MR. BROOKE BURGESS.
Illustration The hour at which Mr. Brooke Burgess was to arrive had come round, and Miss Stanbury was in a twitter, partly of expectation, and partly, it must be confessed, of fear. Why there should be any fear she did not herself know, as she had much to give and nothing to expect. But she was afraid, and was conscious of it, and was out of temper because she was ashamed of herself. Although it would be necessary that she should again dress for dinner at six, she had put on a clean cap at four, and appeared at that early hour in one of her gowns which was not customarily in use for home purposes at that early hour. She felt that she was "an old fool" for her pains, and was consequently cross to poor Dorothy. And there were other reasons for some display of harshness to her niece. Mr. Gibson had been at the house that very morning, and Dorothy had given herself airs. At least, so Miss Stanbury thought. And during the last three or four days, whenever Mr. Gibson's name had been mentioned, Dorothy had become silent, glum, and almost obstructive. Miss Stanbury had been at the trouble of explaining that she was specially anxious to have that little matter of the engagement settled at once. She knew that she was going to behave with great generosity;—that she was going to sacrifice, not her money only, of which she did not think much, but a considerable portion of her authority, of which she did think a great deal; and that she was about to behave in a manner which demanded much gratitude. But it seemed to her that Dorothy was not in the least grateful. Hugh had proved himself to be "a mass of ingratitude," as she was in the habit of saying. None of the Burgesses had ever shown to her any gratitude for promises made to them, or, indeed, for any substantial favours conferred upon them. And now Dorothy, to whom a very seventh heaven of happiness had been opened,—a seventh heaven, as it must be computed in comparison with her low expectations,—now Dorothy was already shewing how thankless she could become. Mr. Gibson had not yet declared his passion, but he had freely admitted to Miss Stanbury that he was prepared to do so. Priscilla had been quite right in her suggestion that there was a clear understanding between the clergyman and her aunt.
"I don't think he is come after all," said Miss Stanbury, looking at her watch. Had the train arrived at the moment that it was due, had the expectant visitor jumped out of the railway carriage into a fly, and had the driver galloped up to the Close, it might have been possible that the wheels should have been at the door as Miss Stanbury spoke.
"It's hardly time yet, aunt."
"Nonsense; it is time. The train comes in at four. I dare say he won't come at all."
"He is sure to come, aunt."
"I've no doubt you know all about it better than any one else. You usually do." Then five minutes were passed in silence. "Heaven and earth! what shall I do with these people that are coming? And I told them especially that it was to meet this young man! It's the way I am always treated by everybody that I have about me."
"The train might be ten minutes late, Aunt Stanbury."
"Yes;—and monkeys might chew tobacco. There;—there's the omnibus at the Cock and Bottle; the omnibus up from the train. Now, of course, he won't come."
"Perhaps he's walking, Aunt Stanbury."
"Walking,—with his luggage on his shoulders? Is that your idea of the way in which a London gentleman goes about? And there are two flies,—coming up from the train, of course." Miss Stanbury was obliged to fix the side of her chair very close to the window in order that she might see that part of the Close in which the vehicles of which she had spoken were able to pass.
"Perhaps they are not coming from the train, Aunt Stanbury."
"Perhaps a fiddlestick! You have lived here so much longer than I have done that, of course, you must know all about it." Then there was an interval of another ten minutes, and even Dorothy was beginning to think that Mr. Burgess was not coming. "I've given him up now," said Miss Stanbury. "I think I'll send and put them all off." Just at that moment there came a knock at the door. But there was no cab. Dorothy's conjecture had been right. The London gentleman had walked, and his portmanteau had been carried behind him by a boy. "How did he get here?" exclaimed Miss Stanbury, as she heard the strange voice speaking to Martha down-stairs. But Dorothy knew better than to answer the question.
"Miss Stanbury, I am very glad to see you," said Mr. Brooke Burgess, as he entered the room. Miss Stanbury courtesied, and then took him by both hands. "You wouldn't have known me, I dare say," he continued. "A black beard and a bald head do make a difference."
"You are not bald at all," said Miss Stanbury.
"I am beginning to be thin enough at the top. I am so glad to come to you, and so much obliged to you for having me! How well I remember the old room!"
"This is my niece, Miss Dorothy Stanbury, from Nuncombe Putney." Dorothy was about to make some formal acknowledgment of the introduction, when Brooke Burgess came up to her, and shook her hand heartily. "She lives with me," continued the aunt.
"And what has become of Hugh?" said Brooke.
"We never talk of him," said Miss Stanbury gravely.
"I hope there's nothing wrong? I hear of him very often in London."
"My aunt and he don't agree;—that's all," said Dorothy.
"He has given up his profession as a barrister,—in which he might have lived like a gentleman," said Miss Stanbury, "and has taken to writing for a—penny newspaper."
"Everybody does that now, Miss Stanbury."
"I hope you don't, Mr. Burgess."
"I! Nobody would print anything that I wrote. I don't write for anything, certainly."
"I'm very glad to hear it," said Miss Stanbury.
Brooke Burgess, or Mr. Brooke, as he came to be called very shortly by the servants in the house, was a good-looking man, with black whiskers and black hair, which, as he said, was beginning to be thin on the top of his head, and pleasant small bright eyes. Dorothy thought that next to her brother Hugh he was the most good-natured looking man she had ever seen. He was rather below the middle height, and somewhat inclined to be stout. But he would boast that he could still walk his twelve miles in three hours, and would add that as long as he could do that he would never recognise the necessity of putting himself on short commons. He had a well-cut nose, not quite aquiline, but tending that way, a chin with a dimple on it, and as sweet a mouth as ever declared the excellence of a man's temper. Dorothy immediately began to compare him with her brother Hugh, who was to her, of all men, the most godlike. It never occurred to her to make any comparison between Mr. Gibson and Mr. Burgess. Her brother Hugh was the most godlike of men; but there was something godlike also about the new comer. Mr. Gibson, to Dorothy's eyes, was by no means divine.
"I used to call you Aunt Stanbury," said Brooke Burgess to the old lady; "am I to go on doing it now?"
"You may call me what you like," said Miss Stanbury. "Only,—dear me;—I never did see anybody so much altered." Before she went up to dress herself for dinner, Miss Stanbury was quite restored to her good humour, as Dorothy could perceive.
The dinner passed off well enough. Mr. Gibson, at the head of the table, did, indeed, look very much out of his element, as though he conceived that his position revealed to the outer world those ideas of his in regard to Dorothy, which ought to have been secret for a while longer. There are few men who do not feel ashamed of being paraded before the world as acknowledged suitors, whereas ladies accept the position with something almost of triumph. The lady perhaps regards herself as the successful angler, whereas the gentleman is conscious of some similitude to the unsuccessful fish. Mr. Gibson, though he was not yet gasping in the basket, had some presentiment of this feeling, which made his present seat of honour unpleasant to him. Brooke Burgess, at the other end of the table, was as gay as a lark. Mrs. MacHugh sat on one side of him, and Miss Stanbury on the other, and he laughed at the two old ladies, reminding them of his former doings in Exeter,—how he had hunted Mrs. MacHugh's cat, and had stolen Aunt Stanbury's best apricot jam, till everybody began to perceive that he was quite a success. Even Sir Peter Mancrudy laughed at his jokes, and Mrs. Powel, from the other side of Sir Peter, stretched her head forward so that she might become one of the gay party.
"There isn't a word of it true," said Miss Stanbury. "It's all pure invention, and a great scandal. I never did such a thing in my life."
"Didn't you though?" said Brooke Burgess. "I remember it as well as if it was yesterday, and old Dr. Ball, the prebendary, with the carbuncles on his nose, saw it too."
"Dr. Ball had no carbuncles on his nose," said Mrs. MacHugh. "You'll say next that I have carbuncles on my nose."
"He had three. I remember each of them quite well, and so does Sir Peter."
Then everybody laughed; and Martha, who was in the room, knew that Brooke Burgess was a complete success.
In the meantime Mr. Gibson was talking to Dorothy; but Dorothy was endeavouring to listen to the conversation at the other end of the table. "I found it very dirty on the roads to-day outside the city," said Mr. Gibson.
"Very dirty," said Dorothy, looking round at Mr. Burgess as she spoke.
"But the pavement in the High Street was dry enough."
"Quite dry," said Dorothy. Then there came a peal of laughter from Mrs. MacHugh and Sir Peter, and Dorothy wondered whether anybody before had ever made those two steady old people laugh after that fashion.
"I should so like to get a drive with you up to the top of Haldon Hill," said Mr. Gibson. "When the weather gets fine, that is. Mrs. Powel was talking about it."
"It would be very nice," said Dorothy.
"You have never seen the view from Haldon Hill yet?" asked Mr. Gibson. But to this question Dorothy could make no answer. Miss Stanbury had lifted one of the table-spoons, as though she was going to strike Mr. Brooke Burgess with the bowl of it. And this during a dinner party! From that moment Dorothy turned herself round, and became one of the listeners to the fun at the other end of the table. Poor Mr. Gibson soon found himself "nowhere."
"I never saw a man so much altered in my life," said Mrs. MacHugh, up in the drawing-room. "I don't remember that he used to be clever."
"He was a bright boy," said Miss Stanbury.
"But the Burgesses all used to be such serious, strait-laced people," said Mrs. MacHugh. "Excellent people," she added, remembering the source of her friend's wealth; "but none of them like that."
"I call him a very handsome man," said Mrs. Powel. "I suppose he's not married yet?"
"Oh, dear, no," said Miss Stanbury. "There's time enough for him yet."
"He'll find plenty here to set their caps at him," said Mrs. MacHugh.
"He's a little old for my girls," said Mrs. Powel, laughing. Mrs. Powel was the happy mother of four daughters, of whom the eldest was only twelve.
"There are others who are more forward," said Mrs. MacHugh. "What a chance it would be for dear Arabella French!"
"Heaven forbid!" said Miss Stanbury.
"And then poor Mr. Gibson wouldn't be any longer like the donkey between two bundles of hay," said Mrs. Powel. Dorothy was quite determined that she would never marry a man who was like a donkey between two bundles of hay.
