As soon as Harry Clavering had made his promise to Mr. Burton, and had declared that he would be in Onslow Crescent that same evening, he went away from the offices at the Adelphi, feeling it to be quite impossible that he should recommence his work there at that moment, even should it ever be within his power to do so. Nor did Burton expect that he should stay. He understood, from what had passed, much of Harry’s trouble, if not the whole of it; and though he did not despair on behalf of his sister, he was aware that her lover had fallen into a difficulty, from which he could not extricate himself without great suffering and much struggling. But Burton was a man who, in spite of something cynical on the surface of his character, believed well of mankind generally, and well also of men as individuals. Even though Harry had done amiss, he might be saved. And though Harry’s conduct to Florence might have been bad, nay, might have been false, still, as Burton believed, he was too good to be cast aside, or spurned out of the way, without some further attempt to save him.
When Clavering had left him Burton went back to his work, and after a while succeeded in riveting his mind on the papers before him. It was a hard struggle with him, but he did it, and did not leave his business till his usual hour. It was past five when he took down his hat and his umbrella, and, as I fear, dusted his boots before he passed out of the office on to the passage. As he went he gave sundry directions to porters and clerks, as was his wont, and then walked off intent upon his usual exercise before he should reach his home.
But he had to determine on much with reference to Florence and Harry before he saw his wife. How was the meeting of the evening to take place, and in what way should it be commenced? If there were indispensable cause for his anger, in what way should he show it, and if necessity for vengeance, how should his sister be avenged? There is nothing more difficult for a man than the redressing of injuries done to a woman who is very near to him and very dear to him. The whole theory of Christian meekness and forgiveness becomes broken to pieces and falls to the ground, almost as an absurd theory, even at the idea of such wrong. What man ever forgave an insult to his wife or an injury to his sister, because he had taught himself that to forgive trespasses is a religious duty? Without an argument, without a moment’s thought, the man declares to himself that such trespasses as those are not included in the general order. But what is he to do? Thirty years since his course was easy, and unless the sinner were a clergyman, he could in some sort satisfy his craving for revenge by taking a pistol in his hand, and having a shot at the offender. That method was doubtless barbarous and unreasonable, but it was satisfactory and sufficed. But what can he do now? A thoughtful, prudent, painstaking man, such as was Theodore Burton, feels that it is not given to him to attack another with his fists, to fly at his enemy’s throat, and carry out his purpose after the manner of dogs. Such a one has probably something round his heart which tells him that if so attacked he could defend himself; but he knows that he has no aptitude for making such onslaught, and is conscious that such deeds of arms would be unbecoming to him. In many, perhaps in most of such cases, he may, if he please, have recourse to the laws. But any aid that the law can give him is altogether distasteful to him. The name of her that is so dear to him should be kept quiet as the grave under such misfortune, not blazoned through ten thousand columns for the amusement of all the crowd. There is nothing left for him but to spurn the man — not with his foot but with his thoughts; and the bitter consciousness that to such spurning the sinner will be indifferent. The old way was barbarous certainly, and unreasonable — but there was a satisfaction in it that has been often wanting since the use of pistols went out of fashion among us.
All this passed through Burton’s mind as he walked home. One would not have supposed him to be a man eager for bloodshed — he with a wife whom he deemed to be perfect, with children who in his eyes were gracious as young gods, with all his daily work which he loved as good workers always do; but yet, as he thought of Florence, as he thought of the possibility of treachery on Harry’s part, he regarded almost with dismay the conclusion to which he was forced to come — that there could be no punishment. He might proclaim the offender to the world as false, and the world would laugh at the proclaimer, and shake hands with the offender. To sit together with such a man on a barrel of powder, or fight him over a handkerchief seemed to him to be reasonable, nay salutary, under such a grievance. There are sins, he felt, which the gods should punish with instant thunderbolts, and such sins as this were of such a nature. His Florence — pure, good, loving, true, herself totally void of all suspicion, faultless in heart as well as mind, the flower of that Burton flock which had prospered so well — that she should be sacrificed through the treachery of a man who, at his best, had scarcely been worthy of her! The thought of this was almost too much for him, and he gnashed his teeth as he went on his way.
