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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. Mr. Bertram's Death
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The Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. Mr. Bertram's Death Post by :gurumakio Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Trollope Date :May 2012 Read :2372

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The Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 14. Mr. Bertram's Death

VOLUME III CHAPTER XIV. MR. BERTRAM'S DEATH

Sir Henry Harcourt had certainly played his hand badly, considering the number of trumps that he had held, and that he had turned up an honour in becoming solicitor-general. He was not now in a happy condition. He was living alone in his fine house in Eaton Square; he was out of office; he was looked on with an evil eye by his former friends, in that he had endeavoured to stick to office too long; he was deeply in debt, and his once golden hopes with reference to Mr. Bertram were becoming fainter and fainter every day. Nor was this all. Not only did he himself fear that he should get but little of the Hadley money, but his creditors had begun to have the same fears. They had heard that he was not to be the heir, and were importunate accordingly. It might be easy to stave them off till Mr. Bertram should be under the ground; but then--what then? His professional income might still be large, though not increasing as it should have done. And what lawyer can work well if his mind be encumbered by deep troubles of his own?

He had told George Bertram that he would go down to Hadley and claim his wife if he did not receive a favourable message from his wife's grandfather; and he now determined to take some such step. He felt himself driven to do something; to bring about some arrangement; to make some use of the few remaining grains of sand which were still to run through the glass that was measuring out the lees of life for that old man.

So thinking, but not quite resolved as to what he would do when he reached the house, he started for Hadley. He knew that George was still there, that his wife was there, and that Mr. Bertram was there; and he trusted that he should not fail at any rate in seeing them. He was not by nature a timid man, and had certainly not become so by education; but, nevertheless, his heart did not beat quite equably within his bosom when he knocked at the rich man's door.

Of course he was well known to the servant. At first he asked after Mr. Bertram, and was told that he was much the same--going very fast; the maid did not think that Sir Henry could see him. The poor girl, knowing that the gentleman before her was not a welcome visitor, stood in the doorway, as though to guard the ladies who were in the drawing-room.

"Who is here now?" said Sir Henry. "Who is staying here?"

"Mr. George," said the girl, thinking that she would be safest in mentioning his name, "and Miss Baker, sir."

"Lady Harcourt is here, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir; her ladyship is in the drawing-room," and she shook in her shoes before him as she made the announcement.

For a moment Sir Henry was inclined to force his way by the trembling young woman, and appear before the ladies. But then, what would he get by it? Angry as he was with all the Hadley people, he was still able to ask himself that question. Supposing that he were there, standing before his wife; supposing even that he were able to bring her to his feet by a glance, how much richer would that make him? What bills would that pay? He had loved his wife once with a sort of love; but that day was gone. When she had been at such pains to express her contempt for him, all tenderness had deserted him. It might be wise to make use of her--not to molest her, as long as her grandfather lived. When the old miser should have gone, it would be time for him to have his revenge. In the meantime, he could gain nothing by provoking her. So he told the servant that he wished to see Mr. George Bertram.

As it happened, George and Lady Harcourt were together, and Miss Baker was keeping watch with the sick man upstairs. The drawing-room was close to the hall, and Caroline's eager ear caught the tones of her husband's voice.

"It is Sir Henry," she said, becoming suddenly pale, and rising to her feet, as though prepared to retreat to some protection. Bertram's duller ear could not hear him, but he also rose from his chair. "Are you sure it is he?"

"I heard his voice plainly," said Caroline, in a tremulous whisper. "Do not leave me, George. Whatever happens, do not leave me." They called each other now by their Christian names, as cousins should do; and their intercourse with each other had never been other than cousinly since that parting in Eaton Square.

And then the door was opened, and the maid-servant, in the glummest of voices, announced that Sir Henry wanted to see Mr. George.

"Show him into the dining-room," said George; and then following the girl after a minute's interval, he found himself once more in the presence of his old friend.

