Lady Ongar sat alone, long into the night, when Harry Clavering had left her. She sat there long, getting up occasionally from her seat, once or twice attempting to write at her desk, looking now and then at a paper or two, and then at a small picture which she had, but passing the long hours in thinking — in long, sad, solitary thoughts. What should she do with herself — with herself, her title, and her money? Would it be still well that she should do something, that she should make some attempt; or should she, in truth, abandon all, as the arch-traitor did, and acknowledge that for her foot there could no longer be a resting-place on the earth? At six-and-twenty, with youth, beauty and wealth at her command, must she despair? But her youth had been stained, her beauty had lost its freshness, and as for her wealth, had she not stolen it? Did not the weight of the theft sit so heavy on her, that her brightest thought was one which prompted her to abandon it?
As to that idea of giving up her income and her house, and calling herself again Julia Brabazon, though there was something in the poetry of it which would now and again for half an hour relieve her, yet she hardly proposed such a course to herself as a reality. The world in which she had lived had taught her to laugh at romance, to laugh at it even while she liked its beauty; and she would tell herself that for such a one as her to do such a thing as this, would be to insure for herself the ridicule of all who knew her name. What would Sir Hugh say, and her sister? What Count Pateroff and the faithful Sophie? What all the Ongar tribe, who would reap the rich harvest of her insanity? These latter would offer to provide her a place in some convenient asylum, and the others would all agree that such would be her fitting destiny. She could bear the idea of walking forth, as she had said, penniless into the street, without a crust; but she could not bear the idea of being laughed at when she got there.
To her, in her position, her only escape was by marriage. It was the solitude of her position which maddened her: its solitude, or the necessity of breaking that solitude by the presence of those who were odious to her. Whether it were better to be alone, feeding on the bitterness of her own thoughts, or to be comforted by the fulsome flatteries and odious falsenesses of Sophie Gordeloup, she could not tell. She hated herself for her loneliness, but she hated herself almost worse for submitting herself to the society of Sophie Gordeloup. Why not give all that she possessed to Harry Clavering — herself, her income, her rich pastures and horses and oxen, and try whether the world would not be better to her when she had done so.
She had learned to laugh at romance, but still she believed in love. While that bargain was going on as to her settlement, she had laughed at romance, and had told herself that in this world worldly prosperity was everything. Sir Hugh then had stood by her with truth, for he had well understood the matter, and could enter into it with zest. Lord Ongar, in his state of health, had not been in a position to make close stipulations as to the dower in the event of his proposed wife becoming a widow. “No, no; we wont stand that,” Sir Hugh had said to the lawyers. “We all hope, of course, that Lord Ongar may live long; no doubt he’ll turn over a new leaf and die at ninety. But in such a case as this the widow must not be fettered.” The widow had not been fettered, and Julia had been made to understand the full advantage of such an arrangement. But still she had believed in love when she had bade farewell to Harry in the garden. She had told herself then, even then, that she would have better liked to have taken him and his love — if only she could have afforded it. He had not dreamed that in leaving him she had gone from him to her room, and taken out his picture — the same that she had with her now in Bolton Street — and had kissed it, bidding him farewell there with a passion which she could not display in his presence. And she had thought of his offer about the money over and over again. “Yes,” she would say, “that man loved me. He would have given me all he had to relieve me, though nothing was to come to him in return.” She had, at any rate been loved once; and she almost wished that she had taken the money, that she might now have an opportunity of repaying it.
And she was again free, and her old lover was again by her side. Had that fatal episode in her life been so fatal that she must now regard herself as tainted and unfit for him? There was no longer anything to separate them — anything of which she was aware, unless it was that. And as for his love — did he not look and speak as though he loved her still? Had he not pressed her hand passionately, and kissed it, and once more called her Julia? How should it be that he should not love her? In such a case as his, love might have been turned to hatred or to enmity; but it was not so with him. He called himself her friend. How could there be friendship between them without love?
And then she thought how much with her wealth she might do for him. With all his early studies and his talent, Harry Clavering was not the man, she thought, to make his way in the world by hard work; but with such an income as she could give him, he might shine among the proud ones of his nation. He should go into Parliament, and do great things. He should be lord of all. It should all be his without a word of reserve. She had been mercenary once, but she would atone for that now by open-handed, undoubting generosity. She herself had learned to hate the house and fields and widespread comforts of Ongar Park. She had walked among it all alone, and despised. But it would be a glory to her to see him go forth, with Giles at his heels, boldly giving his orders, changing this and improving that. He would be rebuked for no errors, let him do with Enoch Gubby and the rest of them what he pleased! And then the parson’s wife would be glad enough to come to her, and the house would be full of smiling faces. And it might be that God would be good to her, and that she would have treasures, as other women had them, and that the flavor would come back to the apples, and, that the ashes would cease to grate between her teeth.
