Miss Effingham’s life at this time was not the happiest in the world. Her lines, as she once said to her friend Lady Laura, were not laid for her in pleasant places. Her residence was still with her aunt, and she had come to find that it was almost impossible any longer to endure Lady Baldock, and quite impossible to escape from Lady Baldock. In former days she had had a dream that she might escape, and live alone if she chose to be alone; that she might be independent in her life, as a man is independent, if she chose to live after that fashion; that she might take her own fortune in her own hand, as the law certainly allowed her to do, and act with it as she might please. But latterly she had learned to understand that all this was not possible for her. Though one law allowed it, another law disallowed it, and the latter law was at least as powerful as the former. And then her present misery was enhanced by the fact that she was now banished from the second home which she had formerly possessed. Hitherto she had always been able to escape from Lady Baldock to the house of her friend, but now such escape was out of the question. Lady Laura and Lord Chiltern lived in the same house, and Violet could not live with them.
Lady Baldock understood all this, and tortured her niece accordingly. It was not premeditated torture. The aunt did not mean to make her niece’s life a burden to her, and, so intending, systematically work upon a principle to that effect, Lady Baldock, no doubt, desired to do her duty conscientiously. But the result was torture to poor Violet, and a strong conviction on the mind of each of the two ladies that the other was the most unreasonable being in the world.
The aunt, in these days, had taken it into her head to talk of poor Lord Chiltern. This arose partly from a belief that the quarrel was final, and that, therefore, there would be no danger in aggravating Violet by this expression of pity — partly from a feeling that it would be better that her niece should marry Lord Chiltern than that she should not marry at all — and partly, perhaps, from the general principle that, as she thought it right to scold her niece on all occasions, this might be best done by taking an opposite view of all questions to that taken by the niece to be scolded. Violet was supposed to regard Lord Chiltern as having sinned against her, and therefore Lady Baldock talked of “poor Lord Chiltern.” As to the other lovers, she had begun to perceive that their conditions were hopeless. Her daughter Augusta had explained to her that there was no chance remaining either for Phineas, or for Lord Fawn, or for Mr Appledom. “I believe she will be an old maid, on purpose to bring me to my grave,” said Lady Baldock. When, therefore, Lady Baldock was told one day that Lord Chiltern was in the house, and was asking to see Miss Effingham, she did not at once faint away, and declare that they would all be murdered — as she would have done some months since. She was perplexed by a double duty. If it were possible that Violet should relent and be reconciled, then it would be her duty to save Violet from the claws of the wild beast. But if there was no such chance, then it would be her duty to poor Lord Chiltern to see that he was not treated with contumely and ill-humour.
“Does she know that he is here?” Lady Baldock asked her daughter.
“Not yet, mamma.”
“Oh dear, oh dear! I suppose she ought to see him. She has given him so much encouragement!”
“I suppose she will do as she pleases, mamma.”
“Augusta, how can you talk in that way? Am I to have no control in my own house?” It was, however, soon apparent to her that in this matter she was to have no control.
“Lord Chiltern is downstairs,” said Violet, coming into the room abruptly.
“So Augusta tells me. Sit down, my dear.”
“I cannot sit down, aunt — not just now. I have sent down to say that I would be with him in a minute. He is the most impatient soul alive, and I must not keep him waiting.”
“And you mean to see him?”
“Certainly I shall see him,” said Violet, as she left the room.
“I wonder that any woman should ever take upon herself the charge of a niece!” said Lady Baldock to her daughter in a despondent tone, as she held up her hands in dismay. In the meantime, Violet had gone downstairs with a quick step, and had then boldly entered the room in which her lover was waiting to receive her.
“I have to thank you for coming to me, Violet,” said Lord Chiltern. There was still in his face something of savagery — an expression partly of anger and partly of resolution to tame the thing with which he was angry. Violet did not regard the anger half so keenly as she did that resolution of taming. An angry lord, she thought, she could endure, but she could not bear the idea of being tamed by anyone.
“Why should I not come?” she said. Of course I came when I was told that you were here. I do not think that there need be a quarrel between us, because we have changed our minds.”
“Such changes make quarrels,” said he.
“It shall not do so with me, unless you choose that it shall,” said Violet. “Why should we be enemies — we who have known each other since we were children? My dearest friends are your father and your sister. Why should we be enemies?”
“I have come to ask you whether you think that I have ill-used you?”
“Ill-used me! Certainly not. Has anyone told you that I have accused you?”
“No-one has told me so.”
“Then why do you ask me?”
“Because I would not have you think so — if I could help it. I did not intend to be rough with you. When you told me that my life was disreputable — ”
“Oh, Oswald, do not let us go back to that. What good will it do?”
“But you said so.”
“I think not.”
“I believe that that was your word — the harshest word that you could use in all the language.”