When the gentlemen came up into the drawing-room, Dorothy was seated behind the urn and tea-things at a large table, in such a position as to be approached only at one side. There was one chair at her left hand, but at her right hand there was no room for a seat,—only room for some civil gentleman to take away full cups and bring them back empty. Dorothy was not sufficiently ready-witted to see the danger of this position till Mr. Gibson had seated himself in the chair. Then it did seem cruel to her that she should be thus besieged for the rest of the evening as she had been also at dinner. While the tea was being consumed Mr. Gibson assisted at the service, asking ladies whether they would have cake or bread and butter; but when all that was over Dorothy was still in her prison, and Mr. Gibson was still the jailer at the gate. She soon perceived that everybody else was chatting and laughing, and that Brooke Burgess was the centre of a little circle which had formed itself quite at a distance from her seat. Once, twice, thrice she meditated an escape, but she had not the courage to make the attempt. She did not know how to manage it. She was conscious that her aunt's eye was upon her, and that her aunt would expect her to listen to Mr. Gibson. At last she gave up all hope of moving, and was anxious simply that Mr. Gibson should confine himself to the dirt of the paths and the noble prospect from Haldon Hill.
"I think we shall have more rain before we are done with it," he said. Twice before during the evening he had been very eloquent about the rain.
"I dare say we shall," said Dorothy. And then there came the sound of loud laughter from Sir Peter, and Dorothy could see that he was poking Brooke Burgess in the ribs. There had never been anything so gay before since she had been in Exeter, and now she was hemmed up in that corner, away from it all, by Mr. Gibson!
"This Mr. Burgess seems to be different from the other Burgesses," said Mr. Gibson.
"I think he must be very clever," said Dorothy.
"Well;—yes; in a sort of a way. What people call a Merry Andrew."
"I like people who make me laugh and laugh themselves," said Dorothy.
"I quite agree with you that laughter is a very good thing,—in its place. I am not at all one of those who would make the world altogether grave. There are serious things, and there must be serious moments."
"Of course," said Dorothy.
"And I think that serious conversation upon the whole has more allurements than conversation which when you come to examine it is found to mean nothing. Don't you?"
"I suppose everybody should mean something when he talks."
"Just so. That is exactly my idea," said Mr. Gibson. "On all such subjects as that I should be so sorry if you and I did not agree. I really should." Then he paused, and Dorothy was so confounded by what she conceived to be the dangers of the coming moment that she was unable even to think what she ought to say. She heard Mrs. MacHugh's clear, sharp, merry voice, and she heard her aunt's tone of pretended anger, and she heard Sir Peter's continued laughter, and Brooke Burgess as he continued the telling of some story; but her own trouble was too great to allow of her attending to what was going on at the other end of the room. "There is nothing as to which I am so anxious as that you and I should agree about serious things," said Mr. Gibson.
"I suppose we do agree about going to church," said Dorothy. She knew that she could have made no speech more stupid, more senseless, more inefficacious;—but what was she to say in answer to such an assurance?
"I hope so," said Mr. Gibson; "and I think so. Your aunt is a most excellent woman, and her opinion has very great weight with me on all subjects,—even as to matters of church discipline and doctrine, in which, as a clergyman, I am of course presumed to be more at home. But your aunt is a woman among a thousand."
"Of course I think she is very good."
"And she is so right about this young man and her property. Don't you think so?"
"Quite right, Mr. Gibson."
"Because you know, to you, of course, being her near relative, and the one she has singled out as the recipient of her kindness, it might have been cause for some discontent."
"Discontent to me, Mr. Gibson!"
"I am quite sure your feelings are what they ought to be. And for myself, if I ever were,—that is to say, supposing I could be in any way interested—. But perhaps it is premature to make any suggestion on that head at present."
"I don't at all understand what you mean, Mr. Gibson."
"I thought that perhaps I might take this opportunity of expressing—. But, after all, the levity of the moment is hardly in accordance with the sentiments which I should wish to express."
"I think that I ought to go to my aunt now, Mr. Gibson, as perhaps she might want something." Then she did push back her chair, and stand upon her legs,—and Mr. Gibson, after pausing for a moment, allowed her to escape. Soon after that the visitors went, and Brooke Burgess was left in the drawing-room with Miss Stanbury and Dorothy.
"How well I recollect all the people," said Brooke; "Sir Peter, and old Mrs. MacHugh, and Mrs. Powel, who then used to be called the beautiful Miss Noel. And I remember every bit of furniture in the room."
"Nothing changed except the old woman, Brooke," said Miss Stanbury.
"Upon my word, you are the least changed of all,—except that you don't seem to be so terrible as you were then."
"Was I very terrible, Brooke?"
"My mother had told me, I fancy, that I was never to make a noise, and be sure not to break any of the china. You were always very good-natured, and when you gave me a silver watch I could hardly believe the extent of my own bliss."
"You wouldn't care about a watch from an old woman now, Brooke?"
"You try me. But what rakes you are here! It's past eleven o'clock, and I must go and have a smoke."
"Have a what?" said Miss Stanbury, with a startled air.
"A smoke. You needn't be frightened; I don't mean in the house."
"No;—I hope you don't mean that."
"But I may take a turn round the Close with a pipe;—mayn't I?"
"I suppose all young men do smoke now," said Miss Stanbury, sorrowfully.
"Every one of them; and they tell me that the young women mean to take to it before long."
"If I saw a young woman smoking, I should blush for my sex; and though she were the nearest and dearest that I had, I would never speak to her;—never. Dorothy, I don't think Mr. Gibson smokes."
"I'm sure I don't know, aunt."
"I hope he doesn't. I do hope that he does not. I cannot understand what pleasure it is that men take in making chimneys of themselves, and going about smelling so that no one can bear to come near them."
Brooke merely laughed at this, and went his way, and smoked his pipe out in the Close, while Martha sat up to let him in when he had finished it. Then Dorothy escaped at once to her room, fearful of being questioned by her aunt about Mr. Gibson. She had, she thought now, quite made up her mind. There was nothing in Mr. Gibson that she liked. She was by no means so sure as she had been when she was talking to her sister, that she would prefer a clergyman to any one else. She had formed no strong ideas on the subject of love-making, but she did think that any man who really cared for her, would find some other way of expressing his love than that which Mr. Gibson had adopted. And then Mr. Gibson had spoken to her about her aunt's money in a way that was distasteful to her. She thought that she was quite sure that if he should ask her, she would not accept him.
She was nearly undressed, nearly safe for the night, when there came a knock at the door, and her aunt entered the room. "He has come in," said Miss Stanbury.
"I suppose he has had his pipe, then."
"I wish he didn't smoke. I do wish he didn't smoke. But I suppose an old woman like me is only making herself a fool to care about such things. If they all do it I can't prevent them. He seems to be a very nice young man—in other things; does he not, Dolly?"
"Very nice indeed, Aunt Stanbury."
"And he has done very well in his office. And as for his saying that he must smoke, I like that a great deal better than doing it on the sly."
"I don't think Mr. Burgess would do anything on the sly, aunt."
"No, no; I don't think he would. Dear me; he's not at all like what I fancied."
"Everybody seemed to like him very much."
"Didn't they? I never saw Sir Peter so much taken. And there was quite a flirtation between him and Mrs. MacHugh. And now, my dear, tell me about Mr. Gibson."
"There is nothing to tell, Aunt Stanbury."
"Isn't there? From what I saw going on, I thought there would be something to tell. He was talking to you the whole evening."
"As it happened he was sitting next to me,—of course."
"Indeed he was sitting next to you;—so much so that I thought everything would be settled."
"If I tell you something, Aunt Stanbury, you mustn't be angry with me."
"Tell me what? What is it you have to tell me?"
"I don't think I shall ever care for Mr. Gibson;—not in that way."
"Why not, Dorothy?"
"I'm sure he doesn't care for me. And I don't think he means it."
"I tell you he does mean it. Mean it! Why, I tell you it has all been settled between us. Since I first spoke to you I have explained to him exactly what I intend to do. He knows that he can give up his house and come and live here. I am sure he must have said something about it to you to-night."
"Not a word, Aunt Stanbury."
"Then he will."
"Dear aunt, I do so wish you would prevent it. I don't like him. I don't indeed."
"Not like him!"
"No;—I don't care for him a bit, and I never shall. I can't help it, Aunt Stanbury. I thought I would try, but I find it would be impossible. You can't want me to marry a man if I don't love him."
"I never heard of such a thing in my life. Not love him! And why shouldn't you love him? He's a gentleman. Everybody respects him. He'll have plenty to make you comfortable all your life! And then why didn't you tell me before?"
"I didn't know, Aunt Stanbury. I thought that perhaps—"
"I could not say all at once that I didn't care for him, when I had never so much as thought about it for a moment before."
"You haven't told him this?"
"No, I have not told him. I couldn't begin by telling him, you know."
"Then I must pray that you will think about it again. Have you imagined what a great thing for you it would be to be established for life,—so that you should never have any more trouble again about a home, or about money, or anything? Don't answer me now, Dorothy, but think of it. It seemed to me that I was doing such an excellent thing for both of you." So saying Miss Stanbury left the room, and Dorothy was enabled to obey her, at any rate, in one matter. She did think of it. She laid awake thinking of it almost all the night. But the more she thought of it, the less able was she to realise to herself any future comfort or happiness in the idea of becoming Mrs. Gibson.
THE "FULL MOON" AT ST. DIDDULPH'S.