She loved him, and why should it not be so? She could go before God’s altar with him without disgracing herself with a lie. She could put her hand in his, and swear honestly that she would worship him and obey him. She had been dishonest; but if he would pardon her for that, could she not reward him richly for such pardon? And it seemed to her that he had pardoned her. He had forgiven it all and was gracious to her — coming at her beck and call, and sitting with her as though he liked her presence. She was woman enough to understand this, and she knew that he liked it. Of course he loved her. How could it be otherwise?
But yet he spoke nothing to her of his love. In the old days there had been with him no bashfulness of that kind. He was not a man to tremble and doubt before a woman. In those old days he had bean ready enough — so ready, that she had wondered that one who had just come from his books should know so well how to make himself master of a girl’s heart. Nature had given him that art, as she does give it to some, withholding it from many. But now he sat near her, dropping once and again half words of love, hearing her references to the old times; and yet he said nothing.
But how was he to speak of love to one who was a widow but of four months’ standing? And with what face could he now again ask for her hand, knowing that it had been filled so full since last it was refused to him? It was thus she argued to herself when she excused him in that he did not speak to her. As to her widowhood, to herself it was a thing of scorn. Thinking of it, she cast her weepers from her, and walked about the room, scorning the hypocrisy of her dress. It needed that she should submit herself to this hypocrisy before the world; but he might know — for had she not told him? — that the clothes she wore were no index of her feeling or of her heart. She had been mean enough, base enough, vile enough, to sell herself to that wretched lord. Mean, base, and vile she had been, and she now confessed it; but she was not false enough to pretend that she mourned the man as a wife mourns. Harry might have seen enough to know, have understood enough to perceive, that he need not regard her widowhood.
And as to her money! if that were the stumbling-block, might it not be well that the first overture should come from her? Could she not find words to tell him that it might all be his? Could she not say to him, “Harry Clavering, all this is nothing in my hands. Take it into your hands, and it will prosper.” Then, it was that she went to her desk, and attempted to write to him. She did write to him a completed note, offering herself and all that was hers for his acceptance. In doing so, she strove hard to be honest and yet not over bold; to be affectionate and yet not unfeminine. Long she sat, holding her head with one hand, while the other attempted to use the pen which would not move over the paper. At length, quickly it flew across the sheet, and a few lines were there for her to peruse.
“Harry Clavering,” she had written, “I know I am doing what men and women say no woman should do. You may, perhaps, say so of me now; but if you do, I know you so well, that I do not fear that others will be able to repeat it. Harry, I have never loved any one but you. Will you be my husband? You well know that I should not make you this offer if I did not intend that everything I have should he yours. It will be pleasant to me to feel that I can make some reparation for the evil I have done. As for love, I have never loved any one but you. You yourself must know that well. Yours, altogether, if you will have it so — JULIA.”
She took the letter with her back across the room to her seat by the fire, and took with her at the same time the little portrait; and there she sat, looking at the one and reading the other. At last she slowly folded the note up into a thin wisp of paper, and, lighting the end of it, watched it till every shred of it was burnt to an ash. “If he wants me,”she said, “he can come and take me — as other men do.” It was a fearful attempt, that which she had thought of making. How could she have looked him in the face again had his answer to her been a refusal?
Another hour went by before she took herself to her bed, during which her cruelly used maiden was waiting for her half asleep in the chamber above; and during that time she tried to bring herself to some steady resolve. She would remain in London for the coming months, so that he might come to her if he pleased. She would remain there, even though she were subject to the daily attacks of Sophie Gordeloup. She hardly knew why, but in part she was afraid of Sophie. She had done nothing of which Sophie knew the secret. She had no cause to tremble because Sophie might be offended. The woman had seen her in some of her saddest moments, and could indeed tell of indignities which would have killed some women. But these she had borne, and had not disgraced herself in the bearing of them. But still she was afraid of Sophie, and felt that she could not bring herself absolutely to dismiss her friend from her house. Nevertheless, she would remain; because Harry Clavering was in London and could come to her there. To her house at Ongar Park she would never go again, unless she went as his wife. The place had become odious to her. Bad as was her solitude in London, with Sophie Gordeloup to break it, and, perhaps, with Sophie’s brother to attack her, it was not so bad as the silent desolation of Ongar Park. Never again would she go there, unless she went there, in triumph — as Harry’s wife. Having so far resolved, she took herself at last to her room, and dismissed her drowsy Phœbe to her rest.
