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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesOrley Farm - Volume 1 - Chapter 21. Christmas In Harley Street
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Orley Farm - Volume 1 - Chapter 21. Christmas In Harley Street Post by :Judy_McDonald Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Trollope Date :May 2012 Read :1529

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Orley Farm - Volume 1 - Chapter 21. Christmas In Harley Street


It seems singular to me myself, considering the idea which I have in my own mind of the character of Lady Staveley, that I should be driven to declare that about this time she committed an unpardonable offence, not only against good nature, but also against the domestic proprieties. But I am driven so to say, although she herself was of all women the most good-natured and most domestic; for she asked Mr. Furnival to pass his Christmas-day at Noningsby, and I find it impossible to forgive her that offence against the poor wife whom in that case he must leave alone by her desolate hearth. She knew that he was a married man as well as I do. Sophia, who had a proper regard for the domestic peace of her parents, and who could have been happy at Noningsby without a father's care, not unfrequently spoke of her, so that her existence in Harley Street might not be forgotten by the Staveleys--explaining, however, as she did so, that her dear mother never left her own fireside in winter, so that no suspicion might be entertained that an invitation was desired for her also; nevertheless, in spite of all this, on two separate occasions did Lady Staveley say to Mr. Furnival that he might as well prolong his visit over Christmas.

And yet Lady Staveley was not attached to Mr. Furnival with any peculiar warmth of friendship; but she was one of those women whose foolish hearts will not allow themselves to be controlled in the exercise of their hospitality. Her nature demanded of her that she should ask a guest to stay. She would not have allowed a dog to depart from her house at this season of the year, without suggesting to him that he had better take his Christmas bone in her yard. It was for Mr. Furnival to adjust all matters between himself and his wife. He was not bound to accept the invitation because she gave it; but she, finding him there, already present in the house, did feel herself bound to give it;--for which offence, as I have said before, I cannot bring myself to forgive her.

At his sin in staying away from home, or rather--as far as the story has yet carried us--in thinking that he would do so, I am by no means so much surprised. An angry ill-pleased wife is no pleasant companion for a gentleman on a long evening. For those who have managed that things shall run smoothly over the domestic rug there is no happier time of life than these long candlelight hours of home and silence. No spoken content or uttered satisfaction is necessary. The fact that is felt is enough for peace. But when the fact is not felt; when the fact is by no means there; when the thoughts are running in a direction altogether different; when bitter grievances from one to the other fill the heart, rather than memories of mutual kindness; then, I say, those long candlelight hours of home and silence are not easy of endurance. Mr. Furnival was a man who chose to be the master of his own destiny, so at least to himself he boasted; and therefore when he found himself encountered by black looks and occasionally by sullen words, he declared to himself that he was ill-used and that he would not bear it. Since the domestic rose would no longer yield him honey, he would seek his sweets from the stray honeysuckle on which there grew no thorns.

Mr. Furnival was no coward. He was not one of those men who wrong their wives by their absence, and then prolong their absence because they are afraid to meet their wives. His resolve was to be free himself, and to be free without complaint from her. He would have it so, that he might remain out of his own house for a month at the time and then return to it for a week--at any rate without outward bickerings. I have known other men who have dreamed of such a state of things, but at this moment I can remember none who have brought their dream to bear.

Mr. Furnival had written to his wife,--not from Noningsby, but from some provincial town, probably situated among the Essex marshes,--saying various things, and among others that he should not, as he thought, be at home at Christmas-day. Mrs. Furnival had remarked about a fortnight since that Christmas-day was nothing to her now; and the base man, for it was base, had hung upon this poor, sore-hearted word an excuse for remaining away from home. "There are lawyers of repute staying at Noningsby," he had said, "with whom it is very expedient that I should remain at this present crisis."--When yet has there been no crisis present to a man who has wanted an excuse?--"And therefore I may probably stay,"--and so on. Who does not know the false mixture of excuse and defiance which such a letter is sure to maintain; the crafty words which may be taken as adequate reason if the receiver be timid enough so to receive them, or as a noisy gauntlet thrown to the ground if there be spirit there for the picking of it up? Such letter from his little borough in the Essex marshes did Mr. Furnival write to the partner of his cares, and there was still sufficient spirit left for the picking up of the gauntlet. "I shall be home to-morrow," the letter had gone on to say, "but I will not keep you waiting for dinner, as my hours are always so uncertain. I shall be at my chambers till late, and will be with you before tea. I will then return to Alston on the following morning." There was at any rate good courage in this on the part of Mr. Furnival;--great courage; but with it coldness of heart, dishonesty of purpose, and black ingratitude. Had she not given everything to him?

