“Have you heard the news, my dear, from the Small House?” said Mrs Boyce to her husband, some two or three days after Mrs Dale’s visit to the squire. It was one o’clock, and the parish pastor had come in from his ministrations to dine with his wife and children.
“What news?” said Mr Boyce, for he had heard none.
“Mrs Dale and the girls are going to leave the Small House; they’re going into Guestwick to live.”
“Mrs Dale going away; nonsense!” said the vicar. “What on earth should take her into Guestwick? She doesn’t pay a shilling of rent where she is.”
“I can assure you it’s true, my dear. I was with Mrs Hearn just now, and she had it direct from Mrs Dale’s own lips. Mrs Hearn said she’d never been taken so much aback in her whole life. There’s been some quarrel, you may be sure of that.”
Mr Boyce sat silent, pulling off his dirty shoes preparatory to his dinner. Tidings so important, as touching the social life of his parish, had not come to him for many a day, and he could hardly bring himself to credit them at so short a notice.
“Mrs Hearn says that Mrs Dale spoke ever so firmly about it, as though determined that nothing should change her.”
“And did she say why?”
“Well, not exactly. But Mrs Hearn said she could understand there had been words between her and the squire. It couldn’t be anything else, you know. Probably it had something to do with that man, Crosbie.”
“They’ll be very pushed about money,” said Mr Boyce, thrusting his feet into his slippers.
“That’s just what I said to Mrs, Hearn. And those girls have never been used to anything like real economy. What’s to become of them I don’t know;” and Mrs Boyce, as she expressed her sympathy for her dear friends, received considerable comfort from the prospect of their future poverty. It always is so, and Mrs Boyce was not worse than her neighbours.
“You’ll find they’ll make it up before the time comes,” said Mr Boyce, to whom the excitement of such a change in affairs was almost too good to be true.
“I am afraid not,” said Mrs Boyce; “I’m afraid not. They are both so determined. I always thought that riding and giving the girls hats and habits was injurious. It was treating them as though they were the squire’s daughters, and they were not the squire’s daughters.”
“It was almost the same thing.”
“But now we see the difference,” said the judicious Mrs Boyce.
“I often said that dear Mrs Dale was wrong, and it turns out that I was right. It will make no difference to me, as regards calling on them and that sort of thing.”
“Of course it won’t.”
“Not but what there must be a difference, and a very great difference too. It will be a terrible come down for poor Lily, with the loss of her fine husband and all.”
After dinner, when Mr Boyce had again gone forth upon his labours, the same subject was discussed between Mrs Boyce and her daughters, and the mother was very careful to teach her children that Mrs Dale would be just as good a person as ever she had been, and quite as much a lady, even though she should live in a very dingy house at Guestwick; from which lesson the Boyce girls learned plainly that Mrs Dale, with Bell and Lily, were about to have a fall in the world, and that they were to be treated accordingly.
From all this, it will be discovered that Mrs Dale had not given way to the squire’s arguments, although she had found herself unable to answer them. As she had returned home she had felt herself to be almost vanquished, and had spoken to the girls with the air and tone of a woman who hardly knew in which course lay the line of her duty. But they had not seen the squire’s manner on the occasion, nor heard his words, and they could not understand that their own purpose should be abandoned because he did not like it. So they talked their mother into fresh resolves, and on the following morning she wrote a note to her brother-in-law, assuring him that she had thought much of all that he had said, but again declaring that she regarded herself as bound in duty to leave the Small House. To this he had returned no answer, and she had communicated her intention to Mrs Hearn, thinking it better that there should be no secret in the matter.
“I am sorry to hear that your sister-in-law is going to leave us,” Mr Boyce said to the squire that same afternoon.
“Who told you that?” asked the squire, showing by his tone that he by no means liked the topic of conversation which the parson had chosen.
“Well, I had it from Mrs Boyce, and I think Mrs Hearn told her.”
“I wish Mrs Hearn would mind her own business, and not spread idle reports.”
The squire said nothing more, and Mr Boyce felt that he had been very unjustly snubbed.
Dr Crofts had come over and pronounced as a fact that it was scarlatina. Village apothecaries are generally wronged by the doubts which are thrown upon them, for the town doctors when they come always confirm what the village apothecaries have said.
