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

Again at Croker’s hall.

About three o’clock on that day Mr Whittlestaff came home.  The pony-carriage had gone to meet him, but Mary remained purposely out of the way.  She could not rush out to greet him, as she would have done had his absence been occasioned by any other cause.  But he had no sooner taken his place in the library than he sent for her.  He had been thinking about it all the way down from London, and had in some sort prepared his words.  During the next half hour he did promise himself some pleasure, after that his life was to be altogether a blank to him.  He would go.  To that only had he made up his mind.  He would tell Mary that she should be happy.  He would make Mrs Baggett understand that for the sake of his property she must remain at Croker’s Hall for some period to which he would decline to name an end.  And then he would go.

“Well, Mary,” he said, smiling, “so I have got back safe.”

“Yes; I see you have got back.”

“I saw a friend of yours when I was up in London.”

“I have had a letter, you know, from Mr Gordon.”

“He has written, has he?  Then he has been very sudden.”

“He said he had your leave to write.”

“That is true.  He had.  I thought that, perhaps, he would have taken more time to think about it.”

“I suppose he knew what he had to say,” said Mary.  And then she blushed, as though fearing that she had appeared to have been quite sure that her lover would not have been so dull.

“I daresay.”

“I didn’t quite mean that I knew.”

“But you did.”

“Oh, Mr Whittlestaff!  But I will not attempt to deceive you.  If you left it to him, he would know what to say, ­immediately.”

“No doubt!  No doubt!”

“When he had come here all the way from South Africa on purpose to see me, as he said, of course he would know.  Why should there be any pretence on my part?”

“Why, indeed?”

“But I have not answered him; ­not as yet.”

“There need be no delay.”

“I would not do it till you had come.  I may have known what he would say to me, but I may be much in doubt what I should say to him.”

“You may say what you like.”  He answered her crossly, and she heard the tone.  But he was aware of it also, and felt that he was disgracing himself.  There was none of the half-hour of joy which he had promised himself.  He had struggled so hard to give her everything, and he might, at any rate, have perfected his gift with good humour.  “You know you have my full permission,” he said, with a smile.  But he was aware that this smile was not pleasant, ­was not such a smile as would make her happy.  But it did not signify.  When he was gone away, utterly abolished, then she would be happy.

“I do not know that I want your permission.”

“No, no; I daresay not.”

“You asked me to be your wife.”

“Yes; I did.”

“And I accepted you.  The matter was settled then.”

“But you told me of him, ­even at first.  And you said that you would always think of him.”

“Yes; I told you what I knew to be true.  But I accepted you; and I determined to love you with all my heart, ­with all my heart.”

“And you knew that you would love him without any determination.”

“I think that I have myself under more control.  I think that in time, ­in a little time, ­I would have done my duty by you perfectly.”

“As how?”

“Loving you with all my heart.”

“And now?” It was a hard question to put to her, and so unnecessary!  “And now?”

“You have distrusted me somewhat.  I begged you not to go to London.  I begged you not to go.”

“You cannot love two men.”  She looked into his face, as though imploring him to spare her.  For though she did know what was coming, ­though had she asked herself, she would have said that she knew, ­yet she felt herself bound to disown Mr Gordon as her very own while Mr Whittlestaff thus tantalised her.  “No; you cannot love two men.  You would have tried to love me and have failed.  You would have tried not to love him, and have failed then also.”

“Then I would not have failed.  Had you remained here, and have taken me, I should certainly not have failed then.”

“I have made it easy for you, my dear; ­very easy.  Write your letter.  Make it as loving as you please.  Write as I would have had you write to me, could it have been possible.  O, Mary! that ought to have been my own!  O, Mary! that would have made beautiful for me my future downward steps!  But it is not for such a purpose that a young life such as yours should be given.  Though he should be unkind to you, though money should be scarce with you, though the ordinary troubles of the world should come upon you, they will be better for you than the ease I might have prepared for you.  It will be nearer to human nature.  I, at any rate, shall be here if troubles come; or if I am gone, that will remain which relieves troubles.  You can go now and write your letter.”

