Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXIV

Magna Est Veritas

It was made known to the reader that in the early part of the winter Mr Sowerby had a scheme for retrieving his lost fortunes, and setting himself right in the world, by marrying that rich heiress, Miss Dunstable. I fear my friend Sowerby does not, at present, stand high in the estimation of those who have come with me thus far in this narrative. He has been described as a spendthrift and gambler, and as one scarcely honest in his extravagance and gambling. But nevertheless there are worse men than Mr Sowerby, and I am not prepared to say that, should he be successful with Miss Dunstable, that lady would choose by any means the worst of the suitors who are continually throwing themselves at her feet. Reckless as this man always appeared to be, reckless as he absolutely was, there was still within his heart a desire for better things, and in his mind an understanding that he had hitherto missed the career of an honest English gentleman. He was proud of his position as a member for his county, though hitherto he had done so little to grace it; he was proud of his domain at Chaldicotes, though the possession of it had so nearly passed out of his own hands; he was proud of the old blood that flowed in his veins; and he was proud also of that easy, comfortable, gay manner, which went so far in the world’s judgement to atone for his extravagance and evil practices. If only he could get another chance, as he now said to himself, things should go very differently with him. He would utterly forswear the whole company of Tozers. He would cease to deal in bills, and to pay Heaven only knows how many hundred per centum for his moneys. He would no longer prey upon his friends, and would redeem his title-deeds from the Duke of Omnium. If only he could get another chance! Miss Dunstable’s fortune would do all this and ever so much more, and then, moreover, Miss Dunstable was a woman whom he really liked. She was not soft, feminine, or pretty, nor was she very young; but she was clever, self-possessed, and quite able to hold her own in any class; and as to age, Mr Sowerby was not very young himself. In making such a match he would have no cause of shame. He could speak of it before his friends without any fear of their grimaces, and ask them to his house, with the full assurance that the head of his table would not disgrace him. And then as the scheme grew clearer and clearer to him, he declared to himself that if he should be successful, he would use her well, and not rob her of her money — beyond what was absolutely necessary. He had intended to have laid his fortunes at her feet at Chaldicotes; but the lady had been coy. Then the deed was to have been done at Gatherum Castle, but the lady ran away from Gatherum Castle just at the time on which he had fixed. And since that, one circumstance after another had postponed the affair in London, till now at last he was resolved that he would know his fate, let it be what it might. If he could not contrive that things should speedily be arranged, it might come to pass that he would be altogether debarred from presenting himself to the lady as Mr Sowerby of Chaldicotes. Tidings had reached him, through Mr Fothergill, that the duke would be glad to have matters arranged; and Mr Sowerby well knew the meaning of that message.

Mr Sowerby was not fighting this campaign alone, without the aid of an ally. Indeed, no man ever had a more trusty ally in any campaign than he had in this. And it was this ally, the only faithful comrade that clung to him through good and ill during his whole life, who first put it into his head that Miss Dunstable was a woman and might be married. ‘A hundred needy adventurers have attempted it, and failed already,’ Mr Sowerby had said, when the plan was first proposed to him.

‘But, nevertheless, she will some day marry some one; and why not you as well as another?’ his sister had answered. For Mrs Harold Smith was the ally of whom I have spoken. Mrs Harold Smith, whatever may have been her faults, could boast of this virtue — that she loved her brother. He was probably the only human being that she did love. Children she had none; and as for her husband, it had never occurred to her to love him. She had married him for a position; and being a clever woman, with a good digestion and command of her temper, had managed to get through the world without much of that unhappiness which usually follows ill-assorted marriages. At home she managed to keep the upper hand, but she did so in an easy, good-humoured way that made her rule bearable; and away from home she assisted her lord’s political standing, though she laughed more keenly than any one else at his foibles. But the lord of her heart was her brother; and in all his scrapes, all his extravagances, and all his recklessness, she had ever been willing to assist him. With the view of doing this she had sought the intimacy of Miss Dunstable, and for the last year past had indulged every caprice of that lady. Or rather, she had had the wit to learn that Miss Dunstable was to be won, not by the indulgence of caprice, but by free and easy intercourse, with a dash of fun, and, at any rate, a semblance of honesty. Mrs Harold Smith was not, perhaps, herself very honest by disposition; but in these latter days she had taken up a theory of honesty for the sake of Miss Dunstable — not altogether in vain, for Miss Dunstable and Mrs Harold Smith were very intimate.