Sir Henry was even darker looking, and his brow still more forbidding than at that last interview at George's chambers. He was worn and care-marked, and appeared to be ten years older than was really the case. He did not wait till George should address him, but began at once:--

"Bertram," said he, with a voice intended to be stern, "there are two persons here I want to see, your uncle and my wife."

"I make no objection to your seeing either, if they are willing to see you."

"Yes; but that won't do for me. My duty compels me to look after them both, and I mean to do so before I leave Hadley."

"I will send your name to them at once," said George; "but it must depend on them whether they will see you." And so saying, he rang the bell, and sent a message up to his uncle.

Nothing was said till the girl returned. Sir Henry paced the room backward and forward, and George stood leaning with his back against the chimney-piece. "Mr. Bertram says that he'll see Sir Henry, if he'll step up stairs," said the girl.

"Very well. Am I to go up now?"

"If you please, sir."

Bertram followed Sir Henry to the door, to show him the room; but the latter turned round on the stairs, and said that he would prefer to have no one present at the interview.

"I will only open the door for you," said the other. This he did, and was preparing to return, when his uncle called him. "Do not go away, George," said he. "Sir Henry will want you to show him down again." And so they stood together at the bedside.

"Well, Sir Henry, this is kind of you," said he, putting his thin, bony hand out upon the coverlid, by way of making an attempt at an Englishman's usual greeting.

Sir Henry took it gently in his, and found it cold and clammy. "It is nearly all over now, Sir Henry," said the old man.

"I hope not," said the visitor, with the tone usual on such occasions. "You may rally yet, Mr. Bertram."

"Rally!" And there was something in the old man's voice that faintly recalled the bitter railing sound of other days. "No; I don't suppose I shall ever rally much more."

"Well; we can only hope for the best. That's what I do, I can assure you."

"That is true. We do hope for the best--all of us. I can still do that, if I do nothing else."

"Of course," said Sir Henry. And then he stood still for a while, meditating how best he might make use of his present opportunity. What could he say to secure some fraction of the hundreds of thousands which belonged to the dying man? That he had a right to at least a moiety of them his inmost bosom told him; but how should he now plead his rights? Perhaps after all it would have been as well for him to have remained in London.

"Mr. Bertram," at last he said, "I hope you won't think it unbecoming in me if I say one word about business in your present state?"

"No--no--no," said the old man. "I can't do much, as you see; but I'll endeavour to listen."

"You can't be surprised that I should be anxious about my wife."

"Umph!" said Mr. Bertram. "You haven't treated her very well, it seems."

"Who says so?"

"A woman wouldn't leave a fine house in London, to shut herself up with a sick old man here, if she were well treated. I don't want any one to tell me that."

"I can hardly explain all this to you now, sir; particularly--"

"Particularly as I am dying. No, you cannot. George, give me a glass of that stuff. I am very weak, Sir Henry, and can't say much more to you."

"May I ask you this one question, sir? Have you provided for your granddaughter?"

"Provided for her!" and the old man made a sadly futile attempt to utter the words with that ominous shriek which a few years since would have been sure to frighten any man who would have asked such a question. "What sort of man can he be, George, to come to me now with such a question?" And so saying, he pulled the clothes over him as though resolved to hold no further conversation.

"He is very weak," said George. "I think you had better leave him."

A hellish expression came across the lawyer's face. "Yes," he said to himself; "go away, that I may leave you here to reap the harvest by yourself. Go away, and know myself to be a beggar." He had married this man's grandchild, and yet he was to be driven from his bedside like a stranger.

"Tell him to go," said Mr. Bertram. "He will know it all in a day or two."

"You hear what he says," whispered George.

"I do hear," muttered the other, "and I will remember."

"He hardly thinks I would alter my will now, does he? Perhaps he has pen and ink in his pocket, ready to do it."

"I have only spoken in anxiety about my wife," said Sir Henry; "and I thought you would remember that she was your child's daughter."

"I do remember it. George, why doesn't he leave me?"

"Harcourt, it will be better that you should go," said Bertram; "you can have no idea how weak my uncle is;" and he gently opened the door.