But yet he had not given up the man. Though he could not restrain himself from foreshadowing the misery that would result from such baseness, yet he told himself that he would not condemn before condemnation was necessary. Harry Clavering might not be good enough for Florence. What man was good enough for Florence? But still, if married, Harry, he thought, would not make a bad husband Many a man who is prone enough to escape from the bonds which he has undertaken to endure — to escape from them before they are riveted — is mild enough under their endurance, when they are once fastened upon him. Harry Clavering was not of such a nature that Burton could tell himself that it would be well that his sister should escape even though her way of escape must lie through the fire and water of outraged love. That Harry Clavering was a gentleman, that he was clever, that he was by nature affectionate, soft in manner, tender of heart, anxious to please, good-tempered, and of high ambition, Burton knew well; and he partly recognized the fact that Harry had probably fallen into his present fault more by accident than by design. Clavering was not a skilled and practiced deceiver. At last, as he drew near to his own door, he resolved on the line of conduct he would pursue. He would tell his wife everything, and she should receive Harry alone.
He was weary when he reached home, and was a little cross with his fatigue. Good man as he was, he was apt to be fretful on the first moment of his return to his own house, hot with walking, tired with his day’s labor, and in want of his dinner. His wife understood this well, and always bore with him at such moments, coming down to him in the dressing-room behind the back parlor, and ministering to his wants. I fear he took some advantage of her goodness, knowing that at such moments he could grumble and scold without danger of contradiction. But the institution was established, and Cecilia never rebelled against its traditional laws. On the present day he had much to say to her, but even that he could not say without some few symptoms of petulant weariness.
“I’m afraid you’ve had a terrible long day,” she said.
“I don’t know what you call terribly long. I find the days terribly short. I have had Harry with me, as I told you I should.”
“Well, well. Say in one word, dear, that it is all right — if it is so.”
“But it is not all right. I wonder what on earth the men do to the boots, that I can never get a pair that do not hurt me in walking.” At this moment she was standing over him with his slippers.
“Will you have a glass of sherry before dinner, dear; you are so tired?”
“Sherry — no!”
“And what about Harry? You don’t mean to say —”
“If you’ll listen, I’ll tell you what I do mean to say.” Then he described to her as well as he could, what had really taken place between him and Harry Clavering at the office.
“He cannot mean to be false, if he is coming here,” said the wife.
“He does not mean to be false; but he is one of those men who can be false without meaning it, who allow themselves to drift away from their anchors, and to be carried out into seas of misery and trouble, because they are not careful in looking to their tackle. I think that he may still be held to a right course, and therefore I have begged him to come here.”
“I am sure that you are right, Theodore. He is so good and so affectionate, and he made himself so much one of us!”
“Yes; too easily by half. That is just the danger. But look here, Cissy. I’ll tell you what I mean to do. I will not see him myself; at any rate, not at first. Probably I had better not see him at all. You shall talk to him.”
“Why not? You and he have always been great friends, and he is a man who can speak more openly to a woman than to another man.”
“And what shall I say as to your absence?”
“Just the truth. Tell him that I am remaining in the dining-room because I think his task will be easier with you in my absence. He has got himself into some mess with that woman.”
“With Lady Ongar?”
“Yes; not that her name was mentioned between us, but I suppose it is so.”
“Horrible woman; wicked, wretched creature!”
“I know nothing about that, nor, as I suppose, do you.”
“My dear, you must have heard.”
“But if I had — and I don’t know that I have — I need not have believed. I am told that she married an old man who is now dead, and I suppose she wants a young husband.”
“If I were you, Cissy, I would say as little as might be about her. She was an old friend of Harry’s —”
“She jilted him when he was quite a boy; I know that — long before he had seen our Florence.”
“And she is connected with him through his cousin. Let her be ever so bad, I should drop that.”
“You can’t suppose, Theodore, that I want even to mention her name. I’m told that nobody ever visits her.”
“She needn’t be a bit the worse on that account. Whenever I hear that there is a woman whom nobody visits, I always feel inclined to go and pay my respects to her.”
“Theodore, how can you say so?”
“And that, I suppose, is just what Harry has done. If the world and his wife had visited Lady Ongar, there would not have been all this trouble now.”
