The Last Chronicle of Barset CHAPTER XXIII.


Illustration he ladies at the Small House at Allington breakfasted always at nine,—a liberal nine; and the postman whose duty it was to deliver letters in that village at half-past eight, being also liberal in his ideas as to time, always arrived punctually in the middle of breakfast, so that Mrs. Dale expected her letters, and Lily hers, just before their second cup of tea, as though the letters formed a part of the morning meal. Jane, the maid-servant, always brought them in, and handed them to Mrs. Dale,—for Lily had in these days come to preside at the breakfast-table; and then there would be an examination of the outsides before the envelopes were violated, and as each knew pretty well all the circumstances of the correspondence of the other, there would be some guessing as to what this or that epistle might contain; and after that a reading out loud of passages, and not unfrequently of the entire letter. But now, at the time of which I am speaking, Grace Crawley was at the Small House, and therefore the common practice was somewhat in abeyance.

On one of the first days of the new year Jane brought in the letters as usual, and handed them to Mrs. Dale. Lily was at the time occupied with the teapot, but still she saw the letters, and had not her hands so full as to be debarred from the expression of her usual anxiety. “Mamma, I’m sure I see two there for me,” she said. “Only one for you, Lily,” said Mrs. Dale. Lily instantly knew from the tone of the voice that some letter had come, which by the very aspect of the handwriting had disturbed her mother. “There is one for you, my dear,” said Mrs. Dale, throwing a letter across the table to Grace. “And one for you, Lily, from Bell. The others are for me.” “And whom are yours from, mamma?” asked Lily. “One is from Mrs. Jones; the other, I think, is a letter on business.” Then Lily said nothing further, but she observed that her mother only opened one of her letters at the breakfast-table. Lily was very patient;—not by nature, I think, but by exercise and practice. She had, once in her life, been too much in a hurry; and having then burned herself grievously, she now feared the fire. She did not therefore follow her mother after breakfast, but sat with Grace over the fire, hemming diligently at certain articles of clothing which were intended for use in the Hogglestock parsonage. The two girls were making a set of new shirts for Mr. Crawley. “But I know he will ask where they come from,” said Grace; “and then mamma will be scolded.” “But I hope he’ll wear them,” said Lily. “Sooner or later he will,” said Grace; “because mamma manages generally to have her way at last.” Then they went on for an hour or so, talking about the home affairs at Hogglestock. But during the whole time Lily’s mind was intent upon her mother’s letter.

Nothing was said about it at lunch, and nothing when they walked out after lunch, for Lily was very patient. But during the walk Mrs. Dale became aware that her daughter was uneasy. These two watched each other unconsciously with a closeness which hardly allowed a glance of the eye, certainly not a tone of the voice, to pass unobserved. To Mrs. Dale it was everything in the world that her daughter should be, if not happy at heart, at least tranquil; and to Lily, who knew that her mother was always thinking of her, and of her alone, her mother was the only human divinity now worthy of adoration. But nothing was said about the letter during the walk.

When they came home it was nearly dusk, and it was their habit to sit up for a while without candles, talking, till the evening had in truth set in and the unmistakable and enforced idleness of remaining without candles was apparent. During this time, Lily, demanding patience of herself all the while, was thinking what she would do, or rather what she would say, about the letter. That nothing could be done or said in the presence of Grace Crawley was a matter of course, nor would she do or say anything to get rid of Grace. She would be very patient; but she would, at last, ask her mother about the letter.

And then, as luck would have it, Grace Crawley got up and left the room. Lily still waited for a few minutes, and, in order that her patience might be thoroughly exercised, she said a word or two about her sister Bell; how the eldest child’s whooping-cough was nearly well, and how the baby was doing wonderful things with its first tooth. But as Mrs. Dale had already seen Bell’s letter, all this was not intensely interesting. At last Lily came to the point and asked her question. “Mamma, from whom was that other letter which you got this morning?”

Our story will perhaps be best told by communicating the letter to the reader before it was discussed with Lily. The letter was as follows:—

General Committee Office, — January, 186—.

