‘If you have not sold yourself for British gold, and for British acres, and for British rank, I have nothing to say against it,’ said Miss Wallachia Petrie that same evening to her friend Caroline Spalding.
‘You know that I have not sold myself, as you call it,’ said Caroline. There had been a long friendship between these two ladies, and the younger one knew that it behoved her to bear a good deal from the elder. Miss Petrie was honest, clever, and in earnest. We in England are not usually favourably disposed to women who take a pride in a certain antagonism to men in general, and who are anxious to shew the world that they can get on very well without male assistance; but there are many such in America who have noble aspirations, good intellects, much energy, and who are by no means unworthy of friendship. The hope in regard to all such women — the hope entertained not by themselves, but by those who are solicitous for them — is that they will be cured at last by a husband and half-a-dozen children. In regard to Wallachia Petrie there was not, perhaps, much ground for such hope. She was so positively wedded to women’s rights in general, and to her own rights in particular, that it was improbable that she should ever succumb to any man, and where would be the man brave enough to make the effort? From circumstances Caroline Spalding had been the beloved of her heart since Caroline Spalding was a very little girl; and she had hoped that Caroline would through life have borne arms along with her in that contest which she was determined to wage against man, and which she always waged with the greatest animosity against men of the British race. She hated rank; she hated riches; she hated monarchy and with a true woman’s instinct in battle, felt that she had a specially strong point against Englishmen, in that they submitted themselves to dominion from a woman monarch.
And now the chosen friend of her youth, the friend who had copied out all her poetry, who had learned by heart all her sonnets, who had, as she thought, reciprocated all her ideas, was going to be married and to be married to an English lord! She had seen that it was coming for some time, and had spoken out very plainly, hoping that she might still save the brand from the burning. Now the evil was done; and Caroline Spalding, when she told her news, knew well that she would have to bear some heavy reproaches.
‘How many of us are there who never know whether we sell ourselves or not?’ said Wallachia. ‘The senator who longs for office, and who votes this way instead of that in order that he may get it, thinks that he is voting honestly. The minister who calls himself a teacher of God’s word, thinks that it is God’s word that he preaches when he strains his lungs to fill his church. The question is this, Caroline would you have loved the same man had he come to you with a woodman’s axe in his hand or a clerk’s quill behind his ear? I guess not.’
‘As to the woodman’s axe, Wally, it is very well in theory; but —’
‘Things good in theory, Caroline, will be good also when practised. You may be sure of that. We dislike theory simply because our intelligences are higher than our wills. But we will let that pass.’
‘Pray let it pass, Wally. Do not preach me sermons tonight. I am so happy, and you ought to wish me joy.’
‘If wishing you joy would get you joy, I would wish it you while I lived. I cannot be happy that you should be taken from us whither I shall never see you again.’
‘But you are to come to us. I have told him so, and it is settled.’
‘No, dear; I shall not do that. What should I be in the glittering halls of an English baron? Could there be any visiting less fitting, any admixture less appropriate? Could I who have held up my voice in the Music Hall of Lacedaemon amidst the glories of the West, in the great and free State of Illinois, against the corruption of an English aristocracy, could I, who have been listened to by two thousand of my countrywomen and men while I spurned the unmanly, inhuman errors of primogeniture, could I, think you, hold my tongue beneath the roof of a feudal lord!’ Caroline Spalding knew that her friend could not hold her tongue, and hesitated to answer. There had been that fatal triumph of a lecture on the joint rights of men and women, and it had rendered poor Wallachia Petrie unfit for ordinary society.
‘You might come there without talking politics, Wally,’ said Caroline.
‘No, Caroline; no. I will go into the house of no man in which the free expression of my opinion is debarred me. I will not sit even at your table with a muzzled tongue. When you are gone, Caroline, I shall devote myself to what, after all, must be the work of my life, and I shall finish the biographical history of our great hero in verse which I hope may at least be not ephemeral. From month to month I shall send you what I do, and you will not refuse me your friendly criticism and, perhaps, some slight meed of approbation because you are dwelling beneath the shade of a throne. Oh, Caroline, let it not be a upas tree!’
