The Small House at Allington/Chapter 37
AN OLD MAN'S COMPLAINT.
"Have you been thinking again of what I was saying to you, Bell?" Bernard said to his cousin one morning.
"Thinking of it, Bernard? Why should I think more of it? I had hoped that you had forgotten it yourself."
"No," he said; "I am not so easy-hearted as that. I cannot look on such a thing as I would the purchase of a horse, which I could give up without sorrow if I found that the animal was too costly for my purse. I did not tell you that I loved you till I was sure of myself, and having made myself sure I cannot change at all."
"And yet you would have me change."
"Yes, of course I would. If your heart be free now, it must of course be changed before you come to love any man. Such change as that is to be looked for. But when you have loved, then it will not be easy to change you."
"But I have not."
"Then I have a right to hope. I have been hanging on here, Bell, longer than I ought to have done, because I could not bring myself to leave you without speaking of this again. I did not wish to seem to you to be importunate——"
"If you could only believe me in what I say."
"It is not that I do not believe. I am not a puppy or a fool, to flatter myself that you must be in love with me. I believe you well enough. But still it is possible that your mind may alter."
"It is impossible."
"I do not know whether my uncle or your mother have spoken to you about this."
"Such speaking would have no effect."
In fact, her mother had spoken to her, but she truly said that such speaking would have no effect. If her cousin could not win the battle by his own skill, he might have been quite sure, looking at her character as it was known to him, that he would not be able to win it by the skill of others.
"We have all been made very unhappy," he went on to say, "by this calamity which has fallen on poor Lily."
"And because she has been deceived by the man she did love, I am to make matters square by marrying a man I——," and then she paused. "Dear Bernard, you should not drive me to say words which will sound harsh to you."
"No words can be harsher than those which you have already spoken. But, Bell, at any rate, you may listen to me."
Then he told her how desirable it was with reference to all the concerns of the Dale family that she should endeavour to look favourably on his proposition. It would be good for them all, he said, especially for Lily, as to whom, at the present moment, their uncle felt so kindly. He, as Bernard pleaded, was so anxious at heart for this marriage, that he would do anything that was asked of him if he were gratified. But if he were not gratified in this, he would feel that he had ground for displeasure.
Bell, as she had been desired to listen, did listen very patiently. But when her cousin had finished, her answer was very short. "Nothing that my uncle can say, or think, or do, can make any difference in this," said she.
"You will think nothing, then, of the happiness of others."
"I would not marry a man I did not love, to ensure any amount of happiness to others;—at least I know I ought not to do so. But I do not believe I should ensure any one's happiness by this marriage. Certainly not yours."
After this Bernard had acknowledged to himself that the difficulties in his way were great. "I will go away till next autumn," he said to his uncle.
"If you would give up your profession and remain here, she would not be so perverse."
"I cannot do that, sir. I cannot risk the well-being of my life on such a chance." Then his uncle had been angry with him, as well as with his niece. In his anger he determined that he would go again to his sister-in-law, and, after some unreasonable fashion, he resolved that it would become him to be very angry with her also, if she declined to assist him with all her influence as a mother.
"Why should they not both marry?" he said to himself. Lord De Guest's offer as to young Eames had been very generous. As he had then declared, he had not been able to express his own opinion at once; but on thinking over what the earl had said, he had found himself very willing to heal the family wound in the manner proposed, if any such healing might be possible. That, however, could not be done quite as yet. When the time should come, and he thought it might come soon,—perhaps in the spring, when the days should be fine and the evenings again long, he would be willing to take his share with the earl in establishing that new household. To Crosbie he had refused to give anything, and there was upon his conscience a shade of remorse in that he had so refused. But if Lily could be brought to love this other man, he would be more open-handed. She should have her share as though she was in fact his daughter. But then, if he intended to do so much for them at the Small House, should not they in return do something also for him? So thinking, he went again to his sister-in-law, determined to explain his views, even though it might be at the risk of some hard words between them. As regarded himself, he did not much care for hard words spoken to him. He almost expected that people's words should be hard and painful. He did not look for the comfort of affectionate soft greetings, and perhaps would not have appreciated them had they come to him. He caught Mrs. Dale walking in the garden, and brought her into his own room, feeling that he had a better chance there than in her own house. She, with an old dislike to being lectured in that room, had endeavoured to avoid the interview, but had failed.
