Wrecked in Port/Book III, Chapter VI
Chapter VI.An Incomplete Victory.
Mr. Benthall's neat cob was not standing in a loose box in the Woolgreaves stable, as was he usual wont when its master had paid a visit to that hospitable mansion. On this occasion the schoolmaster had walked over from Helmingham, and, though by nature an indolent man, Mr. Benthall was exceedingly pleased at the prospect of the walk before him on emerging from Woolgreaves after his interview in the library with Mrs. Creswell. He felt that he required a vent for the excitement under which he was labouring, a vent which could only be found in sharp and prolonged exercise. The truth was that he was very much excited and very angry indeed. "It is a very charitable way of looking at it—a more than charitable way," he muttered to himself as he strode over the ground, "to fancy that Mrs. Creswell was ignorant of what she was doing! did not know that she was offering me a bribe to vote for her husband, and to influence the farmers on this estate to do the same! She knew it fast enough; she is by far too clever a woman not to understand all about it! And if she would try that game on with us, who hold a comparatively superior position, what won't she do with those lower on the electoral roll? Clever woman, too, thorough woman of the world! I wonder at her forgetting herself and showing her hand so completely. How admirably she emphasised the 'any of the inmates,' in that sentence when she gave me my congé! It was really remarkably well done! When I tell Gertrude this, it will show her the real facts at once. She has had a firm impression that, up to the present time, 'madam,' as she calls Mrs. Creswell, has had no idea as to the state of the case between us; but I don't think even incredulous Gertrude would have much doubt of it if she had been present, and caught the expression of Mrs. Creswell's face as she forbade my communication with 'any' of the inmates of her house. Neither look nor tone admitted of the smallest ambiguity, and I took care to appreciate both. Something must be done to circumvent our young friend the hostess of Woolgreaves."
Thus soliloquised the Reverend George Benthall, as he strode across the bleak barren fields, chopping away with his stick at the thin, naked hedges as he passed them, pushing his hat back from his brow, and uttering many sounds which were at least impatient, not to say unclerical, as he progressed. After his dinner, feeling that this was an exceptional kind of evening, and one which must be exceptionally treated, he went down to his cellar, brought therefrom a bottle of excellent Burgundy, lit up his favourite pipe, placed his feet on the fender, and prepared himself for a careful review of the occurrences of the day. On the whole, he was satisfied. It may seem strange that a man, indolent, uncaring about most things, and certainly desirous of the opportunity for the acquisition of worldly goods, should have refused the chance of such a position as Marian hinted he might aspire to—a position which her own keen natural instinct and worldly knowledge suggested to her as the very one which he would most covet—but it must be remembered that Mr. Benthall was a man of birth and family, bound to endorse the family politics in his own person, and likely to shrink from the merest suggestion of a bribe as the highest insult and indignity that could possibly be offered him. One of Marian's hints went home; when she told him that all acquaintance between him and any member of the Woolgreaves household most cease, the bolt penetrated. The cosy attention which Mr. Benthall had just paid to the rather odd, but decidedly amusing, niece of rich Squire Creswell had developed into a great liking, which had grown into a passion deeper and stronger than this calm, placid—well, not to disguise the fact, selfish—clergyman had ever imagined he could have experienced; and although, in his homeward walk, he was pleased to smile in his complimentary fashion at Mrs. Creswell's skill in aiming the arrow, when he turned the whole matter over in his mind after dinner, he was compelled to allow that it was exceedingly unpleasant, and that he did not see how affairs between himself and Gertrude were to be carried out to a happy issue without bringing matters to a crisis. For this crisis long-headed and calculating Mr. Benthall had been for some time prepared—that is to say, he had long entertained the idea that, after a time, Mrs. Creswell, getting tired of the alternations in the state of armed neutrality or actual warfare, in one or other of which she always lived with the young ladies, and feeling towards them as Haman felt towards Mordecai, with the aggravation of their all being women, would certainly do her best towards getting them removed from Woolgreaves; and doing her best meant, when Mr. Creswell was the person to be acted upon, the accomplishment of her designs. But Mr. Benthall felt tolerably certain, from his knowledge of Mr. Creswell, and the conversation in some degree bearing on the subject which they had had together, that though the old gentleman would not be able to withstand, nor indeed would for a moment attempt to fight against the pressure which would be put upon him by his wife for the accomplishment of her purpose, even though that preference were to the disadvantage of his blood relations, that result once achieved, he would do everything in his power to ensure the girls' future comfort, and would not abate one jot of the liberal pecuniary allowance which he had always intended for them on the occasion of their marriage. It was very comforting to Mr. Benthall, after due deliberation to come to this conclusion; for though he was very much attached to Gertrude Creswell, and though of late he had began to think she was so indispensable to his future happiness that he could almost have married her without any dowry, yet it was pleasant to think that—well, that she would not only make him a charming wife, but bring a very handsome increase to his income—when the storm arrived.
