It was now Christmas time at Stratton, or rather Christmas time was near at hand; not the Christmas next after the autumn of Lord Ongar’s marriage, but the following Christmas, and Harry Clavering had finished his studies in Mr. Burton’s office. He flattered himself that he had not been idle while he was there, and was now ahout to commence his more advanced stage of pupilage, under the great Mr. Beilby, in London, with hopes which were still good, if they were not so magnificent as they once had been.
When he first saw Mr. Burton in his office, and beheld the dusty pigeonholes with dusty papers, and caught the first glimpse of things as they really were in the workshop of that man of business, he had, to say the truth, been disgusted. And Mrs. Burton’s early dinner, and Florence Burton’s “plain face” and plain ways, had disconcerted him. On that day he had repented of his intention with regard to Stratton; but he had carried out his purpose like a man, and now he rejoiced greatly that he had done so. He rejoiced greatly, though his hopes were somewhat sobered, and his views of life less grand than they had been. He was to start for Clavering early on the following morning, intending to spend his Christmas at home, and we will see him and listen to him as he bade farewell to one of the members of Mr. Burton’s family.
He was sitting in a small hack parlor in Mr. Burton’s house, and on the table of the room there was burning a single candle. It was a dull, dingy, brown room, furnished with horsehair-covered chairs, an old horsehair sofa and heavy, rusty curtains. I don’t know that there was in the room any attempt at ornament, as certainly there was no evidence of wealth. It was now about seven o’clock in the evening, and tea was over in Mrs. Burton’s establishment. Harry Clavering had had his tea, and had eaten his hot muffin, at the further side from the fire of the family table, while Florence had poured out the tea, and Mrs. Burton had sat by the fire on one side with a handkerchief over her lap, and Mr. Burton had been comfortable with his arm-chair and his slippers on the other side. When tea was over, Harry had made his parting speech to Mrs. Burton, and that lady had kissed him, and bade God bless him. “I’ll see you for a moment before you go, in my office, Harry,” Mr. Burton had said. Then Harry had gone down stairs, and some one else had gone boldly with him, and they two were sitting together in the dingy brown room. After that I need hardly tell my reader what had become of Harry Clavering’s perpetual, life-enduring heart’s misery.
He and Florence were sitting on the old horsehair sofa and Florence’s hand was in his. “My darling,” he said, “how am I to live for the next two years?”
“You mean five years, Harry.”
“No; I mean two — that is, two, unless I can make the time less. I believe you’d be better pleased to think it was ten.”
“Much better pleased to think it was ten than to have no such hope at all. Of course we shall see each other. It’s not as though you were going to New Zealand.”
“I almost wish I were. One would agree then as to the necessity of this cursed delay.”
“It is accursed. The prudence of the World in these latter days seems to me to be more abominable than all its other iniquities.”
“But, Harry, we should have no income.”
“Income is a word that I hate.”
“Now you are getting on to your high horse, and you know I always go out of the way when you begin to prance on that beast. As for me, I don’t want to leave papa’s house where I’m sure of my bread and butter, till I’m sure of it in another.”
“You say that, Florence, on purpose to torment me.”
“Dear Harry, do you think I want to torment you on your last night? The truth is, I love you so well that I can afford to be patient for you.”
“I hate patience, and always did. Patience is one of the worst vices I know. It’s almost as bad as humility. You’ll tell me you’re ‘umble next. If you’ll only add that you’re contented, you’ll describe yourself as one of the lowest of God’s creatures.”
“I don’t know about being ‘umble, but I am contented. Are not you contented with me, sir?”
“No — because you’re not in a hurry to be married.”
“What a goose you are. Do you know I’m not sure that if you really love a person, and are quite confident about him — as I am of you — that having to look forward to being married is not the best part of it all. I suppose you’ll like to get my letters now, but I don’t know that you’ll care for them much when we’ve been man and wife for ten years.”
