AN OLD MAN'S LOVE
In Two Volumes
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London MDCCCLXXXIV
This story, "An Old Man's Love," is the last of my father's novels. As I have stated in the preface to his Autobiography, "The Landleaguers" was written after this book, but was never fully completed.
HENRY M. TROLLOPE.
CONTENTS OF VOLUME I
I. MRS BAGGETT II. MR WHITTLESTAFF III. MARY LAWRIE IV. MARY LAWRIE ACCEPTS MR WHITTLESTAFF V. "I SUPPOSE IT WAS A DREAM" VI. JOHN GORDON VII. JOHN GORDON AND MR WHITTLESTAFF VIII. JOHN GORDON AND MARY LAWRIE IX. THE REV MONTAGU BLAKE X. JOHN GORDON AGAIN GOES TO CROKER'S HALL XI. MRS BAGGETT TRUSTS ONLY IN THE FUNDS XII. MR BLAKE'S GOOD NEWS
CONTENTS OF VOLUME II
XIII. AT LITTLE ALRESFORD XIV. MR WHITTLESTAFF IS GOING OUT TO DINNER XV. MR WHITTLESTAFF GOES OUT TO DINNER XVI. MRS BAGGETT'S PHILOSOPHY XVII. MR WHITTLESTAFF MEDITATES A JOURNEY XVIII. MR AND MRS TOOKEY XIX. MR WHITTLESTAFF'S JOURNEY DISCUSSED XX. MR WHITTLESTAFF TAKES HIS JOURNEY XXI. THE GREEN PARK XXII. JOHN GORDON WRITES A LETTER XXIII. AGAIN AT CROKER'S HALL XXIV. CONCLUSION
Mr William Whittlestaff was strolling very slowly up and down the long walk at his country seat in Hampshire, thinking of the contents of a letter which he held crushed up within his trousers' pocket. He always breakfasted exactly at nine, and the letters were supposed to be brought to him at a quarter past. The postman was really due at his hall-door at a quarter before nine; but though he had lived in the same house for above fifteen years, and though he was a man very anxious to get his letters, he had never yet learned the truth about them. He was satisfied in his ignorance with 9.15 A.M., but on this occasion the post-boy, as usual, was ten minutes after that time. Mr Whittlestaff had got through his second cup of tea, and was stranded in his chair, having nothing to do, with the empty cup and plates before him for the space of two minutes; and, consequently, when he had sent some terrible message out to the post-boy, and then had read the one epistle which had arrived on this morning, he thus liberated his mind: "I'll be whipped if I will have anything to do with her." But this must not be taken as indicating the actual state of his mind; but simply the condition of anger to which he had been reduced by the post-boy. If any one were to explain to him afterwards that he had so expressed himself on a subject of such importance, he would have declared of himself that he certainly deserved to be whipped himself. In order that he might in truth make up his mind on the subject, he went out with his hat and stick into the long walk, and there thought out the matter to its conclusion. The letter which he held in his pocket ran as follows:—
ST. TAWELL'S, NORWICH, February 18—.
MY DEAR MR WHITTLESTAFF,—Poor Mrs Lawrie has gone at last. She died this morning at seven o'clock, and poor Mary is altogether alone in the world. I have asked her to come in among us for a few days at any rate, till the funeral shall be over. But she has refused, knowing, I suppose, how crowded and how small our house is. What is she to do? You know all the circumstances much better than I do. She says herself that she had always been intended for a governess, and that she will, of course, follow out the intention which had been fixed on between her and her father before his death. But it is a most weary prospect, especially for one who has received no direct education for the purpose. She has devoted herself for the last twelve months to Mrs Lawrie, as though she had been her mother. You did not like Mrs Lawrie, nor did I; nor, indeed, did poor Mary love her very dearly. But she, at any rate, did her duty by her step-mother. I know that in regard to actual money you will be generous enough; but do turn the matter over in your mind, and endeavour to think of some future for the poor girl.—Yours very faithfully,
It was in answer to such a letter as this, that Mr Whittlestaff had declared that "He'd be whipped if he'd have anything to do with her." But that expression, which must not in truth be accepted as meaning anything, must not be supposed to have had even that dim shadow of a meaning which the words may be supposed to bear. He had during the last three months been asking himself the question as to what should be Mary Lawrie's fate in life when her step-mother should have gone, and had never quite solved the question whether he could or would not bring into his own house, almost as a daughter, a young woman who was in no way related to him. He had always begun these exercises of thought, by telling himself that the world was a censorious old fool, and that he might do just as he pleased as to making any girl his daughter. But then, before dinner he had generally come to the conclusion that Mrs Baggett would not approve. Mrs Baggett was his housekeeper, and was to him certainly a person of importance. He had not even suggested the idea to Mrs Baggett, and was sure that Mrs Baggett would not approve. As to sending Mary Lawrie out into the world as a governess;—that plan he was quite sure would not answer.
Two years ago had died his best beloved friend, Captain Patrick Lawrie. With him we have not anything to do, except to say that of all men he was the most impecunious. Late in life he had married a second wife,—a woman who was hard, sharp, and possessed of an annuity. The future condition of his only daughter had been a terrible grief to him; but from Mr Whittlestaff he had received assurances which had somewhat comforted him. "She shan't want. I can't say anything further." Such had been the comfort given by Mr Whittlestaff. And since his friend's death Mr Whittlestaff had been liberal with presents,—which Mary had taken most unwillingly under her step-mother's guidance. Such had been the state of things when Mr Whittlestaff received the letter. When he had been walking up and down the long walk for an extra hour, Mr Whittlestaff expressed aloud the conclusion to which he had come. "I don't care one straw for Mrs Baggett." It should be understood as having been uttered in direct opposition to the first assurance made by him, that "He'd be whipped if he'd have anything to do with her." In that hour he had resolved that Mary Lawrie should come to him, and be made, with all possible honours of ownership, with all its privileges and all its responsibilities, the mistress of his house. And he made up his mind also that such had ever been his determination. He was fifty and Mary Lawrie was twenty-five. "I can do just what I please with her," he said to himself, "as though she were my own girl." By this he meant to imply that he would not be expected to fall in love with her, and that it was quite out of the question that she should fall in love with him. "Go and tell Mrs Baggett that I'll be much obliged to her if she'll put on her bonnet and come out to me here." This he said to a gardener's boy, and the order was not at all an unusual one. When he wanted to learn what Mrs Baggett intended to give him for dinner, he would send for the old housekeeper and take a walk with her for twenty minutes. Habit had made Mrs Baggett quite accustomed to the proceeding, which upon the whole she enjoyed. She now appeared with a bonnet, and a wadded cloak which her master had given her. "It's about that letter, sir," said Mrs Baggett.
"How do you know?"
"Didn't I see the handwriting, and the black edges? Mrs Lawrie ain't no more."
"Mrs Lawrie has gone to her long account."
"I'm afeared, sir, she won't find it easy to settle the bill," said Mrs Baggett, who had a sharp, cynical way of expressing her disapprobation.
"Mrs Baggett, judge not, lest you be judged." Mrs Baggett turned up her nose and snuffed the air. "The woman has gone, and nothing shall be said against her here. The girl remains. Now, I'll tell you what I mean to do."
"She isn't to come here, Mr Whittlestaff?"
"Here she is to come, and here she is to remain, and here she is to have her part of everything as though she were my own daughter. And, as not the smallest portion of the good things that is to come to her, she is to have her share in your heart, Mrs Baggett."
"I don't know nothing about my heart, Mr Whittlestaff. Them as finds their way to my heart has to work their way there. Who's Miss Lawrie, that I'm to be knocked about for a new comer?"
"She is just Mary Lawrie."
"I'm that old that I don't feel like having a young missus put over me. And it ain't for your good, Mr Whittlestaff. You ain't a young man—nor you ain't an old un; and she ain't no relations to you. That's the worst part of it. As sure as my name is Dorothy Baggett, you'll be falling in love with her." Then Mrs Baggett, with the sense of the audacity of what she had said, looked him full in the face and violently shook her head.
"Now go in," he said, "and pack my things up for three nights. I'm going to Norwich, and I shan't want any dinner. Tell John I shall want the cart, and he must be ready to go with me to the station at 2.15."
"I ought to be ready to cut the tongue out of my head," said Mrs Baggett as she returned to the house, "for I might have known it was the way to make him start at once."
