THE AMERICAN MINISTER.
In the second week in October, Mr. Glascock returned to Florence, intending to remain there till the weather should have become bearable at Naples. His father was said to be better, but was in such a condition as hardly to receive much comfort from his son's presence. His mind was gone, and he knew no one but his nurse; and, though Mr. Glascock was unwilling to put himself altogether out of the reach of returning at a day's notice, he did not find himself obliged to remain in Naples during the heat of the autumn. So Mr. Glascock returned to the hotel at Florence, accompanied by the tall man who wore the buttons. The hotel-keeper did not allow such a light to remain long hidden under a bushel, and it was soon spread far and wide that the Honourable Charles Glascock and his suite were again in the beautiful city.
And the fact was soon known to the American Minister and his family. Mr. Spalding was a man who at home had been very hostile to English interests. Many American gentlemen are known for such hostility. They make anti-English speeches about the country, as though they thought that war with England would produce certain triumph to the States, certain increase to American trade, and certain downfall to a tyranny which no Anglo-Saxon nation ought to endure. But such is hardly their real opinion. There, in the States, as also here in England, you shall from day to day hear men propounding, in very loud language, advanced theories of political action, the assertion of which is supposed to be necessary to the end which they have in view. Men whom we know to have been as mild as sucking doves in the political aspiration of their whole lives, suddenly jump up, and with infuriated gestures declare themselves the enemies of everything existing. When they have attained their little purpose,—or have failed to do so,—they revert naturally into their sucking-dove elements. It is so with Americans as frequently as with ourselves,—and there is no political subject on which it is considered more expedient to express pseudo-enthusiasm than on that of the sins of England. It is understood that we do not resent it. It is presumed that we regard it as the Irishman regarded his wife's cuffs. In the States a large party, which consists chiefly of those who have lately left English rule, and who are keen to prove to themselves how wise they have been in doing so, is pleased by this strong language against England; and, therefore, the strong language is spoken. But the speakers, who are, probably, men knowing something of the world, mean it not at all; they have no more idea of war with England than they have of war with all Europe; and their respect for England and for English opinion is unbounded. In their political tones of speech and modes of action they strive to be as English as possible. Mr. Spalding's aspirations were of this nature. He had uttered speeches against England which would make the hair stand on end on the head of an uninitiated English reader. He had told his countrymen that Englishmen hugged their chains, and would do so until American hammers had knocked those chains from off their wounded wrists and bleeding ankles. He had declared that, if certain American claims were not satisfied, there was nothing left for Americans to do but to cross the ferry with such a sheriff's officer as would be able to make distraint on the great English household. He had declared that the sheriff's officer would have very little trouble. He had spoken of Canada as an outlying American territory, not yet quite sufficiently redeemed from savage life to be received into the Union as a State. There is a multiplicity of subjects of this kind ready to the hand of the American orator. Mr. Spalding had been quite successful, and was now Minister at Florence; but, perhaps, one of the greatest pleasures coming to him from his prosperity was the enjoyment of the society of well-bred Englishmen, in the capital to which he had been sent. When, therefore, his wife and nieces pointed out to him the fact that it was manifestly his duty to call upon Mr. Glascock after what had passed between them on that night under the Campanile, he did not rebel for an instant against the order given to him. His mind never reverted for a moment to that opinion which had gained for him such a round of applause, when expressed on the platform of the Temperance Hall at Nubbly Creek, State of Illinois, to the effect that the English aristocrat, thorough-born and thorough-bred, who inherited acres and titles from his father, could never be fitting company for a thoughtful Christian American citizen. He at once had his hat brushed, and took up his best gloves and umbrella, and went off to Mr. Glascock's hotel. He was strictly enjoined by the ladies to fix a day on which Mr. Glascock would come and dine at the American embassy.
"'C. G.' has come back to see you," said Olivia to her elder sister. They had always called him "C. G." since the initials had been seen on the travelling bag.
"Probably," said Carry. "There is so very little else to bring people to Florence, that there can hardly be any other reason for his coming. They do say it's terribly hot at Naples just now; but that can have had nothing to do with it."
"We shall see," said Livy. "I'm sure he's in love with you. He looked to me just like a proper sort of lover for you, when I saw his long legs creeping up over our heads into the banquette."
"You ought to have been very much obliged to his long legs;—so sick as you were at the time."
"I like him amazingly," said Livy, "legs and all. I only hope Uncle Jonas won't bore him, so as to prevent his coming."
"His father is very ill," said Carry, "and I don't suppose we shall see him at all."
But the American Minister was successful. He found Mr. Glascock sitting in his dressing-gown, smoking a cigar, and reading a newspaper. The English aristocrat seemed very glad to see his visitor, and assumed no airs at all. The American altogether forgot his speech at Nubbly Creek, and found the aristocrat's society to be very pleasant. He lit a cigar, and they talked about Naples, Rome, and Florence. Mr. Spalding, when the marbles of old Rome were mentioned, was a little too keen in insisting on the merits of Story, Miss Hosmer, and Hiram Powers, and hardly carried his listener with him in the parallel which he drew between Greenough and Phidias; and he was somewhat repressed by the apathetic curtness of Mr. Glascock's reply, when he suggested that the victory gained by the gunboats at Vicksburg, on the Mississippi, was vividly brought to his mind by an account which he had just been reading of the battle of Actium; but he succeeded in inducing Mr. Glascock to accept an invitation to dinner for the next day but one, and the two gentlemen parted on the most amicable terms.
Everybody meets everybody in Florence every day. Carry and Livy Spalding had met Mr. Glascock twice before the dinner at their uncle's house, so that they met at dinner quite as intimate friends. Mrs. Spalding had very large rooms, up three flights of stairs, on the Lungarno. The height of her abode was attributed by Mrs. Spalding to her dread of mosquitoes. She had not yet learned that people in Florence require no excuse for being asked to walk up three flights of stairs. The rooms, when they were reached, were very lofty, floored with what seemed to be marble, and were of a nature almost to warrant Mrs. Spalding in feeling that nature had made her more akin to an Italian countess than to a matron of Nubbly Creek, State of Illinois, where Mr. Spalding had found her and made her his own. There was one other Englishman present, Mr. Harris Hyde Granville Gore, from the Foreign Office, now serving temporarily at the English Legation in Florence; and an American, Mr. Jackson Unthank, a man of wealth and taste, who was resolved on having such a collection of pictures at his house in Baltimore that no English private collection should in any way come near to it; and a Tuscan, from the Italian Foreign Office, to whom nobody could speak except Mr. Harris Hyde Granville Gore,—who did not indeed seem to enjoy the efforts of conversation which were expected of him. The Italian, who had a handle to his name,—he was a Count Buonarosci,—took Mrs. Spalding in to dinner. Mrs. Spalding had been at great trouble to ascertain whether this was proper, or whether she should not entrust herself to Mr. Glascock. There were different points to be considered in the matter. She did not quite know whether she was in Italy or in America. She had glimmerings on the subject of her privilege to carry her own nationality into her own drawing-room. And then she was called upon to deal between an Italian Count with an elder brother, and an English Honourable, who had no such incumbrance. Which of the two was possessed of the higher rank? "I've found it all out, Aunt Mary," said Livy. "You must take the Count." For Livy wanted to give her sister every chance. "How have you found it out?" said the aunt. "You may be sure it is so," said Livy. And the lady in her doubt yielded the point. Mrs. Spalding, as she walked along the passage on the Count's arm, determined that she would learn Italian. She would have given all Nubbly Creek to have been able to speak a word to Count Buonarosci. To do her justice, it must be admitted that she had studied a few words. But her courage failed her, and she could not speak them. She was very careful, however, that Mr. H. H. G. Gore was placed in the chair next to the Count.
"We are very glad to see you here," said Mr. Spalding, addressing himself especially to Mr. Glascock, as he stood up at his own seat at the round table. "In leaving my own country, sir, there is nothing that I value more than the privilege of becoming acquainted with those whose historic names and existing positions are of such inestimable value to the world at large." In saying this, Mr. Spalding was not in the least insincere, nor did his conscience at all prick him in reference to that speech at Nubbly Creek. On both occasions he half thought as he spoke,—or thought that he thought so. Unless it be on subjects especially endeared to us the thoughts of but few of us go much beyond this.
Mr. Glascock, who sat between Mrs. Spalding and her niece, was soon asked by the elder lady whether he had been in the States. No; he had not been in the States. "Then you must come, Mr. Glascock," said Mrs. Spalding, "though I will not say, dwelling as we now are in the metropolis of the world of art, that we in our own homes have as much of the outer beauty of form to charm the stranger as is to be found in other lands. Yet I think that the busy lives of men, and the varied institutions of a free country, must always have an interest peculiarly their own." Mr. Glascock declared that he quite agreed with her, and expressed a hope that he might some day find himself in New York.
"You wouldn't like it at all," said Carry; "because you are an aristocrat. I don't mean that it would be your fault."
"Why should that prevent my liking it,—even if I were an aristocrat?"
"One half of the people would run after you, and the other half would run away from you," said Carry.
"Then I'd take to the people who ran after me, and would not regard the others."
"That's all very well,—but you wouldn't like it. And then you would become unfair to what you saw. When some of our speechifying people talked to you about our institutions through their noses, you would think that the institutions themselves must be bad. And we have nothing to show except our institutions."
"What are American institutions?" asked Mr. Glascock.
