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Passion versus Prudence
It had not occurred to Alice that her accepted lover would come to her so soon. She had not told him expressly of the day on which she would return, and had not reflected that Kate would certainly inform him. She had been thinking so much of the distant perils of this engagement, that this peril, so sure to come upon her before many days or hours could pass by, had been forgotten. When the name struck her ear, and George's step was heard outside on the landing-place, she felt the blood rush violently to her heart, and she jumped up from her seat panic-stricken and in utter dismay. How should she receive him? And then again, with what form of affection would she be accosted by him? But he was there in the room with her before she had had a moment allowed to her for thought.
She hardly ventured to look up at him; but, nevertheless, she became aware that there was something in his appearance and dress brighter, more lover-like, perhaps newer, than was usual with him. This in itself was an affliction to her. He ought to have understood that such an engagement as theirs not only did not require, but absolutely forbade, any such symptom of young love as this. Even when their marriage came, if it must come, it should come without any customary sign of smartness, without any outward mark of exaltation. It would have been very good in him to have remained away from her for weeks and months; but to come upon her thus, on the first morning of her return, was a cruelty not to be forgiven. These were the feelings with which Alice regarded her betrothed when he came to see her.
"Alice," said he, coming up to her with his extended hand,--"Dearest Alice!"
She gave him her hand, and muttered some word which was inaudible even to him; she gave him her hand, and immediately endeavoured to resume it, but he held it clenched within his own, and she felt that she was his prisoner. He was standing close to her now, and she could not escape from him. She was trembling with fear lest worse might betide her even than this. She had promised to marry him, and now she was covered with dismay as she felt rather than thought how very far she was from loving the man to whom she had given this promise.
"Alice," he said, "I am a man once again. It is only now that I can tell you what I have suffered during these last few years." He still held her hand, but he had not as yet attempted any closer embrace. She knew that she was standing away from him awkwardly, almost showing her repugnance to him; but it was altogether beyond her power to assume an attitude of ordinary ease. "Alice," he continued, "I feel that I am a strong man again, armed to meet the world at all points. Will you not let me thank you for what you have done for me?"
She must speak to him! Though the doing so should be ever so painful to her, she must say some word to him which should have in it a sound of kindness. After all, it was his undoubted right to come to her, and the footing on which he assumed to stand was simply that which she herself had given to him. It was not his fault if at this moment he inspired her with disgust rather than with love.
"I have done nothing for you, George," she said, "nothing at all." Then she got her hand away from him, and retreated back to a sofa where she seated herself, leaving him still standing in the space before the fire. "That you may do much for yourself is my greatest hope. If I can help you, I will do so most heartily." Then she became thoroughly ashamed of her words, feeling that she was at once offering to him the use of her purse.
"Of course you will help me," he said. "I am full of plans, all of which you must share with me. But now, at this moment, my one great plan is that in which you have already consented to be my partner. Alice, you are my wife now. Tell me that it will make you happy to call me your husband."
Not for worlds could she have said so at this moment. It was ill-judged in him to press her thus. He should already have seen, with half an eye, that no such triumph as that which he now demanded could be his on this occasion. He had had his triumph when, in the solitude of his own room, with quiet sarcasm he had thrown on one side of him the letter in which she had accepted him, as though the matter had been one almost indifferent to him. He had no right to expect the double triumph. Then he had frankly told himself that her money would be useful to him. He should have been contented with that conviction, and not have required her also to speak to him soft winning words of love.
"That must be still distant, George," she said. "I have suffered so much!"
"And it has been my fault that you have suffered; I know that. These years of misery have been my doing." It was, however, the year of coming misery that was the most to be dreaded.
"I do not say that," she replied, "nor have I ever thought it. I have myself and myself only to blame." Here he altogether misunderstood her, believing her to mean that the fault for which she blamed herself had been committed in separating herself from him on that former occasion.
"Alice, dear, let bygones be bygones."
"Bygones will not be bygones. It may be well for people to say so, but it is never true. One might as well say so to one's body as to one's heart. But the hairs will grow grey, and the heart will grow cold."
"I do not see that one follows upon the other," said George. "My hair is growing very grey;"--and to show that it was so, he lifted the dark lock from the side of his forehead, and displayed the incipient grizzling of the hair from behind. "If grey hairs make an old man, Alice, you will marry an old husband; but even you shall not be allowed to say that my heart is old."