"So I met John Eames at the manor," he had said to her in the garden.
"Ah, yes; and how did he get on there? I cannot conceive poor Johnny keeping holiday with the earl and his sister. How did he behave to them, and how did they behave to him?"
"I can assure you he was very much at home there."
"Was he, indeed? Well, I hope it will do him good. He is, I'm sure, a very good young man; only rather awkward."
"I didn't think him awkward at all. You'll find, Mary, that he'll do very well;—a great deal better than his father did."
"I'm sure I hope he may." After that Mrs. Dale made her attempt to escape; but the squire had taken her prisoner, and led her captive into the house. "Mary," he said, as soon as he had induced her to sit down, "it is time that this should be settled between my nephew and niece."
"I am afraid there will be nothing to settle."
"What do you mean;—that you disapprove of it?"
"By no means,—personally. I should approve of it very strongly. But that has nothing to do with the question."
"Yes, it has. I beg your pardon, but it must have, and should have a great deal to do with it. Of course, I am not saying that anybody should now ever be compelled to marry anybody."
"I hope not."
"I never said that they ought, and never thought so. But I do think that the wishes of all her family should have very great weight with a girl that has been well brought up."
"I don't know whether Bell has been well brought up; but in such a matter as this nobody's wishes would weigh a feather with her; and, indeed, I could not take upon myself even to express a wish. To you I can say that I should have been very happy if she could have regarded her cousin as you wish her to do."
"You mean that you are afraid to tell her so?"
"I am afraid to do what I think is wrong, if you mean that."
"I don't think it would be wrong, and therefore I shall speak to her myself."
"You must do as you like about that, Mr. Dale; I can't prevent you. I shall think you wrong to harass her on such a matter, and I fear also that her answer will not be satisfactory to you. If you choose to tell her your opinion, you must do so. Of course I shall think you wrong, that's all."
Mrs. Dale's voice as she said this was stern enough, and so was her countenance. She could not forbid the uncle to speak his mind to his niece, but she specially disliked the idea of any interference with her daughter. The squire got up and walked about the room, trying to compose himself that he might answer her rationally, but without anger.
"May I go now?" said Mrs. Dale.
"May you go? Of course you may go if you like it. If you think that I am intruding upon you in speaking to you of the welfare of your two girls, whom I endeavour to regard as my own daughters,—except in this, that I know they have never been taught to love me,—if you think that it is an interference on my part to show anxiety for their welfare, of course you may go."
"I did not mean to say anything to hurt you, Mr. Dale."
"Hurt me! What does it signify whether I am hurt or not? I have no children of my own, and of course my only business in life is to provide for my nephews and nieces. I am an old fool if I expect that they are to love me in return, and if I venture to express a wish I am interfering and doing wrong! It is hard,—very hard. I know well that they have been brought up to dislike me, and yet I am endeavouring to do my duty by them."
"Mr. Dale, that accusation has not been deserved. They have not been brought up to dislike you. I believe that they have both loved and respected you as their uncle; but such love and respect will not give you a right to dispose of their hands."
"Who wants to dispose of their hands?"
"There are some things in which I think no uncle,—no parent,—should interfere, and of all such things this is the chief. If after that you may choose to tell her your wishes, of course you can do so."
"It will not be much good after you have set her against me."
"Mr. Dale, you have no right to say such things to me, and you are very unjust in doing so. If you think that I have set my girls against you, it will be much better that we should leave Allington altogether. I have been placed in circumstances which have made it difficult for me to do my duty to my children; but I have endeavoured to do it, not regarding my own personal wishes. I am quite sure, however, that it would be wrong in me to keep them here, if I am to be told by you that I have taught them to regard you unfavourably. Indeed, I cannot suffer such a thing to be said to me."
All this Mrs. Dale said with an air of decision, and with a voice expressing a sense of injury received, which made the squire feel that she was very much in earnest.
"Is it not true," he said, defending himself, "that in all that relates to the girls you have ever regarded me with suspicion?"