Not in three days, but before the end of the week, Mr Whittlestaff returned home, bringing with him a dark-featured tall girl, clothed, of course, in deepest mourning from head to foot. To Mrs Baggett she was an object of intense interest; because, although she had by no means assented to her master's proposal, made on behalf of the young lady, and did tell herself again and again during Mr Whittlestaff's absence that she was quite sure that Mary Lawrie was a baggage, yet in her heart she knew it to be impossible that she could go on living in the house without loving one whom her master loved. With regard to most of those concerned in the household, she had her own way. Unless she would favour the groom, and the gardener, and the boy, and the girls who served below her, Mr Whittlestaff would hardly be contented with those subordinates. He was the easiest master under whom a servant could live. But his favour had to be won through Mrs Baggett's smiles. During the last two years, however, there had been enough of discussion about Mary Lawrie to convince Mrs Baggett that, in regard to this "interloper," as Mrs Baggett had once called her, Mr Whittlestaff intended to have his own way. Such being the case, Mrs Baggett was most anxious to know whether the young lady was such as she could love.
Strangely enough, when the young lady had come, Mrs Baggett, for twelve months, could not quite make up her mind. The young lady was very different from what she had expected. Of interference in the house there was almost literally none. Mary had evidently heard much of Mrs Baggett's virtues,—and infirmities,—and seemed to understand that she also had in many things to place herself under Mrs Baggett's orders. "Lord love you, Miss Mary," she was heard to say; "as if we did not all understand that you was to be missus of everything at Croker's Hall,"—for such was the name of Mr Whittlestaff's house. But those who heard it knew that the words were spoken in supreme good humour, and judged from that, that Mrs Baggett's heart had been won. But Mrs Baggett still had her fears; and was not yet resolved but that it might be her duty to turn against Mary Lawrie with all the violence in her power. For the first month or two after the young lady's arrival, she had almost made up her mind that Mary Lawrie would never consent to become Mrs Whittlestaff. An old gentleman will seldom fall in love without some encouragement; or at any rate, will not tell his love. Mary Lawrie was as cold to him as though he had been seventy-five instead of fifty. And she was also as dutiful,—by which she showed Mrs Baggett more strongly even than by her coldness, that any idea of marriage was on her part out of the question.
This, strange to say, Mrs Baggett resented. For though she certainly felt, as would do any ordinary Mrs Baggett in her position, that a wife would be altogether detrimental to her interest in life, yet she could not endure to think that "a little stuck-up minx, taken in from charity," should run counter to any of her master's wishes. On one or two occasions she had spoken to Mr Whittlestaff respecting the young lady and had been cruelly snubbed. This certainly did not create good humour on her part, and she began to fancy herself angry in that the young lady was so ceremonious with her master. But as months ran by she felt that Mary was thawing, and that Mr Whittlestaff was becoming more affectionate. Of course there were periods in which her mind veered round. But at the end of the year Mrs Baggett certainly did wish that the young lady should marry her old master. "I can go down to Portsmouth," she said to the baker, who was a most respectable old man, and was nearer to Mrs Baggett's confidence than any one else except her master, "and weary out the rest on 'em there." When she spoke of "wearying out the rest on 'em," her friend perfectly understood that she alluded to what years she might still have to live, and to the abject misery of her latter days, which would be the consequence of her resigning her present mode of life. Mrs Baggett was supposed to have been born at Portsmouth, and, therefore, to allude to that one place which she knew in the world over and beyond the residences in which her master and her master's family had resided.
Before I go on to describe the characters of Mr Whittlestaff and Miss Lawrie, I must devote a few words to the early life of Mrs Baggett. Dorothy Tedcaster had been born in the house of Admiral Whittlestaff, the officer in command at the Portsmouth dockyard. There her father or her mother had family connections, to visit whom Dorothy, when a young woman, had returned from the then abode of her loving mistress, Mrs Whittlestaff. With Mrs Whittlestaff she had lived absolutely from the hour of her birth, and of Mrs Whittlestaff her mind was so full, that she did conceive her to be superior, if not absolutely in rank, at any rate in all the graces and favours of life, to her Majesty and all the royal family. Dorothy in an evil hour went back to Portsmouth, and there encountered that worst of military heroes, Sergeant Baggett. With many lamentations, and confessions as to her own weakness, she wrote to her mistress, acknowledging that she did intend to marry "B." Mrs Whittlestaff could do nothing to prevent it, and Dorothy did marry "B." Of the misery and ill-usage, of the dirt and poverty, which poor Dorothy Baggett endured during that year, it needs not here to tell. That something had passed between her and her old mistress when she returned to her, must, I suppose, have been necessary. But of her married life, in subsequent years, Mrs Baggett never spoke at all. Even the baker only knew dimly that there had been a Sergeant Baggett in existence. Years had passed since that bad quarter of an hour in her life, before Mrs Baggett had been made over to her present master. And he, though he probably knew something of the abominable Sergeant, never found it necessary to mention his name. For this Mrs Baggett was duly thankful, and would declare among all persons, the baker included, that "for a gentleman to be a gentleman, no gentleman was such a gentleman" as her master.
It was now five-and-twenty years since the Admiral had died, and fifteen since his widow had followed him. During the latter period Mrs Baggett had lived at Croker's Hall with Mr Whittlestaff, and within that period something had leaked out as to the Sergeant. How it had come to pass that Mr Whittlestaff's establishment had been mounted with less of the paraphernalia of wealth than that of his parents, shall be told in the next chapter; but it was the case that Mrs Baggett, in her very heart of hearts, was deeply grieved at what she considered to be the poverty of her master. "You're a stupid old fool, Mrs Baggett," her master would say, when in some private moments her regrets would be expressed. "Haven't you got enough to eat, and a bed to lie on, and an old stocking full of money somewhere? What more do you want?"
"A stocking full of money!" she would say, wiping her eyes; "there ain't no such thing. And as for eating, of course, I eats as much as I wants. I eats more than I wants, if you come to that."
"Then you're very greedy."
"But to think that you shouldn't have a man in a black coat to pour out a glass of wine for you, sir!"
"I never drink wine, Mrs Baggett."
"Well, whisky. I suppose a fellow like that wouldn't be above pouring out a glass of whisky for a gentleman;—though there's no knowing now what those fellows won't turn up their noses at. But it's a come-down in the world, Mr Whittlestaff."
"If you think I've come down in the world, you'd better keep it to yourself, and not tell me. I don't think that I've come down."
"You bear up against it finely like a man, sir; but for a poor woman like me, I do feel it." Such was Mrs Baggett and the record of her life. But this little conversation took place before the coming of Mary Lawrie.
Mr Whittlestaff had not been a fortunate man, as fortune is generally counted in the world. He had not succeeded in what he had attempted. He had, indeed, felt but little his want of success in regard to money, but he had encountered failure in one or two other matters which had touched him nearly. In some things his life had been successful; but these were matters in which the world does not write down a man's good luck as being generally conducive to his happiness. He had never had a headache, rarely a cold, and not a touch of the gout. One little finger had become crooked, and he was recommended to drink whisky, which he did willingly,—because it was cheap. He was now fifty, and as fit, bodily and mentally, for hard work as ever he had been. And he had a thousand a-year to spend, and spent it without ever feeling the necessity of saving a shilling. And then he hated no one, and those who came in contact with him always liked him. He trod on nobody's corns, and was, generally speaking, the most popular man in the parish. These traits are not generally reckoned as marks of good fortune; but they do tend to increase the amount of happiness which a man enjoys in this world. To tell of his misfortunes a somewhat longer chronicle of his life would be necessary. But the circumstances need only be indicated here. He had been opposed in everything to his father's views. His father, finding him to be a clever lad, had at first designed him for the Bar. But he, before he had left Oxford, utterly repudiated all legal pursuits. "What the devil do you wish to be?" said his father, who at that time was supposed to be able to leave his son L2000 a-year. The son replied that he would work for a fellowship, and devote himself to literature. The old admiral sent literature to all the infernal gods, and told his son that he was a fool. But the lad did not succeed in getting his fellowship, and neither father nor mother ever knew the amount of suffering which he endured thereby. He became plaintive and wrote poetry, and spent his pocket-money in publishing it, which again caused him sorrow, not for the loss of his money, but by the obscurity of his poetry. He had to confess to himself that God had not conferred upon him the gift of writing poetry; and having acknowledged so much, he never again put two lines together. Of all this he said nothing; but the sense of failure made him sad at heart. And his father, when he was in those straits, only laughed at him, not at all believing the assurances of his son's misery, which from time to time were given to him by his wife.
Then the old admiral declared that, as his son would do nothing for himself, he must work for his son. And he took in his old age to going into the city and speculating in shares. Then the Admiral died. The shares came to nothing, and calls were made; and when Mrs Whittlestaff followed her husband, her son, looking about him, bought Croker's Hall, reduced his establishment, and put down the man-servant whose departed glory was to Mrs Baggett a matter of such deep regret.
