It has been already said that Colonel Osborne was a bachelor, a man of fortune, a member of Parliament, and one who carried his half century of years lightly on his shoulders. It will only be necessary to say further of him that he was a man popular with those among whom he lived, as a politician, as a sportsman, and as a member of society. He could speak well in the House, though he spoke but seldom, and it was generally thought of him that he might have been something considerable, had it not suited him better to be nothing at all. He was supposed to be a Conservative, and generally voted with the conservative party; but he could boast that he was altogether independent, and on an occasion would take the trouble of proving himself to be so. He was in possession of excellent health; had all that the world could give; was fond of books, pictures, architecture, and china; had various tastes, and the means of indulging them, and was one of those few men on whom it seems that every pleasant thing has been lavished. There was that little slur on his good name to which allusion has been made; but those who knew Colonel Osborne best were generally willing to declare that no harm was intended, and that the evils which arose were always to be attributed to mistaken jealousy. He had, his friends said, a free and pleasant way with women which women like, a pleasant way of free friendship; that there was no more, and that the harm which had come had always come from false suspicion. But there were certain ladies about the town — good, motherly, discreet women — who hated the name of Colonel Osborne, who would not admit him within their doors, who would not bow to him in other people’s houses, who would always speak of him as a serpent, a hyena, a kite, or a shark. Old Lady Milborough was one of these, a daughter of a friend of hers having once admitted the serpent to her intimacy.
‘Augustus Poole was wise enough to take his wife abroad,’ said old Lady Milborough, discussing about this time with a gossip of hers the danger of Mrs Trevelyan’s position, ‘or there would have been a breakup there; and yet there never was a better girl in the world than Jane Marriott.’
The reader may be quite certain that Colonel Osborne had no premeditated evil intention when he allowed himself to become the intimate friend of his old friend’s daughter. There was nothing fiendish in his nature. He was not a man who boasted of his conquests. He was not a ravening wolf going about seeking whom he might devour, and determined to devour whatever might come in his way; but he liked that which was pleasant; and of all pleasant things the company of a pretty clever woman was to him the pleasantest. At this exact period of his life no woman was so pleasantly pretty to him, and so agreeably clever, as Mrs Trevelyan.
When Louis Trevelyan heard on the stairs the step of the dangerous man, he got up from his chair as though he too would have gone into the drawing-room, and it would perhaps have been well had he done so. Could he have done this, and kept his temper with the man, he would have paved the way for an easy reconciliation with his wife. But when he reached the door of his room, and had placed his hand upon the lock, he withdrew again. He told himself he withdrew because he would not allow himself to be jealous; but in truth he did so because he knew he could not have brought himself to be civil to the man he hated. So he sat down, and took up his pen, and began to cudgel his brain about the scientific article. He was intent on raising a dispute with some learned pundit about the waves of sound, but he could think of no other sound than that of the light steps of Colonel Osborne as he had gone upstairs. He put down his pen, and clenched his fist, and allowed a black frown to settle upon his brow. ‘What right had the man to come there, unasked by him, and disturb his happiness? And then this poor wife of his, who knew so little of English life, who had lived in the Mandarin Islands almost since she had been a child, who had lived in one colony or another almost since she had been born, who had had so few of those advantages for which he should have looked in marrying a wife, how was the poor girl to conduct herself properly when subjected to the arts and practised villanies of this viper? And yet the poor girl was so stiff in her temper, had picked up such a trick of obstinacy in those tropical regions, that Louis Trevelyan felt that he did not know how to manage her. He too had heard how Jane Marriott had been carried off to Naples after she had become Mrs Poole. Must he too carry off his wife to Naples in order to place her out of the reach of this hyena? It was terrible to him to think that he must pack up everything and run away from such a one as Colonel Osborne. And even were he to consent to do this, how could he explain it all to that very wife for whose sake he would do it? If she got a hint of the reason she would, he did not doubt, refuse to go. As he thought of it, and as that visit upstairs prolonged itself, he almost thought it would be best for him to be round with her! We all know what a husband means when he resolves to be round with his wife. He began to think that he would not apologise at all for the words he had spoken but would speak them again somewhat more sharply than before. She would be very wrathful with him; there would be a silent enduring indignation, which, as he understood well, would be infinitely worse than any torrent of words. But was he, a man, to abstain from doing that which he believed to be his duty because he was afraid of his wife’s anger? Should he be deterred from saying that which he conceived it would be right that he should say, because she was stiff-necked? No. He would not apologise, but would tell her again that it was necessary, both for his happiness and for hers, that all intimacy with Colonel Osborne should be discontinued.