‘If I am to do it at all, I must not wait any longer,’ said Mr Sowerby to his sister a day or two after the final breakdown of the gods. The affection of the sister for the brother may be imagined from the fact that at such a time she could give up her mind to such a subject. But, in truth, her husband’s position as Cabinet minister was as nothing as compared with her brother’s position as a county gentleman. ‘One time is as good as another.’

‘You mean that you would advise me to ask her at once.’

‘Certainly. But you must remember, Nat, that you will have no easy task. It will not do for you to kneel down and swear that you love her.’

‘If I do it at all, I shall certainly do it without kneeling — you may be sure of that, Harriet.’

‘Yes, and without swearing that you love her. There is only one way in which you can be successful with Miss Dunstable — you must tell her the truth.’

‘What! tell her that I am ruined, horse, foot, and dragoons, and then bid her help me out of the mire?’

‘Exactly: that will be your only chance, strange as it may appear.’

‘This is very different from what you used to say, down at Chaldicotes.’

‘So it is; but I know her much better than I did when we were there. Since then I have done but little else than study the freaks of her character. If she really likes you — and I think she does — she could forgive you any other crime but that of swearing that you loved her.’

‘I should hardly know how to propose without saying something about it.’

‘But you must say nothing — not a word; you must tell her that you are a gentleman of good blood and high station, but sadly out at elbows.’

‘She knows that already.’

‘Of course she does; but she must know it as coming directly from your mouth. And then tell her that you propose to set yourself right by marrying her — by marrying her for the sake of her money.’

‘That will hardly win her, I should say.’

‘If it does not, no other way, that I know of, will do so. As I told you before, it will be no easy task. Of course you must make her understand that her happiness shall be cared for; but that must not be put prominently forward as your object. Your first object is her money, and your only chance for success is in telling the truth.’

‘It is very seldom that a man finds himself in such a position as that,’ said Sowerby, walking up and down his sister’s room; ‘and, upon my word, I don’t think that I am up to the task. I should certainly break down. I don’t believe there’s a man in London could go to a woman with such a story as that, and then ask her to marry him.’

‘If you cannot, you may as well give it up,’ said Mrs Harold Smith. ‘But if you can do it — if you can go through with it in that manner — my own opinion is that your chance of success would not be bad. The fact is,’ added the sister after a while, during which her brother was continuing his walk and meditating on the difficulties of his position —‘the fact is, you men never understand a woman; you give her credit neither for her strength, nor for her weakness. You are too bold, and too timid: you think she is a fool and tell her so, and yet never can trust her to do a kind action. Why should she not marry you with the intention of doing you a good turn? After all, she would lose very little: there is the estate, and if she redeemed it, it would belong to her as well as you.’

‘It would be a good turn, indeed. I fear I should be too modest to put it to her in that way.’

‘Her position would be much better as your wife than it is at present. You are good-humoured and good-tempered, you would intend to treat her well, and, on the whole, she would be much happier as Mrs Sowerby, of Chaldicotes, than she can be in her present position.’

‘If she cared about being married, I suppose she could be a peer’s wife tomorrow.’

‘But I don’t think she cares about being a peer’s wife. A needy peer might perhaps win her in the way that I propose to you; but then a needy peer would not know how to set about it. Needy peers have tried — half a dozen I have no doubt — and have failed, because they have pretended that they were in love with her. It may be difficult, but your only chance is to tell her the truth.’

‘And where shall I do it?’

‘Here if you choose; but her own house will be better.’

‘But I never can see her there — at least, not alone. I believe she is never alone. She always keeps a lot of people round her in order to stave off her lovers. Upon my word, Harriet, I think I’ll give it up. It is impossible that I should make such a declaration to her as that you propose.’