“But one can’t live upon letters.”
“I shall expect you to live upon mine, and to grow fat on them. There; I heard papa’s step on the stairs. He said you were to go to him. Good-by, Harry — dearest Harry! What a blessed wind it was that blew you here.”
“Stop a moment; about your getting to Clavering. I shall come for you on Easter eve.”
“Oh, no; why should you have so much trouble and expense?”
“I tell you I shall come for you — unless, indeed, you decline to travel with me.”
“It will be so nice! And then I shall be sure to have you with me the first moment I see them. I shall think it very awful when I first meet your father.”
“He’s the most good-natured man, I should say, in England.”
“But he’ll think me so plain. You did at first, you know. But he won’t be uncivil enough to tell me so, as you did. And Mary is to be married in Easter week? Oh, dear, oh, dear; I shall be so shy among them all.”
“You shy! I never saw you shy in my life. I don’t suppose you were ever really put out yet.”
“But I must really put you out, because papa is waiting for you. Dear, dear, dearest Harry. Though I am so patient I shall count the hours till you come for me. Dearest Harry!” Then she bore with him, as he pressed her close to his bosom, and kissed her lips, and her forehead, and her glossy hair. When he was gone, she sat down alone for a few minutes on the old sofa, and hugged herself in her happiness. What a happy wind that had been which had blown such a lover as that for her to Stratton!
“I think he’s a good young man,” said Mrs. Burton, as soon as she was left with her old husband up stairs.
“Yes, he’s a good young man. He means very well.”
“But he is not idle; is he?”
“No — no: he’s not idle. And he’s very clever — too clever, I’m afraid. But I think he’ll do well, though it may take him some time to settle.”
“It seems so natural, his taking to Flo; doesn’t it? They’ve all taken one when they went away, and they’ve all done very well. Deary me; how sad the house will be when Flo has gone.”
“Yes — it’ll make a difference that way. But what then? I wouldn’t wish to keep one of ‘em at home for that reason.”
“No, indeed. I think I’d feel ashamed of myself to have a daughter not married, or not in the way to be married afore she’s thirty. I couldn’t bear to think that no young man should take a fancy to a girl of mine. But Flo’s not twenty yet, and Carry, who was the oldest to go, wasn’t four-and-twenty when Scarness took her.” Thereupon the old lady put her handkerchief to the corner of her eyes, and wept gently.
“Flo isn’t gone yet,” said Mr. Burton.
“But I hope, B., it’s not to be a long engagement. I don’t like long engagements. It ain’t good — not for the girl; it ain’t, indeed.”
“We were engaged for seven years.”
“People weren’t so much in a hurry then at anything; but I ain’t sure it was very good for me. And though we weren’t just married, we were living next door and saw each other. What’ll come to Flo if she’s to be here and he’s to be up in London, pleasuring himself?”
“Flo must bear it as other girls do,” said the father, as he got up from his chair.
“I think he’s a good young man; I think he is,” said the mother. “But don’t stand out for too much for ‘em to begin upon. What matters? Sure, if they were to be a little short you could help ‘em.” To such a suggestion as this Mr. Burton thought it as well to make no answer, but with ponderous steps descended to his office.
“Well, Harry,” said Mr. Burton, “so you’re to be off in the morning?”
“Yes, sir; I shall breakfast at home to-morrow.”
“Ah — when I was your age, I always used to make an early start. Three hours before breakfast never does any hurt. But it shouldn’t be more than that. The wind gets into the stomach.” Harry had no remark to make on this, and waited, therefore, till Mr. Burton went on. “And you’ll be up in London by the 10th of next month?”
“Yes, sir; I intend to be at Mr. Beilby’s office on the 11th.”
“That’s right. Never lose a day. In losing a day now, you don’t lose what you might earn now in a day, but what you might be earning when you’re at your best. A young man should always remember that. You can’t dispense with a round in the ladder going up. You only make your time at the top so much the shorter.”
