Harry Clavering, when he went away from Onslow Crescent, after his interview with Cecilia Burton, was a wretched, pitiable man. He had told the truth of himself as far as he was able to tell it, to a woman whom he thoroughly esteemed, and having done so was convinced that she could no longer entertain any respect for him. He had laid bare to her all his weakness, and for a moment she had spurned him. It was true that she had again reconciled herself to him, struggling to save both him and her sister from future misery — that she had even condescended to implore him to be gracious to Florence, taking that which to her mind seemed then to be the surest path to her object; but not the less did he feel that she must despise him. Having promised his hand to one woman — to a woman whom he still professed that he loved dearly — he had allowed himself to be cheated into offering it to another. And he knew that the cheating had been his own. It was he who had done the evil. Julia, in showing her affection for him, had tendered her love to a man whom she believed to be free. He had intended to walk straight. He had not allowed himself to be enamored of the wealth possessed by this woman who had thrown herself at his feet. But he had been so weak that he had fallen in his own despite.
There is, I suppose, no young man possessed of average talents and average education, who does not early in life lay out for himself some career with more or less precision — some career which is high in its tendencies and noble in its aspirations, and to which he is afterward compelled to compare the circumstances of the life which he shapes for himself. In doing this he may not attempt, perhaps, to lay down for himself any prescribed amount of success which he will endeavor to reach, or even the very pathway by which he will strive to be successful; but he will tell himself what are the vices which he will avoid, and what the virtues which he will strive to attain. Few young men ever did this with more precision than it had been done by Harry Clavering, and few with more self-confidence. Very early in life he had been successful — so successful as to enable him to emancipate himself not only from his father’s absolute control, but almost also from any interference on his father’s part. It had seemed to be admitted that he was a better man than his father, better than the other Claverings — the jewel of the race, the Clavering to whom the family would in future years look up, not as their actual head, but as their strongest prop and most assured support. He had said to himself that he would be an honest, truthful, hard-working man, not covetous after money, though conscious that a laborer was worthy of his hire, and conscious also that the better the work done the better should be his wages. Then he had encountered a blow — a heavy blow from a false woman — and he had boasted to himself that he had borne it well, as a man should bear all blows. And now, after all these resolves and all these boastings, he found himself brought by his own weakness to such a pass that he hardly dared to look in the face any of his dearest and most intimate friends.
He was not remiss in telling himself all this. He did draw the comparison ruthlessly between the character which he had intended to make his own and that which he now had justly earned. He did not excuse himself. We are told to love others as ourselves, and it is hard to do so. But I think that we never hate others, never despise others, as we are sometimes compelled by our own convictions and self-judgment to hate and to despise ourselves. Harry, as he walked home on this evening, was lost in disgust at his own conduct. He could almost have hit his head against the walls, or thrown himself beneath the wagons as he passed them, so thoroughly was he ashamed of his own life. Even now, on this evening, he had escaped from Onslow Crescent — basely escaped — without having declared any purpose. Twice on this day he had escaped, almost by subterfuges; once from Burton’s office, and now again from Cecilia’s presence. How long was this to go on, or how could life be endurable to him under such circumstances?
In parting from Cecilia, and promising to write at once, and promising to come again in a few days, he had had some idea in his head that he would submit his fate to the arbitrament of Lady Ongar. At any rate he must, he thought, see her, and finally arrange with her what the fate of both of them should be, before he could make any definite statement of his purpose in Onslow Crescent. The last tender of his hand had been made to Julia, and he could not renew his former promises on Florence’s behalf, till he had been absolved by Julia.
This may at any rate be pleaded on his behalf — that in all the workings of his mind at this time there was very little of personal vanity. Very personally vain he had been when Julia Brabazon — the beautiful and noble-born Julia — had first confessed at Clavering that she loved him; but that vanity had been speedily knocked on its head by her conduct to him. Men when they are jilted can hardly be vain of the conquest which has led to such a result. Since that there had been no vanity of that sort. His love to Florence had been open, honest and satisfactory, but he had not considered himself to have achieved a wonderful triumph at Stratton. And when he found that Lord Ongar’s widow still loved him — that he was still regarded with affection by the woman who had formerly wounded him — there was too much of pain, almost of tragedy, in his position, to admit of vanity. He would say to himself that, as far as he knew his own heart, he thought he loved Julia the best; but, nevertheless, he thoroughly wished that she had not returned from Italy, or that he had not seen her when she had so returned.
He had promised to write, and that he would do this very night. He had failed to make Cecilia Burton understand what he intended to do, having, indeed, hardly himself resolved; but before he went to bed he would both resolve and explain to her his resolution. Immediately, therefore, on his return home he sat down at his desk with the pen in his hand and the paper before him.
At last the words came. I can hardly say that they were the product of any fixed resolve made before he commenced the writing. I think that his mind worked more fully when the pen was in his hands than it had done during the hour through which he sat listless, doing nothing, struggling to have a will of his own, but failing. The letter when it was written was as follows:
BLOOMSBURY SQUARE, May, 186 —.