"Everything is an institution. Having iced water to drink in every room of the house is an institution. Having hospitals in every town is an institution. Travelling altogether in one class of railway cars is an institution. Saying sir, is an institution. Teaching all the children mathematics is an institution. Plenty of food is an institution. Getting drunk is an institution in a great many towns. Lecturing is an institution. There are plenty of them, and some are very good;—but you wouldn't like it."
"At any rate, I'll go and see," said Mr. Glascock.
"If you do, I hope we may be at home," said Miss Spalding.
Mr. Spalding, in the mean time, with the assistance of his countryman, the man of taste, was endeavouring to explain a certain point in American politics to the Count. As, in doing this, they called upon Mr. Gore to translate every speech they made into Italian, and as Mr. Gore had never offered his services as an interpreter, and as the Italian did not quite catch the subtle meanings of the Americans in Mr. Gore's Tuscan version, and did not in the least wish to understand the things that were explained to him, Mr. Gore and the Italian began to think that the two Americans were bores. "The truth is, Mr. Spalding," said Mr. Gore, "I've got such a cold in my head, that I don't think I can explain it any more." Then Livy Spalding laughed aloud, and the two American gentlemen began to eat their dinner. "It sounds ridiculous, don't it?" said Mr. Gore, in a whisper.
"I ought not to have laughed, I know," said Livy.
"The very best thing you could have done. I shan't be troubled any more now. The fact is, I know just nine words of Italian. Now there is a difficulty in having to explain the whole theory of American politics to an Italian, who doesn't want to know anything about it, with so very small a repertory of words at one's command."
"How well you did it!"
"Too well. I felt that. So well that, unless I had stopped it, I shouldn't have been able to say a word to you all through dinner. Your laughter clenched it, and Buonarosci and I will be grateful to you for ever."
After the ladies went there was rather a bad half hour for Mr. Glascock. He was button-holed by the minister, and found it oppressive before he was enabled to escape into the drawing-room. "Mr. Glascock," said the minister, "an English gentleman, sir, like you, who has the privilege of an hereditary seat in your parliament,"—Mr. Glascock was not quite sure whether he were being accused of having an hereditary seat in the House of Commons, but he would not stop to correct any possible error on that point,—"and who has been born to all the gifts of fortune, rank, and social eminence, should never think that his education is complete till he has visited our great cities in the west." Mr. Glascock hinted that he by no means conceived his education to be complete; but the minister went on without attending to this. "Till you have seen, sir, what men can do who are placed upon the earth with all God's gifts of free intelligence, free air, and a free soil, but without any of those other good things which we are accustomed to call the gifts of fortune, you can never become aware of the infinite ingenuity of man." There had been much said before, but just at this moment Mr. Gore and the American left the room, and the Italian followed them briskly. Mr. Glascock at once made a decided attempt to bolt; but the minister was on the alert, and was too quick for him. And he was by no means ashamed of what he was doing. He had got his guest by the coat, and openly declared his intention of holding him. "Let me keep you for a few minutes, sir," said he, "while I dilate on this point in one direction. In the drawing-room female spells are too potent for us male orators. In going among us, Mr. Glascock, you must not look for luxury or refinement, for you will find them not. Nor must you hope to encounter the highest order of erudition. The lofty summits of acquired knowledge tower in your country with an altitude we have not reached yet."
"It's very good of you to say so," said Mr. Glascock.
"No, sir. In our new country and in our new cities we still lack the luxurious perfection of fastidious civilisation. But, sir, regard our level. That is what I say to every unprejudiced Britisher that comes among us; look at our level. And when you have looked at our level, I think that you will confess that we live on the highest table-land that the world has yet afforded to mankind. You follow my meaning, Mr. Glascock?" Mr. Glascock was not sure that he did, but the minister went on to make that meaning clear. "It is the multitude that with us is educated. Go into their houses, sir, and see how they thumb their books. Look at the domestic correspondence of our helps and servants, and see how they write and spell. We haven't got the mountains, sir, but our table-lands are the highest on which the bright sun of our Almighty God has as yet shone with its illuminating splendour in this improving world of ours! It is because we are a young people, sir,—with nothing as yet near to us of the decrepitude of age. The weakness of age, sir, is the penalty paid by the folly of youth. We are not so wise, sir, but what we too shall suffer from its effects as years roll over our heads." There was a great deal more, but at last Mr. Glascock did escape into the drawing-room.
"My uncle has been saying a few words to you perhaps," said Carry Spalding.
"Yes; he has," said Mr. Glascock.
"He usually does," said Carry Spalding.
ABOUT FISHING, AND NAVIGATION, AND HEAD-DRESSES.
The feud between Miss Stanbury and Mr. Gibson raged violently in Exeter, and produced many complications which were very difficult indeed of management. Each belligerent party felt that a special injury had been inflicted upon it. Mr. Gibson was quite sure that he had been grossly misused by Miss Stanbury the elder, and strongly suspected that Miss Stanbury the younger had had a hand in this misconduct. It had been positively asserted to him,—at least so he thought, but in this was probably in error,—that the lady would accept him if he proposed to her. All Exeter had been made aware of the intended compact. He, indeed, had denied its existence to Miss French, comforting himself, as best he might, with the reflection that all is fair in love and war; but when he counted over his injuries he did not think of this denial. All Exeter, so to say, had known of it. And yet, when he had come with his proposal, he had been refused without a moment's consideration, first by the aunt, and then by the niece;—and, after that, had been violently abused, and at last turned out of the house! Surely, no gentleman had ever before been subjected to ill-usage so violent! But Miss Stanbury the elder was quite as assured that the injury had been done to her. As to the matter of the compact itself, she knew very well that she had been as true as steel. She had done everything in her power to bring about the marriage. She had been generous in her offers of money. She had used all her powers of persuasion on Dorothy, and she had given every opportunity to Mr. Gibson. It was not her fault if he had not been able to avail himself of the good things which she had put in his way. He had first been, as she thought, ignorant and arrogant, fancying that the good things ought to be made his own without any trouble on his part;—and then awkward, not knowing how to take the trouble when trouble was necessary. And as to that matter of abusive language and turning out of the house, Miss Stanbury was quite convinced that she was sinned against, and not herself the sinner. She declared to Martha, more than once, that Mr. Gibson had used such language to her that, coming out of a clergyman's mouth, it had quite dismayed her. Martha, who knew her mistress, probably felt that Mr. Gibson had at least received as good as he gave; but she had made no attempt to set her mistress right on that point.
But the cause of Miss Stanbury's sharpest anger was not to be found in Mr. Gibson's conduct either before Dorothy's refusal of his offer, or on the occasion of his being turned out of the house. A base rumour was spread about the city that Dorothy Stanbury had been offered to Mr. Gibson, that Mr. Gibson had civilly declined the offer,—and that hence had arisen the wrath of the Juno of the Close. Now this was not to be endured by Miss Stanbury. She had felt even in the moment of her original anger against Mr. Gibson that she was bound in honour not to tell the story against him. She had brought him into the little difficulty, and she at least would hold her tongue. She was quite sure that Dorothy would never boast of her triumph. And Martha had been strictly cautioned,—as indeed, also, had Brooke Burgess. The man had behaved like an idiot, Miss Stanbury said; but he had been brought into a little dilemma, and nothing should be said about it from the house in the Close. But when the other rumour reached Miss Stanbury's ears, when Mrs. Crumbie condoled with her on her niece's misfortune, when Mrs. MacHugh asked whether Mr. Gibson had not behaved rather badly to the young lady, then our Juno's celestial mind was filled with a divine anger. But even then she did not declare the truth. She asked a question of Mrs. Crumbie, and was enabled, as she thought, to trace the falsehood to the Frenches. She did not think that Mr. Gibson could on a sudden have become so base a liar. "Mr. Gibson fast and loose with my niece!" she said to Mrs. MacHugh. "You have not got the story quite right, my dear friend. Pray, believe me;—there has been nothing of that sort." "I dare say not," said Mrs. MacHugh, "and I'm sure I don't care. Mr. Gibson has been going to marry one of the French girls for the last ten years, and I think he ought to make up his mind and do it at last."
"I can assure you he is quite welcome as far as Dorothy is concerned," said Miss Stanbury.
Without a doubt the opinion did prevail throughout Exeter that Mr. Gibson, who had been regarded time out of mind as the property of the Miss Frenches, had been angled for by the ladies in the Close, that he had nearly been caught, but that he had slipped the hook out of his mouth, and was now about to subside quietly into the net which had been originally prepared for him. Arabella French had not spoken loudly on the subject, but Camilla had declared in more than one house that she had most direct authority for stating that the gentleman had never dreamed of offering to the young lady. "Why he should not do so if he pleases, I don't know," said Camilla. "Only the fact is that he has not pleased. The rumour of course has reached him, and, as we happen to be very old friends, we have authority for denying it altogether." All this came round to Miss Stanbury, and she was divine in her wrath.
"If they drive me to it," she said to Dorothy, "I'll have the whole truth told by the bellman through the city, or I'll publish it in the County Gazette."
"Pray don't say a word about it, Aunt Stanbury."
"It is those odious girls. He's there now every day."
"Why shouldn't he go there, Aunt Stanbury?"
"If he's fool enough, let him go. I don't care where he goes. But I do care about these lies. They wouldn't dare to say it only they think my mouth is closed. They've no honour themselves, but they screen themselves behind mine."
"I'm sure they won't find themselves mistaken in what they trust to," said Dorothy, with a spirit that her aunt had not expected from her. Miss Stanbury at this time had told nobody that the offer to her niece had been made and repeated and finally rejected;—but she found it very difficult to hold her tongue.
