The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XIV

Very Sad

Norman prolonged his visit to his father considerably beyond the month. At first he applied for and received permission to stay away another fortnight, and at the end of that fortnight he sent up a medical certificate in which the doctor alleged that he would be unable to attend to business for some considerable additional period. It was not till after Christmas Day that he reappeared at the Weights and Measures.

Alaric kept his appointment at Hampton, and took Charley with him. And on the two following Saturdays he also went there, and on both occasions Charley accompanied him. During these visits, he devoted himself, as closely as he could, to Mrs. Woodward. He talked to her of Norman, and of Norman’s prospects in the office; he told her how he had intended to abstain from offering himself as a competitor, till he had, as it were, been forced by Norman to do so; he declared over and over again that Norman would have been victorious had he stood his ground to the end, and assured her that such was the general opinion through the whole establishment. And this he did without talking much about himself, or praising himself in any way when he did so. His speech was wholly of his friend, and of the sorrow that he felt that his friend should have been disappointed in his hopes.

All this had its effects. Of Norman’s rejected love they neither of them spoke. Each knew that the other must be aware of it, but the subject was far too tender to be touched, at any rate as yet. And so matters went on, and Alaric regained the footing of favour which he had for a while lost with the mistress of the house.

But there was one inmate of Surbiton Cottage who saw that though Alaric spent so much of his tune with Mrs. Woodward, he found opportunity also for other private conversation; and this was Linda. Why was it that in the moments before they dressed for dinner Alaric was whispering with Gertrude, and not with her? Why was it that Alaric had felt it necessary to stay from church that Sunday evening when Gertrude also had been prevented from going by a headache? He had remained, he said, in order that Captain Cuttwater might have company; but Linda was not slow to learn that Uncle Bat had been left to doze away the time by himself. Why, on the following Monday, had Gertrude been down so early, and why had Alaric been over from the inn full half an hour before his usual time? Linda saw and knew all this, and was disgusted. But even then she did not, could not think that Alaric could be untrue to her; that her own sister would rob her of her lover. It could not be that there should be such baseness in human nature!

Poor Linda!

And yet, though she did not believe that such falseness could exist in this world of hers at Surbiton Cottage, she could not restrain herself from complaining rather petulantly to her sister, as they were going to bed on that Sunday evening.

‘I hope your headache is better,’ she said, in a tone of voice as near to irony as her soft nature could produce.

‘Yes, it is quite well now,’ said Gertrude, disdaining to notice the irony.

‘I dare say Alaric had a headache too. I suppose one was about as bad as the other.’

‘Linda,’ said Gertrude, answering rather with dignity than with anger, ‘you ought to know by this time that it is not likely that I should plead false excuses. Alaric never said he had a headache.’

‘He said he stayed from church to be with Uncle Bat; but when we came back we found him with you.’

‘Uncle Bat went to sleep, and then he came into the drawing-room.’

The two girls said nothing more about it. Linda should have remembered that she had never breathed a word to her sister of Alaric’s passion for herself. Gertrude’s solemn propriety had deterred her, just as she was about to do so. How very little of that passion had Alaric breathed himself! and yet, alas! enough to fill the fond girl’s heart with dreams of love, which occupied all her waking, all her sleeping thoughts. Oh! ye ruthless swains, from whose unhallowed lips fall words full of poisoned honey, do ye never think of the bitter agony of many months, of the dull misery of many years, of the cold monotony of an uncheered life, which follow so often as the consequence of your short hour of pastime?

On the Monday morning, as soon as Alaric and Charley had started for town — it was the morning on which Linda had been provoked to find that both Gertrude and Alaric had been up half an hour before they should have been — Gertrude followed her mother to her dressing-room, and with palpitating heart closed the door behind her.

Linda remained downstairs, putting away her tea and sugar, not in the best of humours; but Katie, according to her wont, ran up after her mother.

‘Katie,’ said Gertrude, as Katie bounced into the room, ‘dearest Katie, I want to speak a word to mamma — alone. Will you mind going down just for a few minutes?’ and she put her arm round her sister, and kissed her with almost unwonted tenderness.