Mrs. Burton of course undertook the task which her husband assigned to her, though she did so with much nervous trepidation, and many fears lest the desired object should be lost through her own maladroit management. With her, there was at least no doubt as to the thing to be done — no hesitation as to the desirability of securing Harry Clavering for the Burton faction. Everything in her mind was to be forgiven to Harry, and he was to be received by them all with open arms and loving caresses, if he would only abandon Lady Ongar altogether. To secure her lover for Florence, was Mrs. Burton’s single and simple object. She raised no questions now within her own breast as to whether Harry would make a good husband. Any such question as that should have been asked and answered before he had been accepted at Stratton. The thing to be done now was to bring Harry and Florence together, and — since such terrible dangers were intervening — to make them man and wife with as little further delay as might be possible. The name of Lady Ongar was odious to her. When men went astray in matters of love, it was within the power of Cecilia Burton’s heart to forgive them; but she could not pardon women that so sinned. This countess had once jilted Harry, and that was enough to secure her condemnation. And since that, what terrible things had been said of her! And dear, uncharitable Cecilia Burton was apt to think, when evil was spoken of women — of women whom she did not know — that there could not be smoke without fire. And now this woman was a widow with a large fortune, and wanted a husband! What business had any widow to want a husband? It is so easy for wives to speak and think after that fashion when they are satisfied with their own ventures.
It was arranged that when Harry came to the door, Mrs. Burton should go up alone to the drawing-room and receive him there, remaining with her husband in the dining-room till he should come. Twice while sitting downstairs after the cloth was gone she ran upstairs with the avowed purpose of going into the nursery, but in truth that she might see that the room was comfortable, that it looked pretty, and that the chairs were so arranged as to be convenient. The two eldest children were with them in the parlor, and when she started on her second errand, Cissy reminded her that baby would be asleep. Theodore, who understood the little manœuvre, smiled, but said nothing, and his wife, who in such matters was resolute, went and made her further little changes in the furniture. At last there came the knock at the door — the expected knock, a knock which told something of the hesitating, unhappy mind of him who had rapped, and Mrs. Burton started on her business. “Tell him just simply why you are there alone,” said her husband.
“Is it Harry Clavering?” Cissy asked, “and mayn’t I go?”
“It is Harry Clavering,” her father said, “and you may not go. Indeed, it is time you went somewhere else.”
It was Harry Clavering. He had not spent a pleasant day since he had left Mr. Beilby’s offices in the morning, and, now that he had come to Onslow Crescent, he did not expect to spend a pleasant evening. When I declare that as yet he had not come to any firm resolution, I fear that he will be held as being too weak for the role of hero even in such pages as these. Perhaps no terms have been so injurious to the profession of the novelist as those two words, hero and heroine. In spite of the latitude which is allowed to the writer in putting his own interpretation upon these words, something heroic is still expected; whereas, if he attempt to paint from nature, how little that is heroic should he describe! How many young men, subjected to the temptations which had befallen Harry Clavering — how many young men whom you, delicate reader, number among your friends — would have come out from them unscathed? A man, you say, delicate reader, a true man can love but one woman — but one at a time. So you say, and are so convinced; but no conviction was ever more false. When a true man has loved with all his heart and all his soul — does he cease to love — does he cleanse his heart of that passion when circumstances run against him, and he is forced to turn elsewhere for his life’s companion? Or is he untrue as a lover in that he does not waste his life in desolation, because he has been disappointed? Or does his old love perish and die away, because another has crept into his heart? No; the first love, if that was true, is ever there; and should she and he meet after many years, though their heads be gray and their cheeks wrinkled, there will still be a touch of the old passion as their hands meet for a moment. Methinks that love never dies, unless it be murdered by downright ill-usage. It may be so murdered, but even, ill-usage will more often fail than succeed in that enterprise. How, then, could Harry fail to love the woman whom he had loved first, when she returned to him still young, still beautiful, and told him, with all her charms and all her flattery, how her heart stood toward him?
But it is not to be thought that I excuse him altogether. A man, though he may love many, should be devoted only to one. The man’s feeling to the woman whom he is to marry should be this:— that not from love only, but from chivalry, from manhood, and from duty, he will be prepared always, and at all hazards, to defend her from every misadventure, to struggle ever that she may be happy, to see that no wind blows upon her with needless severity, that no ravening wolf of a misery shall come near her, that her path be swept clean for her — as clean as may be, and that her roof-tree be made firm upon a rock. There is much of this which is quite independent of love — much of it that may be done without love. This is devotion, and it is this which a man owes to the woman who has once promised to be his wife, and has not forfeited her right. Doubtless Harry Clavering should have remembered this at the first moment of his weakness in Lady Ongar’s drawing-room. Doubtless he should have known at once that his duty to Florence made it necessary that he should declare his engagement — even though, in doing so, he might have seemed to caution Lady Ongar on that point on which no woman can endure a caution. But the fault was hers, and the caution was needed. No doubt he should not have returned to Bolton Street. He should not have cozened himself by trusting himself to her assurances of friendship; he should have kept warm his love for the woman to whom his hand was owed, not suffering himself to make comparisons to her injury. He should have been chivalric, manly, full of high duty. He should have been all this, and full also of love, and then he would have been a hero. But men as I see them are not often heroic.
