Read CHAPTER III. of An Old Man's Love , free online book, by Anthony Trollope, on

Mary Lawrie.

There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described.  A courtship is harder still ­so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible.  Southey’s Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it.  It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master.  But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced.  I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver.  But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked.  Of Thackeray’s Béatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye.  I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them.  Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.

But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie.  She was a tall, thin, staid girl, who never put herself forward in any of those walks of life in which such a young lady as she is called upon to show herself.  She was silent and reserved, and sometimes startled, even when appealed to in a household so quiet as that of Mr Whittlestaff.  Those who had seen her former life had known that she had lived under the dominion of her step-mother, and had so accounted for her manner.  And then, added to this, was the sense of entire dependence on a stranger, which, no doubt, helped to quell her spirit.  But Mr Whittlestaff had eyes with which to see and ears with which to hear, and was not to be taken in by the outward appearance of the young lady.  He had perceived that under that quiet guise and timid startled look there existed a power of fighting a battle for herself or for a friend, if an occasion should arise which should appear to herself to be sufficient.  He had known her as one of her father’s household, and of her step-mother’s; and had seen probably some little instance of self-assertion, such as had not yet made itself apparent to Mrs Baggett.

A man who had met her once, and for a few minutes only, would certainly not declare her to be beautiful.  She, too, like Mr Whittlestaff, was always contented to pass unobserved.  But the chance man, had he seen her for long, would surely remark that Miss Lawrie was an attractive girl; and had he heard her talk freely on any matter of interest, would have called her very attractive.  She would blaze up into sudden eloquence, and then would become shame-stricken, and abashed, and dumfounded, so as to show that she had for a moment forgotten her audience, and then the audience, ­the chance man, ­would surely set his wits to work and try to reproduce in her a renewal of that intimacy to which she had seemed to yield herself for the moment.

But yet I am not describing her after the accepted fashion.  I should produce a catalogue of features, and tell how every one of them was formed.  Her hair was dark, and worn very plain, but with that graceful care which shows that the owner has not slurred over her toilet with hurried negligence.  Of complexion it can hardly be said that she had any; so little was the appearance of her countenance diversified by a change of hue.  If I am bound to declare her colour, I must, in truth, say that she was brown.  There was none even of that flying hue which is supposed to be intended when a woman is called a brunette.  When she first came to Croker’s Hall, health produced no variation.  Nor did any such come quickly; though before she had lived there a year and a half, now and again a slight tinge of dark ruby would show itself on her cheek, and then vanish almost quicker than it had come.  Mr Whittlestaff, when he would see this, would be almost beside himself in admiration.

Her eyes were deep blue, so deep that the casual observer would not at first recognise their colour.  But when you had perceived that they were blue, and had brought the fact home to your knowledge, their blueness remained with you as a thing fixed for ever.  And you would feel, if you yourself were thoughtful and contemplative, and much given to study a lady’s eyes, that, such as they were, every lady would possess the like if only it were given to her to choose.

Her nose was slight and fine, and perhaps lent to her face, of all her features, its most special grace.  Her lips, alas! were too thin for true female beauty, and lacked that round and luscious fulness which seems in many a girl’s face to declare the purpose for which they were made.  Through them her white teeth would occasionally be seen, and then her face was at its best, as, for instance, when she was smiling; but that was seldom; and at other moments it seemed as though she were too careful to keep her mouth closed.

But if her mouth was defective, the symmetry of her chin, carrying with it the oval of her cheek and jaws, was perfect.  How many a face, otherwise lovely to look upon, is made mean and comparatively base, either by the lengthening or the shortening of the chin!  That absolute perfection which Miss Lawrie owned, we do not, perhaps, often meet.  But when found, I confess that nothing to me gives so sure an evidence of true blood and good-breeding.