‘Go, Katie, dear,’ said Mrs. Woodward; and Katie, speechless, retired.

‘Gertrude has got something particular to tell mamma; something that I may not hear. I wonder what it is about,’ said Katie to her second sister.

Linda’s heart sank within her. ‘Could it be? No, it could not, could not be, that the sweet voice which had whispered in her ears those well-remembered words, could have again whispered the same into other ears — that the very Gertrude who had warned her not to listen to such words from such lips, should have listened to them herself, and have adopted them and made them her own! It could not, could not be!’ and yet Linda’s heart sank low within her.

‘If you really love him,’ said the mother, again caressing her eldest daughter as she acknowledged her love, but hardly with such tenderness as when that daughter had repudiated that other love —‘if you really love him, dearest, of course I do not, of course I cannot, object.’

‘I do, mamma; I do.’

‘Well, then, Gertrude, so be it. I have not a word to say against your choice. Had I not believed him to be an excellent young man, I should not have allowed him to be here with you so much as he has been. We cannot all see with the same eyes, dearest, can we?’

‘No, mamma; but pray don’t think I dislike poor Harry; and, oh! mamma, pray don’t set him against Alaric because of this ——’

‘Set him against Alaric! No, Gertrude. I certainly shall not do that. But whether I can reconcile Harry to it, that is another thing.’

‘At any rate he has no right to be angry at it,’ said Gertrude, assuming her air of dignity.

‘Certainly not with you, Gertrude.’

‘No, nor with Alaric,’ said she, almost with indignation.

‘That depends on what has passed between them. It is very hard to say how men so situated regard each other.’

‘I know everything that has passed between them,’ said Gertrude. ‘I never gave Harry any encouragement. As soon as I understood my own feelings I endeavoured to make him understand them also.’

‘But, my dearest, no one is blaming you.’

‘But you are blaming Alaric.’

‘Indeed I am not, Gertrude.’

‘No man could have behaved more honourably to his friend,’ said Gertrude; ‘no man more nobly; and if Harry does not feel it so, he has not the good heart for which I always gave him credit.’

‘Poor fellow! his friendship for Alaric will be greatly tried.’

‘And, mamma, has not Alaric’s friendship been tried? and has it not borne the trial nobly? Harry told him of — of — of his intentions; Harry told him long, long, long ago ——’

‘Ah me! — poor Harry!’ sighed Mrs. Woodward.

‘But you think nothing of Alaric!’

‘Alaric is successful, my dear, and can ——’ Think sufficiently of himself, Mrs. Woodward was going to say, but she stopped herself.

‘Harry told him all,’ continued Gertrude, ‘and Alaric — Alaric said nothing of his own feelings. Alaric never said a word to me that he might not have said before his friend — till — till — You must own, mamma, that no one can have behaved more nobly than Alaric has done.’

Mrs. Woodward, nevertheless, had her own sentiments on the matter, which were not quite in unison with those of her daughter. But then she was not in love with Alaric, and her daughter was. She thought that Alaric’s love was a passion that had but lately come to the birth, and that had he been true to his friend — nobly true as Gertrude had described him — it would never have been born at all, or at any rate not till Harry had had a more prolonged chance of being successful with his suit. Mrs. Woodward understood human nature better than her daughter, or, at least, flattered herself that she did so, and she felt well assured that Alaric had not been dying for love during the period of Harry’s unsuccessful courtship. He might, she thought, have waited a little longer before he chose for his wife the girl whom his friend had loved, seeing that he had been made the confidant of that love.

Such were the feelings which Mrs. Woodward felt herself unable to repress; but she could not refuse her consent to the marriage. After all, she had some slight twinge of conscience, some inward conviction that she was prejudiced in Harry’s favour, as her daughter was in Alaric’s. Then she had lost all right to object to Alaric, by allowing him to be so constantly at the Cottage; and then again, there was nothing to which in reason she could object. In point of immediate income, Alaric was now the better match of the two. She kissed her daughter, therefore, and promised that she would do her best to take Alaric to her heart as her son-inlaw.