The Miss Petries of the world have this advantage, an advantage which rarely if ever falls to the lot of a man, that they are never convinced of error. Men, let them be ever so much devoted to their closets, let them keep their work ever so closely veiled from public scrutiny, still find themselves subjected to criticism, and under the necessity of either defending themselves or of succumbing. If, indeed, a man neither speaks, nor writes, if he be dumb as regards opinion, he passes simply as one of the crowd, and is in the way neither of convincing nor of being convinced; but a woman may speak, and almost write, as she likes, without danger of being wounded by sustained conflict. Who would have the courage to begin with such a one as Miss Petrie, and endeavour to prove to her that she is wrong from the beginning. A little word of half-dissent, a smile, a shrug, and an ambiguous compliment which is misunderstood, are all the forms of argument which can be used against her. Wallachia Petrie, in her heart of hearts, conceived that she had fairly discussed her great projects from year to year with indomitable eloquence and unanswerable truth and that none of her opponents had had a leg to stand upon. And this she believed because the chivalry of men had given to her sex that protection against which her life was one continued protest.
‘Here he is,’ said Caroline, as Mr Glascock came up to them. ‘Try and say a civil word to him, if he speaks about it. Though he is to be a lord, still he is a man and a brother.’
‘Caroline,’ said the stern monitress, ‘you are already learning to laugh at principles which have been dear to you since you left your mother’s breast. Alas, how true it is, “You cannot touch pitch and not be defiled.”’
The further progress of these friendly and feminine amenities was stopped by the presence of the gentleman who had occasioned them. ‘Miss Petrie,’ said the hero of the hour, ‘Caroline was to tell you of my good fortune, and no doubt she has done so.’
‘I cannot wait to hear the pretty things he has to say,’ said Caroline, ‘and I must look after my aunt’s guests. There is poor Signor Buonarosci without a soul to say a syllable to him, and I must go and use my ten Italian words.’
‘You are about to take with you to your old country, Mr Glascock,’ said Miss Petrie, ‘one of the brightest stars in our young American firmament.’ There could be no doubt, from the tone of Miss Petrie’s voice, that she now regarded this star, however bright, as one of a sort which is subjected to falling.
‘I am going to take a very nice young woman,’ said Mr Glascock.
‘I hate that word woman, sir, uttered with the halfhidden sneer which always accompanies its expression from the mouth of a man.’
‘Sneer, Miss Petrie!’
‘I quite allow that it is involuntary, and not analysed or understood by yourselves. If you speak of a dog, you intend to do so with affection, but there is always contempt mixed with it. The so-called chivalry of man to woman is all begotten in the same spirit. I want no favour, but I claim to be your equal.’
‘I thought that American ladies were generally somewhat exacting as to those privileges which chivalry gives them.’
‘It is true, sir, that the only rank we know in our country is in that precedence which man gives to woman. Whether we maintain that, or whether we abandon it, we do not intend to purchase it at the price of an acknowledgment of intellectual inferiority. For myself, I hate chivalry — what you call chivalry. I can carry my own chair, and I claim the right to carry it whithersoever I may please.’
Mr Glascock remained with her for some time, but made no opportunity for giving that invitation to Monkhams of which Caroline had spoken. As he said afterwards, he found it impossible to expect her to attend to any subject so trivial; and when, afterwards, Caroline told him, with some slight mirth, the capability of which on such a subject was coming to her with her new ideas of life, that, though he was partly saved as a man and a brother, still he was partly the reverse as a feudal lord, he began to reflect that Wallachia Petrie would be a guest with whom he would find it very difficult to make things go pleasantly at Monkhams.
‘Does she not bully you horribly?’ he asked.
‘Of course she bullies me,’ Caroline answered; ‘and I cannot expect you to understand as yet how it is that I love her and like her; but I do. If I were in distress tomorrow, she would give everything she has in the world to put me right.’
‘So would I,’ said he.
‘Ah, you, that is a matter of course. That is your business now. And she would give everything she has in the world to set the world right. Would you do that?’
‘It would depend on the amount of my faith. If I could believe in the result, I suppose I should do it.’
‘She would do it on the slightest hope that such giving would have any tendency that way. Her philanthropy is all real. Of course she is a bore to you.’
‘I am very patient.’
‘I hope I shall find you so always. And, of course, she is ridiculous in your eyes. I have learned to see it, and to regret it; but I shall never cease to love her.’
‘I have not the slightest objection. Her lessons will come from over the water, and mine will come from where shall I say? over the table. If I can’t talk her down with so much advantage on my side, I ought to be made a woman’s-right man myself.’