But before this time Mr Whittlestaff had encountered the greatest sorrow of his life. Even the lost fellowship, even the rejected poetry, had not caused him such misery as this. He had loved a young lady, and had been accepted;—and then the young lady had jilted him. At this time of his life he was about thirty; and as to the outside world, he was absolutely dumfounded by the catastrophe. Up to this period he had been a sportsman in a moderate degree, fishing a good deal, shooting a little, and devoted to hunting, to the extent of a single horse. But when the blow came, he never fished or shot, or hunted again. I think that the young lady would hardly have treated him so badly had she known what the effect would be. Her name was Catherine Bailey, and she married one Compas, who, as years went on, made a considerable reputation as an Old Bailey barrister. His friends feared at the time that Mr Whittlestaff would do some injury either to himself or Mr Compas. But no one dared to speak to him on the subject. His mother, indeed, did dare,—or half dared. But he so answered his mother that he stopped her before the speech was out of her mouth. "Don't say a word, mother; I cannot bear it." And he stalked out of the house, and was not seen for many hours.
There had then, in the bitter agony of his spirit, come upon him an idea of blood. He himself must go,—or the man. Then he remembered that she was the man's wife, and that it behoved him to spare the man for her sake. Then, when he came to think in earnest of self-destruction, he told himself that it was a coward's refuge. He took to his classics for consolation, and read the philosophy of Cicero, and the history of Livy, and the war chronicles of Caesar. They did him good,—in the same way that the making of many shoes would have done him good had he been a shoemaker. In catching fishes and riding after foxes he could not give his mind to the occupation, so as to abstract his thoughts. But Cicero's de Natura Deorum was more effectual. Gradually he returned to a gentle cheerfulness of life, but he never burst out again into the violent exercise of shooting a pheasant. After that his mother died, and again he was called upon to endure a lasting sorrow. But on this occasion the sorrow was of that kind which is softened by having been expected. He rarely spoke of his mother,—had never, up to this period at which our tale finds him, mentioned his mother's name to any of those about him. Mrs Baggett would speak of her, saying much in the praise of her old mistress. Mr Whittlestaff would smile and seem pleased, and so the subject would pass away. There was something too reverend to him in his idea of his mother, to admit of his discussing her character with the servant. But he was well pleased to hear her thus described. Of the other woman, of Catherine Bailey, of her who had falsely given herself up to so poor a creature as Compas, after having received the poetry of his vows, he could endure no mention whatever; and though Mrs Baggett knew probably well the whole story, no attempt at naming the name was ever made.
Such had been the successes and the failures of Mr Whittlestaff's life when Mary Lawrie was added as one to his household. The same idea had occurred to him as to Mrs Baggett. He was not a young man, because he was fifty; but he was not quite an old man, because he was only fifty. He had seen Mary Lawrie often enough, and had become sufficiently well acquainted with her to feel sure that if he could win her she would be a loving companion for the remainder of his life. He had turned it all over in his mind, and had been now eager about it and now bashful. On more than one occasion he had declared to himself that he would be whipped if he would have anything to do with her. Should he subject himself again to some such agony of despair as he had suffered in the matter of Catherine Bailey? It might not be an agony such as that; but to him to ask and to be denied would be a terrible pain. And as the girl did receive from his hands all that she had—her bread and meat, her bed, her very clothes—would it not be better for her that he should stand to her in the place of a father than a lover? She might come to accept it all and not think much of it, if he would take before himself the guise of an old man. But were he to appear before her as a suitor for her hand, would she refuse him? Looking forward, he could perceive that there was room for infinite grief if he should make the attempt and then things should not go well with him.
But the more he saw of her he was sure also that there was room for infinite joy. He compared her in his mind to Catherine Bailey, and could not but feel that in his youth he had been blind and fatuous. Catherine had been a fair-haired girl, and had now blossomed out into the anxious mother of ten fair-haired children. The anxiety had no doubt come from the evil courses of her husband. Had she been contented to be Mrs Whittlestaff, there might have been no such look of care, and there might perhaps have been less than ten children; but she would still have been fair-haired, blowsy, and fat. Mr Whittlestaff had with infinite trouble found an opportunity of seeing her and her flock, unseen by them, and a portion of his agony had subsided. But still there was the fact that she had promised to be his, and had become a thing sacred in his sight, and had then given herself up to the arms of Mr Compas. But now if Mary Lawrie would but accept him, how blessed might be the evening of his life!
He had confessed to himself often enough how sad and dreary he was in his desolate life. He had told himself that it must be so for the remainder of all time to him, when Catherine Bailey had declared her purpose to him of marrying the successful young lawyer. He had at once made up his mind that his doom was fixed, and had not regarded his solitude as any deep aggravation of his sorrow. But he had come by degrees to find that a man should not give up his life because of a fickle girl, and especially when he found her to be the mother of ten flaxen haired infants. He had, too, as he declared to himself, waited long enough.
But Mary Lawrie was very different from Catherine Bailey. The Catherine he had known had been bright, and plump, and joyous, with a quick good-natured wit, and a rippling laughter, which by its silvery sound had robbed him of his heart. There was no plumpness, and no silver-sounding laughter with Mary. She shall be described in the next chapter. Let it suffice to say here that she was somewhat staid in her demeanour, and not at all given to putting herself forward in conversation. But every hour that he passed in her company he became more and more sure that, if any wife could now make him happy, this was the woman who could do so.
But of her manner to himself he doubted much. She was gratitude itself for what he was prepared to do for her. But with her gratitude was mingled respect, and almost veneration. She treated him at first almost as a servant,—at any rate with none of the familiarity of a friend, and hardly with the reserve of a grown-up child. Gradually, in obedience to his evident wishes, she did drop her reserve, and allowed herself to converse with him; but it was always as a young person might with all modesty converse with her superior. He struggled hard to overcome her reticence, and did at last succeed. But still there was that respect, verging almost into veneration, which seemed to crush him when he thought that he might begin to play the lover.
He had got a pony carriage for her, which he insisted that she should drive herself. "But I never have driven," she had said, taking her place, and doubtfully assuming the reins, while he sat beside her. She had at this time been six months at Croker's Hall.
"There must be a beginning for everything, and you shall begin to drive now." Then he took great trouble with her, teaching her how to hold the reins, and how to use the whip, till at last something of familiarity was engendered. And he went out with her, day after day, showing her all those pretty haunts among the downs which are to be found in the neighbourhood of Alresford.
This did well for a time, and Mr Whittlestaff thought that he was progressing. But he had not as yet quite made up his mind that the attempt should be made at all. If he can be imagined to have talked to a friend as he talked to himself, that friend would have averred that he spoke more frequently against marriage,—or rather against the young lady's marriage,—than in favour of it. "After all it will never do," he would have said to this friend; "I am an old man, and an old man shouldn't ask a young girl to sacrifice herself. Mrs Baggett looks on it only as a question of butchers and bakers. There are, no doubt, circumstances in which butchers and bakers do come uppermost. But here the butchers and bakers are provided. I wouldn't have her marry me for that sake. Love, I fear, is out of the question. But for gratitude I would not have her do it." It was thus that he would commonly have been found speaking to his friend. There were moments in which he roused himself to better hopes,—when he had drank his glass of whisky and water, and was somewhat elate with the consequences. "I'll do it," he would then have said to his friend; "only I cannot exactly say when." And so it went on, till at last he became afraid to speak out and tell her what he wanted.
Mr Whittlestaff was a tall, thin man, not quite six feet, with a face which a judge of male beauty would hardly call handsome, but which all would say was impressive and interesting. We seldom think how much is told to us of the owner's character by the first or second glance of a man or woman's face. Is he a fool, or is he clever; is he reticent or outspoken; is he passionate or long-suffering;—nay, is he honest or the reverse; is he malicious or of a kindly nature? Of all these things we form a sudden judgment without any thought; and in most of our sudden judgments we are roughly correct. It is so, or seems to us to be so, as a matter of course,—that the man is a fool, or reticent, or malicious; and, without giving a thought to our own phrenological capacity, we pass on with the conviction. No one ever considered that Mr Whittlestaff was a fool or malicious; but people did think that he was reticent and honest. The inner traits of his character were very difficult to be read. Even Mrs Baggett had hardly read them all correctly. He was shamefaced to such a degree that Mrs Baggett could not bring herself to understand it. And there was present to him a manner of speech which practice had now made habitual, but which he had originally adopted with the object of hiding his shamefacedness under the veil of a dashing manner. He would speak as though he were quite free with his thoughts, when, at the moment, he feared that thoughts should be read of which he certainly had no cause to be ashamed. His fellowship, his poetry, and his early love were all, to his thinking, causes of disgrace, which required to be buried deep within his own memory. But the true humility with which he regarded them betokened a character for which he need not have blushed. But that he thought of those matters at all—that he thought of himself at all—was a matter to be buried deep within his own bosom.
