The Small House at Allington/Chapter 43

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Will any reader remember the loves,—no, not the loves; that word is so decidedly ill-applied as to be incapable of awakening the remembrance of any reader; but the flirtations—of Lady Dumbello and Mr. Plantagenet Palliser? Those flirtations, as they had been carried on at Courcy Castle, were laid bare in all their enormities to the eye of the public, and it must be confessed that if the eye of the public was shocked, that eye must be shocked very easily.

But the eye of the public was shocked, and people who were particular as to their morals said very strange things. Lady De Courcy herself said very strange things indeed, shaking her head, and dropping mysterious words; whereas Lady Clandidlem spoke much more openly, declaring her opinion that Lady Dumbello would be off before May. They both agreed that it would not be altogether bad for Lord Dumbello that he should lose his wife, but shook their heads very sadly when they spoke of poor Plantagenet Palliser. As to the lady's fate, that lady whom they had both almost worshipped during the days at Courcy Castle,—they did not seem to trouble themselves about that.

And it must be admitted that Mr. Palliser had been a little imprudent,—imprudent, that is, if he knew anything about the rumours afloat,—seeing that soon after his visit at Courcy Castle he had gone down to Lady Hartletop's place in Shropshire, at which the Dumbellos intended to spend the winter, and on leaving it had expressed his intention of returning in February. The Hartletop people had pressed him very much,—the pressure having come with peculiar force from Lord Dumbello. Therefore it is reasonable to suppose that the Hartletop people had at any rate not heard of the rumour.

Mr. Plantagenet Palliser spent his Christmas with his uncle, the Duke of Omnium, at Gatherum Castle. That is to say, he reached the castle in time for dinner on Christmas eve, and left it on the morning after Christmas day. This was in accordance with the usual practice of his life, and the tenants, dependants, and followers of the Omnium interest were always delighted to see this manifestation of a healthy English domestic family feeling between the duke and his nephew. But the amount of intercourse on such occasions between them was generally trifling. The duke would smile as he put out his right hand to his nephew, and say,—

"Well, Plantagenet,—very busy, I suppose?"

The duke was the only living being who called him Plantagenet to his face, though there were some scores of men who talked of Planty Pal behind his back. The duke had been the only living being so to call him. Let us hope that it still was so, and that there had arisen no feminine exception, dangerous in its nature and improper in its circumstances.

"Well, Plantagenet," said the duke, on the present occasion, "very busy, I suppose?"

"Yes, indeed, duke," said Mr. Palliser. "When a man gets the harness on him he does not easily get quit of it."

The duke remembered that his nephew had made almost the same remark at his last Christmas visit.

"By-the-by," said the duke, "I want to say a word or two to you before you go."

Such a proposition on the duke's part was a great departure from his usual practice, but the nephew of course undertook to obey his uncle's behests.

"I'll see you before dinner to-morrow," said Plantagenet.

"Ah, do," said the duke. "I'll not keep you five minutes." And at six o'clock on the following afternoon the two were closeted together in the duke's private room.

"I don't suppose there is much in it," began the duke, "but people are talking about you and Lady Dumbello."

"Upon my word, people are very kind." And Mr. Palliser bethought himself of the fact,—for it certainly was a fact,—that people for a great many years had talked about his uncle and Lady Dumbello's mother-in-law.

"Yes; kind enough; are they not? You've just come from Hartlebury, I believe." Hartlebury was the Marquis of Hartletop's seat in Shropshire.

"Yes, I have. And I'm going there again in February."

"Ah, I'm sorry for that. Not that I mean, of course, to interfere with your arrangements. You will acknowledge that I have not often done so, in any matter whatever."

"No; you have not," said the nephew, comforting himself with an inward assurance that no such interference on his uncle's part could have been possible.

"But in this instance it would suit me, and I really think it would suit you too, that you should be as little at Hartlebury as possible. You have said that you would go there, and of course you will go. But if I were you, I would not stay above a day or two."