The receipt of Mrs. Trevelyan's letter on that Monday morning was a great surprise both to Mr. and Mrs. Outhouse. There was no time for any consideration, no opportunity for delaying their arrival till they should have again referred the matter to Mr. Trevelyan. Their two nieces were to be with them on that evening, and even the telegraph wires, if employed with such purpose, would not be quick enough to stop their coming. The party, as they knew, would have left Nuncombe Putney before the arrival of the letter at the parsonage of St. Diddulph's. There would have been nothing in this to have caused vexation, had it not been decided between Trevelyan and Mr. Outhouse that Mrs. Trevelyan was not to find a home at the parsonage. Mr. Outhouse was greatly afraid of being so entangled in the matter as to be driven to take the part of the wife against the husband; and Mrs. Outhouse, though she was full of indignation against Trevelyan, was at the same time not free from anger in regard to her own niece. She more than once repeated that most unjust of all proverbs, which declares that there is never smoke without fire, and asserted broadly that she did not like to be with people who could not live at home, husbands with wives, and wives with husbands, in a decent, respectable manner. Nevertheless the preparations went on busily, and when the party arrived at seven o'clock in the evening, two rooms had been prepared close to each other, one for the two sisters, and the other for the child and nurse, although poor Mr. Outhouse himself was turned out of his own little chamber in order that the accommodation might be given. They were all very hot, very tired, and very dusty, when the cab reached the parsonage. There had been the preliminary drive from Nuncombe Putney to Lessboro'. Then the railway journey from thence to the Waterloo Bridge Station had been long. And it had seemed to them that the distance from the station to St. Diddulph's had been endless. When the cabman was told whither he was to go, he looked doubtingly at his poor old horse, and then at the luggage which he was required to pack on the top of his cab, and laid himself out for his work with a full understanding that it would not be accomplished without considerable difficulty. The cabman made it twelve miles from Waterloo Bridge to St. Diddulph's, and suggested that extra passengers and parcels would make the fare up to ten and six. Had he named double as much Mrs. Trevelyan would have assented. So great was the fatigue, and so wretched the occasion, that there was sobbing and crying in the cab, and when at last the parsonage was reached, even the nurse was hardly able to turn her hand to anything. The poor wanderers were made welcome on that evening without a word of discussion as to the cause of their coming. "I hope you are not angry with us, Uncle Oliphant," Emily Trevelyan had said, with tears in her eyes. "Angry with you, my dear;—for coming to our house! How could I be angry with you?" Then the travellers were hurried up-stairs by Mrs. Outhouse, and the master of the parsonage was left alone for a while. He certainly was not angry, but he was ill at ease, and unhappy. His guests would probably remain with him for six or seven months. He had resolutely refused all payment from Mr. Trevelyan, but, nevertheless, he was a poor man. It is impossible to conceive that a clergyman in such a parish as St. Diddulph's, without a private income, should not be a poor man. It was but a hand-to-mouth existence which he lived, paying his way as his money came to him, and sharing the proceeds of his parish with the poor. He was always more or less in debt. That was quite understood among the tradesmen. And the butcher who trusted him, though he was a bad churchman, did not look upon the parson's account as he did on other debts. He would often hint to Mr. Outhouse that a little money ought to be paid, and then a little money would be paid. But it was never expected that the parsonage bill should be settled. In such a household the arrival of four guests, who were expected to remain for an almost indefinite number of months, could not be regarded without dismay. On that first evening, Emily and Nora did come down to tea, but they went up again to their rooms almost immediately afterwards; and Mr. Outhouse found that many hours of solitary meditation were allowed to him on the occasion. "I suppose your brother has been told all about it," he said to his wife, as soon as they were together on that evening.
"Yes;—he has been told. She did not write to her mother till after she had got to Nuncombe Putney. She did not like to speak about her troubles while there was a hope that things might be made smooth."
"You can't blame her for that, my dear."
"But there was a month lost, or nearly. Letters go only once a month. And now they can't hear from Marmaduke or Bessy,"—Lady Rowley's name was Bessy,—"till the beginning of September."
"That will be in a fortnight."
"But what can my brother say to them? He will suppose that they are still down in Devonshire."
"You don't think he will come at once?"
"How can he, my dear? He can't come without leave, and the expense would be ruinous. They would stop his pay, and there would be all manner of evils. He is to come in the spring, and they must stay here till he comes." The parson of St. Diddulph's sighed and groaned. Would it not have been almost better that he should have put his pride in his pocket, and have consented to take Mr. Trevelyan's money?
On the second morning Hugh Stanbury called at the parsonage, and was closeted for a while with the parson. Nora had heard his voice in the passage, and every one in the house knew who it was that was talking to Mr. Outhouse, in the little back parlour that was called a study. Nora was full of anxiety. Would he ask to see them,—to see her? And why was he there so long? "No doubt he has brought a message from Mr. Trevelyan," said her sister. "I dare say he will send word that I ought not to have come to my uncle's house." Then, at last, both Mr. Outhouse and Hugh Stanbury came into the room in which they were all sitting. The greetings were cold and unsatisfactory, and Nora barely allowed Hugh to touch the tip of her fingers. She was very angry with him, and yet she knew that her anger was altogether unreasonable. That he had caused her to refuse a marriage that had so much to attract her was not his sin;—not that; but that, having thus overpowered her by his influence, he should then have stopped. And yet Nora had told herself twenty times that it was quite impossible that she should become Hugh Stanbury's wife;—and that, were Hugh Stanbury to ask her, it would become her to be indignant with him, for daring to make a proposition so outrageous. And now she was sick at heart, because he did not speak to her!
He had, of course, come to St. Diddulph's with a message from Trevelyan, and his secret was soon told to them all. Trevelyan himself was up-stairs in the sanded parlour of the Full Moon public-house, round the corner. Mrs. Trevelyan, when she heard this, clasped her hands and bit her lips. What was he there for? If he wanted to see her, why did he not come boldly to the parsonage? But it soon appeared that he had no desire to see his wife. "I am to take Louey to him," said Hugh Stanbury, "if you will allow me."
"What;—to be taken away from me!" exclaimed the mother. But Hugh assured her that no such idea had been formed; that he would have concerned himself in no such stratagem, and that he would himself undertake to bring the boy back again within an hour. Emily was, of course, anxious to be informed what other message was to be conveyed to her; but there was no other message—no message either of love or of instruction.
"Mr. Stanbury," said the parson, "has left something in my hands for you." This "something" was given over to her as soon as Stanbury had left the house, and consisted of cheques for various small sums, amounting in all to £200. "And he hasn't said what I am to do with it?" Emily asked of her uncle. Mr. Outhouse declared that the cheques had been given to him without any instructions on that head. Mr. Trevelyan had simply expressed his satisfaction that his wife should be with her uncle and aunt, had sent the money, and had desired to see the child.
The boy was got ready, and Hugh walked with him in his arms round the corner, to the Full Moon. He had to pass by the bar, and the barmaid and the potboy looked at him very hard. "There's a young 'ooman has to do with that ere little game," said the potboy. "And it's two to one the young 'ooman has the worst of it," said the barmaid. "They mostly does," said the potboy, not without some feeling of pride in the immunities of his sex. "Here he is," said Hugh, as he entered the parlour. "My boy, there's papa." The child at this time was more than a year old, and could crawl about and use his own legs with the assistance of a finger to his little hand, and could utter a sound which the fond mother interpreted to mean papa; for with all her hot anger against her husband, the mother was above all things anxious that her child should be taught to love his father's name. She would talk of her separation from her husband as though it must be permanent; she would declare to her sister how impossible it was that they should ever again live together; she would repeat to herself over and over the tale of the injustice that had been done to her, assuring herself that it was out of the question that she should ever pardon the man; but yet, at the bottom of her heart, there was a hope that the quarrel should be healed before her boy would be old enough to understand the nature of quarrelling. Trevelyan took the child on to his knee, and kissed him; but the poor little fellow, startled by his transference from one male set of arms to another, confused by the strangeness of the room, and by the absence of things familiar to his sight, burst out into loud tears. He had stood the journey round the corner in Hugh's arms manfully, and, though he had looked about him with very serious eyes, as he passed through the bar, he had borne that, and his carriage up the stairs; but when he was transferred to his father, whose air, as he took the boy, was melancholy and lugubrious in the extreme, the poor little fellow could endure no longer a mode of treatment so unusual, and, with a grimace which for a moment or two threatened the coming storm, burst out with an infantine howl. "That's how he has been taught," said Trevelyan.
"Nonsense," said Stanbury. "He's not been taught at all. It's Nature."
"Nature that he should be afraid of his own father! He did not cry when he was with you."
"No;—as it happened, he did not. I played with him when I was at Nuncombe; but, of course, one can't tell when a child will cry, and when it won't."
"My darling, my dearest, my own son!" said Trevelyan, caressing the child, and trying to comfort him; but the poor little fellow only cried the louder. It was now nearly two months since he had seen his father, and, when age is counted by months only, almost everything may be forgotten in six weeks. "I suppose you must take him back again," said Trevelyan, sadly.
"Of course I must take him back again. Come along, Louey, my boy."
"It is cruel;—very cruel," said Trevelyan. "No man living could love his child better than I love mine;—or, for the matter of that, his wife. It is very cruel."
"The remedy is in your own hands, Trevelyan," said Stanbury, as he marched off with the boy in his arms.
Trevelyan had now become so accustomed to being told by everybody that he was wrong, and was at the same time so convinced that he was right, that he regarded the perversity of his friends as a part of the persecution to which he was subjected. Even Lady Milborough, who objected to Colonel Osborne quite as strongly as did Trevelyan himself, even she blamed him now, telling him that he had done wrong to separate himself from his wife. Mr. Bideawhile, the old family lawyer, was of the same opinion. Trevelyan had spoken to Mr. Bideawhile as to the expediency of making some lasting arrangement for a permanent maintenance for his wife; but the attorney had told him that nothing of the kind could be held to be lasting. It was clearly the husband's duty to look forward to a reconciliation, and Mr. Bideawhile became quite severe in the tone of rebuke which he assumed. Stanbury treated him almost as though he were a madman. And as for his wife herself—when she wrote to him she would not even pretend to express any feeling of affection. And yet, as he thought, no man had ever done more for a wife. When Stanbury had gone with the child, he sat waiting for him in the parlour of the public-house, as miserable a man as one could find. He had promised himself something that should be akin to pleasure in seeing his boy;—but it had been all disappointment and pain. What was it that they expected him to do? What was it that they desired? His wife had behaved with such indiscretion as almost to have compromised his honour; and in return for that he was to beg her pardon, confess himself to have done wrong, and allow her to return in triumph! That was the light in which he regarded his own position; but he promised to himself that let his own misery be what it might he would never so degrade him. The only person who had been true to him was Bozzle. Let them all look to it. If there were any further intercourse between his wife and Colonel Osborne, he would take the matter into open court, and put her away publicly, let Mr. Bideawhile say what he might. Bozzle should see to that;—and as to himself, he would take himself out of England and hide himself abroad. Bozzle should know his address, but he would give it to no one else. Nothing on earth should make him yield to a woman who had ill-treated him,—nothing but confession and promise of amendment on her part. If she would acknowledge and promise, then he would forgive all, and the events of the last four months should never again be mentioned by him. So resolving he sat and waited till Stanbury should return to him.