“There can be no doubt as to its being scarlatina,” the doctor declared; “but the symptoms are all favourable.”
There was, however, much worse coming than this. Two days afterwards Lily found herself to be rather unwell. She endeavoured to keep it to herself, fearing that she should be brought under the doctor’s notice as a patient; but her efforts were unavailing, and on the following morning it was known that she had also taken the disease. Dr Crofts declared that everything was in her favour. The weather was cold. The presence of the malady in the house had caused them all to be careful, and, moreover, good advice was at hand at once. The doctor begged Mrs Dale not to be uneasy, but he was very eager in begging that the two sisters might not be allowed to be together.
“Could you not send Bell, into Guestwick — to Mrs Eames’s?” said he. But Bell did not choose to be sent to Mrs Eames’s, and was with great difficulty kept out of her mother’s bedroom, to which Lily as an invalid was transferred.
“If you will allow me to say so,” he said to Bell, on the second day after Lily’s complaint had declared itself, “you are wrong to stay here in the house.”
“I certainly shall not leave mamma, when she has got so much upon her hands,” said Bell.
“But if you should be taken ill she would have more on her hands,” pleaded the doctor.
“I could not do it,” Bell replied.
“If I were taken over to Guestwick, I should be so uneasy that I should walk back to Allington the first moment that I could escape from the house.”
“I think your mother would be more comfortable without you.”
“And I think she would be more comfortable with me. I don’t ever like to hear of a woman running away from illness; but when a sister or a daughter does so, it is intolerable.” So Bell remained, without permission indeed to see her sister, but performing various outside administrations which were much needed.
And thus all manner of trouble came upon the inhabitants of the Small House, falling upon them as it were in a heap together. It was as yet barely two months since those terrible tidings had come respecting Crosbie; tidings which, it was felt at the time, would of themselves be sufficient to crush them; and now to that misfortune other misfortunes had been added — one quick upon the heels of another. In the teeth of the doctor’s kind prophecy Lily became very ill, and after a few days was delirious. She would talk to her mother about Crosbie, speaking of him as she used to speak in the autumn that was passed. But even in her madness she remembered that they had resolved to leave their present home; and she asked the doctor twice whether their lodgings at Guestwick were ready for them.
It was thus that Crofts first heard of their intention. Now, in these days of Lily’s worst illness, he came daily over to Allington, remaining there, on one occasion, the whole night. For all this he would take no fee — nor had he ever taken a fee from Mrs Dale.
“I wish you would not come so often,” Bell said to him one evening, as he stood with her at the drawing-room fire, after he had left the patient’s room; “you are overloading us with obligations.” On that day Lily was over the worst of the fever, and he had been able to tell Mrs Dale that he did not think that she was now in danger.
“It will not be necessary much longer,” he said; “the worst of it is over.”
“It is such a luxury to hear you say so. I suppose we shall owe her life to you; but nevertheless —”
“Oh, no; scarlatina is not such a terrible thing now as it used to be.”
“Then why should you have devoted your time to her as you have done? It frightens me when I think of the injury we must have done you.”
“My horse has felt it more than I have,” said the doctor, laughing.
“My patients at Guestwick are not so very numerous.” Then, instead of going, he sat himself down.
“And it is really true,” he said, “that you are all going to leave this house?”
“Quite true. We shall do so at the end of March, if Lily is well enough to be moved.”
“Lily will be well long before that, I hope; not, indeed, that she ought to be moved out of her own rooms for many weeks to come yet.”
“Unless we are stopped by her we shall certainly go at the end of March.” Bell now had also sat down, and they both remained for some time looking at the fire in silence.
“And why is it, Bell?” he said, at last.
“But I don’t know whether I have a right to ask.”
“You have a right to ask any question about us,” she said
“My uncle is very kind. He is more than kind; he is generous. But he seems to think that our living here gives him a right to interfere with mamma. We don’t like that, and, therefore, we are going.”
The doctor still sat on one side of the fire, and Bell still sat opposite to him; but the conversation did not form itself very freely between them.
“It is bad news,” he said, at last.
“At any rate, when we are ill you will not have so far to come and see us.”
“Yes, I understand. That means that I am ungracious not to congratulate myself on having you all so much nearer to me; but I do not in the least. I cannot bear to think of you as living anywhere but here at Allington. Dales will be out of their place in a street at Guestwick.”