That word "husband," which her cousin had twice used, was painful to Alice's ear. She shrunk from it with palpable bodily suffering. Marry an old husband! His age was nothing to the purpose, though he had been as old as Enoch. But she was again obliged to answer him. "I spoke of my own heart," said she: "I sometimes feel that it has grown very old."
"Alice, that is hardly cheering to me."
"You have come to me too quickly, George, and do not reflect how much there is that I must remember. You have said that bygones should be bygones. Let them be so, at any rate as far as words are concerned. Give me a few months in which I may learn,--not to forget them, for that will be impossible,--but to abstain from speaking of them."
There was something in her look as she spoke, and in the tone of her voice that was very sad. It struck him forcibly, but it struck him with anger rather than with sadness. Doubtless her money had been his chief object when he offered to renew his engagement with her. Doubtless he would have made no such offer had she been penniless, or even had his own need been less pressing. But, nevertheless, he desired something more than money. The triumph of being preferred to John Grey,--of having John Grey sent altogether adrift, in order that his old love might be recovered, would have been too costly a luxury for him to seek, had he not in seeking it been able to combine prudence with the luxury. But though his prudence had been undoubted, he desired the luxury also. It was on a calculation of the combined advantage that he had made his second offer to his cousin. As he would by no means have consented to proceed with the arrangement without the benefit of his cousin's money, so also did he feel unwilling to dispense with some expression of her love for him, which would be to him triumphant. Hitherto in their present interview there had certainly been no expression of her love.
"Alice," he said, "your greeting to me is hardly all that I had hoped."
"Is it not?" said she. "Indeed, George, I am sorry that you should be disappointed; but what can I say? You would not have me affect a lightness of spirit which I do not feel?"
"If you wish," said he, very slowly,--"if you wish to retract your letter to me, you now have my leave to do so."
What an opportunity was this of escape! But she had not the courage to accept it. What girl, under such circumstances, would have had such courage? How often are offers made to us which we would almost give our eyes to accept, but dare not accept because we fear the countenance of the offerer? "I do not wish to retract my letter," said she, speaking as slowly as he had spoken; "but I wish to be left awhile, that I may recover my strength of mind. Have you not heard doctors say, that muscles which have been strained, should be allowed rest, or they will never entirely renew their tension? It is so with me now; if I could be quiet for a few months, I think I could learn to face the future with a better courage."
"And is that all you can say to me, Alice?"
"What would you have me say?"
"I would fain hear one word of love from you; is that unreasonable? I would wish to know from your own lips that you have satisfaction in the renewed prospect of our union; is that too ambitious? It might have been that I was over-bold in pressing my suit upon you again; but as you accepted it, have I not a right to expect that you should show me that you have been happy in accepting it?"
But she had not been happy in accepting it. She was not happy now that she had accepted it. She could not show to him any sign of such joy as that which he desired to see. And now, at this moment, she feared with an excessive fear that there would come some demand for an outward demonstration of love, such as he in his position might have a right to make. She seemed to be aware that this might be prevented only by such demeanour on her part as that which she had practised, and she could not, therefore, be stirred to the expression of any word of affection. She listened to his appeal, and when it was finished she made no reply. If he chose to take her in dudgeon, he must do so. She would make for him any sacrifice that was possible to her, but this sacrifice was not possible.
"And you have not a word to say to me?" he asked. She looked up at him, and saw that the cicature on his face was becoming ominous; his eyes were bent upon her with all their forbidding brilliance, and he was assuming that look of angry audacity which was so peculiar to him, and which had so often cowed those with whom he was brought in contact.
"No other word, at present, George; I have told you that I am not at ease. Why do you press me now?"