Poor Lady Rowley had watched Miss Petrie and Mr Glascock during those moments that they had been together, and had half believed the rumour, and had half doubted, thinking in the moments of her belief that Mr Glascock must be mad, and in the moments of unbelief that the rumours had been set afloat by the English Minister’s wife with the express intention of turning Mr Glascock into ridicule. It had never occurred to her to doubt that Wallachia was the eldest of that family of nieces. Could it be possible that a man who had known her Nora, who had undoubtedly loved her Nora, who had travelled all the way from London to Nuncombe Putney to ask Nora to be his wife, should within twelve months of that time have resolved to marry a woman whom he must have selected simply as being the most opposite to Nora of any female human being that he could find? It was not credible to her; and if it were not true, there might still be a hope. Nora had met him, and had spoken to him, and it had seemed that for a moment or two they had spoken as friends. Lady Rowley, when talking to Mrs Spalding, had watched them closely; and she had seen that Nora’s eyes had been bright, and that there had been something between them which was pleasant. Suddenly she found herself close to Wallachia, and thought that she would trust herself to a word.
‘Have you been long in Florence?’ asked Lady Rowley in her softest voice.
‘A pretty considerable time, ma’am, that is, since the fall began.’
What a voice; what an accent; and what words! Was there a man living with sufficient courage to take this woman to England, and shew her to the world as Lady Peterborough?
‘Are you going to remain in Italy for the summer?’ continued Lady Rowley.
‘I guess I shall or, perhaps, locate myself in the purer atmosphere of the Swiss mountains.’
‘Switzerland in summer must certainly be much pleasanter.’
‘I was thinking at the moment of the political atmosphere,’ said Miss Petrie; ‘for although, certainly, much has been done in this country in the way of striking off shackles and treading sceptres under foot, still, Lady Rowley, there remains here that pernicious thing — a king. The feeling of the dominion of a single man and that of a single woman is, for aught I know, worse with me, so clouds the air, that the breath I breathe fails to fill my lungs.’ Wallachia, as she said this, put forth her hand, and raised her chin, and extended her arm. She paused, feeling that justice demanded that Lady Rowley should have a right of reply. But Lady Rowley had not a word to say, and Wallachia Petrie went on. ‘I cannot adapt my body to the sweet savours and the soft luxuries of the outer world with any comfort to my inner self, while the circumstances of the society around me are oppressive to my spirit. When our war was raging all around me I was light-spirited as the lark that mounts through the morning sky.’
‘I should have thought it was very dreadful,’ said Lady Rowley.
‘Full of dread, of awe, and of horror, were those fiery days of indiscriminate slaughter; but they were not days of desolation, because hope was always there by our side. There was a hope in which the soul could trust, and the trusting soul is ever light and buoyant.’
‘I dare say it is,’ said Lady Rowley.
‘But apathy, and serfdom, and kinghood, and dominion, drain the fountain of its living springs, and the soul becomes like the plummet of lead, whose only tendency is to hide itself in subaqueous mud and unsavoury slush.’
Subaqueous mud and unsavoury slush! Lady Rowley repeated the words to herself as she made good her escape, and again expressed to herself her conviction that it could not possibly be so. The ‘subaqueous mud and unsavoury slush,’ with all that had gone before it about the soul, was altogether unintelligible to her; but she knew that it was American buncom of a high order of eloquence, and she told herself again and again that it could not be so. She continued to keep her eyes upon Mr Glascock, and soon saw him again talking to Nora. It was hardly possible, she thought, that Nora should speak to him with so much animation, or he to her, unless there was some feeling between them which, if properly handled, might lead to a renewal of the old tenderness. She went up to Nora, having collected the other girls, and said that the carriage was then waiting for them. Mr Glascock immediately offered Lady Rowley his arm, and took her down to the hall. Could it be that she was leaning upon a future son-in-law? There was something in the thought which made her lay her weight upon him with a freedom which she would not otherwise have used. Oh! that her Nora should live to be Lady Peterborough! We are apt to abuse mothers for wanting high husbands for their daughters but can there be any point in which the true maternal instinct can shew itself with more affectionate enthusiasm? This poor mother wanted nothing for herself from Mr Glascock. She knew very well that it was her fate to go back to the Mandarins, and probably to die there. She knew also that such men as Mr Glascock, when they marry beneath themselves in rank and fortune, will not ordinarily trouble themselves much with their mothers-in-law. There was nothing desired for herself. Were such a match accomplished, she might, perhaps, indulge herself in talking among the planters’ wives of her daughter’s coronet; but at the present moment there was no idea even of this in her mind. It was of Nora herself, and of Nora’s sisters, that she was thinking, for them that she was plotting that the one might be rich and splendid, and the others have some path opened for them to riches and splendour. Husband-hunting mothers may be injudicious; but surely they are maternal and unselfish. Mr Glascock put her into the carriage, and squeezed her hand and then he squeezed Nora’s hand. She saw it, and was sure of it. ‘I am so glad you are going to be happy,’ Nora had said to him before this. ‘As far as I have seen her, I like her so much.’ ‘If you do not come and visit her in her own house, I shall think you have no spirit of friendship,’ he said. ‘I will,’ Nora had replied ‘I will.’ This had been said just as Lady Rowley was coming to them, and on this understanding, on this footing, Mr Glascock had pressed her hand.
