The Small House at Allington/Chapter 48

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Crosbie had now settled down to the calm realities of married life, and was beginning to think that the odium was dying away which for a week or two had attached itself to him, partly on account of his usage of Miss Dale, but more strongly in consequence of the thrashing which he had received from John Eames. Not that he had in any way recovered his former tone of life, or that he ever hoped to do so. But he was able to go in and out of his club without embarrassment. He could talk with his wonted voice, and act with his wonted authority at his office. He could tell his friends, with some little degree of pleasure in the sound, that Lady Alexandrina would be very happy to see them. And he could make himself comfortable in his own chair after dinner, with his slippers and his newspaper. He could make himself comfortable, or at any rate could tell his wife that he did so.

It was very dull. He was obliged to acknowledge to himself, when he thought over the subject, that the life which he was leading was dull. Though he could go into his club without annoyance, nobody there ever thought of asking him to join them at dinner. It was taken for granted that he was going to dine at home; and in the absence of any provocation to the contrary, he always did dine at home. He had now been in his house for three weeks and had been asked with his wife to a few bridal dinner-parties, given chiefly by friends of the De Courcy family. Except on such occasions he never passed an evening out of his own house, and had not yet, since his marriage, dined once away from his wife. He told himself that his good conduct in this respect was the result of his own resolution; but, nevertheless, he felt that there was nothing else left for him to do. Nobody asked him to go to the theatre. Nobody begged him to drop in of an evening. Men never asked him why he did not play a rubber. He would generally saunter into Sebright's after he left his office, and lounge about the room for half an hour, talking to a few men. Nobody was uncivil to him. But he knew that the whole thing was changed, and he resolved, with some wisdom, to accommodate himself to his altered circumstances.

Lady Alexandrina also found her new life rather dull, and was sometimes inclined to be a little querulous. She would tell her husband that she never got out, and would declare, when he offered to walk with her, that she did not care for walking in the streets. "I don't exactly see, then, where you are to walk," he once replied. She did not tell him that she was fond of riding, and that the Park was a very fitting place for such exercise; but she looked it, and he understood her. "I'll do all I can for her," he said to himself; "but I'll not ruin myself." "Amelia is coming to take me for a drive," she said another time. "Ah, that'll be very nice," he answered. "No; it won't be very nice," said Alexandrina. "Amelia is always shopping and bargaining with the tradespeople. But it will be better than being kept in the house without ever stirring out."

They breakfasted nominally at half-past nine; in truth, it was always nearly ten, as Lady Alexandrina found it difficult to get herself out of her room. At half-past ten punctually he left his house for his office. He usually got home by six, and then spent the greatest part of the hour before dinner in the ceremony of dressing. He went, at least, into his dressing-room, after speaking a few words to his wife, and there remained, pulling things about, clipping his nails, looking over any paper that came in his way, and killing the time. He expected his dinner punctually at seven, and began to feel a little cross if he were kept waiting. After dinner, he drank one glass of wine in company with his wife, and one other by himself, during which latter ceremony he would stare at the hot coals, and think of the thing he had done. Then he would go upstairs, and have, first a cup of coffee, and then a cup of tea. He would read his newspaper, open a book or two, hide his face when he yawned, and try to make believe that he liked it. She had no signs or words of love for him. She never sat on his knee, or caressed him. She never showed him that any happiness had come to her in being allowed to live close to him. They thought that they loved each other:—each thought so; but there was no love, no sympathy, no warmth. The very atmosphere was cold;—so cold that no fire could remove the chill.

In what way would it have been different had Lily Dale sat opposite to him there as his wife, instead of Lady Alexandrina? He told himself frequently that either with one or with the other life would have been the same; that he had made himself for a while unfit for domestic life, and that he must cure himself of that unfitness. But though he declared this to himself in one set of half-spoken thoughts, he would also declare to himself in another set, that Lily would have made the whole house bright with her brightness; that had he brought her home to his hearth, there would have been a sun shining on him every morning and every evening. But, nevertheless, he strove to do his duty, and remembered that the excitement of official life was still open to him. From eleven in the morning till five in the afternoon he could still hold a position which made it necessary that men should regard him with respect, and speak to him with deference. In this respect he was better off than his wife, for she had no office to which she could betake herself.