‘Faint heart, Nat — you know the rest.’

‘But the poet never alluded to such a wooing as that you have suggested. I suppose I had better begin with a schedule of my debts, and make reference, if she doubts me, to Fothergill, the sheriff’s officers, and the Tozer family.’

‘She will not doubt you, on that head; nor will she be a bit surprised.’ Then there was again a pause, during which Mr Sowerby still walked up and down the room, thinking whether or no he might possibly have any chance of success in so hazardous an enterprise.

‘I tell you what, Harriet,’ at last he said; ‘I wish you’d do it for me.’

‘Well,’ said she, ‘if you really mean it, I will make the attempt.’

‘I am sure of this, that I shall never make it myself. I positively should not have the courage to tell her in so many words, that I wanted to marry her for her money.’

‘Well, Nat, I will attempt it. At any rate, I am not afraid of her. She and I are excellent friends, and, to tell the truth, I think I like her better than any other woman that I know; but I never should have been intimate with her, had it not been for your sake.’

‘And now you will have to quarrel with her, also for my sake?’

‘Not at all. You’ll find that whether she accedes to my proposition or not, we shall continue to be friends. I do not think that she would die for me — nor I for her. But as the world goes we suit each other. Such a little trifle as this will not break our loves.’ And so it was settled. On the following day Mrs Harold Smith was to find an opportunity of explaining the whole matter to Miss Dunstable, and was to ask that lady to share her fortune — some incredible number of thousands of pounds — with the bankrupt member for West Barsetshire, who in return was to bestow on her — himself and his debts. Mrs Harold Smith had spoken no more than the truth in saying that she and Miss Dunstable suited one another. And she had not improperly described their friendship. They were not prepared to die, one for the sake of the other. They had said nothing to each other of mutual love and affection. They never kissed, or cried, or made speeches, when they met or when they parted. There was no great benefit for which either had to be grateful to the other; no terrible injury which either had forgiven. But they suited each other; and this, I take it, is the secret of most of pleasantest intercourse in the world. And it was almost grievous that they should suit each other, for Miss Dunstable was much the worthier of the two, had she but known it herself. It was almost to be lamented that she should have found herself able to live with Mrs Harold Smith on terms that were perfectly satisfactory to herself. Mrs Harold Smith was worldly, heartless — to all the world but her brother — and, as has been above hinted, almost dishonest. Miss Dunstable was not worldly, though it was possible that her present style of life might make her so; she was affectionate, fond of truth, and prone to honesty, if those around would but allow her to exercise it. But she was fond of ease and humour, sometimes of wit that might almost be called broad, and she had a thorough love of ridiculing the world’s humbugs. In all the propensities Mrs Harold Smith indulged her.

Under these circumstances they were now together almost every day. It had become quite a habit with Mrs Harold Smith to have herself driven early in the forenoon to Miss Dunstable’s house; and that lady, though she could never be found alone by Mr Sowerby, was habitually so found by his sister. And after that they would go out together, or each separately as fancy or the business of the day might direct them. Each was easy to the other in this alliance, and they so managed that they never trod on each other’s corns. On the day following the agreement made between Mr Sowerby and Mrs Harold Smith, that lady as usual called on Miss Dunstable, and soon found herself alone with her friend in a small room which the heiress kept solely for her own purposes. On special occasions persons of various sorts were there admitted; occasionally a parson who had a church to build, or a dowager laden with the last morsel of town slander, or a poor author who could not get due payment for the efforts of his brain, or a poor governess on whose feeble stamina the weight of the world had borne too hardly. But men who by possibility could be lovers did not make their way thither, nor women who could be bores. In these latter days, that is, during the present London season, the doors of it had been oftener open to Mrs Harold Smith than to any other person. And now the effort was to be made with the object of which all this intimacy had been effected. As she came thither in her carriage, Mrs Harold Smith herself was not altogether devoid of that sinking of the heart which is so frequently the forerunner of any difficult and hazardous undertaking. She had declared that she would feel no fear in making the little proposition. But she did feel something very like it: and when she made her entrance into the little room she certainly wished that the work was done and over.