DEAREST MRS. BURTON:— I said that I would write to-morrow, but I am writing now, immediately on my return home. Whatever else you may think of me, pray be sure of this, that I am most anxious to make you know and understand my own position at any rate as well as I do myself. I tried to explain it to you when I was with you this evening, but I fear that I failed; and when Mr. Burton came in I could not say anything further.
I know that I have behaved very badly to your sister — very badly, even though she should never become aware that I have done so. Not that that is possible, for if she were to be my wife to-morrow I should tell her everything. But badly as you must think of me, I have never for a moment had a premeditated intention to deceive her. I believe you do know on what terms I had stood with Miss Brabazon before her marriage, and that when she married, whatever my feelings might be, there was no self-accusation. And after that you know all that took place between me and Florence till the return of Lord Ongar’s widow. Up to that time everything had been fair between us. I had told Florence of my former attachment, and she probably thought but little of it. Such things are so common with men! Some change happens as had happened with me, and a man’s second love is often stronger and more worthy of a woman’s acceptance than the first. At any rate, she knew it, and there was, so far, an end of it. And you understood, also, how very anxious I was to avoid delay in our marriage. No one knows that better than you — not even Florence — for I have talked it over with you so often; and you will remember how I have begged you to assist me. I don’t blame my darling Florence. She was doing what she deemed best; but oh, if she had only been guided by what you once said to her!
Then Lord Ongar’s widow returned; and dear Mrs. Burton, though I fear you think ill of her, you must remember that as far as you know, or I, she has done nothing wrong, has been in no respect false, since her marriage. As to her early conduct to me, she did what many women have done, but what no woman should do. But how can I blame her, knowing how terrible has been my own weakness! But as to her conduct since her marriage, I implore you to believe with me that she has been sinned against grievously, and has not sinned. Well; as you know, I met her. It was hardly unnatural that I should do so, as we are connected. But whether natural or unnatural, foolish or wise, I went to her often. I thought at first that she must know of my engagement, as her sister knew it well, and had met Florence. But she did not know it; and so, having none near her that she could love, hardly a friend but myself, grievously wronged by the world and her own relatives, thinking that with her wealth she could make some amends to me for her former injury, she —. Dear Mrs. Burton, I think you will understand it now, and will see that she at least is free from blame.
I am not defending myself; of course, all this should have been without effect on me. But I had loved her so dearly! I do love her still so dearly! Love like that does not die. When she left me it was natural that I should seek some one else to love. When she returned to me — when I found that in spite of her faults she had loved me through it all, I— I yielded and became false and a traitor.
I say that I love her still; but I know well that Florence is far the nobler woman of the two. Florence never could have done what she did. In nature, in mind, in acquirement, in heart, Florence is the better. The man who marries Florence must be happy if any woman can make a man happy. Of her of whom I am now speaking, I know well that I cannot say that. How then, you will ask, can I be fool enough, having had such a choice, to doubt between the two! How is it that man doubts between vice and virtue, between heaven and hell?
But all this is nothing to you. I do not know whether Florence would take me now. I am well aware that I have no right to expect that she should. But if I understood you aright this evening, she, as yet, has heard nothing of all this. What must she think of me for not writing to her! But I could not bring myself to write in a false spirit; and how could I tell her all that I have now told to you?
I know that you wish that our engagement should go on. Dear Mrs. Burton, I love you so dearly for wishing it! Mr. Burton, when he shall have heard everything, will, I fear, think differently. For me, I feel that I must see Lady Ongar before I can again go to your house, and I write now chiefly to tell you that this is what I have determined to do. I believe she is now away, in the Isle of Wight, but I will see her as soon as she returns. After that I will either come to Onslow Crescent or send. Florence will be with you then. She, of course, must know everything, and you have my permission to show this letter to her if you think well to do so. Most sincerely and affectionately yours,
This he delivered himself the next morning at the door in Onslow Crescent, taking care not to be there till after Theodore Burton should have gone from home. He left a card also, so that it might be known, not only that he had brought it himself but that he intended Mrs. Burton to be aware of that fact. Then he went and wandered about, and passed his day in misery, as such men do when they are thoroughly discontented with their own conduct. This was the Saturday on which Lady Ongar returned with her Sophie from the Isle of Wight; but of that premature return Harry knew nothing, and therefore allowed the Sunday to pass by without going to Bolton Street. On the Monday morning he received a letter from home which made it necessary — or induced him to suppose it to be necessary — that he should go home to Clavering, at any rate for one day. This he did on the Monday, sending a line to Mrs. Burton to say whither he was gone, and that he should be back by Wednesday night or Thursday morning — and imploring her to give his love to Florence, if she would venture to do so. Mrs. Burton would know what must be his first business in London on his return, and she might be sure he would come or send to Onslow Crescent as soon as that was over.
