Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 34

Mr Vavasor speaks to his Daughter

Alice Vavasor returned to London with her father, leaving Kate at Vavasor Hall with her grandfather. The journey was not a pleasant one, Mr Vavasor knew that it was his duty to do something — to take some steps with the view of preventing the marriage which his daughter meditated; but he did not know what that something should be, and he did know that, whatever it might be, the doing of it would be thoroughly disagreeable. When they started from Vavasor he had as yet hardly spoken to her a word upon the subject. “I cannot congratulate you,” he had simply said. “I hope the time may come, papa, when you will,” Alice had answered; and that had been all.

The Squire had promised that he would consent to a reconciliation with his grandson, if Alice’s father would express himself satisfied with the proposed marriage. John Vavasor had certainly expressed nothing of the kind. “I think so badly of him,” he had said, speaking to the old man of George, “that I would rather know that almost any other calamity was to befall her, than that she should be united to him.” Then the Squire, with his usual obstinacy, had taken up the cudgels on behalf of his grandson; and had tried to prove that the match after all would not be so bad in its results as his son seemed to expect. “It would do very well for the property,” he said. “I would settle the estate on their eldest son, so that he could not touch it; and I don’t see why he shouldn’t reform as well as another.” John Vavasor had then declared that George was thoroughly bad, that he was an adventurer; that he believed him to be a ruined man, and that he would never reform. The Squire upon this had waxed angry, and in this way George obtained aid and assistance down at the old house, which he certainly had no right to expect. When Alice wished her grandfather goodbye the old man gave her a message to his grandson. “You may tell him,” said he, “that I will never see him again unless he begs my pardon for his personal bad conduct to me, but that if he marries you, I will take care that the property is properly settled upon his child and yours. I shall always be glad to see you, my dear; and for your sake, I will see him if he will humble himself to me.” There was no word spoken then about her father’s consent; and Alice, when she left Vavasor, felt that the Squire was rather her friend than her enemy in regard to this thing which she contemplated. That her father was and would be an uncompromising enemy to her — uncompromising though probably not energetic — she was well aware; and, therefore, the journey up to London was not comfortable.

Alice had resolved, with great pain to herself, that in this matter she owed her father no obedience. “There cannot be obedience on one side,” she said to herself, “without protection and support on the other.” Now it was quite true that John Vavasor had done little in the way of supporting or protecting his daughter. Early in life, before she had resided under the same roof with him in London, he had, as it were, washed his hands of all solicitude regarding her; and having no other ties of family, had fallen into habits of life which made it almost impossible for him to live with her as any other father would live with his child. Then, when there first sprang up between them that manner of sharing the same house without any joining together of their habits of life, he had excused himself to himself by saying that Alice was unlike other girls, and that she required no protection. Her fortune was her own, and at her own disposal. Her character was such that she showed no inclination to throw the burden of such disposal on her father’s shoulders. She was steady, too, and given to no pursuits which made it necessary that he should watch closely over her. She was a girl, he thought, who could do as well without surveillance as with it — as well, or perhaps better. So it had come to pass that Alice had been the free mistress of her own actions, and had been left to make the most she could of her own hours. It cannot be supposed that she had eaten her lonely dinners in Queen Anne Street night after night, week after week, month after month, without telling herself that her father was neglecting her. She could not perceive that he spent every evening in society, but never an evening in her society, without feeling that the tie between her and him was not the strong bond which usually binds a father to his child. She was well aware that she had been ill-used in being thus left desolate in her home. She had uttered no word of complaint; but she had learned, without being aware that she was doing so, to entertain a firm resolve that her father should not guide her in her path through life. In that affair of John Grey they had both for a time thought alike, and Mr Vavasor had believed that his theory with reference to Alice had been quite correct. She had been left to herself, and was going to dispose of herself in a way than which nothing could be more eligible. But evil days were now coming, and Mr Vavasor, as he travelled up to London, with his daughter seated opposite to him in the railway carriage, felt that now, at last, he must interfere. In part of the journey they had the carriage to themselves, and Mr Vavasor thought that he would begin what he had to say; but he put it off till others joined them, and then there was no further opportunity for such conversation as that which would be necessary between them. They reached home about eight in the evening, having dined on the road. “She will be tired tonight,” he said to himself, as he went off to his club, “and I will speak to her tomorrow.” Alice specially felt his going on this evening. When two persons have had together the tedium of such a journey as that from Westmoreland up to London, there should be some feeling between them to bind them together while enjoying the comfort of the evening. Had he stayed and sat with her at her tea-table, Alice would at any rate have endeavoured to be soft with him in any discussion that might have been raised; but he went away from her at once, leaving her to think alone over the perils of the life before her. “I want to speak to you after breakfast tomorrow,” he said as he went out. Alice answered that she should be there — as a matter of course. She scorned to tell him that she was always there — always alone at home. She had never uttered a word of complaint, and she would not begin now.