"Yes," she said to Amelia, "it is all very nice, and I don't mind the house being damp; but I get so tired of being alone."

"That must be the case with women who are married to men of business."

"Oh, I don't complain. Of course I knew what I was about. I suppose it won't be so very dull when everybody is up in London."

"I don't find the season makes much difference to us after Christmas," said Amelia; "but no doubt London is gayer in May. You'll find you'll like it better next year; and perhaps you'll have a baby, you know."

"Psha!" ejaculated Lady Alexandrina; "I don't want a baby, and don't suppose I shall have one."

"It's always something to do, you know."

Lady Alexandrina, though she was not of an energetic temperament, could not but confess to herself that she had made a mistake. She had been tempted to marry Crosbie because Crosbie was a man of fashion, and now she was told that the London season would make no difference to her;—the London season which had hitherto always brought to her the excitement of parties, if it had not given her the satisfaction of amusement. She had been tempted to marry at all because it appeared to her that a married woman could enjoy society with less restraint than a girl who was subject to her mother or her chaperon; that she would have more freedom of action as a married woman; and now she was told that she must wait for a baby before she could have anything to do. Courcy Castle was sometimes dull, but Courcy Castle would have been better than this.

When Crosbie returned home after this little conversation about the baby, he was told by his wife that they were to dine with the Gazebees on the next Sunday. On hearing this he shook his head with vexation. He knew, however, that he had no right to make complaint, as he had been only taken to St. John's Wood once since they had come home from their marriage trip. There was, however, one point as to which he could grumble. "Why, on earth, on Sunday?"

"Because Amelia asked me for Sunday. If you are asked for Sunday, you cannot say you'll go on Monday."

"It is so terrible on a Sunday afternoon. At what hour?"

"She said half-past five."

"Heavens and earth! What are we to do all the evening?"

"It is not kind of you, Adolphus, to speak in that way of my relations."

"Come, my love, that's a joke; as if I hadn't heard you say the same thing twenty times. You've complained of having to go up there much more bitterly than I ever did. You know I like your sister, and, in his way, Gazebee is a very good fellow; but after three or four hours, one begins to have had enough of him."

"It can't be much duller than it is——;" but Lady Alexandrina stopped herself before she finished her speech.

"One can always read at home, at any rate," said Crosbie.

"One can't always be reading. However, I have said you would go. If you choose to refuse, you must write and explain."

When the Sunday came the Crosbies of course did go to St. John's Wood, arriving punctually at that door which he so hated at half-past five. One of the earliest resolutions which he made when he first contemplated the De Courcy match, was altogether hostile to the Gazebees. He would see but very little of them. He would shake himself free of that connexion. It was not with that branch of the family that he desired an alliance. But now, as things had gone, that was the only branch of the family with which he seemed to be allied. He was always hearing of the Gazebees. Amelia and Alexandrina were constantly together. He was now dragged there to a Sunday dinner; and he knew that he should often be dragged there,—that he could not avoid such draggings. He already owed money to Mortimer Gazebee, and was aware that his affairs had been allowed to fall into that lawyer's hands in such a way that he could not take them out again. His house was very thoroughly furnished, and he knew that the bills had been paid; but he had not paid them; every shilling had been paid through Mortimer Gazebee.

"Go with your mother and aunt, De Courcy," the attorney said to the lingering child after dinner; and then Crosbie was left alone with his wife's brother-in-law. This was the period of the St. John's Wood purgatory which was so dreadful to him. With his sister-in-law he could talk, remembering perhaps always that she was an earl's daughter. But with Gazebee he had nothing in common. And he felt that Gazebee, who had once treated him with great deference, had now lost all such feeling. Crosbie had once been a man of fashion in the estimation of the attorney, but that was all over. Crosbie, in the attorney's estimation, was now simply the secretary of a public office,—a man who owed him money. The two had married sisters, and there was no reason why the light of the prosperous attorney should pale before that of the civil servant, who was not very prosperous. All this was understood thoroughly by both the men.