"Good-bye, Mr. Bertram. I had not intended to disturb you." And so saying, Sir Henry slunk away.

"You know what his will is, of course," said Sir Henry, when they were again in the dining-room.

"I have not the slightest idea on the subject," said the other; "not the remotest conception. He never speaks to me about it."

"Well; and now for Lady Harcourt. Where shall I find her?"

To this question George gave no answer; nor was he able to give any. Caroline was no longer in the drawing-room. Sir Henry insisted that he would see her, and declared his intention of staying in the house till he did so. But Miss Baker at last persuaded him that all his efforts would be useless. Nothing but force would induce Lady Harcourt to meet him.

"Then force shall be used," said Sir Henry.

"At any rate not now," said George.

"What, sir! do you set yourself up as her protector? Is she base enough to allow you to interfere between her and her husband?"

"I am her protector at the present moment, Sir Henry. What passed between us long since has been now forgotten. But we are still cousins; and while she wants protection, I shall give it to her."

"Oh, you will; will you?"

"Certainly. I look upon her as though she were my sister. She has no other brother."

"That's very kind of you, and very complaisant of her. But what if I say that I don't choose that she should have any such brother? Perhaps you think that as I am only her husband, I ought not to have any voice in the matter?"

"I do not suppose that you can care for her much, after the word you once used to her."

"And what the devil is it to you what word I used to her? That's the tack you go on, is it? Now, I'll tell you fairly what I shall do. I will wait till the breath is out of that old man's body, and then I shall take my wife out of this house--by force, if force be necessary." And so saying, Sir Henry turned to the front door, and took his departure, without making any further adieu.

"What dreadful trouble we shall have!" whimpered Miss Baker, almost in tears.

Things went on at Hadley for three days longer without any change, except that Mr. Bertram became weaker, and less inclined to speak. On the third morning, he did say a few words:--"George, I begin to think I have done wrong about you; but I fear it is too late."

His nephew declared that he was sure that things would turn out well, muttering any platitude which might quiet the dying man.

"But it is too late, isn't it?"

"For any change in your will, sir? Yes, it is too late. Do not think of it."

"Ah, yes; it would be very troublesome--very troublesome. Oh, me! It has nearly come now, George; very nearly."

It had very nearly come. He did not again speak intelligibly to any of them. In his last hours he suffered considerably, and his own thoughts seemed to irritate him. But when he did mutter a few words, they seemed to refer to trivial matters--little plagues which dying men feel as keenly as those who are full of life. To the last he preferred George either to his niece or to his granddaughter; and was always best pleased when his nephew was by him. Once or twice he mentioned Mr. Pritchett's name; but he showed his dissent when they proposed to send for his man of business.

On the afternoon of that day, he breathed his last in the presence of his three relatives. His nearest relative, indeed, was not there; nor did they dare to send for him. He had latterly expressed so strong a disgust at the very name of Sir Lionel, that they had ceased by common consent to mention Bertram's father. He seemed to be aware that his last moments were approaching, for he would every now and then raise his withered hand from off the bed, as though to give them warning. And so he died, and the eyes of the rich man were closed.

He died full of years, and perhaps in one, and that the most usual acceptation of the word, full of honour. He owed no man a shilling, had been true to all his engagements, had been kind to his relatives with a rough kindness: he had loved honesty and industry, and had hated falsehood and fraud: to him the herd, born only to consume the fruits, had ever been odious; that he could be generous, his conduct in his nephew's earliest years had plainly shown: he had carried, too, in his bosom a heart not altogether hardened against his kind, for he had loved his nephew, and, to a certain extent, his niece also, and his granddaughter.

But in spite of all this, he had been a bad man. He had opened his heart to that which should never find admittance to the heart of man. The iron of his wealth had entered into his very soul. He had made half a million of money, and that half-million had been his god--his only god--and, indeed, men have but one god. The true worship of the one loved shrine prevents all other worship. The records of his money had been his deity. There, in his solitude at Hadley, he had sat and counted them as they grew, mortgages and bonds, deeds and scrip, shares in this and shares in that, thousands in these funds and tens of thousands in those. To the last, he had gone on buying and selling, buying in the cheap market and selling in the dear; and everything had gone well with him.