Mrs. Furnival when she got the letter was not alone. "There," said she; throwing it over to a lady who sat on the other side of the fireplace handling a loose sprawling mass of not very clean crochet-work. "I knew he would stay away on Christmas-day. I told you so."

"I didn't think it possible," said Miss Biggs, rolling up the big ball of soiled cotton, that she might read Mr. Furnival's letter at her leisure. "I didn't really think it possible--on Christmas-day! Surely, Mrs. Furnival, he can't mean Christmas-day? Dear, dear, dear! and then to throw it in your face in that way that you said you didn't care about it."

"Of course I said so," answered Mrs. Furnival. "I was not going to ask him to come home as a favour."

"Not to make a favour of it, of course not." This was Miss Biggs from ----. I am afraid if I tell the truth I must say that she came from Red Lion Square! And yet nothing could be more respectable than Miss Biggs. Her father had been a partner with an uncle of Mrs. Furnival's; and when Kitty Blacker had given herself and her young prettinesses to the hardworking lawyer, Martha Biggs had stood at the altar with her, then just seventeen years of age, and had promised to her all manner of success for her coming life. Martha Biggs had never, not even then, been pretty; but she had been very faithful. She had not been a favourite with Mr. Furnival, having neither wit nor grace to recommend her, and therefore in the old happy days of Keppel Street she had been kept in the background; but now, in this present time of her adversity, Mrs. Furnival found the benefit of having a trusty friend.

"If he likes better to be with these people down at Alston, I am sure it is the same to me," said the injured wife.

"But there's nobody special at Alston, is there?" asked Miss Biggs, whose soul sighed for a tale more piquant than one of mere general neglect. She knew that her friend had dreadful suspicions, but Mrs. Furnival had never as yet committed herself by uttering the name of any woman as her rival. Miss Biggs thought that a time had now come in which the strength of their mutual confidence demanded that such name should be uttered. It could not be expected that she should sympathise with generalities for ever. She longed to hate, to reprobate, and to shudder at the actual name of the wretch who had robbed her friend of a husband's heart. And therefore she asked the question, "There's nobody special at Alston, is there?"

Now Mrs. Furnival knew to a furlong the distance from Noningsby to Orley Farm, and knew also that the station at Hamworth was only twenty-five minutes from that at Alston. She gave no immediate answer, but threw up her head and shook her nostrils, as though she were preparing for war; and then Miss Martha Biggs knew that there was somebody special at Alston. Between such old friends why should not the name be mentioned?

On the following day the two ladies dined at six, and then waited tea patiently till ten. Had the thirst of a desert been raging within that drawing-room, and had tea been within immediate call, those ladies would have died ere they would have asked for it before his return. He had said he would be home to tea, and they would have waited for him, had it been till four o'clock in the morning! Let the female married victim ever make the most of such positive wrongs as Providence may vouchsafe to her. Had Mrs. Furnival ordered tea on this evening before her husband's return, she would have been a woman blind to the advantages of her own position. At ten the wheels of Mr. Furnival's cab were heard, and the faces of both the ladies prepared themselves for the encounter.

"Well, Kitty, how are you?" said Mr. Furnival, entering the room with his arms prepared for a premeditated embrace. "What, Miss Biggs with you? I did not know. How do you do, Miss Biggs?" and Mr. Furnival extended his hand to the lady. They both looked at him, and they could tell from the brightness of his eye and from the colour of his nose that he had been dining at his club, and that the bin with the precious cork had been visited on his behalf.

"Yes, my dear, it's rather lonely being here in this big room all by oneself so long; so I asked Martha Biggs to come over to me. I suppose there's no harm in that."

"Oh, if I'm in the way," began Miss Biggs, "or if Mr. Furnival is going to stay at home for long--"

"You are not in the way, and I am not going to stay at home for long," said Mr. Furnival, speaking with a voice that was perhaps a little thick,--only a very little thick. No wife on good terms with her husband would have deigned to notice, even in her own mind, an amount of thickness of voice which was so very inconsiderable. But Mrs. Furnival at the present moment did notice it.

"Oh, I did not know," said Miss Biggs.

"You know now," said Mr. Furnival, whose ear at once appreciated the hostility of tone which had been assumed.