I should have said that Mrs. Dale had not opened the letter till she had found herself in the solitude of her own bedroom; and that then, before doing so, she had examined the handwriting with anxious eyes. When she first received it she thought she knew the writer, but was not sure. Then she had glanced at the impression over the fastening, and had known at once from whom the letter had come. It was from Mr. Crosbie, the man who had brought so much trouble into her house, who had jilted her daughter; the only man in the world whom she had a right to regard as a positive enemy to herself. She had no doubt about it, as she tore the envelope open; and yet, when the address given made her quite sure, a new feeling of shivering came upon her, and she asked herself whether it might not be better that she should send his letter back to him without reading it. But she read it.

“Madam,” the letter began,—

You will be very much surprised to hear from me, and I am quite aware that I am not entitled to the ordinary courtesy of an acknowledgment from you, should you be pleased to throw my letter on one side as unworthy of your notice. But I cannot refrain from addressing you, and must leave it to you to reply to me or not, as you may think fit.

I will only refer to that episode of my life with which you are acquainted, for the sake of acknowledging my great fault and of assuring you that I did not go unpunished. It would be useless for me now to attempt to explain to you the circumstances which led me into that difficulty which ended in so great a blunder; but I will ask you to believe that my folly was greater than my sin.

But I will come to my point at once. You are, no doubt, aware that I married a daughter of Lord De Courcy, and that I was separated from my wife a few weeks after our unfortunate marriage. It is now something over twelve months since she died at Baden-Baden in her mother’s house. I never saw her since the day we first parted. I have not a word to say against her. The fault was mine in marrying a woman whom I did not love and had never loved. When I married Lady Alexandrina I loved, not her, but your daughter.

I believe I may venture to say to you that your daughter once loved me. From the day on which I last wrote to you that terrible letter which told you of my fate, I have never mentioned the name of Lily Dale to human ears. It has been too sacred for my mouth,—too sacred for the intercourse of any friendship with which I have been blessed. I now use it for the first time to you, in order that I may ask whether it be possible that her old love should ever live again. Mine has lived always,—has never faded for an hour, making me miserable during the years that have passed since I saw her, but capable of making me very happy, if I may be allowed to see her again.

You will understand my purpose now as well as though I were to write pages. I have no scheme formed in my head for seeing your daughter again. How can I dare to form a scheme, when I am aware that the chance of success must be so strong against me? But if you will tell me that there can be a gleam of hope, I will obey any commands that you can put upon me in any way that you may point out. I am free again,—and she is free. I love her with all my heart, and seem to long for nothing in the world but that she should become my wife. Whether any of her old love may still abide with her, you will know. If it do, it may even yet prompt her to forgive one who, in spite of falseness of conduct, has yet been true to her in heart.

I have the honour to be, Madam,

Your most obedient servant,

Adolphus Crosbie.

This was the letter which Mrs. Dale had received, and as to which she had not as yet said a word to Lily, or even made up her mind whether she would say a word or not. Dearly as the mother and daughter loved each other, thorough as was the confidence between them, yet the name of Adolphus Crosbie had not been mentioned between them oftener, perhaps, than half-a-dozen times since the blow had been struck. Mrs. Dale knew that their feelings about the man were altogether different. She, herself, not only condemned him for what he had done, believing it to be impossible that any shadow of excuse could be urged for his offence, thinking that the fault had shown the man to be mean beyond redemption,—but she had allowed herself actually to hate him. He had in one sense murdered her daughter, and she believed that she could never forgive him. But Lily, as her mother well knew, had forgiven this man altogether, had made excuses for him which cleansed his sin of all its blackness in her own eyes, and was to this day anxious as ever for his welfare and his happiness. Mrs. Dale feared that Lily did in truth love him still. If it was so, was she not bound to show her this letter? Lily was old enough to judge for herself,—old enough, and wise enough too. Mrs. Dale told herself half-a-score of times that morning that she could not be justified in keeping the letter from her daughter.

But yet she much wished that the letter had never been written, and would have given very much to be able to put it out of the way without injustice to Lily. To her thinking it would be impossible that Lily should be happy in marrying such a man. Such a marriage now would be, as Mrs. Dale thought, a degradation to her daughter. A terrible injury had been done to her; but such reparation as this would, in Mrs. Dale’s eyes, only make the injury deeper. And yet Lily loved the man; and, loving him, how could she resist the temptation of his offer? “Mamma, from whom was that letter which you got this morning?” Lily asked. For a few moments Mrs. Dale remained silent. “Mamma,” continued Lily, “I think I know whom it was from. If you tell me to ask nothing further, of course I will not.”

“No, Lily; I cannot tell you that.”

