The Small House at Allington/Chapter 25
ADOLPHUS CROSBIE SPENDS AN EVENING AT HIS CLUB.
Crosbie, as he was being driven from the castle to the nearest station, in a dog-cart hired from the hotel, could not keep himself from thinking of that other morning, not yet a fortnight past, on which he had left Allington; and as he thought of it he knew that he was a villain. On this morning Alexandrina had not come out from the house to watch his departure, and catch the last glance of his receding figure. As he had not started very early she had sat with him at the breakfast table; but others also had sat there, and when he got up to go, she did no more than smile softly and give him her hand. It had been already settled that he was to spend his Christmas at Courcy; as it had been also settled that he was to spend it at Allington.
Lady Amelia was, of all the family, the most affectionate to him, and perhaps of them all she was the one whose affection was worth the most. She was not a woman endowed with a very high mind or with very noble feelings. She had begun life trusting to the nobility of her blood for everything, and declaring somewhat loudly among her friends that her father's rank and her mother's birth imposed on her the duty of standing closely by her own order. Nevertheless, at the age of thirty-three she had married her father's man of business, under circumstances which were not altogether creditable to her. But she had done her duty in her new sphere of life with some constancy and a fixed purpose; and now that her sister was going to marry, as she had done, a man much below herself in social standing, she was prepared to do her duty as a sister and a sister-in-law.
"We shall be up in town in November, and of course you'll come to us at once. Albert Villa, you know, in Hamilton Terrace, St. John's Wood. We dine at seven, and on Sundays at two; and you'll always find a place. Mind you come to us, and make yourself quite at home. I do so hope you and Mortimer will get on well together."
"I'm sure we shall," said Crosbie. But he had had higher hopes in marrying into this noble family than that of becoming intimate with Mortimer Gazebee. What those hopes were he could hardly define to himself now that he had brought himself so near to the fruition of them. Lady De Courcy had certainly promised to write to her first cousin who was Under-Secretary of State for India, with reference to that secretaryship at the General Committee Office; but Crosbie, when he came to weigh in his mind what good might result to him from this, was disposed to think that his chance of obtaining the promotion would be quite as good without the interest of the Under-Secretary of State for India as with it. Now that he belonged, as we may say, to this noble family, he could hardly discern what were the advantages which he had expected from this alliance. He had said to himself that it would be much to have a countess for a mother-in-law; but now, even already, although the possession to which he had looked was not yet garnered, he was beginning to tell himself that the thing was not worth possessing.
As he sat in the train, with a newspaper in his hand, he went on acknowledging to himself that he was a villain. Lady Julia had spoken the truth to him on the stairs at Courcy, and so he confessed over and over again. But he was chiefly angry with himself for this,—that he had been a villain without gaining anything by his villany; that he had been a villain, and was to lose so much by his villany. He made comparison between Lily and Alexandrina, and owned to himself, over and over again, that Lily would make the best wife that a man could take to his bosom. As to Alexandrina, he knew the thinness of her character. She would stick by him, no doubt; and in a circuitous, discontented, unhappy way, would probably be true to her duties as a wife and mother. She would be nearly such another as Lady Amelia Gazebee. But was that a prize sufficiently rich to make him contented with his own prowess and skill in winning it? And was that a prize sufficiently rich to justify him to himself for his terrible villany? Lily Dale he had loved; and he now declared to himself that he could have continued to love her through his whole life. But what was there for any man to love in Alexandrina De Courcy?
While resolving, during his first four or five days at the castle, that he would throw Lily Dale overboard, he had contrived to quiet his conscience by inward allusions to sundry heroes of romance. He had thought of Lothario, Don Juan, and of Lovelace; and had told himself that the world had ever been full of such heroes. And the world, too, had treated such heroes well; not punishing them at all as villains, but caressing them rather, and calling them curled darlings. Why should not he be a curled darling as well as another? Ladies had ever been fond of the Don Juan character, and Don Juan had generally been popular with men also. And then he named to himself a dozen modern Lotharios,—men who were holding their heads well above water, although it was known that they had played this lady false, and brought that other one to death's door, or perhaps even to death itself. War and love were alike, and the world was prepared to forgive any guile to militants in either camp.
But now that he had done the deed he found himself forced to look at it from quite another point of view. Suddenly that character of Lothario showed itself to him in a different light, and one in which it did not please him to look at it as belonging to himself. He began to feel that it would be almost impossible for him to write that letter to Lily, which it was absolutely necessary that he should write. He was in a position in which his mind would almost turn itself to thoughts of self-destruction as the only means of escape. A fortnight ago he was a happy man, having everything before him that a man ought to want; and now—now that he was the accepted son-in-law of an earl, and the confident expectant of high promotion—he was the most miserable, degraded wretch in the world!
