The Small House at Allington/Chapter 26
LORD DE COURCY IN THE BOSOM OF HIS FAMILY.
Lady Julia de Guest had not during her life written many letters to Mr. Dale of Allington, nor had she ever been very fond of him. But when she felt certain how things were going at Courcy, or rather, as we may say, how they had already gone, she took pen in hand, and sat herself to work, doing, as she conceived, her duty by her neighbour.
My dear Mr. Dale (she said),I believe I need make no secret of having known that your niece Lilian is engaged to Mr. Crosbie, of London. I think it proper to warn you that if this be true Mr. Crosbie is behaving himself in a very improper manner here. I am not a person who concern myself much in the affairs of other people; and under ordinary circumstances, the conduct of Mr. Crosbie would be nothing to me,—or, indeed, less than nothing; but I do to you as I would wish that others should do unto me. I believe it is only too true that Mr. Crosbie has proposed to Lady Alexandrina De Courcy, and been accepted by her. I think you will believe that I would not say this without warrant, and if there be anything in it, it may be well, for the poor young lady's sake, that you should put yourself in the way of learning the truth.
Believe me to be yours sincerely,Courcy Castle, Thursday.Julia de Guest.
The squire had never been very fond of any of the De Guest family, and had, perhaps, liked Lady Julia the least of them all. He was wont to call her a meddling old woman,—remembering her bitterness and pride in those now long bygone days in which the gallant major had run off with Lady Fanny. When he first received this letter, he did not, on the first reading of it, believe a word of its contents. "Cross-grained old harridan," he said out loud to his nephew. "Look what that aunt of yours has written to me." Bernard read the letter twice, and as he did so his face became hard and angry.
"You don't mean to say you believe it?" said the squire.
"I don't think it will be safe to disregard it."
"What! you think it possible that your friend is doing as she says."
"It is certainly possible. He was angry when he found that Lily had no fortune."
"Heavens, Bernard! And you can speak of it in that way?"
"I don't say that it is true; but I think we should look to it. I will go to Courcy Castle and learn the truth."
The squire at last decided that he would go. He went to Courcy Castle, and found that Crosbie had started two hours before his arrival. He asked for Lady Julia, and learned from her that Crosbie had actually left the house as the betrothed husband of Lady Alexandrina.
"The countess, I am sure, will not contradict it, if you will see her," said Lady Julia. But this the squire was unwilling to do. He would not proclaim the wretched condition of his niece more loudly than was necessary, and therefore he started on his pursuit of Crosbie. What was his success on that evening we have already learned.
Both Lady Alexandrina and her mother heard of Mr. Dale's arrival at the castle, but nothing was said between them on the subject. Lady Amelia Gazebee heard of it also, and she ventured to discuss the matter with her sister.
"You don't know exactly how far it went, do you?"
"No; yes;—not exactly, that is," said Alexandrina.
"I suppose he did say something about marriage to the girl?"
"Yes, I'm afraid he did."
"Dear, dear! It's very unfortunate. What sort of people are those Dales? I suppose he talked to you about them."
"No, he didn't; not very much. I daresay she is an artful, sly thing! It's a great pity men should go on in such a way."
"Yes, it is," said Lady Amelia. "And I do suppose that in this case the blame has been more with him than with her. It's only right I should tell you that."
"But what can I do?"
"I don't say you can do anything; but it's as well you should know."
"But I don't know, and you don't know; and I can't see that there is any use talking about it now. I knew him a long while before she did, and if she has allowed him to make a fool of her, it isn't my fault."
"Nobody says it is, my dear."
"But you seem to preach to me about it. What can I do for the girl? The fact is, he don't care for her a bit, and never did."
"Then he shouldn't have told her that he did."
"That's all very well, Amelia; but people don't always do exactly all that they ought to do. I suppose Mr. Crosbie isn't the first man that has proposed to two ladies. I dare say it was wrong, but I can't help it. As to Mr. Dale coming here with a tale of his niece's wrongs, I think it very absurd,—very absurd indeed. It makes it look as though there had been a scheme to catch Mr. Crosbie, and it's my belief that there was such a scheme."
"I only hope that there'll be no quarrel."
"Men don't fight duels now-a-days, Amelia."
