the success of one young lady is trumpeted so loudly.” For the moment, Lady Julia was silenced; but it was not easy to silence her altogether when she had a subject for speech near her heart.
Almost all the Courcy world were assembled in the drawing-room as she now walked into the room with Crosbie at her heels. When she found herself near the crowd she turned round, and addressed him in a voice more audible than that generally required for purposes of drawing-room conversation.
“Mr Crosbie,” she said, “have you heard lately from our dear friend, Lily Dale?” And she looked him full in the face, in a manner more significant, probably, than even she had intended it to be. There was, at once, a general hush in the room, and all eyes were turned upon her and upon him.
Crosbie instantly made an effort to bear the attack gallantly, but he felt that he could not quite command his colour, or prevent a sudden drop of perspiration from showing itself upon his brow.
“I had a letter from Allington yesterday,” he said.
“I suppose you have heard of your brother’s encounter with the bull?
“The bull!” said Lady Julia. And it was instantly manifest to all that her attack had been foiled and her flank turned.
“Good gracious! Lady Julia, how very odd you are!” said the countess.
“But what about the bull?” asked the Honourable George.
“It seems that the earl was knocked down in the middle of one of his own fields.”
“Oh, dear!” exclaimed Alexandrina. And sundry other exclamations were made by all the assembled ladies.
“But he wasn’t hurt,” said Crosbie.
“A young man named Eames seems to have fallen from the sky and carried off the earl on his back.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha!” growled the other earl, as he heard of the discomfiture of his brother peer.
Lady Julia, who had received her own letters that day from Guestwick, knew that nothing of importance had happened to her brother; but she felt that she was foiled for that time.
“I hope that there has not really been any accident,” said Mr Gazebee, with a voice of great solicitude.
“My brother was quite well last night, thank you,” said she. And then the little groups again formed themselves, and Lady Julia was left alone on the corner of a sofa.
“Was that all an invention of yours, sir?” said Alexandrina to Crosbie.
“Not quite. I did get a letter this morning from my friend Bernard Dale — that old harridan’s nephew; and Lord de Guest has been worried by some of his animals. I wish I had told her that his stupid old neck had been broken.”
“Fie, Mr Crosbie!”
“What business has she to interfere with me?
“But I mean to ask the same question that she asked, and you won’t put me off with a cock-and-bull story like that.” But then, as she was going to ask the question, dinner was announced.
“And is it true that De Guest has been tossed by a bull?” said the earl, as soon as the ladies were gone. He had spoken nothing during dinner except what words he had muttered into the ear of Lady Dumbello. It was seldom that conversation had many charms for him in his own house; but there was a savour of pleasantry in the idea of Lord de Guest having been tossed, by which even he was tickled. “Only knocked down, I believe,” said Crosbie.
“Ha, ha, ha!” growled the earl; then he filled his glass, and allowed some one else to pass the bottle. Poor man! There was not much left to him now in the world which did amuse him.
“I don’t see anything to laugh at,” said Plantagenet Palliser, who was sitting at the earl’s right hand, opposite to Lord Dumbello.
“Don’t you?” said the earl.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“I’ll be shot if I do. From all I hear De Guest is an uncommon good farmer. And I don’t see the joke of tossing a farmer merely because he’s a nobleman also. Do you?” and he turned round to Mr Gazebee, who was sitting on the other side. The earl was an earl, and was also Mr Gazebee’s father-in-law. Mr Plantagenet Palliser was the heir to a dukedom. Therefore, Mr Gazebee merely simpered, and did not answer the question put to him. Mr Palliser said nothing more about it, nor did the earl; and then the joke died away.
