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

Mary Lawrie accepts Mr Whittlestaff.

By the end of the week Mary Lawrie had changed her mind.  She had thought it over, and had endeavoured to persuade herself that Mr Whittlestaff did not care about it very much.  Indeed there were moments during the week in which she flattered herself that if she would abstain from “sitting close up to him,” he would say nothing about it.  But she resolved altogether that she would not display her anger to Mrs Baggett.  Mrs Baggett, after all, had done it for the best.  And there was something in Mrs Baggett’s mode of argument on the subject which was not altogether unflattering to Mary.  It was not as though Mrs Baggett had told her that Mr Whittlestaff could make himself quite happy with Mrs Baggett herself, if Mary Lawrie would be good enough to go away.  The suggestion had been made quite in the other way, and Mrs Baggett was prepared altogether to obliterate herself.  Mary did feel that Mr Whittlestaff ought to be made a god, as long as another woman was willing to share in the worship with such absolute self-sacrifice.

At last the moment came, and the question was asked without a minute being allowed for consideration.  It was in this wise.  The two were sitting together after dinner on the lawn, and Mrs Baggett had brought them their coffee.  It was her wont to wait upon them with this delicacy, though she did not appear either at breakfast or at dinner, except on remarkable occasions.  She now had some little word to say, meant to be conciliatory and comforting, and remarked that “surely Miss Mary meant to get a colour in her cheeks at last.”

“Don’t be foolish, Mrs Baggett,” said Mary.  But Mrs Baggett’s back was turned, and she did not care to reply.

“It is true, Mary,” said Mr Whittlestaff, putting his hand on her shoulder, as he turned round to look in her face.

“Mrs Lawrie used to tell me that I always blushed black, and I think that she was about right.”

“I do not know what colour you blush,” said Mr Whittlestaff.

“I daresay not.”

“But when it does come I am conscious of the sweetest colour that ever came upon a lady’s cheek.  And I tell myself that another grace has been added to the face which of all faces in the world is to my eyes the most beautiful.”  What was she to say in answer to a compliment so high-flown as this, to one from whose mouth compliments were so uncommon?  She knew that he could not have so spoken without a purpose, declared at any rate to his own heart.  He still held her by the arm, but did not once progress with his speech, while she sat silent by his side, and blushing with that dark ruby streak across her cheeks, which her step-mother had intended to vilify when she said that she had blushed black.  “Mary,” he continued after a pause, “can you endure the thought of becoming my wife?” Now she drew her arm away, and turned her face, and compressed her lips, and sat without uttering a word.  “Of course I am an old man.”

“It is not that,” she muttered.

“But I think that I can love you as honestly and as firmly as a younger one.  I think that if you could bring yourself to be my wife, you would find that you would not be treated badly.”

“Oh, no, no, no!” she exclaimed.

“Nothing, at any rate, would be kept from you.  When I have a thought or a feeling, a hope or a fear, you shall share it.  As to money ­”

“Don’t do that.  There should be no talk of money from you to me.”

“Perhaps not.  It would be best that I should be left to do as I may think most fitting for you.  I have one incident in my life which I would wish to tell you.  I loved a girl, ­many years since, ­and she ill-used me.  I continued to love her long, but that image has passed from my mind.”  He was thinking, as he said this, of Mrs Compas and her large family.  “It will not be necessary that I should refer to this again, because the subject is very painful; but it was essential that I should tell you.  And now, Mary, how shall it be?” he added, after a pause.

She sat listening to all that he had to say to her, but without speaking a word.  He, too, had had his “John Gordon;” but in his case the girl he had loved had treated him badly.  She, Mary, had received no bad treatment.  There had been love between them, ample love, love enough to break their hearts.  At least she had found it so.  But there had been no outspoken speech of love.  Because of that, the wound made, now that it had been in some sort healed, had not with her been so cruel as with Mr Whittlestaff.  John Gordon had come to her on the eve of his going, and had told her that he was about to start for some distant land.  There had been loud words between him and her step-mother, and Mrs Lawrie had told him that he was a pauper, and was doing no good about the house; and Mary had heard the words spoken.  She asked him whither he was going, but he did not reply.  “Your mother is right.  I am at any rate doing no good here,” he had said, but had not answered her question further.  Then Mary had given him her hand, and had whispered, “Good-bye.”  “If I return,” he added, “the first place I will come to shall be Norwich.”  Then without further farewell ceremony he had gone.  From that day to this she had had his form before her eyes; but now, if she accepted Mr Whittlestaff, it must be banished.  No one, at any rate, knew of her wound.  She must tell him, ­should she be moved at last to accept him.  It might be that he would reject her after such telling.  If so, it would be well.  But, in that case, what would be her future?  Would it not be necessary that she should return to that idea of a governess which had been so distasteful to her?  “Mary, can you say that it shall be so?” he asked quietly, after having remained silent for some ten minutes.

