“Florence, I have been to Bolton Street, and I have seen Lady Ongar.” Those were the first words which Cecilia Burton spoke to her sister-in-law, when she found Florence in the drawing-room on her return from the visit which she had made to the countess. Florence had still before her the desk on which she had been writing; and the letter in its envelope, addressed to Mrs. Clavering, but as yet unclosed, was lying beneath her blotting-paper. Florence, who had never dreamed of such an undertaking on Cecilia’s part, was astounded at the tidings which she heard. Of course her first effort was made to learn from her sister’s tone and countenance what had been the result of this interview; but she could learn nothing from either. There was no radiance as of joy in Mrs. Burton’s face, nor was there written there anything of despair. Her voice was serious and almost solemn, and her manner was very grave, but that was all. “You have seen her?” said Florence, rising up from her chair.
“Yes, dear, I may have done wrong. Theodore, I know, will say so. But I thought it best to try to learn the truth before you wrote to Mrs. Clavering.”
“And what is the truth? But perhaps you have not learned it.”
“I think I have learned all that she could tell me. She has been very frank.”
“Well, what is the truth? Do not suppose, dearest, that I can not bear it. I hope for nothing now. I only want to have this settled, that I may be at rest.”
Upon this Mrs. Burton took the suffering girl in her arms and caressed her tenderly. “My love,” said she, “it is not easy for us to be at rest. You can not be at rest as yet.”
“I can. I will be so, when I know that this is settled. I do not wish to interfere with his fortune. There is my letter to his mother, and now I will go back to Stratton.”
“Not yet, dearest, not yet,” said Mrs. Burton, taking the letter in her hand, but refraining from withdrawing it at once from the envelope. “You must hear what I have heard to-day.”
“Does she say that she loves him?”
“Ah! yes — she loves him. We must not doubt that.”
“And he — what does she say of him?”
“She says what you also must say, Florence, though it is hard that it should be so. It must be as he shall decide.”
“No.” said Florence, withdrawing herself from the arm that was still around her, “no, it shall not be as he may choose to decide. I will not so submit myself to him. It is enough as it is. I will never see him more — never. To say that I do not love him would be untrue, but I will never see him again.”
“Stop, dear, stop. What if it be no fault of his?”
“No fault of his that he went to her when we — we — we — he and I— were, as we were, together!”
“Of course there has been some fault; but Flo, dearest, listen to me. You know that I would ask you to do nothing from which a woman should shrink.”
“I know that you would give your heart’s blood for me; hut nothing will be of avail now. Do not look at me with melancholy eyes like that. Cissy, it will not kill me. it is only the doubt that kills one.”
“I will not look at you with melancholy eyes, but you must listen to me. She does-not herself know what his intention is.”
“But I know it, and I know my own. Read my letter, Cissy. There is not one word of anger in it, nor will I ever utter a reproach. He knew her first. If he loved her through it all, it was a pity he could not be constant to his love, even though she was false to him.”
“But you won’t hear me, Flo. As far as I can learn the truth — as I myself most firmly believe-when he went to her on her return to England, he had no other intention than that of visiting an old friend.”
“But what sort of friend, Cissy?”
“He had no idea then of being untrue to you. But when he saw her, the old intimacy came back. That was natural. Thea he was dazzled by her beauty.”
“Is she then so beautiful?”
“She is very beautiful.”
“Let him go to her,” said Florence, tearing herself away from her sister’s arm, and walking across the room with a quick and almost angry step. “Let her have him. Cissy, there shall be an end of it. I will not condescend to solicit his love. If she is such as you say, and if beauty with him goes for everything, what chance could there be for such as me?”
“I did not say that beauty with him went for everything.”
“Of course it does. I ought to have known that it would be so with such a one as him. And then she is rich also — wonderfully rich! What right can I have to think of him?”
“Florence, you are unjust. You do not even suspect that it is her money.”
“To me it is the same thing. I suppose that a woman who is so beautiful has a right to everything. I know that I am plain, and I will be — content — in future — to think no more —” Poor Florence, when she had got as far as that, broke down, and could go on no further with the declaration which she had been about to make as to her future prospects. Mrs. Burton, taking advantage of this, went on with her story, struggling, not altogether unsuccessfully, to assume a calm tone of unimpassioned reason.
“As I said before, he was dazzled —”
“But even then he had no idea of being untrue to you.”
“No; he was untrue without an idea. That is worse.”
“Florence, you are perverse, and are determined to be unfair. I must beg that you will hear me to the end, so that then you may be able to judge what course you ought to follow.” This Mrs. Burton said with an air of great authority; after which she continued in a voice something less stern —” He thought of doing no injury to you when he went to see her; but something of the feeling of his old love grew upon him when he was in her company, and he became embarrassed by his position before he was aware of his own danger. He might, of course, have been stronger.” Here Florence exhibited a gesture of strong impatience, though she did not speak. “I am not going to defend him altogether, but I think you must admit that he was hardly tried. Of course I can not say what passed between them, but I can understand how easily they might recur to the old scenes — how naturally she would wish for a renewal of the love which she had been base enough to betray! She does not, however, consider herself as at present engaged to him. That you may know for certain. It may be that she has asked him for such a promise, and that he has hesitated. If so, his staying away from us, and his not writing to you, can be easily understood.”