“Then, mamma, out with it at once. What is the use of shivering on the brink?”

“It was from Mr. Crosbie.”

“I knew it. I cannot tell you why, but I knew it. And now, mamma;—am I to read it?”

“You shall do as you please, Lily.”

“Then I please to read it.”

“Listen to me a moment first. For myself, I wish that the letter had never been written. It tells badly for the man, as I think of it. I cannot understand how any man could have brought himself to address either you or me, after having acted as he acted.”

“But, mamma, we differ about all that, you know.”

“Now he has written, and there is the letter,—if you choose to read it.”

Lily had it in her hand, but she still sat motionless, holding it. “You think, mamma, I ought not to read it?”

“You must judge for yourself, dearest.”

“And if I do not read it, what shall you do, mamma?”

“I shall do nothing;—or, perhaps, I should in such a case acknowledge it, and tell him that we have nothing more to say to him.”

“That would be very stern.”

“He has done that which makes some sternness necessary.”

Then Lily was again silent, and still she sat motionless, with the letter in her hand. “Mamma,” she said at last, “if you tell me not to read it, I will give it you back unread. If you bid me exercise my own judgment, I shall take it upstairs and read it.”

“You must exercise your own judgment,” said Mrs. Dale. Then Lily got up from her chair and walked slowly out of the room, and went to her mother’s chamber. The thoughts which passed through Mrs. Dale’s mind while her daughter was reading the letter were very sad. She could find no comfort anywhere. Lily, she told herself, would surely give way to this man’s renewed expressions of affection, and she, Mrs. Dale herself, would be called upon to give her child to a man whom she could neither love nor respect;—whom, for aught she knew, she could never cease to hate. And she could not bring herself to believe that Lily would be happy with such a man. As for her own life, desolate as it would be,—she cared little for that. Mothers know that their daughters will leave them. Even widowed mothers, mothers with but one child left,—such a one as was this mother,—are aware that they will be left alone, and they can bring themselves to welcome the sacrifice of themselves with something of satisfaction. Mrs. Dale and Lily had, indeed, of late become bound together especially, so that the mother had been justified in regarding the link which joined them as being firmer than that by which most daughters are bound to their mothers;—but in all that she would have found no regret. Even now, in these very days, she was hoping that Lily might yet be brought to give herself to John Eames. But she could not, after all that was come and gone, be happy in thinking that Lily should be given to Adolphus Crosbie.

When Mrs. Dale went upstairs to her own room before dinner Lily was not there; nor were they alone together again that evening, except for a moment, when Lily, as was usual, went into her mother’s room when she was undressing. But neither of them then said a word about the letter. Lily during dinner and throughout the evening had borne herself well, giving no sign of special emotion, keeping to herself entirely her own thoughts about the proposition made to her. And afterwards she had progressed diligently with the fabrication of Mr. Crawley’s shirts, as though she had no such letter in her pocket. And yet there was not a moment in which she was not thinking of it. To Grace, just before she went to bed, she did say one word. “I wonder whether it can ever come to a person to be so placed that there can be no doing right, let what will be done;—that, do or not do, as you may, it must be wrong?”

“I hope you are not in such a condition,” said Grace.

“I am something near it,” said Lily, “but perhaps if I look long enough I shall see the light.”

“I hope it will be a happy light at last,” said Grace, who thought that Lily was referring only to John Eames.

At noon on the next day Lily had still said nothing to her mother about the letter; and then what she said was very little. “When must you answer Mr. Crosbie, mamma?”

“When, my dear?”

“I mean how long may you take? It need not be to-day.”

“No;—certainly not to-day.”

“Then I will talk over it with you to-morrow. It wants some thinking;—does it not, mamma?”

“It would not want much with me, Lily.”

“But then, mamma, you are not I. Believing as I believe, feeling as I feel, it wants some thinking. That’s what I mean.”

“I wish I could help you, my dear.”

“You shall help me,—to-morrow.” The morrow came and Lily was still very patient; but she had prepared herself, and had prepared the time also, so that in the hour of the gloaming she was alone with her mother, and sure that she might remain alone with her for an hour or so. “Mamma, sit there,” she said; “I will sit down here, and then I can lean against you and be comfortable. You can bear as much of me as that,—can’t you, mamma?” Then Mrs. Dale put her arm over Lily’s shoulder, and embraced her daughter. “And now, mamma, we will talk about this wonderful letter.”

