‘How is it between you and her?’ That was the question which the Duke put to his son as soon as he had closed the door of the study. Lady Mabel had been dismissed from the front door on her journey, and there could be no doubt as to the ‘her’ intended. No such question would have been asked had not Silverbridge himself declared to his father his purpose of making Lady Mabel his wife. On that subject the Duke, without such authority, would not have interfered. But he had been consulted, had acceded, and had encouraged the idea by excessive liberality on his part. He had never dropped it out of his mind for a moment. But when he found that the girl was leaving his house without any explanation, then he became restless and inquisitive.
They say that perfect love casteth out fear. If it be so the love of children to their parents is seldom altogether perfect — and perhaps had better not be quite perfect. With this young man it was not that he feared anything which his father could do to him, that he believed that in consequence of his declaration which he had to make his comforts and pleasures would be curtailed, or his independence diminished. But he feared that he would make his father unhappy, and he was conscious that he had so often sinned in that way. He had stumbled so frequently! Though in action he would so often be thoughtless — yet he understood perfectly the effect which had been produced on his father’s mind by his conduct. He had it at heart ‘to be good to the governor’, to gratify that most loving of all possible friends, who, as he well knew, was always thinking of his welfare. And yet he never had been ‘good to the governor’; — nor had Gerald; — and to all this was added his sister’s determined perversity. It was thus he feared his father.
He paused for a moment, while the Duke stood with his back to the fire looking at him. ‘I’m afraid that it is all over, sir,’ he said.
‘I am afraid so, sir.’
‘Why is it all over? Has she refused you?’
‘Well, sir; — it isn’t quite that.’ Then he paused again. It was so difficult to begin about Isabel Boncassen.
‘I am sorry for that,’ said the Duke, almost hesitating; ‘very sorry. You will understand, I hope, that I should make no inquiry into the matter, unless I felt myself warranted in doing so by what you had yourself told me in London.’
‘I understand all that.’
‘I have been very anxious about it, and have even gone so far as to make some preparations for what I had hoped would be your early marriage.’
‘Preparations!’ exclaimed Silverbridge, thinking of church bells, bride cake, and wedding presents.
‘As to the property. I am anxious that you should enjoy all the settled independence which can belong to an English gentleman. I never plough or sow. I know no more of sheep and bulls than of the extinct animals of earlier ages. I would not have it so with you. I would fain see you surrounded by those things which ought to interest a nobleman in this country. Why is it all over with Lady Mabel Grex?’
The young man looked imploringly at his father, as though earnestly begging that nothing more might be said about Mabel. ‘I had changed my mind before I found out that she was really in love with me!’ He could not say that. He could not hint that he might still have Mabel if he would. The only thing for him was to tell everything about Isabel Boncassen. He felt that in doing this he must begin with himself. ‘I have rather changed my mind, sir,’ he said, ‘since we were walking together in London that night.’
‘Have you quarrelled with Lady Mabel?’
‘Oh dear no. I am very fond of Mabel; — only not just like that.’
‘Not just like what?’
‘I had better tell the whole truth at once.’
‘Certainly tell the truth, Silverbridge. I cannot say that you are bound in duty to tell the whole truth even to your father in such a matter.’
‘But I mean to tell you everything. Mabel did not seem to care for me much — in London. And then I saw someone — someone I liked better.’ Then he stopped, but as the Duke did not ask any questions he plunged on. ‘It was Miss Boncassen.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Silverbridge, with a little access of decision.
‘The American young lady?’
‘Do you know anything of her family?’
‘I think I know all about her family. It is not much in the way of — family.’
‘You have not spoken to her about it?’
‘Yes sir; — I have settled it all with her, on condition —’
‘Settled it with her that she is to be your wife.’
‘Yes, sir — on condition that you will approve.’
‘Did you go to her, Silverbridge, with such a stipulation as that?’
‘It was not like that.’
‘How was it then?’
‘She stipulated. She will marry me if you consent.’
‘It was she then who thought of my wishes and feeling; — not you?’
‘I knew that I loved her. What is a man to do when he feels like that? Of course I meant to tell you.’ The Duke was looking very black. ‘I thought you liked her, sir.’
‘Liked her! I did like her. I do like her. What has that to do with it? Do you think I like none but those with whom I should think it fitting to ally myself in marriage? Is there to be no duty in such matters, no restraint, no feeling of what is due to your own name, and to others who bear it? The lad who is out there sweeping the walks can marry the first girl that pleases his eye if she will take him. Perhaps his lot is the happier because he owns such liberty. Have you the same freedom?’
‘I suppose I have — by law.’