Such is the catalogue of Mary Lawrie’s features, drawn out with care by one who has delighted for many hours to sit and look at them.  All the power of language which the writer possesses has been used in thus reproducing them.  But now, when this portion of his work is done, he feels sure that no reader of his novel will have the slightest idea of what Mary Lawrie was like.

An incident must now be told of her early life, of which she never spoke to man, woman, or child.  Her step-mother had known the circumstance, but had rarely spoken of it.  There had come across her path in Norwich a young man who had stirred her heart, and had won her affections.  But the young man had passed on, and there, as far as the present and the past were concerned, had been an end of it.  The young man had been no favourite with her step-mother; and her father, who was almost on his death-bed, had heard what was going on almost without a remark.  He had been told that the man was penniless, and as his daughter had been to him the dearest thing upon earth, he had been glad to save himself the pain of expressing disapproval.  John Gordon had, however, been a gentleman, and was fit in all things to be the husband of such a girl as Mary Lawrie, ­except that he was penniless, and she, also, had possessed nothing.  He had passed on his way without speaking, and had gone ­even Mary did not know whither.  She had accepted her fate, and had never allowed the name of John Gordon to pass her lips.

The days passed very quickly at Croker’s Hall, but not so quickly but that Mary knew well what was going on in Mr Whittlestaff’s mind.  How is it that a girl understands to a certainty the state of a man’s heart in regard to her, ­or rather, not his heart, but his purpose?  A girl may believe that a man loves her, and may be deceived; but she will not be deceived as to whether he wishes to marry her.  Gradually came the conviction on Miss Lawrie’s mind of Mr Whittlestaff’s purpose.  And, as it did so, came the conviction also that she could not do it.  Of this he saw nothing; but he was instigated by it to be more eager, ­and was at the same time additionally abashed by something in her manner which made him feel that the task before him was not an easy one.

Mrs Baggett, who knew well all the symptoms as her master displayed them, became angry with Mary Lawrie.  Who was Mary Lawrie, that she should take upon herself to deny Mr Whittlestaff anything?  No doubt it would, as she told herself, be better for Mrs Baggett in many respects that her master should remain unmarried.  She assured herself that if a mistress were put over her head, she must retire to Portsmouth, ­which, of all places for her, had the dreariest memories.  She could remain where she was very well, while Mary Lawrie remained also where she was.  But it provoked her to think that the offer should be made to the girl and should be refused.  “What on earth it is they sees in ’em, is what I never can understand.  She ain’t pretty, ­not to say, ­and she looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.  But she’s got it inside her, and some of them days it’ll come out.”  Then Mrs Baggett determined that she would have a few words on the subject with Mary Lawrie.

Mary had now been a year and four months at Croker’s Hall, and had, under pressure from Mr Whittlestaff, assumed something of the manner rather than of the airs of a mistress to Mrs Baggett.  This the old woman did not at all resent, because the reality of power was still in her hands; but she could not endure that the idolatry of love should always be present in her master’s face.  If the young woman would only become Mrs Whittlestaff, then the idolatry would pass away.  At any rate, her master would not continue “to make an ass of himself,” as Mrs Baggett phrased it.

“Don’t you think, Miss, as that Mr Whittlestaff is looking very peeky?”

“Is he, Mrs Baggett?”

“’Deed and he is, to my thinking; and it’s all along of you.  He’s got a fancy into his mind, ­and why shouldn’t he have his fancy?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure.”  But Mary did know.  She did know what the fancy was, and why Mr Whittlestaff shouldn’t have it.

“I tell you fairly, Miss, there is nothing I hate so much as vagaries in young women.”

“I hope there are no vagaries to be hated in me, Mrs Baggett.”

“Well, I’m not quite so sure.  You do go as straightforward as most on ’em; but I ain’t quite sure but that there are a few twists and twirls.  What do you suppose he wants to be at?”

“How am I to say?” Then she bethought herself that were she to tell the truth, she could say very well.

“Do you mean as you don’t know?” said the old woman.

“Am I bound to tell you if I do know?”