Mr Plantagenet Palliser was the Duke of Omnium’s heir — heir to that nobleman’s title and to his enormous wealth; and, therefore, was a man of mark in the world. He sat in the House of Commons, of course. He was about five-and-twenty years of age, and was, as yet, unmarried. He did not hunt or shoot or keep a yacht, and had been heard to say that he had never put a foot upon a race-course in his life. He dressed very quietly, never changing the colour or form of his garments; and in society was quiet, reserved, and very often silent. He was tall, slight, and not ill-looking; but more than this cannot be said for his personal appearance — except, indeed, this, that no one could mistake him for other than a gentleman. With his uncle, the duke, he was on good terms — that is to say, they had never quarrelled. A very liberal allowance had been made to the nephew; but the two relatives had no tastes in common, and did not often meet. Once a year Mr Palliser visited the duke at his great country seat for two or three days, and usually dined with him two or three times during the season in London. Mr Palliser sat for a borough which was absolutely under the duke’s command; but had accepted his seat under the distinct understanding that he was to take whatever part in politics might seem good to himself. Under these well-understood arrangements, the duke and his heir showed to the world quite a pattern of a happy family.
“So different to the earl and Lord Porlock!” the people of West Barsetshire used to say. For the estates, both of the duke and of the earl, were situated in the western division of that county.
Mr Palliser was chiefly known to the world as a rising politician. We may say that he had everything at his command, in the way of pleasure, that the world could offer him. He had wealth, position, power, and the certainty of attaining the highest rank among, perhaps, the most brilliant nobility of the world. He was courted by all who could get near enough to court him. It is hardly too much to say that he might have selected a bride from all that was most beautiful and best among English women. If he would have bought race-horses, and have expended thousands on the turf, he would have gratified his uncle by doing so. He might have been the master of hounds, or the slaughterer of hecatombs of birds. But to none of these things would he devote himself. He had chosen to be a politician, and in that pursuit he laboured with a zeal and perseverance which would have made his fortune at any profession or in any trade. He was constant in committee-rooms up to the very middle of August. He was rarely absent from any debate of importance, and never from any important division. Though he seldom spoke, he was always ready to speak if his purpose required it. No man gave him credit for any great genius — few even considered that he could become either an orator or a mighty statesman. But the world said that he was a rising man, and old Nestor of the Cabinet looked on him as one who would be able, at some far future day, to come among them as a younger brother. Hitherto he had declined such inferior offices as had been offered to him, biding his time carefully; and he was as yet tied hand and neck to no party, though known to be liberal in all his political tendencies. He was a great reader — not taking up a book here, and another there, as chance brought books before him, but working through an enormous course of books, getting up the great subject of the world’s history — filling himself full of facts — though perhaps not destined to acquire the power of using those facts otherwise than as precedents. He strove also diligently to become a linguist — not without success, as far as a competent understanding of various languages. He was a thin-minded, plodding, respectable man, willing to devote all his youth to work, in order that in old age he might be allowed to sit among the Councillors of the State.
Hitherto his name had not been coupled by the world with that of any woman whom he had been supposed to admire; but latterly it had been observed that he had often been seen in the same room with Lady Dumbello. It had hardly amounted to more than this; but when it was remembered how undemonstrative were the two persons concerned — how little disposed was either of them to any strong display of feeling — even this was thought matter to be mentioned. He certainly would speak to her from time to time almost with an air of interest; and Lady Dumbello, when she saw that he was in the room, would be observed to raise her head with some little show of life, and to look round as though there were something there on which it might be worth her while to allow her eyes to rest. When such innuendoes were abroad, no one would probably make more of them than Lady de Courcy. Many, when they heard that Mr Palliser was to be at the castle, had expressed their surprise at her success in that quarter. Others, when they learned that Lady Dumbello had consented to become her guest, had also wondered greatly. But when it was ascertained that the two were to be there together, her good-natured friends had acknowledged that she was a very clever woman. To have either Mr Palliser or Lady Dumbello would have been a feather in her cap; but to succeed in getting both, by enabling each to know that the other would be there, was indeed a triumph. As regards Lady Dumbello, however, the bargain was not fairly carried out; for, after all, Mr Palliser came to Courcy Castle only for two nights and a day, and during the whole of that day he was closeted with sundry large blue-books. As for Lady de Courcy, she did not care how he might be employed. Blue-books and Lady Dumbello were all the same to her. Mr Palliser had been at Courcy Castle, and neither enemy nor friend could deny the fact.