In the meantime Mr. Gibson spent a good deal of his time at Heavitree. It should not perhaps be asserted broadly that he had made up his mind that marriage would be good for him; but he had made up his mind, at least, to this, that it was no longer to be postponed without a balance of disadvantage. The Charybdis in the Close drove him helpless into the whirlpool of the Heavitree Scylla. He had no longer an escape from the perils of the latter shore. He had been so mauled by the opposite waves, that he had neither spirit nor skill left to him to keep in the middle track. He was almost daily at Heavitree, and did not attempt to conceal from himself the approach of his doom.
But still there were two of them. He knew that he must become a prey, but was there any choice left to him as to which siren should have him? He had been quite aware in his more gallant days, before he had been knocked about on that Charybdis rock, that he might sip, and taste, and choose between the sweets. He had come to think lately that the younger young lady was the sweeter. Eight years ago indeed the passages between him and the elder had been tender; but Camilla had then been simply a romping girl, hardly more than a year or two beyond her teens. Now, with her matured charms, Camilla was certainly the more engaging as far as outward form went. Arabella's cheeks were thin and long, and her front teeth had come to show themselves. Her eyes were no doubt still bright, and what she had of hair was soft and dark. But it was very thin in front, and what there was of supplemental mass behind,—the bandbox by which Miss Stanbury was so much aggrieved,—was worn with an indifference to the lines of beauty, which Mr. Gibson himself found to be very depressing. A man with a fair burden on his back is not a grievous sight; but when we see a small human being attached to a bale of goods which he can hardly manage to move, we feel that the poor fellow has been cruelly overweighted. Mr. Gibson certainly had that sensation about Arabella's chignon. And as he regarded it in a nearer and a dearer light,—as a chignon that might possibly become his own, as a burden which in one sense he might himself be called upon to bear, as a domestic utensil which he himself might be called upon to inspect, and perhaps to aid the shifting on and the shifting off, he did begin to think that that side of the Scylla gulf ought to be avoided if possible. And probably this propensity on his part, this feeling that he would like to reconsider the matter dispassionately before he gave himself up for good to his old love, may have been increased by Camilla's apparent withdrawal of her claims. He felt mildly grateful to the Heavitree household in general for accepting him in this time of his affliction, but he could not admit to himself that they had a right to decide upon him in private conclave, and allot him either to the one or to the other nuptials without consultation with himself. To be swallowed up by Scylla he now recognised as his doom; but he thought he ought to be asked on which side of the gulf he would prefer to go down. The way in which Camilla spoke of him as a thing that wasn't hers, but another's; and the way in which Arabella looked at him, as though he were hers and could never be another's, wounded his manly pride. He had always understood that he might have his choice, and he could not understand that the little mishap which had befallen him in the Close was to rob him of that privilege.
He used to drink tea at Heavitree in those days. On one evening on going in he found himself alone with Arabella. "Oh, Mr. Gibson," she said, "we weren't sure whether you'd come. And mamma and Camilla have gone out to Mrs. Camadge's." Mr. Gibson muttered some word to the effect that he hoped he had kept nobody at home; and, as he did so, he remembered that he had distinctly said that he would come on this evening. "I don't know that I should have gone," said Arabella, "because I am not quite,—not quite myself at present. No, not ill; not at all. Don't you know what it is, Mr. Gibson, to be,—to be,—to be,—not quite yourself?" Mr. Gibson said that he had very often felt like that. "And one can't get over it;—can one?" continued Arabella. "There comes a presentiment that something is going to happen, and a kind of belief that something has happened, though you don't know what; and the heart refuses to be light, and the spirit becomes abashed, and the mind, though it creates new thoughts, will not settle itself to its accustomed work. I suppose it's what the novels have called Melancholy."
"I suppose it is," said Mr. Gibson. "But there's generally some cause for it. Debt for instance—"
"It's nothing of that kind with me. It's no debt, at least, that can be written down in the figures of ordinary arithmetic. Sit down, Mr. Gibson, and we will have some tea." Then, as she stretched forward to ring the bell, he thought that he never in his life had seen anything so unshapely as that huge wen at the back of her head. "Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens!" He could not help quoting the words to himself. She was dressed with some attempt at being smart, but her ribbons were soiled, and her lace was tawdry, and the fabric of her dress was old and dowdy. He was quite sure that he would feel no pride in calling her Mrs. Gibson, no pleasure in having her all to himself at his own hearth. "I hope we shall escape the bitterness of Miss Stanbury's tongue if we drink tea tête-à-tête," she said, with her sweetest smile.
"I don't suppose she'll know anything about it."
"She knows about everything, Mr. Gibson. It's astonishing what she knows. She has eyes and ears everywhere. I shouldn't care, if she didn't see and hear so very incorrectly. I'm told now that she declares—; but it doesn't signify."
"Declares what?" asked Mr. Gibson.
"Never mind. But wasn't it odd how all Exeter believed that you were going to be married in that house, and to live there all the rest of your life, and be one of Miss Stanbury's slaves. I never believed it, Mr. Gibson." This she said with a sad smile, that ought to have brought him on his knees, in spite of the chignon.
"One can't help these things," said Mr. Gibson.
"I never could have believed it;—not even if you had not given me an assurance so solemn, and so sweet, that there was nothing in it." The poor man had given the assurance, and could not deny the solemnity and the sweetness. "That was a happy moment for us, Mr. Gibson; because, though we never believed it, when it was dinned into our ears so frequently, when it was made such a triumph in the Close, it was impossible not to fear that there might be something in it." He felt that he ought to make some reply, but he did not know what to say. He was thoroughly ashamed of the lie he had told, but he could not untell it. "Camilla reproached me afterwards for asking you," whispered Arabella, in her softest, tenderest voice. "She said that it was unmaidenly. I hope you did not think it unmaidenly, Mr. Gibson?"
"Oh dear no;—not at all," said he.
Arabella French was painfully alive to the fact that she must do something. She had her fish on the hook; but of what use is a fish on your hook, if you cannot land him? When could she have a better opportunity than this of landing the scaly darling out of the fresh and free waters of his bachelor stream, and sousing him into the pool of domestic life, to be ready there for her own household purposes? "I had known you so long, Mr. Gibson," she said, "and had valued your friendship so—so deeply." As he looked at her he could see nothing but the shapeless excrescence to which his eyes had been so painfully called by Miss Stanbury's satire. It is true that he had formerly been very tender with her, but she had not then carried about with her that distorted monster. He did not believe himself to be at all bound by anything which had passed between them in circumstances so very different. But yet he ought to say something. He ought to have said something; but he said nothing. She was patient, however, very patient; and she went on playing him with her hook. "I am so glad that I did not go out to-night with mamma. It has been such a pleasure to me to have this conversation with you. Camilla, perhaps, would say that I am—unmaidenly."
"I don't think so."
"That is all that I care for, Mr. Gibson. If you acquit me, I do not mind who accuses. I should not like to suppose that you thought me unmaidenly. Anything would be better than that; but I can throw all such considerations to the wind when true—true—friendship is concerned. Don't you think that one ought, Mr. Gibson?"
If it had not been for the thing at the back of her head, he would have done it now. Nothing but that gave him courage to abstain. It grew bigger and bigger, more shapeless, monstrous, absurd, and abominable, as he looked at it. Nothing should force upon him the necessity of assisting to carry such an abortion through the world. "One ought to sacrifice everything to friendship," said Mr. Gibson, "except self-respect."
He meant nothing personal. Something special, in the way of an opinion, was expected of him; and, therefore, he had striven to say something special. But she was in tears in a moment. "Oh, Mr. Gibson," she exclaimed; "oh, Mr. Gibson!"
"What is the matter, Miss French?"
"Have I lost your respect? Is it that that you mean?"
"Certainly not, Miss French."
"Do not call me Miss French, or I shall be sure that you condemn me. Miss French sounds so very cold. You used to call me—Bella." That was quite true; but it was long ago, thought Mr. Gibson,—before the monster had been attached. "Will you not call me Bella now?"
He thought that he had rather not; and yet, how was he to avoid it? On a sudden he became very crafty. Had it not been for the sharpness of his mother wit, he would certainly have been landed at that moment. "As you truly observed just now," he said, "the tongues of people are so malignant. There are little birds that hear everything."
"I don't care what the little birds hear," said Miss French, through her tears. "I am a very unhappy girl;—I know that; and I don't care what anybody says. It is nothing to me what anybody says. I know what I feel." At this moment there was some dash of truth about her. The fish was so very heavy on hand that, do what she would, she could not land him. Her hopes before this had been very low,—hopes that had once been high; but they had been depressed gradually; and, in the slow, dull routine of her daily life, she had learned to bear disappointment by degrees, without sign of outward suffering, without consciousness of acute pain. The task of her life had been weary, and the wished-for goal was ever becoming more and more distant; but there had been still a chance, and she had fallen away into a lethargy of lessening expectation, from which joy, indeed, had been banished, but in which there had been nothing of agony. Then had come upon the whole house at Heavitree the great Stanbury peril, and, arising out of that, had sprung new hopes to Arabella, which made her again capable of all the miseries of a foiled ambition. She could again be patient, if patience might be of any service; but in such a condition an eternity of patience is simply suicidal. She was willing to work hard, but how could she work harder than she had worked. Poor young woman,—perishing beneath an incubus which a false idea of fashion had imposed on her!
"I hope I have said nothing that makes you unhappy," pleaded Mr. Gibson. "I'm sure I haven't meant it."