“I do not know, dear, that I have anything to say about it.”

“But you must have something to say about it, mamma. You must bring yourself to have something to say,—to have a great deal to say.”

“You know what I think as well as though I talked for a week.”

“That won’t do, mamma. Come, you must not be hard with me.”

“Hard, Lily!”

“I don’t mean that you will hurt me, or not give me any food,—or that you will not go on caring about me more than anything else in the whole world ten times over;—” And Lily as she spoke tightened the embrace of her mother’s arm round her neck. “I’m not afraid you’ll be hard in that way. But you must soften your heart so as to be able to mention his name and talk about him, and tell me what I ought to do. You must see with my eyes, and hear with my ears, and feel with my heart;—and then, when I know that you have done that, I must judge with your judgment.”

“I wish you to use your own.”

“Yes;—because you won’t see with my eyes and hear with my ears. That’s what I call being hard. Though you should feed me with blood from your breast, I should call you a hard pelican, unless you could give me also the sympathy which I demand from you. You see, mamma, we have never allowed ourselves to speak of this man.”

“What need has there been, dearest?”

“Only because we have been thinking of him. Out of the full heart the mouth speaketh;—that is, the mouth does so when the full heart is allowed to have its own way comfortably.”

“There are things which should be forgotten.”

“Forgotten, mamma!”

“The memory of which should not be fostered by much talking.”

“I have never blamed you, mamma; never, even in my heart. I have known how good and gracious and sweet you have been. But I have often accused myself of cowardice because I have not allowed his name to cross my lips either to you or to Bell. To talk of forgetting such an accident as that is a farce. And as for fostering the memory of it—! Do you think that I have ever spent a night from that time to this without thinking of him? Do you imagine that I have ever crossed our own lawn, or gone down through the garden-path there, without thinking of the times when he and I walked there together? There needs no fostering for such memories as those. They are weeds which will grow rank and strong though nothing be done to foster them. There is the earth and the rain, and that is enough for them. You cannot kill them if you would, and they certainly will not die because you are careful not to hoe and rake the ground.”

“Lily, you forget how short the time has been as yet.”

“I have thought it very long; but the truth is, mamma, that this non-fostering of memories, as you call it, has not been the real cause of our silence. We have not spoken of Mr. Crosbie because we have not thought alike about him. Had you spoken you would have spoken with anger, and I could not endure to hear him abused. That has been it.”

“Partly so, Lily.”

“Now you must talk of him, and you must not abuse him. We must talk of him, because something must be done about his letter. Even if it be left unanswered, it cannot be so left without discussion. And yet you must say no evil of him.”

“Am I to think that he behaved well?”

“No, mamma; you are not to think that; but you are to look upon his fault as a fault that has been forgiven.”

“It cannot be forgotten, dear.”

“But, mamma, when you go to heaven—”

“My dear!”

“But you will go to heaven, mamma, and why should I not speak of it? You will go to heaven, and yet I suppose you have been very wicked, because we are all very wicked. But you won’t be told of your wickedness there. You won’t be hated there, because you were this or that when you were here.”

“I hope not, Lily; but isn’t your argument almost profane?”

“No; I don’t think so. We ask to be forgiven just as we forgive. That is the way in which we hope to be forgiven, and therefore it is the way in which we ought to forgive. When you say that prayer at night, mamma, do you ever ask yourself whether you have forgiven him?”

“I forgive him as far as humanity can forgive. I would do him no injury.”

“But if you and I are forgiven only after that fashion we shall never get to heaven.” Lily paused for some further answer from her mother, but as Mrs. Dale was silent she allowed that portion of the subject to pass as completed. “And now, mamma, what answer do you think we ought to send to his letter?”

“My dear, how am I to say? You know I have said already that if I could act on my own judgment, I would send none.”

“But that was said in the bitterness of gall.”

“Come, Lily, say what you think yourself. We shall get on better when you have brought yourself to speak. Do you think that you wish to see him again?”

“I don’t know, mamma. Upon the whole, I think not.”

“Then in heaven’s name let me write and tell him so.”

“Stop a moment, mamma. There are two persons here to be considered,—or rather, three.”

“I would not have you think of me in such a question.”

“I know you would not; but never mind, and let me go on. The three of us are concerned, at any rate; you, and he, and I. I am thinking of him now. We have all suffered, but I do believe that hitherto he has had the worst of it.”