‘How is poor Mr Smith today?’ asked Miss Dunstable, with an air of mock condolence, as her friend seated herself in her accustomed easy chair. The downfall of the gods was as yet a history hardly three days old, and it might well be supposed that the late of the Petty Bag had hardly recovered from his misfortune. ‘Well, he is better, I think, this morning; at least I should judge so from the manner in which he confronted his eggs. But still I don’t like the way he handles the carving-knife. I am sure he is always thinking of Mr Supplehouse at those moments.’

‘Poor man! I mean Supplehouse. After all, why shouldn’t he follow his trade as well as another? Live and let live, that’s what I say.’

‘Aye, but it’s kill and let kill with him. That is what Horace says. However, I am tired of all that now, and I came here today to talk about something else.’

‘I rather like Mr Supplehouse myself,’ exclaimed Miss Dunstable. ‘He never makes any bones about the matter. He has a certain work to do, and a certain cause to serve — namely, his own; and in order to do that work, and serve that cause, he uses such weapons as God has placed in his hands.’

‘That’s what the wild beasts do.’

‘And where will you find men honester than they? The tiger tears you up because he is hungry and wants to eat you. That’s what Supplehouse does. But there are so many among us tearing up one another without any excuse of hunger. The mere pleasure of destroying is reason enough.

‘Well, my dear, my mission to you today is certainly not one of destruction, as you will admit when you hear it. It is one, rather, very absolutely of salvation. I have come to make love to you.’

‘Then the salvation, I suppose, is not for myself,’ said Miss Dunstable. It was quite clear to Mrs Harold Smith that Miss Dunstable had immediately understood the whole purport of this visit, and that she was not in any great measure surprised. It did not seem from the tone of the heiress’s voice, or from the serious look which at once settled on her face, that she would be prepared to give very ready compliance. But then great objects can only be won with great efforts.

‘That’s as may be,’ said Mrs Harold Smith. ‘For you and another also, I hope. But I trust, at any rate, that I may not offend you?’

‘Oh, laws, no; nothing of that kind ever offends me now.’

‘Well, I suppose you’re used to it.’

‘Like the eels, my dear. I don’t mind it the least in the world — only sometimes, you know, it is a little tedious.’

‘I’ll endeavour to avoid that, so I may as well break the ice at once. You know enough of Nathaniel’s affairs to be aware that he is not a very rich man.’

‘Since you do ask me about it, I suppose there’s no harm in saying that I believe him to be a very poor man.’

‘Not the least harm in the world, but just the reverse. Whatever may come of this, my wish is that the truth should be told scrupulously on all sides; the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’

‘Magna est veritas,’ said Miss Dunstable. ‘The Bishop of Barchester taught me as much Latin as that at Chaldicotes; and he did add some more, but there was a long word, and I forgot it.’

‘The bishop was quite right, my dear, I’m sure. But if you go to your Latin, I’m lost. As we were just now saying, my brother’s pecuniary affairs are in a very bad state. He has a beautiful property of his own, which has been in the family for I can’t say how many centuries — long before the Conquest, I know.’

‘I wonder what my ancestors were then?’

‘It does not much signify to any of us,’ said Mrs Harold Smith, with a moral shake of her head, ‘what our ancestors were; but it’s a sad thing to see an old property go to ruin.’

‘Yes, indeed; we none of us like to see our property going to ruin, whether it be old or new. I have some of that sort of feeling already, although mine was only made the other day out of an apothecary’s shop.’

‘God forbid that I should ever help you ruin it,’ said Mrs Harold Smith. ‘I should be sorry to be the means of your losing a ten-pound note.’

‘Magna est veritas, as the dear bishop said,’ exclaimed Miss Dunstable. ‘Let us have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as we agreed just now.’ Mrs Harold Smith did begin to find that the task before her was difficult. There was a hardness about Miss Dunstable when matters of business were concerned on which it seemed almost impossible to make any impression. It was not that she had evinced any determination to refuse the tender of Mr Sowerby’s hand; but she was so painfully resolute not to have dust thrown in her eyes! Mrs Harold Smith had commenced with a mind fixed upon avoiding what she called humbug; but this sort of humbug had become so prominent a part of her usual rhetoric, that she found it very hard to abandon it. ‘And that’s what I wish,’ said she. ‘Of course my chief object is to secure my brother’s happiness.’