Everything had gone well with him! Such was the City report of old Mr. Bertram. But let the reader say how much, or rather how little, had gone well. Faustus-like, he had sold himself to a golden Mephistopheles, and his Margaret had turned to stone within his embrace.

How many of us make Faust's bargain! The bodily attendance of the devil may be mythical; but in the spirit he is always with us. And how rarely have we the power to break the contract! The London merchant had so sold himself. He had given himself body and soul to a devil. The devil had promised him wealth, and had kept his word. And now the end had come, though the day of his happiness had not yet arrived.

But the end had not come. All this was but the beginning. If we may believe that a future life is to be fitted to the desires and appetites as they are engendered here, what shall we think of the future of a man whose desire has been simply for riches, whose appetite has been for heaps of money? How miserably is such a poor wretch cheated! How he gropes about, making his bargain with blind eyes; thinking that he sees beyond his neighbours! Who is so green, so soft, so foolishly the victim of the sorriest sharper as this man? Weigh out all his past, and what has it been? Weigh out his future--if you can--and think what it must be. Poor, dull Faustus! What! thou hast lost everything among the thimble-riggers? Poor, dull, stupid wretch!

Mr. Bertram had not been a good man, nor had he been a wise man. But he had been highly respectable, and his memory is embalmed in tons of marble and heaps of monumental urns. Epitaphs, believed to be true, testify to his worth; and deeds, which are sometimes as false as epitaphs, do the same. He is a man of whom the world has agreed to say good things; to whom fame, that rich City fame, which speaks with a cornet-a-piston made of gold, instead of a brazen trumpet, has been very kind.--But, nevertheless, he was not a good man. As regards him, it will only remain for us to declare what was his will, and that shall be done in the next chapter.

It was settled that he should be buried on the sixth day after his death, and that his will should be read after his funeral. George had now to manage everything, and to decide who should be summoned to the reading. There were two whom he felt bound to call thither, though to them the reading he knew would be a bitter grief. There was, in the first place, his father, Sir Lionel, whose calls for money had not of late decreased in urgency. It would be seemly that he should come; but the opening of the will would not be a pleasant hour for him. Then there would be Sir Henry. He also was, of course, summoned, painful as it was to his wife to have to leave the house at such a time. Nor, indeed, did he wait to be invited; for he had written to say that he should be there before he received George Bertram's note. Mr. Pritchett also was sent for, and the old man's attorney.

And then, when these arrangements had been made, the thoughts of the living reverted from the dead to themselves. How should those three persons who now occupied that house so lovingly provide for themselves? and where should they fix their residence? George's brotherly love for his cousin was very well in theory: it was well to say that the past had been forgotten; but there are things for which no memory can lose its hold. He and Caroline had loved each other with other love than that of a brother and a sister; and each knew that they two might not dwell under the same roof. It was necessary to talk over these matters, and in doing so it was very hard not to touch on forbidden subjects.

Caroline had made up her mind to live again with her aunt--had made up her mind to do so, providing that her husband's power was not sufficient to prevent it. Miss Baker would often tell her that the law would compel her to return to her lord; that she would be forced to be again the mistress of the house in Eaton Square, and again live as the prosperous wife of the prosperous politician. To this Caroline had answered but little; but that little had been in a manner that had thoroughly frightened Miss Baker. Nothing, Lady Harcourt had said, nothing should induce her to do so.

"But if you cannot help yourself, Caroline?"

"I will help myself. I will find a way to prevent, at any rate, that--" So much she had said, but nothing further: and so much Miss Baker had repeated to George Bertram, fearing the worst.

It was not till the day before the funeral that Caroline spoke to her cousin on the subject.

"George," she said to him, "shall we be able to live here?--to keep on this house?"