The storm arrived sooner than Mr. Benthall anticipated; it must have been brewing while he was seated with his feet on the fender, enjoying that special bottle of Burgundy and that favourite pipe. As he sat at his breakfast he received a note from Gertrude, which said, "There has been the most terrible fuss here this evening! I don't know what you and madam can have fought about during that dreadfully solemn interview in the library to which she invited you, but she is furious against you! She and uncle were closeted together for nearly an hour after he came in from Brocksopp, and when they joined us in the dining-room, his eyes were quite red and I'm sure he had been crying. Poor old darling! isn't it a shame for that—never mind! After dinner, just as we were about to run off as usual, madam said she wanted to speak to us, and marched us off to the drawing-room. When we got there she harangued us, and told us it was only right we should know that you had behaved in a most treacherous and unfriendly manner towards uncle, and that your conduct had been so base that she had been compelled to forbid you the house. I was going to speak at this, but Maud dashed in, and said she did not believe a word of it, and that it was all madam's concoction, and that you were a gentleman, and I don't know what—you understand, all sorts of nice things about you! And then madam said you had thrown over uncle, to whom you owed such a debt of gratitude—what for, goodness knows!—and were going to vote for uncle's opponent, Mr. Joyce, who——But then I dashed in, and I said that, considering what people said about her and Mr. Joyce, and the engagement that had existed between them, she ought not to say anything against him. And Maud tried to stop me; but my blood was up, and I would go on; and I said all kinds of things, and madam grew very pale, and said that, though she was disposed to make every allowance for me, considering the infatuation I was labouring under—that's what she said, infatuation I was labouring under—she could not put up with being insulted in her own house, and she should appeal to uncle. So she went away, and presently she and uncle came back together, and he said he was deeply grieved and all that—poor old dear, he looked awful—but he could not have his wife treated with disrespect—disrespect, indeed!—and he thought that the best thing that could be done would be for us to go away, for a time, at least—only for a time, the dear old man said, trying to look cheerful—for if he succeeded in this election he and Mrs. Creswell would necessarily be for several months in London, during which we could come back to Woolgreaves; but for a time, and if we would only settle where we would go, Parker, our maid, who is a most staid and respectable person, would go with us, and all could be arranged. I think Maud was going to fly out again, but a look at the dear old man's woe-begone face stopped her, and she was silent. So it's decided we're to go somewhere out of this. But is it not an awful nuisance, George? What shall we do? Where shall we go? It will be a relief to get rid of madam for a time, and out of the reach of her eyes and her tongue; but doesn't it seem very horrible altogether?"
