Mrs. Burton, it may perhaps be remembered, had formed in her heart a scheme of her own — a scheme of which she thought with much trepidation, and in which she could not request her husband’s assistance, knowing well that he would not only not assist it, but that he would altogether disapprove of it. But yet she could not put it aside from her thoughts, believing that it might be the means of bringing Harry Clavering and Florence together. Her husband had now thoroughly condemned poor Harry, and passed sentence against him; not, indeed, openly to Florence herself; but very often in the hearing of his wife. Cecilia, womanlike, was more angry with circumstances than with the offending man — with circumstances and with the woman who stood in Florence’s way. She was perfectly willing to forgive Harry, if Harry could only be made to go right at last. He was good-looking and pleasant, and had nice ways in a house, and was altogether too valuable as a lover to be lost without many struggles. So she kept to her scheme, and at last she carried it into execution.
She started alone from her house one morning, and, getting into an omnibus at Brompton, had herself put down on the rising ground in Piccadilly, opposite to the Green Park. Why she had hesitated to tell the omnibus-man to stop at Bolton Street can hardly be explained; but she had felt that there would be almost a declaration of guilt in naming that locality. So she got out on the little hill, and walked up in front of the prime minister’s house — as it was then — and of the yellow palace built by one of our merchant princes, and turned into the street that was all but interdicted to her by her own conscience. She turned up Bolton Street, and with a trembling hand knocked at Lady Ongar’s door.
Florence in the meanwhile was sitting alone in Oslow Terrace. She knew now that Harry was ill at Clavering — that he was indeed very ill, though Mrs. Clavering had assured her that his illness was not dangerous; for Mrs. Clavering had written to herself — addressing her with all the old familiarity and affection — with a warmth of affection that was almost more than natural. It was clear that Mrs. Clavering knew nothing of Harry’s sins. Or, might it not be possible, Cecilia had suggested, that Mrs. Clavering might have known, and have resolved potentially that those sins should be banished, and become ground for some beautifully sincere repentance? Ah! how sweet it would be to receive that wicked sheep back again into the sheepfold, and then to dock him a little of his wandering powers, to fix him with some pleasant clog, to tie him down as a prudent domestic sheep should be tied, and make him the pride of the flock! But all this had been part of Cecilia’s scheme, and of that scheme poor Florence knew nothing. According to Florence’s view, Mrs. Clavering’s letter was written under a mistake. Harry had kept his secret at home, and intended to keep it for the present. But there was the letter, and Florence felt that it was impossible for her to answer it without telling the whole truth. It was very painful to her to leave unanswered so kind a letter as that, and it was quite impossible that she should write of Harry in the old strain. “It will be best that I should tell her the whole,” Florence had said, “and then I shall be saved the pain of any direct communication with him.” Her brother, to whom Cecilia had repeated this, applauded his sister’s resolution. “Let her face it and bear it, and live it down,” he had said. “Let her do it at once, so that all this maudlin sentimentality may be at an end.” But Cecilia would not accede to this, and as Florence was in truth resolved, and had declared her purpose plainly, Cecilia was driven to the execution of her scheme more quickly than she had intended. In the mean time, Florence took out her little desk and wrote her letter. In tears, and an agony of spirit which none can understand but women who have been driven to do the same, was it written. Could she have allowed herself to express her thoughts with passion, it would have been comparatively easy; but it behooved her to be calm, to be very quiet in her words — almost reticent even in the language which she chose, and to abandon her claim not only without a reproach, but almost without an allusion to her love. While Cecilia was away, the letter was written, and re-written and copied; but Mrs. Burton was safe in this, that her sister-in-law had promised that the letter should not be sent till she had seen it.