“I hope you’ll find that I’m all right, sir. I don’t mean to be idle.”
“Pray don’t. Of course, you know, I speak to you very differently from what I should do if you were simply going away from my office. What I shall have to give Florence will be very little — that is, comparatively little. She shall have a hundred a year, when she marries, till I die; and after my death and her mother’s she will share with the others. But a hundred a year will be nothing to you.”
“Won’t it, sir? I think a very great deal of a hundred a year. I’m to have a hundred and fifty from the office; and I should be ready to marry on that to-morrow.”
“You couldn’t live on such an income — unless you were to alter your habits very much.”
“But I will alter them.”
“We shall see. You are so placed, that by marrying you would lose a considerable income; and I would advise you to put off thinking of it for the next two years.”
“My belief is, that settling down would be the best thing in the world to make me work.”
“We’ll try what a year will do. So Florence is to go to your father’s house at Easter?”
“Yes, sir; she has been good enough to promise to come, if you have no objection.”
“It is quite as well that they should know her early. I only hope they will like her, as well as we like you. Now I’ll say good-night — and good-by.” Then Harry went, and walking up and down the High Street of Stratton, thought of all that he had done during the past year.
On his arrival at Stratton, that idea of perpetual misery arising from blighted affection was still strong within his breast. He had given all his heart to a false woman who had betrayed him. He had risked all his fortune on one cast of the die, and, gambler-like, had lost everything. On the day of Julia’s marriage he had shut himself up at the school — luckily it was a holiday — and had flattered himself that he had gone through some hours of intense agony. No doubt he did suffer somewhat, for in truth he had loved the woman; but such sufferings are seldom perpetual, and with him they had been as easy of cure as with most others. A little more than a year had passed, and now he was already engaged to another woman. As he thought of this he did not by any means accuse himself of inconstancy or of weakness of heart. It appeared to him now the most natural thing in the world that he should love Florence Burton. In those old days he had never seen Florence, and had hardly thought seriously of what qualities a man really wants in a wife. As he walked up and down the hill of Stratton Street, with the kiss of the dear, modest, affectionate girl still warm upon his lips, he told himself that a marriage with such a one as Julia Brabazon would have been altogether fatal to his chance of happiness.
And things had occurred and rumors had reached him which assisted him much in adopting this view of the subject. It was known to all the Claverings — and even to all others who cared about such things — that Lord and Lady Ongar were not happy together, and it had been already said that Lady Ongar had misconducted herself. There was a certain count whose name had come to be mingled with hers in a way that was, to say the least of it, very unfortunate. Sir Hugh Clavering had declared, in Mrs. Clavering’s hearing, though but little disposed in general to make any revelations to any of the family at the rectory, “that he did not intend to take his sister-in-law’s part. She had made her own bed, and she must lie upon it. She had known what Lord Ongar was before she had married him, and the fault was her own.” So much Sir Hugh had said, and, in saying it, had done all that in him lay to damn his sister-in-law’s fair fame. Harry Clavering, little as he had lived in the world during the last twelve months, still knew that some people told a different story. The earl, too, and his wife had not been in England since their marriage; so that these rumors had been filtered to them at home through a foreign medium. During most of their time they had been in Italy, and now, as Harry knew, they were at Florence. He had heard that Lord Ongar had declared his intention of suing for a divorce; but that he supposed to be erroneous, as the two were still living under the same roof. Then he heard that Lord Ongar was ill; and whispers were spread abroad darkly and doubtingly, as though great misfortunes were apprehended.