The discussion after breakfast the next day was commenced with formal and almost ceremonial preparation. The father and daughter breakfasted together, with the knowledge that the discussion was coming. It did not give to either of them a good appetite, and very little was said at table.

“Will you come upstairs?” said Alice, when she perceived that her father had finished his tea.

“Perhaps that will be best,” said he. Then he followed her into the drawing-room in which the fire had just been lit.

“Alice,” said he, “I must speak to you about this engagement of yours.”

“Won’t you sit down, papa? It does look so dreadful, your standing up over one in that way.” He had placed himself on the rug with his back to the incipient fire, but now, at her request, he sat himself down opposite to her.

“I was greatly grieved when I heard of this at Vavasor.”

“I am sorry that you should be grieved, papa.”

“I was grieved. I must confess that I never could understand why you treated Mr Grey as you have done.”

“Oh, papa, that’s done and past. Pray let that be among the bygones.”

“Does he know yet of your engagement with your cousin?”

“He will know it by this time tomorrow.”

“Then I beg of you, as a great favour, to postpone your letter to him.” To this Alice made no answer. “I have not troubled you with many such requests, Alice. Will you tell me that this one shall be granted?”

“I think that I owe it to him as an imperative duty to let him know the truth.”

“But you may change your mind again.” Alice found that this was hard to bear and hard to answer; but there was a certain amount of truth in the grievous reproach conveyed in her father’s words, which made her bow her neck to it. “I have no right to say that it is impossible,” she replied, in words that were barely audible,

“No — exactly so,” said her father. “And therefore it will be better that you should postpone any such communication.”

“For how long do you mean?”

“Till you and I shall have agreed together that he should be told.”

“No, papa; I will not consent to that. I consider myself bound to let him know the truth without delay. I have done him a great injury, and I must put an end to that as soon as possible.”

“You have done him an injury certainly, my dear — a very great injury,” said Mr Vavasor, going away from his object about the proposed letter; “and I believe he will feel it as such to the last day of his life, if this goes on.”

“I hope not. I believe that it will not be so. I feel sure that it will not be so.”

“But of course what I am thinking of now is your welfare, not his. When you simply told me that you intended to — .” Alice winced, for she feared to hear from her father that odious word which her grandfather had used to her; and indeed the word had been on her father’s lips, but he had refrained and spared her — “that you intended to break your engagement with Mr Grey,” he continued, “I said little or nothing to you. I would not ask you to marry any man, even though you had yourself promised to marry him. But when you tell me that you are engaged to your cousin George, the matter is very different. I do not think well of your cousin. Indeed I think anything but well of him. It is my duty to tell you that the world speaks very ill of him.” He paused, but Alice remained silent. “When you were about to travel with him,” he continued, “I ought perhaps to have told you the same. But I did not wish to pain you or his sister; and, moreover, I have heard worse of him since then — much worse than I had heard before.”

“As you did not tell me before, I think you might spare me now,” said Alice.

“No, my dear; I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself without telling you that you are doing so. If it were not for your money he would never think of marrying you.”

“Of that I am well aware,” said Alice. “He has told me so himself very plainly.”

“And yet you will marry him?”

“Certainly I will. It seems to me, papa, that there is a great deal of false feeling about this matter of money in marriage — or rather, perhaps, a great deal of pretended feeling. Why should I be angry with a man for wishing to get that for which every man is struggling? At this point of George’s career the use of money is essential to him. He could not marry without it.”

