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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bertrams - Volume 1 - Chapter 4. Our Prima Donna
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The Bertrams - Volume 1 - Chapter 4. Our Prima Donna Post by :dbunis Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Trollope Date :May 2012 Read :1304

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The Bertrams - Volume 1 - Chapter 4. Our Prima Donna

VOLUME I CHAPTER IV. OUR PRIMA DONNA

When Arthur first explained to his mother the terms on which the living had been given to him, she refused to receive the income. No such promise with reference to money matters between mother and son could be binding. Were they not, moreover, one and the same household? Would it not be in the end the same if Arthur should keep the money himself? If it were paid to her, she should only pay it back again; and so on. But the vicar declared that he would adhere strictly to his promised engagement; and the mother soon fell into the way of thinking the arrangement not altogether a bad one. She had received intimation through the lord's man of business of the exact steps which had been taken for the relief of her great pecuniary distress--so the letter was worded--and it was not long before she regarded the income as fairly her own.

We are so apt to be generous in the hot moments of impulse; but so equally apt to be only coldly just, even if coldly just, in the long years of our ordinary existence.

And so the family again settled down; the commenced packings were again unpacked; the preliminary arrangements for living on a very small income were thrown to the winds; the pony that was to have been sold, and which with that object was being fattened up on boiled barley, was put on his accustomed rations; the old housekeeper's warning was revoked, as was also that of the old gardener. It was astonishing how soon the new vicar seemed to fill the old vicar's shoes in the eyes and minds of the people of Hurst Staple. Had Mr. Wilkinson come up from his grave at the end of three months, he would hardly have found that he was missed. A very elegant little tablet had been placed to his memory; and there apparently was an end of him. The widow's cap did make some change in the appearance of the family circle; but it is astonishing how soon we get used even to a widow's cap!

There had of course been visits of condolence between West Putford and Hurst Staple, and the Hurst Staple girls and Adela had been as much, or perhaps more, together than usual. But Arthur's walks along the river had not been frequent. This, however, was not thought of by any one. He had had new duties to assume, and old duties to put off. He had been a fortnight up at Oxford; and when at home, had been calling on all his parishioners. He had been attending to the dilapidations of the vicarage, and rearranging the books in the book-room. The dingy volumes of thirty years since had been made to give way to the new and brighter bindings which he had brought from college.

And therefore no one had remarked that he had but once been at West Putford. But he thought of it himself. He often longed to go thither, and as often feared to do so. When he next went, it must be to tell Adela, not that he loved her, but that such love was forbidden to him.

The family at West Putford consisted only of the vicar and his daughter. Mrs. Gauntlet had been long dead, and there had been no other child. A maiden sister of Mr. Gauntlet's occasionally visited them, and had, indeed, lived there altogether while Adela's education had required it; but this lady preferred her own lodgings at Littlebath, and Adela, therefore, was in general the sole mistress of the parsonage.

I beg my reader not to imagine that there had been love-passages between Arthur Wilkinson and Adela Gauntlet: nothing of the sort had occurred. They had known and loved each other as children together, and now that they were no longer children, they still knew and loved each other--that was all. It is true that Arthur, when he had wished to talk of his own disappointments, had found a better listener at West Putford than any that he could find at Hurst Staple. It is true that Adela had always been glad to listen to him; that she had had pleasure in cheering his fainting heart, and telling him that the work of a soldier of Christ was worthier of a man than the bickerings of a statesman or the quibbles of a lawyer; that she had gravely, yet withal so sweetly, spoken to him of the comforts of a rural life, and made him almost in love with his own failure. Such passages there had been between them; but Arthur had never taken her hand and sworn that it must be his own, nor had Adela ever blushed while half refusing to give him all he asked.

Why then need he trouble himself about West Putford? Why not let matters rest as they were? Miss Gauntlet would still be his friend; though seeing that she could never be more, it might not be well for him to walk so often along that river. As there had been no love-passages, one would say that nothing else was necessary.