‘Do you recognise no duty but what the law imposes upon you? Should you be disposed to eat in drink in bestial excess, because the laws would not hinder you? Should you lie and sleep all the day, the law would say nothing! Should you neglect every duty which your position imposes on you, the law could not interfere! To such a one as you the law can be no guide. You should so live as not to come near the law — or to have the law come near to you. From all evil against which the law bars you, you should be barred, at an infinite distance, by honour, by conscience, and nobility. Does the law require patriotism, philanthropy, self-abnegation, public service, purity of purpose, devotion to the needs of others who have been placed in the world below you? The law is a great thing — because men are poor and weak, and bad. And it is great, because where it exists in strength, no tyrant can be above it. But between you and me there should be no mention of law as the guide of conduct. Speak to me of honour, of duty, and of nobility; and tell me what they require of you.’
Silverbridge listened in silence and with something of admiration in his heart. But he felt the strong necessity of declaring his own convictions on the special point here, at once, in this new crisis of the conversation. That accident in regard to the colour of the Dean’s lodge had stood in the way of his logical studies — so that he was unable to put his argument into proper shape; but there belonged to him a certain natural astuteness which told him that he must put his rejoinder at this particular point. ‘I think I am bound in honour and in duty to marry Miss Boncassen,’ he said. ‘And if I understand what you mean, by nobility just as much.’
‘Because you have promised.’
‘Not only for that. I have promised and therefore I am bound. She has; — well, she has said that she loves me, and therefore of course I am bound. But it not only that.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I suppose a man ought to marry the woman he loves; — if he can get her.’
‘No; no; no; not always so. Do you think that love is a passion that cannot be withstood?’
‘But here we are of one mind, sir. When I say how you seemed to take to her —’
‘Take to her! Can I not interest myself in human beings without wishing to make them flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone? What am I to think of you? It was but the other day that all that you are now telling me of Miss Boncassen, you were telling me of Lady Mabel Grex.’ Here poor Silverbridge bit his lips and shook his head, and looked down upon the ground. This was the weak part of his case. He could not tell his father the whole story about Mabel — that she had coyed his love, so that he had been justified in thinking himself free from any claim in that direction when he had encountered the infinitely sweeter charms of Isabel Boncassen. ‘You are as weak as water,’ said the unhappy father.
‘I am not weak in this.’
‘Did you not say exactly the same about Lady Mabel?’
There was a pause, so that he was driven to reply. ‘I found her as I thought indifferent, and then — -I changed my mind.’
‘Indifferent! What does she think about it now? Does she know of this? How does it stand between you two at the present moment?’
‘She knows that I am engaged to — Miss Boncassen.’
‘Does she approve of it?’
‘Why should I ask her? I have not asked her.’
‘Then why did you tell her? She could not but have spoken her mind when you told her. There must have been much between you when she was talked of.’
The unfortunate young man was obliged to take some time before he could answer this appeal. He had to own that his father had some justice on his side, but at the same time he could reveal nothing of Mabel’s secret. ‘I told her because we were friends. I did not ask her approval; but she did not disapprove. She thought that your son should not marry an American girl without a family.’
‘Of course she would feel that.’
‘Now I have told you what she said, and I hope you will ask me no further questions about her. I cannot make Lady Mabel my wife; —- though, for the matter of that I ought not to presume that she would take me if I wished it. I had intended to ask you today to consent to my marriage with Miss Boncassen.’
‘I cannot give you my consent.’
‘Then I am very unhappy.’
‘How can I believe as to your unhappiness when you would have said the same about Lady Mabel Grex a few weeks ago?’
‘Nearly eight months,’ said Silverbridge.
‘What is the difference? It is not the time, but the disposition of the man! I cannot give you my consent. The young lady sees it in the right light, and that will make your escape easy.’
‘I do not want to escape.’
‘She has indicated the cause which will separate you.’
‘I will not be separated from her,’ said Silverbridge, who was beginning to feel that he was subjugated to tyranny. If he chose to marry Isabel, no one could have a right to hinder him.
‘I can only hope that you will think the better of it, and that when next you speak to me on that or on any other subject you will answer me with less arrogance.’
This rebuke was terrible to the son, whose mind at the present moment was filled with two ideas, that of constancy to Isabel Boncassen, and then of respect and affection for his father. ‘Indeed, sir,’ he said, ‘I am not arrogant, and if I have answered improperly I beg your pardon. But my mind is made up about this, and I thought you had better know how it is.’
‘I do not see that I can say anything else to you.’
‘I think of going to Harrington this afternoon.’ Then the Duke with further very visible annoyance, asked where Harrington was. it was explained that Harrington was Lord Chiltern’s seat, Lord Chiltern being the Master of the Brake hounds; — that it was his son’s purpose to remain six weeks among the Brake hounds, but that he should stay only a day of two with Lord Chiltern. Then it appeared that Silverbridge intended to put himself up at a hunting inn in the neighbourhood, and the Duke did not at all like the plan. That his son should choose to live at an inn, when the comforts of an English country house were open to him, was distasteful and almost offensive to the Duke. And the matter was not improved when he was made to understand that all this was to be done for the sake of hunting. There had been the shooting in Scotland; then the racing; — ah alas yes; — the racing, and the betting at Doncaster! Then the shooting at Matching had been made to appear to be the chief reason why he himself had been living in his own house! And now his son was going away to live at an inn in order that more time might be devoted to hunting! ‘Why can’t you live here at home, if you must hunt?’