“That’s hard upon the Dales, too.”
“It is hard upon them. It’s a sort of offshoot from that very tyrannical law of noblesse oblige. I don’t think you ought to go away from Allington, unless the circumstances are very imperative.”
“But they are very imperative.” “In that case, indeed!” And then again he fell into silence.
“Have you never seen that mamma is not happy here?” she said, after another pause.
“For myself, I never quite understood it all before as I do now; but now I see it.”
“And I have seen it — have seen at least what you mean. She has led a life of restraint; but then, how frequently is such restraint the necessity of a life? I hardly think that your mother would move on that account.”
“No. It is on our account. But this restraint, as you call it, makes us unhappy, and she is governed by seeing that. My uncle is generous to her as regards money; but in other things — in matters of feeling — I think he has been ungenerous.”
“Bell,” said the doctor; and then he paused.
She looked up at him, but made no answer. He had always called her by her Christian name, and they two had ever regarded each other as close friends. At the present moment she had forgotten all else besides this, and yet she had infinite pleasure in sitting there and talking to him.
“I am going to ask you a question which perhaps I ought not to ask, only that I have known you so long that I almost feel that I am speaking to a sister.”
“You may ask me what you please,” said she.
“It is about your cousin Bernard.”
“About Bernard!” said Bell.
It was now dusk; and as they were sitting without other light than that of the fire, she knew that he could not discern the colour which covered her face as her cousin’s name was mentioned. But, had the light of day pervaded the whole room, I doubt whether Crofts would have seen that blush, for he kept his eyes firmly fixed upon the fire.
“Yes, about Bernard? I don’t know whether I ought to ask you.”
“I’m sure I can’t say,” said Bell; speaking word of the nature of which she was not conscious.
“There has been a rumour in Guestwick that he and you —”
“It is untrue,” said Bell; “quite untrue. If you hear it repeated, you should contradict it. I wonder why people should say such things.”
“It would have been an excellent marriage — all your friends must have approved it.”
“What do you mean, Dr Crofts? How I do hate those words, ‘an excellent marriage’. In them is contained more of wicked worldliness than any other words that one ever hears spoken. You want me to marry my cousin simply because I should have a great house to live in, and a coach. I know that you are my friend, but I hate such friendship as that.”
“I think you misunderstand me, Bell. I mean that it would have been an excellent marriage, provided you had both loved each other.”
“No, I don’t misunderstand you. Of course it would be an excellent marriage, if we loved each other. You might say the same if I loved the butcher or the baker. What you mean is, that it makes a reason for loving him.”
“I don’t think I did mean that.”
“Then you mean nothing.”
After that, there were again some minutes of silence during which Dr Crofts got up to go away.
“You have scolded me very dreadfully,” he said, with a slight smile, “and I believe I have deserved it for interfering.”
“No; not at all for interfering.”
“But at any rate you must forgive me before I go.”
“I won’t forgive you at all, unless you repent of your sins, and alter altogether the wickedness of your mind. You will become very soon as bad as Dr Gruffen.”
“Oh, but I will forgive you; for after all, you are the most generous man in the world.”
“Oh, yes; of course I am. well-good-bye.”
“But, Dr Crofts, you should not suppose others to be so much more worldly than yourself. You do not care for money so very much —”
“But I do care very much.”
“If you did, you would not come here for nothing day after day.”
“I do care for money very much. I have sometimes nearly broken my heart because I could not get opportunities of earning it. It is the best friend that a man can have —”
“Oh, Dr Crofts!”
“— the best friend that a man can have; if it be honestly come by. A woman can hardly realise the sorrow which may fall upon a man from the want of such a friend.”
“Of course a man likes to earn a decent living by his profession; and you can do that.”
“That depends upon one’s ideas of decency.”
“Ah! mine never ran very high. I’ve always had a sort of aptitude for living in a pigsty; — a clean pigsty, you know, with nice fresh bean straw to lie upon. I think it was a mistake when they made a lady of me. I do, indeed.”
“I do not,” said Dr Crofts.
“That because you don’t quite know me yet. I’ve not the slightest pleasure in putting on three different dresses a day. I do it very often because it comes to me to do it, from the way in which we have been taught to live. But when we get to Guestwick I mean to change all that; and if you come in to tea, you’ll see me in the same brown frock that I wear in the morning — unless, indeed, the morning work makes the brown frock dirty. Oh, Dr Crofts! you’ll have it pitch-dark riding home under the Guestwick elms.”