But he could not content himself that this should be so. Adela would think him strange if he should say nothing to her of his future prospects. True, he had spoken no word of love, but had he not looked at her as though it was in his mind to speak such? Was it not incumbent on him to make her understand why he threw from him such golden hopes? And then, as to her, he did not flatter himself that she loved him--at least, not much; but yet it might be well to let her know that she was now at liberty to love any other swain. So at last he once more went his way to West Putford.

Adela Gauntlet was-- No; for once I will venture to have a heroine without describing her. Let each reader make what he will of her; fancy her of any outward shape and colour that he please, and endow her with any amount of divine beauty. But for her inner character, let him take that from me as I go on, if so be that I can succeed in making clear to others that which is clear enough to my own mind's eye. I have called her a heroine; it is the novelist's customary name for his prima donna, and so I use it. But many opera companies have more than one prima donna. There is the donna prima, and if one may so say, the donna primissima. Now Adela Guantlet is no more than my donna prima. My donna primissima will be another guess sort of lady altogether.

Arthur, as he walked along, communed with himself as to what he was going to say. "At any rate, she shall know it all; we shall be more comfortable when we meet afterwards. Not that it will make any difference to her;" and then he sighed deeply, and cut at the river rushes with his walking-stick.

He found her as usual alone in the drawing-room, and, as usual, she smiled sweetly when she saw him. Since the day on which he had first gone up to Oxford, she had always called him "Mr. Wilkinson"--so instructed by Aunt Penelope; but in other respects her manner to him was almost that of a sister, only that it was softer, and more gracious.

"I declare, I thought we were never to see you again, Mr. Wilkinson." Ah, Adela! whom did the _we mean? But is it possible that any girl should live fairly before the world without some little insincerities?

"I have been so occupied, Adela. There is so much to do in taking up a parish. Even though I know all the people so well, there has been so much to do."

"Yes, yes, I am sure of it. But now that you are settled, I do so hope that you will be comfortable. I saw Mary the other day, and she told me that your mother was quite well again."

"Yes, she is pretty well. We are all very well now, I think."

"I do so love that old lord for giving you the living, though they say he is such a Turk. It was such a good thing in him to do; so considerate to everybody."

"Yes; it has made my mother and the girls comfortable; that, of course, is what I had first to think of."

"As for yourself, I have no doubt you would have done better at Oxford. But you could have got no home for them like their old home; could you?"

"No, of course not," said Arthur, answering almost at random, and thinking how best he might explain the sacrifice which he had made without taking too much credit to himself.

"And then, if you had remained up there, you would only have become a musty old don. I don't think you would have been happy, not so happy as in a parish. And when a man is a clergyman"--this she said in a lower and somewhat a solemn voice--"surely he cannot be so well placed as in charge of a parish. Don't you think so, Mr. Wilkinson?"

"Certainly. It is the life for which he is intended; for which he should have intended himself."

"And I am sure it is a happy life: look at papa; I do not know any happier man--only that poor mamma died."

And upon this hint he spake. "Yes, your father I am sure has been a happy man, and he is an excellent clergyman."

"Is he not? even still so active! And he is so glad now to have you near him."

"I wish I had received my living as he did his; not that it would make any real difference."

"He got his, you know, from the bishop. But do you dislike being Lord Stapledean's nominee?"

"It would be ungrateful to say that; but I certainly do not like Lord Stapledean. However, I have taken his living, and should not complain."

"I did not know that there was anything disagreeable."

"There is this, Adela. I had rather tell you; and I came over to-day in part to do so: but you will see that the matter is one that should not be talked about," and he looked down on the floor, poking about on the carpet pattern with his stick, being unable any longer to meet the clear gaze of her soft eye.

"Oh, I am sorry if there is anything to distress you."

"Not exactly to distress me, perhaps; but I will tell you. When the marquis offered me the living, he did it on the stipulation that I should pay over to my mother three hundred and fifty pounds a year during her life. I doubt whether it was right to accept it on these conditions; but I did so. The living, therefore, is rather hers than mine."

"Oh, Arthur, how good of you!" In spite of all Aunt Penelope's lessons, old habits would sometimes get the better of her.

"I don't know; I am afraid that it was not good."