Harry could not fail to tell himself that had Julia become his wife, as she had once promised, these whispers and this darkness would hardly have come to pass. But not on that account did he now regret that her early vows had not been kept. Living at Stratton, he had taught himself to think much of the quiet domesticities of life, and to believe that Florence Burton was fitter to be his wife than Julia Brabazon. He told himself that he had done well to find this out, and that he had been wise to act upon it. His wisdom had in truth consisted in his capacity to feel that Florence was a nice girl, clever, well-minded, high-principled, and full of spirit — and in falling in love with her as a consequence. All his regard for the quiet domesticities had come from his love, and had had no share in producing it. Florence was bright-eyed. No eyes were over brighter, either in tears or in laughter. And when he came to look at her well, he found that he had been an idiot to think her plain.
“There are things that grow to beauty as you look at them — to exquisite beauty; and you are one of them,” he had said to her. “And there are men,” she had answered, “who grow to flattery as you listen to them — to impudent flattery; and you are one of them.” “I thought you plain the first day I saw you. That’s not flattery.” “Yes, sir, it is; and you mean it for flattery. But after all, Harry, it comes only to this, that you want to tell me that you have learned to love me.” He repeated all this to himself as he walked up and down Stratton, and declared to himself that she was very lovely. It had been given to him to ascertain this, and he was rather proud of himself. But he was a little diffident about his father. He thought that, perhaps, his father might see Florence as he himself had first seen her, and might not have discernment enough to ascertain his mistake, as he had done. But Florence was not going to Clavering at once, and he would be able to give beforehand his own account of her. He had not been home since his engagement had been a thing settled; but his position with regard to Florence had been declared by letter, and his mother had written to the young, lady asking her to come to Clavering.
When Harry got home, all the family received him with congratulations. “I am so glad to think that you should marry early,” his mother said to him in a whisper.
“But I am not married yet, mother,” he answered.
“Do show me a lock of her hair,” said Fanny, laughing.
“It’s twice prettier hair than yours, though she doesn’t think half so much about it as you do,” said her brother, pinching Fanny’s arm.
“But you’ll show me a lock, wont you?” said Fanny.
“I’m so glad she’s to be here at my marriage,” said Mary; “because then Edward will know her. I’m so glad that he will see her.”
“Edward will have other fish to fry, and won’t care much about her,” said Harry.
“It seems you’re going to do the regular thing,” said his father, “like all the good apprentices. Marry your master’s daughter, and then become Lord Mayor of London.”
This was not the view in which it had pleased Harry to regard his engagement. All the other “young men” that had gone to Mr. Burton’s had married Mr. Burton’s daughters — or, at least, enough had done so to justify the Stratton assertion that all had fallen into the same trap. The Burtons, with their five girls, were supposed in Stratton to have managed their affairs very well, and something of these hints had reached Harry’s ears. He would have preferred that the thing should not have been made so common, but he was not fool enough to make himself really unhappy on that head.
“I don’t know much about becoming Lord Mayor,” he replied. “That promotion doesn’t lie exactly in our line.”
“But marrying your master’s daughter does, it seems,” said the Rector. Harry thought that this, as coming from his father, was almost ill-natured, and therefore dropped the conversation.
“I’m sure we shall like her,” said Fanny.
“I think that I shall like Harry’s choice,” said Mrs. Clavering.
“I do hope Edward will like her,” said Mary.
“Mary,” said her sister, “I do wish you were once married. When you are, you’ll begin to have a self of your own again. Now you’re no better than an unconscious echo.”
“Wait for your own turn, my dear,” said the mother.
Harry had reached home on a Saturday, and the following Monday was Christmas-day. Lady Clavering, he was told, was at home at the park, and Sir Hugh had been there lately. No one from the house except the servants were seen at church, either on the Sunday or on Christmas-day. “But that shows nothing,” said the Rector, speaking in anger. “He very rarely does come, and when he does, it would be better that he should be away. I think that he likes to insult me by misconducting himself. They say that she is not well, and I can easily believe that all this about her sister makes her unhappy. If I were you, I would go up and call. Your mother was there the other day, but did not see them. I think you’ll find that he’s away, hunting somewhere. I saw the groom going off with three horses on Sunday afternoon. He always sends them by the church gate just as we’re coming out.”