‘That’s very unkind to poor Mr Harold Smith.’

‘Well, well, well — you know what I mean.’

‘Yes, I think I do know what you mean. Your brother is a gentleman of good family, but of no means.’

‘Not quite as bad as that.’

‘Of embarrassed means, then, or anything that you will; whereas I am a lady of no family, but of sufficient wealth. You think that if you brought us together and made a match of it, it would be a very good thing for — for whom?’ said Miss Dunstable.

‘Yes, exactly,’ said Mrs Harold Smith.

‘For which of us? Remember the bishop now and his nice little bit of Latin.’

‘For Nathaniel then,’ said Mrs Harold Smith, boldly. ‘It would be a very good thing for him.’ And a slight smile came across her face as she said it. ‘Now that’s honest, or the mischief is in it.’

‘Yes, that’s honest enough. And did he send you here to tell me this?’

‘Well, he did that, and something else.’

‘And now let’s have the something else. The really important part, I have no doubt, has been spoken.’

‘No, by no means, by no means all of it. But you are so hard on one, my dear, with your running after honesty, that one is not able to tell the real facts as they are. You make one speak in such a bald, naked way.’

‘Ah, you think that anything naked must be indecent; even truth.’

‘I think it is more proper-looking, and better suited, too, for the world’s work, when it goes about with some sort of garment on it. We are so used to a leaven of falsehood in all we hear and say, nowadays, that nothing is more likely to deceive us than the absolute truth. If a shopkeeper told me that his wares were simply middling, of course, I should think that they were not worth a farthing. But all that has nothing to do with my poor brother. Well, what was I saying?’

‘You were going to tell me how well he will use me, no doubt.’

‘Something of that kind.’

‘That he wouldn’t beat me; or spend all my money if I managed to have it tied up out of his power; or look down on me with contempt because my father was an apothecary! Was not that what you were going to say?’

‘I was going to tell you that you might be more happy as Mrs Sowerby of Chaldicotes than you can be as Miss Dunstable —’

‘Of Mount Lebanon. And had Mr Sowerby no other message to send? —-nothing about love, or anything of that sort? I should like, you know, to understand what his feelings are before I take such a leap.’

‘I do believe he has as true a regard for you as any man of his age does have —’

‘For any woman of mine. That is not putting it in a very devoted way certainly; but I am glad to see that you remember the bishop’s maxim.’

‘What would you have me say? If I told you that he was dying for love, you would say, I was trying to cheat you; and now because I don’t tell you so, you say that he is wanting of devotion. I must say you are hard to please.’

‘Perhaps I am, and very unreasonable into the bargain. I ought to ask no questions of the kind when your brother proposes to do me so much honour. As for my expecting the love of a man who condescends to wish to be my husband, that, of course, would be monstrous. What right can I have to think that any man should love me? It ought to be enough for me to know that as I am rich, I can get a husband. What business can such as I have to inquire whether the gentleman who would so honour me really would like my company, or would only deign to put up with my presence in the household?’

‘Now, my dear Miss Dunstable —’

‘Of course I am not so much an ass to expect that any gentleman should love me; and I feel that I ought to be obliged to your brother for sparing me the string of complimentary declarations which are usual on such occasions. He, at any rate, is not tedious — or rather you on his behalf; for no doubt his own time is so occupied with his parliamentary duties that he cannot attend to this little matter himself. I do feel grateful to him; and perhaps nothing more will be necessary than to give him a schedule of the property, and name an early day for putting him possession.’ Mrs Smith did feel that she was rather badly used. This Miss Dunstable, in their mutual confidences, had so often ridiculed the love-making grimaces of her mercenary suitors — had spoken so fiercely against those who had persecuted her, not because they had desired her money, but on account of their ill-judgement in thinking her to be a fool — that Mrs Smith had a right to expect that the method she had adopted for opening the negotiation would be taken in a better spirit. Could it be possible, after all, thought Mrs Smith to herself, that Miss Dunstable was like other women, and that she did like to have men kneeling at her feet? Could it be the case that she had advised her brother badly, and that it would have been better for him to have gone about his work in the old-fashioned way? ‘They are very hard to manage,’ said Mrs Harold Smith to herself, thinking of her own sex.