"Why? I can't understand? Surely it must be good to give up your time, your labour, your hopes"--Adela did not say his heart--"for your mother and sisters' good! Why, how can it be else than good? I think it good, and shall think so."

"At any rate, Adela, I could not withstand the offer when it was made to me."

"I am sure you could not."

"So I am little more than a curate in the parish as far as the income is concerned; with this difference, that I can't change my curacy for a living should a chance offer."

Adela had never before known him to be solicitous about money for himself, and now she felt that she did not understand him. "But you have got your fellowship," said she.

"Yes, I have got my fellowship: oh, as far as that is concerned, I am better off than I could ever have expected to be. But, nevertheless, one feels--feels crippled by such an arrangement. It is quite impossible, you know, for instance, that--that--that I should do a great many things." His courage failed him as he was about to make the fatal announcement.

"What things?" said Adela, with all the boldness of innocence.

It was necessary that he should say it. "Why, for instance," he continued, "it is quite impossible, though perhaps that does not make much matter; but it is quite impossible--that I should ever marry." And still looking down upon the ground, he poked sedulously among the patterns with his stick.

"Oh!" said Adela, with a tremour in her voice, and her eye was no longer able to rest upon his face.

There was a pause during which neither of them said a word, or saw each other. As far as Adela was concerned, immediate speech was impossible. She neither cried, nor sighed, nor sobbed, nor became hysterical. She was simply dumb. She could not answer this little announcement of her neighbour's. Heretofore, when he had come to her with his sorrows, she had sympathized with him, and poured balm into his wounds. But she had no balm for him now--and no sympathy. There they sat, mute; he poking the while at the carpet, while she did not even move a limb.

And then it gradually came home to both of them that this utter silence, this prostration of all power of self-management, told to each the secret of the other. Each felt that every moment of prolonged silence committed both of them the deeper. Why should not Adela be able to speak when thus informed of her neighbour's intended celibacy? Why should he sit like a fool before her merely because he had told her that on which he had long decided?

But it was clearly Wilkinson's duty to have disembarrassed the lady as soon as possible. It was almost unmanly in him to be put thus beyond the power of speech or action. But still he poked the carpet and said nothing. It was Adela who first broke that tell-tale silence; and grievous was the effort which it cost her to do so.

"But you will have your mother and sisters with you, Mr. Wilkinson; and so, perhaps, you won't mind that."

"Yes, I shall have them," said he; and then there was another silence, which seemed about to be equally dangerous and equally difficult. But Adela, who was fully aware of the error which she had already committed, strove hard to save herself from repeating it.

"You will have a family round you; and if, as you say"--but the ground that she approached was so hot that she could not walk on it. She could not get further in that direction, and therefore merely added: "I am sure I hope you will always be happy."

At length Arthur shook himself, positively shook himself, as though that were the only mode by which he could collect his faculties; and then getting up from his chair, and standing with his back against the wall, he spoke out as follows:--

"Perhaps, Adela, there was no necessity for me to have mentioned this subject. At least, I am sure there was no necessity. But you have ever been such a friend to me, have so understood my feelings when no one else seemed to do so, that I could not but tell you this as I have told you everything else. I hope I have not annoyed you by doing so."

"Oh, no; not at all."

"It does make me a little sad to think that I shall never be my own master."

"Never, Mr. Wilkinson!" Had Arthur but known it, there was balm, there was sympathy in this word. Had his intellect been as sharp as his feelings, he would have known it. But it passed him unperceived, as it had fallen from her unawares: and she said no other word that could encourage him. If he was cold, she at least would be equally so.

"Certainly not during my mother's life; and you know how good ground we have for hoping that her life will be long. And then there are my sisters. My duty to them will be the same as to my mother, even though, as regards them, I may not be tied down as I am with regard to her."

"We cannot have everything here," said Adela, trying to smile. "But I am sure I need not teach you that."

"No, we cannot have everything." And Arthur thought that, in spite of the clerical austerity which he was about to assume, he should very much like to have Adela Gauntlet.

"It will make you happy to know that you are making your mother happy, and the dear girls--and--and I have no doubt you will very soon get used to it. Many clergymen, you know, think that they ought not to marry."