Mrs. Burton, when she knocked at Lady Ongar’s door, had a little note ready for the servant between her fingers. Her compliments to Lady Ongar, and would Lady Ongar oblige her by an interview. The note contained simply that, and nothing more; and when the servant took it from her, she declared her intention of waiting in the hall till she had received an answer. But she was shown into the dining-room, and there she remained for a quarter of an hour, during which time she was by no means comfortable. Probably Lady Ongar might refuse to receive her; but should that not be the case — should she succeed in making her way into that lady’s presence, how should she find the eloquence wherewith to plead her cause? At the end of the fifteen minutes, Lady Ongar herself opened the door and entered the room. “Mrs. Burton,” she said, smiling, “I am really ashamed to have kept you so long; but open confession, they say, is good for the soul, and the truth is that I was not dressed.” Then she led the way up stairs, and placed Mrs. Burton on a sofa, and placed herself in her own chair — from whence she could see well, but in which she could not be well seen — and stretched out the folds of her morning-dress gracefully, and made her visitor thoroughly understand that she was at home and at her ease.
We may, I think, surmise that Lady Ongar’s open confession would do her soul but little good, as it lacked truth, which is the first requisite for all confessions. Lady Ongar had been sufficiently dressed to receive any visitor, hut had felt that some special preparation was necessary for the reception of the one who had now come to her. She knew well who was Mrs. Burton, and surmised accurately the purpose for which Mrs. Burton had come. Upon the manner in which she now carried herself might hang the decision of the question which was so important to her — whether that Phœbus in knickerbockers should or should not become lord of Ongar Park? To effect success now, she must maintain an ascendency during this coming interview, and in the maintenance of all ascendency, much depends on the outward man or woman; and she must think a little of the words she must use, and a little, too, of her own purpose. She was fully minded to get the better of Mrs. Burton if that might be possible, but she was not altogether decided on the other point. She wished that Harry Clavering might be her own. She would have wished to pension off that Florence Burton with half her wealth, had such pensioning been possible. But not the less did she entertain some half doubts whether it would not be well that she could abandon her own wishes, and give up her own hope of happiness. Of Mrs. Burton personally she had known nothing, and having expected to see a somewhat strong-featured and perhaps rather vulgar woman, and to hear a voice painfully indicative of a strong mind, she was agreeably surprised to find a pretty, mild lady, who from the first showed that she was half afraid of what she herself was doing. “I have heard your name, Mrs. Burton,” said Lady Ongar, “from our mutual friend, Mr. Clavering, and I have no doubt you have heard mine from him also.” This she said in accordance with the little plan which, during those fifteen minutes, she had laid down for her own guidance.
Mrs. Burton was surprised, and at first almost silenced, by this open mentioning of a name which she had felt that she would have the greatest difficulty in approaching. She said, however, that it was so. She had heard Lady Ongar’s name from Mr. Clavering. “We are connected, you know,” said Lady Ongar. “My sister is married to his first cousin, Sir Hugh; and when I was living with my sister at Clavering, he was at the rectory there. That was before my own marriage.” She was perfectly easy in her manner, and flattered herself that the ascendency was complete.
“I have heard so much from Mr. Clavering,” said Cecilia.
“And he was very civil to me immediately on my return home. Perhaps you may have heard that also. He took this house for me, and made himself generally useful, as young men ought to do. I believe he is in the same office with your husband; is he not? I hope I may not have been the means of making him idle?”
This was all very well and very pretty, but Mrs. Burton was already beginning to feel that she was doing nothing toward the achievement of her purpose. “I suppose he has been idle,” she said, “but I did not mean to trouble you about that.” Upon hearing this, Lady Ongar smiled. This supposition that she had really intended to animadvert upon Harry Clavering’s idleness was amusing to her as she remembered how little such idleness would signify if she could only have her way.
“Poor Harry!” she said. “I supposed his sins would be laid at my door. But my idea is, you know, that he will never do any good at such work as that.”
“Perhaps not — that is, I really can’t say. I don’t think Mr. Burton has ever expressed any opinion; and if he had —”
“If he had, you wouldn’t mention it.”