And now the reader must be asked to travel down at once into the country, that he may see how Florence Burton passed the same evening at Clavering Rectory. It was Florence’s last night there, and on the following morning she was to return to her father’s house at Stratton. Florence had not as yet received her unsatisfactory letter from Harry. That was to arrive on the following morning. At present she was, as regarded her letters, under the influence of that one which had been satisfactory in so especial a degree. Not that the coming letter — the one now on its route — was of a nature to disturb her comfort permanently, or to make her in any degree unhappy. “Dear fellow; he must be careful, he is overworking himself.” Even the unsatisfactory letter would produce nothing worse than this from her; but now, at the moment of which I am writing, she was in a paradise of happy thoughts.
Her visit to Clavering had been in every respect successful. She had been liked by every one, and every one in return had been liked by her. Mrs. Clavering had treated her as though she were a daughter. The Rector had made her pretty presents, had kissed her, and called her his child. With Fanny she had formed a friendship which was to endure for ever, let destiny separate them how it might. Dear Fanny! She had had a wonderful interview respecting Fanny on this very day, and was at this moment disquieting her mind because she could not tell her friend what had happened without a breach of confidence! She had learned a great deal at Clavering, though in most matters of learning she was a better instructed woman than they were whom she had met. In general knowledge and in intellect she was Fanny’s superior, though Fanny Clavering was no fool; but Florence, when she came thither, had lacked something which living in such a house had given to her; or, I should rather say, something had been given to her of which she would greatly feel the want, if it could be again taken from her. Her mother was as excellent a woman as had ever sent forth a family of daughters into the world, and I do not know that any one ever objected to her as being ignorant, or specially vulgar; but the house in Stratton was not like Clavering Rectory in the little ways of living, and this Florence Burton had been clever enough to understand. She knew that a sojourn under such a roof; with such a woman as Mrs. Clavering, must make her fitter to be Harry’s wife; and, therefore, when they pressed her to come again in the Autumn, she said that she thought she would. She could understand, too, that Harry was different in many things from the men who had married her sisters, and she rejoiced that it was so. Poor Florence! Had he been more like them it might have been safer for her.
But we must return for a moment to the wonderful interview which has been mentioned. Florence, during her sojourn at Clavering, had become intimate with Mr. Saul, as well as with Fanny. She had given herself for the time heartily to the schools, and matters had so far progressed with her that Mr. Saul had on one occasion scolded her soundly. “It’s a great sign that he thinks well of you,” Fanny had said. “It was the only sign he ever gave me, before he spoke to me in that sad strain.” On the afternoon of this, her last day at Clavering, she had gone over to Cumberly Green with Fanny, to say farewell to the children, and walked back by herself; as Fanny had not finished her work. When she was still about half a mile from the Rectory, she met Mr. Saul, who was on his way out to the Green.
“I knew I should meet you,” he said, “so that I might say good-by.”
“Yes, indeed, Mr. Saul — for I am going, in truth, to-morrow.”
“I wish you were staying. I wish you were going to remain with us. Having you here is very pleasant, and you do more good here, perhaps, than you will elsewhere.”
“I will not allow that. You forget that I have a father and mother.”
“Yes; and you will have a husband soon.”
“No, not soon; some day, perhaps, if all goes well. But I mean to be back here often before that. I mean to be here in October, just for a little visit, if mamma can spare.”
“Miss Burton,” he said, speaking in a very serious tone —. All his tones were serious, but that which he now adopted was more solemn than usual. “I wish to consult you on a certain matter, if you can give me five minutes of your time.”
“To consult me, Mr. Saul?”
“Yes, Miss Burton. I am hard pressed at present, and I know no one else of whom I can ask a certain question, if I cannot ask it of you. I think that you will answer me truly, if you answer me at all. I do not think you would flatter me, or tell me an untruth.”
“Flatter you! How could I flatter you?”
“By telling me —; but I must ask you my question first. You and Fanny Clavering are dear friends now. You tell each other everything.”
“I do not know,” said Florence, doubting as to what she might best say, but guessing something of that which was coming.
“She will have told you, perhaps, that I asked her to be my wife. Did she ever tell you that?” Florence looked into his face for a few moments without answering him, not knowing how to answer such a question. “I know that she has told you,” said he. “I can see that it is so.”
“She has told me,” said Florence.
“Why should she not? How could she be with you so many hours, and not tell you that of which she could hardly fail to have the remembrance often present with her. If I were gone from here, if I were not before her eyes daily, it might be otherwise; but seeing me as she does from day to day, of course she has spoken of me to her friend.”
“Yes, Mr. Saul; she has told me of it.”
“And now, will you tell me whether I may hope.”
“I want you to betray no secret, but I ask you for your advice. Can I hope that she will ever return my love?”
“How am I to answer you?”
