Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 12

Mr George Vavasor at Home

It cannot perhaps fairly be said that George Vavasor was an inhospitable man, seeing that it was his custom to entertain his friends occasionally at Greenwich, Richmond or such places; and he would now and again have a friend to dine with him at his club. But he never gave breakfasts, dinners, or suppers under his own roof. During a short period of his wine-selling career, at which time he had occupied handsome rooms over his place of business in New Burlington Street, he had presided at certain feasts given to customers or expectant customers by the firm; but he had not found this employment to be to his taste, and had soon relinquished it to one of the other partners. Since that he had lived in lodgings in Cecil Street — down at the bottom of that retired nook, near to the river and away from the Strand. Here he had simply two rooms on the first floor, and hither his friends came to him very rarely. They came very rarely on any account. A stray man might now and then pass an hour with him here; but on such occasions the chances were that the visit had some reference, near or distant, to affairs of business. Eating or drinking there was never any to be found here by the most intimate of his allies. His lodgings were his private retreat, and they were so private that but few of his friends knew where he lived.

And had it been possible he would have wished that no one should have known his whereabouts, I am not aware that he had any special reason for this peculiarity, or that there was anything about his mode of life that required hiding; but he was a man who had always lived as though secrecy in certain matters might at any time become useful to him. He had a mode of dressing himself when he went out at night that made it almost impossible that any one should recognize him. The people at his lodgings did not even know that he had relatives, and his nearest relatives hardly knew that he had lodgings. Even Kate had never been at the rooms in Cecil Street, and addressed all her letters to his place of business or his club. He was a man who would bear no inquiry into himself. If he had been out of view for a month, and his friends asked him where he had been, he always answered the question falsely, or left it unanswered. There are many men of whom everybody knows all about all their belongings — as to whom everybody knows where they live, whither they go, what is their means, and how they spend it. But there are others of whom no man knows anything, and George Vavasor was such a one. For myself I like the open babbler the best. Babbling may be a weakness, but to my thinking mystery is a vice.

Vavasor also maintained another little establishment, down in Oxfordshire; but the two establishments did not even know of each other’s existence. There was a third, too, very closely hidden from the world’s eye, which shall be nameless; but of the establishment in Oxfordshire he did sometimes speak, in very humble words, among his friends. When he found himself among hunting men, he would speak of his two nags at Roebury, saying that he had never yet been able to mount a regular hunting stable, and that he supposed he never would; but that there were at Roebury two indifferent beasts of his if any one chose to buy them. And men very often did buy Vavasor’s horses. When he was on them they always went well and sold themselves readily. And though he thus spoke of two, and perhaps did not keep more during the summer, he always seemed to have horses enough when he was down in the country. No one ever knew George Vavasor not to hunt because he was short of stuff. And here, at Roebury, he kept a trusty servant, an ancient groom with two little bushy grey eyes which looked as though they could see through a stable door. Many were the long whisperings which George and Bat Smithers carried on at the stable door, in the very back depth of the yard attached to the hunting inn at Roebury. Bat regarded his master as a man wholly devoted to horses, but often wondered why he was not more regular in his sojournings in Oxfordshire. Of any other portion of his master’s life Bat knew nothing. Bat could give the address of his master’s club in London, but he could give no other address.

But though Vavasor’s private lodgings were so very private, he had, nevertheless, taken some trouble in adorning them. The furniture in the sitting-room was very neat, and the bookshelves were filled with volumes that shone with gilding on their backs. The inkstand, the paperweight, the envelope case on his writing-table were all handsome. He had a single good portrait of a woman’s head hanging on one of his walls. He had a special place adapted for his pistols, others for his foils, and again another for his whips. The room was as pretty a bachelor’s room as you would wish to enter, but you might see, by the position of the single easy chair that was brought forward, that it was seldom appropriated to the comfort of more than one person. Here he sat lounging over his breakfast, late on a Sunday morning in September, when all the world was out of town. He was reading a letter which had just been brought down to him from his club. Though the writer of it was his sister Kate, she had not been privileged to address it to his private lodgings. He read it very quickly, running rapidly over its contents, and then threw it aside from him as though it were of no moment, keeping, however, an enclosure in his hand. And yet the letter was of much moment, and made him think deeply. “If I did it at all,” said he, “it would be more with the object of cutting him out than with any other.”