“You had better then give him your money without yourself,” said her father, speaking in irony.

“That is just what I mean to do, papa,” said Alice.

“What!” said Mr Vavasor, jumping up from his seat. “You mean to give him your money before you marry him?”

“Certainly I do — if he should want it — or, I should rather say, as much as he may want of it.”

“Heavens and earth!” exclaimed Mr Vavasor. “Alice, you must be mad.”

“To part with my money to my friend?” said she. “It is a kind of madness of which I need not at any rate be ashamed.”

“Tell me this, Alice; has he got any of it as yet?”

“Not a shilling. Papa, pray do not look at me like that. If I had no thought of marrying him you would not call me mad because I lent to my cousin what money he might need.”

“I should only say that so much of your fortune was thrown away, and if it were not much that would be an end of it. I would sooner see you surrender to him the half of all you have, without any engagement to marry him, than know that he had received a shilling from you under such a promise.”

“You are prejudiced against him, sir.”

“Was it prejudice that made you reject him once before? Did you condemn him then through prejudice? Had you not ascertained that he was altogether unworthy of you?”

“We were both younger, then,” said Alice, speaking very softly, but very seriously. “We were both much younger then, and looked at life with other eyes than those which we now use. For myself I expected much then, which I now seem hardly to regard at all; and as for him, he was then attached to pleasures to which I believe he has now learned to be indifferent.”

“Psha!” ejaculated the father.

“I can only speak as I believe,” continued Alice. “And I think I may perhaps know more of his manner of life than you do, papa. But I am prepared to run risks now which I feared before. Even though he were all that you think him to be, I would still endeavour to do my duty to him, and to bring him to other things.”

“What is it you expect to get by marrying him?” asked Mr Vavasor.

“A husband whose mode of thinking is congenial to my own,” answered Alice. “A husband who proposes to himself a career in life with which I can sympathise. I think that I may perhaps help my cousin in the career which he has chosen, and that alone is a great reason why I should attempt to do so.”

“With your money?” said Mr Vavasor with a sneer.

“Partly with my money,” said Alice, disdaining to answer the sneer. “Though it were only with my money, even that would be something.”

“Well, Alice, as your father, I can only implore you to pause before you commit yourself to his hands. If he demands money from you, and you are minded to give it to him, let him have it in moderation. Anything will be better than marrying him. I know that I cannot hinder you; you are as much your own mistress as I am my own master — or rather a great deal more, as my income — depends on my going to that horrid place in Chancery Lane. But yet I suppose you must think something of your father’s wishes and your father’s opinion. It will not be pleasant for you to stand at the altar without my being there near you.”

To this Alice made no answer; but she told herself that it had not been pleasant to her to have stood at so many places during the last four years — and to have found herself so often alone, without her father being near to her. That had been his fault, and it was not now in her power to remedy the ill-effects of it.

“Has any day been fixed between you and him?” he asked.

“No, papa.”

“Nothing has been said about that?”

“Yes; something has been said. I have told him that it cannot be for a year yet. It is because I told him that, that I told him also that he should have my money when he wanted it.”

“Not all of it?” said Mr Vavasor.

“I don’t suppose he will need it all. He intends to stand again for Chelsea, and it is the great expense of the election which makes him want money. You are not to suppose that he has asked me for it. When I made him understand that I did not wish to marry quite yet, I offered him the use of that which would be ultimately his own.”

“And he has accepted it?”

“He answered me just as I had intended — that when the need came he would take me at my word.”

“Then, Alice, I will tell you what is my belief. He will drain you of every shilling of your money, and when that is gone, there will be no more heard of the marriage. We must take a small house in some cheap part of the town and live on my income as best we may. I shall go and insure my life, so that you may not absolutely starve when I die.” Having said this, Mr Vavasor went away, not immediately to the insurance office, as his words seemed to imply, but to his club where he sat alone, reading the newspaper, very gloomily, till the time came for his afternoon rubber of whist, and the club dinner bill for the day was brought under his eye.