“I don’t mind the dark,” he said; and it seemed as though he hardly intended to go even yet.
“But I do,” said Bell,
“And I shall ring for candles.” But he stopped her as she put her hand out to the bell-pull.
“Stop a moment, Bell. You need hardly have the candles before I go, and you need not begrudge my staying either, seeing that I shall be all alone at home.”
“Begrudge your staying!”
“But, however, you shall begrudge it, or else make me very welcome.” He still held her by the wrist, which he had caught as he prevented her from summoning the servant.
“What do you mean?” said she..
“You know you are welcome to us as flowers in May. You always were welcome; but now, when you have come to us in our trouble. At any rate, you shall never say that I turn you out.”
“Shall I never say so?” And still he held her by the wrist. He had kept his chair throughout, but she was standing before him — between him and the fire. But she, though he held her in this way, thought little of his words, or of his action. They had known each other with great intimacy, and though Lily would still laugh at her, saying that Dr Crofts was her lover, she had long since taught herself that no such feeling as that would ever exist between them.
“Shall I never say so, Bell? What if so poor a man as I ask for the hand that you will not give to so rich a man as your cousin Bernard?”
She instantly withdrew her arm and moved back very quickly a step or two across the rug. She did it almost with the motion which she might have used had he insulted her; or had a man spoken such words who would not, under any circumstances, have a right to speak them.
“Ah, yes! I thought it would be so,” he said. “I may go now, and may know that I have been turned out.”
“What is it you mean, Dr Crofts? What is it you are saying? Why do you talk that nonsense, trying to see if you can provoke me?” “Yes; it is nonsense. I have no right to address you in that way, and certainly should not have done it now that I am in your house in the way of my profession. I beg your pardon.” Now he also was standing, but he had not moved from his side of the fireplace.
“Are you going to forgive me before I go?
“Forgive you for what?” said she.
“For daring to love you; for having loved you almost as long as you can remember; for loving you better than all beside. This alone you should forgive; but will you forgive me for having told it?”
He had made her no offer, nor did she expect that he was about to make one. She herself had hardly yet realised the meaning of his words, and she certainly had asked herself no question as to the answer which she should give to them. There are cases in which lovers present themselves in so unmistakable a guise, that the first word of open love uttered by them tells their whole story, and tells it without the possibility of a surprise. And it is generally so when the lover has not been an old friend, when even his acquaintance has been of modern date. It had been so essentially in the case of Crosbie and Lily Dale. When Crosbie came to Lily and made his offer, he did it with perfect ease and thorough self-possession, for he almost knew that it was expected. And Lily, though she had been flurried for a moment, had her answer pat enough. She already loved the man with all her heart, delighted in his presence, basked in the sunshine of his manliness, rejoiced in his wit, and had tuned her ears to the tone of his voice. It had all been done, and the world expected it. Had he not made his offer, Lily would have been ill-treated — though, alas, alas, there was future ill-treatment, so much heavier, in store for her! But there are other cases in which a lover cannot make himself known as such without great difficulty, and when he does do so, cannot hope for an immediate answer in his favour. It is hard upon old friends that this difficulty should usually fall the heaviest upon them. Crofts had been so intimate with the Dale family that very many persons had thought it probable that he would marry one of the girls. Mrs Dale herself had thought so, and had almost hoped it. Lily had certainly done both. These thoughts and hopes had somewhat faded away, but yet their former existence should have been in the doctor’s favour. But now, when he had in some way spoken out, Bell started back from him and would not believe that he was in earnest. She probably loved him better than any man in the world, and yet, when he spoke to her of love, she could not bring herself to understand him.
“I don’t know what you mean, Dr Crofts; indeed I do not,” she said.
“I had meant to ask you to be my wife; simply that. But you shall not have the pain of making me a positive refusal. As I rode here today I thought of it. During my frequent rides of late I have thought of little else. But I told myself that I had no right to do it. I have not even a house in which it would be fit that you should live.”
“Dr Crofts, if I loved you — if I wished to marry you —” and then she stopped herself.
“But you do not?”