The reader will hardly require to be told that the “him” in question was John Grey, and that Kate’s letter was one instigating her brother to renew his love affair with Alice. And Vavasor was in truth well inclined to renew it, and would have begun the renewing it at once, had he not doubted his power with his cousin. Indeed it has been seen that he had already attempted some commencement of such renewal at Basle. He had told Kate more than once that Alice’s fortune was not much, and that her beauty was past its prime; and he would no doubt repeat the same objections to his sister with some pretence of disinclination. It was not his custom to show his hand to the players at any game that he played. But he was, in truth, very anxious to obtain from Alice a second promise of her hand. How soon after that he might marry her, would be another question.

Perhaps it was not Alice’s beauty that he coveted, nor yet her money exclusively. Nevertheless he thought her very beautiful, and was fully aware that her money would be of great service to him. But I believe that he was true in that word that he spoke to himself, and that his chief attraction was the delight which he would have in robbing Mr Grey of his wife. Alice had once been his love, had clung to his side, had whispered love to him, and he had enough of the weakness of humanity in him to feel the soreness arising from her affection for another. When she broke away from him he had acknowledged that he had been wrong, and when, since her engagement with Mr Grey, he had congratulated her, he had told her in his quiet, half-whispered, impressive words how right she was; but not the less, therefore, did he feel himself hurt that John Grey should be her lover. And when he had met this man he had spoken well of him to his sister, saying that he was a gentleman, a scholar, and a man of parts; but not the less had he hated him from the first moment of his seeing him. Such hatred under such circumstances was almost pardonable. But George Vavasor, when he hated, was apt to follow up his hatred with injury. He could not violently dislike a man and yet not wish to do him any harm. At present, as he sat lounging in his chair, he thought that he would like to marry his cousin Alice; but he was quite sure that he would like to be the means of putting a stop to the proposed marriage between Alice and John Grey.

Kate had been very false to her friend, and had sent up to her brother the very letter which Alice had written to her after that meeting in Queen Anne Street which was described in the last chapter — or rather a portion of it, for with the reserve common to women she had kept back the other half. Alice had declared to herself that she would be sure of her cousin’s sympathy, and had written out all her heart on the matter, as was her wont when writing to Kate. “But you must understand”, she wrote, “that all that I said to him went with him for nothing. I had determined to make him know that everything between us must be over, but I failed. I found that I had no words at command, but that he was able to talk to me as though I were a child. He told me that I was sick and full of phantasies, and bade me change the air. As he spoke in this way, I could not help feeling how right he was to use me so; but I felt also that he, in his mighty superiority, could never be a fitting husband for a creature so inferior to him as I am. Though I altogether failed to make him understand that it was so, every moment that we were together made me more fixed in my resolution.”

This letter from Alice to Kate, Vavasor read over and over again, though Kate’s letter to himself, which was the longer one, he had thrown aside after the first glance. There was nothing that he could learn from that. He was as good a judge of the manner in which he would play his own game as Kate could be; but in this matter he was to learn how he would play his game from a knowledge of the other girl’s mind. “She’ll never marry him, at any rate,” he said to himself, “and she is right. He’d make an upper servant of her; very respectable, no doubt, but still only an upper servant. Now with me — well, I hardly know what I should make of her. I cannot think of myself as a man married.” Then he threw her letter after Kate’s, and betook himself to his newspaper and his cigar.

It was two hours after this, and he still wore his dressing-gown, and he was still lounging in his easy chair, when the waiting-maid at the lodgings brought him up word that a gentleman wished to see him. Vavasor kept no servant of his own except that confidential groom down at Bicester. It was a rule with him that people could be better served and cheaper served by other people’s servants than by their own. Even in the stables at Bicester the innkeeper had to find what assistance was wanted, and charge for it in the bill. And George Vavasor was no Sybarite. He did not deem it impracticable to put on his own trousers without having a man standing at his foot to hold up the leg of the garment. A valet about a man knows a great deal of a man’s ways, and therefore George had no valet.

“A gentleman!” said he to the girl. “Does the gentleman look like a public house keeper?”

“Well, I think he do,” said the girl.

“Then show him up,” said George.

And the gentleman was a public house keeper. Vavasor was pretty sure of his visitor before he desired the servant to give him entrance. It was Mr Grimes from the Handsome Man public house and tavern, in the Brompton Road, and he had come by appointment to have a little conversation with Mr Vavasor on matters political. Mr Grimes was a man who knew that business was business, and as such had some considerable weight in his own neighbourhood. With him politics was business, as well as beer, and omnibus-horses, and foreign wines — in the fabrication of which latter article Mr Grimes was supposed to have an extended experience. To such as him, when intent on business, Mr Vavasor was not averse to make known the secrets of his lodging-house; and now, when the idle London world was either at morning church or still in bed, Mr Grimes had come out by appointment to do a little political business with the lately-rejected member for the Chelsea Districts.

