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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 5. Can I Escape?
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The Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 5. Can I Escape? Post by :go4dollars Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Trollope Date :May 2012 Read :1361

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The Bertrams - Volume 3 - Chapter 5. Can I Escape?

VOLUME III CHAPTER V. CAN I ESCAPE?

Had not George Bertram been of all men the most infirm of purpose, he would have quitted London immediately after that ball--at any rate, for many months. But he was lamentably infirm of purpose. He said to himself over and over again, that it behoved him to go. What had either of them done for him that he should regard them? That had hitherto been the question within his own breast; but now it was changed. Had he not greatly injured her? Had she not herself told him that his want of mercy had caused all her misery? Ought he not, at any rate, to spare her now? But yet he remained. He must ask her pardon before he went; he would do that, and then he would go.

His object was to see her without going to Eaton Square. His instinct told him that Sir Henry no longer wished to see him there, and he was unwilling to enter the house of any one who did not wish his presence. For two weeks he failed in his object. He certainly did see Lady Harcourt, but not in such a way as to allow of conversation; but at last fortune was propitious,--or the reverse, and he found himself alone with her.

She was seated quite alone, turning over the engravings which lay in a portfolio before her, when he came up to her.

"Do not be angry," he said, "if I ask you to listen to me for a few moments."

She still continued to move the engravings before her, but with a slower motion than before; and though her eye still rested on the plates, he might have seen, had he dared to look at her, that her mind was far away from them. He might have seen also that there was no flash of anger now in her countenance: her spirit was softer than on that evening when she had reproached him; for she had remembered that he also had been deeply injured. But she answered nothing to the request which he thus made.

"You told me that I was unforgiving," he continued, "I now come to beg that you will not be unforgiving also; that is, if I have done anything that has caused you--caused you to be less happy than you might have been."

"Less happy!" she said; but not with that scorn with which she had before repeated his words.

"You believe, I hope, that I would wish you to be happy; that I would do anything in my power to make you so?"

"There can be nothing now in your power, Mr. Bertram." And as she spoke she involuntarily put an emphasis on the now, which made her words convey much more than she had intended.

"No," he said. "No. What can such a one as I do? What could I ever have done? But say that you forgive me, Lady Harcourt."

"Let us both forgive," she whispered, and as she did so, she put out her hand to him. "Let us both forgive. It is all that we can do for each other."

"Oh, Caroline, Caroline!" he said, speaking hardly above his breath, and with his eyes averted, but still holding her hand; or attempting to hold it, for as he spoke she withdrew it.

"I was unjust to you the other night. It is so hard to be just when one is so wretched. We have been like two children who have quarrelled over their plaything, and broken it in pieces while it was yet new. We cannot put the wheels again together, or made the broken reed produce sweet sounds."

"No," he said. "No, no, no. No sounds are any longer sweet. There is no music now."

"But as we have both sinned, Mr. Bertram, so should we both forgive."

"But I--I have nothing to forgive."

"Alas, yes! and mine was the first fault. I knew that you really loved me, and--"

"Loved you! Oh, Caroline!"

"Hush, Mr. Bertram; not so; do not speak so. I know that you would not wrong me; I know you would not lead me into trouble--not into further trouble; into worse misery."

"And I, that might have led you--no; that might have been led to such happiness! Lady Harcourt, when I think of what I have thrown away--"

"Think of it not at all, Mr. Bertram."

"And you; can you command your thoughts?"

"Sometimes; and by practice I hope always; at any rate, I make an effort. And now, good-bye. It will be sweet to me to hear that you have forgiven me. You were very angry, you know, when you parted from me last at Littlebath."

"If there be anything for me to forgive, I do forgive it with all my heart; with all my heart."

"And now, God bless you, Mr. Bertram. The thing that would most tend to make me contented would be to see you married to some one you could love; a weight would then be off my soul which now weighs on it very heavily." And so saying, she rose from her seat and left him standing over the engravings. He had thrown his pearl away; a pearl richer than all his tribe. There was nothing for him now but to bear the loss.

There were other sources of unpleasantness between Sir Henry and his wife besides her inclination for dancing. Sir Henry had now paid one half-year's interest on the sum of money which had been lent to him by the old gentleman at Hadley, and had been rather disgusted at finding that it was taken as a matter of course. He was not at the present moment by any means over-burdened with money. His constant devotion to politics interfered considerably with his practice. He was also perhaps better known as a party lawyer than as a practical or practising one; and thus, though his present career was very brilliant, it was not quite so profitable as he had hoped. Most lawyers when they begin to devote themselves to politics have secured, if not fortune, at least the means of making it. And, even at his age, Sir Henry might have been said to have done this had his aspirations been in any way moderate. But they were not moderate. He wished to shine with extreme brilliancy; to live up to the character for wealth which the world gave him; and to give it out as a fact to be understood by all men that he was to be the heir of the Hadley Croesus.

