Frank Houston on that Sunday afternoon became an altered man. The reader is not to suppose by this that he is declared to have suddenly thrown off all his weaknesses, and to have succeeded in clothing himself in an armour of bright steel, proof for the rest of his life against all temptations. Such suits of armour are not to be had at a moment’s notice; nor, as I fear, can a man ever acquire one quite perfect at all points who has not begun to make it for himself before Houston’s age. But he did on that day dine off the two mutton chops, and comforted himself with no more than the half pint of sherry. It was a great beginning. Throughout the whole evening he could not be got for a moment to join any of the club juntas which were discussing the great difficulty of the contumacious gentleman. “I think he must really be going to be married at last!” one club pundit said when a question was asked as to Houston’s singular behaviour on the occasion.
He was indeed very sober — so sober that he left the smoking-room as soon as his one silent cigar was finished, and went out alone in order that he might roam the streets in thoughtful solitude. It was a clear frosty night, and as he buttoned his greatcoat around him he felt that the dry cold air would do him good, and assist his meditations. At last then everything was arranged for him, and he was to encounter exactly that mode of life which he had so often told himself to be most unfit for him. There were to be the cradles always full, and his little coffer so nearly empty! And he had done it all for himself. She, Imogene, had proposed a mode of life to him which would at any rate have saved him from this; but it had been impossible that he should accept a plan so cruel to her when the proposition came from herself. It must all soon be done now. She had asked that a distant day might be fixed for their marriage. Even that request, coming from her, made it almost imperative upon him to insist upon an early day. It would be well for him to look upon tomorrow, or a few morrows whose short distance would be immaterial, as the time fixed.
No — there should be no going back now! So he declared to himself, endeavouring to prepare the suit of armour for his own wearing. Pau might be the best place — or perhaps one of those little towns in Brittany. Dresden would not do, because there would be society at Dresden, and he must of course give up all ideas of society. He would have liked Rome; but Rome would be far too expensive and then residents in Rome require to be absent three or four months every year. He and his wife and large family — he had no doubt in life as to the large family — would not be able to allow themselves any recreation such as that. He thought he had heard that the ordinary comforts of life were cheap in the west of Ireland — or, if not cheap, unobtainable, which would be the same thing. Perhaps Castlebar might be a good locality for his nursery. There would be nothing to do at Castlebar — no amusement whatever for such a one as himself, no fitting companion for Imogene. But then amusement for himself and companions for Imogene must of course be out of the question. He thought that perhaps he might turn his hand to a little useful gardening — parsnips instead of roses — while Imogene would be at work in the nursery. He would begin at once and buy two or three dozen pipes, because tobacco would be so much cheaper than cigars. He knew a shop at which were to be had some very pretty new-fashioned meerschaums, which, he had been told, smokers of pipes found to be excellent. But, whether it should be Pau or whether it should be Castlebar, whether it should be pipes, or whether, in regard to economy, no tobacco at all, the question now was at any rate settled for him. He felt rather proud of his gallantry, as he took himself home to bed, declaring to himself that he would answer that last letter from Gertrude in a very few words and in a very decided tone.
There would be many little troubles. On the Monday morning he got up early thinking that as a family man such a practice would be necessary for him. When he had disturbed the house and nearly driven his own servant mad by demanding breakfast at an altogether unaccustomed hour, he found that he had nothing to do. There was that head of Imogene for which she had only once sat, and at which he had occasionally worked from memory because of her refusal to sit again; and he thought for a moment that this might be good employment for him now. But his art was only an expense to him. He could not now afford for himself paint and brushes and canvas, so he turned the half-finished head round upon his easel. Then he took out his banker’s book, a bundle of bills and some blotted scraps of ruled paper, with which he set himself to work to arrange his accounts. When he did this he must certainly have been in earnest. But he had not as yet succeeded in seeing light through his figures when he was interrupted by the arrival of a letter which altogether arrested his attention. It was from Mudbury Docimer, and this was the letter —
Of course I think that you and Imogene are two fools. She has told me what took place here yesterday, and I have told her the same as I tell you. I have no power to prevent it; but you know as well as I do that you and she cannot live together on the interest of sixteen thousand pounds. When you’ve paid everything that you owe I don’t suppose there will be so much as that. It had been arranged between you that everything should be over; and if I had thought that anything of the kind would have occurred again I would have told them not to let you into the house. What is the good of two such people as you making yourselves wretched for ever, just to satisfy the romance of a moment? I call it wicked. So I told Imogene, and so I tell you.
You have changed your mind so often that of course you may change it again. I am sure that Imogene expects that you will. Indeed I can hardly believe that you intend to be such a Quixote. But at any rate I have done my duty. She is old enough to look after herself, but as long as she lives with me as my sister. I shall tell her what I think; and until she becomes your wife — which I hope she never will be — I shall tell you the same.