"Horrible altogether! It does, indeed, seem very horrible altogether," said Mr. Benthall to himself, as he finished reading this epistle, and laid it down on the breakfast-table before him. "What on earth is to be done? This old man seems perfectly besotted, while this very strong-minded young woman, his wife, has completely gleaned the brains out of his head and the kindliness out of his heart. What can he be thinking about to imagine that these two girls are to take some lodging and form some course for themselves? Why the thing is monstrous and impossible! They would have to live in seclusion; it would be impossible for any man ever to call upon them, and—oh, it won't do at all, won't do at all! But what's to be done? I can't interfere in the matter, and I know no one with whom I could consult. Yes, by George! Joyce, our candidate, Mr. Joyce; he's a clear-headed fellow, and one who, I should think, if Mrs. Covey's story be correct, would not object to put a spoke in Mrs. Creswell's wheel. I'll go and see him. Perhaps he can help me in this fix."
No sooner said than done. The young gentlemen on the foundation and the head master's boarders had that morning to make shift with the teaching of the ushers, while the neat cob was taken from his stable at an unwonted hour, and cantered down to Brocksopp. Mr. Joyce was not at his head-quarters, he was out canvassing; so the cob was put up, and Mr. Benthall started on a search-expedition through the town. After some little time he came up with the Liberal candidate, with whom he had already struck up a pleasant acquaintance, and begged a few minutes of his time. The request was granted; they adjourned to Joyce's private sitting-room at the inn, and there Mr. Benthall laid the whole story before him, showing in detail Marian's machinations against the girls, and pointing out the final piece of strategy, by which she had induced her husband to give them the route, and tell them they could no longer be inmates of his house. Joyce was very much astonished, for although the film had gradually been withdrawn from his eyes since the day of the receipt of Marian's letter, he had no idea of the depth of her degradation. That she could endeavour to win him from the tournament now he stood a good chance of victory; that she would even endeavour to bribe a man like Benthall, who was sufficiently venal, Walter thought, who had his price, like most men, but who had not been properly "got at," he could understand; but that she could endeavour to attempt to wreak her vengeance on two unoffending girls, simply because they were remotely connected with one of the causes of her annoyance, was beyond his comprehension. He saw, however, at once, that the young ladies were delicately situated, and, partly from an innate feeling of gallantry, partly with a desire to oblige Benthall, who had proved himself very loyal in the cause, and not without a desire to thwart what was evidently a pet scheme with Mrs. Creswell, he took up the question with alacrity.
"You're quite right," he said, after a little consideration, "in saying that it would be impossible that these two young ladies could go away and live by themselves, or rather with their maid. I know nothing of them, beyond seeing them a long time ago. I should not even recognise them were we to meet now; but it is evident that by birth and education they are ladies, and they must not be thrown on the world, to rough it in the manner proposed by their weak uncle, at the instigation of his charming wife! The question is, what is to be done with them? Neither you nor I, even if we had the power and will, dare offer them any hospitality, miserable bachelors as we are! The laws of etiquette forbid that, and we should have Mrs. Grundy, egged on by Mrs. Creswell, calling us over the coals and bringing us to book very speedily. It is clear that in their position the best thing for them would be to be received by some lady relative of their own, or in default of that, by some one whose name and character would be a complete answer to anything which our friends Mrs. Grundy, or Mrs. Creswell, might choose to say about them. Have they no such female relations? No! I fear then that, for their own sakes, the best thing we can do is not to interfere in the matter. It is very hard for you, I can see clearly, as you will be undoubtedly deterred from paying any visits to Miss Gertrude until——Stay, I've an idea: it's come upon me so suddenly that it has almost taken my breath away, and I don't know whether I dare attempt to carry it out. Wait, and let me think it over."