“I don’t suppose I should, Lady Ongar — not to a stranger.”
“Harry Clavering and I are not strangers,” said Lady Ongar, changing the tone of her voice altogether as she spoke.
“No, I know that. You have known him longer than we have. I am aware of that.”
“Yes; before he ever dreamed of going into your husband’s business, Mrs. Burton; long before he had ever been to — Stratton.”
The name of Stratton was an assistance to Cecilia, and seemed to have been spoken with the view of enabling her to commence her work. “Yes,” she said,” but nevertheless he did go to Stratton. He went to Stratton, and there he became acquainted with my sister-in-law, Florence Burton.”
“I am aware of it, Mrs. Burton.”
“And he also became engaged to her.”
“I am aware of that, too. He has told me as much himself.”
“And has he told you whether he means to keep or to break that engagement?”
“Ah! Mrs. Burton, is that question fair? Is it fair either to him or to me? If he has taken me into his confidence and has not taken you, should I be doing well to betray him? Or if there can be anything in such a secret specially interesting to myself; why should I be made to tell it to you?”
“I think the truth is always the best, Lady Ongar.”
“Truth is always better than a lie — so at least people say, though they sometimes act differently; but silence may be better than either.”
“This is a matter, Lady Ongar, in which I cannot be silent. I hope you will not be vexed with me for coming to you, or for asking you these questions —”
“Oh dear, no.”
“But I can not be silent. My sister-in-law must at any rate know what is to be her fate.”
“Then why do you not ask him?”
“He is ill at present.”
“Ill! Where is he ill? Who says he is ill?” And Lady Ongar, though she did not quite leave her chair, raised herself up and forgot all her preparations. “Where is he, Mrs. Burton? I have not heard of his illness.”
“He is at Clavering — at the parsonage.”
“I have heard nothing of this. What ails him? If he be really ill, dangerously ill, I conjure you to tell me. But pray tell me the truth. Let there be no tricks in such a matter as this.”
“Tricks, Lady Ongar!”
“If Harry Clavering be ill, tell me what ails him. Is he in danger?”
“His mother, in writing to Florence, says that he is not in danger, but that he is confined to the house. He has been taken by some fever.” On that very morning Lady Ongar had received a letter from her sister, begging her to come to Clavering Park during the absence of Sir Hugh, but in the letter no word had been said as to Harry’s illness. Had he been seriously, or at least dangerously ill, Hermoine would certainly have mentioned it. All this flashed across Julia’s mind as these tidings about Harry reached her. If he were not really in danger, or even if he were, why should she betray her feeling before this woman? “If there had been much in it,” she said, resuming her former position and manners, “I should no doubt have heard of it from my sister.”
“We hear that it is not dangerous,” continued Mrs. Burton; “but he is away, and we cannot see him. And, in truth, Lady Ongar, we can not see him any more until we know that he means to deal honestly by us.”
“Am I the keeper of his honesty?”
“From what I have heard, I think you are. If you will tell me that I have heard falsely, I will go away and beg your pardon for my intrusion. But if what I have heard be true, you must not be surprised that I show this anxiety for the happiness of my sister. If you knew her, Lady Ongar, you would know that she is too good to be thrown aside with indifference.”
“Harry Clavering tells me that she is an angel — that she is perfect.”
“And if he loves her, will it not be a shame that they should be parted?”
“I said nothing about his loving her. Men are not always fond of perfection. The angels may be too angelic for this world.”
“He did love her.”
“So I suppose — or, at any rate, he thought that he did.”
“He did love her, and I believe he loves her still.”
“He has my leave to do so, Mrs. Burton.”
Cecilia, though she was somewhat afraid of the task which she had undertaken, and was partly awed by Lady Ongar’s style of beauty and demeanor, nevertheless felt that if she still hoped to do any good, she must speak the truth out at once. She must ask Lady Ongar whether she held herself to be engaged to Harry Clavering. If she did not do this, nothing could come of the present interview.