When Stanbury got back to the parsonage with the boy he had nothing to do but to take his leave. He would fain have asked permission to come again, could he have invented any reason for doing so. But the child was taken from him at once by its mother, and he was left alone with Mr. Outhouse. Nora Rowley did not even show herself, and he hardly knew how to express sympathy and friendship for the guests at the parsonage, without seeming to be untrue to his friend Trevelyan. "I hope all this may come to an end soon," he said.
"I hope it may, Mr. Stanbury," said the clergyman; "but to tell you the truth, it seems to me that Mr. Trevelyan is so unreasonable a man, so much like a madman indeed, that I hardly know how to look forward to any future happiness for my niece." This was spoken with the utmost severity that Mr. Outhouse could assume.
"And yet no man loves his wife more tenderly."
"Tender love should show itself by tender conduct, Mr. Stanbury. What has he done to his wife? He has blackened her name among all his friends and hers, he has turned her out of his house, he has reviled her,—and then thinks to prove how good he is by sending her money. The only possible excuse is that he must be mad."
Stanbury went back to the Full Moon, and retraced his steps with his friend towards Lincoln's Inn. Two minutes took him from the parsonage to the public-house, but during these two minutes he resolved that he would speak his mind roundly to Trevelyan as they returned home. Trevelyan should either take his wife back again at once, or else he, Stanbury, would have no more to do with him. He said nothing till they had threaded together the maze of streets which led them from the neighbourhood of the Church of St. Diddulph's into the straight way of the Commercial Road. Then he began. "Trevelyan," said he, "you are wrong in all this from beginning to end."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say. If there was anything in what your wife did to offend you, a soft word from you would have put it all right."
"A soft word! How do you know what soft words I used?"
"A soft word now would do it. You have only to bid her come back to you, and let bygones be bygones, and all would be right. Can't you be man enough to remember that you are a man?"
"Stanbury, I believe you want to quarrel with me."
"I tell you fairly that I think that you are wrong."
"They have talked you over to their side."
"I know nothing about sides. I only know that you are wrong."
"And what would you have me do?"
"Go and travel together for six months." Here was Lady Milborough's receipt again! "Travel together for a year if you will. Then come back and live where you please. People will have forgotten it;—or if they remember it, what matters? No sane person can advise you to go on as you are doing now."
But it was of no avail. Before they had reached the Bank the two friends had quarrelled and had parted. Then Trevelyan felt that there was indeed no one left to him but Bozzle. On the following morning he saw Bozzle, and on the evening of the next day he was in Paris.
HUGH STANBURY SMOKES ANOTHER PIPE.
Trevelyan was gone, and Bozzle alone knew his address. During the first fortnight of her residence at St. Diddulph's Mrs. Trevelyan received two letters from Lady Milborough, in both of which she was recommended, indeed tenderly implored, to be submissive to her husband. "Anything," said Lady Milborough, "is better than separation." In answer to the second letter Mrs. Trevelyan told the old lady that she had no means by which she could shew any submission to her husband, even if she were so minded. Her husband had gone away, she did not know whither, and she had no means by which she could communicate with him. And then came a packet to her from her father and mother, despatched from the islands after the receipt by Lady Rowley of the melancholy tidings of the journey to Nuncombe Putney. Both Sir Marmaduke and Lady Rowley were full of anger against Trevelyan, and wrote as though the husband could certainly be brought back to a sense of his duty, if they only were present. This packet had been at Nuncombe Putney, and contained a sealed note from Sir Marmaduke addressed to Mr. Trevelyan. Lady Rowley explained that it was impossible that they should get to England earlier than in the spring. "I would come myself at once and leave papa to follow," said Lady Rowley, "only for the children. If I were to bring them, I must take a house for them, and the expense would ruin us. Papa has written to Mr. Trevelyan in a way that he thinks will bring him to reason."
But how was this letter, by which the husband was to be brought to reason, to be put into the husband's hands? Mrs. Trevelyan applied to Mr. Bideawhile and to Lady Milborough, and to Stanbury, for Trevelyan's address; but was told by each of them that nothing was known of his whereabouts. She did not apply to Mr. Bozzle, although Mr. Bozzle was more than once in her neighbourhood; but as yet she knew nothing of Mr. Bozzle. The replies from Mr. Bideawhile and from Lady Milborough came by the post; but Hugh Stanbury thought that duty required him to make another journey to St. Diddulph's and carry his own answer with him.
And on this occasion Fortune was either very kind to him,—or very unkind. Whichever it was, he found himself alone for a few seconds in the parsonage parlour with Nora Rowley. Mr. Outhouse was away at the time. Emily had gone up-stairs for the boy; and Mrs. Outhouse, suspecting nothing, had followed her. "Miss Rowley," said he, getting up from his seat, "if you think it will do any good I will follow Trevelyan till I find him."
"How can you find him? Besides, why should you give up your own business?"
"I would do anything—to serve your sister." This he said with hesitation in his voice, as though he did not dare to speak all that he desired to have spoken.
"I am sure that Emily is very grateful," said Nora; "but she would not wish to give you such trouble as that."
"I would do anything for your sister," he repeated, "—for your sake, Miss Rowley." This was the first time that he had ever spoken a word to her in such a strain, and it would be hardly too much to say that her heart was sick for some such expression. But now that it had come, though there was a sweetness about it that was delicious to her, she was absolutely silenced by it. And she was at once not only silent, but stern, rigid, and apparently cold. Stanbury could not but feel as he looked at her that he had offended her. "Perhaps I ought not to say as much," said he; "but it is so."
"Mr. Stanbury," said she, "that is nonsense. It is of my sister, not of me, that we are speaking."
Then the door was opened and Emily came in with her child, followed by her aunt. There was no other opportunity, and perhaps it was well for Nora and for Hugh that there should have been no other. Enough had been said to give her comfort; and more might have led to his discomposure. As to that matter on which he was presumed to have come to St. Diddulph's, he could do nothing. He did not know Trevelyan's address, but did know that Trevelyan had abandoned the chambers in Lincoln's Inn. And then he found himself compelled to confess that he had quarrelled with Trevelyan, and that they had parted in anger on the day of their joint visit to the East. "Everybody who knows him must quarrel with him," said Mrs. Outhouse. Hugh when he took his leave was treated by them all as a friend who had been gained. Mrs. Outhouse was gracious to him. Mrs. Trevelyan whispered a word to him of her own trouble. "If I can hear anything of him, you may be sure that I will let you know," he said. Then it was Nora's turn to bid him adieu. There was nothing to be said. No word could be spoken before others that should be of any avail. But as he took her hand in his he remembered the reticence of her fingers on that former day, and thought that he was sure there was a difference.
On this occasion he made his journey back to the end of Chancery Lane on the top of an omnibus; and as he lit his little pipe, disregarding altogether the scrutiny of the public, thoughts passed through his mind similar to those in which he had indulged as he sat smoking on the corner of the churchyard wall at Nuncombe Putney. He declared to himself that he did love this girl; and as it was so, would it not be better, at any rate more manly, that he should tell her so honestly, than go on groping about with half-expressed words when he saw her, thinking of her and yet hardly daring to go near her, bidding himself to forget her although he knew that such forgetting was impossible, hankering after the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand, and something of the tenderness of returned affection,—and yet regarding her as a prize altogether out of his reach! Why should she be out of his reach? She had no money, and he had not a couple of hundred pounds in the world. But he was earning an income which would give them both shelter and clothes and bread and cheese.
What reader is there, male or female, of such stories as is this, who has not often discussed in his or her own mind the different sides of this question of love and marriage? On either side enough may be said by any arguer to convince at any rate himself. It must be wrong for a man, whose income is both insufficient and precarious also, not only to double his own cares and burdens, but to place the weight of that doubled burden on other shoulders besides his own,—on shoulders that are tender and soft, and ill adapted to the carriage of any crushing weight. And then that doubled burden,—that burden of two mouths to be fed, of two backs to be covered, of two minds to be satisfied, is so apt to double itself again and again. The two so speedily become four, and six! And then there is the feeling that that kind of semi-poverty, which has in itself something of the pleasantness of independence, when it is borne by a man alone, entails the miseries of a draggle-tailed and querulous existence when it is imposed on a woman who has in her own home enjoyed the comforts of affluence. As a man thinks of all this, if he chooses to argue with himself on that side, there is enough in the argument to make him feel that not only as a wise man but as an honest man, he had better let the young lady alone. She is well as she is, and he sees around him so many who have tried the chances of marriage and who are not well! Look at Jones with his wan, worn wife and his five children, Jones who is not yet thirty, of whom he happens to know that the wretched man cannot look his doctor in the face, and that the doctor is as necessary to the man's house as is the butcher! What heart can Jones have for his work with such a burden as this upon his shoulders? And so the thinker, who argues on that side, resolves that the young lady shall go her own way for him.