He had her letter to him in the breast-pocket of his coat, and his hand was on it, that he might fling it back to her, and tell her that he would not hold her to be his promised wife under such circumstances as these. The anger which would have induced him to do so was the better part of his nature. Three or four years since, this better part would have prevailed, and he would have given way to his rage. But now, as his fingers played upon the paper, he remembered that her money was absolutely essential to him,--that some of it was needed by him almost instantly,--that on this very morning he was bound to go where money would be demanded from him, and that his hopes with regard to Chelsea could not be maintained unless he was able to make some substantial promise of providing funds. His sister Kate's fortune was just two thousand pounds. That, and no more, was now the capital at his command, if he should abandon this other source of aid. Even that must go, if all other sources should fail him; but he would fain have that untouched, if it were possible. Oh, that that old man in Westmoreland would die and be gathered to his fathers, now that he was full of years and ripe for the sickle! But there was no sign of death about the old man. So his fingers released their hold on the letter, and he stood looking at her in his anger.
"You wish me then to go from you?" he said.
"Do not be angry with me, George!"
"Angry! I have no right to be angry. But, by heaven, I am wrong there. I have the right, and I am angry. I think you owed it me to give me some warmer welcome. Is it to be thus with us always for the next accursed year?"
"To me it will be accursed. But is it to be thus between us always? Alice, I have loved you above all women. I may say that I have never loved any woman but you; and yet I am sometimes driven to doubt whether you have a heart in you capable of love. After all that has passed, all your old protestations, all my repentance, and your proffer of forgiveness, you should have received me with open arms. I suppose I may go now, and feel that I have been kicked out of your house like a dog."
"If you speak to me like that, and look at me like that, how can I answer you?"
"I want no answer. I wanted you to put your hand in mine, to kiss me, and to tell me that you are once more my own. Alice, think better of it; kiss me, and let me feel my arm once more round your waist."
She shuddered as she sat, still silent, on her seat, and he saw that she shuddered. With all his desire for her money,--his instant need of it,--this was too much for him; and he turned upon his heel, and left the room without another word. She heard his quick step as he hurried down the stairs, but she did not rise to arrest him. She heard the door slam as he left the house, but still she did not move from her seat. Her immediate desire had been that he should go,--and now he was gone. There was in that a relief which almost comforted her. And this was the man from whom, within the last few days, she had accepted an offer of marriage.
George, when he left the house, walked hurriedly into Cavendish Square, and down along the east side, till he made his way out along Princes Street, into the Circus in Oxford Street. Close to him there, in Great Marlborough Street, was the house of his parliamentary attorney, Mr Scruby, on whom he was bound to call on that morning. As he had walked away from Queen Anne Street, he had thought of nothing but that too visible shudder which his cousin Alice had been unable to repress. He had been feeding on his anger, and indulging it, telling himself at one moment that he would let her and her money go from him whither they list,--and making inward threats in the next that the time should come in which he would punish her for this ill-usage. But there was the necessity of resolving what he would say to Mr Scruby. To Mr Scruby was still due some trifle on the cost of the last election; but even if this were paid, Mr Scruby would make no heavy advance towards the expense of the next election. Whoever might come out at the end of such affairs without a satisfactory settlement of his little bill, as had for a while been the case with Mr Grimes, from the "Handsome Man,"--and as, indeed, still was the case with him, as that note of hand at three months' date was not yet paid,--Mr Scruby seldom allowed himself to suffer. It was true that the election would not take place till the summer; but there were preliminary expenses which needed ready money. Metropolitan voters, as Mr Scruby often declared, required to be kept in good humour,--so that Mr Scruby wanted the present payment of some five hundred pounds, and a well-grounded assurance that he would be put in full funds by the beginning of next June. Even Mr Scruby might not be true as perfect steel, if he thought that his candidate at the last moment would not come forth properly prepared. Other candidates, with money in their pockets, might find their way into Mr Scruby's offices. As George Vavasor crossed Regent Street, he gulped down his anger, and applied his mind to business. Should he prepare himself to give orders that Kate's little property should be sold out, or would he resolve to use his cousin's money? That his cousin's money would still be at his disposal, in spite of the stormy mood in which he had retreated from her presence, he felt sure; but the asking for it on his part would be unpleasant. That duty he must entrust to Kate. But as he reached Mr Scruby's door, he had decided that for such purposes as those now in hand, it was preferable that he should use his wife's fortune. It was thus that in his own mind he worded the phrase, and made for himself an excuse. Yes;--he would use his wife's fortune, and explain to Mr Scruby that he would be justified in doing so by the fact that his own heritage would be settled on her at her marriage. I do not suppose that he altogether liked it. He was not, at any rate as yet, an altogether heartless swindler. He could not take his cousin's money without meaning,--without thinking that he meant, to repay her in full all that he took. Her behaviour to him this very morning had no doubt made the affair more difficult to his mind, and more unpleasant than it would have been had she smiled on him; but even as it was, he managed to assure himself that he was doing her no wrong, and with this self-assurance he entered Mr Scruby's office.