He changed his clothes at his lodgings in Mount Street and went down to his club to dinner. He could, at any rate, do nothing that night. His letter to Allington must, no doubt, be written at once; but, as he could not send it before the next night's post, he was not forced to set to work upon it that evening. As he walked along Piccadilly on his way to St. James's Square, it occurred to him that it might be well to write a short line to Lily, telling her nothing of the truth,—a note written as though his engagement with her was still unbroken, but yet written with care, saying nothing about that engagement, so as to give him a little time. Then he thought that he would telegraph to Bernard and tell everything to him. Bernard would, of course, be prepared to avenge his cousin in some way, but for such vengeance Crosbie felt that he should care little. Lady Julia had told him that Lily was without father or brother, thereby accusing him of the basest cowardice. "I wish she had a dozen brothers," he said to himself. But he hardly knew why he expressed such a wish.
He returned to London on the last day of October, and he found the streets at the West End nearly deserted. He thought, therefore, that he should be quite alone at his club, but as he entered the dinner room he saw one of his oldest and most intimate friends standing before the fire. Fowler Pratt was the man who had first brought him into Sebright's, and had given him almost his earliest start on his successful career in life. Since that time he and his friend Fowler Pratt had lived in close communion, though Pratt had always held a certain ascendancy in their friendship. He was in age a few years senior to Crosbie, and was in truth a man of better parts. But he was less ambitious, less desirous of shining in the world, and much less popular with men in general. He was possessed of a moderate private fortune on which he lived in a quiet, modest manner, and was unmarried, not likely to marry, inoffensive, useless, and prudent. For the first few years of Crosbie's life in London he had lived very much with his friend Pratt, and had been accustomed to depend much on his friend's counsel; but latterly, since he had himself become somewhat noticeable, he had found more pleasure in the society of such men as Dale, who were not his superiors either in age or wisdom. But there had been no coolness between him and Pratt, and now they met with perfect cordiality.
"I thought you were down in Barsetshire," said Pratt.
"And I thought you were in Switzerland."
"I have been in Switzerland," said Pratt.
"And I have been in Barsetshire," said Crosbie. Then they ordered their dinner together.
"And so you're going to be married?" said Pratt, when the waiter had carried away the cheese.
"Who told you that?"
"Well, but you are? Never mind who told me, if I was told the truth."
"But if it be not true?"
"I have heard it for the last month," said Pratt, "and it has been spoken of as a thing certain; and it is true; is it not?"
"I believe it is," said Crosbie, slowly.
"Why, what on earth is the matter with you, that you speak of it in that way? Am I to congratulate you, or am I not? The lady, I'm told, is a cousin of Dale's."
Crosbie had turned his chair from the table round to the fire, and said nothing in answer to this. He sat with his glass of sherry in his hand, looking at the coals, and thinking whether it would not be well that he should tell the whole story to Pratt. No one could give him better advice; and no one, as far as he knew his friend, would be less shocked at the telling of such a story. Pratt had no romance about women, and had never pretended to very high sentiments.
"Come up into the smoking-room and I'll tell you all about it," said Crosbie. So they went off together, and, as the smoking-room was untenanted, Crosbie was able to tell his story.
He found it very hard to tell;—much harder than he had beforehand fancied. "I have got into terrible trouble," he began by saying. Then he told how he had fallen suddenly in love with Lily, how he had been rash and imprudent, how nice she was—"infinitely too good for such a man as I am," he said;—how she had accepted him, and then how he had repented. "I should have told you beforehand," he then said, "that I was already half engaged to Lady Alexandrina de Courcy." The reader, however, will understand that this half-engagement was a fiction.
"And now you mean that you are altogether engaged to her?"
"And that Miss Dale must be told that, on second thoughts, you have changed your mind?"
"I know that I have behaved very badly," said Crosbie.
"Indeed you have," said his friend.
"It is one of those troubles in which a man finds himself involved almost before he knows where he is."
"Well; I can't look at it exactly in that light. A man may amuse himself with a girl, and I can understand his disappointing her and not offering to marry her,—though even that sort of thing isn't much to my taste. But, by George, to make an offer of marriage to such a girl as that in September, to live for a month in her family as her affianced husband, and then coolly go away to another house in October, and make an offer to another girl of higher rank——"
"You know very well that that has had nothing to do with it."