‘You will tell Uncle Bat, mamma?’ said Gertrude.

‘O yes — certainly, my dear; of course he’ll be told. But I suppose it does not make much matter, immediately?’

‘I think he should be told, mamma; I should not like him to think that he was treated with anything like disrespect.’

‘Very well, my dear, I’ll tell him,’ said Mrs. Woodward, who was somewhat surprised at her daughter’s punctilious feelings about Uncle Bat. However, it was all very proper; and she was glad to think that her children were inclined to treat their grand-uncle with respect, in spite of his long nose.

And then Gertrude was preparing to leave the room, but her mother stopped her. ‘Gertrude, dear,’ said she.

‘Yes, mamma.’

‘Come here, dearest; shut the door. Gertrude, have you told Linda yet?’

‘No, mamma, not yet.’

As Mrs. Woodward asked the question, there was an indescribable look of painful emotion on her brow. It did not escape Gertrude’s eye, and was not to her perfectly unintelligible. She had conceived an idea — why, she did not know — that these recent tidings of hers would not be altogether agreeable to her sister.

‘No, mamma, I have not told her; of course I told you first. But now I shall do so immediately.’

‘Let me tell her,’ said Mrs. Woodward, ‘will you, Gertrude?’

‘Oh! certainly, mamma, if you wish it.’

Things were going wrong with Mrs. Woodward. She had perceived, with a mother’s anxious eye, that her second daughter was not indifferent to Alaric Tudor. While she yet thought that Norman and Gertrude would have suited each other, this had caused her no disquietude. She herself had entertained none of those grand ideas to which Gertrude had given utterance with so much sententiousness, when she silenced Linda’s tale of love before the telling of it had been commenced. Mrs. Woodward had always felt sufficiently confident that Alaric would push himself in the world, and she would have made no objection to him as a son-inlaw had he been contented to take the second instead of the first of her flock.

She had never spoken to Linda on the matter, and Linda had offered to her no confidence; but she felt all but sure that her second child would not have entertained the affection which she had been unable altogether to conceal, had no lover’s plea been poured into her ears. Mrs. Woodward questioned her daughters but little, but she understood well the nature of each, and could nearly read their thoughts. Linda’s thoughts it was not difficult to read.

‘Linda, pet,’ she said, as soon as she could get Linda into her room without absolutely sending for her, ‘you have not yet heard Gertrude’s news?’

‘No,’ said Linda, turning very pale, and feeling that her heart was like to burst.

‘I would let no one tell you but myself, Linda. Come here, dearest; don’t stand there away from me. Can you guess what it is?’

Linda, for a moment, could not speak. ‘No, mamma,’ she said at last, ‘I don’t know what it is.’

Mrs. Woodward twined her arm round her daughter’s waist, as they sat on the sofa close to each other. Linda tried to compose herself, but she felt that she was trembling in her mother’s arms. She would have given anything to be calm; anything to hide her secret. She little guessed then how well her mother knew it. Her eyes were turned down, and she found that she could not raise them to her mother’s face.

‘No, mamma,’ she said. ‘I don’t know — what is it?’

‘Gertrude is to be married, Linda. She is engaged.’

‘I thought she refused Harry,’ said Linda, through whose mind a faint idea was passing of the cruelty of nature’s arrangements, which gave all the lovers to her sister.

‘Yes, dearest, she did; and now another has made an offer — she has accepted him.’ Mrs. Woodward could hardly bring herself to speak out that which she had to say, and yet she felt that she was only prolonging the torture for which she was so anxious to find a remedy.

‘Has she?’ said Linda, on whom the full certainty of her misery had now all but come.

‘She has accepted our dear Alaric.’

Our dear Alaric! what words for Linda’s ears! They did reach her ears, but they did not dwell there — her soft gentle nature sank beneath the sound. Her mother, when she looked to her for a reply, found that she was sinking through her arms. Linda had fainted.