“You say that, Lady Ongar, but do you mean it?” she asked. “We have been told that you also are engaged to marry Mr. Clavering.”
“Who has told you so?”
“We have heard it. I have heard it, and have been obliged to tell my sister that I had done so.”
“And who told you? Did you hear it from Harry Clavering himself?”
“I did. I heard it in part from him.”
“Then why have you come beyond him to me? He must know. If he has told you that he is engaged to marry me, he must also have told you that he does not intend to marry Miss Florence Burton. It is not for me to defend him or to accuse him. Why do you come to me?”
“For mercy and forbearance,” said Mrs. Burton, rising from her seat and coming over to the side of the room in which Lady Ongar was seated.
“And Miss Burton has sent you?”
“No; she does not know that I am here; nor does my husband know it. No one knows it. I have come to tell you that before God this man is engaged to become the husband of Florence Burton. She has learned to love him, and has now no other chance of happiness.”
“But what of his happiness?”
“Yes, we are bound to think of that. Florence is bound to think of that above all things.”
“And so am I. I love him too — as fondly, perhaps, as she can do. I loved him first, before she had even heard his name.”
“But, Lady Ongar —”
“Yes, you may ask the question if you will, and I will answer it truly.” They were both standing now and confronting each other. “Or I will answer it without your asking it. I was false to him. I would not marry him because he was poor, and then I married another because he was rich. All that is true. But it does not make me love him the less now. I have loved him through it all. Yes, you are shocked, but it is true; I have loved him through it all. And what am I to do now, if he still loves me? I can give him wealth now.”
“Wealth will not make him happy.”
“It has not made me happy, hut it may help to do so with him. But with me, at any rate, there can be no doubt. It is his happiness to which I am bound to look. Mrs. Burton, if I thought that I could make him happy, and if he would come to me, I would marry him to-morrow, though I broke your sister’s heart by doing so. But if I felt that she could do so more than I, I would leave him to her though I broke my own. I have spoken to you very openly. Will she say as much as that?”
“She would act in that way. I do not know what she would say.”
“Then let her do so, and leave him to be the judge of his own happiness. Let her pledge herself that no reproaches shall come from her, and I will pledge myself equally. It was I who loved him first, and it is I who have brought him into this trouble. I owe him everything. Had I been true to him, he would never have thought of; never have seen Miss Florence Burton.”
All that was no doubt true, but it did not touch the question of Florence’s right. The fact on which Mrs. Burton wished to insist, if only she knew how, was this, that Florence had not sinned at all, and that Florence therefore ought not to bear any part of the punishment. It might be very true that Harry’s fault was to be excused in part because of Lady Ongar’s greater and primary fault, but why should Florence be the scapegoat?
“You should think of his honor as well as his happiness,” said Mrs. Burton at last.
“That is rather severe, Mrs. Burton, considering that it is said to me in my own house. Am I so low as that, that his honor will be tarnished if I become his wife?” But she, in saying this, was thinking of things of which Mrs. Burton knew nothing.
“His honor will be tarnished,” said she, “if he do not marry her whom he has promised to marry. He was welcomed by her father and mother to their house, and then he made himself master of her heart. But it was not his till he had asked for it, and had offered his own and his hand in return for it. Is he not bound to keep his promise? He can not be bound to you after any such fashion as that. If you are solicitous for his welfare, you should know that if he would live with the reputation of a gentleman, there is only one course open to him.”
“It is the old story,” said Lady Ongar; “the old story! Has not somebody said that the gods laugh at the perjuries of lovers? I do not know that men are inclined to be much more severe than the gods. These broken hearts are what women are doomed to bear.”
“And that is to be your answer to me, Lady Ongar?”