"But you have," she said. "You make me very unhappy. You condemn me. I see you do. And if I have done wrong it has been all because— Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!"
"But who says you have done wrong?"
"You won't call me Bella,—because you say the little birds will hear it. If I don't care for the little birds, why should you?"
There is no question more difficult than this for a gentleman to answer. Circumstances do not often admit of its being asked by a lady with that courageous simplicity which had come upon Miss French in this moment of her agonising struggle; but nevertheless it is one which, in a more complicated form, is often put, and to which some reply, more or less complicated, is expected. "If I, a woman, can dare, for your sake, to encounter the public tongue, will you, a man, be afraid?" The true answer, if it could be given, would probably be this; "I am afraid, though a man, because I have much to lose and little to get. You are not afraid, though a woman, because you have much to get and little to lose." But such an answer would be uncivil, and is not often given. Therefore men shuffle and lie, and tell themselves that in love,—love here being taken to mean all antenuptial contests between man and woman,—everything is fair. Mr. Gibson had the above answer in his mind, though he did not frame it into words. He was neither sufficiently brave nor sufficiently cruel to speak to her in such language. There was nothing for him, therefore, but that he must shuffle and lie.
"I only meant," said he, "that I would not for worlds do anything to make you uneasy."
She did not see how she could again revert to the subject of her own Christian name. She had made her little tender, loving request, and it had been refused. Of course she knew that it had been refused as a matter of caution. She was not angry with him because of his caution, as she had expected him to be cautious. The barriers over which she had to climb were no more than she had expected to find in her way;—but they were so very high and so very difficult! Of course she was aware that he would escape if he could. She was not angry with him on that account. Anger could not have helped her. Indeed, she did not price herself highly enough to make her feel that she would be justified in being angry. It was natural enough that he shouldn't want her. She knew herself to be a poor, thin, vapid, tawdry creature, with nothing to recommend her to any man except a sort of second-rate, provincial-town fashion which,—infatuated as she was,—she attributed in a great degree to the thing she carried on her head. She knew nothing. She could do nothing. She possessed nothing. She was not angry with him because he so evidently wished to avoid her. But she thought that if she could only be successful she would be good and loving and obedient,—and that it was fair for her at any rate to try. Each created animal must live and get its food by the gifts which the Creator has given to it, let those gifts be as poor as they may,—let them be even as distasteful as they may to other members of the great created family. The rat, the toad, the slug, the flea, must each live according to its appointed mode of existence. Animals which are parasites by nature can only live by attaching themselves to life that is strong. To Arabella Mr. Gibson would be strong enough, and it seemed to her that if she could fix herself permanently upon his strength, that would be her proper mode of living. She was not angry with him because he resisted the attempt, but she had nothing of conscience to tell her that she should spare him as long as there remained to her a chance of success. And should not her plea of excuse, her justification be admitted? There are tormentors as to which no man argues that they are iniquitous, though they be very troublesome. He either rids himself of them, or suffers as quiescently as he may.
"We used to be such—great—friends," she said, still crying, "and I am afraid you don't like me a bit now."
"Indeed I do;—I have always liked you. But—"
"But what? Do tell me what the but means. I will do anything that you bid me."
Then it occurred to him that if, after such a promise, he were to confide to her his feeling that the chignon which she wore was ugly and unbecoming, she would probably be induced to change her mode of head-dress. It was a foolish idea, because, had he followed it out, he would have seen that compliance on her part in such a matter could only be given with the distinct understanding that a certain reward should be the consequence. When an unmarried gentleman calls upon an unmarried lady to change the fashion of her personal adornments, the unmarried lady has a right to expect that the unmarried gentleman means to make her his wife. But Mr. Gibson had no such meaning; and was led into error by the necessity for sudden action. When she offered to do anything that he might bid her do, he could not take up his hat and go away. She looked up into his face, expecting that he would give her some order;—and he fell into the temptation that was spread for him.
"If I might say a word,—" he began.
"You may say anything," she exclaimed.
"If I were you I don't think—"
"You don't think what, Mr. Gibson?"
He found it to be a matter very difficult of approach. "Do you know, I don't think the fashion that has come up about wearing your hair quite suits you,—not so well as the way you used to do it." She became on a sudden very red in the face, and he thought that she was angry. Vexed she was, but still, accompanying her vexation, there was a remembrance that she was achieving victory even by her own humiliation. She loved her chignon; but she was ready to abandon even that for him. Nevertheless she could not speak for a moment or two, and he was forced to continue his criticism. "I have no doubt those things are very becoming and all that, and I dare say they are comfortable."
"Oh, very," she said.
"But there was a simplicity that I liked about the other."
Could it be then that for the last five years he had stood aloof from her because she had arrayed herself in fashionable attire? She was still very red in the face, still suffering from wounded vanity, still conscious of that soreness which affects us all when we are made to understand that we are considered to have failed there, where we have most thought that we excelled. But her womanly art enabled her quickly to conceal the pain. "I have made a promise," she said, "and you will find that I will keep it."
"What promise?" asked Mr. Gibson.
"I said that I would do as you bade me, and so I will. I would have done it sooner if I had known that you wished it. I would never have worn it at all if I had thought that you disliked it."
"I think that a little of them is very nice," said Mr. Gibson. Mr. Gibson was certainly an awkward man. But there are men so awkward that it seems to be their especial province to say always the very worst thing at the very worst moment.
She became redder than ever as she was thus told of the hugeness of her favourite ornament. She was almost angry now. But she restrained herself, thinking perhaps of how she might teach him taste in days to come as he was teaching her now. "I will change it to-morrow," she said with a smile. "You come and see to-morrow."
Upon this he got up and took his hat and made his escape, assuring her that he would come and see her on the morrow. She let him go now without any attempt at further tenderness. Certainly she had gained much during the interview. He had as good as told her in what had been her offence, and of course, when she had remedied that offence, he could hardly refuse to return to her. She got up as soon as she was alone, and looked at her head in the glass, and told herself that the pity would be great. It was not that the chignon was in itself a thing of beauty, but that it imparted so unmistakable an air of fashion! It divested her of that dowdiness which she feared above all things, and enabled her to hold her own among other young women, without feeling that she was absolutely destitute of attraction. There had been a certain homage paid to it, which she had recognised and enjoyed. But it was her ambition to hold her own, not among young women, but among clergymen's wives, and she would certainly obey his orders. She could not make the attempt now because of the complications; but she certainly would make it before she laid her head on the pillow,—and would explain to Camilla that it was a little joke between herself and Mr. Gibson.
MR. GIBSON IS PUNISHED.
Miss Stanbury was divine in her wrath, and became more and more so daily as new testimony reached her of dishonesty on the part of the Frenches and of treachery on the part of Mr. Gibson. And these people, so empty, so vain, so weak, were getting the better of her, were conquering her, were robbing her of her prestige and her ancient glory, simply because she herself was too generous to speak out and tell the truth! There was a martyrdom to her in this which was almost unendurable.
Now there came to her one day at luncheon time,—on the day succeeding that on which Miss French had promised to sacrifice her chignon,—a certain Mrs. Clifford from Budleigh Salterton, to whom she was much attached. Perhaps the distance of Budleigh Salterton from Exeter added somewhat to this affection, so that Mrs. Clifford was almost closer to our friend's heart even than Mrs. MacHugh, who lived just at the other end of the cathedral. And in truth Mrs. Clifford was a woman more serious in her mode of thought than Mrs. MacHugh, and one who had more in common with Miss Stanbury than that other lady. Mrs. Clifford had been a Miss Noel of Doddiscombe Leigh, and she and Miss Stanbury had been engaged to be married at the same time,—each to a man of fortune. One match had been completed in the ordinary course of matches. What had been the course of the other we already know. But the friendship had been maintained on very close terms. Mrs. MacHugh was a Gallio at heart, anxious chiefly to remove from herself,—and from her friends also,—all the troubles of life, and make things smooth and easy. She was one who disregarded great questions; who cared little or nothing what people said of her; who considered nothing worth the trouble of a fight;—Epicuri de grege porca. But there was nothing swinish about Mrs. Clifford of Budleigh Salterton. She took life thoroughly in earnest. She was a Tory who sorrowed heartily for her country, believing that it was being brought to ruin by the counsels of evil men. She prayed daily to be delivered from dissenters, radicals, and wolves in sheep's clothing,—by which latter bad name she meant especially a certain leading politician of the day who had, with the cunning of the devil, tempted and perverted the virtue of her own political friends. And she was one who thought that the slightest breath of scandal on a young woman's name should be stopped at once. An antique, pure-minded, anxious, self-sacrificing matron was Mrs. Clifford, and very dear to the heart of Miss Stanbury.
After lunch was over on the day in question Mrs. Clifford got Miss Stanbury into some closet retirement, and there spoke her mind as to the things which were being said. It had been asserted in her presence by Camilla French that she, Camilla, was authorised by Mr. Gibson to declare that he had never thought of proposing to Dorothy Stanbury, and that Miss Stanbury had been "labouring under some strange misapprehension in the matter." "Now, my dear, I don't care very much for the young lady in question," said Mrs. Clifford, alluding to Camilla French.
"Very little, indeed, I should think," said Miss Stanbury, with a shake of her head.
