It was now the middle of January, and Gertrude Tringle had received no reply from her lover to the overture which she had made him. Nor, indeed, had she received any letter from him since that to which this overture had been a reply. It was now two months since her proposition had been made, and during that time her anger had waxed very hot against Mr Houston. After all, it might be a question whether Mr Houston was worth all the trouble which she, with her hundred thousand pounds, was taking on his behalf. She did not like the idea of abandoning him, because, by doing so, she would seem to yield to her father. Having had a young man of her own, it behoved her to stick to her young man in spite of her parents. But what is a girl to do with a lover who, at the end of two months, has made no reply to an offer from herself that he should run away with her, and take her to Ostend? She was in this frame of mind when, lo and behold, she found her own letter, still inclosed in her own envelope — but opened, and thrust in among her father’s papers. It was evident enough that the letter had never passed from out of the house. There had been treachery on the part of some servant — or perhaps her father might have condescended to search the little box — or, more probable still, Augusta had betrayed her! Then she reflected that she had communicated her purpose to her sister, that her sister had abstained from any questions since the letter had been written, and that her sister, therefore, no doubt, was the culprit. There, however, was the letter, which had never reached her lover’s hands, and, as a matter of course, her affections returned with all their full ardour to the unfortunate ill-used man. That her conduct was now watched would, she thought, be a matter of course. Her father knew her purpose, and, like stern parents in general, would use all his energies to thwart it. Sir Thomas had, in truth, thought but little about the matter since he had first thrust the letter away. Tom’s troubles, and the disgrace brought by them upon Travers and Treason generally, had so occupied his mind that he cared but little for Gertrude and her lover. But Gertrude had no doubt that she was closely watched, and in these circumstances was driven to think how she could best use her wits so as to countermine her father. To run away from Queen’s Gate would, she thought, be more difficult, and more uncomfortable, than to perform the same operation at Merle Park. It was intended that the family should remain in the country, at any rate, till Easter, and Gertrude resolved that there might yet be time for another effort before Easter should be past, if only she could avoid those hundred Argus eyes, which were, no doubt, fixed upon her from all sides.
She prepared another letter to her lover, which she addressed to him at his club in London. In this she told him nothing of her former project, except that a letter written by her in November had fallen in to the hands of enemies. Then she gave him to understand that there was need of the utmost caution; but that, if adequate caution were used, she did not doubt they might succeed. She said nothing about her great project, but suggested to him that he should run down into Sussex, and meet her at a certain spot indicated, outside the Park palings, half an hour after dusk. It might be, she said, impossible that the meeting should be effected, but she thought that she could so manage as to leave the house unwatched at the appointed hour. With the object of being especially safe she began and concluded her letter without any names, and then managed to deposit it herself in the box of the village post-office.
Houston, when he received this letter, at once made up his mind that he would not be found on the outer side of the Park palings on the evening named. He told himself that he was too old for the romance of love-making, and that should he be received, when hanging about in the dark, by some custodian with a cudgel, he would have nothing to thank but his own folly. He wrote back therefore to say that he regarded the outside of the Park palings as indiscreet, but that he would walk up through the lodge gate to the house at three o’clock in the afternoon of the day named, and he would take it as an additional mark of her favour if she would meet him on the road. Gertrude had sent him a mysterious address; he was to direct the letter to “O.P.Q., Post Office, Hastings,” and she was prepared to hire a country boy to act as Love’s messenger on the occasion. But of this instruction Frank took no notice, addressing the letter to Merle Park in the usual way.
Gertrude received her letter without notice from anyone. On that occasion Argus, with all his eyes, was by chance asleep. She was very angry with her lover — almost determined to reject him altogether, almost disposed to yield to her angry parents and look out for some other lover who might be accepted in better part; but still, when the day came she put on her hat and walked down the road towards the lodge.
As Fortune had it — Fortune altogether unfavourable to those perils for which her soul was longing — no one watched her, no one dogged her steps, no one took any notice of her, till she met Frank Houston when he had passed about a hundred yards through the gates. “And so you have come,” she said.
“Oh, yes; I have come. I was sure to come when I said so. No man is more punctual than I am in these matters. I should have come before — only I did not get your letter.”
“Well, my darling. You are looking uncommonly well, and I am so glad to see you. How are they all?”
“What is it?”
“Oh, Frank, what are we to do?”
“The governor will give way at last, I should say.”
“Never — that is while we are as we are now. If we were married — ”
“Ah — I wish we were! Wouldn’t it be nice?”
“Do you really think so?”
“Of course I do. I’m ready tomorrow for the matter of that.”
“But could you do something great?”
“Something great! As to earning my bread, you mean? I do not think I could do that. I didn’t turn my hand to it early enough.”
“I wasn’t thinking of — your bread.”
“You said — could I do something great?”
“Frank, I wrote you a letter and described it all. How I got the courage to do it I do not know. I feel as though I could not bring myself to say it now. I wonder whether you would have the courage.”