So Harry went up to the house, and found Lady Clavering at home. She was looking old and careworn, but she was glad to see him. Harry was the only one of the rectory family who had been liked at the great house since Sir Hugh’s marriage, and he, had he cared to do so, would have been made welcome there. But, as he had once said to Sir Hugh’s sister-in-law, if he shot the Clavering game, he would be expected to do so in the guise of a head gamekeeper, and he did not choose to play that part. It would not suit him to drink Sir Hugh’s claret, and be bidden to ring the bell, and to be asked to step into the stable for this or that. He was a fellow of his college, and quite as big a man, he thought, as Sir Hugh. He would not be a hanger-on at the park, and, to tell the truth, he disliked his cousin quite as much as his father did. But there had even been a sort of friendship — nay, occasionally almost a confidence, between him and Lady Clavering, and he believed that by her he was really liked.
Lady Clavering had heard of his engagement, and, of course, congratulated him. “Who told you?” he asked —“was it my mother?”
“No; I have not seen your mother I don’t know when. I think it was my maid told me. Though we somehow don’t see much of you all at the rectory, our servants are no doubt more gracious with the rectory servants. I’m sure she must be nice, Harry, or you would not have chosen her. I hope she has got some money.”
“Yes, I think she is nice. She is coming here at Easter.”
“Ah, we shall be away then, you know; and about the money?”
“She will have a little, but very little; a hundred a year.”
“Oh, Harry, is not that rash of you? Younger brothers should always get money. You’re the same as a younger brother, you know.”
“My idea is to earn my own bread. It’s not very aristocratic, but, after all, there are a great many more in the same boat with me.”
Of course you will earn your bread, but having a wife with money would not hinder that. A girl is not the worse because she can bring some help. However, I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy.”
“What I meant was that I think it best when the money comes from the husband.”
“I’m sure I ought to agree with you, because we never had any.” Then there was a pause. “I suppose you’ve heard about Lord Ongar,” she said.
“I have heard that he is very ill.”
“Very ill. I believe there was no hope when we heard last; but Julia never writes now.”
“I’m sorry that it is so bad as that,” said Harry, not well knowing what else to say.
“As regards Julia, I do not know whether it may not be for the best. It seems to be a cruel thing to say, but of course I cannot but think most of her. You have heard, perhaps, that they have not been happy?”
“Yes; I had heard that.”
“Of course; and what is the use of pretending anything with you? You know what people have said of her.”
“I have never believed it.”
“You always loved her, Harry. Oh, dear, I remember how unhappy that made me once, and I was so afraid that Hugh would suspect it. She would never have done for you; would she, Harry?”
“She did a great deal better for herself.” said Harry.
“If you mean that ironically, you shouldn’t say it now. If he dies, she will be well off, of course, and people will in time forget what has been said — that is, if she will live quietly. The worst of it is that she fears nothing.”
“But you speak as though you thought she had been — been —”
“I think she was probably imprudent, but I believe nothing worse than that. But who can say what is absolutely wrong, and what only imprudent? I think she was too proud. to go really astray. And then with such a man as that, so difficult and so ill-tempered —! Sir Hugh thinks —” But at that moment the door was opened and Sir Hugh came in.
“What does Sir Hugh think?” said he.
“We were speaking of Lord Ongar,” said Harry, sitting up and shaking hands with his cousin.
“Then, Harry, you were speaking on a subject that I would rather not have discussed in this house. Do you understand that, Hermione? I will have no talking about Lord Ongar or his wife. We know very little, and what we hear is simply uncomfortable. Will you dine here to-day, Harry?”
“Thank you, no; I have only just come home.”
“And I am just going away. That is, I go to-morrow. I cannot stand this place. I think it the dullest neighborhood in all England, and the most gloomy house I ever saw. Hermione likes it.”
To this last assertion Lady Clavering expressed no assent; nor did she venture to contradict him.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55