He was brought to this strongly marital resolution by the length of the man’s present visit; by that and by the fact that, during the latter portion of it, his wife was alone with Colonel Osborne. Nora had been there when the man came, but Mrs Fairfax had called, not getting out of her carriage, and Nora had been constrained to go down to her. She had hesitated a moment, and Colonel Osborne had observed and partly understood the hesitation. When he saw it, had he been perfectly well-minded in the matter, he would have gone too. But he probably told himself that Nora Rowley was a fool, and that in such matters it was quite enough for a man to know that he did not intend any harm.
‘You had better go down, Nora,’ said Mrs Trevelyan; ‘Mrs Fairfax will be ever so angry if you keep her waiting.’
Then Nora had gone and the two were alone together. Nora had gone, and Trevelyan had heard her as she was going and knew that Colonel Osborne was alone with his wife.
‘If you can manage that it will be so nice,’ said Mrs Trevelyan, continuing the conversation.
‘My dear Emily,’ he said, ‘you must not talk of my managing it, or you will spoil it all.’
He had called them both Emily and Nora when Sir Marmaduke and Lady Rowley were with them before the marriage, and, taking the liberty of a very old family friend, had continued the practice. Mrs Trevelyan was quite aware that she had been so called by him in the presence of her husband and that her husband had not objected. But that was now some months ago, before baby was born; and she was aware also that he had not called her so latterly in presence of her husband. She thoroughly wished that she knew how to ask him not to do so again; but the matter was very difficult, as she could not make such a request without betraying some fear on her husband’s part. The subject which they were now discussing was too important to her to allow her to dwell upon this trouble at the moment, and so she permitted him to go on with his speech.
‘If I were to manage it, as you call it, which I can’t do at all, it would be a gross job.’
‘That’s all nonsense to us, Colonel Osborne. Ladies always like political jobs, and think that they and they only make politics bearable. But this would not be a job at all. Papa could do it better than anybody else. Think how long he has been at it!’
The matter in discussion was the chance of an order being sent out to Sir Marmaduke to come home from his islands at the public expense, to give evidence, respecting colonial government in general, to a committee of the House of Commons which was about to sit on the subject. The committee had been voted, and two governors were to be brought home for the purpose of giving evidence. What arrangement could be so pleasant to a governor living in the Mandarin Islands, who had had a holiday lately, and who could but ill afford to take any holidays at his own expense? Colonel Osborne was on this committee, and, moreover, was on good terms at the Colonial Office. There were men in office who would be glad to do Colonel Osborne a service, and then if this were a job, it would be so very little of a job! Perhaps Sir Marmaduke might not be the very best man for the purpose. Perhaps the government of the Mandarins did not afford the best specimen of that colonial lore which it was the business of the committee to master. But then two governors were to come, and it might be as well to have one of the best sort, and one of the second best. No one supposed that excellent old Sir Marmaduke was a paragon of a governor, but then he had an infinity of experience! For over twenty years he had been from island to island, and had at least steered clear of great scrapes.
‘We’ll try it, at any rate,’ said the Colonel.
‘Do, Colonel Osborne. Mamma would come with him, of course?’
‘We should leave him to manage all that. It’s not very likely that he would leave Lady Rowley behind.’
‘He never has. I know he thinks more of mamma than he ever does of himself. Fancy having them here in the autumn! I suppose if he came for the end of the session, they wouldn’t send him back quite at once?’
‘I rather fancy that our foreign and colonial servants know how to stretch a point when they find themselves in England.’
‘Of course they do, Colonel Osborne; and why shouldn’t they? Think of all that they have to endure out in those horrible places. How would you like to live in the Mandarins?’
‘I should prefer London, certainly.’
‘Of course you would; and you mustn’t begrudge papa a month or two when he comes. I never cared about your being in parliament before, but I shall think so much of you now if you can manage to get papa home.’
There could be nothing more innocent than this — nothing more innocent at any rate as regarded any offence against Mr Trevelyan. But just then there came a word which a little startled Mrs Trevelyan, and made her feel afraid that she was doing wrong.
‘I must make one stipulation with you, Emily,’ said the Colonel.
‘What is that?’
‘You must not tell your husband.’
‘Oh, dear! and why not?’
‘I am sure you are sharp enough to see why you should not. A word of this repeated at any club would put an end at once to your project, and would be very damaging to me. And, beyond that, I wouldn’t wish him to know that I had meddled with it at all. I am very chary of having my name connected with anything of the kind; and, upon my word, I wouldn’t do it for any living human being but yourself. You’ll promise me, Emily?’