Through his short dark-brown hair the grey locks were beginning to show themselves—signs indeed of age, but signs which were very becoming to him. At fifty he was a much better-looking man than he had been at thirty,—so that that foolish, fickle girl, Catherine Bailey, would not have rejected him for the cruelly sensuous face of Mr Compas, had the handsome iron-grey tinge been then given to his countenance. He, as he looked at the glass, told himself that a grey-haired old fool, such as he was, had no right to burden the life of a young girl, simply because he found her in bread and meat. That he should think himself good-looking, was to his nature impossible. His eyes were rather small, but very bright; the eyebrows black and almost bushy; his nose was well-formed and somewhat long, but not so as to give that peculiar idea of length to his face which comes from great nasal prolongation. His upper lip was short, and his mouth large and manly. The strength of his character was better shown by his mouth than by any other feature. He wore hardly any beard, as beards go now,—unless indeed a whisker can be called a beard, which came down, closely shorn, about half an inch below his ear. "A very common sort of individual," he said of himself, as he looked in the glass when Mary Lawrie had been already twelve months in the house; "but then a man ought to be common. A man who is uncommon is either a dandy or a buffoon."
His clothes were all made after one pattern and of one colour. He had, indeed, his morning clothes and his evening clothes. Those for the morning were very nearly black, whereas for the evening they were entirely so. He walked about the neighbourhood in a soft hat such as clergymen now affect, and on Sundays he went to church with the old well-established respectable chimney-pot. On Sundays, too, he carried an umbrella, whereas on week-days he always had a large stick; and it was observed that neither the umbrella nor the stick was adapted to the state of the weather.
Such was Mr Whittlestaff of Croker's Hall, a small residence which stood half-way up on the way to the downs, about a mile from Alresford. He had come into the neighbourhood, having bought a small freehold property without the knowledge of any of the inhabitants. "It was just as though he had come out of the sun," said the old baker, forgetting that most men, or their ancestors, must have come to their present residences after a similar fashion. And he had brought Mrs Baggett with him, who had confided to the baker that she had felt herself that strange on her first arrival that she didn't know whether she was standing on her head or her heels.
Mrs Baggett had since become very gracious with various of the neighbours. She had the paying of Mr Whittlestaff's bills, and the general disposal of his custom. From thence arose her popularity. But he, during the last fifteen years, had crept silently into the society of the place. At first no one had known anything about him; and the neighbourhood had been shy. But by degrees the parsons and then the squires had taken him by the hand, so that the social endowments of the place were more than Mr Whittlestaff even desired.
There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described. A courtship is harder still—so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible. Southey's Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it. It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master. But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced. I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver. But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked. Of Thackeray's Beatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye. I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them. Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.
But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie. She was a tall, thin, staid girl, who never put herself forward in any of those walks of life in which such a young lady as she is called upon to show herself. She was silent and reserved, and sometimes startled, even when appealed to in a household so quiet as that of Mr Whittlestaff. Those who had seen her former life had known that she had lived under the dominion of her step-mother, and had so accounted for her manner. And then, added to this, was the sense of entire dependence on a stranger, which, no doubt, helped to quell her spirit. But Mr Whittlestaff had eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear, and was not to be taken in by the outward appearance of the young lady. He had perceived that under that quiet guise and timid startled look there existed a power of fighting a battle for herself or for a friend, if an occasion should arise which should appear to herself to be sufficient. He had known her as one of her father's household, and of her step-mother's; and had seen probably some little instance of self-assertion, such as had not yet made itself apparent to Mrs Baggett.
A man who had met her once, and for a few minutes only, would certainly not declare her to be beautiful. She, too, like Mr Whittlestaff, was always contented to pass unobserved. But the chance man, had he seen her for long, would surely remark that Miss Lawrie was an attractive girl; and had he heard her talk freely on any matter of interest, would have called her very attractive. She would blaze up into sudden eloquence, and then would become shame-stricken, and abashed, and dumfounded, so as to show that she had for a moment forgotten her audience, and then the audience,—the chance man,—would surely set his wits to work and try to reproduce in her a renewal of that intimacy to which she had seemed to yield herself for the moment.
But yet I am not describing her after the accepted fashion. I should produce a catalogue of features, and tell how every one of them was formed. Her hair was dark, and worn very plain, but with that graceful care which shows that the owner has not slurred over her toilet with hurried negligence. Of complexion it can hardly be said that she had any; so little was the appearance of her countenance diversified by a change of hue. If I am bound to declare her colour, I must, in truth, say that she was brown. There was none even of that flying hue which is supposed to be intended when a woman is called a brunette. When she first came to Croker's Hall, health produced no variation. Nor did any such come quickly; though before she had lived there a year and a half, now and again a slight tinge of dark ruby would show itself on her cheek, and then vanish almost quicker than it had come. Mr Whittlestaff, when he would see this, would be almost beside himself in admiration.
Her eyes were deep blue, so deep that the casual observer would not at first recognise their colour. But when you had perceived that they were blue, and had brought the fact home to your knowledge, their blueness remained with you as a thing fixed for ever. And you would feel, if you yourself were thoughtful and contemplative, and much given to study a lady's eyes, that, such as they were, every lady would possess the like if only it were given to her to choose.
Her nose was slight and fine, and perhaps lent to her face, of all her features, its most special grace. Her lips, alas! were too thin for true female beauty, and lacked that round and luscious fulness which seems in many a girl's face to declare the purpose for which they were made. Through them her white teeth would occasionally be seen, and then her face was at its best, as, for instance, when she was smiling; but that was seldom; and at other moments it seemed as though she were too careful to keep her mouth closed.
But if her mouth was defective, the symmetry of her chin, carrying with it the oval of her cheek and jaws, was perfect. How many a face, otherwise lovely to look upon, is made mean and comparatively base, either by the lengthening or the shortening of the chin! That absolute perfection which Miss Lawrie owned, we do not, perhaps, often meet. But when found, I confess that nothing to me gives so sure an evidence of true blood and good-breeding.
Such is the catalogue of Mary Lawrie's features, drawn out with care by one who has delighted for many hours to sit and look at them. All the power of language which the writer possesses has been used in thus reproducing them. But now, when this portion of his work is done, he feels sure that no reader of his novel will have the slightest idea of what Mary Lawrie was like.
An incident must now be told of her early life, of which she never spoke to man, woman, or child. Her step-mother had known the circumstance, but had rarely spoken of it. There had come across her path in Norwich a young man who had stirred her heart, and had won her affections. But the young man had passed on, and there, as far as the present and the past were concerned, had been an end of it. The young man had been no favourite with her step-mother; and her father, who was almost on his death-bed, had heard what was going on almost without a remark. He had been told that the man was penniless, and as his daughter had been to him the dearest thing upon earth, he had been glad to save himself the pain of expressing disapproval. John Gordon had, however, been a gentleman, and was fit in all things to be the husband of such a girl as Mary Lawrie,—except that he was penniless, and she, also, had possessed nothing. He had passed on his way without speaking, and had gone—even Mary did not know whither. She had accepted her fate, and had never allowed the name of John Gordon to pass her lips.
The days passed very quickly at Croker's Hall, but not so quickly but that Mary knew well what was going on in Mr Whittlestaff's mind. How is it that a girl understands to a certainty the state of a man's heart in regard to her,—or rather, not his heart, but his purpose? A girl may believe that a man loves her, and may be deceived; but she will not be deceived as to whether he wishes to marry her. Gradually came the conviction on Miss Lawrie's mind of Mr Whittlestaff's purpose. And, as it did so, came the conviction also that she could not do it. Of this he saw nothing; but he was instigated by it to be more eager,—and was at the same time additionally abashed by something in her manner which made him feel that the task before him was not an easy one.
Mrs Baggett, who knew well all the symptoms as her master displayed them, became angry with Mary Lawrie. Who was Mary Lawrie, that she should take upon herself to deny Mr Whittlestaff anything? No doubt it would, as she told herself, be better for Mrs Baggett in many respects that her master should remain unmarried. She assured herself that if a mistress were put over her head, she must retire to Portsmouth,—which, of all places for her, had the dreariest memories. She could remain where she was very well, while Mary Lawrie remained also where she was. But it provoked her to think that the offer should be made to the girl and should be refused. "What on earth it is they sees in 'em, is what I never can understand. She ain't pretty,—not to say,—and she looks as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. But she's got it inside her, and some of them days it'll come out." Then Mrs Baggett determined that she would have a few words on the subject with Mary Lawrie.