“And who has deserved the worst?”

“Mamma, how can you go back in that way? We have agreed that that should be regarded as done and gone. He has been very unhappy, and now we see what remedy he proposes to himself for his misery. Do I flatter myself if I allow myself to look at it in that way?”

“Perhaps he thinks he is offering a remedy for your misery.”

As this was said Lily turned round slowly and looked up into her mother’s face. “Mamma,” she said, “that is very cruel. I did not think you could be so cruel. How can you, who believe him to be so selfish, think that?”

“It is very hard to judge of men’s motives. I have never supposed him to be so black that he would not wish to make atonement for the evil he has done.”

“If I thought that there certainly could be but one answer.”

“Who can look into a man’s heart and judge all the sources of his actions? There are mixed feelings there, no doubt. Remorse for what he has done; regret for what he has lost;—something, perhaps, of the purity of love.”

“Yes, something,—I hope something,—for his sake.”

“But when a horse kicks and bites, you know his nature and do not go near him. When a man has cheated you once, you think he will cheat you again, and you do not deal with him. You do not look to gather grapes from thistles, after you have found that they are thistles.”

“I still go for the roses though I have often torn my hand with thorns in looking for them.”

“But you do not pluck those that have become cankered in the blowing.”

“Because he was once at fault, will he be cankered always?”

“I would not trust him.”

“Now, mamma, see how different we are; or, rather, how different it is when one judges for oneself or for another. If it were simply myself, and my own future fate in life, I would trust him with it all to-morrow, without a word. I should go to him as a gambler goes to the gambling-table, knowing that if I lost everything I could hardly be poorer than I was before. But I should have a better hope than the gambler is justified in having. That, however, is not my difficulty. And when I think of him I can see a prospect of success for the gambler. I think so well of myself that, loving him, as I do;—yes, mamma, do not be uneasy;—loving him, as I do, I believe I could be a comfort to him. I think that he might be better with me than without me. That is, he would be so, if he could teach himself to look back upon the past as I can do, and to judge of me as I can judge of him.”

“He has nothing, at least, for which to condemn you.”

“But he would have, were I to marry him now. He would condemn me because I had forgiven him. He would condemn me because I had borne what he had done to me, and had still loved him—loved him through it all. He would feel and know the weakness;—and there is weakness. I have been weak in not being able to rid myself of him altogether. He would recognize this after awhile, and would despise me for it. But he would not see what there is of devotion to him in my being able to bear the taunts of the world in going back to him, and your taunts, and my own taunts. I should have to bear his also,—not spoken aloud, but to be seen in his face and heard in his voice,—and that I could not endure. If he despised me, and he would, that would make us both unhappy. Therefore, mamma, tell him not to come; tell him that he can never come; but, if it be possible, tell him this tenderly.” Then she got up and walked away, as though she were going out of the room; but her mother had caught her before the door was opened.

“Lily,” she said, “if you think you can be happy with him, he shall come.”

“No, mamma, no. I have been looking for the light ever since I read his letter, and I think I see it. And now, mamma, I will make a clean breast of it. From the moment in which I heard that that poor woman was dead, I have been in a state of flutter. It has been weak of me, and silly, and contemptible. But I could not help it. I kept on asking myself whether he would ever think of me now. Well; he has answered the question; and has so done it that he has forced upon me the necessity of a resolution. I have resolved, and I believe that I shall be the better for it.”

The letter which Mrs. Dale wrote to Mr. Crosbie, was as follows:—

“Mrs. Dale presents her compliments to Mr. Crosbie, and begs to assure him that it will not now be possible that he should renew the relations which were broken off three years ago, between him and Mrs. Dale’s family.” It was very short, certainly, and it did not by any means satisfy Mrs. Dale. But she did not know how to say more without saying too much. The object of her letter was to save him the trouble of a futile perseverance, and them from the annoyance of persecution; and this she wished to do without mentioning her daughter’s name. And she was determined that no word should escape her in which there was any touch of severity, any hint of an accusation. So much she owed to Lily in return for all that Lily was prepared to abandon. “There is my note,” she said at last, offering it to her daughter. “I did not mean to see it,” said Lily, “and, mamma, I will not read it now. Let it go. I know you have been good and have not scolded him.” “I have not scolded him, certainly,” said Mrs. Dale. And then the letter was sent.