“If you wish to do the best for him, you are.  What’s the good of beating about the bush?  Why don’t you have him?”

Mary did not quite know whether it behoved her to be angry with the old servant, and if so, how she was to show her anger.  “You shouldn’t talk such nonsense, Mrs Baggett.”

“That’s all very well.  It is all nonsense; but nonsense has to be talked sometimes.  Here’s a gentleman as you owe everything to.  If he wanted your head from your shoulders, you shouldn’t make any scruple.  What are you, that you shouldn’t let a gentleman like him have his own way?  Asking your pardon, but I don’t mean it any way out of disrespect.  Of course it would be all agin me.  An old woman doesn’t want to have a young mistress over her head, and if she’s my sperrit, she wouldn’t bear it.  I won’t, any way.”

“Then why do you ask me to do this thing?”

“Because a gentleman like him should have his own way.  And an old hag like me shouldn’t stand for anything.  No more shouldn’t a young woman like you who has had so much done for her.  Now, Miss Mary, you see I’ve told you my mind freely.”

“But he has never asked me.”

“You just sit close up to him, and he’ll ask you free enough.  I shouldn’t speak as I have done if there had been a morsel of doubt about it.  Do you doubt it yourself, Miss?” To this Miss Lawrie did not find it necessary to return any answer.

When Mrs Baggett had gone and Mary was left to herself, she could not but think over what the woman had said to her.  In the first place, was she not bound to be angry with the woman, and to express her anger?  Was it not impertinent, nay, almost indecent, that the woman should come to her and interrogate her on such a subject?  The inmost, most secret feelings of her heart had been ruthlessly inquired into and probed by a menial servant, who had asked questions of her, and made suggestions to her, as though her part in the affair had been of no consequence.  “What are you, that you shouldn’t let a gentleman like him have his own way?” Why was it not so much to her as to Mr Whittlestaff?  Was it not her all; the consummation or destruction of every hope; the making or unmaking of her joy or of her happiness?  Could it be right that she should marry any man, merely because the man wanted her?  Were there to be no questions raised as to her own life, her own contentment, her own ideas of what was proper?  It was true that this woman knew nothing of John Gordon.  But she must have known that there might be a John Gordon, ­whom she, Mary Lawrie, was required to set on one side, merely because Mr Whittlestaff “wanted her.”  Mrs Baggett had been grossly impertinent in daring to talk to her of Mr Whittlestaff’s wants.

But then, as she walked slowly round the garden, she found herself bound to inquire of herself whether what the woman said had not been true.  Did she not eat his bread; did she not wear his clothes; were not the very boots on her feet his property?  And she was there in his house, without the slightest tie of blood or family connection.  He had taken her from sheer charity, and had saved her from the terrible dependency of becoming a friendless governess.  Looking out to the life which she had avoided, it seemed to her to be full of abject misery.  And he had brought her to his own house, and had made her the mistress of everything.  She knew that she had been undemonstrative in her manner, and that such was her nature.  But her heart welled over with gratitude as she thought of the sweetness of the life which he had prepared for her.  Was not the question true?  “What am I, that I should stand in the way and prevent such a man as that from having what he wants?”

And then she told herself that he personally was full of good gifts.  How different might it have been with her had some elderly men “wanted her,” such as she had seen about in the world!  How much was there in this man that she knew that she could learn to love?  And he was one of whom she need in no wise be ashamed.  He was a gentleman, pleasant to look at, sweet in manner, comely and clean in appearance.  Would not the world say of her how lucky she had been should it come to pass that she should become Mrs Whittlestaff?  Then there were thoughts of John Gordon, and she told herself that it was a mere dream.  John Gordon had gone, and she knew not where he was; and John Gordon had never spoken a word to her of his love.  After an hour’s deliberation, she thought that she would marry Mr Whittlestaff if he asked her, though she could not bring herself to say that she would “sit close up to him” in order that he might do so.