"Quite true, my dear,—but that does not make the words out of her mouth the less efficacious for evil. She clearly insinuated that you had endeavoured to make up a match between this gentleman and your niece, and that you had failed." So much was at least true. Miss Stanbury felt this, and felt also that she could not explain the truth, even to her dear old friend. In the midst of her divine wrath she had acknowledged to herself that she had brought Mr. Gibson into his difficulty, and that it would not become her to tell any one of his failure. And in this matter she did not herself accuse Mr. Gibson. She believed that the lie originated with Camilla French, and it was against Camilla that her wrath raged the fiercest.
"She is a poor, mean, disappointed thing," said Miss Stanbury.
"Very probably;—but I think I should ask her to hold her tongue about Miss Dorothy," said Mrs. Clifford.
The consultation in the closet was carried on for about half-an-hour, and then Miss Stanbury put on her bonnet and shawl and descended into Mrs. Clifford's carriage. The carriage took the Heavitree road, and deposited Miss Stanbury at the door of Mrs. French's house. The walk home from Heavitree would be nothing, and Mrs. Clifford proceeded on her way, having given this little help in counsel and conveyance to her friend. Mrs. French was at home, and Miss Stanbury was shown up into the room in which the three ladies were sitting.
The reader will doubtless remember the promise which Arabella had made to Mr. Gibson. That promise she had already fulfilled,—to the amazement of her mother and sister;—and when Miss Stanbury entered the room the elder daughter of the family was seen without her accustomed head-gear. If the truth is to be owned, Miss Stanbury gave the poor young woman no credit for her new simplicity, but put down the deficiency to the charge of domestic slatternliness. She was unjust enough to declare afterwards that she had found Arabella French only half dressed at between three and four o'clock in the afternoon! From which this lesson may surely be learned,—that though the way down Avernus may be, and customarily is, made with great celerity, the return journey, if made at all, must be made slowly. A young woman may commence in chignons by attaching any amount of an edifice to her head; but the reduction should be made by degrees. Arabella's edifice had, in Miss Stanbury's eyes, been the ugliest thing in art that she had known; but, now, its absence offended her, and she most untruly declared that she had come upon the young woman in the middle of the day just out of her bed-room and almost in her dressing-gown.
And the whole French family suffered a diminution of power from the strange phantasy which had come upon Arabella. They all felt, in sight of the enemy, that they had to a certain degree lowered their flag. One of the ships, at least, had shown signs of striking, and this element of weakness made itself felt through the whole fleet. Arabella, herself, when she saw Miss Stanbury, was painfully conscious of her head, and wished that she had postponed the operation till the evening. She smiled with a faint watery smile, and was aware that something ailed her.
The greetings at first were civil, but very formal, as are those between nations which are nominally at peace, but which are waiting for a sign at which each may spring at the other's throat. In this instance the Juno from the Close had come quite prepared to declare her casus belli as complete, and to fling down her gauntlet, unless the enemy should at once yield to her everything demanded with an abject submission. "Mrs. French," she said, "I have called to-day for a particular purpose, and I must address myself chiefly to Miss Camilla."
"Oh, certainly," said Mrs. French.
"I shall be delighted to hear anything from you, Miss Stanbury," said Camilla,—not without an air of bravado. Arabella said nothing, but she put her hand up almost convulsively to the back of her head.
"I have been told to-day by a friend of mine, Miss Camilla," began Miss Stanbury, "that you declared yourself, in her presence, authorised by Mr. Gibson to make a statement about my niece Dorothy."
"May I ask who was your friend?" demanded Mrs. French.
"It was Mrs. Clifford, of course," said Camilla. "There is nobody else would try to make difficulties."
"There need be no difficulty at all, Miss Camilla," said Miss Stanbury, "if you will promise me that you will not repeat the statement. It can't be true."
"But it is true," said Camilla.
"What is true?" asked Miss Stanbury, surprised by the audacity of the girl.
"It is true that Mr. Gibson authorised us to state what I did state when Mrs. Clifford heard me."
"And what was that?"
"Only this,—that people had been saying all about Exeter that he was going to be married to a young lady, and that as the report was incorrect, and as he had never had the remotest idea in his mind of making the young lady his wife,—" Camilla, as she said this, spoke with a great deal of emphasis, putting forward her chin and shaking her head,—"and as he thought it was uncomfortable both for the young lady and for himself, and as there was nothing in it the least in the world,—nothing at all, no glimmer of a foundation for the report, it would be better to have it denied everywhere. That is what I said; and we had authority from the gentleman himself. Arabella can say the same, and so can mamma;—only mamma did not hear him." Nor had Camilla heard him, but that incident she did not mention.
The circumstances were, in Miss Stanbury's judgment, becoming very remarkable. She did not for a moment believe Camilla. She did not believe that Mr. Gibson had given to either of the Frenches any justification for the statement just made. But Camilla had been so much more audacious than Miss Stanbury had expected, that that lady was for a moment struck dumb. "I'm sure, Miss Stanbury," said Mrs. French, "we don't want to give any offence to your niece,—very far from it."
"My niece doesn't care about it two straws," said Miss Stanbury. "It is I that care. And I care very much. The things that have been said have been altogether false."
"How false, Miss Stanbury?" asked Camilla.
"Altogether false,—as false as they can be."
"Mr. Gibson must know his own mind," said Camilla.
"My dear, there's a little disappointment," said Miss French, "and it don't signify."
"There's no disappointment at all," said Miss Stanbury, "and it does signify very much. Now that I've begun, I'll go to the bottom of it. If you say that Mr. Gibson told you to make these statements, I'll go to Mr. Gibson. I'll have it out somehow."
"You may have what you like out for us, Miss Stanbury," said Camilla.
"I don't believe Mr. Gibson said anything of the kind."
"That's civil," said Camilla.
"But why shouldn't he?" asked Arabella.
"There were the reports, you know," said Mrs. French.
"And why shouldn't he deny them when there wasn't a word of truth in them?" continued Camilla. "For my part I think the gentleman is bound for the lady's sake to declare that there's nothing in it when there is nothing in it." This was more than Miss Stanbury could bear. Hitherto the enemy had seemed to have the best of it. Camilla was firing broadside after broadside, as though she was assured of victory. Even Mrs. French was becoming courageous; and Arabella was forgetting the place where her chignon ought to have been. "I really do not know what else there is for me to say," remarked Camilla, with a toss of her head, and an air of impudence that almost drove poor Miss Stanbury frantic.
It was on her tongue to declare the whole truth, but she refrained. She had schooled herself on this subject vigorously. She would not betray Mr. Gibson. Had she known all the truth,—or had she believed Camilla French's version of the story,—there would have been no betrayal. But looking at the matter with such knowledge as she had at present, she did not even yet feel herself justified in declaring that Mr. Gibson had offered his hand to her niece, and had been refused. She was, however, sorely tempted. "Very well, ladies," she said. "I shall now see Mr. Gibson, and ask him whether he did give you authority to make such statements as you have been spreading abroad everywhere." Then the door of the room was opened, and in a moment Mr. Gibson was among them. He was true to his promise, and had come to see Arabella with her altered head-dress;—but he had come at this hour thinking that escape in the morning would be easier and quicker than it might have been in the evening. His mind had been full of Arabella and her head-dress even up to the moment of his knocking at the door; but all that was driven out of his brain at once when he saw Miss Stanbury.
"Here is Mr. Gibson himself," said Mrs. French.
"How do you do, Mr. Gibson?" said Miss Stanbury, with a very stately courtesy. They had never met since the day on which he had been, as he stated, turned out of Miss Stanbury's house. He now bowed to her; but there was no friendly greeting, and the Frenches were able to congratulate themselves on the apparent loyalty to themselves of the gentleman who stood among them. "I have come here, Mr. Gibson," continued Miss Stanbury, "to put a small matter right in which you are concerned."
"It seems to me to be the most insignificant thing in the world," said Camilla.
"Very likely," said Miss Stanbury. "But it is not insignificant to me. Miss Camilla French has asserted publicly that you have authorised her to make a statement about my niece Dorothy."
Mr. Gibson looked into Camilla's face doubtingly, inquisitively, almost piteously. "You had better let her go on," said Camilla. "She will make a great many mistakes, no doubt, but you had better let her go on to the end."
"I have made no mistake as yet, Miss Camilla. She so asserted, Mr. Gibson, in the hearing of a friend of mine, and she repeated the assertion here in this room to me just before you came in. She says that you have authorised her to declare that—that—that,—I had better speak it out plainly at once."
"Much better," said Camilla.
"That you never entertained an idea of offering your hand to my niece." Miss Stanbury paused, and Mr. Gibson's jaw fell visibly. But he was not expected to speak as yet; and Miss Stanbury continued her accusation. "Beyond that, I don't want to mention my niece's name, if it can be avoided."
"But it can't be avoided," said Camilla.
"If you please, I will continue. Mr. Gibson will understand me. I will not, if I can help it, mention my niece's name again, Mr. Gibson. But I still have that confidence in you that I do not think that you would have made such a statement in reference to yourself and any young lady,—unless it were some young lady who had absolutely thrown herself at your head." And in saying this she paused, and looked very hard at Camilla.
"That's just what Dorothy Stanbury has been doing," said Camilla.
"She has been doing nothing of the kind, and you know she hasn't," said Miss Stanbury, raising her arm as though she were going to strike her opponent. "But I am quite sure, Mr. Gibson, that you never could have authorised these young ladies to make such an assertion publicly on your behalf. Whatever there may have been of misunderstanding between you and me, I can't believe that of you." Then she paused for a reply. "If you will be good enough to set us right on that point, I shall be obliged to you."