Mary had now been a year and four months at Croker's Hall, and had, under pressure from Mr Whittlestaff, assumed something of the manner rather than of the airs of a mistress to Mrs Baggett. This the old woman did not at all resent, because the reality of power was still in her hands; but she could not endure that the idolatry of love should always be present in her master's face. If the young woman would only become Mrs Whittlestaff, then the idolatry would pass away. At any rate, her master would not continue "to make an ass of himself," as Mrs Baggett phrased it.
"Don't you think, Miss, as that Mr Whittlestaff is looking very peeky?"
"Is he, Mrs Baggett?"
"'Deed and he is, to my thinking; and it's all along of you. He's got a fancy into his mind,—and why shouldn't he have his fancy?"
"I don't know, I'm sure." But Mary did know. She did know what the fancy was, and why Mr Whittlestaff shouldn't have it.
"I tell you fairly, Miss, there is nothing I hate so much as vagaries in young women."
"I hope there are no vagaries to be hated in me, Mrs Baggett."
"Well, I'm not quite so sure. You do go as straightforward as most on 'em; but I ain't quite sure but that there are a few twists and twirls. What do you suppose he wants to be at?"
"How am I to say?" Then she bethought herself that were she to tell the truth, she could say very well.
"Do you mean as you don't know?" said the old woman.
"Am I bound to tell you if I do know?"
"If you wish to do the best for him, you are. What's the good of beating about the bush? Why don't you have him?"
Mary did not quite know whether it behoved her to be angry with the old servant, and if so, how she was to show her anger. "You shouldn't talk such nonsense, Mrs Baggett."
"That's all very well. It is all nonsense; but nonsense has to be talked sometimes. Here's a gentleman as you owe everything to. If he wanted your head from your shoulders, you shouldn't make any scruple. What are you, that you shouldn't let a gentleman like him have his own way? Asking your pardon, but I don't mean it any way out of disrespect. Of course it would be all agin me. An old woman doesn't want to have a young mistress over her head, and if she's my sperrit, she wouldn't bear it. I won't, any way."
"Then why do you ask me to do this thing?"
"Because a gentleman like him should have his own way. And an old hag like me shouldn't stand for anything. No more shouldn't a young woman like you who has had so much done for her. Now, Miss Mary, you see I've told you my mind freely."
"But he has never asked me."
"You just sit close up to him, and he'll ask you free enough. I shouldn't speak as I have done if there had been a morsel of doubt about it. Do you doubt it yourself, Miss?" To this Miss Lawrie did not find it necessary to return any answer.
When Mrs Baggett had gone and Mary was left to herself, she could not but think over what the woman had said to her. In the first place, was she not bound to be angry with the woman, and to express her anger? Was it not impertinent, nay, almost indecent, that the woman should come to her and interrogate her on such a subject? The inmost, most secret feelings of her heart had been ruthlessly inquired into and probed by a menial servant, who had asked questions of her, and made suggestions to her, as though her part in the affair had been of no consequence. "What are you, that you shouldn't let a gentleman like him have his own way?" Why was it not so much to her as to Mr Whittlestaff? Was it not her all; the consummation or destruction of every hope; the making or unmaking of her joy or of her happiness? Could it be right that she should marry any man, merely because the man wanted her? Were there to be no questions raised as to her own life, her own contentment, her own ideas of what was proper? It was true that this woman knew nothing of John Gordon. But she must have known that there might be a John Gordon,—whom she, Mary Lawrie, was required to set on one side, merely because Mr Whittlestaff "wanted her." Mrs Baggett had been grossly impertinent in daring to talk to her of Mr Whittlestaff's wants.
But then, as she walked slowly round the garden, she found herself bound to inquire of herself whether what the woman said had not been true. Did she not eat his bread; did she not wear his clothes; were not the very boots on her feet his property? And she was there in his house, without the slightest tie of blood or family connection. He had taken her from sheer charity, and had saved her from the terrible dependency of becoming a friendless governess. Looking out to the life which she had avoided, it seemed to her to be full of abject misery. And he had brought her to his own house, and had made her the mistress of everything. She knew that she had been undemonstrative in her manner, and that such was her nature. But her heart welled over with gratitude as she thought of the sweetness of the life which he had prepared for her. Was not the question true? "What am I, that I should stand in the way and prevent such a man as that from having what he wants?"
And then she told herself that he personally was full of good gifts. How different might it have been with her had some elderly men "wanted her," such as she had seen about in the world! How much was there in this man that she knew that she could learn to love? And he was one of whom she need in no wise be ashamed. He was a gentleman, pleasant to look at, sweet in manner, comely and clean in appearance. Would not the world say of her how lucky she had been should it come to pass that she should become Mrs Whittlestaff? Then there were thoughts of John Gordon, and she told herself that it was a mere dream. John Gordon had gone, and she knew not where he was; and John Gordon had never spoken a word to her of his love. After an hour's deliberation, she thought that she would marry Mr Whittlestaff if he asked her, though she could not bring herself to say that she would "sit close up to him" in order that he might do so.
MARY LAWRIE ACCEPTS MR WHITTLESTAFF.
By the end of the week Mary Lawrie had changed her mind. She had thought it over, and had endeavoured to persuade herself that Mr Whittlestaff did not care about it very much. Indeed there were moments during the week in which she flattered herself that if she would abstain from "sitting close up to him," he would say nothing about it. But she resolved altogether that she would not display her anger to Mrs Baggett. Mrs Baggett, after all, had done it for the best. And there was something in Mrs Baggett's mode of argument on the subject which was not altogether unflattering to Mary. It was not as though Mrs Baggett had told her that Mr Whittlestaff could make himself quite happy with Mrs Baggett herself, if Mary Lawrie would be good enough to go away. The suggestion had been made quite in the other way, and Mrs Baggett was prepared altogether to obliterate herself. Mary did feel that Mr Whittlestaff ought to be made a god, as long as another woman was willing to share in the worship with such absolute self-sacrifice.
At last the moment came, and the question was asked without a minute being allowed for consideration. It was in this wise. The two were sitting together after dinner on the lawn, and Mrs Baggett had brought them their coffee. It was her wont to wait upon them with this delicacy, though she did not appear either at breakfast or at dinner, except on remarkable occasions. She now had some little word to say, meant to be conciliatory and comforting, and remarked that "surely Miss Mary meant to get a colour in her cheeks at last."
"Don't be foolish, Mrs Baggett," said Mary. But Mrs Baggett's back was turned, and she did not care to reply.
"It is true, Mary," said Mr Whittlestaff, putting his hand on her shoulder, as he turned round to look in her face.
"Mrs Lawrie used to tell me that I always blushed black, and I think that she was about right."
"I do not know what colour you blush," said Mr Whittlestaff.
"I daresay not."
"But when it does come I am conscious of the sweetest colour that ever came upon a lady's cheek. And I tell myself that another grace has been added to the face which of all faces in the world is to my eyes the most beautiful." What was she to say in answer to a compliment so high-flown as this, to one from whose mouth compliments were so uncommon? She knew that he could not have so spoken without a purpose, declared at any rate to his own heart. He still held her by the arm, but did not once progress with his speech, while she sat silent by his side, and blushing with that dark ruby streak across her cheeks, which her step-mother had intended to vilify when she said that she had blushed black. "Mary," he continued after a pause, "can you endure the thought of becoming my wife?" Now she drew her arm away, and turned her face, and compressed her lips, and sat without uttering a word. "Of course I am an old man."
"It is not that," she muttered.
"But I think that I can love you as honestly and as firmly as a younger one. I think that if you could bring yourself to be my wife, you would find that you would not be treated badly."
"Oh, no, no, no!" she exclaimed.
"Nothing, at any rate, would be kept from you. When I have a thought or a feeling, a hope or a fear, you shall share it. As to money—"
"Don't do that. There should be no talk of money from you to me."
"Perhaps not. It would be best that I should be left to do as I may think most fitting for you. I have one incident in my life which I would wish to tell you. I loved a girl,—many years since,—and she ill-used me. I continued to love her long, but that image has passed from my mind." He was thinking, as he said this, of Mrs Compas and her large family. "It will not be necessary that I should refer to this again, because the subject is very painful; but it was essential that I should tell you. And now, Mary, how shall it be?" he added, after a pause.