"It looks very like it. And how are you going to communicate these tidings to Miss Dale?"
"I don't know," said Crosbie, who was beginning to be very sore.
"And you have quite made up your mind that you'll stick to the earl's daughter?"
The idea of jilting Alexandrina instead of Lily had never as yet presented itself to Crosbie, and now, as he thought of it, he could not perceive that it was feasible.
"Yes," he said, "I shall marry Lady Alexandrina;—that is, if I do not cut the whole concern, and my own throat into the bargain."
"If I were in your shoes I think I should cut the whole concern. I could not stand it. What do you mean to say to Miss Dale's uncle?"
"I don't care a —— for Miss Dale's uncle," said Crosbie. "If he were to walk in at that door this moment, I would tell him the whole story, without——"
As he was yet speaking, one of the club servants opened the door of the smoking-room, and seeing Crosbie seated in a lounging-chair near the fire, went up to him with a gentleman's card. Crosbie took the card and read the name. "Mr. Dale, Allington."
"The gentleman is in the waiting-room," said the servant. Crosbie for the moment was struck dumb. He had declared that very moment that he should feel no personal disinclination to meet Mr. Dale, and now that gentleman was within the walls of the club, waiting to see him!
"Who's that?" asked Pratt. And then Crosbie handed him the card. "Whew-w-w-hew," whistled Pratt.
"Did you tell the gentleman I was here?" asked Crosbie.
"I said I thought you were upstairs, sir."
"That will do," said Pratt. "The gentleman will no doubt wait for a minute." And then the servant went out of the room. "Now, Crosbie, you must make up your mind. By one of these women and all her friends you will ever be regarded as a rascal, and they of course will look out to punish you with such punishment as may come to their hands. You must now choose which shall be the sufferer."
The man was a coward at heart. The reflection that he might, even now, at this moment, meet the old squire on pleasant terms,—or at any rate not on terms of defiance, pleaded more strongly in Lily's favour than had any other argument since Crosbie had first made up his mind to abandon her. He did not fear personal ill-usage;—he was not afraid lest he should be kicked or beaten; but he did not dare to face the just anger of the angry man.
"If I were you," said Pratt, "I would not go down to that man at the present moment for a trifle."
"But what can I do?"
"Shirk away out of the club. Only if you do that it seems to me that you'll have to go on shirking for the rest of your life."
"Pratt, I must say that I expected something more like friendship from you."
"What can I do for you? There are positions in which it is impossible to help a man. I tell you plainly that you have behaved very badly. I do not see that I can help you."
"Would you see him?"
"Certainly not, if I am to be expected to take your part."
"Take any part you like,—only tell him the truth."
"And what is the truth?"
"I was part engaged to that other girl before; and then, when I came to think of it, I knew that I was not fit to marry Miss Dale. I know I have behaved badly; but, Pratt, thousands have done the same thing before."
"I can only say that I have not been so unfortunate as to reckon any of those thousands among my friends."
"You mean to tell me, then, that you are going to turn your back on me?" said Crosbie.
"I haven't said anything of the kind. I certainly won't undertake to defend you, for I don't see that your conduct admits of defence. I will see this gentleman if you wish it, and tell him anything that you may desire me to tell him."
At this moment the servant returned with a note for Crosbie. Mr. Dale had called for paper and envelope, and sent up to him the following missive:—"Do you intend to come down to me? I know that you are in the house." "For heaven's sake go to him," said Crosbie. "He is well aware that I was deceived about his niece,—that I thought he was to give her some fortune. He knows all about that, and that when I learned from him that she was to have nothing——"
"Upon my word, Crosbie, I wish you could find another messenger."
"Ah! you do not understand," said Crosbie in his agony. "You think that I am inventing this plea about her fortune now. It isn't so. He will understand. We have talked all this over before, and he knew how terribly I was disappointed. Shall I wait for you here, or will you come to my lodgings? Or I will go down to the Beaufort, and will wait for you there." And it was finally arranged that he should get himself out of this club and wait at the other for Pratt's report of the interview.
"Do you go down first," said Crosbie.
"Yes: I had better," said Pratt. "Otherwise you may be seen. Mr. Dale would have his eye upon you, and there would be a row in the house." There was a smile of sarcasm on Pratt's face as he spoke which angered Crosbie even in his misery, and made him long to tell his friend that he would not trouble him with this mission,—that he would manage his own affairs himself; but he was weakened and mentally humiliated by the sense of his own rascality, and had already lost the power of asserting himself, and of maintaining his ascendancy. He was beginning to recognize the fact that he had done that for which he must endure to be kicked, to be kicked morally if not materially; and that it was no longer possible for him to hold his head up without shame.