The idea that had occurred to Joyce was, to lay the state of affairs before Lady Caroline Mansergh, and ask her advice and assistance in the matter. He felt certain that she would act with promptitude, and at the same time with great discretion. Her knowledge of the world would tell her exactly what was best to be done under the circumstances, while the high position which she held in society, and that not alone by reason of her rank, would effectually silence any malicious whisperings and critical comments which would inevitably be made on the proceedings of a less favoured personage. The question was, dare he ask her to interfere in the matter? He had no claim on her, he knew; but she had always shown him such great favour, that he thought he might urge his request without offence. Even in the last letter which he had received from her, just before he started on his election campaign, she reminded him of his promise to allow her to be of service to him in any possible way, and never to permit any idea of the magnitude or difficulty of the task to be undertaken to influence him against asking her to do it. Yes, he felt sure that Lady Caroline would be of material assistance to him in his emergency; the only question was, was he not wasting his resources? These young ladies were nothing to him; to him it was a matter of no moment whether they remained at Woolgreaves, or were hunted out to genteel lodgings. Stay, though! To get rid of them from their uncle's house, to remove them from her presence, in which they were constantly reminding her of bygone times, had, according to Mr. Benthall's story, been Marian Creswell's fixed intention from the moment of her marriage. Were they to leave now, outcast and humbled, she would have gained a perfect victory; whereas if they were received under the chaperonage of a person in the position of Lady Caroline Mansergh, it would be anything but a degradation of station for the young ladies, and a decided blow for Mrs. Creswell. That thought decided him; he would invoke Lady Caroline's aid at once.
"Well," said he, after a few minutes' pause, when he had come to this determination, "you have waited, and I have thought it over——"
"And the result is——?" asked Mr. Benthall.
"That I shall be bold, and act upon the idea which just occurred to me, and which is briefly this: There is in London a lady of rank and social position, who is good enough to be my friend, and who, I feel certain, will, if I ask her to do so, interest herself in the fortunes of these two young ladies, and advise us what is best to be done for them under present circumstances. It is plain that after what has occurred they can stay no longer at Woolgreaves."
"Perfectly plain. Maud would not listen to such a thing for a moment, and Gertrude always thinks with her sister."
"That's plucky in Miss Maud, and pluck is not a bad quality to be possessed of when you are thrown out into the world on your own resources, as some of us know from experience. Then they must leave as soon as possible. Lady Caroline Mansergh, the lady of whom I have just spoken, will doubtless be able to suggest some place where they can be received, and where they would have the advantage of her occasional surveillance."
"Nothing could possibly be better," cried Mr. Benthall, in great glee. "I cannot tell you, Mr. Joyce, how much I am obliged to you for your disinterested co-operation in this matter."
"Perhaps my co-operation is not so disinterested as you imagine," said Joyce, with a grave smile. "Perhaps—but that's nothing now."
"Will you write to Lady Caroline Mansergh at once? Time presses, you know."
"Better than that, I will go up to London and see her. There will necessarily be a lull in the canvassing here for the next two or three days, and I shall be able to explain far more clearly than by letter. Besides I shall take the opportunity of seeing our friends Potter and Fyfe, and hearing the best news from head-quarters."
"That is merely an excuse," said Mr. Benthall; "I am sure you are undertaking this journey, solely with the view of serving these young ladies and me."
"And myself, my good friend," replied Joyce; "and myself, I assure you."
Lady Caroline Mansergh had a very charming little house in Chesterfield-street, Mayfair, thoroughly homely and remarkably comfortable. Since she had been left a widow she had frequently passed the winter, as well as the season, in London, and her residence was accordingly arranged with a due regard to the miseries of our delightful climate. Her ladyship was in town, Joyce was glad to find, and after he had sent up his name, he was shown into a very cosy drawing-room, with a large fire blazing on the hearth, and all the draughts carefully excluded by means of portières and thick hanging curtains. He had merely time to notice that the room was eminently one to be lived in, and not kept merely fur show, one that was lived in, moreover, as the sign of a woman's hand, everywhere recognisable, in the management of the flowers and the books, in the work-basket and the feminine writing arrangements, so different, somehow, from a man's desk and its appurtenances, plainly showed, when the door opened, and Lady Caroline entered the room.