Mr. Gibson's position was one of great discomfort. He had given no authority to any one to make such a statement. He had said nothing about Dorothy Stanbury to Camilla; but he had told Arabella, when hard pressed by that lady, that he did not mean to propose to Dorothy. He could not satisfy Miss Stanbury because he feared Arabella. He could not satisfy the Frenches because he feared Miss Stanbury. "I really do not think," said he, "that we ought to talk about a young lady in this way."
"That's my opinion, too," said Camilla; "but Miss Stanbury will."
"Exactly so. Miss Stanbury will," said that lady. "Mr. Gibson, I insist upon it, that you tell me whether you did give any such authority to Miss Camilla French, or to Miss French."
"I wouldn't answer her, if I were you," said Camilla.
"I really don't think this can do any good," said Mrs. French.
"And it is so very harassing to our nerves," said Arabella.
"Nerves! Pooh!" exclaimed Miss Stanbury. "Now, Mr. Gibson, I am waiting for an answer."
"My dear Miss Stanbury, I really think it better,—the situation is so peculiar, and, upon my word, I hardly know how not to give offence, which I wouldn't do for the world."
"Do you mean to tell me that you won't answer my question?" demanded Miss Stanbury.
"I really think that I had better hold my tongue," pleaded Mr. Gibson.
"You are quite right, Mr. Gibson," said Camilla.
"Indeed, it is wisest," said Mrs. French.
"I don't see what else he can do," said Arabella.
Then was Miss Stanbury driven altogether beyond her powers of endurance. "If that be so," said she, "I must speak out, though I should have preferred to hold my tongue. Mr. Gibson did offer to my niece the week before last,—twice, and was refused by her. My niece, Dorothy, took it into her head that she did not like him; and, upon my word, I think she was right. We should have said nothing about this,—not a word; but when these false assertions are made on Mr. Gibson's alleged authority, and Mr. Gibson won't deny it, I must tell the truth." Then there was silence among them for a few seconds, and Mr. Gibson struggled hard, but vainly, to clothe his face in a pleasant smile. "Mr. Gibson, is that true?" said Miss Stanbury. But Mr. Gibson made no reply. "It is as true as heaven," said Miss Stanbury, striking her hand upon the table. "And now you had better, all of you, hold your tongues about my niece, and she will hold her tongue about you. And as for Mr. Gibson,—anybody who wants him after this is welcome to him for us. Good-morning, Mrs. French; good-morning, young ladies." And so she stalked out of the room, and out of the house, and walked back to her house in the Close.
"Mamma," said Arabella, as soon as the enemy was gone, "I have got such a headache that I think I will go up-stairs."
"And I will go with you, dear," said Camilla.
Mr. Gibson, before he left the house, confided his secret to the maternal ears of Mrs. French. He certainly had been allured into making an offer to Dorothy Stanbury, but was ready to atone for this crime by marrying her daughter,—Camilla,—as soon as might be convenient. He was certainly driven to make this declaration by intense cowardice,—not to excuse himself, for in that there could be no excuse;—but how else should he dare to suggest that he might as well leave the house? "Shall I tell the dear girl?" asked Mrs. French. But Mr. Gibson requested a fortnight, in which to consider how the proposition had best be made.
MR. BROOKE BURGESS AFTER SUPPER.
Brooke Burgess was a clerk in the office of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in London, and as such had to do with things very solemn, grave, and almost melancholy. He had to deal with the rents of episcopal properties, to correspond with clerical claimants, and to be at home with the circumstances of underpaid vicars and perpetual curates with much less than £300 a-year; but yet he was as jolly and pleasant at his desk as though he were busied about the collection of the malt tax, or wrote his letters to admirals and captains instead of to deans and prebendaries. Brooke Burgess had risen to be a senior clerk, and was held in some respect in his office; but it was not perhaps for the amount of work he did, nor yet on account of the gravity of his demeanour, nor for the brilliancy of his intellect. But if not clever, he was sensible; though he was not a dragon of official virtue, he had a conscience;—and he possessed those small but most valuable gifts by which a man becomes popular among men. And thus it had come to pass in all those battles as to competitive merit which had taken place in his as in other public offices, that no one had ever dreamed of putting a junior over the head of Brooke Burgess. He was tractable, easy, pleasant, and therefore deservedly successful. All his brother clerks called him Brooke,—except the young lads who, for the first year or two of their service, still denominated him Mr. Burgess.
"Brooke," said one of his juniors, coming into his room and standing before the fireplace with a cigar in his mouth, "have you heard who is to be the new Commissioner?"
"Colenso, to be sure," said Brooke.
"What a lark that would be. And I don't see why he shouldn't. But it isn't Colenso. The name has just come down."
"And who is it?"
"Old Proudie, from Barchester."
"Why, we had him here years ago, and he resigned."
"But he's to come on again now for a spell. It always seems to me that the bishops ain't a bit of use here. They only get blown up, and snubbed, and shoved into corners by the others."
"You young reprobate,—to talk of shoving an archbishop into a corner."
"Well,—don't they? It's only for the name of it they have them. There's the Bishop of Broomsgrove;—he's always sauntering about the place, looking as though he'd be so much obliged if somebody would give him something to do. He's always smiling, and so gracious,—just as if he didn't feel above half sure that he had any right to be where he is, and he thought that perhaps somebody was going to kick him."
"And so old Proudie is coming up again," said Brooke. "It certainly is very much the same to us whom they send. He'll get shoved into a corner, as you call it,—only that he'll go into the corner without any shoving." Then there came in a messenger with a card, and Brooke learned that Hugh Stanbury was waiting for him in the strangers' room. In performing the promise made to Dorothy, he had called upon her brother as soon as he was back in London, but had not found him. This now was the return visit.
"I thought I was sure to find you here," said Hugh.
"Pretty nearly sure from eleven till five," said Brooke. "A hard stepmother like the Civil Service does not allow one much chance of relief. I do get across to the club sometimes for a glass of sherry and a biscuit,—but here I am now, at any rate; and I'm very glad you have come." Then there was some talk between them about affairs at Exeter; but as they were interrupted before half an hour was over their heads by a summons brought for Burgess from one of the secretaries, it was agreed that they should dine together at Burgess's club on the following day. "We can manage a pretty good beef-steak," said Brooke, "and have a fair glass of sherry. I don't think you can get much more than that anywhere nowadays,—unless you want a dinner for eight at three guineas a head. The magnificence of men has become so intolerable now that one is driven to be humble in one's self-defence." Stanbury assured his acquaintance that he was anything but magnificent in his own ideas, that cold beef and beer was his usual fare, and at last allowed the clerk to wait upon the secretary.
"I wouldn't have any other fellow to meet you," said Brooke as they sat at their dinners, "because in this way we can talk over the dear old woman at Exeter. Yes, our fellow does make good soup, and it's about all that he does do well. As for getting a potato properly boiled, that's quite out of the question. Yes, it is a good glass of sherry. I told you we'd a fairish tap of sherry on. Well, I was there, backwards and forwards, for nearly six weeks."
"And how did you get on with the old woman?"
"Like a house on fire," said Brooke.
"She didn't quarrel with you?"
"No,—upon the whole she did not. I always felt that it was touch and go. She might or she might not. Every now and then she looked at me, and said a sharp word, as though it was about to come. But I had determined when I went there altogether to disregard that kind of thing."
"It's rather important to you,—is it not?"
"You mean about her money?"
"Of course, I mean about her money," said Stanbury.
"It is important;—and so it was to you."
"Not in the same degree, or nearly so. And as for me, it was not on the cards that we shouldn't quarrel. I am so utterly a Bohemian in all my ideas of life, and she is so absolutely the reverse, that not to have quarrelled would have been hypocritical on my part or on hers. She had got it into her head that she had a right to rule my life; and, of course, she quarrelled with me when I made her understand that she should do nothing of the kind. Now, she won't want to rule you."
"I hope not."
"She has taken you up," continued Stanbury, "on altogether a different understanding. You are to her the representative of a family to whom she thinks she owes the restitution of the property which she enjoys. I was simply a member of her own family, to which she owes nothing. She thought it well to help one of us out of what she regarded as her private purse, and she chose me. But the matter is quite different with you."
"She might have given everything to you, as well as to me," said Brooke.
"That's not her idea. She conceives herself bound to leave all she has back to a Burgess, except anything she may save,—as she says, off her own back, or out of her own belly. She has told me so a score of times."
"And what did you say?"
"I always told her that, let her do as she would, I should never ask any question about her will."
"But she hates us all like poison,—except me," said Brooke. "I never knew people so absurdly hostile as are your aunt and my uncle Barty. Each thinks the other the most wicked person in the world."
"I suppose your uncle was hard upon her once."
"Very likely. He is a hard man,—and has, very warmly, all the feelings of an injured man. I suppose my uncle Brooke's will was a cruel blow to him. He professes to believe that Miss Stanbury will never leave me a shilling."
"He is wrong, then," said Stanbury.
"Oh yes;—he's wrong, because he thinks that that's her present intention. I don't know that he's wrong as to the probable result."
"Who will have it, then?"
"There are ever so many horses in the race," said Brooke. "I'm one."
"You're the favourite," said Stanbury.
"For the moment I am. Then there's yourself."
"I've been scratched, and am altogether out of the betting."
"And your sister," continued Brooke.
"She's only entered to run for the second money; and, if she'll trot over the course quietly, and not go the wrong side of the posts, she'll win that."
"She may do more than that. Then there's Martha."
"My aunt will never leave her money to a servant. What she may give to Martha would come from her own savings."