Mr. Plantagenet Palliser received everything he had in the world from his uncle. He sat in Parliament through his uncle's interest, and received an allowance of ever so many thousand a year which his uncle could stop to-morrow by his mere word. He was his uncle's heir, and the dukedom, with certain entailed properties, must ultimately fall to him, unless his uncle should marry and have a son. But by far the greater portion of the duke's property was unentailed; the duke might probably live for the next twenty years or more; and it was quite possible that, if offended, he might marry and become a father. It may be said that no man could well be more dependent on another than Plantagenet Palliser was upon his uncle; and it may be said also that no father or uncle ever troubled his heir with less interference. Nevertheless, the nephew immediately felt himself aggrieved by this allusion to his private life, and resolved at once that he would not submit to such surveillance.

"I don't know how long I shall stay," said he; "but I cannot say that my visit will be influenced one way or the other by such a rumour as that."

"No; probably not. But it may perhaps be influenced by my request." And the duke, as he spoke, looked a little savage.

"You wouldn't ask me to regard a report that has no foundation."

"I am not asking about its foundation. Nor do I in the least wish to interfere with your manner in life." By which last observation the duke intended his nephew to understand that he was quite at liberty to take away any other gentleman's wife, but that he was not at liberty to give occasion even for a surmise that he wanted to take Lord Dumbello's wife. "The fact is this, Plantagenet. I have for many years been intimate with that family. I have not many intimacies, and shall probably never increase them. Such friends as I have, I wish to keep, and you will easily perceive that any such report as that which I have mentioned, might make it unpleasant for me to go to Hartlebury, or for the Hartlebury people to come here." The duke certainly could not have spoken plainer, and Mr. Palliser understood him thoroughly. Two such alliances between the two families could not be expected to run pleasantly together, and even the rumour of any such second alliance might interfere with the pleasantness of the former one.

"That's all," said the duke.

"It's a most absurd slander," said Mr. Palliser.

"I dare say. Those slanders always are absurd; but what can we do? We can't tie up people's tongues." And the duke looked as though he wished to have the subject considered as finished, and to be left alone.

"But we can disregard them," said the nephew, indiscreetly.

"You may. I have never been able to do so. And yet, I believe, I have not earned for myself the reputation of being subject to the voices of men. You think that I am asking much of you; but you should remember that hitherto I have given much and have asked nothing. I expect you to oblige me in this matter."

Then Mr. Plantagenet Palliser left the room, knowing that he had been threatened. What the duke had said amounted to this.—If you go on dangling after Lady Dumbello, I'll stop the seven thousand a year which I give you. I'll oppose your next return at Silverbridge, and I'll make a will and leave away from you Matching and The Horns,—a beautiful little place in Surrey, the use of which had been already offered to Mr. Palliser in the event of his marriage; all the Littlebury estate in Yorkshire, and the enormous Scotch property. Of my personal goods, and money invested in loans, shares, and funds, you shall never touch a shilling, or the value of a shilling. And, if I find that I can suit myself, it may be that I'll leave you plain Mr. Plantagenet Palliser, with a little first cousin for the head of your family.

The full amount of this threat Mr. Palliser understood, and, as he thought of it, he acknowledged to himself that he had never felt for Lady Dumbello anything like love. No conversation between them had ever been warmer than that of which the reader has seen a sample. Lady Dumbello had been nothing to him. But now,—now that the matter had been put before him in this way, might it not become him, as a gentleman, to fall in love with so very beautiful a woman, whose name had already been linked with his own? We all know that story of the priest, who, by his question in the confessional, taught the ostler to grease the horses' teeth. "I never did yet," said the ostler, "but I'll have a try at it." In this case, the duke had acted the part of the priest, and Mr. Palliser, before the night was over, had almost become as ready a pupil as the ostler. As to the threat, it would ill become him, as a Palliser and a Plantagenet to regard it. The duke would not marry. Of all men in the world he was the least likely to spite his own face by cutting off his own nose; and, for the rest of it, Mr. Palliser would take his chance. Therefore he went down to Hartlebury early in February, having fully determined to be very particular in his attentions to Lady Dumbello.

Among a houseful of people at Hartlebury, he found Lord Porlock, a slight, sickly, worn-out looking man, who had something about his eye of his father's hardness, but nothing in his mouth of his father's ferocity.

"So your sister's going to be married?" said Mr. Palliser.

"Yes. One has no right to be surprised at anything they do, when one remembers the life their father leads them."

"I was going to congratulate you."

"Don't do that."

"I met him at Courcy, and rather liked him."

Mr. Palliser had barely spoken to Mr. Crosbie at Courcy, but then in the usual course of his social life he seldom did more than barely speak to anybody.