There was, perhaps, a certain wisdom in this, a wisdom of a dashing chancy nature. Fortune favours the brave; and the world certainly gives the most credit to those who are able to give an unlimited credit to themselves. But there was certainly risk in the life he led. The giving of elegant little dinners two or three times a week in London is an expensive amusement--and so he began to be very anxious about the old gentleman.

But what was he to do that he might get near those money-bags? There was the game. What best sportsman's dodge might he use so as to get it into his bag? Perhaps to do nothing, to use no sportsman's dodge would have been the best. But then it is so hard to do nothing when so much might be gained by doing something very well.

Sir Henry, duly instructed as to the weaknesses customary to old men, thought his wife would be his best weapon--his surest dodge. If she could be got to be attentive and affectionate to her grandfather, to visit him, and flatter him, and hover about him, much might be done. So thought Sir Henry. But do what he might, Lady Harcourt would not assist him. It was not part of her bargain that she should toady an old man who had never shown any special regard for her.

"I think you ought to go down to Hadley," Sir Henry said to her one morning.

"What, to stay there?" said Caroline.

"Yes; for a fortnight or so. Parliament will be up now in three weeks, and I shall go to Scotland for a few days. Could not you make it out with the old gentleman till you go to the Grimsdale's?"

"I would much rather remain at home, Sir Henry."

"Ah, yes; that is just like you. And I would much rather that you went."

"If you wish to shut the house up, I shall not object to go to Littlebath."

"Very probably not. But I should object to you going there--exceedingly object to it. Of all places, it is the most vulgar! the most--"

"You forget that I have dear friends living there."

"Dear friends! Yes; Miss Todd, I suppose. I think we may as well leave Miss Todd alone. At the present moment, I am particularly anxious that you should be attentive to your grandfather."

"But I have never been in the habit of staying at Hadley."

"Then the sooner you get into the habit the better."

"I cannot think why you should wish me to trouble an old man who would not have the slightest pleasure in seeing me."

"That is all nonsense. If you behaved well to him, he would have pleasure. Do you ever write to him?"

"Never."

"Write to him to-day then, and ask whether he would be glad to have you."

Caroline did not answer her husband immediately, but went on buttering her toast, and sipping her tea. She had never yet disobeyed any positive order that he had given, and she was now thinking whether she could obey this order; or, if not, how she would explain to him that she could not do so.

"Well!" said he; "why do you not answer me? Will you write to him to-day?"

"I had much rather not."

"Does that mean that you won't?"

"I fear, Sir Henry, that it must mean it. I have not been on terms with my grandfather which would admit of my doing so."

"Nonsense!" said her lord and master.

"You are not very civil to me this morning."

"How can a man be civil when he hears such trash as that? You know how I am situated--how great the stake is; and you will do nothing to help me win it." To this she made no answer. Of what use would it be for her to answer? She also had thrown away her pearl, and taken in exchange this piece of brass. There was nothing for her, too, but to bear her misery.

"Upon my word, you take it all very coolly," he continued; "you seem to think that houses, and furniture, and carriages, and horses are to grow up all round you without any effort on your own part. Does it ever strike you that these things cost money?"

"I will give them all up to-morrow if you wish it."

"That you know is nonsense."

"It was your doing to surround me with these things, and your reproach is not just. Nay, it is not manly."

"A woman's idea of manliness is very extended. You expect to get everything, and to do nothing. You talk of justice! Do you not know that when I married you, I looked to your uncle's fortune?"

"Certainly not: had I known it, I should have told you how vain I believed any such hope to be."

"Then, why on earth--?" But he refrained from finishing his question. Even he could not bring himself to tell her that he had married her with no other view. He merely slammed the door behind him as he left the room. Yes; she had certainly thrown her pearl away. What a life was this to which she had doomed herself! what treatment was this for that Caroline Waddington, who had determined to win the world and wear it! She had given herself to a brute, who had taken her only because she might perhaps be the heiress of a rich old man.

And then she thought of that lost pearl. How could she do other than think of it? She thought of what her life would have been had she bravely committed herself to his hands, fearing nothing, trusting everything. She remembered his energy during those happy days in which he had looked forward to an early marriage. She remembered his tenderness of manner, the natural gallantry of his heart, the loving look of his bold eye; and then she thought of her husband.