Harry’s letter — the former and longer letter, Cecilia had read over, till she nearly knew it by heart, before her husband’s return. She well understood that he would be very hard upon Harry. He had been inclined to forgive Clavering for what had been remiss — to forgive the silence, the absence from the office, and the want of courtesy to his wife, till Harry had confessed his sin — but he could not endure that his sister should seek the hand of a man who had declared himself to be in doubt whether he would take it, or that any one should seek it for her, in her ignorance of all the truth. His wife, on the other hand, simply looked to Florence’s comfort and happiness. That Florence should not suffer the pang of having been deceived and rejected was all in all to Cecilia. “Of course she must know it some day,” the wife had pleaded to her husband. “He is not the man to keep anything secret. But if she is told when he has returned to her, and is good to her, the happiness of the return will cure the other misery.” But Burton would not submit to this. “To be comfortable at present is not everything,” he said. “If the man be so miserably weak that he does not even now know his own mind, Florence had better take her punishment, and be quit of him.”
Cecilia had narrated to him with passable fidelity what had occurred upstairs, while he was sitting alone in the dining-room. That she in her anger had at one moment spurned Harry Clavering, and that in the next she had knelt to him, imploring him to come back to Florence — those two little incidents she did not tell to her husband. Harry’s adventures with Lady Ongar, as far as she knew them, she described accurately. “I can’t make any apology for him; upon my life I can’t,” said Burton. “If I know what it is for a man to behave ill, falsely, like a knave in such matters, he is so behaving.” So Theodore Burton spoke as he took his candle to go away to his work; but his wife had induced him to promise that he would not write to Stratton or take any other step in the matter till they had waited twenty-four hours for Harry’s promised letter.
The letter came before the twenty-four hours were expired, and Burton, on his return home on the Saturday, found himself called upon to read and pass judgment upon Harry’s confession. “What right has he to speak of her as his darling Florence,” he exclaimed, “while he is confessing his own knavery?”
“But if she is his darling —?” pleaded his wife.
“Trash! But the word from him in such a letter is simply an additional insult. And what does he know about this woman who has come back? He vouches for her, but what can he know of her? Just what she tells him. He is simply a fool.”
“But you cannot dislike him for believing her word.”
“Cecilia,” said he, holding down the letter as he spoke —“you are so carried away by your love for Florence, and your fear lest a marriage which has been once talked of should not take place, that you shut your eyes to this man’s true character. Can you believe any good of a man who tells you to your face that he is engaged to two women at once?”
“I think I can,” said Cecilia, hardly venturing to express so dangerous an opinion above her breath.
“And what would you think of a woman who did so?”
“Ah, that is so different! I cannot explain it, but you know that it is different.”
“I know that you would forgive a man anything, and a woman nothing.” To this she submitted in silence, having probably heard the reproof before, and he went on to finish the letter. “Not defending himself!” he exclaimed —“then why does he not defend himself? When a man tells me that he does not, or cannot defend himself I know that he is a sorry fellow, without a spark of spirit.”
“I don’t think that of Harry. Surely that letter shows a spirit.”
“Such a one as I should be ashamed to see in a dog. No man should ever be in a position in which he cannot defend himself. No man, at any rate, should admit himself to be so placed. Wish that he should go on with his engagement! I do not wish it at all. I am sorry for Florence. She will suffer terribly. But the loss of such a lover as that is infinitely a lesser loss than would be the gain of such a husband. You had better write to Florence, and tell her not to come.”
“That is my advice.”
“But there is no post between this and Monday.” said Cecilia temporizing.
“Send her a message by the wires.”
“You cannot explain this by a telegram, Theodore. Besides, why should she not come? Her coming can do no harm. If you were to tell your mother now of all this, it would prevent the possibility of things ever being right.”
“Things — that is, this thing, never will be right,” said he.
“But let us see. She will be here on Monday, and if you think it best you can tell her everything. Indeed, she must be told when she is here, for I could not keep it from her. I could not smile and talk to her about him and make her think that it is all right.”
“Not you! I should be very sorry if you could.”
“But I think I could make her understand that she should not decide upon breaking with him altogether.”
“And I think I could make her understand that she ought to do so.”
“But you wouldn’t do that, Theodore?”
“I would if I thought it my duty.”
“But at any rate, she must come, and we can talk of that tomorrow.”
As to Florence’s coming, Burton had given way, beaten, apparently, by that argument about the post. On the Sunday very little was said about Harry Clavering. Cecilia studiously avoided the subject, and Burton had not so far decided on dropping Harry altogether as to make him anxious to express any such decision. After all, such dropping or not dropping must be the work of Florence herself. On the Monday morning Cecilia had a further triumph. On that day her husband was very fully engaged — having to meet a synod of contractors, surveyors and engineers, to discuss which of the remaining thoroughfares of London should not be knocked down by the coming railways — and he could not absent himself from the Adelphi. It was, therefore, arranged that Mrs. Burton should go to the Paddington Station to meet her sister-in-law. She therefore would have the first word with Florence, and the earliest opportunity of impressing the new-comer with her own ideas. “Of course, you must say something to her of this man,” said her husband, “but the less you say the better. After all, she must be left to judge for herself.” In all matters such as this — in all affairs of tact, of social intercourse, and of conduct between man and man, or man and woman, Mr. Burton was apt to be eloquent in his domestic discussion, and sometimes almost severe; but the final arrangement of them was generally left to his wife. He enunciated principles of strategy — much, no doubt, to her benefit; but she actually fought the battles.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55