“He always was a hard, unfeeling fellow,” said Frank to himself. Then he put the letter by with a crowd of others, assuring himself that it was one which required no answer.
On the afternoon he called at the house, as he did again on the Tuesday; but on neither day did he succeed in seeing Imogene. This he thought to be hard, as the pleasure of her society was as sweet to him as ever, though he was doubtful as to his wisdom in marrying her. On the Wednesday morning he received a note from her asking him not to come at once, because Mudbury had chosen to put himself into a bad humour. Then a few words of honey were added; “Of course you know that nothing that he can say will make a change. I am too well satisfied to allow of any change that shall not come from you yourself.” He was quite alive to the sweetness of the honey, and declared to himself that Mudbury Docimer’s ill-humour was a matter to him of no concern whatever.
But on the Wednesday there came also another letter — in regard to which it will be well that we should travel down again to Merle Park. An answer altogether averse to the proposed changes as to the nieces had been received from Mrs Dosett. “As Ayala does not wish it, of course nothing can be done.” Such was the decision as conveyed by Mrs Dosett. It seemed to Lady Tringle that this was absurd. It was all very well extending charity to the children of her deceased sister, Mrs Dormer; but all the world was agreed that beggars should not be choosers. “As Ayala does not wish it.” Why should not Ayala wish it? What a fool must Ayala be not to wish it! Why should not Ayala be made to do as she was told, whether she wished it or not? Such were the indignant questions which Lady Tringle asked of her husband. He was becoming sick of the young ladies altogether — of her own girls as well as the Dormer girls. “They are a pack of idiots together,” he said, and Tom is the worst of the lot.” With this he rushed off to London, and consoled himself with his millions.
Mrs Dosett’s letter had reached Merle Park on the Tuesday morning, Sir Thomas having remained down in the country over the Monday. Gertrude, having calculated the course of the post with exactness, had hoped to get a reply from Frank to that last letter of hers — dated from her sick bed, but written in truth after a little surreptitious visit to the larder after the servants’ dinner — on the Sunday morning. This had been possible, and would have evinced a charming alacrity on the part of her lover. But this she had hardly ventured to expect. Then she had looked with anxiety to the arrival of letters on the Monday afternoon, but had looked in vain. On the Tuesday morning she had felt so certain that she had contrived to open the post-bag herself in spite of illness — but there had been nothing for her. Then she sent the dispatch which reached Frank on the Wednesday morning, and immediately afterwards took to her bed again with such a complication of disorders that the mare with the broken knees was sent at once into Hastings for the doctor.
“A little rice will be the best thing for her,” said the doctor.
“But the poor child takes nothing — literally nothing,” said Lady Tringle, who was frightened for her child. Then the doctor went on to say that arrowroot would be good, and sago, but offered no other prescription. Lady Tringle was disgusted by his ignorance, and thought that it might be well to send up to London for some great man. The doctor bowed, and made up his mind that Lady Tringle was an ass. But, being an honest man, and also tender-hearted, he contrived to get hold of Tom before he left the house.
“Your sister’s health is generally good?” he said. Tom assented. As far as he knew, Gertrude had always been as strong as a horse. “Eats well?” asked the doctor. Tom, who occasionally saw the family at lunch, gave a description of his sister’s general performance.
“She is a fine healthy young lady,” said the doctor. Tom gave a brother’s ready adhesion to the word healthy, but passed over the other epithet as being superfluous. “Now, I’ll tell you what it is,” said the doctor. “Of course I don’t want to inquire into any family secrets.”
“My father, you know,” said Tom, won’t agree about the man she’s engaged to.”
“That is it? I knew there was some little trouble, but I did not want to ask any questions. Your mother is unnecessarily frightened, and I have not wished to disturb her. Your sister is taking plenty of nourishment?”
“She does not come to table, nor yet have it in her own room.”
“She gets it somehow. I can say that it is so. Her veins are full, and her arms are strong. Perhaps she goes into the kitchen. Have a little tray made ready for her, with something nice. She will be sure to find it, and when she has found it two or three times she will know that she has been discovered. If Lady Tringle does send for a physician from London you could perhaps find an opportunity of telling him what I have suggested. Her mamma need know nothing about it.” This took place on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday morning Gertrude knew that she had been discovered — at any rate by Tom and the doctor. “I took care to keep a wing for you,” said Tom; I carved them myself at dinner.” As he so addressed her he came out from his hiding-place in the kitchen about midnight, and surprised her in the larder. She gave a fearful scream, which, however, luckily was not heard through the house. “You won’t tell mamma, Tom, will you?” Tom promised that he would not, on condition that she would come down to breakfast on the following morning. This she did, and the London physician was saved a journey.