This was his second evening; and as he had promised to meet his constituents at Silverbridge at one p.m. on the following day, with the view of explaining to them his own conduct and the political position of the world in general; and as he was not to return from Silverbridge to Courcy, Lady Dumbello, if she made any way at all, must take advantage of the short gleam of sunshine which the present hour afforded her. No one, however, could say that she showed any active disposition to monopolise Mr Palliser’s attention. When he sauntered into the drawing-room she was sitting, alone, in a large, low chair, made without arms, so as to admit the full expansion of her dress, but hollowed and round at the back, so as to afford her the support that was necessary to her. She had barely spoken three words since she had left the dining-room, but the time had not passed heavily with her. Lady Julia had again attacked the countess about Lily Dale and Mr Crosbie, and Alexandrina, driven almost to rage, had stalked off to the farther end of the room, not concealing her special concern in the matter.
“How I do wish they were married and done with,” said the countess; “and then we should hear no more about them.”
All of which Lady Dumbello heard and understood; and in all of it she took a certain interest. She remembered such things, learning thereby who was who, and regulating her own conduct by what she learned. She was by no means idle at this or at other such times, going through, we may say, a considerable amount of really hard work in her manner of working. There she had sat speechless, unless when acknowledging by a low word of assent some expression of flattery from those around her. Then the door opened, and when Mr Palliser entered she raised her head, and the faintest possible gleam of satisfaction might have been discerned upon her features. But she made no attempt to speak to him; and when, as he stood at the table, he took up a book and remained thus standing for a quarter of an hour, she neither showed nor felt any impatience. After that Lord Dumbello came in, and he stood at the table without a book. Even then Lady Dumbello felt no impatience.
Plantagenet Palliser skimmed through his little book, and probably learned something. When he put it down he sipped a cup of tea, and remarked to Lady de Courcy that he believed it was only twelve miles to Silverbridge.
“I wish it was a hundred and twelve,” said the countess.
“In that case I should be forced to start to-night,” said Mr Palliser.
“Then I wish it was a thousand and twelve,” said Lady de Courcy.
“In that case I should not have come at all,” said Mr Palliser. He did not mean to be uncivil, and had only stated a fact.
“The young men are becoming absolute bears,” said the countess to her daughter Margaretta.
He had been in the room nearly an hour when he did at last find himself standing close to Lady Dumbello: close to her, and without any other very near neighbour.
“I should hardly have expected to find you here,” he said.
“Nor I you,” she answered.
“Though, for the matter of that, we are both near our own homes.”
“I am not near mine.”
“I meant Plumstead; your father’s place.”
“Yes; that was my home once.”
“I wish I could show you my uncle’s place. The castle is very fine, and he has some good pictures.”
“So I have heard.”
“Do you stay here long?”
“Oh, no. I go to Cheshire the day after tomorrow. Lord Dumbello is always there when the hunting begins.”
“Ah, yes; of course. What a happy fellow he is; never any work to do! His constituents never trouble him, I suppose?
“I don’t think they ever do, much.”
After that Mr Palliser sauntered away again, and Lady Dumbello passed the rest of the evening in silence. It is to be hoped that they both were rewarded by that ten minutes of sympathetic intercourse for the inconvenience which they had suffered in coming to Courcy Castle.
But that which seems so innocent to us had been looked on in a different light by the stern moralists of that house.
“By Jove!” said the Honourable George to his cousin, Mr Gresham,
“I wonder how Dumbello likes it.”
“It seems to me that Dumbello takes it very easily.”
“There are some men who will take anything easily,” said George, who, since his own marriage, had learned to have a holy horror of such wicked things.
“She’s beginning to come out a little,” said Lady Clandidlem to Lady de Courcy, when the two old women found themselves together over a fire in some back sitting-room.
“Still waters always run deep, you know.”
“I shouldn’t at all wonder if she were to go off with him,” said Lady de Courcy.
“He’ll never be such a fool as that,” said Lady Clandidlem.
“I believe men will be fools enough for anything,” said Lady de Courcy.
“But, of course, if he did, it would come to nothing afterwards. I know one who would not be sorry. If ever a man was tired of a woman, Lord Dumbello is tired of her.”