But the arguments on the other side are equally cogent, and so much more alluring! And they are used by the same man with reference to the same passion, and are intended by him to put himself right in his conduct in reference to the same dear girl. Only the former line of thoughts occurred to him on a Saturday, when he was ending his week rather gloomily, and this other way of thinking on the same subject has come upon him on a Monday, as he is beginning his week with renewed hope. Does this young girl of his heart love him? And if so, their affection for each other being thus reciprocal, is she not entitled to an expression of her opinion and her wishes on this difficult subject? And if she be willing to run the risk and to encounter the dangers,—to do so on his behalf, because she is willing to share everything with him,—is it becoming in him, a man, to fear what she does not fear? If she be not willing let her say so. If there be any speaking, he must speak first;—but she is entitled, as much as he is, to her own ideas respecting their great outlook into the affairs of the world. And then is it not manifestly God's ordinance that a man should live together with a woman? How poor a creature does the man become who has shirked his duty in this respect, who has done nothing to keep the world going, who has been willing to ignore all affection so that he might avoid all burdens, and who has put into his own belly every good thing that has come to him, either by the earning of his own hands or from the bounty and industry of others! Of course there is a risk; but what excitement is there in anything in which there is none? So on the Tuesday he speaks his mind to the young lady, and tells her candidly that there will be potatoes for the two of them,—sufficient, as he hopes, of potatoes, but no more. As a matter of course the young lady replies that she for her part will be quite content to take the parings for her own eating. Then they rush deliciously into each other's arms and the matter is settled. For, though the convictions arising from the former line of argument may be set aside as often as need be, those reached from the latter are generally conclusive. That such a settlement will always be better for the young gentleman and the young lady concerned than one founded on a sterner prudence is more than one may dare to say; but we do feel sure that that country will be most prosperous in which such leaps in the dark are made with the greatest freedom.
Our friend Hugh, as he sat smoking on the knife-board of the omnibus, determined that he would risk everything. If it were ordained that prudence should prevail, the prudence should be hers. Why should he take upon himself to have prudence enough for two, seeing that she was so very discreet in all her bearings? Then he remembered the touch of her hand, which he still felt upon his palm as he sat handling his pipe, and he told himself that after that he was bound to say a word more. And moreover he confessed to himself that he was compelled by a feeling that mastered him altogether. He could not get through an hour's work without throwing down his pen and thinking of Nora Rowley. It was his destiny to love her,—and there was, to his mind, a mean, pettifogging secrecy, amounting almost to daily lying, in his thus loving her and not telling her that he loved her. It might well be that she should rebuke him; but he thought that he could bear that. It might well be that he had altogether mistaken that touch of her hand. After all it had been the slightest possible motion of no more than one finger. But he would at any rate know the truth. If she would tell him at once that she did not care for him, he thought that he could get over it; but life was not worth having while he lived in this shifty, dubious, and uncomfortable state. So he made up his mind that he would go to St. Diddulph's with his heart in his hand.
In the mean time, Mr. Bozzle had been twice to St. Diddulph's;—and now he made a third journey there, two days after Stanbury's visit. Trevelyan, who, in truth, hated the sight of the man, and who suffered agonies in his presence, had, nevertheless, taught himself to believe that he could not live without his assistance. That it should be so was a part of the cruelty of his lot. Who else was there that he could trust? His wife had renewed her intimacy with Colonel Osborne the moment that she had left him. Mrs. Stanbury, who had been represented to him as the most correct of matrons, had at once been false to him and to her trust, in allowing Colonel Osborne to enter her house. Mr. and Mrs. Outhouse, with whom his wife had now located herself, not by his orders, were, of course, his enemies. His old friend, Hugh Stanbury, had gone over to the other side, and had quarrelled with him purposely, with malice prepense, because he would not submit himself to the caprices of the wife who had injured him. His own lawyer had refused to act for him; and his fast and oldest ally, the very person who had sounded in his ear the earliest warning note against that odious villain, whose daily work it was to destroy the peace of families,—even Lady Milborough had turned against him! Because he would not follow the stupid prescription which she, with pig-headed obstinacy, persisted in giving,—because he would not carry his wife off to Naples,—she was ill-judging and inconsistent enough to tell him that he was wrong! Who was then left to him but Bozzle? Bozzle was very disagreeable. Bozzle said things, and made suggestions to him which were as bad as pins stuck into his flesh. But Bozzle was true to his employer, and could find out facts. Had it not been for Bozzle, he would have known nothing of the Colonel's journey to Devonshire. Had it not been for Bozzle, he would never have heard of the correspondence; and, therefore, when he left London, he gave Bozzle a roving commission; and when he went to Paris, and from Paris onwards, over the Alps into Italy, he furnished Bozzle with his address. At this time, in the midst of all his misery, it never occurred to him to inquire of himself whether it might be possible that his old friends were right, and that he himself was wrong. From morning to night he sang to himself melancholy silent songs of inward wailing, as to the cruelty of his own lot in life;—and, in the mean time, he employed Bozzle to find out for him how far that cruelty was carried.
Mr. Bozzle was, of course, convinced that the lady whom he was employed to watch was—no better than she ought to be. That is the usual Bozzlian language for broken vows, secrecy, intrigue, dirt, and adultery. It was his business to obtain evidence of her guilt. There was no question to be solved as to her innocency. The Bozzlian mind would have regarded any such suggestion as the product of a green softness, the possession of which would have made him quite unfit for his profession. He was aware that ladies who are no better than they should be are often very clever,—so clever, as to make it necessary that the Bozzles who shall at last confound them should be first-rate Bozzles, Bozzles quite at the top of their profession,—and, therefore, he went about his work with great industry and much caution. Colonel Osborne was at the present moment in Scotland. Bozzle was sure of that. He was quite in the north of Scotland. Bozzle had examined his map, and had found that Wick, which was the Colonel's post-town, was very far north indeed. He had half a mind to run down to Wick, as he was possessed by a certain honest zeal, which made him long to do something hard and laborious; but his experience told him that it was very easy for the Colonel to come up to the neighbourhood of St. Diddulph's, whereas the lady could not go down to Wick, unless she were to decide upon throwing herself into her lover's arms,—whereby Bozzle's work would be brought to an end. He, therefore, confined his immediate operations to St. Diddulph's.
He made acquaintance with one or two important persons in and about Mr. Outhouse's parsonage. He became very familiar with the postman. He arranged terms of intimacy, I am sorry to say, with the housemaid; and, on the third journey, he made an alliance with the potboy at the Full Moon. The potboy remembered well the fact of the child being brought to "our 'ouse," as he called the Full Moon; and he was enabled to say, that the same "gent as had brought the boy backards and forrards," had since that been at the parsonage. But Bozzle was quite quick enough to perceive that all this had nothing to do with the Colonel. He was led, indeed, to fear that his "governor," as he was in the habit of calling Trevelyan in his half-spoken soliloquies,—that his governor was not as true to him as he was to his governor. What business had that meddling fellow Stanbury at St. Diddulph's?—for Trevelyan had not thought it necessary to tell his satellite that he had quarrelled with his friend. Bozzle was grieved in his mind when he learned that Stanbury's interference was still to be dreaded; and wrote to his governor, rather severely, to that effect; but, when so writing, he was able to give no further information. Facts, in such cases, will not unravel themselves without much patience on the part of the investigators.
On the night after the dinner party in the Close, Dorothy was not the only person in the house who laid awake thinking of what had taken place. Miss Stanbury also was full of anxiety, and for hour after hour could not sleep as she remembered the fruitlessness of her efforts on behalf of her nephew and niece.
It had never occurred to her, when she had first proposed to herself that Dorothy should become Mrs. Gibson that Dorothy herself would have any objection to such a step in life. Her fear had been that Dorothy would have become over-radiant with triumph at the idea of having a husband, and going to that husband with a fortune of her own. That Mr. Gibson might hesitate she had thought very likely. It is thus in general that women regard the feelings, desires, and aspirations of other women. You will hardly ever meet an elderly lady who will not speak of her juniors as living in a state of breathless anxiety to catch husbands. And the elder lady will speak of the younger as though any kind of choice in such catching was quite disregarded. The man must be a gentleman,—or, at least, gentlemanlike,—and there must be bread. Let these things be given, and what girl won't jump into what man's arms? Female reader, is it not thus that the elders of your sex speak of the younger? When old Mrs. Stanbury heard that Nora Rowley had refused Mr. Glascock, the thing was to her unintelligible; and it was now quite unintelligible to Miss Stanbury that Dorothy should prefer a single life to matrimony with Mr. Gibson.
It must be acknowledged, on Aunt Stanbury's behalf, that Dorothy was one of those yielding, hesitating, submissive young women, trusting others, but doubting ever of themselves, as to whom it is natural that their stronger friends should find it expedient to decide for them. Miss Stanbury was almost justified in thinking that unless she were to find a husband for her niece, her niece would never find one for herself. Dorothy would drift into being an old maid, like Priscilla, simply because she would never assert herself,—never put her best foot foremost. Aunt Stanbury had therefore taken upon herself to put out a foot; and having carefully found that Mr. Gibson was "willing," had conceived that all difficulties were over. She would be enabled to do her duty by her niece, and establish comfortably in life, at any rate, one of her brother's children. And now Dorothy was taking upon herself to say that she did not like the gentleman! Such conduct was almost equal to writing for a penny newspaper!
On the following morning, after breakfast, when Brooke Burgess was gone out to call upon his uncle,—which he insisted upon doing openly, and not under the rose, in spite of Miss Stanbury's great gravity on the occasion,—there was a very serious conversation, and poor Dorothy had found herself to be almost silenced. She did argue for a time; but her arguments seemed, even to herself, to amount to so little! Why shouldn't she love Mr. Gibson? That was a question which she found it impossible to answer. And though she did not actually yield, though she did not say that she would accept the man, still, when she was told that three days were to be allowed to her for consideration, and that then the offer would be made to her in form, she felt that, as regarded the anti-Gibson interest, she had not a leg to stand upon. Why should not such an insignificant creature, as was she, love Mr. Gibson,—or any other man who had bread to give her, and was in some degree like a gentleman? On that night, she wrote the following letter to her sister:—
The Close, Tuesday.
I do so wish that you could be with me, so that I could talk to you again. Aunt Stanbury is the most affectionate and kindest friend in the world; but she has always been so able to have her own way, because she is both clever and good, that I find myself almost like a baby with her. She has been talking to me again about Mr. Gibson; and it seems that Mr. Gibson really does mean it. It is certainly very strange; but I do think now that it is true. He is to come on Friday. It seems very odd that it should all be settled for him in that way; but then Aunt Stanbury is so clever at settling things!