"But do you remember what Frank Gresham did to Mr. Moffat when he behaved so badly to poor Augusta?"
"Mr. Crosbie isn't afraid of that kind of thing. And I always thought that Frank was very wrong,—very wrong indeed. What's the good of two men beating each other in the street?"
"Well; I'm sure I hope there'll be no quarrel. But I own I don't like the look of it. You see the uncle must have known all about it, and have consented to the marriage, or he would not have come here."
"I don't see that it can make any difference to me, Amelia."
"No, my dear, I don't see that it can. We shall be up in town soon, and I will see as much as possible of Mr. Crosbie. The marriage, I hope, will take place soon."
"He talks of February."
"Don't put it off, Alley, whatever you do. There are so many slips, you know, in these things."
"I'm not a bit afraid of that," said Alexandrina, sticking up her head.
"I daresay not; and you may be sure that we will keep an eye on him. Mortimer will get him up to dine with us as often as possible, and as his leave of absence is all over, he can't get out of town. He's to be here at Christmas, isn't he?"
"Of course he is."
"Mind you keep him to that. And as to these Dales, I would be very careful, if I were you, not to say anything unkind of them to any one. It sounds badly in your position." And with this last piece of advice Lady Amelia Gazebee allowed the subject to drop.
On that day Lady Julia returned to her own home. Her adieux to the whole family at Courcy Castle were very cold, but about Mr. Crosbie and his lady-love at Allington she said no further word to any of them. Alexandrina did not show herself at all on the occasion, and indeed had not spoken to her enemy since that evening on which she had felt herself constrained to retreat from the drawing-room.
"Good-by," said the countess. "You have been so good to come, and we have enjoyed it so much."
"I thank you very much. Good morning," said Lady Julia, with a stately courtesy.
"Pray remember me to your brother. I wish we could have seen him; I hope he has not been hurt by the—the bull." And then Lady Julia went her way.
"What a fool I have been to have that woman in the house," said the countess, before the door was closed behind her guest's back.
"Indeed you have," said Lady Julia, screaming back through the passage. Then there was a long silence, then a suppressed titter, and after that a loud laugh.
"Oh, mamma, what shall we do?" said Lady Amelia.
"Do!" said Margaretta; "why should we do anything? She has heard the truth for once in her life."
"Dear Lady Dumbello, what will you think of us?" said the countess, turning round to another guest, who was also just about to depart. "Did any one ever know such a woman before?"
"I think she's very nice," said Lady Dumbello, smiling.
"I can't quite agree with you there," said Lady Clandidlem. "But I do believe she means to do her best. She is very charitable, and all that sort of thing."
"I'm sure I don't know," said Rosina. "I asked her for a subscription to the mission for putting down the Papists in the west of Ireland, and she refused me point-blank."
"Now, my dear, if you're quite ready," said Lord Dumbello, coming into the room. Then there was another departure; but on this occasion the countess waited till the doors were shut, and the retreating footsteps were no longer heard. "Have you observed," said she, to Lady Clandidlem, "that she has not held her head up since Mr. Palliser went away?"
"Indeed I have," said Lady Clandidlem. "As for poor Dumbello, he's the blindest creature I ever saw in my life."
"We shall hear of something before next May," said Lady De Courcy, shaking her head; "but for all that she'll never be Duchess of Omnium."
"I wonder what your mamma will say of me when I go away tomorrow," said Lady Clandidlem to Margaretta, as they walked across the hall together.
"She won't say that you are going to run away with any gentleman," said Margaretta.
"At any rate not with the earl," said Lady Clandidlem. "Ha, ha, ha! Well, we are all very good-natured, are we not? The best is that it means nothing."
Thus by degrees all the guests went, and the family of the De Courcys was left to the bliss of their own domestic circle. This, we may presume, was not without its charms, seeing that there were so many feelings in common between the mother and her children. There were drawbacks to it, no doubt, arising perhaps chiefly from the earl's bodily infirmities. "When your father speaks to me," said Mrs. George to her husband, "he puts me in such a shiver that I cannot open my mouth to answer him."
"You should stand up to him," said George. "He can't hurt you, you know. Your money's your own; and if I'm ever to be the heir, it won't be by his doing."
"But he gnashes his teeth at me."