“I did not mean to be harsh. If I used it, I will beg your pardon. Only let there be an end of it. As we think so differently about life in general, it was better that we should not be married. But that is settled, and why should we go back to words that were spoken in haste, and which are simply disagreeable?”
“I have come to know whether it is settled.”
“Certainly. You settled it yourself, Oswald. I told you what I thought myself bound to tell you. Perhaps I used language which I should not have used. Then you told me that I could not be your wife — and I thought you were right, quite right.”
“I was wrong, quite wrong,” he said impetuously. So wrong, that I can never forgive myself, if you do not relent. I was such a fool, that I cannot forgive myself my folly. I had known before that I could not live without you; and when you were mine, I threw you away for an angry word.”
“It was not an angry word,” she said.
“Say it again, and let me have another chance to answer it.”
“I think I said that idleness was not — respectable, or something like that, taken out of a copy-book probably. But you are a man who do not like rebukes, even out of copy-books. A man so thin-skinned as you are must choose for himself a wife with a softer tongue than mine.”
“I will choose none other!” he said. But still he was savage in his tone and in his gestures. “I made my choice long since, as you know well enough. I do not change easily. I cannot change in this. Violet, say that you will be my wife once more, and I will swear to work for you like a coal-heaver.”
“My wish is that my husband — should I ever have one — should work, not exactly as a coal-heaver.”
“Come, Violet,” he said — and now the look of savagery departed from him, and there came a smile over his face, which, however, had in it more of sadness than of hope or joy — “treat me fairly — or rather, treat me generously if you can. I do not know whether you ever loved me much.”
“Very much — years ago, when you were a boy.”
“But not since? If it be so, I had better go. Love on one side only is a poor affair at best.”
“A very poor affair.”
“It is better to bear anything than to try and make out life with that. Some of you women never want to love anyone.”
“That was what I was saying of myself to Laura but the other day. With some women it is so easy. With others it is so difficult, that perhaps it never comes to them.”
“And with you?”
“Oh, with me — . But it is better in these matters to confine oneself to generalities. If you please, I will not describe myself personally. Were I to do so, doubtless I should do it falsely.”
“You love no-one else, Violet?”
“That is my affair, my lord.”
“By heavens, and it is mine too. Tell me that you do, and I will go away and leave you at once. I will not ask his name, and I will trouble you no more. If it is not so, and if it is possible that you should forgive me — ”
“Forgive you! When have I been angry with you?”
“Answer me my question, Violet.”
“I will not answer you your question — not that one.”
“What question will you answer?”
“Any that may concern yourself and myself. None that may concern other people.”
“You told me once that you loved me.”
“This moment I told you that I did so — years ago.”
“That is another matter.”
“Violet do you love me now?”
“That is a point-blank question at any rate,” she said.
“And you will answer it?”
“I must answer it — I suppose.”
“Oh, Oswald, what a fool you are! Love you! of course I love you. If you can understand anything, you ought to know that I have never loved anyone else — that after what has passed between us, I never shall love anyone else. I do love you. There. Whether you throw me away from you, as you did the other day — with great scorn, mind you — or come to me with sweet, beautiful promises, as you do now, I shall love you all the same. I cannot be your wife, if you will not have me; can I? When you run away in your tantrums because I quote something out of the copy-book, I can’t run after you. It would not be pretty. But as for loving you, if you doubt that, I tell you, you are a — fool.” As she spoke the last words she pouted out her lips at him, and when he looked into her face he saw that her eyes were full of tears. He was standing now with his arm round her waist, so that it was not easy for him to look into her face.
“I am a fool,” he said,
“Yes — you are; but I don’t love you the less on that account.”
“I will never doubt it again.”
“No — do not; and, for me, I will not say another word, whether you choose to heave coals or not. You shall do as you please. I meant to be very wise — I did indeed.”
“You are the grandest girl that ever was made.”
“I do not want to be grand at all, and I never will be wise any more. Only do not frown at me and look savage.” Then she put up her hand to smooth his brow. “I am half afraid of you still, you know. There. That will do. Now let me go, that I may tell my aunt. During the last two months she has been full of pity for poor Lord Chiltern.”
“It has been poor Lord Chiltern with a vengeance!” said he.
“But now that we have made it up, she will be horrified again at all your wickednesses. You have been a turtle dove lately — now you will be an ogre again. But, Oswald, you must not be an ogre to me.”
As soon as she could get quit of her lover, she did tell her tale to Lady Baldock. “You have accepted him again!” said her aunt, holding up her hands. “Yes — I have accepted him again,” replied Violet. “Then the responsibility must be on your own shoulders,” said her aunt; “I wash my hands of it. That evening, when she discussed the matter with her daughter, Lady Baldock spoke of Violet and Lord Chiltern, as though their intended marriage were the one thing in the world which she most deplored.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14