‘It is all woodland,’ said Silverbridge.
‘I thought you wanted woods. Lord Chiltern is always troubling me about Trumpington Wood.’
This breeze about the hunting enabled the son to escape without any further allusion to Miss Boncassen. He did escape, and proceeded to turn over in his mind all that had been said. His tale had been told. A great burden was thus taken off his shoulders. He could tell Isabel so much, and thus free himself from the suspicion of having been afraid to declare his purpose. She should know what he had done, and should be made to understand that he had been firm. He had, he thought, been very firm and gave himself some credit on that head. His father, no doubt, had been firm too, but that he had expected. His father had said much. All that about honour and duty had been very good; but this was certain; — that when a young man had promised a young woman he ought to keep his word. And he thought that there were certain changes going on in the management of the world which his father did not quite understand. Fathers never do quite understand changes which are manifest to their sons. Some years ago it might have been improper that an American girl should be elevated to the rank of an English Duchess, but now all that was altered.
The Duke spent the rest of the day alone, and was not happy in his solitude. All that Silverbridge had told him was sad to him. He had taught himself to think that he could love Lady Mabel as an affectionate father wishes to love his son’s wife. He had set himself to wish to like her, and had been successful. Being most anxious that his son should marry he had prepared himself to be more than ordinarily liberal — to be in every way gracious. His children were now everything to him, and among his children his son and heir was the chief. From the moment in which he had heard from Silverbridge that Lady Mabel was chosen he had given himself up to considering how he might best promote their interests — how he might best enable them to live, with that dignity and splendour which he himself had unwisely despised. That the son who was to come after him should be worthy of the place assigned to his name had been, of personal objects, the nearest to his heart. There had been failures, but still there had been left room for hope. The boy had been immature at Eton; — but how many unfortunate boys had become great men! He had disgraced himself by his folly at college — but although some lads will be men at twenty, others are then little more than children. The fruit that ripens the soonest is seldom the best. Then had come Tifto and the racing mania. Nothing could be worse than Tifto and racehorses. But from that evil Silverbridge had seemed to be made free by the very disgust which the vileness of the circumstance had produced. Perhaps Tifto driving a nail into his horse’s foot had on the whole been serviceable. That apostasy from the political creed of the Pallisers had been a blow — much more felt than the loss of the seventy thousand pounds; — but even under that blow he had consoled himself by thinking that a conservative patriotic nobleman may serve his country — even as a Conservative. In the midst of this he had felt that the surest resource for his son against evil would be in an early marriage. If he would marry becomingly, then might everything still be made pleasant. If his son should marry becomingly nothing which a father could do should be wanting to add splendour and dignity to his son’s life.
In thinking of all this he had by no means regarded his own mode of life with favour. He knew how jejune his life had been — now devoid of other interests than that of the public service to which he had devoted himself. He was thinking of this when he told his son that he had neither ploughed and sowed or been the owner of sheep or oxen. He often thought of this, when he heard those round him talking of the sports, which, though he condemned them as the employment of a life, he now regarded wistfully, hopelessly as far as he himself was concerned, as proper recreations for a man of wealth. Silverbridge should have it all, if he could arrange it. The one thing necessary was a fitting wife — and the fitting wife had been absolutely chosen by Silverbridge himself.
It may be conceived, therefore, that he was again unhappy. He had already been driven to acknowledge that these children of his — thoughtless, restless, though they seemed to be — still had a will of their own. In all which how like they were to their mother! With her, however, his word, though it might be resisted, had never lost its authority. When he had declared that a thing should not be done, she had never persisted in saying that she would do it. But with his children it was otherwise. What power he had over Silverbridge — or for the matter of that, even his daughter? They had only to be firm and he knew that he must be conquered.
‘I thought that you liked her,’ Silverbridge had said to him. How utterly unconscious, thought the Duke, must the young man have been of all that his position required of him when he used such an argument! Liked her. He did like her. She was clever, accomplished, beautiful, well-mannered — as far as he knew endowed with all good qualities! Would not many an old Roman have said as much for some favourite Greek slave — for some freedmen whom he would admit to his very heart? But what old Roman ever dreamed of giving his daughter to the son of a Greek bondsman! Had he done so, what would have become of the name of a Roman citizen? And was it not his duty to fortify and maintain that higher, smaller, more precious pinnacle of rank on which Fortune had placed him and his children?
Like her! Yes! he liked her certainly. He had by no means always found that he best liked the companionship of his own order. He had liked to feel around him the free battle of the House of Commons. He liked the power of attack and defence in carrying on which an English politician cares nothing for rank. He liked to remember that the son of any tradesman might, by his own merits, become a peer of Parliament. He would have liked to think that his son should share all these tastes with him. Yes; — he liked Isabel Boncassen. But how different was that liking from a desire that she should be bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01