They walked on in silence for a little way, and then he asked her some question about Florence Burton. Fanny told him that she had heard from Stratton two days since, and that Florence was well.
“I liked her very much,” said Mr. Saul.
“So did we all. She is coming here again in the Autumn; so it will not be very long before you see her again.”
“How that may be I cannot tell, but if you see her that will be of more consequence.”
“We shall all see her, of course.”
“It was here, in this lane, that I was with her last, and wished her good-by. She did not tell you of my having parted with her, then?”
“Not especially, that I remember.”
“Ah, you would have remembered if she had told you; but she was quite right not to tell you.” Fanny was now a little confused, so that she could not exactly calculate what all this meant. Mr. Saul walked on by her side, and for some moments nothing was said. After a while he recurred again to his parting from Florence. “I asked her advice on that occasion, and she gave it me clearly — with a clear purpose and an assured voice. I like a person who will do that. You are sure then that you are getting the truth out of your friend, even if it be a simple negative, or a refusal to give any reply to the question asked.”
“Florence Burton is always clear in what she says.”
“I had asked her if she thought that I might venture to hope for a more favorable answer if I urged my suit to you again.”
“She cannot have said yes to that, Mr. Saul; she cannot have done so!”
“She did not do so. She simply bade me ask yourself. And she was right. On such a matter there is no one to whom I can with propriety address myself, but to yourself. Therefore I now ask you the question. May I venture to have any hope?”
His voice was so solemn, and there was so much of eager seriousness in his face that Fanny could not bring herself to answer him with quickness. The answer that was in her mind was in truth this: “How can you ask me to try to love a man who has but seventy pounds a year in the world, while I myself have nothing?” But there was something in his demeanor — something that was almost grand in its gravity — which made it quite impossible that she should speak to him in that tone. But he, having asked his question, waited for an answer; and she was well aware that the longer she delayed it, the weaker became the ground on which she was standing.
“It is quite impossible,” she said at last.
“If it really be so — if you will say again that it is so after hearing me out to an end, I will desist. In that case I will desist and leave you — and leave Clavering.”
“Oh, Mr. Saul, do not do that — for papa’s sake, and because of the parish.”
“I would do much for your father, and as to the parish I love it well. I do not think I can make you understand how well I love it. It seems to me that I can never again have the same feeling for any place that I have for this. There is not a house, a field, a green lane, that is not dear to me. It is like a first love. With some people a first love will come so strongly that it makes a renewal of the passion impossible.” He did not say that it would be so with himself; but it seemed to her that he intended that she should so understand him.
“I do not see why you should leave Clavering,” she said.
“If you knew the nature of my regard for yourself, you would see why it should be so. I do not say that there ought to be any such necessity. If I were strong there would be no such need. But I am weak — weak in this; and I could not hold myself under such control as is wanted for the work I have to do.” When he had spoken of his love for the place — for the parish, there had been something of passion in his language; but now in the words which he spoke of himself and of his feeling for her, he was calm and reasonable and tranquil, and talked of his going away from her as he might have talked had some change of air been declared necessary for his health. She felt that this was so, and was almost angry with him.
“Of course you must know what will be best for yourself;” she said.
“Yes; I know now what I must do, if such is to be your answer. I have made up my mind as to that. I cannot remain at Clavering, if I am told that I may never hope that you will become my wife.”
“But, Mr. Saul —”
“Well; I am listening. But before you speak, remember how all-important your words will be to me.”
“No; they cannot be all-important.”
“As regards my present happiness and rest in this world they will be so. Of course I know that nothing you can say or do will hurt me beyond that. But you might help me even to that further and greater bliss. You might help me too in that — as I also might help you.”
“But, Mr. Saul —” she began again, and then, feeling that she must go on, she forced herself to utter words which at the time she felt to be commonplace. “People cannot marry without an income. Mr. Fielding did not think of such a thing till he had a living assured to him.”
“But, independently of that, might I hope?” She ventured for an instant to glance at his face, and saw that his eyes were glistening with a wonderful brightness.
“How can I answer you further? Is not that reason enough why such a thing should not be even discussed?”
“No, Miss Clavering, it is not reason enough. If you were to tell me that you could never love me — me, personally — that you could never regard me with affection, that would be reason why I should desist — why I should abandon all my hope here, and go away from Clavering for ever. Nothing else can be reason enough. My being poor ought not to make you throw me aside if you loved me. If it were so that you loved me, I think you would owe it me to say so, let me be ever so poor.”
“I do not like you the less because you are poor.”
“But do you like me at all? Can you bring yourself to love me? Would you make the effort if I had such an income as you thought necessary? If I had such riches, could you teach yourself to regard me as him whom you were to love better than all the world beside? I call upon you to answer me that question truly; and if you tell me that it could be so, I will not despair, and I will not go away.”
As he said this they came to a turn in the road which brought the parsonage gate within their view. Fanny knew that she would leave him there and go in alone, but she knew also that she must say something further to him before she could thus escape. She did not wish to give him an assurance of her positive indifference to him — and still less did she wish to tell him that he might hope. It could not be possible that such an engagement should be approved by her father, nor could she bring herself to think that she could be quite contented with a lover such as Mr. Saul. When he had first proposed to her she had almost ridiculed his proposition in her heart. Even now there was something in it that was almost ridiculous — and yet there was something in it also that touched her as being sublime. The man was honest, good and true — perhaps the best and truest man that she had ever known. She could not bring herself to say to him any word that should banish him forever from the place he loved so well.
“If you know your own heart well enough to answer me, you should do so,” he went on to say. “If you do not, say so, and I will be content to wait your own time.”
“It would be better, Mr. Saul, that you should not think of this any more.”
“No, Miss Clavering; that would not be better — not for me, for it would prove me to be utterly heartless. I am not heartless. I love you dearly. I will not say that I cannot live without you; but it is my one great hope as regards this world, that I should have you at some future day as my own. It may be that I am too prone to hope; but surely, if that were altogether beyond hope, you would have found words to tell me so by this time.” They had now come to the gateway, and he paused as she put her trembling hand upon the latch.
“I cannot say more to you now,” she said.
“Then let it be so. But, Miss Clavering, I shall not leave this place till you have said more than that. And I will speak the truth to you, even though it may offend you. I have more of hope now than I have ever had before — more hope that you may possibly learn to love me. In a few days I will ask you again whether I may be allowed to speak upon the subject to your father. Now I will say farewell, and may God bless you; and remember this — that my only earthly wish and ambition is in your hands.” Then he went on his way toward his own lodgings, and she entered the parsonage garden by herself.
What should she now do, and how should she carry herself? She would have gone to her mother at once, were it not that she could not resolve what words she would speak to her mother. When her mother should ask her how she regarded the man, in what way should she answer that question? She could not tell herself that she loved Mr. Saul; and yet if she surely did not love him — if such love were impossible — why had she not said as much to him? We, however, may declare that that inclination to ridicule his passion, to think of him as a man who had no right to love, was gone forever. She conceded to him clearly that right, and knew that he had exercised it well. She knew that he was good and true and honest, and recognized in him also manly courage and spirited resolution. She would not tell herself that it was impossible that she should love him.
She went up at last to her room doubting, unhappy and ill at ease. To have such a secret long kept from her mother would make her life unendurable to her. But she felt that, in speaking to her mother, only one aspect of the affair would be possible. Even though she loved him, how could she marry a curate whose only income was seventy pounds a year?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14