"The next is a dark horse, but one that wins a good many races of this kind. He's apt to come in with a fatal rush at the end."
"Who is it?"
"The hospitals. When an old lady finds in her latter days that she hates everybody, and fancies that the people around her are all thinking of her money, she's uncommon likely to indulge herself in a little bit of revenge, and solace herself with large-handed charity."
"But she's so good a woman at heart," said Hugh.
"And what can a good woman do better than promote hospitals?"
"She'll never do that. She's too strong. It's a maudlin sort of thing, after all, for a person to leave everything to a hospital."
"But people are maudlin when they're dying," said Brooke,—"or even when they think they're dying. How else did the Church get the estates, of which we are now distributing so bountifully some of the last remnants down at our office? Come into the next room, and we'll have a smoke."
They had their smoke, and then they went at half-price to the play; and, after the play was over, they eat three or four dozen of oysters between them. Brooke Burgess was a little too old for oysters at midnight in September; but he went through his work like a man. Hugh Stanbury's powers were so great, that he could have got up and done the same thing again, after he had been an hour in bed, without any serious inconvenience.
But, in truth, Brooke Burgess had still another word or two to say before he went to his rest. They supped somewhere near the Haymarket, and then he offered to walk home with Stanbury, to his chambers in Lincoln's Inn. "Do you know that Mr. Gibson at Exeter?" he asked, as they passed through Leicester Square.
"Yes; I knew him. He was a sort of tame-cat parson at my aunt's house, in my days."
"Exactly;—but I fancy that has come to an end now. Have you heard anything about him lately?"
"Well;—yes I have," said Stanbury, feeling that dislike to speak of his sister which is common to most brothers when in company with other men.
"I suppose you've heard of it, and, as I was in the middle of it all, of course I couldn't but know all about it too. Your aunt wanted him to marry your sister."
"So I was told."
"But your sister didn't see it," said Brooke.
"So I understand," said Stanbury. "I believe my aunt was exceedingly liberal, and meant to do the best she could for poor Dorothy; but, if she didn't like him, I suppose she was right not to have him," said Hugh.
"Of course she was right," said Brooke, with a good deal of enthusiasm.
"I believe Gibson to be a very decent sort of fellow," said Stanbury.
"A mean, paltry dog," said Brooke. There had been a little whisky-toddy after the oysters, and Mr. Burgess was perhaps moved to a warmer expression of feeling than he might have displayed had he discussed this branch of the subject before supper. "I knew from the first that she would have nothing to say to him. He is such a poor creature!"
"I always thought well of him," said Stanbury, "and was inclined to think that Dolly might have done worse."
"It is hard to say what is the worst a girl might do; but I think she might do, perhaps, a little better."
"What do you mean?" said Hugh.
"I think I shall go down, and ask her to take myself."
"Do you mean it in earnest?"
"I do," said Brooke. "Of course, I hadn't a chance when I was there. She told me—"
"Who told you;—Dorothy?"
"No, your aunt;—she told me that Mr. Gibson was to marry your sister. You know your aunt's way. She spoke of it as though the thing were settled as soon as she had got it into her own head; and she was as hot upon it as though Mr. Gibson had been an archbishop. I had nothing to do then but to wait and see."
"I had no idea of Dolly being fought for by rivals."
"Brothers never think much of their sisters," said Brooke Burgess.
"I can assure you I think a great deal of Dorothy," said Hugh. "I believe her to be as sweet a woman as God ever made. She hardly knows that she has a self belonging to herself."
"I am sure she doesn't," said Brooke.
"She is a dear, loving, sweet-tempered creature, who is only too ready to yield in all things."
"But she wouldn't yield about Gibson," said Brooke.
"How did she and my aunt manage?"
"Your sister simply said she couldn't,—and then that she wouldn't. I never thought from the first moment that she'd take that fellow. In the first place he can't say boo to a goose."
"But Dolly wouldn't want a man to say—boo."
"I'm not so sure of that, old fellow. At any rate I mean to try myself. Now,—what'll the old woman say?"
"She'll be pleased as Punch, I should think," said Stanbury.
"Either that;—or else she'll swear that she'll never speak another word to either of us. However, I shall go on with it."
"Does Dorothy know anything of this?" asked Stanbury.
"Not a word," said Brooke. "I came away a day or so after Gibson was settled; and as I had been talked to all through the affair by both of them, I couldn't turn round and offer myself the moment he was gone. You won't object;—will you?"
"Who; I?" said Stanbury. "I shall have no objection as long as Dolly pleases herself. Of course you know that we haven't as much as a brass farthing among us?"
"That won't matter if the old lady takes it kindly," said Brooke. Then they parted, at the corner of Lincoln's Inn Fields, and Hugh as he went up to his own rooms, reflected with something of wonderment on the success of Dorothy's charms. She had always been the poor one of the family, the chick out of the nest which would most require assistance from the stronger birds; but it now appeared that she would become the first among all the Stanburys. Wealth had first flowed down upon the Stanbury family from the will of old Brooke Burgess; and it now seemed probable that poor Dolly would ultimately have the enjoyment of it all.
It was now New Year's day, and there was some grief and perhaps more excitement in Exeter,—for it was rumoured that Miss Stanbury lay very ill at her house in the Close. But in order that our somewhat uneven story may run as smoothly as it may be made to do, the little history of the French family for the intervening months shall be told in this chapter, in order that it may be understood how matters were with them when the tidings of Miss Stanbury's severe illness first reached their house at Heavitree.
After that terrible scene in which Miss Stanbury had so dreadfully confounded Mr. Gibson by declaring the manner in which he had been rebuffed by Dorothy, the unfortunate clergyman had endeavoured to make his peace with the French family by assuring the mother that in very truth it was the dearest wish of his heart to make her daughter Camilla his wife. Mrs. French, who had ever been disposed to favour Arabella's ambition, well knowing its priority and ancient right, and who of late had been taught to consider that even Camilla had consented to waive any claim that she might have once possessed, could not refrain from the expression of some surprise. That he should be recovered at all out of the Stanbury clutches was very much to Mrs. French,—was so much that, had time been given her for consideration, she would have acknowledged to herself readily that the property had best be secured at once to the family, without incurring that amount of risk which must unquestionably attend any attempt on her part to direct Mr. Gibson's purpose hither or thither. But the proposition came so suddenly that time was not allowed to her to be altogether wise. "I thought it was poor Bella," she said, with something of a piteous whine in her voice. At the moment Mr. Gibson was so humble, that he was half inclined to give way even on that head. He felt himself to have been brought so low in the market by that terrible story of Miss Stanbury's,—which he had been unable either to contradict or to explain,—that there was but little power of fighting left in him. He was, however, just able to speak a word for himself, and that sufficed. "I hope there has been no mistake," he said; "but really it is Camilla that has my heart." Mrs. French made no rejoinder to this. It was so much to her to know that Mr. Gibson's heart was among them at all after what had occurred in the Close, that she acknowledged to herself after that moment of reflection that Arabella must be sacrificed for the good of the family interests. Poor, dear, loving, misguided, and spiritless mother! She would have given the blood out of her bosom to get husbands for her daughters, though it was not of her own experience that she had learned that of all worldly goods a husband is the best. But it was the possession which they had from their earliest years thought of acquiring, which they first expected, for which they had then hoped, and afterwards worked and schemed and striven with every energy,—and as to which they had at last almost despaired. And now Arabella's fire had been rekindled with a new spark, which, alas, was to be quenched so suddenly! "And am I to tell them?" asked Mrs. French, with a tremor in her voice. To this, however, Mr. Gibson demurred. He said that for certain reasons he should like a fortnight's grace; and that at the end of the fortnight he would be prepared to speak. The interval was granted without further questions, and Mr. Gibson was allowed to leave the house.
After that Mrs. French was not very comfortable at home. As soon as Mr. Gibson had departed, Camilla at once returned to her mother and desired to know what had taken place. Was it true that the perjured man had proposed to that young woman in the Close? Mrs. French was not clever at keeping a secret, and she could not keep this by her own aid. She told all that happened to Camilla, and between them they agreed that Arabella should be kept in ignorance till the fatal fortnight should have passed. When Camilla was interrogated as to her own purpose, she said she should like a day to think of it. She took the twenty-four hours, and then made the following confession of her passion to her mother. "You see, mamma, I always liked Mr. Gibson,—always."
"So did Arabella, my dear,—before you thought of such things."
"I dare say that may be true, mamma; but that is not my fault. He came here among us on such sweetly intimate terms that the feeling grew up with me before I knew what it meant. As to any idea of cutting out Arabella, my conscience is quite clear. If I thought there had been anything really between them I would have gone anywhere,—to the top of a mountain,—rather than rob my sister of a heart that belonged to her."
"He has been so slow about it," said Mrs. French.
"I don't know about that," said Camilla. "Gentlemen have to be slow, I suppose, when they think of their incomes. He only got St. Peter's-cum-Pumpkin three years ago, and didn't know for the first year whether he could hold that and the minor canonry together. Of course a gentleman has to think of these things before he comes forward."
"My dear, he has been very backward."
"If I'm to be Mrs. Gibson, mamma, I beg that I mayn't hear anything said against him. Then there came all this about that young woman; and when I saw that Arabella took on so,—which I must say was very absurd,—I'm sure I put myself out of the way entirely. If I'd buried myself under the ground I couldn't have done it more. And it's my belief that what I've said, all for Arabella's sake, has put the old woman into such a rage that it has made a quarrel between him and the niece; otherwise that wouldn't be off. I don't believe a word of her refusing him, and never shall. Is it in the course of things, mamma?" Mrs. French shook her head. "Of course not. Then when you question him,—very properly,—he says that he's devoted to—poor me. If I was to refuse him, he wouldn't put up with Bella."