Pratt took Mr. Dale's note in his hand and went down into the stranger's room. There he found the squire standing, so that he could see through the open door of the room to the foot of the stairs down which Crosbie must descend before he could leave the club. As a measure of first precaution the ambassador closed the door; then he bowed to Mr. Dale, and asked him if he would take a chair.
"I wanted to see Mr. Crosbie," said the squire.
"I have your note to that gentleman in my hand," said he. "He has thought it better that you should have this interview with me;—and under all the circumstances perhaps it is better."
"Is he such a coward that he dare not see me?"
"There are some actions, Mr. Dale, that will make a coward of any man. My friend Crosbie is, I take it, brave enough in the ordinary sense of the word, but he has injured you."
"It is all true, then?"
"Yes, Mr. Dale; I fear it is all true."
"And you call that man your friend! Mr. ——; I don't know what your name is."
"Pratt;—Fowler Pratt. I have known Crosbie for fourteen years,—ever since he was a boy; and it is not my way, Mr. Dale, to throw over an old friend under any circumstances."
"Not if he committed a murder."
"No; not though he committed a murder."
"If what I hear is true, this man is worse than a murderer."
"Of course, Mr. Dale, I cannot know what you have heard. I believe that Mr. Crosbie has behaved very badly to your niece, Miss Dale; I believe that he was engaged to marry her, or, at any rate, that some such proposition had been made."
"Proposition! Why, sir, it was a thing so completely understood that everybody knew it in the county. It was so positively fixed that there was no secret about it. Upon my honour, Mr. Pratt, I can't as yet understand it. If I remember right, it's not a fortnight since he left my house at Allington,—not a fortnight. And that poor girl was with him on the morning of his going as his betrothed bride. Not a fortnight since! And now I've had a letter from an old family friend telling me that he is going to marry one of Lord De Courcy's daughters! I went instantly off to Courcy, and found that he had started for London. Now, I have followed him here; and you tell me it's all true."
"I am afraid it is, Mr. Dale; too true."
"I don't understand it; I don't, indeed. I cannot bring myself to believe that the man who was sitting the other day at my table should be so great a scoundrel. Did he mean it all the time that he was there?"
"No; certainly not. Lady Alexandrina De Courcy was, I believe, an old friend of his;—with whom, perhaps, he had had some lover's quarrel. On his going to Courcy they made it up; and this is the result."
"And that is to be sufficient for my poor girl?"
"You will, of course, understand that I am not defending Mr. Crosbie. The whole affair is very sad,—very sad, indeed. I can only say, in his excuse, that he is not the first man who has behaved badly to a lady."
"And that is his message to me, is it? And that is what I am to tell my niece? You have been deceived by a scoundrel. But what then? You are not the first! Mr. Pratt, I give you my word as a gentleman, I do not understand it. I have lived a good deal out of the world, and am, therefore, perhaps, more astonished than I ought to be."
"Mr. Dale, I feel for you——"
"Feel for me! What is to become of my girl? And do you suppose that I will let this other marriage go on; that I will not tell the De Courcys, and all the world at large, what sort of a man this is;—that I will not get at him to punish him? Does he think that I will put up with this?"
"I do not know what he thinks; I must only beg that you will not mix me up in the matter—as though I were a participator in his offence."
"Will you tell him from me that I desire to see him?"
"I do not think that that would do any good."
"Never mind, sir; you have brought me his message; will you have the goodness now to take back mine to him?"
"Do you mean at once—this evening,—now?"
"Yes, at once—this evening,—now;—this minute."
"Ah; he has left the club; he is not here now; he went when I came to you."
"Then he is a coward as well as a scoundrel." In answer to which assertion, Mr. Fowler Pratt merely shrugged his shoulders.
"He is a coward as well as a scoundrel. Will you have the kindness to tell your friend from me that he is a coward and a scoundrel,—and a liar, sir."
"If it be so, Miss Dale is well quit of her engagement."
"That is your consolation, is it? That may be all very well now-a-days; but when I was a young man, I would sooner have burnt out my tongue than have spoken in such a way on such a subject. I would, indeed. Good-night, Mr. Pratt. Pray make your friend understand that he has not yet seen the last of the Dales; although, as you hint, the ladies of that family will no doubt have learned that he is not fit to associate with them." Then, taking up his hat, the squire made his way out of the club.
"I would not have done it," said Pratt to himself, "for all the beauty, and all the wealth, and all the rank that ever were owned by a woman."