She could not speak a word as she left the room.  It was not only that her throat was full of sobs, but that her heart was laden with mingled joy and sorrow, so that she could not find a word to express herself.  She went to her bedroom and took out her letter-case to do as he had bidden her; ­but she found that she could not write.  This letter should be one so framed as to make John Gordon joyful; but it would be impossible to bring her joy so to the surface as to satisfy him even with contentment.  She could only think how far it might yet be possible to sacrifice herself and him.  She sat thus an hour, and then went back, and, hearing voices, descended to the drawing-room.  There she found Mr Blake and Kattie Forrester and Evelina Hall.  They had come to call upon Mr Whittlestaff and herself, and were full of their own news.  “Oh, Miss Lawrie, what do you think?” said Mr Blake.  Miss Lawrie, however, could not think, nor could Mr Whittlestaff.  “Think of whatever is the greatest joy in the world,” said Mr Blake.

“Don’t make yourself such a goose,” said Kattie Forrester.

“Oh, but I am in earnest.  The greatest joy in all the world.”

“I suppose you mean you’re going to be married,” said Mr Whittlestaff.

“Exactly.  How good you are at guessing!  Kattie has named the day.  This day fortnight.  Oh dear, isn’t it near?”

“If you think so, it shall be this day fortnight next year,” said Kattie.

“Oh dear no!  I didn’t mean that at all.  It can’t be too near.  And you couldn’t put it off now, you know, because the Dean has been bespoke.  It is a good thing to have the Dean to fasten the knot.  Don’t you think so, Miss Lawrie?”

“I suppose one clergyman is just the same as another,” said Mary.

“So I tell him.  It will all be one twenty years hence.  After all, the Dean is an old frump, and papa does not care a bit about him.”

“But how are you to manage with Mr Newface?” asked Mr Whittlestaff.

“That’s the best part of it all.  Mr Hall is such a brick, that when we come back from the Isle of Wight he is going to take us all in.”

“If that’s the best of it, you can be taken in without me,” said Kattie.

“But it is good; is it not?  We two, and her maid.  She’s to be promoted to nurse one of these days.”

“If you’re such a fool, I never will have you.  It’s not too late yet, remember that.”  All which rebukes ­and there were many of them ­Mr Montagu Blake received with loud demonstrations of joy.  “And so, Miss Lawrie, you’re to be in the same boat too,” said Mr Blake.  “I know all about it.”

Mary blushed, and looked at Mr Whittlestaff.  But he took upon himself the task of answering the clergyman’s remarks.  “But how do you know anything about Miss Lawrie?”

“You think that no one can go up to London but yourself, Mr Whittlestaff.  I was up there myself yesterday; ­as soon as ever this great question of the day was positively settled, I had to look after my own trousseau.  I don’t see why a gentleman isn’t to have a trousseau as well as a lady.  At any rate, I wanted a new black suit, fit for the hymeneal altar.  And when there I made out John Gordon, and soon wormed the truth out of him.  At least he did not tell me downright, but he let the cat so far out of the bag that I soon guessed the remainder.  I always knew how it would be, Miss Lawrie.”

“You didn’t know anything at all about it,” said Mr Whittlestaff.  “It would be very much more becoming if you would learn sometimes to hold your tongue.”

Then Miss Evelina Hall struck in.  Would Miss Lawrie come over to Little Alresford Park, and stay there for a few days previous to the wedding?  Kattie Forrester meant to bring down a sister with her as a bridesmaid.  Two of the Miss Halls were to officiate also, and it would be taken as a great favour if Miss Lawrie would make a fourth.  A great deal was said to press upon her this view of the case, to which, however, she made many objections.  There was, indeed, a tragedy connected with her own matrimonial circumstances, which did not make her well inclined to join such a party.  Her heart was not at ease within her as to her desertion of Mr Whittlestaff.  Whatever the future might bring forth, the present could not be a period of joy But in the middle of the argument, Mr Whittlestaff spoke with the voice of authority.  “Accept Mr Hall’s kindness,” he said, “and go over for a while to Little Alresford.”

“And leave you all alone?”

“I’m sure Mr Hall will be delighted if you will come too,” said Mr Blake, ready at the moment to answer for the extent of his patron’s house and good-nature.