“No, that is not my answer to you. That is the excuse I make for Harry Clavering. My answer to you has been very explicit. Pardon me if I say that it has been more explicit than you had any right to expect. I have told you that I am prepared to take any step that may be most conducive to the happiness of the man whom I once injured, but whom I have always loved. I will do this, let it cost myself what it may; and I will do this, let the cost to any other woman be what it may. You can not expect that I should love another woman better than myself.” She said this, still standing, not without something more than vehemence in her tone. In her voice, in her manner and in her eye there was that which amounted almost to ferocity. She was declaring that some sacrifice must be made, and that she reeked little whether it should be of herself or of another. As she would immolate herself without hesitation if the necessity should exist, so would she see Florence Burton destroyed without a twinge of remorse if the destruction of Florence would serve the purpose which she had in view. You and I, oh reader, may feel that the man for whom all this was to be done was not worth the passion. He had proved himself to be very far from such worth. But the passion, nevertheless, was there, and the woman was honest in what she was saying.
After this, Mrs Burton got herself out of the room as soon as she found an opening which allowed her to go. In making her farewell speech, she muttered some indistinct apology for the visit which she had been bold enough to make. “Not at all,” said Lady Ongar. “You have been quite right; you are fighting your battle for the friend you love bravely; and were it not that the cause of the battle must, I fear, separate us hereafter, I should be proud to know one who fights so well for her friends. And when this is all over and has been settled, in whatever way it may be settled, let Miss Burton know from me that I have been taught to hold her name and character in the highest possible esteem.” Mrs. Burton made no attempt at further speech, but left the room with a low courtesy.
Till she found herself out in the street, she was unable to think whether she had done most harm or most good by her visit to Bolton Street; whether she had in any way served Florence, or whether she had simply confessed to Florence’s rival the extent of her sister’s misery. That Florence herself would feel the latter to be the case when she should know it all, Mrs. Burton was well aware. Her own ears had tingled with shame as Harry Clavering had been discussed as a grand prize for which her sister was contending with another woman, and contending with so small a chance of success. It was terrible to her that any woman dear to her should seem to seek for a man’s love. And the audacity with which Lady Ongar bad proclaimed her own feelings had been terrible also to Cecilia. She was aware that she was meddling with things which were foreign to her nature, and which would be odious to her husband. But yet, was not the battle worth fighting? It was not to be endured that Florence should seek after this thing; but, after all, the possession of the thing in question was the only earthly good that could give any comfort to poor Florence. Even Cecilia, with all her partiality for Harry, felt that he was not worth the struggle; but it was for her now to estimate him at the price which Florence might put upon him — not at her own price.
But she must tell Florence what had been done, and tell her on that very day of her meeting with Lady Ongar. In no other way could she stop that letter which she knew that Florence would have already written to Mrs. Clavering. And could she now tell Florence that there was ground for hope? Was it not the fact that Lady Ongar had spoken the simple and plain truth when she had said that Harry must be allowed to choose the course which appeared to him to be the best for him? It was hard, very hard, that it should be so. And was it not true also that men, as well as gods, excuse the perjuries of lovers? She wanted to have back Harry among them as one to be forgiven easily, to be petted much, and to be loved always; but, in spite of the softness of her woman’s nature, she wished that he might be punished sorely if he did not so return. It was grievous to her that he should any longer have a choice in the matter. Heavens and earth! was he to be allowed to treat a woman as he had treated Florence, and was nothing to come of it? In spite both of gods and men, the thing was so grievous to Cecilia Burton that she could not bring herself to acknowledge that it was possible. Such things had not been done in the world which she had known.
She walked the whole way home to Brompton, and had hardly perfected any plan when she reached her own door. If only Florence would allow her to write the letter to Mrs. Clavering, perhaps something might be done in that way. So she entered the house prepared to tell the story of her morning’s work.
And she must tell it also to her husband in the evening! It had been hard to do the thing without his knowing of it beforehand, but it would be impossible to her to keep the thing a secret from him now that it was done.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01