“And what is it you would have me do?”
“He is ill now. Wait till he is well. He would have been here before this had not his illness prevented him. Wait till he comes.”
“I can not do that, Cissy. Wait I must, but I can not wait without offering him, through his mother, the freedom which I have so much reason to know that he desires.”
“We do not know that he desires it. We do not know that his mother even suspects him of any fault toward you. Now that he is there — at home — away from Bolton Street —”
“I do not care to trust to such influences as that, Cissy. If he could not spend this morning with her in her own house, and then, as he left her, feel that he preferred me to her, and to all the world, I would rather be as I am than take his hand. He shall not marry me from pity, nor yet from a sense of duty. We know the old story — how the Devil would be a monk when he was sick. I will not accept his sick-bed allegiance, or have to think that I owe my husband to a mother’s influence over him while he is ill.”
“You will make me think, Flo, that you are less true to him than she is.”
“Perhaps it is so. Let him have what good such truth as hers can do him. For me, I feel that it is my duty to be true to myself. I will not condescend to indulge my heart at the cost of my pride as a woman.”
“Oh, Florence, I hate that word pride.”
“You would not hate it for yourself in my place.”
“You need take no shame to love him.”
“Have I taken shame to love him?” said Florence, rising again from her chair. “Have I been missish or coy about my love? From the moment in which I knew that it was a pleasure to myself to regard him as my future husbnnd, I have spoken of my love as being always proud of it. I have acknowledged it as openly as you can do yours for Theodore. I acknowledge it still, and will never deny it. Take shame that I have loved him! No. But I should take to myself great shame should I ever be brought so low as to ask him for his love, when once I had learned to think that he had transferred it from myself to another woman.” Then she walked the length of the room, backward and forward, with hasty steps, not looking at her sister-in-law, whose eyes were now filled with tears. “Come, Cissy,” she then said, “we will make an end of this. Read my letter if you choose to read it — though indeed it is not worth reading — and then let me send it to the post.”
Mrs. Burton now opened the letter and read it very slowly. It was stern and almost unfeeling in the calmness of the words chosen; but in those words her proposed marriage with Harry Clavering was absolutely abandoned. “I know,” she said, “that your son is more warmly attached to another lady than he is to me, and under those circumstance; for his sake as well as for mine, it is necessary that we should part. Dear Mrs. Clavering, may I ask you to make him understand that he and I are never to recur to the past? If he will send me back any letters of mine — should any have been kept — and the little present which I once gave him, all will have been done which need be done, and all have been said which need be said. He will receive in a small parcel his own letters and the gifts which he has made me.” There was in this a tone of completeness — as of business absolutely finished — of a judgement admitting no appeal, which did not at all suit Mrs. Burton’s views. A letter, quite as becoming on the part of Florence, might, she thought, be written, which would still leave open a door for reconciliation. But Florence was resolved, and the letter was sent.
The part which Mrs. Burton had taken in this conversation had surprised even herself. She had been full of anger with Harry Clavering — as wrathful with him as her nature permitted her to be, and yet she had pleaded his cause with all her eloquence, going almost so far in her defence of him as to declare that he was blameless. And, in truth, she was prepared to acquit him of blame — to give him full absolution without penance — if only he could be brought back again into the fold. Her wrath against him would be very hot should he not so return; but all should be more than forgiven, if he would only come back, and do his duty with affectionate and patient fidelity. Her desire was, not so much that justice should be done, as that Florence should have the thing coveted, and that Florence’s rival should not have it. According to the arguments as arranged by her feminine logic, Harry Clavering would be all sight or all wrong according as he might at last bear himself. She desired success, and, if she could only be successful, was prepared to forgive every thing. And even yet she would not give up the battle, though she admitted to herself that Florence’s letter to Mrs. Clavering made the contest more difficult than ever. It might, however, be that Mrs. Clavering would be good enough, just enough, true enough, clever enough, to know that such a letter as this, coming from such a girl, and written under such circumstances, should be taken as meaning nothing. Most mothers would wish to see their sons married to wealth, should wealth throw itself in their way; but Mrs. Clavering, possibly, might not be such a mother as that.
In the mean time, there was before her the terrible necessity of explaining to her husband the step which she had taken without his knowledge, and of which she knew that she must tell him the history before she could sit down to dinner with him in comfort. “Theodore,” she said, creeping in out of her own chamber to his dressing-room, while he was washing his hands, “you mustn’t be angry with me, but I have done something to-day.”
“And why must I not be angry with you?”
“You know what I mean. You mustn’t be angry — especially about this — because I don’t want you to be.”
“That’s conclusive,” said he. It was manifest to her that he was in a good humor, which was a great blessing. He had not been tired with his work, as he was often wont to be, and was therefore willing to be playful.
“What do you think I’ve done?” said she. “I have been to Bolton Street, and have seen Lady Ongar.”
“I have, Theodore, indeed.”