“Quite out of the question,” said Mr Whittlestaff, in a tone of voice intended to put an end to that matter.  “But I can manage to live alone for a few days, seeing that I shall be compelled to do so before long, by Miss Lawrie’s marriage.”  Again Mary looked up into his face.  “It is so, my dear.  This young gentleman has managed to ferret out the truth, while looking for his wedding garments.  Will you tell your papa, Miss Evelina, that Mary will be delighted to accept his kindness?”

“And Gordon can come down to me,” said Blake, uproariously, rubbing his hands; “and we can have three or four final days together, like two jolly young bachelors.”

“Speaking for yourself alone,” said Kattie, ­“you’ll have to remain a jolly young bachelor a considerable time still, if you don’t mend your manners.”

“I needn’t mend my manners till after I’m married, I suppose.”  But they who knew Mr Blake well were wont to declare that in the matter of what Miss Forrester called his manners, there would not be much to make his wife afraid.

The affair was settled as far as it could be settled in Mr Gordon’s absence.  Miss Lawrie was to go over and spend a fortnight at Little Alresford just previous to Kattie Forrester’s marriage, and Gordon was to come down to the marriage, so as to be near to Mary, if he could be persuaded to do so.  Of this Mr Blake spoke with great certainty.  “Why shouldn’t he come and spoon a bit, seeing that he never did so yet in his life?  Now I have had a lot of it.”

“Not such a lot by any means,” said Miss Forrester.

“According to all accounts he’s got to begin it.  He told me that he hadn’t even proposed regular.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you, Kattie?”

“It seemed very odd when you did it.”  Then the three of them went away, and Mary was left to discuss the prospects of her future life with Mr Whittlestaff.  “You had better both of you come and live here,” he said.  “There would be room enough.”  Mary thought probably of the chance there might be of newcomers, but she said nothing.  “I should go away, of course,” said Mr Whittlestaff.

“Turn you out of your own house!”

“Why not?  I shan’t stay here any way.  I am tired of the place, and though I shan’t care to sell it, I shall make a move.  A man ought to make a move every now and again.  I should like to go to Italy, and live at one of those charming little towns.”

“Without a soul to speak to.”

“I shan’t want anybody to speak to.  I shall take with me just a few books to read.  I wonder whether Mrs Baggett would go with me.  She can’t have much more to keep her in England than I have.”  But this plan had not been absolutely fixed when Mary retired for the night, with the intention of writing her letter to John Gordon before she went to bed.  Her letter took her long to write.  The thinking of it rather took too long.  She sat leaning with her face on her hands, and with a tear occasionally on her cheek, into the late night, meditating rather on the sweet goodness of Mr Whittlestaff than on the words of the letter.  It had at last been determined that John Gordon should be her husband.  That the fates seem to have decided, and she did acknowledge that in doing so the fates had been altogether propitious.  It would have been very difficult, ­now at last she owned that truth to herself, ­it would have been very difficult for her to have been true to the promise she had made, altogether to eradicate John Gordon from her heart, and to fill up the place left with a wife’s true affection for Mr Whittlestaff.  To the performance of such a task as that she would not be subjected.  But on the other hand, John Gordon must permit her to entertain and to evince a regard for Mr Whittlestaff, not similar at all to the regard which she would feel for her husband, but almost equal in its depth.

At last she took the paper and did write her letter, as follows: ­

DEAR MR GORDON, ­I am not surprised at anything that Mr Whittlestaff should do which shows the goodness of his disposition and the tenderness of his heart.  He is, I think, the most unselfish of mankind.  I believe you to be so thoroughly sincere in the affection which you express for me, that you must acknowledge that he is so.  If you love me well enough to make me your wife, what must you think of him who has loved me well enough to surrender me to one whom I had known before he had taken me under his fostering care?

You know that I love you, and am willing to become your wife.  What can I say to you now, except that it is so.  It is so.  And in saying that, I have told you everything as to myself.  Of him I can only say, that his regard for me has been more tender even than that of a father. ­Yours always most lovingly,

   MARY LAWRIE.