He sat next to me almost all the evening yesterday; but he didn't say anything about it, except that he hoped I agreed with him about going to church, and all that. I suppose I do; and I am quite sure that if I were to be a clergyman's wife, I should endeavour to do whatever my husband thought right about religion. One ought to try to do so, even if the clergyman is not one's husband. Mr. Burgess has come, and he was so very amusing all the evening, that perhaps that was the reason Mr. Gibson said so little. Mr. Burgess is a very nice man, and I think Aunt Stanbury is more fond of him than of anybody. He is not at all the sort of person that I expected.
But if Mr. Gibson does come on Friday, and does really mean it, what am I to say to him? Aunt Stanbury will be very angry if I do not take her advice. I am quite sure that she intends it all for my happiness; and then, of course, she knows so much more about the world than I do. She asks me what it is that I expect. Of course, I do not expect anything. It is a great compliment from Mr. Gibson, who is a clergyman, and thought well of by everybody. And nothing could be more respectable. Aunt Stanbury says that with the money she would give us we should be quite comfortable; and she wants us to live in this house. She says that there are thirty girls round Exeter who would give their eyes for such a chance; and, looking at it in that light, of course, it is a very great thing for me. Only think how poor we have been! And then, dear Priscilla, perhaps he would let me be good to you and dear mamma!
But of course he will ask me whether I—love him; and what am I to say? Aunt Stanbury says that I am to love him. "Begin to love him at once," she said this morning. I would if I could, partly for her sake, and because I do feel that it would be so respectable. When I think of it, it does seem such a pity that poor I should throw away such a chance. And I must say that Mr. Gibson is very good and most obliging; and everybody says that he has an excellent temper, and that he is a most prudent, well-dispositioned man. I declare, dear Priscilla, when I think of it, I cannot bring myself to believe that such a man should want me to be his wife.
But what ought I to do? I suppose when a girl is in love she is very unhappy if the gentleman does not propose to her. I am sure it would not make me at all unhappy if I were told that Mr. Gibson had changed his mind.
Dearest Priscilla, you must write at once, because he is to be here on Friday. Oh, dear; Friday does seem to be so near! And I shall never know what to say to him, either one way or the other.
Your most affectionate sister,
P.S.—Give my kindest love to mamma; but you need not tell her unless you think it best.
Priscilla received this letter on the Wednesday morning, and felt herself bound to answer it on that same afternoon. Had she postponed her reply for a day, it would still have been in Dorothy's hands before Mr. Gibson could have come to her on the dreaded Friday morning. But still that would hardly give her time enough to consider the matter with any degree of deliberation after she should have been armed with what wisdom Priscilla might be able to send her. The post left Nuncombe Putney at three; and therefore the letter had to be written before their early dinner.
So Priscilla went into the garden and sat herself down under an old cedar that she might discuss the matter with herself in all its bearings. She felt that no woman could be called upon to write a letter that should be of more importance. The whole welfare in life of the person who was dearest to her would probably depend upon it. The weight upon her was so great that she thought for a while she would take counsel with her mother; but she felt sure that her mother would recommend the marriage; and that if she afterwards should find herself bound to oppose it, then her mother would be a miserable woman. There could be no use to her in taking counsel with her mother, because her mother's mind was known to her beforehand. The responsibility was thrown upon her, and she alone must bear it.
She tried hard to persuade herself to write at once and tell her sister to marry the man. She knew her sister's heart so well as to be sure that Dorothy would learn to love the man who was her husband. It was almost impossible that Dorothy should not love those with whom she lived. And then her sister was so well adapted to be a wife and a mother. Her temper was so sweet, she was so pure, so unselfish, so devoted, and so healthy withal! She was so happy when she was acting for others; and so excellent in action when she had another one to think for her! She was so trusting and trustworthy that any husband would adore her! Then Priscilla walked slowly into the house, got her prayer-book, and returning to her seat under the tree read the marriage service. It was one o'clock when she went up-stairs to write her letter, and it had not yet struck eleven when she first seated herself beneath the tree. Her letter, when written, was as follows:—
Nuncombe Putney, August 25, 186—.
I got your letter this morning, and I think it is better to answer it at once, as the time is very short. I have been thinking about it with all my mind, and I feel almost awe-stricken lest I should advise you wrongly. After all, I believe that your own dear sweet truth and honesty would guide you better than anybody else can guide you. You may be sure of this, that whichever way it is, I shall think that you have done right. Dearest sister, I suppose there can be no doubt that for most women a married life is happier than a single one. It is always thought so, as we may see by the anxiety of others to get married; and when an opinion becomes general, I think that the world is most often right. And then, my own one, I feel sure that you are adapted both for the cares and for the joys of married life. You would do your duty as a married woman happily, and would be a comfort to your husband;—not a thorn in his side, as are so many women.
But, my pet, do not let that reasoning of Aunt Stanbury's about the thirty young girls who would give their eyes for Mr. Gibson, have any weight with you. You should not take him because thirty other young girls would be glad to have him. And do not think too much of that respectability of which you speak. I would never advise my Dolly to marry any man unless she could be respectable in her new position; but that alone should go for nothing. Nor should our poverty. We shall not starve. And even if we did, that would be but a poor excuse.
I can find no escape from this,—that you should love him before you say that you will take him. But honest, loyal love need not, I take it, be of that romantic kind which people write about in novels and poetry. You need not think him to be perfect, or the best or grandest of men. Your heart will tell you whether he is dear to you. And remember, Dolly, that I shall remember that love itself must begin at some precise time. Though you had not learned to love him when you wrote on Tuesday, you may have begun to do so when you get this on Thursday.
If you find that you love him, then say that you will be his wife. If your heart revolts from such a declaration as being false;—if you cannot bring yourself to feel that you prefer him to others as the partner of your life,—then tell him, with thanks for his courtesy, that it cannot be as he would have it.
Yours always and ever most affectionately,
MR. GIBSON'S GOOD FORTUNE.
"I'll bet you half-a-crown, my lad, you're thrown over at last, like the rest of them. There's nothing she likes so much as taking some one up in order that she may throw him over afterwards." It was thus that Mr. Bartholomew Burgess cautioned his nephew Brooke.
"I'll take care that she shan't break my heart, Uncle Barty. I will go my way and she may go hers, and she may give her money to the hospital if she pleases."
On the morning after his arrival Brooke Burgess had declared aloud in Miss Stanbury's parlour that he was going over to the bank to see his uncle. Now there was in this almost a breach of contract. Miss Stanbury, when she invited the young man to Exeter, had stipulated that there should be no intercourse between her house and the bank. "Of course, I shall not need to know where you go or where you don't go," she had written; "but after all that has passed there must not be any positive intercourse between my house and the bank." And now he had spoken of going over to C and B, as he called them, with the utmost indifference. Miss Stanbury had looked very grave, but had said nothing. She had determined to be on her guard, so that she should not be driven to quarrel with Brooke if she could avoid it.
Bartholomew Burgess was a tall, thin, ill-tempered old man, as well-known in Exeter as the cathedral, and respected after a fashion. No one liked him. He said ill-natured things of all his neighbours, and had never earned any reputation for doing good-natured acts. But he had lived in Exeter for nearly seventy years, and had achieved that sort of esteem which comes from long tenure. And he had committed no great iniquities in the course of his fifty years of business. The bank had never stopped payment, and he had robbed no one. He had not swallowed up widows and orphans, and had done his work in the firm of Cropper and Burgess after the old-fashioned safe manner, which leads neither to riches nor to ruin. Therefore he was respected. But he was a discontented, sour old man, who believed himself to have been injured by all his own friends, who disliked his own partners because they had bought that which had, at any rate, never belonged to him;—and whose strongest passion it was to hate Miss Stanbury of the Close.
"She's got a parson by the hand, now," said the uncle, as he continued his caution to the nephew.
"There was a clergyman there last night."
"No doubt, and she'll play him off against you, and you against him; and then she'll throw you both over. I know her."
"She has got a right to do what she likes with her own, Uncle Barty."
"And how did she get it? Never mind. I'm not going to set you against her, if you're her favourite for the moment. She has a niece with her there,—hasn't she?"
"One of her brother's daughters."
"They say she's going to make that clergyman marry her."
"Yes. They tell me he was as good as engaged to another girl,—one of the Frenches of Heavitree. And therefore dear Jemima could do nothing better than interfere. When she has succeeded in breaking the girl's heart—"
"Which girl's heart, Uncle Barty?"
"The girl the man was to have married; when that's done she'll throw Gibson over. You'll see. She'll refuse to give the girl a shilling. She took the girl's brother by the hand ever so long, and then she threw him over. And she'll throw the girl over too, and send her back to the place she came from. And then she'll throw you over."
"According to you, she must be the most malicious old woman that ever was allowed to live!"
"I don't think there are many to beat her, as far as malice goes. But you'll find out for yourself. I shouldn't be surprised if she were to tell you before long that you were to marry the niece."
"I shouldn't think that such very hard lines either," said Brooke Burgess.
"I've no doubt you may have her if you like," said Barty, "in spite of Mr. Gibson. Only I should recommend you to take care and get the money first."
When Brooke went back to the house in the Close, Miss Stanbury was quite fussy in her silence. She would have given much to have been told something about Barty, and, above all, to have learned what Barty had said about herself. But she was far too proud even to mention the old man's name of her own accord. She was quite sure that she had been abused. She guessed, probably with tolerable accuracy, the kind of things that had been said of her, and suggested to herself what answer Brooke would make to such accusations. But she had resolved to cloak it all in silence, and pretended for a while not to remember the young man's declared intention when he left the house. "It seems odd to me," said Brooke, "that Uncle Barty should always live alone as he does. He must have a dreary time of it."
"I don't know anything about your Uncle Barty's manner of living."
"No;—I suppose not. You and he are not friends."
"By no means, Brooke."
"He lives there all alone in that poky bank-house, and nobody ever goes near him. I wonder whether he has any friends in the city?"