“I should say so. I don’t know quite what sort of thing it is; but I generally have pluck enough for anything in a common way.”
“This is something in an uncommon way.”
“I couldn’t break open Travers and Treason, and get at the safe, or anything in that way.”
“It is another sort of safe of which you must break the lock, Frank; another treasure you must steal. Do you not understand me?”
“Not in the least.”
“There is Tom,” said Gertrude. He is always wandering about the place now like a ghost. Let us go back to the gate.” Then Frank turned. “You heard, I suppose, of that dreadful affair about the policeman.”
“There was a row, I was told.”
“Did you feel that the family were disgraced?”
“Not in the least. He had to pay five shillings — hadn’t he — for telling a policeman to go about his business?”
“He was — locked up,” said Gertrude, solemnly.
“It’s just the same. Nobody thinks anything about that kind of thing. Now, what is it I have got to do? We had better turn back again as soon as we can, because I must go up to the house before I go.”
“Certainly. I will not leave it to your father to say that I came skulking about the place, and was ashamed to show my face. That would not be the way to make him give you your money.”
“I am sure he’d give it — if we were once married.”
“If we were married without having it assured beforehand we should look very blue if things went wrong afterwards.”
“I asked you whether you had courage.”
“Courage enough, I think, when my body is concerned; but I am an awful coward in regard to money. I wouldn’t mind hashed mutton and baked potatoes for myself, but I shouldn’t like to see you eating them, dearest, after all the luxuries to which you have been accustomed.”
“I should think nothing of it.”
“Did you ever try? I never came absolutely to hashed mutton, but I’ve known how very uncomfortable it is not to be able to pay for the hot joints. I’m willing to own honestly that married life without an income would not have attractions for me.”
“But if it was sure to come?”
“Ah, then indeed — with you! I have just said how nice it would be.”
“Have you ever been at Ostend?” she asked, suddenly.
“Ostend. Oh, yes. There was a man there who used to cheat horribly at écarté. He did me out of nearly a hundred pounds one night.”
“But there’s a clergyman there, I’m told.”
“I don’t think this man was in orders. But he might have been. Parsons come out in so many shapes! This man called himself a count. It was seven years ago.”
“I am speaking of today.”
“I’ve not been there since.”
“Would you like to go there — with me?”
“It isn’t a nice sort of place, I should say, for a honeymoon. But you shall choose. When we are married you shall go where you like.”
“To be married!” she exclaimed.
“Married at Ostend! Would your mother like that?”
“Mother! Oh, dear!”
“I’ll be shot if I know what you’re after, Gertrude. If you’ve got anything to say you’d better speak out. I want to go up to the house now.”
They had now taken one or two turns between the lodge and a point in the road from which the house could be observed, and at which Tom could still be seen wandering about, thinking no doubt of Ayala. Here Frank stopped as though determined not to turn to the lodge again. It was wonderful to Gertrude that he should not have understood what she had already said. When he talked of her mother going with them to the Ostend marriage she was almost beside herself. This lover of hers was a man of the world and must have heard of elopements. But now had come a time in which she must be plain, unless she made up her mind to abandon her plan altogether. “Frank,” she said, if you were to run away with me, then we could be married at Ostend.”
“Run away with you!”
“It wouldn’t be the first time that such a thing has been done.”
“The commonest thing in the world, my dear, when a girl has got her money in her own hands. Nothing I should like so much.”
“Money! It’s always money. It’s nothing but the money, I believe.”
“That’s unkind, Gertrude.”
“Ain’t you unkind? You won’t do anything I ask.”
“My darling, that hashed mutton and those baked potatoes are too clear before my eyes.”
“You think of nothing, I believe, but your dinner.”
“I think, unfortunately, of a great many other things. Hashed mutton is simply symbolical. Under the head of hashed mutton I include poor lodgings, growlers when we get ourselves asked to eat a dinner at somebody’s table, limited washing bills, table napkins rolled up in their dirt every day for a week, antimacassars to save the backs of the chairs, a picture of you darning my socks while I am reading a newspaper hired at a halfpenny from the public house round the corner, a pint of beer in the pewter between us — and perhaps two babies in one cradle because we can’t afford to buy a second.”
“In such an emergency I am bound to give you the advantage both of my experience and imagination.”
“Not about the cradles! That is imagination. My darling, it won’t do. You and I have not been brought up to make ourselves happy on a very limited income.”
“Papa would be sure to give us the money,” she said, eagerly.
“In such a matter as this, where your happiness is concerned, my dear, I will trust no one.”
“Yes, my dear, your happiness! I am quite willing to own the truth. I am not fitted to make you happy, if I were put upon the hashed mutton régime as I have described to you. I will not run the risk — for your sake.”
“For your own, you mean,” she said.
“Nor for my own, if you wish me to add that also.”
Then they walked up towards the house for some little way in silence. “What is it you intend, then?” she asked.
“I will ask your father once again.”
“He will simply turn you out of the house,” she said. Upon this he shrugged his shoulders, and they walked on to the hall door in silence.