Could it be that all her fate must be resolved in so short a time?  Since first the notion that Mr Whittlestaff had asked her to be his wife had come upon her, she had thought of it day and night.  But, as is so usual with the world at large, she had thought altogether of the past, and not of the future.  The past was a valley of dreams, which could easily be surveyed, whereas the future was a high mountain which it would require much labour to climb.  When we think that we will make our calculations as to the future, it is so easy to revel in our memories instead.  Mary had, in truth, not thought of her answer, though she had said to herself over and over again why it should not be so.

“Have you no answer to give me?” he said.

“Oh, Mr Whittlestaff, you have so startled me!” This was hardly true.  He had not startled her, but had brought her to the necessity of knowing her own mind.

“If you wish to think of it, you shall take your own time.”  Then it was decided that a week should be accorded to her.  And during that week she passed much of her time in tears.  And Mrs Baggett would not leave her alone.  To give Mrs Baggett her due, it must be acknowledged that she acted as best she knew how for her master’s interest, without thinking of herself.  “I shall go down to Portsmouth.  I’m not worth thinking of, I ain’t.  There’s them at Portsmouth as’ll take care of me.  You don’t see why I should go.  I daresay not; but I am older than you, and I see what you don’t see.  I’ve borne with you as a miss, because you’ve not been upsetting; but still, when I’ve lived with him for all those years without anything of the kind, it has set me hard sometimes.  As married to him, I wouldn’t put up with you; so I tell you fairly.  But that don’t signify.  It ain’t you as signifies or me as signifies.  It’s only him.  You have got to bring yourself to think of that.  What’s the meaning of your duty to your neighbour, and doing unto others, and all the rest of it?  You ain’t got to think just of your own self; no more haven’t I.”

Mary said to herself silently that it was John Gordon of whom she had to think.  She quite recognised the truth of the lesson about selfishness; but love to her was more imperious than gratitude.

“There’s them at Portsmouth as’ll take care of me, no doubt.  Don’t you mind about me.  I ain’t going to have a good time at Portsmouth, but people ain’t born to have good times of it.  You’re going to have a good time.  But it ain’t for that, but for what your duty tells you.  You that haven’t a bit or a sup but what comes from him, and you to stand shilly-shallying!  I can’t abide the idea!”

It was thus that Mrs Baggett taught her great lesson, ­the greatest lesson we may say which a man or a woman can learn.  And though she taught it immoderately, fancying, as a woman, that another woman should sacrifice everything to a man, still she taught it with truth.  She was minded to go to Portsmouth, although Portsmouth to her in the present state of circumstances was little better than a hell upon earth.  But Mary could not quite see Mr Whittlestaff’s claim in the same light.  The one point on which it did seem to her that she had made up her mind was Mr Gordon’s claim, which was paramount to everything.  Yes; he was gone, and might never return.  It might be that he was dead.  It might be even that he had taken some other wife, and she was conscious that not a word had passed her lips that could be taken as a promise.  There had not been even a hint of a promise.  But it seemed to her that this duty of which Mrs Baggett spoke was due rather to John Gordon than to Mr Whittlestaff.

She counted the days, ­nay, she counted the hours, till the week had run by.  And when the precise moment had come at which an answer must be given, ­for in such matters Mr Whittlestaff was very precise, ­John Gordon was still the hero of her thoughts.  “Well, dear,” he said, putting his hand upon her arm, just as he had done on that former occasion.  He said no more, but there was a world of entreaty in the tone of his voice as he uttered the words.

“Mr Whittlestaff!”

“Well, dear.”

“I do not think I can.  I do not think I ought.  You never heard of ­Mr John Gordon.”


“He used to come to our house at Norwich, and ­and ­I loved him.”

“What became of him?” he asked, in a strangely altered voice.  Was there to be a Mr Compas here too to interfere with his happiness?

“He was poor, and he went away when my step-mother did not like him.”

“You had engaged yourself to him?”

“Oh, no!  There had been nothing of that kind.  You will understand that I should not speak to you on such a subject, were it not that I am bound to tell you my whole heart.  But you will never repeat what you now hear.”

“There was no engagement?”

“There was no question of any such thing.”

“And he is gone?”

“Yes,” said Mary; “he has gone.”

“And will not come back again?” Then she looked into his face, ­oh! so wistfully.  “When did it happen?”

“When my father was on his death-bed.  He had come sooner than that; but then it was that he went.  I think, Mr Whittlestaff, that I never ought to marry any one after that, and therefore it is that I have told you.”

“You are a good girl, Mary.”

“I don’t know about that.  I think that I ought to deceive you at least in nothing.”

“You should deceive no one.”

“No, Mr Whittlestaff.”  She answered him ever so meekly; but there was running in her mind a feeling that she had not deceived any one, and that she was somewhat hardly used by the advice given to her.

“He has gone altogether?” he asked again.

“I do not know where he is, ­whether he be dead or alive.”

“But if he should come back?”

She only shook her head; ­meaning him to understand that she could say nothing of his purposes should he come back.  He had made her no offer.  He had said that if he returned he would come first to Norwich.  There had been something of a promise in this; but oh, so little!  And she did not dare to tell him that hitherto she had lived upon that little.