But, in the meantime, Gertrude’s second letter had gone up to Frank, and also a very heartrending epistle from Lady Tringle to her husband. “Poor Gertrude is in a very bad state. If ever there was a girl really broken-hearted on account of love, she is one. I did not think she would ever set her heart upon a man with such violent affection. I do think you might give way when it becomes a question of life and death. There isn’t anything really against Mr Houston.” Sir Thomas, as he read this, was a little shaken. He had hitherto been inclined to agree with Rosalind, “That men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” But now he did not know what to think about it. There was Tom undoubtedly in a bad way, and here was Gertrude brought to such a condition, simply by her love, that she refused to take her meals regularly! Was the world come to such a pass that a father was compelled to give his daughter with a large fortune to an idle adventurer, or else to be responsible for his daughter’s life? Would Augusta have pined away and died had she not been allowed to marry her Traffick? Would Lucy pine and die unless money were given to her sculptor? Upon the whole, Sir Thomas thought that the cares of his family were harder to bear than those of his millions. In regard to Gertrude, he almost thought that he would give way, if only that he might be rid of that trouble.
It must be acknowledged that Frank Houston, when he received the young lady’s letter, was less soft-hearted than her father. The letter was, or should have been, heart-rending:
YOU CRUEL MAN,
You must have received my former letter, and though I told you that I was ill and almost dying you have not heeded it! Three posts have come, and I have not had a line from you. In your last you were weak enough to say that you were going to give it all up because you could not make papa do just what you wanted all at once. Do you know what it is to have taken possession of a young lady’s heart; or is it true, as Augusta says of you, that you care for nothing but the money? If it is so, say it at once and let me die. As it is I am so very ill that I cannot eat a mouthful of anything, and have hardly strength left to me to write this letter.
But I cannot really believe what Augusta says, though I daresay it may have been so with Mr Traffick. Perhaps you have not been to your club, and so you have not got my former letter. Or it may be that you are ill yourself. If so, I do wish that I could come and nurse you, though indeed I am so ill that I am quite unable to leave my bed.
At any rate, pray write immediately — and do come! Mamma seems to think that papa will give way because I am so ill. If so, I shall think my illness the luckiest thing in the world.
You must believe, dearest Frank, that I am now, as ever, yours most affectionately,
Frank Houston was less credulous than Sir Thomas, and did not believe much in the young lady’s sickness. It was evident that the young lady was quite up to the work of deceiving her father and mother, and would no doubt be willing to deceive himself if anything could be got by it. But, whether she were ill or whether she were well, he could offer her no comfort. Nevertheless, he was bound to send her some answer, and with a troubled spirit he wrote as follows:
MY DEAR MISS TRINGLE,
It is to me a matter of inexpressible grief that I should have to explain again that I am unable to persist in seeking the honour of your hand in opposition to the absolute and repeated refusals which I have received from your father. It is so evident that we could not marry without his consent that I need not now go into that matter. But I think myself bound to say that, considering the matter in all its bearing, I must regard our engagement as finally at an end. Were I to hesitate in saying this very plainly I think I should be doing you an injury.
I am sorry to hear that you are unwell, and trust that you may soon recover your health.
Your sincere friend, FRANK HOUSTON
On the next morning Gertrude was still in her bed, having there received her letter, when she sent a message to her brother. Would Tom come and see her? Tom attended to her behest, and then sat down by her bedside on being told in a mysterious voice that she had to demand from him a great service. “Tom,” she said, that man has treated me most shamefully and most falsely.”
“What man? Why, Frank Houston. There has never been any other man. After all that has been said and done he is going to throw me over.”
“The governor threw him over,” said Tom.
“That amounts to nothing. The governor would have given way, of course, and if he hadn’t that was no matter of his. After he had had my promise he was bound to go on with it. Don’t you think so?”
“Perhaps he was,” said Tom, dubiously.
“Of course he was. What else is the meaning of a promise? Now I’ll tell you what you must do. You must go up to London and find him out. You had better take a stick with you, and then ask him what he means to do.”
“And if he says he’ll do nothing?”
“Then, Tom, you should call him out. It is just the position in which a brother is bound to do that kind of thing for his sister. When he has been called out, then probably he’ll come round, and all will be well.”
The prospect was one which Tom did not at all like. He had had one duel on his hands on his own account, and had not as yet come through it with flying colours. There were still momentum which he felt that he would be compelled at last to take to violence in reference to Colonel Stubbs. He was all but convinced that were he to do so he would fall into some great trouble, but still it was more than probable that his outraged feelings would not allow him to resist. But this second quarrel was certainly unnecessary. “That’s all nonsense, Gertrude,” he said, “I can do nothing of the kind.”
“You will not?”
“Certainly not. It would be absurd. You ask Septimus and he will tell you that it is so.”
“At any rate, I won’t. Men don’t call each other out nowadays. I know what ought to be done in these kind of things, and such interference as that would be altogether improper.”
“Then, Tom,” said she, raising herself in bed, and looking round upon him, “I will never call you my brother again!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14