"Yes; but I never made up my mind to that."

"No, perhaps not; but now perhaps you will think of it more seriously."

"Indeed, I used to have an idea that a parish clergyman should be a married man. There are so many things which he can do better when he has a woman to assist him who thinks exactly as he thinks."

"You will have your sisters, you know. Both Mary and Sophia were always active in the parish, and Jane and Fanny have their school."

"Yes;" and he uttered a gentle sigh as he paused before he answered her. "But it is not quite the same thing, Adela. I love my sisters dearly; but one always longs to have one heart that shall be entirely one's own."

And had he come over to tell her this in the same breath with which he informed her that marriage was a privilege quite beyond his reach? What did he think of her, or of what did he imagine that she was made? There was cruelty in it, of which Adela became immediately conscious, and which she could hardly help wishing to resent. He had performed the object of his visit; why did he not leave her? He had made himself thoroughly understood; why did he not go? His former many sweet visits had created hopes which were all but certain. He had said nothing of love; but coming there as he had come, and gazing at her as he had gazed, Adela could not doubt but that she was loved. That was all now set at rest; but why should he remain there, breaking her heart with allusions to his own past tenderness?

"You must put up with the world as you find it, Mr. Wilkinson."

"Oh, yes; of course. But when one has had such happy dreams, the waking reality, you know, does make one sad."

"You are too happy in your friends and your position to be an object of pity. How many clergymen are there of your age who would look upon your lot as almost beyond their ambition! How many men are there with mothers and sisters for whom they cannot provide! How many who have made rash marriages which have led to no happiness! Surely, Mr. Wilkinson, with you there is more cause for thankfulness than for complaint!" And thus, as it was necessary that she should say something, she moralized to him--very wisely.

"It is all true," said he; "and perhaps it is for the best. I might probably have been made more wretched in another way."

"Yes; very likely." Oh, Adela, Adela!

"I begin to know that a man should not be sanguine. I have always hoped for more than I have had a right to expect, and, therefore, I have always been disappointed. It was so at school, and at Oxford, and it is so now: it shows how true it is that a man should not look for his happiness here. Well; good-bye, Adela. I see that you think I am wrong to have any regrets."

"Useless regrets are always foolish: we laugh at children who cry for what is quite out of their reach."

"Yes; and you laugh at me. I dare say you are right."

"No; do not say that, Mr. Wilkinson. I have never laughed at you. But--" She did not wish to be actually unkind to him, though he had been so cruel to her.

At last he went. They shook hands with each other in their accustomed manner, but Wilkinson felt that he missed something from her touch, some warmth from the soft pressure, some scintillation of sympathy which such last moments of his visits had usually communicated to him. Yes; there was much to miss.

As he went back along the river his heart was sad within him. He had made up his mind to give up Adela Gauntlet, but he had not made up his mind to discover that she did not care for him--that she was indifferent to his happiness, and unable to sympathize with his feelings. The fact was, that though he had resolved that duty and his circumstances required him to remain single, nevertheless, he had at the bottom of his heart a sort of wish that Adela should be in love with him. He had his wish; but he was not sharp enough to discover that he had it. "I never thought her unfeeling before," said he to himself. "But all the world is alike. Well; as it is, it does not signify; but it might have been that I should have half broken my heart to find her so unfeeling.--More cause for thankfulness than complaint! Yes; that is true of us all. But it was unfriendly, nay unfeminine in her to say so when she must have known how much I was giving up." And so he walked on complaining; understanding perhaps accurately the wants of his own heart, but being quite in the dark as to the wants of that other heart.

But his grief, his discontent was mild in comparison with hers. She shook hands with him when he went, and endeavoured to say her last word of farewell in her usual tone; nay, for a few minutes after his departure she retained her seat calmly, fearing that he possibly might return; but then, when the door had closed on him, and she had seen him from her window passing across the lawn, then her spirits gave way, and bitterly she made her moan.