Sir Thomas was not at Merle Park, nor was he expected home that evening. Frank Houston could only therefore ask for Lady Tringle, and her he saw together with Mr and Mrs Traffick. In presence of them all nothing could be said of love affairs; and, after sitting for half an hour, during which he was not entertained with much cordiality, he took his leave, saying that he would do himself the honour of calling on Sir Thomas in the City. While he was in the drawing-room Gertrude did not appear. She had retired to her room, and was there resolving that Frank Houston was not such a lover as would justify a girl in breaking her heart for him.
And Frank as he went to town brought his mind to the same way of thinking. The girl wanted something romantic to be done, and he was not disposed to do anything romantic for her. He was not in the least angry with her, acknowledging to himself that she had quite as much a right to her way of looking at things as he had to his. But he felt almost sure that the Tringle alliance must be regarded as impossible. If so, should he look out for another heiress, or endeavour to enjoy life, stretching out his little income as far as might be possible — or should he assume altogether a new character, make a hero of himself, and ask Imogene Docimer to share with him a little cottage in whatever might be the cheapest spot to be found in the civilised parts of Europe? If it was to be hashed mutton and a united cradle he would prefer Imogene Docimer to Gertrude Tringle for his companion.
But there was still open to him the one further chance with Sir Thomas; and this chance he could try with the comfortable feeling that he might be almost indifferent as to what Sir Thomas might say. To be prepared for either lot is very self-assuring when any matter of difficulty has to be taken in hand. On arriving at the house in Lombard Street he soon found himself ushered once more into Sir Thomas’s presence. “Well, Mr Houston, what can I do for you today?” asked the man of business, with a pleasant smile.
“It is the old story, Sir Thomas.”
“Don’t you think, Mr Houston, that there is something — a little — unmanly shall I call it, in coming so often about the same thing?”
“No, Sir Thomas, I do not. I think my conduct has been manly throughout.”
“Weak, perhaps, would have been a better word. I do not wish to be uncourteous, and I will therefore withdraw unmanly. Is it not weak to encounter so many refusals on the same subject?”
“I should feel myself to have been very strong if after so many refusals I were to be successful at last.”
“There is not the least chance of it.”
“Why should there be no chance if your daughter’s happiness depends upon it?”
“There is no chance, because I do not believe that my daughter’s happiness does depend upon it. She is foolish, and has made a foolish proposition to you.”
“What proposition?” asked Houston, in surprise, having heard nothing of that intercepted letter.
“That journey to Ostend, with the prospect of finding a good-natured clergyman in the town! I hardly think you would be fool enough for that.”
“No, Sir Thomas, I should not do that. I should think it wrong.” This he said quite gravely, asking no questions; but was very much at a loss to know where Sir Thomas had got his information.
“I am sure you would think it foolish: and it would be foolish. I pledge you my word, that were you to do such a thing I should not give you a shilling. I should not let my girl starve; but I should save her from suffering in such a manner as to let you have no share of the sustenance I provided for her.”
“There is no question of that kind,” said Frank, angrily.
“I hope not — only as I know that the suggestion has been made I have thought it well to tell you what would be my conduct if it were carried out.”
“It will not be carried out by me,” said Frank.
“Very well; I am glad to hear it. To tell the truth, I never thought that you would run the risk. A gentleman of your sort, when he is looking for a wife with money, likes to have the money quite certain.”
“No doubt,” said Frank, determined not to be browbeaten.
“And now, Mr Houston, let me say one word more to you and then we may part, as I hope, good friends. I do not mean my daughter Gertrude to marry any man such as you are — by that I mean an idle gentleman without means. Should she do so in my teeth she would have to bear the punishment of sharing that poor gentleman’s idleness and poverty. While I lived she would not be allowed absolutely to want, and when I died there would be some trifle for her, sufficient to keep the wolf from the door. But I give you my solemn word and honour that she shall never be the means of supplying wealth and luxury to such a husband as you would be. I have better purposes for my hard-earned money. Now, good-day.” With that he rose from his chair and put out his hand. Frank rose also from his chair, took the hand that was offered him, and stepped out of Travers and Treason into Lombard Street, with no special desire to shake the dust off his feet as he did so. He felt that Sir Thomas had been reasonable — and he felt also that Gertrude Tringle would perhaps have been dear at the money.
Two or three days afterwards he despatched the following little note to poor Gertrude at Merle Park:
I have seen your father again, and found him to be absolutely obdurate. I am sure he is quite in earnest when he tells me that he will not give his daughter to an impoverished idle fellow such as I am. Who shall say that he is wrong? I did not dare to tell him so, anxious as I was that he should change his purpose.
I feel myself bound in honour, believing, as I do, that he is quite resolved in his purpose, to release you from your promise. I should feel that I was only doing you an injury were I to ask you to be bound by an engagement which could not, at any rate for many years, be brought to a happy termination.
As we may part as sincere friends I hope you will consent to keep the little token of my regard which I gave you.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14