Mr. Burton had been rubbing his face vehemently with a rough towel at the moment in which the communication had been made to him, and so strongly was he affected by it that he was stopped in his operation and brought to a stand in his movement, looking at his wife over the towel as he held it in both hands. “What on earth has made you do such a thing as that?” he said.
“I thought it best. I thought that I might hear the truth — and so I have. I could not bear that Florence should be sacrificed while any thing remained undone that was possible.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that you were going?”
“Well, my dear, I thought it better not. Of course I ought to have told you, but in this instance I thought it best just to go without the fuss of mentioning it.”
“What you really mean is, that if you had told me I should have asked you not to go.”
“And you were determined to have your own way.”
“I don’t think, Theodore, I care so much about my own way as some women do. I am sure I always think your opinion is better than my own — that is, in most things.”
“And what did Lady Ongar say to you?” He had now put down the towel, and was seated in his arm-chair, looking up into his wife’s face.
“It would be a long story to tell you all that she said.”
“Was she civil to you?”
“She was not uncivil. She is a handsome, proud woman, prone to speak out what she thinks, and determined to have her own way when it is possible; but I think that she intended to be civil to me personally.”
“What is her purpose now?”
“Her purpose is clear enough. She means to marry Harry Clavering if she can get him. She said so. She made no secret of what her wishes are.”
“Then, Cissy, let her marry him; and do not let us trouble ourselves further in the matter.”
“But Florence, Theodore! Think of Florence!”
“I am thinking of her, and I think that Harry Clavering is not worth her acceptance. She is as the traveller that fell among thieves. She is hurt and wounded, but not dead. It is for you to be the good Samaritan, but the oil which you should pour into her wounds is not a renewed hope as to that worthless man. Let Lady Ongar have him. As far as I can see, they are fit for each other.”
Then she went through with him, diligently, all the arguments which she had used with Florence, palliating Harry’s conduct, and explaining the circumstances of his disloyalty, almost as those circumstances had in truth occurred. “I think you are too hard on him,” she said. “You can’t be too hard on falsehood,” he replied. “No, not while it exists. But you would not be angry with a man forever because he should once have been false? But we do not know that he is false.” “Do we not?” said he. “But never mind; we must go to dinner now. Does Florence know of your visit?” Then, before she would allow him to leave his room, she explained to him what had taken place between herself and Florence, and told him of the letter that had been written to Mrs. Clavering. “She is right,” said he. “That way out of her difficulty is the best that is left to her.” But, nevertheless, Mrs. Burton was resolved that she would not as yet surrender.
Theodore Burton, when he reached the drawing-room, went up to his sister and kissed her. Such a sign of the tenderness of love was not common with him, for he was one of those who are not usually demonstrative in their affection. At the present moment he said nothing of what was passing in his mind, nor did she. She simply raised her face to meet his lips, and pressed his hand as she held it. What need was there of any further sign between them than this? Then they went to dinner, and their meal was eaten almost in silence. Almost every moment Cecilia’s eye was on her sister-in-law. A careful observer, had there been one there, might have seen this; but, while they remained together down stairs, there occurred among them nothing else to mark that all was not well with them.
Nor would the brother have spoken a word during the evening on the subject that was so near to all their hearts had not Florence led the way. When they were at tea, and when Cecilia had already made up her mind that there was to be no further discussion that night, Florence suddenly broke forth.
“Theodore,” she said, “I have been thinking much about it, and I believe I had better go home, to Stratton, to-morrow.”
“Oh, no,” said Cecilia, eagerly.
“I believe it will be better that I should,” continued Florence. “I suppose it is very weak in me to own it; but I am unhappy, and, like the wounded bird, I feel that it will be well that I should hide myself.”
Cecilia was at her feet in a moment. “Dearest Flo,” she said, “is not this your home as well as Stratton?”
“When I am able to be happy, it is. Those who have light hearts may have more homes than one, but it is not so with those whose hearts are heavy. I think it will be best for me to go.”
“You shall do exactly as you please,” said her brother. “in such a matter I will not try to persuade you. I only wish that we could tend to comfort you.”
“You do comfort me. If I know that you think I am doing right, that will cormfort me more than anything. Absolute and immediate comfort is not to be had when one is sorrowful.”
“No, indeed,” said her brother. “Sorrow should not be killed too quickly. I always think that those who are impervious to grief most be impervious also to happiness. If you have feelings capable of the one, you must have them capable also of the other.”
“You should, wait, at any rate, till you get an answer from Mrs. Clavering,” said Cecilia.
“I do not know that she has any answer to send to me.”
“Oh yes, she must answer you, if you will think of it. If she accepts what you have said —”
“She can not but accept it.”
“Then she must reply to you. There is something which you have asked her to send to you; and I think you should wait, at any rate, till it reaches you here. Mind, I do not think her answer will be of that nature, but it is clear that you should wait for it, whatever it may be.” Then Florence, with the concurrence of her brother’s opinion, consented to remain in London for a few days, expecting the answer which would be sent by Mrs. Clavering; and after that no further discussion took place as to her trouble.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55