The clerks in the outer office were very civil to him, and undertook to promise him that he should not be kept waiting an instant. There were four gentlemen in the little parlour, they said, waiting to see Mr Scruby, but there they should remain till Mr Vavasor's interview was over. One gentleman, as it seemed, was even turned out to make way for him; for as George was ushered into the lawyer's room, a little man, looking very meek, was hurried away from it.
"You can wait, Smithers," said Mr Scruby, speaking from within. "I shan't be very long." Vavasor apologized to his agent for the injury he was doing Smithers; but Mr Scruby explained that he was only a poor devil of a printer, looking for payment of his little account. He had printed and posted 30,000 placards for one of the late Marylebone candidates, and found some difficulty in getting his money. "You see, when they're in a small way of business, it ruins them," said Scruby. "Now that poor devil,--he hasn't had a shilling of his money yet, and the greater part has been paid out of his pocket to the posters. It is hard."
It comforted Vavasor when he thus heard that there were others who were more backward in their payments, even than himself, and made him reflect that a longer credit than had yet been achieved by him, might perhaps be within his reach. "It is astonishing how much a man may get done for him," said he, "without paying anything for years."
"Yes; that's true. So he may, if he knows how to go about it. But when he does pay, Mr Vavasor, he does it through the nose;--cent. per cent., and worse, for all his former shortcomings."
"How many there are who never pay at all," said George.
"Yes, Mr Vavasor;--that's true, too. But see what a life they lead. It isn't a pleasant thing to be afraid of coming into your agent's office; not what you would like, Mr Vavasor;--not if I know you."
"I never was afraid of meeting anyone yet," said Vavasor; "but I don't know what I may come to."
"Nor never will, I'll go bail. But, Lord love you, I could tell you such tales! I've had Members of Parliament, past, present, and future, almost down on their knees to me in this little room. It's about a month or six weeks before the elections come on when they're at their worst. There is so much you see, Mr Vavasor, for which a gentleman must pay ready money. It isn't like a business in which a lawyer is supposed to find the capital. If I had money enough to pay out of my own pocket all the cost of all the metropolitan gentlemen for whom I act, why, I could live on the interest without any trouble, and go into Parliament myself like a man."
George Vavasor perfectly understood that Mr Scruby was explaining to him, with what best attempt at delicacy he could make, that funds for the expense of the Chelsea election were not to be forthcoming from the Great Marlborough Street establishment.
"I suppose so," said he. "But you do do it sometimes."
"Never, Mr Vavasor," said Mr Scruby, very solemnly. "As a rule, never. I may advance the money, on interest, of course, when I receive a guarantee from the candidate's father, or from six or seven among the committee, who must all be very substantial,--very substantial indeed. But in a general way I don't do it. It isn't my place."
"I thought you did;--but at any rate I don't want you to do it for me."
"I'm quite sure you don't," said Mr Scruby, with a brighter tone of voice than that he had just been using. "I never thought you did, Mr Vavasor. Lord bless you, Mr Vavasor, I know the difference between gentlemen as soon as I see them."
Then they went to business, and Vavasor became aware that it would be thought convenient that he should lodge with Mr Scruby, to his own account, a sum not less than six hundred pounds within the next week, and it would be also necessary that he should provide for taking up that bill, amounting to ninety-two pounds, which he had given to the landlord of the "Handsome Man." In short, it would be well that he should borrow a thousand pounds from Alice, and as he did not wish that the family attorney of the Vavasors should be employed to raise it, he communicated to Mr Scruby as much of his plans as was necessary,--feeling more hesitation in doing it than might have been expected from him. When he had done so, he was very intent on explaining also that the money taken from his cousin, and future bride, would be repaid to her out of the property in Westmoreland, which was,--did he say settled on himself? I am afraid he did.
"Yes, yes;--a family arrangement," said Mr Scruby, as he congratulated him on his proposed marriage. Mr Scruby did not care a straw from what source the necessary funds might be drawn.
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