Mrs. Woodward neither screamed, nor rang for assistance, nor emptied the water-jug over her daughter, nor did anything else which would have the effect of revealing to the whole household the fact that Linda had fainted. She had seen girls faint before, and was not frightened. But how, when Linda recovered, was she to be comforted?

Mrs. Woodward laid her gently on the sofa, undid her dress, loosened her stays, and then sat by her chafing her hands, and moistening her lips and temples, till gradually the poor girl’s eyes reopened. The recovery from a fainting fit, a real fainting fit I beg young ladies to understand, brings with it a most unpleasant sensation, and for some minutes Linda’s sorrow was quelled by her sufferings; but as she recovered her strength she remembered where she was and what had happened, and sobbing violently she burst into an hysterical storm of tears.

Her most poignant feeling now was one of fear lest her mother should have guessed her secret; and this Mrs. Woodward well understood. She could do nothing towards comforting her child till there was perfect confidence between them. It was easy to arrive at this with Linda, nor would it afterwards be difficult to persuade her as to the course she ought to take. The two girls were so essentially different; the one so eager to stand alone and guide herself, the other so prone to lean on the nearest support that came to her hand.

It was not long before Linda had told her mother everything. Either by words, or tears, or little signs of mute confession, she made her mother understand, with all but exactness, what had passed between Alaric and herself, and quite exactly what had been the state of her own heart. She sobbed, and wept, and looked up to her mother for forgiveness as though she had been guilty of a great sin; and when her mother caressed her with all a mother’s tenderness, and told her that she was absolved from all fault, free of all blame, she was to a certain degree comforted. Whatever might now happen, her mother would be on her side. But Mrs. Woodward, when she looked into the matter, found that it was she that should have demanded pardon of her daughter, not her daughter of her! Why had this tender lamb been allowed to wander out of the fold, while a wolf in sheep’s clothing was invited into the pasture-ground?

Gertrude, with her talent, her beauty, and dignity of demeanour, had hitherto been, perhaps, the closest to the mother’s heart — had been, if not the most cherished, yet the most valued; Gertrude had been the apple of her eye. This should be altered now. If a mother’s love could atone for a mother’s negligence, Mrs. Woodward would atone to her child for this hour of misery! And Katie — her sweet bonny Katie — she, at least, should be protected from the wolves. Those were the thoughts that passed through Mrs. Woodward’s heart as she sat there caressing Linda. But how were things to be managed now at the present moment? It was quite clear that the wolf in sheep’s clothing must be admitted into the pastoral family; either that, or the fairest lamb of the flock must be turned out altogether, to take upon herself lupine nature, and roam the woods a beast of prey. As matters stood it behoved them to make such a sheep of Alaric as might be found practicable.

And so Mrs. Woodward set to work to teach her daughter how best she might conduct herself in her present state of wretchedness. She had to bear with her sister’s success, to listen to her sister’s joy, to enter into all her future plans, to assist at her toilet, to prepare her wedding garments, to hear the congratulations of friends, and take a sister’s share in a sister’s triumph, and to do this without once giving vent to a reproach. And she had worse than this to do; she had to encounter Alaric, and to wish him joy of his bride; she had to protect her female pride from the disgrace which a hopeless but acknowledged love would throw on it; she had to live in the house with Alaric as though he were her brother, and as though she had never thought to live with him in any nearer tie. She would have to stand at the altar as her sister’s bridesmaid, and see them married, and she would have to smile and be cheerful as she did so.

This was the lesson which Mrs. Woodward had now to teach her daughter; and she so taught it that Linda did all that circumstances and her mother required of her. Late on that afternoon she went to Gertrude, and, kissing her, wished her joy. At that moment Gertrude was the more embarrassed of the two.

‘Linda, dear Linda,’ she said, embracing her sister convulsively.

‘I hope you will be happy, Gertrude, with all my heart,’ said Linda; and so she relinquished her lover.

We talk about the weakness of women — and Linda Woodward was, in many a way, weak enough — but what man, what giant, has strength equal to this? It was not that her love was feeble. Her heart was capable of truest love, and she had loved Alaric truly. But she had that within her which enabled her to overcome herself, and put her own heart, and hopes, and happiness — all but her maiden pride — into the background, when the hopes and happiness of another required it.