Vavasor had been, as I have said, lately rejected, and the new member who had beaten him at the hustings had sat now for one session in Parliament. Under his present reign he was destined to the honour of one other session, and then the period of his existing glory — for which he was said to have paid nearly six thousand pounds — would be over. But he might be elected again, perhaps for a full period of six sessions; and it might be hoped that this second election would be conducted on more economical principles. To this, the economical view of the matter, Mr Grimes was very much opposed, and was now waiting upon George Vavasor in Cecil Street, chiefly with the object of opposing the new member’s wishes on this head. No doubt Mr Grimes was personally an advocate for the return of Mr Vavasor, and would do all in his power to prevent the re-election of the young Lord Kilfenora, whose father, the Marquis of Bunratty, had scattered that six thousand pounds among the electors and non-electors of Chelsea; but his main object was that money should be spent. “’Tain’t altogether for myself,” he said to a confidential friend in the same way of business; “I don’t get so much on it. Perhaps sometimes not none. Maybe I’ve a bill again some of those gents not paid this very moment. But it’s the game I looks to. If the game dies away, it’ll never be got up again — never. Who’ll care about elections then? Anybody’d go and get hisself elected if we was to let the game go by!” And so, that the game might not go by, Mr Grimes was now present in Mr George Vavasor’s rooms.

“Well, Mr Grimes,” said George, “how are you this morning? Sit down, Mr Grimes. If every man were as punctual as you are, the world would go like clockwork; wouldn’t it?”

“Business is business, Mr Vavasor,” said the publican, after having made his salute, and having taken his chair with some little show of mock modesty. “That’s my maxim. If I didn’t stick to that, nothing wouldn’t ever stick to me; and nothing doesn’t much, as it is. Times is very bad, Mr Vavasor.”

“Of course they are. They’re always bad. What was the Devil made for, except that they should be bad? But I should have thought you publicans were the last men who ought to complain.”

“Lord love you, Mr Vavasor; why, I suppose of all the men as is put upon, we’re put upon the worst. What’s the good of drawing of beer, if the more you draw the more you don’t make? Yesterday as ever was was Saturday, and we drawed three pound ten and nine. What’ll that come to, Mr Vavasor, when you reckons it up with the brewer? Why, it’s a next to nothing. You knows that well enough.”

“Upon my word I don’t. But I know you don’t sell a pint of beer without getting a profit out of it.”

“Lord love you, Mr Vavasor. If I hadn’t nothink to look to but beer I couldn’t keep a house over my head; no, I couldn’t. That house of mine belongs to Meux’s people; and very good people they are too — have made a sight of money; haven’t they, Mr Vavasor? I has to get my beer from them in course. Why not, when it’s their house? But if I sells their stuff as I gets it, there ain’t a halfpenny coming to me out of a gallon. Look at that, now.”

“But then you don’t sell it as you get it. You stretch it.”

“That’s in course. I’m not going to tell you a lie, Mr Vavasor. You know what’s what as well as I do, and a sight better, I expect. There’s a dozen different ways of handling beer, Mr Vavasor. But what’s the use of that, when they can take four or five pounds a day over the counter for their rot-gut stuff at the ‘Cadogan Arms’, and I can’t do no better nor yet perhaps so well, for a real honest glass of beer? Stretch it! It’s my belief the more you poison their liquor, the more the people likes it!”

Mr Grimes was a stout man, not very tall, with a mottled red face, and large protruding eyes. As regards his own person, Mr Grimes might have been taken as a fair sample of the English innkeeper, as described for many years past. But in his outer garments he was very unlike that description. He wore a black, swallow-tailed coat, made, however, to set very loose upon his back, a black waistcoat, and black pantaloons. He carried, moreover, in his hands a black chimney-pot hat. Not only have the top-boots and breeches vanished from the costume of innkeepers, but also the long, parti-coloured waistcoat, and the birds’-eye fogle round their necks. They get themselves up to look like Dissenting ministers or undertakers, except that there is still a something about their rosy gills which tells a tale of the spigot and corkscrew.

Mr Grimes had only just finished the tale of his own hard ways as a publican, when the doorbell was again rung. “There’s Scruby,” said George Vavasor, “and now we can go to business.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01