"There's terrible bad news from Courcy," said the attorney, as soon as the boy was gone.

"Why; what's the matter?"

"Porlock has married;—that woman, you know."


"He has. The old lady has been obliged to tell me, and she's nearly broken-hearted about it. But that's not the worst of it to my mind. All the world knows that Porlock had gone to the mischief. But he is going to bring an action against his father for some arrears of his allowance, and he threatens to have everything out in court, if he doesn't get his money."

"But is there money due to him?"

"Yes, there is. A couple of thousand pounds or so. I suppose I shall have to find it. But, upon my honour, I don't know where it's to come from; I don't, indeed. In one way or another, I've paid over fourteen hundred pounds for you."

"Fourteen hundred pounds!"

"Yes, indeed;—what with the insurance and the furniture, and the bill from our house for the settlements. That's not paid yet, but it's the same thing. A man doesn't get married for nothing, I can tell you."

"But you've got security."

"Oh, yes; I've got security. But the thing is the ready money. Our house has advanced so much on the Courcy property, that they don't like going any further; and therefore it is that I have to do this myself. They'll all have to go abroad,—that'll be the end of it. There's been such a scene between the earl and George. George lost his temper and told the earl that Porlock's marriage was his fault. It has ended in George with his wife being turned out."

"He has money of his own."

"Yes, but he won't spend it. He's coming up here, and we shall find him hanging about us. I don't mean to give him a bed here, and I advise you not to do so either. You'll not get rid of him if you do."

"I have the greatest possible dislike to him."

"Yes; he's a bad fellow. So is John. Porlock was the best, but he's gone altogether to ruin. They've made a nice mess of it between them; haven't they?"

This was the family for whose sake Crosbie had jilted Lily Dale! His single and simple ambition had been that of being an earl's son-in-law. To achieve that it had been necessary that he should make himself a villain. In achieving it he had gone through all manner of dirt and disgrace. He had married a woman whom he knew he did not love. He was thinking almost hourly of a girl whom he had loved, whom he did love, but whom he had so injured, that, under no circumstances, could he be allowed to speak to her again. The attorney there—who sat opposite to him, talking about his thousands of pounds with that disgusting assumed solicitude which such men put on, when they know very well what they are doing—had made a similar marriage. But he had known what he was about. He had got from his marriage all that he had expected. But what had Crosbie got?

"They're a bad set,—a bad set," said he in his bitterness.

"The men are," said Gazebee, very comfortably.

"H—m," said Crosbie. It was manifest to Gazebee that his friend was expressing a feeling that the women, also, were not all that they should be, but he took no offence, though some portion of the censure might thereby be supposed to attach to his own wife.

"The countess means well," said Gazebee. "But she's had a hard life of it,—a very hard life. I've heard him call her names that would frighten a coalheaver. I have, indeed. But he'll die soon, and then she'll be comfortable. She has three thousand a year jointure."

He'll die soon, and then she'll be comfortable! That was one phase of married life. As Crosbie's mind dwelt upon the words, he remembered Lily's promise made in the fields, that she would do everything for him. He remembered her kisses; the touch of her fingers; the low silvery laughing voice; the feel of her dress as she would press close to him. After that he reflected whether it would not be well that he too should die, so that Alexandrina might be comfortable. She and her mother might be very comfortable together, with plenty of money, at Baden Baden!

The squire at Allington, and Mrs. Dale, and Lady Julia De Guest, had been, and still were, uneasy in their minds because no punishment had fallen upon Crosbie,—no vengeance had overtaken him in consequence of his great sin. How little did they know about it! Could he have been prosecuted and put into prison, with hard labour, for twelve months, the punishment would not have been heavier. He would, in that case, at any rate, have been saved from Lady Alexandrina.

