When they reached Onslow Crescent, the first half-hour was spent with the children, as to whom Florence could but observe that even from their mouths the name of Harry Clavering was banished. But she played with Cissy and Sophie, giving them their little presents from Stratton; and sat with the baby in her lap, kissing his pink feet and making little soft noises for his behoof sweetly as she might have done if no terrible crisis in her own life had now come upon her. Not a tear as yet had moistened her eyes, and Cecilia was partly aware that Florence’s weeping would be done in secret. “Come up with me into my own room; I have something to show you,” she said, as the nurse took the baby at last; and Cissy and Sophie were at the same time sent away with their brother. “As I came in I got a note from Harry, but, before you see that, I must show you the letter which he wrote to me on Friday. He has gone down to Clavering — on some business — for one day.” Mrs. Burton, in her heart, could hardly acquit him of having run out of town at the moment to avoid the arrival of Florence.
They went upstairs, and the note was, in fact, read before the letter. “I hope there is nothing wrong at the parsonage,” said Florence.
“You see he says he will come back after one day.”
“Perhaps he has gone to tell them — of this change in his prospects.”
“No, dear, no; you do not yet understand his feelings. Read his letter, and you will know more. If there is to be a change, he is at any rate too much ashamed of it to speak of it. He does not wish it himself. It is simply this — that she has thrown herself in his way, and he has not known how to avoid her.”
Then Florence read the letter very slowly, going over most of the sentences more than once, and struggling to learn from them what were really the wishes of the writer. When she came to Harry’s exculpation of Lady Ongar, she believed it thoroughly, and said so — meeting, however, a direct contradiction on that point from her sister-in-law. When she had finished it, she folded it up and gave it back. “Cissy,” she said, “I know that I ought to go back. I do not want to see him, and I am glad that he has gone away.”
“But you do not mean to give him up?”
“But you said you would never leave him, unless he left you.”
“He has left me.”
“No, Florence; not so. Do you not see what he says; that he knows you are the only woman that can make him happy?”
“He has not said that; but if he had, it would be no matter. He understands well how it is. He says that I could not take him now — even if he came to me; and I cannot. How could I? What! wish to marry a man who does not love me, who loves another, when I know that I am regarded simply as a barrier between them; when by doing so I should mar his fortunes? Cissy, dear, when you think of it, you will not wish it.”
“Mar his fortunes! It would make them. I do wish it — and he wishes it too. I tell you that I had him here, and I know it. Why should you be sacrificed?”
“What is the meaning of self-denial, if no one can bear to suffer?”
“But he will suffer too — and all for her caprices! You cannot really think that her money would do him any good. Who would ever speak to him again, or even see him? What would the world say of him? Why, his own father and mother and sisters would disown him, if they are such as you say they are.”
Florence would not argue it further, but went to her room, and remained there alone till Cecilia came to tell her that her brother had returned. What weeping there may have been there, need not be told. Indeed, as I think, there was not much, for Florence was a girl whose education had not brought her into the way of hysterical sensations. The Burtons were an active, energetic people, who sympathized with each other in labor and success — and in endurance also; but who had little sympathy to express for the weaknesses of grief. When her children had stumbled in their play, bruising their little noses, and barking their little shins, Mrs. Burton, the elder, had been wont to bid them rise, asking them what their legs were for, if they could not stand. So they had dried their own little eyes with their own little fists, and had learned to understand that the rubs of the world were to be borne in silence. This rub that had come to Florence was of grave import, and had gone deeper than the outward skin; but still the old lesson had its effect.
Florence rose from the bed on which she was lying, and prepared to come down. “Do not commit yourself to him, as to anything,” said Cecilia.
“I understand what that means,” Florence answered. “He thinks as I do. But never mind. He will not say much, and I shall say less. It is bad to talk of this to any man — even to a brother.”
Burton also received his sister with that exceptional affection which declares pity for some overwhelming misfortune. He kissed her lips, which was rare with him, for he would generally but just touch her forehead, and he put his hand behind her waist and partly embraced her. “Did Cissy manage to find you at the station?”
“Oh, yes; easily.”
“Theodore thinks that a woman is no good for any such purpose as that,” said Cecilia. “It is a wonder to him, no doubt, that we are not now wandering about London in search of each other — and of him.”
“I think she would have got home quicker if I could have been there,” said Burton.
“We were in a cab in one minute; weren’t we, Florence? The difference would have been that you would have given a porter sixpence — and I gave him a shilling, having bespoken him before.”
“And Theodore’s time was worth the sixpence, I suppose,” said Florence.
“That depends,” said Cecilia. “How did the synod go on?”
“The synod made an ass of itself; as synods always do. It is necessary to get a lot of men together, for the show of the thing — otherwise the world will not believe. That is the meaning of committees. But the real work must always be done by one or two men. Come; I’ll go and get ready for dinner.”