As he entered the room he saw Mrs. Burton at once, and then looked round quickly for her husband. “Harry,” said she, “I am so glad to see you once again,” and she gave him her hand, and smiled on him with that sweet look which used to make him feel that it was pleasant to be near her. He took her hand and muttered some word of greeting, and then looked round again for Mr. Burton. “Theodore is not here,” she said, “he thought it better that you and I should have a little talk together. He said you would like it best so; but perhaps I ought not to tell you that.”
“I do like it best so — much best. I can speak to you as I could hardly speak to him.”
“What is it, Harry, that ails you? What has kept you away from us? Why do you leave poor Flo so long without writing to her? She will be here on Monday. You will come and see her then; or perhaps you will go with me and meet her at the station?”
“Burton said that she was coming, but I did not understand that it was so soon.”
“You do not think it too soon, Harry; do you?”
“No,” said Harry, but his tone belied his assertion. At any rate he had not pretended to display any of a lover’s rapture at this prospect of seeing the lady whom he loved.
“Sit down, Harry. Why do you stand like that and look so comfortless? Theodore says that you have some trouble at heart. Is it a trouble that you can tell to a friend such as I am?”
“It is very hard to tell. Oh, Mrs. Burton, I am broken-hearted. For the last two weeks I have wished that I might die.”
“Do not say that, Harry; that would be wicked.”
“Wicked or not, it is true. I have been so wretched that I have not known how to hold myself. I could not bring myself to write to Florence.”
“But why not? You do not mean that you are false to Florence. You cannot mean that. Harry, say at once that it is not so, and I will promise you her forgiveness, Theodore’s forgiveness, all our forgiveness for anything else. Oh, Harry, say anything but that.” In answer to this Harry Clavering had nothing to say, but sat with his head resting on his arm and his face turned away from her. “Speak, Harry; if you are a man, say something. Is it so? If it be so, I believe that you will have killed her. Why do you not speak to me? Harry Clavering, tell me what is the truth.”
Then he told her all his story, not looking her once in the face, not changing his voice, suppressing his emotion till he came to the history of the present days. He described to her how he had loved Julia Brabazon, and how his love had been treated by her; how he had sworn to himself, when he knew that she had in truth become that lord’s wife, that for her sake he would keep himself from loving any other woman. Then he spoke of his first days at Stratton and of his early acquaintance with Florence, and told her how different had been his second love — how it had grown gradually and with no check to his confidence, till he felt sure that the sweet girl who was so often near him would, if he could win her, be to him a source of joy for all his life. “And so she shall,” said Cecilia, with tears running down her cheeks; “she shall do so yet.” And he went on with his tale, saying how pleasant it had been for him to find himself at home in Onslow Crescent; how he had joyed in calling her Cecilia, and having her infants in his arms, as though they were already partly belonging to him. And he told her how he had met the young widow at the station, having employed himself on her behalf at her sister’s instance; and how cold she had been to him, offending him by her silence and sombre pride. “False woman!” exclaimed Mrs. Burton. “Oh, Cecilia, do not abuse her — do not say a word till you know all.” “I know that she is false,” said Mrs. Burton, with vehement indignation. “She is not false,” said Harry; “if there be falsehood, it is mine.” Then he went on, and said how different she was when next he saw her. How then he understood that her solemn and haughty manner had been almost forced on her by the mode of her return, with no other friend to meet her. “She has deserved no friend,” said Mrs. Burton. “You wrong her.” said Harry; “you do not know her. If any woman has been ever sinned against, it is she.” “But was she not false from the very first — false, that she might become rich by marrying a man that she did not love? Will you speak up for her after that? Oh, Harry, think of it.”