"George and his wife are coming up to town; couldn't we ask them to come to us for a week or so?" said his wife to him, as soon as they were in the fly together, going home.

"No," shouted Crosbie; "we will do no such thing." There was not another word said on the subject,—nor on any other subject till they got home. When they reached their house Alexandrina had a headache, and went up to her room immediately. Crosbie threw himself into a chair before the remains of a fire in the dining-room, and resolved that he would cut the whole De Courcy family together. His wife, as his wife, should obey him. She should obey him,—or else leave him and go her way by herself, leaving him to go his way. There was an income of twelve hundred a year. Would it not be a fine thing for him if he could keep six hundred for himself and return to his old manner of life. All his old comforts of course he would not have,—nor the old esteem and regard of men. But the luxury of a club dinner he might enjoy. Unembarrassed evenings might be his,—with liberty to him to pass them as he pleased. He knew many men who were separated from their wives, and who seemed to be as happy as their neighbours. And then he remembered how ugly Alexandrina had been this evening, wearing a great tinsel coronet full of false stones, with a cold in her head which had reddened her nose. There had, too, fallen upon her in these her married days a certain fixed dreary dowdiness. She certainly was very plain! So he said to himself, and then he went to bed. I myself am inclined to think that his punishment was sufficiently severe.

The next morning his wife still complained of headache, so that he breakfasted alone. Since that positive refusal which he had given to her proposition for inviting her brother, there had not been much conversation between them. "My head is splitting, and Sarah shall bring some tea and toast up to me, if you will not mind it."

He did not mind it in the least, and ate his breakfast by himself, with more enjoyment than usually attended that meal.

It was clear to him that all the present satisfaction of his life must come to him from his office work. There are men who find it difficult to live without some source of daily comfort, and he was such a man. He could hardly endure his life unless there were some page in it on which he could look with gratified eyes. He had always liked his work, and he now determined that he would like it better than ever. But in order that he might do so it was necessary that he should have much of his own way. According to the theory of his office, it was incumbent on him as Secretary simply to take the orders of the Commissioners, and see that they were executed; and to such work as this his predecessor had strictly confined himself. But he had already done more than this, and had conceived the ambition of holding the Board almost under his thumb. He flattered himself that he knew his own work and theirs better than they knew either, and that by a little management he might be their master. It is not impossible that such might have been the case had there been no fracas at the Paddington station; but, as we all know, the dominant cock of the farmyard must be ever dominant. When he shall once have had his wings so smeared with mud as to give him even the appearance of adversity, no other cock will ever respect him again. Mr. Optimist and Mr. Butterwell knew very well that their secretary had been cudgelled, and they could not submit themselves to a secretary who had been so treated.

"Oh, by-the-by, Crosbie," said Butterwell, coming into his room, soon after his arrival at his office on that day of his solitary breakfast, "I want to say just a few words to you." And Butterwell turned round and closed the door, the lock of which had not previously been fastened. Crosbie, without much thinking, immediately foretold himself the nature of the coming conversation.

"Do you know——" said Butterwell, beginning.

"Sit down, won't you?" said Crosbie, seating himself as he spoke. If there was to be a contest, he would make the best fight he could. He would show a better spirit here than he had done on the railway platform. Butterwell did sit down, and felt as he did so, that the very motion of sitting took away some of his power. He ought to have sent for Crosbie into his own room. A man, when he wishes to reprimand another, should always have the benefit of his own atmosphere.

"I don't want to find any fault," Butterwell began.

"I hope you have not any cause," said Crosbie.

"No, no; I don't say that I have. But we think at the Board——"

"Stop, stop, Butterwell. If anything unpleasant is coming, it had better come from the Board. I should take it in better spirit; I should, indeed."

"What takes place at the Board must be official."

"I shall not mind that in the least. I should rather like it than otherwise."

"It simply amounts to this,—that we think you are taking a little too much on yourself. No doubt, it's a fault on the right side, and arises from your wishing to have the work well done."