She sat listening to all that he had to say to her, but without speaking a word. He, too, had had his "John Gordon;" but in his case the girl he had loved had treated him badly. She, Mary, had received no bad treatment. There had been love between them, ample love, love enough to break their hearts. At least she had found it so. But there had been no outspoken speech of love. Because of that, the wound made, now that it had been in some sort healed, had not with her been so cruel as with Mr Whittlestaff. John Gordon had come to her on the eve of his going, and had told her that he was about to start for some distant land. There had been loud words between him and her step-mother, and Mrs Lawrie had told him that he was a pauper, and was doing no good about the house; and Mary had heard the words spoken. She asked him whither he was going, but he did not reply. "Your mother is right. I am at any rate doing no good here," he had said, but had not answered her question further. Then Mary had given him her hand, and had whispered, "Good-bye." "If I return," he added, "the first place I will come to shall be Norwich." Then without further farewell ceremony he had gone. From that day to this she had had his form before her eyes; but now, if she accepted Mr Whittlestaff, it must be banished. No one, at any rate, knew of her wound. She must tell him,—should she be moved at last to accept him. It might be that he would reject her after such telling. If so, it would be well. But, in that case, what would be her future? Would it not be necessary that she should return to that idea of a governess which had been so distasteful to her? "Mary, can you say that it shall be so?" he asked quietly, after having remained silent for some ten minutes.
Could it be that all her fate must be resolved in so short a time? Since first the notion that Mr Whittlestaff had asked her to be his wife had come upon her, she had thought of it day and night. But, as is so usual with the world at large, she had thought altogether of the past, and not of the future. The past was a valley of dreams, which could easily be surveyed, whereas the future was a high mountain which it would require much labour to climb. When we think that we will make our calculations as to the future, it is so easy to revel in our memories instead. Mary had, in truth, not thought of her answer, though she had said to herself over and over again why it should not be so.
"Have you no answer to give me?" he said.
"Oh, Mr Whittlestaff, you have so startled me!" This was hardly true. He had not startled her, but had brought her to the necessity of knowing her own mind.
"If you wish to think of it, you shall take your own time." Then it was decided that a week should be accorded to her. And during that week she passed much of her time in tears. And Mrs Baggett would not leave her alone. To give Mrs Baggett her due, it must be acknowledged that she acted as best she knew how for her master's interest, without thinking of herself. "I shall go down to Portsmouth. I'm not worth thinking of, I ain't. There's them at Portsmouth as'll take care of me. You don't see why I should go. I daresay not; but I am older than you, and I see what you don't see. I've borne with you as a miss, because you've not been upsetting; but still, when I've lived with him for all those years without anything of the kind, it has set me hard sometimes. As married to him, I wouldn't put up with you; so I tell you fairly. But that don't signify. It ain't you as signifies or me as signifies. It's only him. You have got to bring yourself to think of that. What's the meaning of your duty to your neighbour, and doing unto others, and all the rest of it? You ain't got to think just of your own self; no more haven't I."
Mary said to herself silently that it was John Gordon of whom she had to think. She quite recognised the truth of the lesson about selfishness; but love to her was more imperious than gratitude.
"There's them at Portsmouth as'll take care of me, no doubt. Don't you mind about me. I ain't going to have a good time at Portsmouth, but people ain't born to have good times of it. You're going to have a good time. But it ain't for that, but for what your duty tells you. You that haven't a bit or a sup but what comes from him, and you to stand shilly-shallying! I can't abide the idea!"
It was thus that Mrs Baggett taught her great lesson,—the greatest lesson we may say which a man or a woman can learn. And though she taught it immoderately, fancying, as a woman, that another woman should sacrifice everything to a man, still she taught it with truth. She was minded to go to Portsmouth, although Portsmouth to her in the present state of circumstances was little better than a hell upon earth. But Mary could not quite see Mr Whittlestaff's claim in the same light. The one point on which it did seem to her that she had made up her mind was Mr Gordon's claim, which was paramount to everything. Yes; he was gone, and might never return. It might be that he was dead. It might be even that he had taken some other wife, and she was conscious that not a word had passed her lips that could be taken as a promise. There had not been even a hint of a promise. But it seemed to her that this duty of which Mrs Baggett spoke was due rather to John Gordon than to Mr Whittlestaff.
She counted the days,—nay, she counted the hours, till the week had run by. And when the precise moment had come at which an answer must be given,—for in such matters Mr Whittlestaff was very precise,—John Gordon was still the hero of her thoughts. "Well, dear," he said, putting his hand upon her arm, just as he had done on that former occasion. He said no more, but there was a world of entreaty in the tone of his voice as he uttered the words.
"I do not think I can. I do not think I ought. You never heard of—Mr John Gordon."
"He used to come to our house at Norwich, and—and—I loved him."
"What became of him?" he asked, in a strangely altered voice. Was there to be a Mr Compas here too to interfere with his happiness?
"He was poor, and he went away when my step-mother did not like him."
"You had engaged yourself to him?"
"Oh, no! There had been nothing of that kind. You will understand that I should not speak to you on such a subject, were it not that I am bound to tell you my whole heart. But you will never repeat what you now hear."
"There was no engagement?"
"There was no question of any such thing."
"And he is gone?"
"Yes," said Mary; "he has gone."
"And will not come back again?" Then she looked into his face,—oh! so wistfully. "When did it happen?"
"When my father was on his death-bed. He had come sooner than that; but then it was that he went. I think, Mr Whittlestaff, that I never ought to marry any one after that, and therefore it is that I have told you."
"You are a good girl, Mary."
"I don't know about that. I think that I ought to deceive you at least in nothing."
"You should deceive no one."
"No, Mr Whittlestaff." She answered him ever so meekly; but there was running in her mind a feeling that she had not deceived any one, and that she was somewhat hardly used by the advice given to her.
"He has gone altogether?" he asked again.
"I do not know where he is,—whether he be dead or alive."
"But if he should come back?"
She only shook her head;—meaning him to understand that she could say nothing of his purposes should he come back. He had made her no offer. He had said that if he returned he would come first to Norwich. There had been something of a promise in this; but oh, so little! And she did not dare to tell him that hitherto she had lived upon that little.
"I do not think that you should remain single for ever on that account. How long is it now since Mr Gordon went?"
There was something in the tone in which he mentioned Mr Gordon's name which went against the grain with Mary. She felt that he was spoken of almost as an enemy. "I think it is three years since he went."
"Three years is a long time. Has he never written?"
"Not to me. How should he write? There was nothing for him to write about."
"It has been a fancy."
"Yes;—a fancy." He had made this excuse for her, and she had none stronger to make for herself.
He certainly did not think the better of her in that she had indulged in such a fancy; but in truth his love was sharpened by the opposition which this fancy made. It had seemed to him that his possessing her would give a brightness to his life, and this brightness was not altogether obscured by the idea that she had ever thought that she had loved another person. As a woman she was as lovable as before, though perhaps less admirable. At any rate he wanted her, and now she seemed to be more within his reach than she had been. "The week has passed by, Mary, and I suppose that now you can give me an answer." Then she found that she was in his power. She had told him her story, as though with the understanding that if he would take her with her "fancy," she was ready to surrender herself. "Am I not to have an answer now?"
"I suppose so."
"What is it to be?"
"If you wish for me, I will be yours."
"And you will cease to think of Mr Gordon?"
"I shall think of him; but not in a way that you would begrudge me."
"That will suffice. I know that you are honest, and I will not ask you to forget him altogether. But there had better be no speaking of him. It is well that he should be banished from your mind. And now, dearest, dearest love, give me your hand." She put her hand at once into his. "And a kiss." She just turned herself a little round, with her eyes bent upon the ground. "Nay; there must be a kiss." Then he bent over her, and just touched her cheek. "Mary, you are now all my own." Yes;—she was now all his own, and she would do for him the best in her power. He had not asked for her love, and she certainly had not given it. She knew well how impossible it would be that she should give him her love. "I know you are disturbed," he said. "I wish also for a few minutes to think of it all." Then he turned away from her, and went up the garden walk by himself.
She, slowly loitering, went into the house alone, and seated herself by the open window in her bed-chamber. As she sat there she could see him up the long walk, going and returning. As he went his hands were folded behind his back, and she thought that he appeared older than she had ever remarked him to be before. What did it signify? She had undertaken her business in life, and the duties she thought would be within her power. She was sure that she would be true to him, as far as truth to his material interests was concerned. His comforts in life should be her first care. If he trusted her at all, he should not become poorer by reason of his confidence. And she would be as tender to him as the circumstances would admit. She would not begrudge him kisses if he cared for them. They were his by all the rights of contract. He certainly had the best of the bargain, but he should never know how much the best of it he had. He had told her that there had better be no speaking of John Gordon. There certainly should be none on her part. She had told him that she must continue to think of him. There at any rate she had been honest. But he should not see that she thought of him.