Alice had no such consolations in her solitude. She had fought her battle with her father tolerably well, but she was now called upon to fight a battle with herself, which was one much more difficult to win. Was her cousin, her betrothed as she now must regard him, the worthless, heartless, mercenary rascal which her father painted him? There had certainly been a time, and that not very long distant, in which Alice herself had been almost constrained so to regard him. Since that any change for the better in her opinion of him had been grounded on evidence given either by himself or by his sister Kate. He had done nothing to inspire her with any confidence, unless his reckless daring in coming forward to contest a seat in Parliament could be regarded as a doing of something. And he had owned himself to be a man almost penniless; he had spoken of himself as being utterly reckless — as being one whose standing in the world was and must continue to be a perch on the edge of a precipice, from which any accident might knock him headlong. Alice believed in her heart that this last profession or trade to which he had applied himself, was becoming as nothing to him — that he received from it no certain income; no income that a man could make to appear respectable to fathers or guardians when seeking a girl in marriage. Her father declared that all men spoke badly of him. Alice knew her father to be an idle man, a man given to pleasure, to be one who thought by far too much of the good things of the world; but she had never found him to be either false or malicious. His unwonted energy in this matter was in itself evidence that he believed himself to be right in what he said.

To tell the truth, Alice was frightened at what she had done, and almost repented of it already. Her acceptance of her cousin’s offer had not come of love — nor had it, in truth, come chiefly of ambition. She had not so much asked herself why she should do this thing, as why she should not do it — seeing that it was required of her by her friend. What after all did it matter? That was her argument with herself. It cannot be supposed that she looked back on the past events of her life with any self-satisfaction. There was no self-satisfaction, but in truth there was more self-reproach than she deserved. As a girl she had loved her cousin George passionately, and that love had failed her. She did not tell herself that she had been wrong when she gave him up, but she thought herself to have been most unfortunate in the one necessity. After such an experience as that, would it not have been better for her to have remained without further thought of marriage?

Then came that terrible episode in her life for which she never could forgive herself. She had accepted Mr Grey because she liked him and honoured him. “And I did love him,” she said to herself, now on this morning. Poor, wretched, heart-wrung woman! As she sat there thinking of it all in her solitude she was to be pitied at any rate, if not to be forgiven. Now, as she thought of Nethercoats, with its quiet life, its gardens, its books, and the peaceful affectionate ascendancy of him who would have been her lord and master, her feelings were very different from those which had induced her to resolve that she would not stoop to put her neck beneath that yoke. Would it not have been well for her to have a master who by his wisdom and strength could save her from such wretched doubtings as these? But she had refused to bend, and then she had found herself desolate and alone in the world.

“If I can do him good why should I not marry him?” In that feeling had been the chief argument which had induced her to return such an answer as she had sent to her cousin, “For myself, what does it matter? As to this life of mine and all that belongs to it, why should I regard it otherwise than to make it of some service to someone who is dear to me?” He had been ever dear to her from her earliest years. She believed in his intellect, even if she could not believe in his conduct. Kate, her friend, longed for this thing. As for that dream of love, it meant nothing; and as for those arguments of prudence — that cold calculation about her money, which all people seemed to expect from her — she would throw it to the winds. What if she were ruined! There was always the other chance. She might save him from ruin, and help him to honour and fortune.

But then, when the word was once past her lips, there returned to her that true woman’s feeling which made her plead for a long day — which made her feel that that long day would be all too short — which made her already dread the coming of the end of the year. She had said that she would become George Vavasor’s wife, but she wished that the saying so might be the end of it. When he came to her to embrace her how should she receive him? The memory of John Grey’s last kiss still lingered on her lips. She had told herself that she scorned the delights of love; if it were so, was she not bound to keep herself far from them; if it were so — would not her cousin’s kiss pollute her?

“It may be as my father says,” she thought. “It may be that he wants my money only; if so, let him have it. Surely when the year is over I shall know.” Then a plan formed itself in her head, which she did not make willingly, with any voluntary action of her mind — but which came upon her as plans do come — and recommended itself to her in despite of herself. He should have her money as he might call for it — all of it excepting some small portion of her income, which might suffice to keep her from burdening her father. Then, if he were contented, he should go free, without reproach, and there should be an end of all question of marriage for her.

As she thought of this, and matured it in her mind, the door opened, and the servant announced her cousin George.

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