"You and Miss Baker, you mean?"

"Yes; aunt and I. We should be as quiet here as anywhere,--and I am used to these people now."

"It must depend on the will. The house was his own property; but, doubtless, Miss Baker could rent it."

"We should have money enough for that, I suppose."

"I should hope so. But we none of us know anything yet. All your own money--the income, at least, coming from it--is in Sir Henry's hands."

"I will never condescend to ask for that," she said. And then there was a pause in their conversation.

"George," she continued, after a minute or two, "you will not let me fall into his hands?"

He could not help remembering that his own mad anger had already thrown her into the hands which she now dreaded so terribly. Oh, if those two last years might but pass away as a dream, and leave him free to clasp her to his bosom as his own! But the errors of past years will not turn themselves to dreams. There is no more solid stuff in this material world than they are. They never melt away, or vanish into thin air.

"Not if it can be avoided," he replied.

"Ah! but it can be avoided; can it not? Say that you know it can. Do not make me despair. It cannot be that he has a right to imprison me."

"I hardly know what he has a right to do. But he is a stern man, and will not easily be set aside."

"But you will not desert me?"

"No; I will not desert you. But--"

"But what?"

"For your sake, Caroline, we must regard what people will say. Our names have been mixed together; but not as cousins."

"I know, I know. But, George, you do not suppose I intended you should live here? I was not thinking of that. I know that that may not be."

"For myself, I shall keep my chambers in London. I shall just be able to starve on there; and then I shall make one more attempt at the bar."

"And I know you will succeed. You are made for success at last; I have always felt that."

"A man must live somehow. He must have some pursuit; and that is more within my reach than any other: otherwise I am not very anxious for success. What is the use of it all? Of what use will it be to me now?"

"Oh, George!"

"Well, is it not true?"

"Do not tell me that I have made shipwreck of all your fortune!"

"No; I do not say that you have done it. It was I that drove the bark upon the rocks; I myself. But the timbers on that account are not the less shattered."

"You should strive to throw off that feeling. You have so much before you in the world."

"I have striven. I have thought that I could love other women. I have told others that I did love them; but my words were false, and they and I knew that they were false. I have endeavoured to think of other things--of money, ambition, politics; but I can care for none of them. If ever a man cut his own throat, I have done so."

She could not answer him at once, because she was now sobbing, and the tears were streaming from her eyes. "And what have I done?" she said at last. "If your happiness is shattered, what must mine be? I sometimes think that I cannot live and bear it. With him," she added, after another pause, "I will not live and bear it. If it comes to that, I will die, George;" and rising from her chair, she walked across the room, and took him sharply by the arm. "George," she said, "you will protect me from that; I say that you will save me from that."

"Protect you!" said he, repeating her words, and hardly daring to look into her face. How could he protect her? how save her from the lord she had chosen for herself? It might be easy enough for him to comfort her now with promises; but he could not find it in his heart to hold out promises which he could not fulfil. If, after the reading of the will, Sir Henry Harcourt should insist on taking his wife back with him, how could he protect her--he, of all men in the world?

"You will not give me up to him!" she said, wildly. "If you do, my blood will lie upon your head. George! George! say that you will save me from that! To whom can I look now but to you?"

"I do not think he will force you away with him."

"But if he does? Will you stand by and see me so used?"

"Certainly not; but, Caroline--"

"Well."

"It will be better that I should not be driven to interfere. The world will forget that I am your cousin, but will remember that I was once to have been your husband."

"The world! I am past caring for the world. It is nothing to me now if all London knows how it is with me. I have loved, and thrown away my love, and tied myself to a brute. I have loved, and do love; but my love can only be a sorrow to me. I do not fear the world; but God and my conscience I do fear. Once, for one moment, George, I thought that I would fear nothing. Once, for one moment, I was still willing to be yours; but I remembered what you would think of me if I should so fall, and I repented my baseness. May God preserve me from such sin! But, for the world--why should you or I fear the world?"

"It is for you that I fear it. It would grieve me to hear men speak lightly of your name."