Then she endeavoured to assure herself that this thinking would die out. Looking round the world, her small world, how many women there were who had not married the men they had loved first! How few, perhaps, had done so! Life was not good-natured enough for smoothness such as that. And yet did not they, as a rule, live well with their husbands? What right had she to expect anything better than their fate? Each poor insipid dame that she saw, toddling on with half-a-dozen children at her heels, might have had as good a John Gordon of her own as was hers. And each of them might have sat on a summer day, at an open window, looking out with something, oh, so far from love, at the punctual steps of him who was to be her husband.
Then her thoughts turned, would turn, could not be kept from turning, to John Gordon. He had been to her the personification of manliness. That which he resolved to do, he did with an iron will. But his manners to all women were soft, and to her seemed to have been suffused with special tenderness. But he was chary of his words,—as he had even been to her. He had been the son of a banker at Norwich; but, just as she had become acquainted with him, the bank had broke, and he had left Oxford to come home and find himself a ruined man. But he had never said a word to her of the family misfortune. He had been six feet high, with dark hair cut very short, somewhat full of sport of the roughest kind, which, however, he had abandoned instantly. "Things have so turned out," he had once said to Mary, "that I must earn something to eat instead of riding after foxes." She could not boast that he was handsome. "What does it signify?" she had once said to her step-mother, who had declared him to be stiff, upsetting, and ugly. "A man is not like a poor girl, who has nothing but the softness of her skin to depend upon." Then Mrs Lawrie had declared to him that "he did no good coming about the house,"—and he went away.
Why had he not spoken to her? He had said that one word, promising that if he returned he would come to Norwich. She had lived three years since that, and he had not come back. And her house had been broken up, and she, though she would have been prepared to wait for another three years,—though she would have waited till she had grown grey with waiting,—she had now fallen into the hands of one who had a right to demand from her that she should obey him. "And it is not that I hate him," she said to herself. "I do love him. He is all good. But I am glad that he has not bade me not to think of John Gordon."
"I SUPPOSE IT WAS A DREAM."
It seemed to her, as she sat there at the window, that she ought to tell Mrs Baggett what had occurred. There had been that between them which, as she thought, made it incumbent on her to let Mrs Baggett know the result of her interview with Mr Whittlestaff. So she went down-stairs, and found that invaluable old domestic interfering materially with the comfort of the two younger maidens. She was determined to let them "know what was what," as she expressed it.
"You oughtn't to be angry with me, because I've done nothing," said Jane the housemaid, sobbing.
"That's just about it," said Mrs Baggett. "And why haven't you done nothing? Do you suppose you come here to do nothing? Was it doing nothing when Eliza tied down them strawberries without putting in e'er a drop of brandy? It drives me mortial mad to think what you young folks are coming to."
"I ain't a-going anywhere, Mrs Baggett, because of them strawberries being tied down which, if you untie them, as I always intended, will have the sperrits put on them as well now as ever. And as for your going mad, Mrs Baggett, I hope it won't be along of me."
"Drat your imperence."
"I ain't imperence at all. Here's Miss Lawrie, and she shall say whether I'm imperence."
"Mrs Baggett, I want to speak to you, if you'll come into the other room," said Mary.
"You are imperent, both of you. I can't say a word but I'm taken up that short that—. They've been and tied all the jam down, so that it'll all go that mouldy that nobody can touch it. And then, when I says a word, they turns upon me." Then Mrs Baggett walked out of the kitchen into her own small parlour, which opened upon the passage just opposite the kitchen door. "They was a-going to be opened this very afternoon," said Eliza, firing a parting shot after the departing enemy.
"Mrs Baggett, I've got to tell you," Mary began.
"He came to me for an answer, as he said he would."
"And I told him it should be as he would have it."
"Of course you would. I knew that."
"You told me that it was your duty and mine to give him whatever he wanted."
"I didn't say nothing of the kind, Miss."
"Oh, Mrs Baggett!"
"I didn't. I said, if he wanted your head, you was to let him take it. But if he wanted mine, you wasn't to give it to him."
"He asked me to be his wife, and I said I would."
"Then I may as well pack up and be off for Portsmouth."
"No; not so. I have obeyed you, and I think that in these matters you should obey him too."
"I daresay; but at my age I ain't so well able to obey. I daresay as them girls knew all about it, or they wouldn't have turned round upon me like that. It's just like the likes of them. When is it to be, Miss Lawrie?—because I won't stop in the house after you be the missus of it. That's flat. If you were to talk till you're deaf and dumb, I wouldn't do it. Oh, it don't matter what's to become of me! I know that."
"But it will matter very much."
"Not a ha'porth."
"You ask him, Mrs Baggett."
"He's got his plaything. That's all he cares about. I've been with him and his family almost from a baby, and have grown old a-serving him, and it don't matter to him whether I goes into the hedges and ditches, or where I goes. They say that service is no heritance, and they says true. I'm to go to— But don't mind me. He won't, and why should you? Do you think you'll ever do half as much for him as I've done? He's got his troubles before him now;—that's the worst of it."
This was very bad. Mrs Baggett had been loud in laying down for her the line of duty which she should follow, and she, to the best of her ability, had done as Mrs Baggett had told her. It was the case that Mrs Baggett had prevailed with her, and now the woman turned against her! Was it true that he had "his troubles before him," because of her acceptance of his offer? If so, might it not yet be mended? Was it too late? Of what comfort could she be to him, seeing that she had been unable to give him her heart? Why should she interfere with the woman's happiness? In a spirit of true humility she endeavoured to think how she might endeavour to do the best. Of one thing she was quite, quite sure,—that all the longings of her very soul were fixed upon that other man. He was away;—perhaps he had forgotten her; perhaps he was married. Not a word had been spoken to her on which she could found a fair hope. But she had never been so certain of her love,—of her love as a true, undoubted, and undoubtable fact—of an unchangeable fact,—as she was now. And why should this poor old woman, with her many years of service, be disturbed? She went again up to her bedroom, and sitting at her open window and looking out, saw him still pacing slowly up and down the long walk. As she looked at him, he seemed to be older than before. His hands were still clasped behind his back. There was no look about him as that of a thriving lover. Care seemed to be on his face,—nay, even present, almost visibly, on his very shoulders. She would go to him and plead for Mrs Baggett.
But in that case what should become of herself? She was aware that she could no longer stay in his house as his adopted daughter. But she could go forth,—and starve if there was nothing better for her. But as she thought of starvation, she stamped with one foot against the other, as though to punish herself for her own falsehood. He would not let her starve. He would get some place for her as a governess. And she was not in the least afraid of starvation. It would be sweeter for her to work with any kind of hardship around her, and to be allowed to think of John Gordon with her heart free, than to become the comfortable mistress of his house. She would not admit the plea of starvation even to herself. She wanted to be free of him, and she would tell him so, and would tell him also of the ruin he was about to bring on his old servant.
She watched him as he came back into the house, and then she rose from her chair. "But I shall never see him again," she said, as she paused before she left the room.
But what did that matter? Her not seeing him again ought to make, should make, no difference with her. It was not that she might see him, but that she might think of him with unsullied thoughts. That should be her object,—that and the duty that she owed to Mrs Baggett. Why was not Mrs Baggett entitled to as much consideration as was she herself,—or even he? She turned to the glass, and wiped her eyes with the sponge, and brushed her hair, and then she went across the passage to Mr Whittlestaff's library.
She knocked at the door,—which she had not been accustomed to do,—and then at his bidding entered the room. "Oh, Mary," he said laughing, "is that the way you begin, by knocking at the door?"
"I think one knocks when one wants a moment of reprieve."
"You mean to say that you are bashful in assuming your new privileges. Then you had better go back to your old habits, because you always used to come where I was. You must come and go now like my very second self." Then he came forward from the desk at which he was wont to stand and write, and essayed to put his arm round her waist. She drew back, but still he was not startled. "It was but a cold kiss I gave you down below. You must kiss me now, you, as a wife kisses her husband."
"What!" Now he was startled.
"Mr Whittlestaff, pray—pray do not be angry with me."
"What is the meaning of it?"
Then she bethought herself,—how she might best explain the meaning. It was hard upon her, this having to explain it, and she told herself, very foolishly, that it would be better for her to begin with the story of Mrs Baggett. She could more easily speak of Mrs Baggett than of John Gordon. But it must be remembered, on her behalf, that she had but a second to think how she might best begin her story. "I have spoken to Mrs Baggett about your wishes."