"You shouldn't care for that, if he don't bite. He used to gnash them at me; and when I had to ask him for money I didn't like it; but now I don't mind him a bit. He threw the peerage at me one day, but it didn't go within a yard of my head."
"If he throws anything at me, George, I shall drop upon the spot."
But the countess had a worse time with the earl than any of her children. It was necessary that she should see him daily, and necessary also that she should say much that he did not like to hear, and make many petitions that caused him to gnash his teeth. The earl was one of those men who could not endure to live otherwise than expensively, and yet was made miserable by every recurring expense. He ought to have known by this time that butchers, and bakers, and corn-chandlers, and coal-merchants will not supply their goods for nothing; and yet it always seemed as though he had expected that at this special period they would do so. He was an embarrassed man, no doubt, and had not been fortunate in his speculations at Newmarket or Homburg; but, nevertheless, he had still the means of living without daily torment; and it must be supposed that his self-imposed sufferings, with regard to money, rose rather from his disposition than his necessities. His wife never knew whether he were really ruined, or simply pretending it. She had now become so used to her position in this respect, that she did not allow fiscal considerations to mar her happiness. Food and clothing had always come to her,—including velvet gowns, new trinkets, and a man-cook,—and she presumed that they would continue to come. But that daily conference with her husband was almost too much for her. She struggled to avoid it; and, as far as the ways and means were concerned, would have allowed them to arrange themselves, if he would only have permitted it. But he insisted on seeing her daily in his own sitting-room; and she had acknowledged to her favourite daughter, Margaretta, that those half-hours would soon be the death of her. "I sometimes feel," she said, "that I am going mad before I can get out." And she reproached herself, probably without reason, in that she had brought much of this upon herself. In former days the earl had been constantly away from home, and the countess had complained. Like many other women she had not known when she was well off. She had complained, urging upon her lord that he should devote more of his time to his own hearth. It is probable that her ladyship's remonstrances had been less efficacious than the state of his own health in producing that domestic constancy which he now practised; but it is certain that she looked back with bitter regret to the happy days when she was deserted, jealous, and querulous. "Don't you wish we could get Sir Omicron to order him to the German Spas?" she had said to Margaretta. Now Sir Omicron was the great London physician, and might, no doubt, do much in that way.
But no such happy order had as yet been given; and, as far as the family could foresee, paterfamilias intended to pass the winter with them at Courcy. The guests, as I have said, were all gone, and none but the family were in the house when her ladyship waited upon her lord one morning at twelve o'clock, a few days after Mr. Dale's visit to the castle. He always breakfasted alone, and after breakfast found in a French novel and a cigar what solace those innocent recreations were still able to afford him. When the novel no longer excited him and when he was saturated with smoke, he would send for his wife. After that, his valet would dress him. "She gets it worse than I do," the man declared in the servants' hall; "and minds it a deal more. I can give warning, and she can't."
"Better? No, I ain't better," the husband said, in answer to his wife's inquiries. "I never shall be better while you keep that cook in the kitchen."
"But where are we to get another if we send him away?"
"It's not my business to find cooks. I don't know where you're to get one. It's my belief you won't have a cook at all before long. It seems you have got two extra men into the house without telling me."
"We must have servants, you know, when there is company. It wouldn't do to have Lady Dumbello here, and no one to wait on her."
"Who asked Lady Dumbello? I didn't."
"I'm sure, my dear, you liked having her here."
"D—— Lady Dumbello!" and then there was a pause. The countess had no objection whatsoever to the above proposition, and was rejoiced that that question of the servants was allowed to slip aside, through the aid of her ladyship.
"Look at that letter from Porlock," said the earl; and he pushed over to the unhappy mother a letter from her eldest son. Of all her children he was the one she loved the best; but him she was never allowed to see under her own roof. "I sometimes think that he is the greatest rascal with whom I ever had occasion to concern myself," said the earl.
She took the letter and read it. The epistle was certainly not one which a father could receive with pleasure from his son; but the disagreeable nature of its contents was the fault rather of the parent than of the child. The writer intimated that certain money due to him had not been paid with necessary punctuality, and that unless he received it, he should instruct his lawyer to take some authorized legal proceedings. Lord De Courcy had raised certain moneys on the family property, which he could not have raised without the co-operation of his heir, and had bound himself, in return for that co-operation, to pay a certain fixed income to his eldest son. This he regarded as an allowance from himself; but Lord Porlock regarded it as his own, by lawful claim. The son had not worded his letter with any affectionate phraseology. "Lord Porlock begs to inform Lord De Courcy——" Such had been the commencement.