"And if I don't do it, who will?" asked Crosbie.

"The Board is very well able to get through all that appertains to it. Come, Crosbie, you and I have known each other a great many years, and it would be a pity that we should have any words. I have come to you in this way because it would be disagreeable to you to have any question raised officially. Optimist isn't given to being very angry, but he was downright angry yesterday. You had better take what I say in good part, and go along a little quieter."

But Crosbie was not in a humour to take anything quietly. He was sore all over, and prone to hit out at everybody that he met. "I have done my duty to the best of my ability, Mr. Butterwell," he said, "and I believe I have done it well. I believe I know my duty here as well as any one can teach me. If I have done more than my share of work, it is because other people have done less than theirs." As he spoke, there was a black cloud upon his brow, and the Commissioner could perceive that the Secretary was very wrathful.

"Oh! very well," said Butterwell, rising from his chair. "I can only, under such circumstances, speak to the Chairman, and he will tell you what he thinks at the Board. I think you're foolish; I do, indeed. As for myself, I have only meant to act kindly by you." After that, Mr. Butterwell took himself off.

On the same afternoon, Crosbie was summoned into the Boardroom in the usual way, between two and three. This was a daily occurrence, as he always sat for about an hour with two out of the three Commissioners, after they had fortified themselves with a biscuit and a glass of sherry. On the present occasion, the usual amount of business was transacted, but it was done in a manner which made Crosbie feel that they did not all stand together on their usual footing. The three Commissioners were all there. The Chairman gave his directions in a solemn, pompous voice, which was by no means usual to him when he was in good humour. The Major said little or nothing; but there was a gleam of satisfied sarcasm in his eye. Things were going wrong at the Board, and he was pleased. Mr. Butterwell was exceedingly civil in his demeanour, and rather more than ordinarily brisk. As soon as the regular work of the day was over, Mr. Optimist shuffled about on his chair, rising from his seat, and then sitting down again. He looked through a lot of papers close to his hand, peering at them over his spectacles. Then he selected one, took off his spectacles, leaned back in his chair, and began his little speech.

"Mr. Crosbie," he said, "we are all very much gratified,—very much gratified, indeed,—by your zeal and energy in the service."

"Thank you, sir," said Crosbie; "I am fond of the service."

"Exactly, exactly; we all feel that. But we think that you,—if I were to say take too much upon yourself, I should say, perhaps, more than we mean."

"Don't say more than you mean, Mr. Optimist." Crosbie's eyes, as he spoke, gleamed slightly with his momentary triumph; as did also those of Major Fiasco.

"No, no, no," said Mr. Optimist; "I would say rather less than more to so very good a public servant as yourself. But you, doubtless, understand me?"

"I don't think I do quite, sir. If I have not taken too much on me, what is it that I have done that I ought not to have done?"

"You have given directions in many cases for which you ought first to have received authority. Here is an instance," and the selected paper was at once brought out.

It was a matter in which the Secretary had been manifestly wrong according to written law, and he could not defend it on its own merits.

"If you wish me," said he, "to confine myself exactly to the positive instructions of the office, I will do so; but I think you will find it inconvenient."

"It will be far the best," said Mr. Optimist.

"Very well," said Mr. Crosbie, "it shall be done." And he at once determined to make himself as unpleasant to the three gentlemen in the room as he might find it within his power to do. He could make himself very unpleasant, but the unpleasantness would be as much to him as to them.

Nothing would now go right with him. He could look in no direction for satisfaction. He sauntered into Sebright's, as he went home, but he could not find words to speak to any one about the little matters of the day. He went home, and his wife, though she was up, complained still of her headache.

"I haven't been out of the house all day," she said, "and that has made it worse."

"I don't know how you are to get out if you won't walk," he answered.

Then there was no more said between them till they sat down to their meal.

Had the squire at Allington known all, he might, I think, have been satisfied with the punishment which Crosbie had encountered.