"I really cannot tell you anything about his friends. And, to tell you the truth, Brooke, I don't want to talk about your uncle. Of course, you can go to see him when you please, but I'd rather you didn't tell me of your visits afterwards."
"There is nothing in the world I hate so much as a secret," said he. He had no intention in this of animadverting upon Miss Stanbury's secret enmity, nor had he purposed to ask any question as to her relations with the old man. He had alluded to his dislike of having secrets of his own. But she misunderstood him.
"If you are anxious to know—" she said, becoming very red in the face.
"I am not at all curious to know. You quite mistake me."
"He has chosen to believe,—or to say that he believed,—that I wronged him in regard to his brother's will. I nursed his brother when he was dying,—as I considered it to be my duty to do. I cannot tell you all that story. It is too long, and too sad. Romance is very pretty in novels, but the romance of a life is always a melancholy matter. They are most happy who have no story to tell."
"I quite believe that."
"But your Uncle Barty chose to think,—indeed, I hardly know what he thought. He said that the will was a will of my making. When it was made I and his brother were apart; we were not even on speaking terms. There had been a quarrel, and all manner of folly. I am not very proud when I look back upon it. It is not that I think myself better than others; but your Uncle Brooke's will was made before we had come together again. When he was ill it was natural that I should go to him,—after all that had passed between us. Eh, Brooke?"
"It was womanly."
"But it made no difference about the will. Mr. Bartholomew Burgess might have known that at once, and must have known it afterwards. But he has never acknowledged that he was wrong;—never even yet."
"He could not bring himself to do that, I should say."
"The will was no great triumph to me. I could have done without it. As God is my judge, I would not have lifted up my little finger to get either a part or the whole of poor Brooke's money. If I had known that a word would have done it, I would have bitten my tongue out before it should have been spoken." She had risen from her seat, and was speaking with a solemnity that almost filled her listener with awe. She was a woman short of stature; but now, as she stood over him, she seemed to be tall and majestic. "But when the man was dead," she continued, "and the will was there,—the property was mine, and I was bound in duty to exercise the privileges and bear the responsibilities which the dead man had conferred upon me. It was Barty, then, who sent a low attorney to me, offering me a compromise. What had I to compromise? Compromise! No. If it was not mine by all the right the law could give, I would sooner have starved than have had a crust of bread out of the money." She had now clenched both her fists, and was shaking them rapidly as she stood over him, looking down upon him.
"Of course it was your own."
"Yes. Though they asked me to compromise, and sent messages to me to frighten me;—both Barty and your Uncle Tom; ay, and your father too, Brooke; they did not dare to go to law. To law, indeed! If ever there was a good will in the world, the will of your Uncle Brooke was good. They could talk, and malign me, and tell lies as to dates, and strive to make my name odious in the county; but they knew that the will was good. They did not succeed very well in what they did attempt."
"I would try to forget it all now, Aunt Stanbury."
"Forget it! How is that to be done? How can the mind forget the history of its own life? No,—I cannot forget it. I can forgive it."
"Then why not forgive it?"
"I do. I have. Why else are you here?"
"But forgive old Uncle Barty also!"
"Has he forgiven me? Come now. If I wished to forgive him, how should I begin? Would he be gracious if I went to him? Does he love me, do you think,—or hate me? Uncle Barty is a good hater. It is the best point about him. No, Brooke, we won't try the farce of a reconciliation after a long life of enmity. Nobody would believe us, and we should not believe each other."
"Then I certainly would not try."
"I do not mean to do so. The truth is, Brooke, you shall have it all when I'm gone, if you don't turn against me. You won't take to writing for penny newspapers, will you, Brooke?" As she asked the question she put one of her hands softly on his shoulder.
"I certainly shan't offend in that way."
"And you won't be a Radical?"
"No, not a Radical."
"I mean a man to follow Beales and Bright, a republican, a putter-down of the Church, a hater of the Throne. You won't take up that line, will you, Brooke?"
"It isn't my way at present, Aunt Stanbury. But a man shouldn't promise."
"Ah me! It makes me sad when I think what the country is coming to. I'm told there are scores of members of Parliament who don't pronounce their h's. When I was young, a member of Parliament used to be a gentleman;—and they've taken to ordaining all manner of people. It used to be the case that when you met a clergyman you met a gentleman. By-the-bye, Brooke, what do you think of Mr. Gibson?"
"Mr. Gibson! To tell the truth, I haven't thought much about him."
"But you must think about him. Perhaps you haven't thought about my niece, Dolly Stanbury?"
"I think that she's an uncommonly nice girl."
"She's not to be nice for you, young man. She's to be married to Mr. Gibson."
"Are they engaged?"
"Well, no; but I intend that they shall be. You won't begrudge that I should give my little savings to one of my own name?"
"You don't know me, Aunt Stanbury, if you think that I should begrudge anything that you might do with your money."
"Dolly has been here a month or two. I think it's three months since she came, and I do like her. She's soft and womanly, and hasn't taken up those vile, filthy habits which almost all the girls have adopted. Have you seen those Frenches with the things they have on their heads?"
"I was speaking to them yesterday."
"Nasty sluts! You can see the grease on their foreheads when they try to make their hair go back in the dirty French fashion. Dolly is not like that;—is she?"
"She is not in the least like either of the Miss Frenches."
"And now I want her to become Mrs. Gibson. He is quite taken."
"Oh dear, yes. Didn't you see him the other night at dinner and afterwards? Of course he knows that I can give her a little bit of money, which always goes for something, Brooke. And I do think it would be such a nice thing for Dolly."
"And what does Dolly think about it?"
"There's the difficulty. She likes him well enough; I'm sure of that. And she has no stuck-up ideas about herself. She isn't one of those who think that almost nothing is good enough for them. But—"
"She has an objection."
"I don't know what it is. I sometimes think she is so bashful and modest she doesn't like to talk of being married,—even to an old woman like me."
"Dear me! That's not the way of the age;—is it, Aunt Stanbury?"
"It's coming to that, Brooke, that the girls will ask the men soon. Yes,—and that they won't take a refusal either. I do believe that Camilla French did ask Mr. Gibson."
"And what did Mr. Gibson say?"
"Ah;—I can't tell you that. He knows too well what he's about to take her. He's to come here on Friday at eleven, and you must be out of the way. I shall be out of the way too. But if Dolly says a word to you before that, mind you make her understand that she ought to accept Gibson."
"She's too good for him, according to my thinking."
"Don't you be a fool. How can any young woman be too good for a gentleman and a clergyman? Mr. Gibson is a gentleman. Do you know,—only you must not mention this,—that I have a kind of idea that we could get Nuncombe Putney for him. My father had the living, and my brother; and I should like it to go on in the family."
No opportunity came in the way of Brooke Burgess to say anything in favour of Mr. Gibson to Dorothy Stanbury. There did come to be very quickly a sort of intimacy between her and her aunt's favourite; but she was one not prone to talk about her own affairs. And as to such an affair as this,—a question as to whether she should or should not give herself in marriage to her suitor,—she, who could not speak of it even to her own sister without a blush, who felt confused and almost confounded when receiving her aunt's admonitions and instigations on the subject, would not have endured to hear Brooke Burgess speak on the matter. Dorothy did feel that a person easier to know than Brooke had never come in her way. She had already said as much to him as she had spoken to Mr. Gibson in the three months that she had made his acquaintance. They had talked about Exeter, and about Mrs. MacHugh, and the cathedral, and Tennyson's poems, and the London theatres, and Uncle Barty, and the family quarrel. They had become quite confidential with each other on some matters. But on this heavy subject of Mr. Gibson and his proposal of marriage not a word had been said. When Brooke once mentioned Mr. Gibson on the Thursday morning, Dorothy within a minute had taken an opportunity of escaping from the room.
But circumstances did give him an opportunity of speaking to Mr. Gibson. On the Wednesday afternoon both he and Mr. Gibson were invited to drink tea at Mrs. French's house on that evening. Such invitations at Exeter were wont to be given at short dates, and both the gentlemen had said that they would go. Then Arabella French had called in the Close and had asked Miss Stanbury and Dorothy. It was well understood by Arabella that Miss Stanbury herself would not drink tea at Heavitree. And it may be that Dorothy's company was not in truth desired. The ladies both declined. "Don't you stay at home for me, my dear," Miss Stanbury said to her niece. But Dorothy had not been out without her aunt since she had been at Exeter, and understood perfectly that it would not be wise to commence the practice at the house of the Frenches. "Mr. Brooke is coming, Miss Stanbury; and Mr. Gibson," Miss French said. And Miss Stanbury had thought that there was some triumph in her tone. "Mr. Brooke can go where he pleases, my dear," Miss Stanbury replied. "And as for Mr. Gibson, I am not his keeper." The tone in which Miss Stanbury spoke would have implied great imprudence, had not the two ladies understood each other so thoroughly, and had not each known that it was so.
There was the accustomed set of people in Mrs. French's drawing-room;—the Crumbies, and the Wrights, and the Apjohns. And Mrs. MacHugh came also,—knowing that there would be a rubber. "Their naked shoulders don't hurt me," Mrs. MacHugh said, when her friend almost scolded her for going to the house. "I'm not a young man. I don't care what they do to themselves." "You might say as much if they went naked altogether," Miss Stanbury had replied in anger. "If nobody else complained, I shouldn't," said Mrs. MacHugh. Mrs. MacHugh got her rubber; and as she had gone for her rubber, on a distinct promise that there should be a rubber, and as there was a rubber, she felt that she had no right to say ill-natured things. "What does it matter to me," said Mrs. MacHugh, "how nasty she is? She's not going to be my wife." "Ugh!" exclaimed Miss Stanbury, shaking her head both in anger and disgust.