"Let them say what they please; the wretched are always trodden on. Let them say what they please. I deserved it all when I stood before the altar with that man; when I forbade my feet to run, or my mouth to speak, though I knew that I hated him, and owned it to my heart. What shall I do, George, to rid me of that sin?"

She had risen and taken hold of his arm when first she asked him to protect her, and she was still standing beside the chair on which he sat. He now rose also, and said a few gentle words, such as he thought might soothe her.

"Yes," she continued, as though she did not heed him, "I said to myself almost twenty times during that last night that I hated him in my very soul, that I was bound in honour even yet to leave him--in honour, and in truth, and in justice. But my pride forbade it--my pride and my anger against you."

"It is useless to think of it now, dear."

"Ah, yes! quite useless. Would that I had done it then--then, at the last moment. They asked me whether I would love that man. I whispered inwardly to myself that I loathed him; but my tongue said 'Yes,' out loud. Can such a lie as that, told in God's holy temple, sworn before his own altar--can such perjury as that ever be forgiven me?

"But I shall sin worse still if I go back to him," she continued, after a while. "I have no right, George, to ask anything from your kindness as a cousin; but for your love's sake, your old love, which you cannot forget, I do ask you to save me from this. But it is this rather that I ask, that you will save me from the need of saving myself."

That evening George sat up late alone, preparing for the morrow's work, and trying to realize the position in which he found himself. Mr. Pritchett, had he been there, would have whispered into his ears, again and again, those ominous and all-important words, "Half a million of money, Mr. George; half a million of money!" And, indeed, though Mr. Pritchett was not there, the remembrance of those overflowing coffers did force themselves upon his mind. Who can say that he, if placed as Bertram then was, would not think of them?

He did think of them--not over deeply, nor with much sadness. He knew that they were not to be his; neither the whole of them, nor any part of them. So much his uncle had told him with sufficient plainness. He knew also that they might all have been his: and then he thought of that interview in which Mr. Bertram had endeavoured to beg from him a promise to do that for which his own heart so strongly yearned. Yes; he might have had the bride, and the money too. He might have been sitting at that moment with the wife of his bosom, laying out in gorgeous plans the splendour of their future life. It would be vain to say that there was no disappointment at his heart.

But yet there was within his breast a feeling of gratified independence which sufficed to support him. At least he might boast that he had not sold himself; not aloud, but with that inward boasting which is so common with most of us. There was a spirit within him endowed with a greater wealth than any which Mr. Pritchett might be able to enumerate; and an inward love, the loss of which could hardly have been atoned for even by the possession of her whom he had lost. Nor was this the passion which men call self-love. It was rather a vigorous knowledge of his own worth as a man; a strong will, which taught him that no price was sufficient to buy his assent that black should be reckoned white, or white be reckoned black.

His uncle, he knew, had misunderstood him. In rejecting the old man's offers, he had expressed his contempt for riches--for riches, that is, as any counterbalance to independence. Mr. Bertram had taken what he said for more than it was worth; and had supposed that his nephew, afflicted with some singular lunacy, disliked money for its own sake. George had never cared to disabuse his uncle's mind. Let him act as he will, he had said to himself, it is not for me to dictate to him, either on the one side or the other. And so the error had gone on.

To-morrow morning the will would be read, and George would have to listen to the reading of it. He knew well enough that the world looked on him as his uncle's probable heir, and that he should have to bear Mr. Pritchett's hardly expressed pity, Sir Henry's malignant pleasure, and Sir Lionel's loud disgust. All this was nearly as bad to him as the remembrance of what he had lost; but by degrees he screwed his courage up to the necessary point of endurance.

"What is Pritchett to me, with his kind, but burdensome solicitude? what Sir Henry's mad anger? How can they affect my soul? or what even is my father? Let him rave. I care not to have compassion on myself; why should his grief assail me--grief which is so vile, so base, so unworthy of compassion?"

And thus schooling himself for the morrow, he betook himself to bed.

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