"You need not be rude to my friend after she has been waiting tea for you till near eleven o'clock," said Mrs. Furnival. "It is nothing to me, but you should remember that she is not used to it."

"I wasn't rude to your friend, and who asked you to wait tea till near eleven o'clock? It is only just ten now, if that signifies."

"You expressly desired me to wait tea, Mr. Furnival. I have got your letter, and will show it you if you wish it."

"Nonsense; I just said I should be home--"

"Of course you just said you would be home, and so we waited; and it's not nonsense; and I declare--! Never mind, Martha, don't mind me, there's a good creature. I shall get over it soon;" and then fat, solid, good-humoured Mrs. Furnival burst out into an hysterical fit of sobbing. There was a welcome for a man on his return to his home after a day's labour!

Miss Biggs immediately got up and came round behind the drawing-room table to her friend's head. "Be calm, Mrs. Furnival," she said; "do be calm, and then you will be better soon. Here is the hartshorn."

"It doesn't matter, Martha: never mind: leave me alone," sobbed the poor woman.

"May I be excused for asking what is really the matter?" said Mr. Furnival, "for I'll be whipped if I know." Miss Biggs looked at him as if she thought that he ought to be whipped.

"I wonder you ever come near the place at all, I do," said Mrs. Furnival.

"What place?" asked Mr. Furnival.

"This house in which I am obliged to live by myself, without a soul to speak to, unless when Martha Biggs comes here."

"Which would be much more frequent, only that I know I am not welcome by everybody."

"I know that you hate it. How can I help knowing it?--and you hate me too; I know you do;--and I believe you would be glad if you need never come back here at all; I do. Don't, Martha; leave me alone. I don't want all that fuss. There; I can bear it now, whatever it is. Do you choose to have your tea, Mr. Furnival? or do you wish to keep the servants waiting out of their beds all night?"

"D---- the servants," said Mr. Furnival.

"Oh laws!" exclaimed Miss Biggs, jumping up out of her chair with her hands and fingers outstretched, as though never, never in her life before, had her ears been wounded by such wicked words as those.

"Mr. Furnival, I am ashamed of you," said his wife with gathered calmness of stern reproach.

Mr. Furnival was very wrong to swear; doubly wrong to swear before his wife; trebly wrong to swear before a lady visitor; but it must be confessed that there was provocation. That he was at this present period of his life behaving badly to his wife must be allowed, but on this special evening he had intended to behave well. The woman had sought a ground of quarrel against him, and had driven him on till he had forgotten himself in his present after-dinner humour. When a man is maintaining a whole household on his own shoulders, and working hard to maintain it well, it is not right that he should be brought to book because he keeps the servants up half an hour later than usual to wash the tea-things. It is very proper that the idle members of the establishment should conform to hours, but these hours must give way to his requirements. In those old days of which we have spoken so often he might have had his tea at twelve, one, two, or three without a murmur. Though their staff of servants then was scanty enough, there was never a difficulty then in supplying any such want for him. If no other pair of hands could boil the kettle, there was one pair of hands there which no amount of such work on his behalf could tire. But now, because he had come in for his tea at ten o'clock, he was asked if he intended to keep the servants out of their beds all night!

"Oh laws!" said Miss Biggs, jumping up from her chair as though she had been electrified.

Mr. Furnival did not think it consistent with his dignity to keep up any dispute in the presence of Miss Biggs, and therefore sat himself down in his accustomed chair without further speech. "Would you wish to have tea now, Mr. Furnival?" asked his wife again, putting considerable stress upon the word now.

"I don't care about it," said he.

"And I am sure I don't at this late hour," said Miss Biggs. "But so tired as you are, dear--"

"Never mind me, Martha; as for myself, I shall take nothing now." And then they all sat without a word for the space of some five minutes. "If you like to go, Martha," said Mrs. Furnival, "don't mind waiting for me."

"Oh, very well," and then Miss Biggs took her bedcandle and left the room. Was it not hard upon her that she should be forced to absent herself at this moment, when the excitement of the battle was about to begin in earnest? Her footsteps lingered as she slowly retreated from the drawing-room door, and for one instant she absolutely paused, standing still with eager ears. It was but for an instant, and then she went on up stairs, out of hearing, and sitting herself down by her bedside allowed the battle to rage in her imagination.