But in this, as in almost everything else, the wicked old woman spoke scandal. Lord Dumbello was still proud of his wife, and as fond of her as a man can be of a woman whose fondness depends upon mere pride.
There had not been much that was dangerous in the conversation between Mr Palliser and Lady Dumbello, but I cannot say the same as to that which was going on at the same moment between Crosbie and Lady Alexandrina. She, as I have said, walked away in almost open dudgeon when Lady Julia recommenced her attack about poor Lily, nor did she return to the general circle during the evening. There were two huge drawing-rooms at Courcy Castle, joined together by a narrow link of a room, which might have been called a passage, ha it not been lighted by two windows coming down to the floor, carpeted as were the drawing-rooms, and warmed with a separate fireplace. Hither she betook herself, and was soon followed by her married sister Amelia.
“That woman almost drives me mad,” said Alexandrina, as they stood together with their toes upon the fender.
“But, my dear, you of all people should not allow yourself to be driven mad on such a subject.”
“That’s all very well, Amelia.”
“The question is this, my dear — what does Mr Crosbie mean to do?”
“How should I know?”
“If you don’t know, it will be safer to suppose that he is going to marry this girl; and in that case —”
“Well, what in that case? Are you going to be another Lady Julia? What do I care about the girl?”
“I don’t suppose you care much about the girl; and if you care as little about Mr Crosbie, there’s an end of it; only in that case, Alexandrina —”
“Well, what in that case?
“You know I don’t want to preach to you. Can’t you tell me at once whether you really like him? You and I have always been good friends.” And the married sister put her arm affectionately round the waist of her who wished to be married.
“I like him well enough.”
“And has he made any declaration to you?”
“In a sort of a way he has. Hark, here he is!” And Crosbie, coming in from the larger room, joined the sisters at the fireplace.
“We were driven away by the clack of Lady Julia’s tongue,” said the elder.
“I never met such a woman,” said Crosbie.
“There cannot well be many like her,” said Alexandrina. And after that they all stood silent for a minute or two. Lady Amelia Gazebee was considering whether or no she would do well to go and leave the two together. If it were intended that Mr Crosbie should marry her sister, it would certainly be well to give him an opportunity of expressing such a wish on his own part. But if Alexandrina was simply making a fool of herself, then it would be well for her to stay.
“I suppose she would rather I should go,” said the elder sister to herself; and then, obeying the rule which should guide all our actions from one to another, she went back and joined the crowd.
“Will you come on into the other room?” said Crosbie. “I think we are very well here,” Alexandrina replied.
“But I wish to speak to you — particularly,” said he.
“And cannot you speak here?”
“No. They will be passing backwards and forwards.” Lady Alexandrina said nothing further, but led the way into the other large room. That also was lighted, and there were in it four or live persons. Lady Rosina was reading a work on the millennium, with a light to herself in one corner. Her brother John was asleep in an arm-chair, and a young gentleman and lady were playing chess. There was, however, ample room for Crosbie and Alexandrina to take up a position apart.
“And now, Mr Crosbie, what have you got to say to me? But, first, I mean to repeat Lady Julia’s question, as I told you that I should do. — When did you hear last from Miss Dale?”
“It is cruel in you to ask me such a question, after what I have already told you. You know that I have given to Miss Dale a promise of marriage.”
“Very well, sir. I don’t see why you should bring me in here to tell me anything that is so publicly known as that. With such a herald as Lady Julia it was quite unnecessary.”
“If you can only answer me in that tone I will make an end of it at once. When I told you of my engagement, I told you also that another woman possessed my heart. Am I wrong to suppose that you knew to whom I alluded?”
“Indeed, I did not, Mr Crosbie. I am no conjuror, and I have not scrutinised you so closely as your friend Lady Julia.”
“It is you that I love. I am sure I need hardly say so now.”
“Hardly, indeed — considering that you are engaged to Miss Dale.”
“As to that I have, of course, to own that I have behaved foolishly — worse than foolishly, if you choose to say so. You cannot condemn me more absolutely than I condemn myself. But I have made up my mind as to one thing. I will not marry where I do not love.” Oh, if Lily could have heard him as he then spoke!