"Did you?" said Lord Porlock. "For the poor girl's sake I hope he's not a ruffian. How any man should propose to my father to marry a daughter out of his house, is more than I can understand. How was my mother looking?"

"I didn't see anything amiss about her."

"I expect that he'll murder her some day." Then that conversation came to an end.

Mr. Palliser himself perceived,—as he looked at her he could not but perceive,—that a certain amount of social energy seemed to enliven Lady Dumbello when he approached her. She was given to smile when addressed, but her usual smile was meaningless, almost leaden, and never in any degree flattering to the person to whom it was accorded. Very many women smile as they answer the words which are spoken to them, and most who do so flatter by their smile. The thing is so common that no one thinks of it. The flattering pleases, but means nothing. The impression unconsciously taken simply conveys a feeling that the woman has made herself agreeable, as it was her duty to do,—agreeable, as far as that smile went, in some very infinitesimal degree. But she has thereby made her little contribution to society. She will make the same contribution a hundred times in the same evening. No one knows that she has flattered anybody; she does not know it herself; and the world calls her an agreeable woman. But Lady Dumbello put no flattery into her customary smiles. They were cold, unmeaning, accompanied by no special glance of the eye, and seldom addressed to the individual. They were given to the room at large; and the room at large, acknowledging her great pretensions, accepted them as sufficient. But when Mr. Palliser came near to her she would turn herself slightly, ever so slightly, on her seat, and would allow her eyes to rest for a moment upon his face. Then when he remarked that it had been rather cold, she would smile actually upon him as she acknowledged the truth of his observation. All this Mr. Palliser taught himself to observe, having been instructed by his foolish uncle in that lesson as to the greasing of the horses' teeth.

But, nevertheless, during the first week of his stay at Hartlebury, he did not say a word to her more tender than his observation about the weather. It is true that he was very busy. He had undertaken to speak upon the address, and as Parliament was now about to be opened, and as his speech was to be based upon statistics, he was full of figures and papers. His correspondence was pressing, and the day was seldom long enough for his purposes. He felt that the intimacy to which he aspired was hindered by the laborious routine of his life; but nevertheless he would do something before he left Hartlebury, to show the special nature of his regard. He would say something to her, that should open to her view the secret of—shall we say his heart? Such was his resolve, day after day. And yet day after day went by, and nothing was said. He fancied that Lord Dumbello was somewhat less friendly in his manner than he had been, that he put himself in the way and looked cross; but, as he declared to himself, he cared very little for Lord Dumbello's looks.

"When do you go to town?" he said to her one evening.

"Probably in April. We certainly shall not leave Hartlebury before that."

"Ah, yes. You stay for the hunting."

"Yes; Lord Dumbello always remains here through March. He may run up to town for a day or two."

"How comfortable! I must be in London on Thursday, you know."

"When Parliament meets, I suppose?"

"Exactly. It is such a bore; but one has to do it."

"When a man makes a business of it, I suppose he must."

"Oh, dear, yes; it's quite imperative." Then Mr. Palliser looked round the room, and thought he saw Lord Dumbello's eye fixed upon him. It was really very hard work. If the truth must be told, he did not know how to begin. What was he to say to her? How was he to commence a conversation that should end by being tender? She was very handsome certainly, and for him she could look interesting; but for his very life he did not know how to begin to say anything special to her. A liaison with such a woman as Lady Dumbello,—platonic, innocent, but nevertheless very intimate,—would certainly lend a grace to his life, which, under its present circumstances, was rather dry. He was told,—told by public rumour which had reached him through his uncle, that the lady was willing. She certainly looked as though she liked him; but how was he to begin? The art of startling the House of Commons and frightening the British public by the voluminous accuracy of his statistics he had already learned; but what was he to say to a pretty woman?

"You'll be sure to be in London in April?"

This was on another occasion.

"Oh, yes; I think so."

"In Carlton Gardens, I suppose."

"Yes; Lord Dumbello has got a lease of the house now."

"Has he, indeed? Ah, it's an excellent house. I hope I shall be allowed to call there sometimes."

"Certainly,—only I know you must be so busy."

"Not on Saturdays and Sundays."