Mr. Furnival would have sat there silent till his wife had gone also, and so the matter would have terminated for that evening,--had she so willed it. But she had been thinking of her miseries; and, having come to some sort of resolution to speak of them openly, what time could she find more appropriate for doing so than the present? "Tom," she said,--and as she spoke there was still a twinkle of the old love in her eye, "we are not going on together as well as we should do,--not lately. Would it not be well to make a change before it is too late?"

"What change?" he asked; not exactly in an ill humour, but with a husky, thick voice. He would have preferred now that she should have followed her friend to bed.

"I do not want to dictate to you, Tom, but--! Oh Tom, if you knew how wretched I am!"

"What makes you wretched?"

"Because you leave me all alone; because you care more for other people than you do for me; because you never like to be at home, never if you can possibly help it. You know you don't. You are always away now upon some excuse or other; you know you are. I don't have you home to dinner not one day in the week through the year. That can't be right, and you know it is not. Oh Tom! you are breaking my heart, and deceiving me,--you are. Why did I go down and find that woman in your chamber with you, when you were ashamed to own to me that she was coming to see you? If it had been in the proper way of law business, you wouldn't have been ashamed. Oh, Tom!"

The poor woman had begun her plaint in a manner that was not altogether devoid of a discreet eloquence. If only she could have maintained that tone, if she could have confined her words to the tale of her own grievances, and have been contented to declare that she was unhappy, only because he was not with her, it might have been well. She might have touched his heart, or at any rate his conscience, and there might have been some enduring result for good. But her feelings had been too many for her, and as her wrongs came to her mind, and the words heaped themselves upon her tongue, she could not keep herself from the one subject which she should have left untouched. Mr. Furnival was not the man to bear any interference such as this, or to permit the privacy of Lincoln's Inn to be invaded even by his wife. His brow grew very black, and his eyes became almost bloodshot. The port wine which might have worked him to softness, now worked him to anger, and he thus burst forth with words of marital vigour:

"Let me tell you once for ever, Kitty, that I will admit of no interference with what I do, or the people whom I may choose to see in my chambers in Lincoln's Inn. If you are such an infatuated simpleton as to believe--"

"Yes; of course I am a simpleton; of course I am a fool; women always are."

"Listen to me, will you?"

"Listen, yes; it's my business to listen. Would you like that I should give this house up for her, and go into lodgings somewhere? I shall have very little objection as matters are going now. Oh dear, oh dear, that things should ever have come to this!"

"Come to what?"

"Tom, I could put up with a great deal,--more I think than most women; I could slave for you like a drudge, and think nothing about it. And now that you have got among grand people, I could see you go out by yourself without thinking much about that either. I am very lonely sometimes,--very; but I could bear that. Nobody has longed to see you rise in the world half so anxious as I have done. But, Tom, when I know what your goings on are with a nasty, sly, false woman like that, I won't bear it; and there's an end." In saying which final words Mrs. Furnival rose from her seat, and thrice struck her hand by no means lightly on the loo table in the middle of the room.

"I did not think it possible that you should be so silly. I did not indeed."

"Oh, yes, silly! very well. Women always are silly when they mind that kind of thing. Have you got anything else to say, sir?"

"Yes, I have; I have this to say, that I will not endure this sort of usage."

"Nor I won't," said Mrs. Furnival; "so you may as well understand it at once. As long as there was nothing absolutely wrong, I would put up with it for the sake of appearances, and because of Sophia. For myself I don't mind what loneliness I may have to bear. If you had been called on to go out to the East Indies or even to China, I could have put up with it. But this sort of thing I won't put up with;--nor I won't be blind to what I can't help seeing. So now, Mr. Furnival, you may know that I have made up my mind." And then, without waiting further parley, having wisked herself in her energy near to the door, she stalked out, and went up with hurried steps to her own room.

Occurrences of a nature such as this are in all respects unpleasant in a household. Let the master be ever so much master, what is he to do? Say that his wife is wrong from the beginning to the end of the quarrel,--that in no way improves the matter. His anxiety is that the world abroad shall not know he has ought amiss at home; but she, with her hot sense of injury, and her loud revolt against supposed wrongs, cares not who hears it. "Hold your tongue, madam," the husband says. But the wife, bound though she be by an oath of obedience, will not obey him, but only screams the louder.

All which, as Mr. Furnival sat there thinking of it, disturbed his mind much. That Martha Biggs would spread the tale through all Bloomsbury and St. Pancras of course he was aware. "If she drives me to it, it must be so," he said to himself at last. And then he also betook himself to his rest. And so it was that preparations for Christmas were made in Harley Street.

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