‘He was coming here himself,’ said she, ‘but I advised him not to do so.’

‘That was kind of you.’

‘I thought that I could explain to you more openly and more freely, what his intentions really are.’

‘Oh! I have no doubt that they are honourable,’ said Miss Dunstable. ‘He does not want to deceive me in that way, I am sure.’ It was impossible to help laughing, and Mrs Harold Smith did laugh. ‘Upon my word, you would provoke a saint,’ said she.

‘I am not likely to get into such company by the alliance that you are suggesting to me. There are not many saints usually at Chaldicotes, I believe; — always excepting the dear bishop and his wife.’

‘But, my dear, what am I to say to Nathaniel?’

‘Tell him, of course, how much obliged to him I am.’

‘Do listen to me one moment. I dare say that I have done wrong to speak to you in such a bold, unromantic way.’

‘Not at all. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s what we agreed upon. But one’s first efforts in any line are always apt to be a little uncouth.’

‘I will send Nathaniel to you himself.’

‘No, do not do so. Why torment either him or me? I do like your brother; in a certain way, I like him much. But no earthly consideration would induce me to marry him. Is it not so glaringly plain that he would marry me for my money only, that you have not even dared to suggest any other reason?’

‘Of course it would have been nonsense to say that he had no regard whatever towards your money.’

‘Of course it would — absolute nonsense. He is a poor man with a good position, and he wants to marry me because I have got that which he wants. But, my dear, I do not want that which he has got, and therefore the bargain would not be a fair one.’

‘But he would do his best to make you happy.’

‘I am so much obliged to him; but you see, I am very happy as I am. What should I gain?’

‘A companion whom you confess you like.’

‘Ah! but I don’t know that I should like too much even of such a companion as your brother. No, my dear — it won’t do. Believe me when I tell you, once for all, that it won’t do.’

‘Do, you mean, then, Miss Dunstable, that you’ll never marry?’

‘To-morrow — if I met any one that I fancied, and he would have me. But I rather think that any that I may fancy won’t have me. In the first place, if I marry any one, the man must be quite indifferent to my money.’

‘Then you’ll not find him in the world, my dear.’

‘Very possibly not,’ said Miss Dunstable. All that was further said upon the subject need not be here repeated. Mrs Harold Smith did not give up her cause quite at once, although Miss Dunstable had spoken so plainly. She tried to explain how eligible would be her friend’s situation as mistress of Chaldicotes, when Chaldicotes should owe no penny to any man; and went so far as to hint that the master of Chaldicotes, if relieved of his embarrassments and known as a rich man, might in all probability be found worthy of a peerage when the gods should return to Olympus. Mr Harold Smith, as a Cabinet minister, would, of course, do his best. But it was all of no use. ‘It’s not my destiny,’ said Miss Dunstable, ‘and therefore do not press it any longer.’

‘But we shall not quarrel,’ said Mrs Harold Smith, almost tenderly.

‘Oh, no — why should we quarrel?’

‘And you won’t look glum at my brother?’

‘Why should I look glum at him? But, Mrs Smith, I’ll do more than not looking glum at him. I do like you, and I do like your brother, and if I can in any moderate way assist him in his difficulties, let him tell me so.’ Soon after this, Mrs Harold Smith went her way. Of course, she declared in a very strong manner that her brother could not think of accepting from Miss Dunstable any such pecuniary assistance as that offered — and, to give her her due, such was the feeling of her mind at the moment; but as she went to meet her brother and gave him an account of this interview, it did occur to her that possibly Miss Dunstable might be a better creditor than the Duke of Omnium for the Chaldicotes property.

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