What was this that he had said to her? He would not marry because he had his mother and sisters to support. Would not she have helped to support them? Would not she have thrown in her lot with his for better or for worse, let that lot have been ever so poor? And could it be possible that he had not known this--had not read her heart as she had read his? Could it be that he had come there day after day, looking to her for love, and sympathy, and kindness--that sort of kindness which a man demands from no one but her he loves, and which no one can give him unless she loves him? Could it be that he had done this and then thought that it all meant nothing? that the interchange of such feelings had no further signification?

Money! Had she asked about his money in those days when his father still lived, when there was no question of this living belonging to him? She would have waited for him for years had years been necessary, even though they should be counted by tens and tens. Nay, she would have been contented to wait, even though that waiting should never have been rewarded, had he given her the privilege of regarding herself as his. Money! She would have been contented to live on potato-parings could he have been contented to live with her on potatoes.

She had over and over again questioned herself as to her love, and reminded herself that as yet he had said nothing to her to justify it: but as often she had answered herself that with him she could have no doubt. It was impossible that he should so look into her eyes and so speak to her if he did not love her. And so she had resolved to risk all her happiness upon her conviction of his faithfulness. She had so risked it all; and now he came to her, telling her coldly that he could not afford to marry.

He, to tell her of his happy dreams and his waking reality! he who had not the courage to realize the bliss of his dreams when that bliss was within his reach! He, to talk of sympathy, of a woman thinking with him exactly as he thought! he who was so timid of the world that he feared to love less perchance his supplies of bread and meat should fail him! What could heart wounds signify to him, or hurt feelings? Had he not his arms sound and his head clear? If, having them, he would not venture for his love's sake to meet the world and its burdens, he could hardly have heart enough to know what love really meant.

Flinging herself on her sofa with outstretched arms, thus Adela made her moan; not in these words, for she spake none: but such were the thoughts which ran through her mind as she bewailed all that she had risked and all that she had lost.

"What would I not have done for him!" she suddenly exclaimed aloud, as, rising from the sofa, she stood erect upon the ground, pressing her hand upon her heart. "Fool that I have been--fool, fool, fool!"

And then, with her hand still close to her side, she walked up and down the room with quick step.

And she had been a fool according to the world's wisdom. Of what use had been Aunt Penelope's teaching, strictly enacting as it did all the nice proprieties of young-lady life, seeing that it had not sufficed to guard her heart against the first comer? Unasked she had given it all away, had poured it out to the last drop of its warm flood; and now she was told that it was not wanted, that the article was one not exactly in the gentleman's walk of life! She might well call herself a fool:--but what was she to call him?

"It is quite impossible, you know, that I should ever marry!" Why had he not asked her whether or no it were possible; if not now, then in ten years' time--if not in ten years, then in twenty? Had he not been as faithless to her, was he not as much man-sworn, as though a thousand oaths had passed between them? Oaths between lovers are but Cupid's phrases, made to enable them to talk of love. They are the playthings of love, as kisses are. When lovers trust each other they are sweet bonds; but they will never bind those who do not trust. When he had told her that she, and she only, understood his feelings, that she, and she only, knew his moods, and when she had answered him by the encouragement of her soft smile, could it be that more was necessary between them? Ah! yes, Adela, much more! Never know a gentleman's moods, never understand his feelings till, in the plain language of his mother-tongue, he has asked you to be mistress of them.

When her father came in before dinner, she was still pacing up and down the room. But she had not spent the two hours since Arthur had left her in vain sorrow or in vainer anger. She had felt that it behoved her to resolve how she would act, and what she would do; and in those two hours she had resolved. A great misfortune, a stunning blow had fallen on her; but the fault had been with her rather than with him. She would school herself to bear the punishment, to see him occasionally, and bear with him as she would have done had he never taken those walks along the river; she would still love his sisters; still go when needs was to the Hurst Staple parsonage. As for him, she would wish him no evil, rather every good. As for herself, she would check her rebel heart if she could; but, at any rate, she would learn to check the rising blood which would otherwise tell her tale.

"Arthur Wilkinson has been here to-day, papa," she was able to say, with composed voice; "they are quite settled again at the parsonage."

"Ah! he is a lucky fellow," said the old vicar; "he'll be wanting a wife now before the year's out."

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