She was looking splendidly handsome. In all the work and worry of his recent life, Joyce had lost all except a kind of general remembrance of her face and figure, and he was almost betrayed into an exclamation of astonishment as he saw her advancing towards him. There must have been something of this feeling in the expression of his face, for Lady Caroline's cheeks blushed for an instant, and the voice in which she bade him welcome, and expressed her pleasure of seeing him, was rather unsteady in its tone.
"I imagined you were at Brocksopp," she said, after a minute; "indeed I have some idea that quite recently I saw a report in the paper of some speech of yours, as having been delivered there."
"Perfectly correct: I only came up last night."
"And how goes the great cause? No, seriously, how are you progressing; what are the chances of success? You know how interested I am about it!"
"We are progressing admirably, and if we can only hold out as we are doing, there is very little doubt of our triumph!"
"And you will enter upon the career which I suggested to you, Mr. Joyce, and you will work in it as you have worked in everything else which you have undertaken, with zeal, energy, and success!" said Lady Caroline, with flashing eyes. "But what has brought you to London at this particular time?"
"You, Lady Caroline!"
"I?" and the flush again overspread her face.
"You! I wanted your advice and assistance!"
"Ah! I recollect you said just now, 'if we could only hold out as we are doing.' How foolish of me not at once to—Mr. Joyce, you—you want money to pursue this election, and you have shown your friendship for me by——"
"No, indeed. Lady Caroline, though there is no one in the world to whom I would so gladly be under an obligation. No! this is a matter of a very different kind!" and he briefly explained to her the state of affairs at Woolgreaves, and the position of Maud and Gertrude Creswell.
After he had concluded there was a momentary pause, and then Lady Caroline said, "And you do not know either of these young ladies, Mr. Joyce?"
"I do not! I have scarcely seen them since they were children."
"And it is for the sake of revenge on her that he is taking all this trouble!" thought Lady Caroline to herself; "that woman threw away a priceless treasure; the man who can hate like this must have a great capacity for loving." Then she said aloud, "I am very glad you came to me, Mr. Joyce, as this is plainly a case where prompt action is needed. When do you return to Brocksopp?"
"Will you be the bearer of a note from me to Miss Creswell? I shall be delighted to have her and her sister here, in this house, as my guests, as long as it may suit them to remain!"
"Lady Caroline! how can I thank you!"
"By asking me to do some service for you yourself, Mr. Joyce! This is merely general philanthropy!"
Marian Creswell was in great exultation, for several reasons. Mr. Joyce had hurried suddenly to London, and a report had been started that he was about to abandon the contest. That was one cause for her delight. Another was that the girls had evidently accepted their defeat in the last contest as final, and she should be rid of them for ever. She had noticed various preparations for departure, had seen heavy boxes lumbering the passages near their rooms, but had carefully avoided making any inquiries, and had begged her husband to do likewise.
"They will go," she said, "and it will be for the best. Either they or I must have gone, and I suppose you would prefer it should be they. It is their duty to say where they purpose going, and what they purpose doing. It will be time enough for you to refuse your consent, if the place of selection be an objectionable one, when they tell us where it is."
Two days after that conversation Mr. and Mrs. Creswell were sitting together after luncheon, when Maud entered the room. She took no notice of Marian, said to her uncle, "Gertrude and I are going away to-morrow, uncle, for some time, if not for ever. You won't be astonished to hear it, I know, but it is our duty to tell you."
"Well, Maud, I—going away—I confess, not entirely news to me"—said Mr. Creswell, hopelessly feeble—"where are you going, child?"
"We have accepted an invitation we have received, uncle!"
"An invitation? I did not know you knew any one, Maud! From some of your old school companions?"
"No, uncle: from Lady Caroline Mansergh—a friend of Mr. Benthall's and Mr. Joyce's, uncle!"
Marian looked up, and the light of triumph faded out of her eyes. It was but an incomplete victory, after all!