“I do not think that you should remain single for ever on that account.  How long is it now since Mr Gordon went?”

There was something in the tone in which he mentioned Mr Gordon’s name which went against the grain with Mary.  She felt that he was spoken of almost as an enemy.  “I think it is three years since he went.”

“Three years is a long time.  Has he never written?”

“Not to me.  How should he write?  There was nothing for him to write about.”

“It has been a fancy.”

“Yes; ­a fancy.”  He had made this excuse for her, and she had none stronger to make for herself.

He certainly did not think the better of her in that she had indulged in such a fancy; but in truth his love was sharpened by the opposition which this fancy made.  It had seemed to him that his possessing her would give a brightness to his life, and this brightness was not altogether obscured by the idea that she had ever thought that she had loved another person.  As a woman she was as lovable as before, though perhaps less admirable.  At any rate he wanted her, and now she seemed to be more within his reach than she had been.  “The week has passed by, Mary, and I suppose that now you can give me an answer.”  Then she found that she was in his power.  She had told him her story, as though with the understanding that if he would take her with her “fancy,” she was ready to surrender herself.  “Am I not to have an answer now?”

“I suppose so.”

“What is it to be?”

“If you wish for me, I will be yours.”

“And you will cease to think of Mr Gordon?”

“I shall think of him; but not in a way that you would begrudge me.”

“That will suffice.  I know that you are honest, and I will not ask you to forget him altogether.  But there had better be no speaking of him.  It is well that he should be banished from your mind.  And now, dearest, dearest love, give me your hand.”  She put her hand at once into his.  “And a kiss.”  She just turned herself a little round, with her eyes bent upon the ground.  “Nay; there must be a kiss.”  Then he bent over her, and just touched her cheek.  “Mary, you are now all my own.”  Yes; ­she was now all his own, and she would do for him the best in her power.  He had not asked for her love, and she certainly had not given it.  She knew well how impossible it would be that she should give him her love.  “I know you are disturbed,” he said.  “I wish also for a few minutes to think of it all.”  Then he turned away from her, and went up the garden walk by himself.

She, slowly loitering, went into the house alone, and seated herself by the open window in her bed-chamber.  As she sat there she could see him up the long walk, going and returning.  As he went his hands were folded behind his back, and she thought that he appeared older than she had ever remarked him to be before.  What did it signify?  She had undertaken her business in life, and the duties she thought would be within her power.  She was sure that she would be true to him, as far as truth to his material interests was concerned.  His comforts in life should be her first care.  If he trusted her at all, he should not become poorer by reason of his confidence.  And she would be as tender to him as the circumstances would admit.  She would not begrudge him kisses if he cared for them.  They were his by all the rights of contract.  He certainly had the best of the bargain, but he should never know how much the best of it he had.  He had told her that there had better be no speaking of John Gordon.  There certainly should be none on her part.  She had told him that she must continue to think of him.  There at any rate she had been honest.  But he should not see that she thought of him.

Then she endeavoured to assure herself that this thinking would die out.  Looking round the world, her small world, how many women there were who had not married the men they had loved first!  How few, perhaps, had done so!  Life was not good-natured enough for smoothness such as that.  And yet did not they, as a rule, live well with their husbands?  What right had she to expect anything better than their fate?  Each poor insipid dame that she saw, toddling on with half-a-dozen children at her heels, might have had as good a John Gordon of her own as was hers.  And each of them might have sat on a summer day, at an open window, looking out with something, oh, so far from love, at the punctual steps of him who was to be her husband.

Then her thoughts turned, would turn, could not be kept from turning, to John Gordon.  He had been to her the personification of manliness.  That which he resolved to do, he did with an iron will.  But his manners to all women were soft, and to her seemed to have been suffused with special tenderness.  But he was chary of his words, ­as he had even been to her.  He had been the son of a banker at Norwich; but, just as she had become acquainted with him, the bank had broke, and he had left Oxford to come home and find himself a ruined man.  But he had never said a word to her of the family misfortune.  He had been six feet high, with dark hair cut very short, somewhat full of sport of the roughest kind, which, however, he had abandoned instantly.  “Things have so turned out,” he had once said to Mary, “that I must earn something to eat instead of riding after foxes.”  She could not boast that he was handsome.  “What does it signify?” she had once said to her step-mother, who had declared him to be stiff, upsetting, and ugly.  “A man is not like a poor girl, who has nothing but the softness of her skin to depend upon.”  Then Mrs Lawrie had declared to him that “he did no good coming about the house,” ­and he went away.

Why had he not spoken to her?  He had said that one word, promising that if he returned he would come to Norwich.  She had lived three years since that, and he had not come back.  And her house had been broken up, and she, though she would have been prepared to wait for another three years, ­though she would have waited till she had grown grey with waiting, ­she had now fallen into the hands of one who had a right to demand from her that she should obey him.  “And it is not that I hate him,” she said to herself.  “I do love him.  He is all good.  But I am glad that he has not bade me not to think of John Gordon.”