Camilla French was by no means so bad as she was painted by Miss Stanbury, and Brooke Burgess rather liked her than otherwise. And it seemed to him that Mr. Gibson did not at all dislike Arabella, and felt no repugnance at either the lady's noddle or shoulders now that he was removed from Miss Stanbury's influence. It was clear enough also that Arabella had not given up the attempt, although she must have admitted to herself that the claims of Dorothy Stanbury were very strong. On this evening it seemed to have been specially permitted to Arabella, who was the elder sister, to take into her own hands the management of the case. Beholders of the game had hitherto declared that Mr. Gibson's safety was secured by the constant coupling of the sisters. Neither would allow the other to hunt alone. But a common sense of the common danger had made some special strategy necessary, and Camilla hardly spoke a word to Mr. Gibson during the evening. Let us hope that she found some temporary consolation in the presence of the stranger.
"I hope you are going to stay with us ever so long, Mr. Burgess?" said Camilla.
"A month. That is ever so long;—isn't it? Why I mean to see all Devonshire within that time. I feel already that I know Exeter thoroughly and everybody in it."
"I'm sure we are very much flattered."
"As for you, Miss French, I've heard so much about you all my life, that I felt that I knew you before I came here."
"Who can have spoken to you about me?"
"You forget how many relatives I have in the city. Do you think my Uncle Barty never writes to me?"
"Not about me."
"Does he not? And do you suppose I don't hear from Miss Stanbury?"
"But she hates me. I know that."
"And do you hate her?"
"No, indeed. I've the greatest respect for her. But she is a little odd; isn't she, now, Mr. Burgess? We all like her ever so much; and we've known her ever so long, six or seven years,—since we were quite young things. But she has such queer notions about girls."
"What sort of notions?"
"She'd like them all to dress just like herself; and she thinks that they should never talk to young men. If she was here she'd say I was flirting with you, because we're sitting together."
"But you are not; are you?"
"Of course I am not."
"I wish you would," said Brooke.
"I shouldn't know how to begin. I shouldn't indeed. I don't know what flirting means, and I don't know who does know. When young ladies and gentlemen go out, I suppose they are intended to talk to each other."
"But very often they don't, you know."
"I call that stupid," said Camilla. "And yet, when they do, all the old maids say that the girls are flirting. I'll tell you one thing, Mr. Burgess. I don't care what any old maid says about me. I always talk to people that I like, and if they choose to call me a flirt, they may. It's my opinion that still waters run the deepest."
"No doubt the noisy streams are very shallow," said Brooke.
"You may call me a shallow stream if you like, Mr. Burgess."
"I meant nothing of the kind."
"But what do you call Dorothy Stanbury? That's what I call still water. She runs deep enough."
"The quietest young lady I ever saw in my life."
"Exactly. So quiet, but so—clever. What do you think of Mr. Gibson?"
"Everybody is asking me what I think of Mr. Gibson."
"You know what they say. They say he is to marry Dorothy Stanbury. Poor man! I don't think his own consent has ever been asked yet;—but, nevertheless, it's settled."
"Just at present he seems to me to be,—what shall I say?—I oughtn't to say flirting with your sister; ought I?"
"Miss Stanbury would say so if she were here, no doubt. But the fact is, Mr. Burgess, we've known him almost since we were infants, and of course we take an interest in his welfare. There has never been anything more than that. Arabella is nothing more to him than I am. Once, indeed—; but, however—; that does not signify. It would be nothing to us, if he really liked Dorothy Stanbury. But as far as we can see,—and we do see a good deal of him,—there is no such feeling on his part. Of course we haven't asked. We should not think of such a thing. Mr. Gibson may do just as he likes for us. But I am not quite sure that Dorothy Stanbury is just the girl that would make him a good wife. Of course when you've known a person seven or eight years you do get anxious about his happiness. Do you know, we think her,—perhaps a little,—sly."
In the meantime, Mr. Gibson was completely subject to the individual charms of Arabella. Camilla had been quite correct in a part of her description of their intimacy. She and her sister had known Mr. Gibson for seven or eight years; but nevertheless the intimacy could not with truth be said to have commenced during the infancy of the young ladies, even if the word were used in its legal sense. Seven or eight years, however, is a long acquaintance; and there was, perhaps, something of a real grievance in this Stanbury intervention. If it be a recognised fact in society that young ladies are in want of husbands, and that an effort on their part towards matrimony is not altogether impossible, it must be recognised also that failure will be disagreeable, and interference regarded with animosity. Miss Stanbury the elder was undoubtedly interfering between Mr. Gibson and the Frenches; and it is neither manly nor womanly to submit to interference with one's dearest prospects. It may, perhaps, be admitted that the Miss Frenches had shown too much open ardour in their pursuit of Mr. Gibson. Perhaps there should have been no ardour and no pursuit. It may be that the theory of womanhood is right which forbids to women any such attempts,—which teaches them that they must ever be pursued, never the pursuers. As to that there shall be no discourse at present. But it must be granted that whenever the pursuit has been attempted, it is not in human nature to abandon it without an effort. That the French girls should be very angry with Miss Stanbury, that they should put their heads together with the intention of thwarting her, that they should think evil things of poor Dorothy, that they should half despise Mr. Gibson, and yet resolve to keep their hold upon him as a chattel and a thing of value that was almost their own, was not perhaps much to their discredit.
"You are a good deal at the house in the Close now," said Arabella, in her lowest voice,—in a voice so low that it was almost melancholy.
"Well; yes. Miss Stanbury, you know, has always been a staunch friend of mine. And she takes an interest in my little church." People say that girls are sly; but men can be sly, too, sometimes.
"It seems that she has taken you so much away from us, Mr. Gibson."
"I don't know why you should say that, Miss French."
"Perhaps I am wrong. One is apt to be sensitive about one's friends. We seem to have known you so well. There is nobody else in Exeter that mamma regards as she does you. But, of course, if you are happy with Miss Stanbury that is everything."
"I am speaking of the old lady," said Mr. Gibson, who, in spite of his slyness, was here thrown a little off his guard.
"And I am speaking of the old lady too," said Arabella. "Of whom else should I be speaking?"
"No;—of course not."
"Of course," continued Arabella, "I hear what people say about the niece. One cannot help what one hears, you know, Mr. Gibson; but I don't believe that, I can assure you." As she said this, she looked into his face, as though waiting for an answer; but Mr. Gibson had no answer ready. Then Arabella told herself that if anything was to be done it must be done at once. What use was there in beating round the bush, when the only chance of getting the game was to be had by dashing at once into the thicket. "I own I should be glad," she said, turning her eyes away from him, "if I could hear from your own mouth that it is not true."
Mr. Gibson's position was one not to be envied. Were he willing to tell the very secrets of his soul to Miss French with the utmost candour, he could not answer her question either one way or the other, and he was not willing to tell her any of his secrets. It was certainly the fact, too, that there had been tender passages between him and Arabella. Now, when there have been such passages, and the gentleman is cross-examined by the lady, as Mr. Gibson was being cross-examined at the present moment,—the gentleman usually teaches himself to think that a little falsehood is permissible. A gentleman can hardly tell a lady that he has become tired of her, and has changed his mind. He feels the matter, perhaps, more keenly even than she does; and though, at all other times he may be a very Paladin in the cause of truth, in such strait as this he does allow himself some latitude.
"You are only joking, of course," he said.
"Indeed, I am not joking. I can assure you, Mr. Gibson, that the welfare of the friends whom I really love can never be a matter of joke to me. Mrs. Crumbie says that you positively are engaged to marry Dorothy Stanbury."
"What does Mrs. Crumbie know about it?"
"I dare say, nothing. It is not so;—is it?"
"And there is nothing in it;—is there?"
"I wonder why people make these reports," said Mr. Gibson, prevaricating.
"It is a fabrication from beginning to end then," said Arabella, pressing the matter quite home. At this time she was very close to him, and though her words were severe, the glance from her eyes was soft. And the scent from her hair was not objectionable to him, as it would have been to Miss Stanbury. And the mode of her head-dress was not displeasing to him. And the folds of her dress, as they fell across his knee, were welcome to his feelings. He knew that he was as one under temptation, but he was not strong enough to bid the tempter avaunt. "Say that it is so, Mr. Gibson!"
"Of course, it is not so," said Mr. Gibson—lying.
"I am so glad. For of course, Mr. Gibson, when we heard it we thought a great deal about it. A man's happiness depends so much on whom he marries;—doesn't it? And a clergyman's more than anybody else's. And we didn't think she was quite the sort of woman that you would like. You see, she has had no advantages, poor thing. She has been shut up in a little country cottage all her life;—just a labourer's hovel, no more;—and though it wasn't her fault, of course, and we all pitied her, and were so glad when Miss Stanbury brought her to the Close;—still, you know, though one was very glad of her as an acquaintance, yet, you know, as a wife,—and for such a dear, dear friend—" She went on, and said many other things with equal enthusiasm, and then wiped her eyes, and then smiled and laughed. After that she declared that she was quite happy,—so happy; and so she left him. The poor man, after the falsehood had been extracted from him, said nothing more; but sat, in patience, listening to the raptures and enthusiasm of his friend. He knew that he had disgraced himself, and he knew also that his disgrace would be known, if Dorothy Stanbury should accept his offer on the morrow. And yet how hardly he had been used! What answer could he have given compatible both with the truth and with his own personal dignity?
About half an hour afterwards he was walking back to Exeter with Brooke Burgess, and then Brooke did ask him a question or two.
"Nice girls those Frenches, I think," said Brooke.
"Very nice," said Mr. Gibson.
"How Miss Stanbury does hate them," says Brooke.
"Not hate them, I hope," said Mr. Gibson.
"She doesn't love them;—does she?"
"Well, as for love;—yes; in one sense,—I hope she does. Miss Stanbury, you know, is a woman who expresses herself strongly."
"What would she say, if she were told that you and I were going to marry those two girls? We are both favourites, you know."
"Dear me! What a very odd supposition," said Mr. Gibson.
"For my part, I don't think I shall," said Brooke.
"I don't suppose I shall either," said Mr. Gibson, with a gravity which was intended to convey some smattering of rebuke.
"A fellow might do worse, you know," said Brooke. "For my part, I rather like girls with chignons, and all that sort of get-up. But the worst of it is, one can't marry two at a time."
"That would be bigamy," said Mr. Gibson.
"Just so," said Brooke.