“It would be impossible for me to speak in terms too high of Miss Dale; but I am quite sure that I could not make her happy as her husband.”
“Why did you not think of that before you asked her?” said Alexandrina. But there was very little of condemnation in her tone.
“I ought to have done so; but it is hardly for you to blame me with severity. Had you, when we were last together in London — had you been less —”
“Less defiant,” said Crosbie, “all this might perhaps have been avoided.”
Lady Alexandrina could not remember that she had been defiant; but, however, she let that pass.
“Oh, yes; of course it was my fault.”
“I went down there to Allington with my heart ill at ease, and now I have fallen into this trouble. I tell you all as it has happened. It is impossible that I should marry Miss Dale. It would be wicked in me to do so, seeing that my heart belongs altogether to another. I have told you who is that other; and now may I hope for an answer?”
“An answer to what?”
“Alexandrina, will you be my wife?”
If it had been her object to bring him to a point-blank declaration and proposition of marriage, she had certainly achieved her object now. And she had that trust in her own power of management and in her mother’s, that she did not fear that in accepting him she would incur the risk of being served as he was serving Lily Dale. She knew her own position and his too well for that. If she accepted him she would in due course of time become his wife — let Miss Dale and all her friends say what they might to the contrary. As to that head she had no fear. But nevertheless she did not accept him at once. Though she wished for the prize, her woman’s nature hindered her from taking it when it was offered to her.
“How long is it, Mr Crosbie,” she said, “since you put the same question to Miss Dale?”
“I have told you everything, Alexandrina — as I promised that I would do. If you intend to punish me for doing so —”
“And I might ask another question. How long will it be before you put the same question to some other girl?”
He turned round as though to walk away from her in anger but when he had gone half the distance to the door he returned.
“By heaven!” he said, and he spoke somewhat roughly, too, “I’ll have an answer. You at any rate have nothing with which to reproach me. All that I have done wrong, I have done through you, or on your behalf. You have heard my proposal. Do you intend to accept it?”
“I declare you startle me. If you demanded my money or my life, you could not be more imperious.”
“Certainly not more resolute in my determination.”
“And if I decline the honour?”
“I shall think you the most fickle of your sex.”
“And if I were to accept it?”
“I would swear that you were the best, the dearest, and the sweetest of women.”
“I would rather have your good opinion than your bad, certainly,” said Lady Alexandrina. And then it was understood by both of them that that affair was settled. Whenever she was called on in future to speak of Lily, she always called her, “that poor Miss Dale;” but she never again spoke a word of reproach to her future lord about that little adventure.
“I shall tell mamma, to-night,” she said to him, as she bade him good-night in some sequestered nook to which they had betaken themselves. Lady Julia’s eye was again on them as they came out from the sequestered nook, but Alexandrina no longer cared for Lady Julia.
“George, I cannot quite understand about that Mr Palliser. Isn’t he to be a duke, and oughtn’t he to be a lord now?” This question was asked by Mrs George de Courcy of her husband, when they found themselves together in the seclusion of the nuptial chamber.
“Yes; he’ll be Duke of Omnium when the old fellow dies. I think he’s one of the slowest fellows I ever came across. He’ll take deuced good care of the property, though.”
“But, George, do explain it to me. It is so stupid not to understand, and I am afraid of opening my mouth for fear of blundering.”
“Then keep your mouth shut, my dear. You’ll learn all those sort of things in time, and nobody notices it if you don’t say anything.”
“Yes, but, George — I don’t like to sit silent all the night. I’d sooner be up here with a novel if I can’t speak about anything.”
“Look at Lady Dumbello. She doesn’t want to be always talking.”
“Lady Dumbello is very different from me. But do tell me, who is Mr Palliser?
“He’s the duke’s nephew. If he were the duke’s son, he would be the Marquis of Silverbridge.”
“And will he be plain Mister till his uncle dies?”
“Yes, a very plain Mister.”
“What a pity for him. But, George — if I have a baby, and if he should be a boy, and if —”
“Oh, nonsense; it will be time enough to talk of that when he comes. I’m going to sleep.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55