The subject — the one real subject, had thus been altogether avoided at this first meeting with the man of the house, and the evening passed without any allusion to it. Much was made of the children, and much was said of the old people at home; but still there was a consciousness over them all that the one matter of importance was being kept in the background. They were all thinking of Harry Clavering, but no one mentioned his name. They all knew that they were unhappy and heavy-hearted through his fault, but no one blamed him. He had been received in that house with open arms, had been warmed in their bosom, and had stung them; but though they were all smarting from the sting, they uttered no complaint. Burton had made up his mind that it would be better to pass over the matter thus in silence — to say nothing further of Harry Clavering. A misfortune had come upon them. They must bear it, and go on as before. Harry had been admitted into the London office on the footing of a paid clerk — on the same footing, indeed, as Burton himself though with a much smaller salary and inferior work. This position had been accorded to him of course through the Burton interest, and it was understood that if he chose to make himself useful, he could rise in the business as Theodore had risen. But he could only do so as one of the Burtons. For the last three months he had declined to take his salary, alleging that private affairs had kept him away from the office. It was to the hands of Theodore Burton himself that such matters came for management, and therefore there had been no necessity for further explanation. Harry Clavering would of course leave the house, and there would be an end of him in the records of the Burton family. He would have come and made his mark — a terrible mark, and would have passed on. Those whom he had bruised by his cruelty, and knocked over by his treachery, must get to their feet again as best they could, and say as little as might be of their fall. There are knaves in this world, and no one can suppose that he has a special right to be exempted from their knavery because he himself is honest. It is on the honest that the knaves prey. That was Burton’s theory in this matter. He would learn from Cecilia how Florence was bearing herself; but to Florence herself he would say little or nothing if she bore with patience and dignity, as he believed she would, the calamity which had befallen her.
But he must write to his mother. The old people at Stratton must not be left in the dark as to what was going on. He must write to his mother, unless he could learn from his wife that Florence herself had communicated to them at home the fact of Harry’s iniquity. But he asked no question as to this on the first night, and on the following morning he went off having simply been told that Florence had seen Harry’s letter, that she knew all, and that she was carrying herself like an angel.
“Not like an angel that hopes?” said Theodore.
“Let her alone for a day or two,” said Cecilia. “Of course she must have a few days to think of it. I need hardly tell you that you will never have to be ashamed of your sister.”
The Tuesday and the Wednesday passed by, and though Cecilia and Florence when together discussed the matter, no change was made in the wishes or thoughts of either of them. Florence, now that she was in town, had consented to remain till after Harry should return, on the understanding that she should not be called upon to see him. He was to be told that she forgave him altogether — that his troth was returned to him and that he was free, but that in such circumstances a meeting between them could be of no avail. And then a little packet was made up, which was to be given to him. how was it that Florence had brought with her all his presents and all his letters? But there they were in her box up stairs, and sitting by herself with weary fingers, she packed them, and left them packed under lock and key, addressed by herself to Harry Clavering, Esq. Oh, the misery of packing such a parcel! The feeling with which a woman does it is never experienced by a man. He chucks the things together in wrath — the lock of hair, the letters in the pretty Italian hand that have taken so much happy care in the writing, the jewelled shirt-studs, which were first put in by the fingers that gave them. They are thrown together, and given to some other woman to deliver. But the girl lingers over her torture. She reads the letters again. She thinks of the moments of bliss which each little toy has given. She is loth to part with everything. She would fain keep some one thing — the smallest of them alL She doubts — till a feeling of maidenly reserve constrains her at last, and the coveted trifle, with careful, pains-taking fingers, is put with the rest, and the parcel is made complete, and the address is written with precision.
“Of course I cannot see him,” said Florence. “You will hand to him what I have to send to him; and you must ask him, if he has kept any of my letters, to return them.” She said nothing of the shirt-studs, but he would understand that. As for the lock of hair — doubtless it had been burned.
Cecilia said but little in answer to this. She would not as yet look upon the matter as Florence looked at it, and as Theodore did also. Harry was to be back in town on Thursday morning. He could not, probably, be seen or heard of on that day, because of his visit to Lady Ongar. It was absolutely necessary that he should see Lady Ongar before he could come to Onslow Terrace, with possibility of becoming once more the old Harry Clavering whom they were all to love. But Mrs. Burton would by no means give up all hope. It was useless to say anything to Florence, but she still hoped that good might come.
And then, as she thought of it all, a project came into her head. Alas, and alas! Was she not too late with her project? Why had she not thought of it on the Tuesday or early on the Wednesday, when it might possibly have been executed? But it was a project which she must have kept secret from her husband, of which he would by no means have approved; and as she remembered this, she told herself that perhaps it was as well that things should take their own course without such interference as she had contemplated.
On the Thursday morning there came to her a letter in a strange hand. It was from Clavering — from Harry’s mother. Mrs. Clavering wrote, as she said, at her son’s request, to say that he was confined to his bed, and could not be in London as soon as he expected. Mrs. Burton was not to suppose that he was really ill, and none of the family were to be frightened. From this Mrs. Burton learned that Mrs. Clavering knew nothing of Harry’s apostasy. The letter went on to say that Harry would write as soon as he himself was able, and would probably be in London early next week — at any rate before the end of it. He was a little feverish, but there was no cause for alarm. Florence, of course, could only listen and turn pale. Now, at any rate, she must remain in London.
Mrs. Burton’s project, might, after all, be feasible; but then what if her husband should really be angry with her? That was a misfortune which never yet had come upon her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01