"I always receive on Sundays," said Lady Dumbello. Mr. Palliser felt that there was nothing peculiarly gracious in this. A permission to call when all her other acquaintances would be there, was not much; but still, perhaps, it was as much as he could expect to obtain on that occasion. He looked up and saw that Lord Dumbello's eyes were again upon him, and that Lord Dumbello's brow was black. He began to doubt whether a country house, where all the people were thrown together, was the best place in the world for such manœuvring. Lady Dumbello was very handsome, and he liked to look at her, but he could not find any subject on which to interest her in that drawing-room at Hartlebury. Later in the evening he found himself saying something to her about the sugar duties, and then he knew that he had better give it up. He had only one day more, and that was required imperatively for his speech. The matter would go much easier in London, and he would postpone it till then. In the crowded rooms of London private conversation would be much easier, and Lord Dumbello wouldn't stand over and look at him. Lady Dumbello had taken his remarks about the sugar very kindly, and had asked for a definition of an ad valorem duty. It was a nearer approach to a real conversation than he had ever before made; but the subject had been unlucky, and could not, in his hands, be brought round to anything tender; so he resolved to postpone his gallantry till the London spring should make it easy, and felt as he did so, that he was relieved for the time from a heavy weight.

"Good-by, Lady Dumbello," he said, on the next evening. "I start early to-morrow morning."

"Good-by, Mr. Palliser."

As she spoke she smiled ever so sweetly, but she certainly had not learned to call him Plantagenet as yet. He went up to London and immediately got himself to work. The accurate and voluminous speech came off with considerable credit to himself,—credit of that quiet, enduring kind which is accorded to such men. The speech was respectable, dull, and correct. Men listened to it, or sat with their hats over their eyes, asleep, pretending to do so; and the Daily Jupiter in the morning had a leading article about it, which, however, left the reader at its close altogether in doubt whether Mr. Palliser might be supposed to be a great financial pundit or no. Mr. Palliser might become a shining light to the moneyed world, and a glory to the banking interests; he might be a future Chancellor of the Exchequer. But then again, it might turn out that, in these affairs, he was a mere ignis fatuus, a blind guide,—a man to be laid aside as very respectable, but of no depth. Who, then, at the present time, could judiciously risk his credit by declaring whether Mr. Palliser understood his subject or did not understand it? We are not content in looking to our newspapers for all the information that earth and human intellect can afford; but we demand from them what we might demand if a daily sheet could come to us from the world of spirits. The result, of course, is this,—that the papers do pretend that they have come daily from the world of spirits; but the oracles are very doubtful, as were those of old.

Plantagenet Palliser, though he was contented with this article, felt, as he sat in his chambers in the Albany, that something else was wanting to his happiness. This sort of life was all very well. Ambition was a grand thing, and it became him, as a Palliser and a future peer, to make politics his profession. But might he not spare an hour or two for Amaryllis in the shade? Was it not hard, this life of his? Since he had been told that Lady Dumbello smiled upon him, he had certainly thought more about her smiles than had been good for his statistics. It seemed as though a new vein in his body had been brought into use, and that blood was running where blood had never run before. If he had seen Lady Dumbello before Dumbello had seen her, might he not have married her? Ah! in such case as that, had she been simply Miss Grantly, or Lady Griselda Grantly, as the case might have been, he thought he might have been able to speak to her with more ease. As it was, he certainly had found the task difficult, down in the country, though he had heard of men of his class doing the same sort of thing all his life. For my own part, I believe, that the reputed sinners are much more numerous than the sinners.

As he sat there, a certain Mr. Fothergill came in upon him. Mr. Fothergill was a gentleman who managed most of his uncle's ordinary affairs,—a clever fellow, who knew on which side his bread was buttered. Mr. Fothergill was naturally anxious to stand well with the heir; but to stand well with the owner was his business in life, and with that business he never allowed anything to interfere. On this occasion Mr. Fothergill was very civil, complimenting his future possible patron on his very powerful speech, and predicting for him political power with much more certainty than the newspapers which had, or had not, come from the world of spirits. Mr. Fothergill had come in to say a word or two about some matter of business. As all Mr. Palliser's money passed through Mr. Fothergill's hands, and as his electioneering interests were managed by Mr. Fothergill, Mr. Fothergill not unfrequently called to say a necessary word or two. When this was done he said another word or two, which might be necessary or not, as the case might be.