"I suppose not," said Mrs. French.
"He hates Bella. I've known it all along, though I wouldn't say so. If I were to sacrifice myself ever so it wouldn't be of any good,—and I shan't do it." In this way the matter was arranged.
At the end of the fortnight, however, Mr. Gibson did not come,—nor at the end of three weeks. Inquiries had of course been made, and it was ascertained that he had gone into Cornwall for a parson's holiday of thirteen days. That might be all very well. A man might want the recruiting vigour of some change of air after such scenes as those Mr. Gibson had gone through with the Stanburys, and before his proposed encounter with new perils. And he was a man so tied by the leg that his escape could not be for any long time. He was back on the appointed Sunday, and on the Wednesday Mrs. French, under Camilla's instruction, wrote to him a pretty little note. He replied that he would be with her on the Saturday. It would then be nearly four weeks after the great day with Miss Stanbury, but no one would be inclined to quarrel with so short a delay as that. Arabella in the meantime had become fidgety and unhappy. She seemed to understand that something was expected, being quite unable to guess what that something might be. She was true throughout these days to the simplicity of head-gear which Mr. Gibson had recommended to her, and seemed in her questions to her mother and to Camilla to be more fearful of Dorothy Stanbury than of any other enemy. "Mamma, I think you ought to tell her," said Camilla more than once. But she had not been told when Mr. Gibson came on the Saturday. It may truly be said that the poor mother's pleasure in the prospects of one daughter was altogether destroyed by the anticipation of the other daughter's misery. Had Mr. Gibson made Dorothy Stanbury his wife they could have all comforted themselves together by the heat of their joint animosity.
He came on the Saturday, and it was so managed that he was closeted with Camilla before Arabella knew that he was in the house. There was a quarter of an hour during which his work was easy, and perhaps pleasant. When he began to explain his intention, Camilla, with the utmost frankness, informed him that her mother had told her all about it. Then she turned her face on one side and put her hand in his; he got his arm round her waist, gave her a kiss, and the thing was done. Camilla was fully resolved that after such a betrothal it should not be undone. She had behaved with sisterly forbearance, and would not now lose the reward of virtue. Not a word was said of Arabella at this interview till he was pressed to come and drink tea with them all that night. He hesitated a moment; and then Camilla declared, with something perhaps of imperious roughness in her manner, that he had better face it all at once. "Mamma will tell her, and she will understand," said Camilla. He hesitated again, but at last promised that he would come.
Whilst he was yet in the house Mrs. French had told the whole story to her poor elder daughter. "What is he doing with Camilla?" Arabella had asked with feverish excitement.
"Bella, darling;—don't you know?" said the mother.
"I know nothing. Everybody keeps me in the dark, and I am badly used. What is it that he is doing?" Then Mrs. French tried to take the poor young woman in her arms, but Arabella would not submit to be embraced. "Don't!" she exclaimed. "Leave me alone. Nobody likes me, or cares a bit about me! Why is Cammy with him there, all alone?"
"I suppose he is asking her—to be—his wife." Then Arabella threw herself in despair upon the bed, and wept without any further attempt at control over her feelings. It was a death-blow to her last hope, and all the world, as she looked upon the world then, was over for her. "If I could have arranged it the other way, you know that I would," said the mother.
"Mamma," said Arabella, jumping up, "he shan't do it. He hasn't a right. And as for her,— Oh, that she should treat me in this way! Didn't he tell me the other night, when he drank tea here with me alone—"
"What did he tell you, Bella?"
"Never mind. Nothing shall ever make me speak to him again;—not if he married her three times over; nor to her. She is a nasty, sly, good-for-nothing thing!"
"Don't talk to me, mamma. There never was such a thing done before since people—were—people at all. She has been doing it all the time. I know she has."
Nevertheless Arabella did sit down to tea with the two lovers that night. There was a terrible scene between her and Camilla; but Camilla held her own; and Arabella, being the weaker of the two, was vanquished by the expenditure of her own small energies. Camilla argued that as her sister's chance was gone, and as the prize had come in her own way, there was no good reason why it should be lost to the family altogether, because Arabella could not win it. When Arabella called her a treacherous vixen and a heartless, profligate hussy, she spoke out freely, and said that she wasn't going to be abused. A gentleman to whom she was attached had asked her for her hand, and she had given it. If Arabella chose to make herself a fool she might,—but what would be the effect? Simply that all the world would know that she, Arabella, was disappointed. Poor Bella at last gave way, put on her discarded chignon, and came down to tea. Mr. Gibson was already in the room when she entered it. "Arabella," he said, getting up to greet her, "I hope you will congratulate me." He had planned his little speech and his manner of making it, and had wisely decided that in this way might he best get over the difficulty.
"Oh yes;—of course," she said, with a little giggle, and then a sob, and then a flood of tears.
"Dear Bella feels these things so strongly," said Mrs. French.
"We have never been parted yet," said Camilla. Then Arabella tapped the head of the sofa three or four times sharply with her knuckles. It was the only protest against the reading of the scene which Camilla had given of which she was capable at that moment. After that Mrs. French gave out the tea, Arabella curled herself upon the sofa as though she were asleep, and the two lovers settled down to proper lover-like conversation.
The reader may be sure that Camilla was not slow in making the fact of her engagement notorious through the city. It was not probably true that the tidings of her success had anything to do with Miss Stanbury's illness; but it was reported by many that such was the case. It was in November that the arrangement was made, and it certainly was true that Miss Stanbury was rather ill about the same time. "You know, you naughty Lothario, that you did give her some ground to hope that she might dispose of her unfortunate niece," said Camilla playfully to her own one, when this illness was discussed between them. "But you are caught now, and your wings are clipped, and you are never to be a naughty Lothario again." The clerical Don Juan bore it all, awkwardly indeed, but with good humour, and declared that all his troubles of that sort were over, now and for ever. Nevertheless he did not name the day, and Camilla began to feel that there might be occasion for a little more of that imperious roughness which she had at her command.
November was nearly over and nothing had been fixed about the day. Arabella never condescended to speak to her sister on the subject; but on more than one occasion made some inquiry of her mother. And she came to perceive, or to think that she perceived, that her mother was still anxious on the subject. "I shouldn't wonder if he wasn't off some day now," she said at last to her mother.
"Don't say anything so dreadful, Bella."
"It would serve Cammy quite right, and it's just what he's likely to do."
"It would kill me," said the mother.
"I don't know about killing," said Arabella; "it's nothing to what I've had to go through. I shouldn't pretend to be sorry if he were to go to Hong-Kong to-morrow."
But Mr. Gibson had no idea of going to Hong-Kong. He was simply carrying out his little scheme for securing the advantages of a "long day." He was fully resolved to be married, and was contented to think that his engagement was the best thing for him. To one or two male friends he spoke of Camilla as the perfection of female virtue, and entertained no smallest idea of ultimate escape. But a "long day" is often a convenience. A bill at three months sits easier on a man than one at sixty days; and a bill at six months is almost as little of a burden as no bill at all.
But Camilla was resolved that some day should be fixed. "Thomas," she said to her lover one morning, as they were walking home together after service at the cathedral, "isn't this rather a fool's Paradise of ours?"
"How a fool's Paradise?" asked the happy Thomas.
"What I mean is, dearest, that we ought to fix something. Mamma is getting uneasy about her own plans."
"In what way, dearest?"
"About a thousand things. She can't arrange anything till our plans are made. Of course there are little troubles about money when people ain't rich." Then it occurred to her that this might seem to be a plea for postponing rather than for hurrying the marriage, and she mended her argument. "The truth is, Thomas, she wants to know when the day is to be fixed, and I've promised to ask. She said she'd ask you herself, but I wouldn't let her do that."
"We must think about it, of course," said Thomas.
"But, my dear, there has been plenty of time for thinking. What do you say to January?" This was on the last day of November.
"January!" exclaimed Thomas, in a tone that betrayed no triumph. "I couldn't get my services arranged for in January."
"I thought a clergyman could always manage that for his marriage," said Camilla.
"Not in January. Besides, I was thinking you would like to be away in warmer weather."
They were still in November, and he was thinking of postponing it till the summer! Camilla immediately perceived how necessary it was that she should be plain with him. "We shall not have warm weather, as you call it, for a very long time, Thomas;—and I don't think that it would be wise to wait for the weather at all. Indeed, I've begun to get my things for doing it in the winter. Mamma said that she was sure January would be the very latest. And it isn't as though we had to get furniture or anything of that kind. Of course a lady shouldn't be pressing." She smiled sweetly and leaned on his arm as she said this. "But I hate all girlish nonsense and that kind of thing. It is such a bore to be kept waiting. I'm sure there's nothing to prevent it coming off in February."
The 31st of March was fixed before they reached Heavitree, and Camilla went into her mother's house a happy woman. But Mr. Gibson, as he went home, thought that he had been hardly used. Here was a girl who hadn't a shilling of money,—not a shilling till her mother died,—and who already talked about his house, and his furniture, and his income, as if it were all her own! Circumstanced as she was, what right had she to press for an early day? He was quite sure that Arabella would have been more discreet and less exacting. He was very angry with his dear Cammy as he went across the Close to his house.