"No, it is not true." And then she corrected herself, feeling that there was something of truth in the squire's last assertion. "Certainly not with suspicion," she said. "But as this matter has gone so far, I will explain what my real feelings have been. In worldly matters you can do much for my girls, and have done much."
"And wish to do more," said the squire.
"I am sure you do. But I cannot on that account give up my place as their only living parent. They are my children, and not yours. And even could I bring myself to allow you to act as their guardian and natural protector, they would not consent to such an arrangement. You cannot call that suspicion."
"I can call it jealousy."
"And should not a mother be jealous of her children's love?"
During all this time the squire was walking up and down the room with his hands in his trousers pockets. And when Mrs. Dale had last spoken, he continued his walk for some time in silence.
"Perhaps it is well that you should have spoken out," he said.
"The manner in which you accused me made it necessary."
"I did not intend to accuse you, and I do not do so now; but I think that you have been, and that you are, very hard to me,—very hard indeed. I have endeavoured to make your children, and yourself also, sharers with me in such prosperity as has been mine. I have striven to add to your comfort and to their happiness. I am most anxious to secure their future welfare. You would have been very wrong had you declined to accept this on their behalf; but I think that in return for it you need not have begrudged me the affection and obedience which generally follows from such good offices."
"Mr. Dale, I have begrudged you nothing of this."
"I am hurt;—I am hurt," he continued. And she was surprised by his look of pain even more than by the unaccustomed warmth of his words. "What you have said has, I have known, been the case all along. But though I had felt it to be so, I own that I am hurt by your open words."
"Because I have said that my own children must ever be my own?"
"Ah, you have said more than that. You and the girls have been living here, close to me,—for how many years is it now?—and during all those years there has grown up for me no kindly feeling. Do you think that I cannot hear, and see, and feel? Do you suppose that I am a fool and do not know? As for yourself you would never enter this house if you did not feel yourself constrained to do so for the sake of appearances. I suppose it is all as it should be. Having no children of my own, I owe the duty of a parent to my nieces; but I have no right to expect from them in return either love, regard, or obedience. I know I am keeping you here against your will, Mary. I won't do so any longer." And he made a sign to her that she was to depart.
As she rose from her seat her heart was softened towards him. In these latter had shown much kindness to the girls,—a kindness that was more akin to the gentleness of love than had ever come from him before. Lily's fate had seemed to melt even his sternness, and he had striven to be tender in his words and ways. And now he spoke as though he had loved the girls, and had loved them in vain. Doubtless he had been a disagreeable neighbour to his sister-in-law, making her feel that it was never for her personally that he had opened his hand. Doubtless he had been moved by an unconscious desire to undermine and take upon himself her authority with her own children. Doubtless he had looked askance at her from the first day of her marriage with his brother. She had been keenly alive to all this since she had first known him, and more keenly alive to it than ever since the failure of those efforts she had made to live with him on terms of affection, made during the first year or two of her residence at the Small House. But, nevertheless, in spite of all, her heart bled for him now. She had gained her victory over him, having fully held her own position with her children; but now that he complained that he had been beaten in the struggle, her heart bled for him.
"My brother," she said, and as she spoke she offered him her hands, "it may be that we have not thought as kindly of each other as we should have done."
"I have endeavoured," said the old man. "I have endeavoured——" And then he stopped, either hindered by some excess of emotion, or unable to find the words which were necessary for the expression of his meaning.
"Let us endeavour once again,—both of us."
"What, begin again at near seventy! No, Mary, there is no more beginning again for me. All this shall make no difference to the girls. As long as I am here they shall have the house. If they marry, I will do for them what I can. I believe Bernard is much in earnest in his suit, and if Bell will listen to him, she shall still be welcomed here as mistress of Allington. What you have said shall make no difference;—but as to beginning again, it is simply impossible."
After that Mrs. Dale walked home through the garden by herself. He had studiously told her that that house in which they lived should be lent, not to her, but to her children, during his lifetime. He had positively declined the offer of her warmer regard. He had made her understand that they were to look on each other almost as enemies; but that she, enemy as she was, should still be allowed the use of his munificence, because he chose to do his duty by his nieces!
"It will be better for us that we shall leave it," she said to herself as she seated herself in her own arm-chair over the drawing-room fire.