"She has lived with you and your family from before you were born."
"She is an old fool. Who is going to hurt her? And if it did hurt her, are you and I to be put out of our course because of her? She can remain here as long as she obeys you as her mistress."
"She says that after so many years she cannot do that."
"She shall leave the house this very night, if she disturbs your happiness and mine. What! is an old woman like that to tell her master when he may and when he may not marry? I did not think you had been so soft."
She could not explain it all to him,—all that she thought upon the subject. She could not say that the interference of any domestic between such a one as John Gordon and his love,—between him and her if she were happy enough to be his love,—would be an absurdity too foolish to be considered. They, that happy two, would be following the bent of human nature, and would speak no more than a soft word to the old woman, if a soft word might avail anything. Their love, their happy love, would be a thing too sacred to admit of any question from any servant, almost from any parent. But why, in this matter, was not Mrs Baggett's happiness to be of as much consequence as Mr Whittlestaff's;—especially when her own peace of mind lay in the same direction as Mrs Baggett's? "She says that you are only laying up trouble for yourself in this, and I think that it is true."
Then he rose up in his wrath and spoke his mind freely, and showed her at once that John Gordon had not dwelt much on his mind. He had bade her not to speak of him, and then he had been contented to look upon him as one whom he would not be compelled to trouble himself with any further. "I think, Mary, that you are making too little of me, and of yourself, to talk to me, or even to consider, in such a matter, what a servant says to you. As you have given me your affection, you should now allow nothing that any one can say to you to make you even think of changing your purpose." How grossly must he be mistaken, when he could imagine that she had given him her heart! Had she not expressly told him that her love had been set upon another person? "To me you are everything. I have been thinking as I walked up and down the path there, of all that I could do to make you happy. And I was so happy myself in feeling that I had your happiness to look after. How should I not let the wind blow too coldly on you? How should I be watchful to see that nothing should ruffle your spirits? What duties, what pleasures, what society should I provide for you? How should I change my habits, so as to make my advanced years fit for your younger life? And I was teaching myself to hope that I was not yet too old to make this altogether impossible. Then you come to me, and tell me that you must destroy all my dreams, dash all my hopes to the ground,—because an old woman has shown her temper and her jealousy!"
This was true,—according to the light in which he saw her position. Had there been nothing between them two but a mutual desire to be married, the reason given by her for changing it all would be absurd. As he had continued to speak, slowly adding on one argument to another, with a certain amount of true eloquence, she felt that unless she could go back to John Gordon she must yield. But it was very hard for her to go back to John Gordon. In the first place, she must acknowledge, in doing so, that she had only put forward Mrs Baggett as a false plea. And then she must insist on her love for a man who had never spoken to her of love! It was so hard that she could not do it openly. "I had thought so little of the value I could be to you."
"Your value to me is infinite. I think, Mary, that there has come upon you a certain melancholy which is depressing you. Your regard to me is worth now more than any other possession or gift that the world can bestow. And I had taken pride to myself in saying that it had been given." Yes;—her regard! She could not contradict him as to that. "And have you thought of your own position? After all that has passed between us, you can hardly go on living here as you have done."
"I know that."
"Then, what would become of you if you were to break away from me?"
"I thought you would get a place for me as a governess,—or a companion to some lady."
"Would that satisfy your ambition? I have got a place for you;—but it is here." As he spoke, he laid his hand upon his heart. "Not as a companion to a lady are you required to fulfil your duties here on earth. It is a fuller task of work that you must do. I trust,—I trust that it may not be more tedious." She looked at him again, and he did not now appear so old. There was a power of speech about the man, and a dignity which made her feel that she could in truth have loved him,—had it not been for John Gordon. "Unfortunately, I am older than you,—very much older. But to you there may be this advantage, that you can listen to what I may say with something of confidence in my knowledge of the world. As my wife, you will fill a position more honourable, and more suitable to your gifts, than could belong to you as a governess or a companion. You will have much more to do, and will be able to go nightly to your rest with a consciousness that you have done more as the mistress of our house than you could have done in that tamer capacity. You will have cares,—and even those will ennoble the world to you, and you to the world. That other life is a poor shrunken death,—rather than life. It is a way of passing her days, which must fall to the lot of many a female who does not achieve the other; and it is well that they to whom it falls should be able to accommodate themselves to it with contentment and self-respect. I think that I may say of myself that, even as my wife, you will stand higher than you would do as a companion."
"I am sure of it."
"Not on that account should you accept any man that you cannot love." Had she not told him that she did not love him;—even that she loved another? And yet he spoke to her in this way! "You had better tell Mrs Baggett to come to me."
"There is the memory of that other man," she murmured very gently.
Then the scowl came back upon his face;—or not a scowl, but a look rather of cold displeasure. "If I understand you rightly, the gentleman never addressed you as a lover."
"I see it all, Mary. Mrs Baggett has been violent and selfish, and has made you think thoughts which should not have been put in your head to disturb you. You have dreamed a dream in your early life,—as girls do dream, I suppose,—and it has now to be forgotten. Is it not so?"
"I suppose it was a dream."
"He has passed away, and he has left you to become the happiness of my life. Send Mrs Baggett to me, and I will speak to her." Then he came up to her,—for they had been standing about a yard apart,—and pressed his lips to hers. How was it possible that she should prevent him?
She turned round, and slowly left the room, feeling, as she did so, that she was again engaged to him for ever and ever. She hated herself because she had been so fickle. But how could she have done otherwise? She asked herself, as she went back to her room, at what period during the interview, which was now over, she could have declared to him the real state of her mind. He had, as it were, taken complete possession of her, by right of the deed of gift which she had made of herself that morning. She had endeavoured to resume the gift, but had altogether failed. She declared to herself that she was weak, impotent, purposeless; but she admitted, on the other hand, that he had displayed more of power than she had ever guessed at his possessing. A woman always loves this display of power in a man, and she felt that she could have loved him had it not been for John Gordon.
But there was one comfort for her. None knew of her weakness. Her mind had vacillated like a shuttlecock, but no one had seen the vacillation. She was in his hands, and she must simply do as he bade her. Then she went down to Mrs Baggett's room, and told the old lady to go up-stairs at her master's behest. "I'm a-going," said Mrs Baggett. "I'm a-going. I hope he'll find every one else as good at doing what he tells 'em. But I ain't a-going to be a-doing for him or for any one much longer."
Mrs Baggett walked into her master's room, loudly knocking at the door, and waiting for a loud answer. He was pacing up and down the library, thinking of the injustice of her interference, and she was full of the injury to which she had been subjected by circumstances. She had been perfectly sincere when she had told Mary Lawrie that Mr Whittlestaff was entitled to have and to enjoy his own wishes as against both of them. In the first place, he was a man,—and as a man, was to be indulged, at whatever cost to any number of women. And then he was a man whose bread they had both eaten. Mary had eaten his bread, as bestowed upon her from sheer charity. According to Mrs Baggett's view of the world at large, Mary was bound to deliver herself body and soul to Mr Whittlestaff, were "soul sacrifice" demanded from her. As for herself, her first duty in life was to look after him were he to be sick. Unfortunately Mr Whittlestaff never was sick, but Mrs Baggett was patiently looking forward to some happy day when he might be brought home with his leg broken. He had no imprudent habits, hunting, shooting, or suchlike; but chance might be good to her. Then the making of all jams and marmalades, for which he did not care a straw, and which he only ate to oblige her, was a comfort to her. She could manage occasionally to be kept out of her bed over some boiling till one o'clock; and then the making of butter in the summer would demand that she should be up at three. Thus she was enabled to consider that her normal hours of work were twenty-two out of the twenty-four. She did not begrudge them in the least, thinking that they were all due to Mr Whittlestaff. Now Mr Whittlestaff wanted a wife, and, of course, he ought to have her. His Juggernaut's car must roll on its course over her body or Mary Lawrie's. But she could not be expected to remain and behold Mary Lawrie's triumph and Mary Lawrie's power. That was out of the question, and as she was thus driven out of the house, she was entitled to show a little of her ill humour to the proud bride. She must go to Portsmouth;—which she knew was tantamount to a living death. She only hated one person in all the world, and he, as she knew well, was living at Portsmouth. There were to her only two places in the world in which anybody could live,—Croker's Hall and Portsmouth. Croker's Hall was on the whole the proper region set apart for the habitation of the blest. Portsmouth was the other place,—and thither she must go. To remain, even in heaven, as housekeeper to a young woman, was not to be thought of. It was written in the book of Fate that she must go; but not on that account need she even pretend to keep her temper.