“With the truth. Only with the truth.”
“I should say that she thinks that you have forgotten it.”
“Forgotten it! No, Miss Burton; she cannot think that. Do you believe that men or women can forget such things as that? Can you ever forget her brother? Do you think people ever forget when they have loved? No, I have not forgotten her. I have not forgotten that walk which we had down this lane together. There are things which men never forget.” Then he paused for an answer.
Florence was by nature steady and self-collected, and she at once felt that she was bound to be wary before she gave him any answer. She had half fancied once or twice that Fanny thought more of Mr. Saul than she allowed even herself to know. And Fanny, when she had spoken of the impossibility of such a marriage, had always based the impossibility on the fact that people should not marry without the means of living — a reason which to Florence, with all her prudence, was not sufficient. Fanny might wait as she also intended to wait. Latterly, too, Fanny had declared more than once to Florence her conviction that Mr. Saul’s passion had been a momentary insanity which had altogether passed away; and in these declarations Florence had half fancied that she discovered some tinge of regret. If it were so, what was she now to say to Mr. Saul?
“You think then, Miss Burton,” he continued, “that I have no chance of success? I ask the question because if I felt certain that this was so quite certain — I should be wrong to remain here. It has been my first and only parish, and I could not leave it without bitter sorrow. But if I were to remain here hopelessly, I should become unfit for my work. I am becoming so, and shall be better away.”
“But why ask me, Mr. Saul?”
“Because I think that you can tell me.”
“But why not ask herself? Who can tell you so truly as she can do?”
“You would not advise me to do that if you were sure that she would reject me?”
“That is what I would advise.”
“I will take your advice, Miss Burton. Now, good-by, and may God bless you. You say you will be here in the Autumn; but before the Autumn I shall probably have left Clavering. If so our farewells will be for very long, but I shall always remember our pleasant intercourse here.” Then he went on toward Cumberly Green; and Florence, as she walked into the vicarage grounds was thinking that no girl had ever been loved by a more single-hearted, pure-minded gentleman than Mr. Saul.
As she sat alone in her bed-room, five or six hours after this interview, she felt some regret that she should leave Clavering without a word to Fanny on the subject. Mr. Saul had exacted no promise of secresy from her; he was not a man to exact such promises. But she felt not the less that she would be betraying confidence to speak, and it might even be that her speaking on the matter would do more harm than good. Her sympathies were doubtless with Mr. Saul, but she could not therefore say that she, thought Fanny ought to accept his love. It would be best to say nothing of the matter, and to allow Mr. Saul to fight his own battle.
Then she turned to her own matters, and there she found that everything was pleasant. How good the world had been to her to give her such a lover as Harry Clavering! She owned with all her heart the excellence of being in love when a girl might be allowed to call such a man her own. She could not but make comparisons between him and Mr. Saul, though she knew that she was making them on points that were hardly worthy of her thoughts. Mr. Saul was plain, uncouth, with little that was bright about him except the brightness of his piety. Harry was like the morning star. He looked and walked and spoke as though he were something more godlike than common men. His very voice created joy, and the ring of his laughter was to Florence as the music of the heavens. What woman would not have loved Harry Clavering? Even Julia Brabazon — a creature so base that she had sold herself to such a thing as Lord Ongar for money and a title, but so grand in her gait and ways, so Florence had been told, that she seemed to despise the earth on which she trod — even she had loved him. Then as Florence thought of what Julia Brabazon might have had and of what she had lost, she wondered that there could be women born so sadly vicious.
But that woman’s vice had given her her success, her joy, her great triumph! It was surely not for her to deal hardly with the faults of Julia Brabazon — for her who was enjoying all the blessings of which those faults had robbed the other! Julia Brabazon had been her very good friend.
But why had this perfect lover come to her, to one so small, so trifling, so little in the world’s account as she, and given to her all the treasure of his love? Oh, Harry — dear Harry! what could she do for him that would be a return good enough for such great goodness? Then she took out his last letter, that satisfactory letter, that letter that had been declared to be perfect, and read it and read it again. No; she did not want Fanny or any one else to tell her that he was true. Honesty and truth were written on every line of his face, were to be heard in every tone of his voice, could be seen in every sentence that came from his hand. Dear Harry; dearest Harry! She knew well that he was true.
Then she also sat down and wrote to him, on that her last night beneath his father’s roof — wrote to him when she had nearly prepared herself for her bed; and honestly, out of her full heart, thanked him for his love. There was no need that she should be coy with him now, for she was his own. “Dear Harry, when I think of all that you have done for me in loving me and choosing me for your wife, I know that I can never pay you all that I owe you.”
Such were the two rival claimants for the hand of Harry Clavering.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14