“No; I think not. I suppose not. No. But in any way no consideration about money has anything to do with it.”
“But I am not that butcher or that baker whom you could love?”
“No,” said Bell; and then she stopped herself from further speech, not as intending to convey all her answer in that one word, but as not knowing how to fashion any further words.
“I knew it would be so,” said the doctor.
It will, I fear, be thought by those who condescend to criticise this lover’s conduct and his mode of carrying on his suit, that he was very unfit for such work. Ladies will say that he wanted courage, and men will say that he wanted wit. I am inclined, however, to believe that he behaved as well as men generally do behave on such occasions, and that he showed himself to be a good average lover. There is your bold lover, who knocks his lady-love over as he does a bird, and who would anathematise himself all over, and swear that his gun was distraught, and look about as though he thought the world was coming to an end, if he missed to knock over his bird. And there is your timid lover, who winks his eyes when he fires, who has felt certain from the moment in which he buttoned on his knickerbockers that he at any rate would kill nothing, and who, when he hears the loud congratulations of his friends, cannot believe that he really did bag that beautiful winged thing by his own prowess. The beautiful winged thing which the timid man carries home in his bosom, declining to have it thrown into a miscellaneous cart, so that it may never be lost in a common crowd of game, is better to him than are the slaughtered hecatombs to those who kill their birds by the hundred.
But Dr Crofts had so winked his eye, that he was not in the least aware whether he had winged his bird or no. Indeed, having no one at hand to congratulate him, he was quite sure that the bird had flown away uninjured into the next field. “No” was the only word which Bell had given in answer to his last sidelong question, and No is not a comfortable word to lovers. But there had been that in Bell’s No which might have taught him that the bird was not escaping without a wound, if he had still had any of his wits about him.
“Now I will go,” said he. Then he paused for an answer, but none came. “And you will understand what I meant when I spoke of being turned out.”
“Nobody turns you out.” And Bell, as she spoke, had almost descended to a sob.
“It is time, at any rate, that I should go; is it not? And, Bell, don’t suppose that this little scene will keep me away from your sister’s bedside. I shall be here tomorrow, and you will find that you will hardly know me again for the same person.” Then in the dark he put out his hand to her.
“Good-bye,” she said, giving him her hand. He pressed hers very closely, but she, though she wished to do so, could not bring herself to return the pressure. Her hand remained passive in his, showing no sign of offence; but it was absolutely passive.
“Good-bye, dearest friend,” he said.
“Good-bye,” she answered — and then he was gone.
She waited quite still till she heard the front-door close after him, and then she crept silently up to her own bedroom, and sat herself down in a low rocking-chair over the fire. It was in accordance with a custom already established that her mother should remain with Lily till the tea was ready downstairs; for in these days of illness such dinners as were provided were eaten early. Bell, therefore, knew that she had still some half-hour of her own, during which she might sit and think undisturbed.
And what naturally should have been her first thoughts? That she had ruthlessly refused a man who, as she now knew, loved her well, and for whom she had always felt at any rate the warmest friendship? Such were not her thoughts, nor were they in any way akin to this. They ran back instantly to years gone by — over long years, as her few years were counted, and settled themselves on certain halcyon days, in which she had dreamed that he had loved her, and had fancied that she had loved him. How she had schooled herself for those days since that, and taught herself to know that her thoughts had been over-bold! And now it had all come round. The only man that she had ever liked had loved her. Then there came to her a memory of a certain day, in which she had been almost proud to think that Crosbie had admired her, in which she had almost hoped that it might be so; and as she thought of this she blushed, and struck her foot twice upon the floor.
“Dear Lily,” she said to herself —“poor Lily!” But the feeling which induced her then to think of her sister had had no relation to that which had first brought Crosbie into her mind.
And this man had loved her through it all — this priceless, peerless man — this man who was as true to the backbone as that other man had shown himself to be false; who was as sound as the other man had proved himself to be rotten. A smile came across her face as she sat looking at the fire, thinking of this. A man had loved her, whose love was worth possessing. She hardly remembered whether or no she had refused him or accepted him. She hardly asked herself what she would do. As to all that it was necessary that she should have many thoughts, but the necessity did not press upon her quite immediately. For the present, at any rate, she might sit and triumph — and thus triumphant she sat there till the old nurse came in and told her that her mother was waiting for her below.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01