Yes, she thought of him long and wildly. And as she did so, the indifference with which she had regarded him grew into hatred. She shuddered as her imagination made that frightful contrast between the picture which her eyes would have so loved to look on if it were only lawful, and that other picture to look on which was her legal doom. Her brow grew wildly black as she thought of his caresses, his love, which were more hateful to her even than his coarse ill-humour. She thought of all this; and, as she did so, she asked herself that question which comes first to the mind of all creatures when in misery: Is there no means of release; no way of escape? was her bark utterly ruined, and for ever?

That marriage without love is a perilous step for any woman who has a heart within her bosom. For those who have none--or only so much as may be necessary for the ordinary blood-circulating department--such an arrangement may be convenient enough. Caroline Waddington had once flattered herself that that heart of hers was merely a blood-circulating instrument. But she had discovered her mistake, and learned the truth before it was too late. She had known what it was to love--and yet she had married Henry Harcourt! Seldom, indeed, will punishment be so lame of foot as to fail in catching such a criminal as she had been.

Punishment--bitter, cruel, remorseless punishment--had caught her now, and held her tight within its grasp. He, too, had said that he was wretched. But what could his wretchedness be to hers? He was not married to a creature that he hated: he was not bound in a foul Mezentian embrace to a being against whom all his human gorge rose in violent disgust. Oh! if she could only be alone, as he was alone! If it could be granted to her to think of her love, to think of him in solitude and silence--in a solitude which no beast with a front of brass and feet of clay had a right to break, both by night and day! Ah! if her wretchedness might only be as his wretchedness! How blessed would she not think herself!

And then she again asked herself whether there might not be some escape. That women had separated themselves from their husbands, she well knew. That pleas of ill-usage, of neglect, of harshness of temper, had been put forward and accepted by the world, to the partial enfranchisement of the unhappy wife, she had often heard. But she had also heard that in such cases cruelty must be proved. A hasty word, a cross look, a black brow would not suffice. Nor could she plead that she hated the man, that she had never loved him, that she had married him in wounded pique, because her lover--he whom she did love--had thrown her off. There was no ground, none as yet, on which she could claim her freedom. She had sold herself as a slave, and she must abide her slavery. She had given herself to this beast with the face of brass and the feet of clay, and she must endure the cold misery of his den. Separation--solitude--silence! He--that he whom her heart worshipped--he might enjoy such things; but for her--there was no such relief within her reach.

She had gone up into her room when Sir Henry left her, in order that no one might see her wretchedness, and there she remained for hours. "No!" at last she said aloud, lifting her head from the pillow on which her face had been all but hid, and standing erect in the room; "no! I will not bear it. I will not endure it. He cannot make me." And with quick steps she walked across and along the room, stretching forth her arms as though seeking aid from some one; ay, and as though she were prepared to fight the battle herself if no one would come to aid her.

At this moment there was a knock at her chamber-door, and her maid came in.

"Mr. Bertram is in the drawing-room, my lady."

"Mr. Bertram! Which Mr. Bertram?"

"Mr. Bertram, my lady; the gentleman that comes here. Sir Henry's friend."

"Oh, very well. Why did John say that I was at home?"

"Oh, my lady, I can't say that. Only he told me to tell your ladyship that Mr. Bertram was in the drawing-room."

Lady Harcourt paused for a moment. Then she said, "I will be down directly;" and the Abigail retired. During that moment she had decided that, as he was there, she would meet him yet once again.

It has been said that Bertram was unwilling to go to Sir Henry's house. As long as he had thought of remaining in town he was so. But now he had resolved to fly, and had resolved also that before he did so he would call in the ordinary way and say one last farewell. John, the servant, admitted him at once; though he had on that same morning sent bootless away a score of other suppliants for the honour of being admitted to Lady Harcourt's presence.

Bertram was standing with his back to the door, looking into a small conservatory that opened from the drawing-room, when the mistress of the house entered. She walked straight up to him, after having carefully closed the door, and just touching his hand, she said, "Mr. Bertram, why are you here? You should be thousands and thousands of miles away if that were possible. Why are you here?"

"Lady Harcourt, I will divide myself from you by any distance you may demand. But may I not come to you to tell you that I am going?"

"To tell me that you are going!"

"Yes. I shall not trouble you much longer. I have become sure of this: that to remain near you and not to love you, to remain near you and not to say that I love you is impossible. And therefore I am going." And he held out his hand, which she had as yet hardly taken--had barely touched.

He was going; but she was to remain. He would escape; but her prison bars could not be broken. Ah, that she could have gone with him! How little now would wealth have weighed with her; or high worldly hopes, or dreams of ambition! To have gone with him anywhere--honestly to have gone with him--trusting to honest love and a true heart. Ah! how much joy is there in this mortal, moribund world if one will but open one's arms to take it!