She still shared the same room with her sister; and those who know how completely absorbed a girl is by her first acknowledged love, may imagine how many questions she had to answer, to how many propositions she was called to assent, for how many schemes she had to vouchsafe a sister’s interest, while her heart was telling her that she should have been the questioner, she should have been the proposer, that the schemes should all have been her own.

But she bore it bravely. When Alaric first came down, which he did in the middle of the week, she was, as she told her mother, too weak to stand in his presence. Her mother strongly advised her not to absent herself; so she sat gently by, while he kissed Mrs. Woodward and Katie. She sat and trembled, for her turn she knew must come. It did come; Alaric, with an assurance which told more for his courage than for his heart, came up to her, and with a smiling face offered her his hand. She rose up and muttered some words which she had prepared for the occasion, and he, still holding her by the hand, stooped down and kissed her cheek. Mrs. Woodward looked on with an angry flush on her brow, and hated him for his cold-hearted propriety of demeanour.

Linda went up to her mother’s room, and, sitting on her mother’s bed, sobbed herself into tranquillity.

It was very grievous to Mrs. Woodward to have to welcome Alaric to her house. For Alaric’s own sake she would no longer have troubled herself to do so; but Gertrude was still her daughter, her dear child. Gertrude had done nothing to disentitle her to a child’s part, and a child’s protection; and even had she done so, Mrs. Woodward was not a woman to be unforgiving to her child. For Gertrude’s sake she had to make Alaric welcome; she forced herself to smile on him and call him her son; to make him more at home in her house even than Harry had ever been; to give him privileges which he, wolf as he was, had so little deserved.

But Captain Cuttwater made up by the warmth of his congratulations for any involuntary coolness which Alaric might have detected in those of Mrs. Woodward. It had become a strong wish of the old man’s heart that he might make Alaric, at any rate in part, his heir, without doing an injustice to his niece or her family. He had soon seen and appreciated what he had called the ‘gumption’ both of Gertrude and Alaric. Had Harry married Gertrude, and Alaric Linda, he would have regarded either of those matches with disfavour. But now he was quite satisfied — now he could look on Alaric as his son and Gertrude as his daughter, and use his money according to his fancy, without incurring the reproaches of his conscience.

‘Quite right, my boy, ‘he said to Alaric, slapping him on the back at the same time with pretty nearly all his power —‘quite right. Didn’t I know you were the winning horse? — didn’t I tell you how it would be? Do you think I don’t know what gumption means? If I had not had my own weather-eye open, aye, and d —- wide open, the most of my time, I shouldn’t have two or three thousand pounds to give away now to any young fellow that I take a fancy to.’

Alaric was, of course, all smiles and good humour, and Gertrude not less so. The day after he heard of the engagement Uncle Bat went to town, and, on his return, he gave Gertrude £100 to buy her wedding-clothes, and half that sum to her mother, in order that the thing might go off, as he expressed himself, ‘slip-slap, and no mistake.’ To Linda he gave nothing, but promised her that he would not forget her when her time came.

All this time Norman was at Normansgrove; but there were three of the party who felt that it behoved them to let him know what was going on. Mrs. Woodward wrote first, and on the following day both Gertrude and Alaric wrote to him, the former from Hampton, and the latter from his office in London.

All these letters were much laboured, but, with all this labour, not one of them contained within it a grain of comfort. That from Mrs. Woodward came first and told the tale. Strange to say, though Harry had studiously rejected from his mind all idea of hope as regarded Gertrude, nevertheless the first tidings of her betrothal with Alaric struck him as though he had still fancied himself a favoured lover. He felt as though, in his absence, he had been robbed of a prize which was all his own, as though a chattel had been taken from him to which he had a full right; as though all the Hampton party, Mrs. Woodward included, were in a conspiracy to defraud him the moment his back was turned.