She gave the promise, but there were two things in the matter, as it stood at present, which she did not at all like. She was very averse to having any secret from her husband with Colonel Osborne; and she was not at all pleased at being told that he was doing for her a favour that he would not have done for any other living human being. Had he said so to her yesterday, before those offensive words had been spoken by her husband, she would not have thought much about it. She would have connected the man’s friendship for herself with his very old friendship for her father, and she would have regarded the assurance as made to the Rowleys in general, and not to herself in particular. But now, after what had occurred, it pained her to be told by Colonel Osborne that he would make, specially on her behalf, a sacrifice of his political pride which he would make for no other person living. And then, as he had called her by her Christian name, as he had exacted the promise, there had been a tone of affection in his voice that she had almost felt to be too warm. But she gave the promise; and when he pressed her hand at parting, she pressed his again, in token of gratitude for the kindness to be done to her father and mother.
Immediately afterwards Colonel Osborne went away, and Mrs Trevelyan was left alone in her drawing-room. She knew that her husband was still downstairs, and listened for a moment to hear whether he would now come up to her. And he, too, had heard the Colonel’s step as he went, and for a few moments had doubted whether or no he would at once go to his wife. Though he believed himself to be a man very firm of purpose, his mind had oscillated backwards and forwards within the last quarter of an hour between those two purposes of being round with his wife, and of begging her pardon for the words which he had already spoken. He believed that he would best do his duty by that plan of being round with her; but then it would be so much pleasanter at any rate, so much easier, to beg her pardon. But of one thing he was quite certain, he must by some means exclude Colonel Osborne from his house. He could not live and continue to endure the feelings which he had suffered while sitting downstairs at his desk, with the knowledge that Colonel Osborne was closeted with his wife upstairs. It might be that there was nothing in it. That his wife was innocent he was quite sure. But nevertheless, he was himself so much affected by some feeling which pervaded him in reference to this man, that all his energy was destroyed., and his powers of mind and body were paralysed. He could not, and would not, stand it. Rather than that, he would follow Mr Poole, and take his wife to Naples. So resolving, he put his hat on his head and walked out of the house. He would have the advantage of the afternoon’s consideration before he took either the one step or the other.
As soon as he was gone Emily Trevelyan went upstairs to her baby. She would not stir as long as there had been a chance of his coming to her. She very much wished that he would come, and had made up her mind, in spite of the fierceness of her assertion to her sister, to accept any slightest hint at an apology which her husband might offer to her. To this state of mind she was brought by the consciousness of having a secret from him, and by a sense not of impropriety on her own part, but of conduct which some people might have called improper in her mode of parting from the man against whom her husband had warned her. The warmth of that hand-pressing, and the affectionate tone in which her name had been pronounced, and the promise made to her, softened her heart towards her husband. Had he gone to her now and said a word to her in gentleness all might have been made right. But he did not go to her.
‘If he chooses to be cross and sulky, he may be cross and sulky,’ said Mrs Trevelyan to herself as she went up to her baby.
‘Has Louis been with you?’ Nora asked, as soon as Mrs Fairfax had brought her home.
‘I have not seen him since you left me,’ said Mrs Trevelyan.
‘I suppose he went out before Colonel Osborne?’
‘No, indeed. He waited till Colonel Osborne had gone, and then he went himself; but he did not come near me. It is for him to judge of his own conduct, but I must say that I think he is very foolish.’
This the young wife said in a tone which clearly indicated that she had judged her husband’s conduct, and had found it to be very foolish indeed.
‘Do you think that papa and mamma will really come?’ said Nora, changing the subject of conversation.
‘How can I tell? How am I to know? After all that has passed I am afraid to say a word lest I should be accused of doing wrong. But remember this, Nora, you are not to speak of it to any one.’
‘You will tell Louis?’
‘No; I will tell no one.’
‘Dear, dear Emily; pray do not keep anything secret from him.’
‘What do you mean by secret? There isn’t any secret. Only in such matters as that about politics no gentleman likes to have his name talked about!’
A look of great distress came upon Nora’s face as she heard this. To her it seemed to be very bad that there should be a secret between her sister and Colonel Osborne to be kept from her brother-inlaw.
‘I suppose you will suspect me next?’ said Mrs Trevelyan, angrily.
‘Emily, how can you say anything so cruel?’
‘You look as if you did.’
‘I only mean that I think it would be wiser to tell all this to Louis.’
‘How can I tell him Colonel Osborne’s private business, when Colonel Osborne has desired me not to do so. For whose sake is Colonel Osborne doing this? For papa’s and mamma’s! I suppose Louis won’t be jealous, because I want to have papa and mamma home. It would not be a bit less unreasonable than the other.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14