“I will speak up for her,” said Harry; and now it seemed for the first time that something of his old boldness had returned to him. “I will speak up for her, although she did as you say, because she has suffered as few women have been made to suffer, and because she has repented in ashes as few women are called on to repent.” And now as he warmed with his feeling for her, he uttered his words faster and with less of shame in his voice. He described how he had gone again and again to Bolton Street, thinking no evil, till — till — till something of the old feeling had come back upon him. He meant to be true in his story, but I doubt whether he told all the truth. How could he tell it all? How could he confess that the blaze of the woman’s womanhood, the flame of her beauty, and the fire engendered by her mingled rank and suffering, had singed him and burned him up, poor moth that he was? “And then at last I learned,” said he, “that — that she had loved me more than I had believed.”
“And is Florence to suffer because she has postponed her love of you to her love of money?”
“Mrs. Burton, if you do not understand it now, I do not know that I can tell you more. Florence alone in this matter is altogether good. Lady Ongar has been wrong, and I have been wrong. I sometimes think that Florence is too good for me.”
“It is for her to say that, if it be necessary.”
“I have told you all now, and you will know why I have not come to you.”
“No, Harry; you have not told me all. Have you told that — woman that she should be your wife?” To this question he made no immediate answer, and she repeated it. “Tell me: have you told her you would marry her?”
“I did tell her so.”
“And you will keep your word to her?” Harry, as he heard the words, was struck with awe that there should be such vehemence, such anger, in the voice of so gentle a woman as Cecilia Burton. “Answer me, sir, do you mean to marry this — countess?” But still he made no answer. “I do not wonder that you cannot speak,” she said. “Oh, Florence — oh, my darling; my lost, broken-hearten angel!” Then she turned away her face and wept.
“Cecilia,” he said, attempting to approach her with his hand, without rising from his chair.
“No, sir; when I desired you to call me so, it was because I thought you were to be a brother. I did not think that there could be a thing so weak as you. Perhaps you had better go now, lest you should meet my husband in his wrath, and he should spurn you.”
But Harry Clavering still sat in his chair, motionless — motionless, and without a word. After a while he turned his face toward her, and even in her own misery she was striken by the wretchedness of his countenance. Suddenly she rose quickly from her chair, and coming close to him, threw herself on her knees before him. “Harry,” she said, “Harry; it is not yet too late. Be our own Harry again; our dearest Harry. Say that it shall be so. What is this woman to you? What has she done for you, that for her you should throw aside such a one as our Florence? Is she noble, and good, and pure and spotless as Florence is? Will she love you with such love as Florence’s? Will she believe in you as Florence believes? Yes, Harry, she believes yet. She knows nothing of this, and shall know nothing, if you will only say that you will he true. No one shall know, and I will remember it only to remember your goodness afterward. Think of it, Harry; there can be no falsenesa to one who has been so false to you. Harry, you will not destroy us all at one blow?”
Never before was man so supplicated to take into his arms youth and beauty and feminine purity! And in truth he would have yielded, as indeed, what man would not have yielded — had not Mrs. Burton been interrupted in her prayers. The step of her husband was heard upon the stairs, and she, rising from her knees, whispered quickly, “Do not tell him that it is settled. Let me tell him when you are gone.”
“You two have been a long time together,” said Theodore, as he came in.
“Why did you leave us, then, so long?” said Mrs. Burton, trying to smile, though the signs of tears were, as she well knew, plain enough.
“I thought you would have sent for me.”
“Burton,” said Harry, “I take it kindly of you that you allowed me to see your wife alone.”
“Women always understand these things best,” said he.
“And you will come again to-morrow, Harry, and answer me my question?”
“Not to — morrow.”
“Florence will be here on Monday.”
“And why should he not come when Florence is here?” asked Theodore in an angry tone.
“Of course he will come, hut I want to see him again first. Do I not, Harry?”
“I hate mysteries,” said Burton.
“There shall be no mystery,” said his wife. “Why did you send him to me, but that there are some things difficult to discuss among three? Will you come to-morrow, Harry?”
“Not to-morrow; but I will write to-morrow — early to-morrow. I will go now, and, of course, you will tell Burton everything that I have said. Goodnight.” They both took his hand, and Cecilia pressed it as she looked with beseeching eyes into his face. What would she not have done to secure the happiness of the sister whom she loved? On this occasion she had descended low that she might do much.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55