"I suppose he must have his money; else how can he live?" said the countess, trembling.
"Live!" shouted the earl. "And so you think it proper that he should write such a letter as that to his father!"
"It is all very unfortunate," she replied.
"I don't know where the money's to come from. As for him, if he were starving, it would serve him right. He's a disgrace to the name and the family. From all I hear, he won't live long."
"Oh, De Courcy, don't talk of it in that way!"
"What way am I to talk of it? If I say that he's my greatest comfort, and living as becomes a nobleman, and is a fine healthy man of his age, with a good wife and a lot of legitimate children, will that make you believe it? Women are such fools. Nothing that I say will make him worse than he is."
"But he may reform."
"Reform! He's over forty, and when I last saw him he looked nearly sixty. There;—you may answer his letter; I won't."
"And about the money?"
"Why doesn't he write to Gazebee about his dirty money? Why does he trouble me? I haven't got his money. Ask Gazebee about his money. I won't trouble myself about it." Then there was another pause, during which the countess folded the letter, and put it in her pocket.
"How long is George going to remain here with that woman?" he asked.
"I'm sure she is very harmless," pleaded the countess.
"I always think when I see her that I'm sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How he can put up with it! But I don't suppose he cares for anything."
"It has made him very steady."
"And as she will be confined before long it may be as well that she should remain here. If Porlock doesn't marry, you know——"
"And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I'll tell you what it is,—I won't have it. He's better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife's than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won't have it. D'ye hear?" Then there was another short pause. "D'ye hear?" he shouted at her.
"Devotedly attached to the young man!"
"I know what that means. Then they'd never go. I won't have it; and if you don't tell them I will." In answer to this Lady De Courcy promised that she would tell them, thinking perhaps that the earl's mode of telling might not be beneficial in that particular epoch which was now coming in the life of Mrs. George.
"Did you know," said he, breaking out on a new subject, "that a man had been here named Dale, calling on somebody in this house?" In answer to which the countess acknowledged that she had known it.
"Then why did you keep it from me?" And that gnashing of the teeth took place which was so specially objectionable to Mrs. George.
"It was a matter of no moment. He came to see Lady Julia De Guest."
"Yes; but he came about that man Crosbie."
"I suppose he did."
"Why have you let that girl be such a fool? You'll find he'll play her some knave's trick."
"Oh, dear, no."
"And why should she want to marry such a man as that?"
"He's quite a gentleman, you know, and very much thought of in the world. It won't be at all bad for her, poor thing. It is so very hard for a girl to get married now-a-days without money."
"And so they're to take up with anybody. As far as I can see, this is a worse affair than that of Amelia."
"Amelia has done very well, my dear."
"Oh, if you call it doing well for your girls, I don't. I call it doing uncommon badly; about as bad as they well can do. But it's your affair. I have never meddled with them, and don't intend to do it now."
"I really think she'll be happy, and she is devotedly attached to the young man."
"Devotedly attached to the young man!" The tone and manner in which the earl repeated these words were such as to warrant an opinion that his lordship might have done very well on the stage had his attention been called to that profession. "It makes me sick to hear people talk in that way. She wants to get married, and she's a fool for her pains;—I can't help that; only remember that I'll have no nonsense here about that other girl. If he gives me trouble of that sort, by —— I'll be the death of him. When is the marriage to be?"
"They talk of February."
"I won't have any tomfoolery and expense. If she chooses to marry a clerk in an office, she shall marry him as clerks are married."
"He'll be the secretary before that, De Courcy."
"What difference does that make? Secretary, indeed! What sort of men do you suppose secretaries are? A beggar that came from nobody knows where! I won't have any tomfoolery;—d'ye hear?" Whereupon the countess said that she did hear, and soon afterwards managed to escape. The valet then took his turn; and repeated, after his hour of service, that "Old Nick" in his tantrums had been more like the Prince of Darkness than ever.