"Mr. Palliser," said he, "I wonder you don't think of marrying. I hope you'll excuse me."

Mr. Palliser was by no means sure that he would excuse him, and sat himself suddenly upright in his chair in a manner that was intended to exhibit a first symptom of outraged dignity. But, singularly enough, he had himself been thinking of marriage at that moment. How would it have been with him had he known the beautiful Griselda before the Dumbello alliance had been arranged? Would he have married her? Would he have been comfortable if he had married her? Of course he could not marry now, seeing that he was in love with Lady Dumbello, and that the lady in question, unfortunately, had a husband of her own; but though he had been thinking of marrying, he did not like to have the subject thus roughly thrust before his eyes, and, as it were, into his very lap by his uncle's agent. Mr. Fothergill, no doubt, saw the first symptom of outraged dignity, for he was a clever, sharp man. But, perhaps, he did not in truth much regard it. Perhaps he had received instructions which he was bound to regard above all other matters.

"I hope you'll excuse me, Mr. Palliser, I do, indeed; but I say it because I am half afraid of some,—some,—some diminution of good feeling, perhaps, I had better call it, between you and your uncle. Anything of that kind would be such a monstrous pity."

"I am not aware of any such probability."

This Mr. Palliser said with considerable dignity; but when the words were spoken he bethought himself whether he had not told a fib.

"No; perhaps not. I trust there is no such probability. But the duke is a very determined man if he takes anything into his head;—and then he has so much in his power."

"He has not me in his power, Mr. Fothergill."

"No, no, no. One man does not have another in his power in this country,—not in that way; but then you know, Mr. Palliser, it would hardly do to offend him; would it?"

"I would rather not offend him, as is natural. Indeed, I do not wish to offend any one."

"Exactly so; and least of all the duke, who has the whole property in his own hands. We may say the whole, for he can marry to-morrow if he pleases. And then his life is so good. I don't know a stouter man of his age, anywhere."

"I'm very glad to hear it."

"I'm sure you are, Mr. Palliser. But if he were to take offence, you know?"

"I should put up with it."

"Yes, exactly; that's what you would do. But it would be worth while to avoid it, seeing how much he has in his power."

"Has the duke sent you to me now, Mr. Fothergill?"

"No, no, no,—nothing of the sort. But he dropped words the other day which made me fancy that he was not quite,—quite,—quite at ease about you. I have long known that he would be very glad indeed to see an heir born to the property. The other morning,—I don't know whether there was anything in it,—but I fancied he was going to make some change in the present arrangements. He did not do it, and it might have been fancy. Only think, Mr. Palliser, what one word of his might do! If he says a word, he never goes back from it." Then, having said so much, Mr. Fothergill went his way.

Mr. Palliser understood the meaning of all this very well. It was not the first occasion on which Mr. Fothergill had given him advice,—advice such as Mr. Fothergill himself had no right to give him. He always received such counsel with an air of half-injured dignity, intending thereby to explain to Mr. Fothergill that he was intruding. But he knew well whence the advice came; and though, in all such cases, he had made up his mind not to follow such counsel, it had generally come to pass that Mr. Palliser's conduct had more or less accurately conformed itself to Mr. Fothergill's advice. A word from the duke might certainly do a great deal! Mr. Palliser resolved that in that affair of Lady Dumbello he would follow his own devices. But, nevertheless, it was undoubtedly true that a word from the duke might do a great deal!

We, who are in the secret, know how far Mr. Palliser had already progressed in his iniquitous passion before he left Hartlebury. Others, who were perhaps not so well informed, gave him credit for a much more advanced success. Lady Clandidlem, in her letter to Lady De Courcy, written immediately after the departure of Mr. Palliser, declared that, having heard of that gentleman's intended matutinal departure, she had confidently expected to learn at the breakfast-table that Lady Dumbello had flown with him. From the tone of her ladyship's language, it seemed as though she had been robbed of an anticipated pleasure by Lady Dumbello's prolonged sojourn in the halls of her husband's ancestors. "I feel, however, quite convinced," said Lady Clandidlem, "that it cannot go on longer than the spring. I never yet saw a man so infatuated as Mr. Palliser. He did not leave her for one moment all the time he was here. No one but Lady Hartletop would have permitted it. But, you know, there is nothing so pleasant as good old family friendships."