As she went home, Lady Rowley’s mind was full of doubt as to the course which it was best that she should follow with her daughter. She was not unaware how great was the difficulty before her. Hugh Stanbury’s name had not been mentioned since they left London, but at that time Nora was obstinately bent on throwing herself away upon the ‘penny-a-liner.’ She had never been brought to acknowledge that such a marriage would be even inappropriate, and had withstood gallantly the expression of her father’s displeasure. But with such a spirit as Nora’s, it might be easier to prevail by silence than by many words. Lady Rowley was quite sure of this: that it would be far better to say nothing further of Hugh Stanbury. Let the cure come, if it might be possible, from absence and from her daughter’s good sense. The only question was whether it would be wise to say any word about Mr Glascock. In the carriage she was not only forbearing but flattering in her manner to Nora. She caressed her girl’s hand and spoke to her as mothers know how to speak when they want to make much of their girls, and to have it understood that those girls are behaving as girls should behave. There was to be nobody to meet them tonight, as it had been arranged that Sir Marmaduke and Mrs Trevelyan should sleep at Siena. Hardly a word had been spoken in the carriage; but upstairs, in their drawing-room, there came a moment in which Lucy and Sophie had left them, and Nora was alone with her mother. Lady Rowley almost knew that it would be most prudent to be silent; but a word spoken in season, how good it is! And the thing was so near to her that she could not hold her peace. ‘I must say, Nora,’ she began, ‘that I do like your Mr Glascock.’
‘He is not my Mr Glascock, mamma,’ said Nora, smiling.
‘You know what I mean, dear.’ Lady Rowley had not intended to utter a word that should appear like pressure on her daughter at this moment. She had felt how imprudent it would be to do so. But now Nora seemed to be leading the way herself to such discourse. ‘Of course, he is not your Mr Glascock. You cannot eat your cake and have it, nor can you throw it away and have it.’
‘I have thrown my cake away altogether, and certainly I cannot have it.’ She was still smiling as she spoke, and seemed to be quite merry at the idea of regarding Mr Glascock as the cake which she had declined to eat.
‘I can see one thing quite plainly, dear.’
‘What is that, mamma?’
‘That in spite of what you have done, you can still have your cake whenever you choose to take it.’
‘Why, mamma, he is engaged to be married!’
‘Yes, Mr Glascock. It’s quite settled. Is it not sad?’
‘To whom is he engaged?’ Lady Rowley’s solemnity as she asked this question was piteous to behold.
‘To Miss Spalding Caroline Spalding.’
‘The eldest of those nieces?’
‘Yes the eldest.’
‘I cannot believe it.’
‘Mamma, they both told me so. I have sworn an eternal friendship with her already.’
‘I did not see you speaking to her.’
‘But I did talk to her a great deal.’
‘And he is really going to marry that dreadful woman?’
‘Perfectly awful! She talked to me in a way that I have read about in books, but which I did not before believe to be possible. Do you mean that he is going to be married to that hideous old maid, that bell-clapper?’
‘Oh, mamma, what slander! I think her so pretty.’
‘Very pretty. And, mamma, ought I not to be happy that he should have been able to make himself so happy? It was quite, quite, quite impossible that I should have been his wife. I have thought about it ever so much, and I am so glad of it! I think she is just the girl that is fit for him.’
Lady Rowley took her candle and went to bed, professing to herself that she could not understand it. But what did it signify? It was, at any rate, certain now that the man had put himself out of Nora’s reach, and if he chose to marry a republican virago, with a red nose, it could now make no difference to Nora. Lady Rowley almost felt a touch of satisfaction in reflecting on the future misery of his married life.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26