Ah! young ladies, sweet young ladies, dear embryo mothers of our England as it will be, think not overmuch of your lovers' incomes. He that is true and honest will not have to beg his bread--neither his nor yours. The true and honest do not beg their bread, though it may be that for awhile they eat it without much butter. But what then? If a wholesome loaf on your tables, and a strong arm round your waists, and a warm heart to lean on cannot make you happy, you are not the girls for whom I take you.

Caroline's bread was buttered, certainly; but the butter had been mixed with gall, and she could not bring herself to swallow it. And now he had come to tell her that he was going; he whose loaf, and arm, and heart she might have shared. What would the world say of her if she were to share his flight?

"Good-bye," she said, as she took his proffered hand.

"And is that all?"

"What would you have, Mr. Bertram?"

"What would I have? Ah, me! I would have that which is utterly--utterly--utterly beyond my reach."

"Yes, utterly--utterly," she repeated. And as she said so, she thought again, what would the world say of her if she were to share his flight?

"I suppose that now, for the last time, I may speak truly--as a man should speak. Lady Harcourt, I have never ceased to love you, never for one moment; never since that day when we walked together among those strange tombs. My love for you has been the dream of my life."

"But, why--why--why?--" She could not speak further, for her voice was choked with tears.

"I know what you would say. Why was I so stern to you!"

"Why did you go away? Why did you not come to us?"

"Because you distrusted me; not as your lover, but as a man. But I did not come here to blame you, Caroline."

"Nor to be blamed."

"No, nor to be blamed. What good can come of reproaches? We now know each other's faults, if we never did before. And we know also each other's truth--" He paused a moment, and then added, "For, Caroline, your heart has been true."

She sat herself down upon a chair, and wept, with her face hidden within her hands. Yes, her heart had been true enough; if only her words, her deeds, her mind could have been true also.

He came up to her, and lightly put his hand upon her shoulder. His touch was very light, but yet she felt that there was love in it--illicit, dishonest love. There was treason in it to her lord's rights. Her lord! Yes, he was her lord, and it was treason. But it was very sweet that touch; it was as though a thrill of love passed across her and embraced her whole body. Treason to such a creature as that! a brute with a face of brass and feet of clay, who had got hold of her with a false idea that by her aid he could turn his base brass into gold as base! Could there be treason to such a one as he? Ah! what would the world say of her were she to share that flight?

"Caroline," he murmured in her ear. "Caroline; dearest Caroline!" Thus he murmured soft words into her ear, while his hand still rested gently on her shoulder--oh, so gently! And still she answered nothing, but the gurgling of her sobs was audible to him enough. "Caroline," he repeated; "dearest, dearest Caroline." And then he was on his knees beside her; and the hand which had touched her shoulder was now pressed upon her arm.

"Caroline, speak to me--say one word. I will go if you bid me. Yes, even alone. I will go alone if you have the heart to say so. Speak, Caroline."

"What would you have me say?" and she looked at him through her tears, so haggard, so wild, so changed, that he was almost frightened at her countenance. "What would you have me say? what would you have me do?"

"I will be your slave if you will let me," said he.

"No, George--you mean that I might be your slave--for awhile, till you thought me too base even for that."

"Ah! you little know me."

"I should but little know you if I thought you could esteem me in that guise. There; God's mercy has not deserted me. It is over now. Go, George--go--go; thou, only love of my heart; my darling; mine that might have been; mine that never can be now--never--never--never. Go, George. It is over now. I have been base, and vile, and cowardly--unworthy of your dear memory. But it shall not be so again. You shall not blush that you have loved me."

"But, ah! that I have lost your love."

"You shall not blush that you have loved me, nor will I blush that I, too, have loved you. Go, George; and remember this, the farther, the longer, the more entirely we are apart, the better, the safer it will be. There; there. Go now. I can bear it now; dearest, dearest George."

He took her outstretched hands in his, and stood for awhile gazing into her face. Then, with the strong motion of his arms, he drew her close to his breast, pressed her to his heart, and imprinted one warm kiss upon her brow. Then he left her, and got to the drawing-room door with his fleetest step.

"I beg your pardon, sir," said John, who met him exactly on the landing; "but I think my lady rang."

"Lady Bertram did not ring. She is not well, and you had better not disturb her," said Bertram, trying to look as though he were no whit disconcerted.

"Oh, very well, sir; then I'll go down again;" and so saying John followed George Bertram into the hall, and opened the door for him very politely.

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