The blow was so severe that it laid him prostrate at once. He could not sob away his sorrow on his mother’s bosom; no one could teach him how to bear his grief with meek resignation. He had never spoken of his love to his friends at Normansgrove. They had all been witnesses to his deep disappointment, but that had been attributed to his failure at his office. He was not a man to seek for sympathy in the sorrows of his heart. He had told Alaric of his rejection, because he had already told him of his love, but he had whispered no word of it to anyone besides. On the day on which he received Mrs. Woodward’s letter, he appeared at dinner ghastly pale, and evidently so ill as to be all but unable to sit at table; but he would say nothing to anybody; he sat brooding over his grief till he was unable to sit any longer.

And yet Mrs. Woodward had written with all her skill, with all her heart striving to pluck the sting away from the tidings which she had to communicate. She had felt, however, that she owed as much, at least, to her daughter as she did to him, and she failed to call Alaric perjured, false, dishonoured, unjust, disgraced, and treacherous. Nothing short of her doing so would have been deemed by Norman fitting mention of Tudor’s sin; nothing else would have satisfied the fury of his wrath.

On the next morning he received Gertrude’s letter and Alaric’s. The latter he never read — he opened it, saw that it began as usual, ‘My dear Harry,’ and then crammed it into his pocket. By return of post it went back under a blank cover, addressed to Alaric at the Weights and Measures. The days of duelling were gone by — unfortunately, as Norman now thought, but nothing, he determined, should ever induce him again to hold friendly intercourse with the traitor. He abstained from making any such oath as to the Woodwards; but determined that his conduct in that respect should be governed by the manner in which Alaric was received by them.

But Gertrude’s letter he read over and over again, and each time he did so he indulged in a fresh burst of hatred against the man who had deceived him. ‘A dishonest villain!’ he said to himself over and over again; ‘what right had I to suppose he would be true to me when I found that he had been so false to others?’

‘Dearest Harry,’ the letter began. Dearest Harry! — Why should she begin with a lie? He was not dearest! ‘You must not, must not, must not be angry with Alaric,’ she went on to say, as soon as she had told her tale. Oh, must he not? Not be angry with Alaric! Not angry with the man who had forgotten every law of honour, every principle of honesty, every tie of friendship! Not angry with the man whom he had trusted with the key of his treasure, and who had then robbed him; who had stolen from him all his contentment, all his joy, his very heart’s blood; not angry with him!

‘Our happiness will never be perfect unless you will consent to share it.’ Thus simply, in the affection of her heart, had Gertrude concluded the letter by which she intended to pour balm into the wounds of her rejected lover, and pave the way for the smoothing of such difficulties as might still lie in the way of her love.

‘Their happiness would not be perfect unless he would consent to share it.’ Every word in the sentence was gall to him. It must have been written with the object of lacerating his wounds, and torturing his spirit; so at least said Norman to himself. He read the letter over and over again. At one time he resolved to keep it till he could thrust it back into her hand, and prove to her of what cruelty she had been guilty. Then he thought of sending it to Mrs. Woodward, and asking her how, after that, could she think that he should ever again enter her doors at Hampton. Finally he tore it into a thousand bits, and threw them behind the fire.

‘Share their happiness!’ and as he repeated the words he gave the last tear to the fragments of paper which he still held in his hand. Could he at that moment as easily have torn to shreds all hope of earthly joys for those two lovers, he would then have done it, and cast the ruins to the flames.

Oh! what a lesson he might have learnt from Linda! And yet what were his injuries to hers? He in fact had not been injured, at least not by him against whom the strength of his wrath most fiercely raged. The two men had both admired Gertrude, but Norman had started on the race first. Before Alaric had had time to know his own mind, he had learnt that Norman claimed the beauty as his own. He had acknowledged to himself that Norman had a right to do so, and had scrupulously abstained from interfering with him. Why should Norman, like a dog in the manger, begrudge to his friend the fodder which he himself could not enjoy? To him, at any rate, Alaric had in this been no traitor. ’Twas thus at least that Gertrude argued in her heart, and ’twas thus that Mrs. Woodward tried to argue also.

But who could excuse Alaric’s falseness to Linda? And yet Linda had forgiven him.

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