Harry Clavering had spoken solemn words to his mother, during his illness, which both he and she regarded as a promise that Florence should not be deserted by him. After that promise nothing more was said between them on the subject for a few days. Mrs. Clavering was contented that the promise had been made, and Harry himself; in the weakneas consequent upon his illness, was willing enough to accept the excuse which his illness gave him for postponing any action in the matter. But the fever had left him, and he was sitting up in his mother’s room, when Florence’s letter reached the parsonage, and with the letter, the little parcel which she herself had packed up so carefully. On the day before that a few words had passed between the rector and his wife, which will explain the feelings of both of them in the matter.
“Have you heard,” said he, speaking in a voice hardly above a whisper, although no third person was in the room, “that Harry is again thinking of making Julia his wife?”
“He is not thinking of doing so,” said Mrs. Clavering. “They who say so do him wrong.”
“It would be a great thing for him as regards money.”
“But he is engaged — and Florence Burton has been received here as his future wife. I could not endure to think that it should be so. At any rate, it is not true.”
“I only tell you what I heard,” said the rector, gently sighing, partly in obedience to his wife’s implied rebuke, and partly at the thought that so grand a marriage should not be within his son’s reach. The rector was beginning to be aware that Harry would hardly make a fortune at the profession which he had chosen, and that a rich marriage would be an easy way out of all the difficulties which such a failure promised. The rector was a man who dearly loved easy ways out of difficulties. But in such matters as these his wife he knew was imperative and powerful, and he lacked the courage to plead for a cause that was prudent, but ungenerous.
When Mrs. Clavering received the letter and parcel on the next morning, Harry Clavering was still in bed. With the delightful privilege of a convalescent invalid, he was allowed in these days to get up just when getting up became more comfortable than lying in bed, and that time did not usually come till eleven o’clock was past; but the postman reached the Clavering parsonage by nine. The letter, as we know, was addressed to Mrs. Clavering herself, as was also the outer envelope which contained the packet; but the packet itself was addressed in Florence’s clear handwriting to Harry Clavering, Esq.
“That is a large parcel to come by post, mamma,” said Fanny.
“Yes, my dear; but it is something particular.”
“It’s from some tradesman, I suppose,” said the rector.
“No, it’s not from a tradesman,” said Mrs. Clavering. But she said nothing further, and both husband and daughter perceived that it was not intended that they should ask further questions.
Fanny, as usual, had taken her brother his breakfast, and Mrs. Clavering did not go up to him till that ceremony had been completed and removed. Indeed it was necessary that she should study Florence’s letter in her own room before she could speak to him about it. What the parcel contained she well knew, even before the letter had been thoroughly read; and I need hardly say that the treasure was sacred in her hands. When she had finished the perusal of the letter there was a tear — a gentle tear — in each eye. She understood it all, and could fathom the strength and weakness of every word which Florence had written. But she was such a woman — exactly such a woman — as Cecilia Burton had pictured to herself. Mrs. Clavering was good enough, great enough, true enough, clever enough to know that Harry’s love for Florence should be sustained, and his fancy for Lady Ongar overcome. At no time would she have been proud to see her son prosperous only in the prosperity of a wife’s fortune; but she would have been thoroughly ashamed of him had he resolved to pursue such prosperity under his present circumstances.
But her tears — though they were there in the corners of her eyes — were not painful tears. Dear Florence! She is suffering bitterly now. This very day would be a day of agony to her. There had been for her, doubtless, many days of agony during the past month. That the letter was true in all its words Mrs. Clavering did not doubt. That Florence believed that all was over between her and Harry, Mrs. Clavering was as sure as Florence had intended that she should be. But all should not be over, and the days of agony should soon be at an end. Her boy had promised her, and to her he had always been true. And she understood, too, the way in which these dangers had come upon him, and her judgment was not heavy upon her son — her gracious boy, who had ever been so good to her! It might be that he had been less diligent at his work than he should have been — that on that account further delay would still be necessary; but Florence would forgive that, and he had promised that Florence should not be deserted.
Then she took the parcel in her hands, and considered all its circumstances — how precious had once been its contents, and how precious doubtless they still were, though they had been thus repudiated! And she thought of the moments — nay, rather the hours — which had been passed in the packing of that little packet. She well understood how a girl would linger over such dear pain, touching the things over and over again, allowing herself to read morsels of the letters at which she had already forbidden herself even to look, till every word had been again seen and weighed, again caressed and again abjured. She knew how those little trinkets would have been fondled! How salt had been the tears that had fallen on them, and how carefully the drops would have been removed. Every fold in the paper of the two envelopes, with the little morsels of wax just adequate for their purpose, told of the lingering, painful care with which the work had been done. Ah! the parcel should go back at once with words of love that should put an end to all that pain. She who had sent these loved things away, should have her letters again, and should touch her little treasures with fingers that should take pleasure in the touching. She should again read her lover’s words with an enduring delight. Mrs. Clavering understood it all, as though she were still a girl with a lover of her own.
Harry was beginning to think that the time had come in which getting up would be more comfortable than lying in bed, when his mother knocked at his door and entered his room. “I was just going to make a move, mother,” he said, having reached that stage of convalescence in which some shame comes upon the idler.
“But I want to speak to you first, my dear,” said Mrs. Clavering. “I have got a letter for you, or rather a parcel.” Harry held out his hand, and, taking the packet, at once recognized the writing of the address.
“You know from whom it comes, Harry?”
“Oh yes, mother.”
“And do you know what it contains?” Harry, still holding the packet, looked at it, but said nothing. “I know,” said his mother, “for she has written and told me. Will you see her letter to me?” Again Harry held out his hand, but his mother did not at once give him the letter. “First of all, my dear, let us know that we understand each other. This dear girl — to me she is inexpressibly dear — is to be your wife.”
“Yes, mother, it shall be so.”
“That is my own boy! Harry, I have never doubted you — have never doubted that you would be right at last. Now you shall see her letter. But you must remember that she has had cause to make her unhappy.”
“I will remember.”
“Had you not been ill, every thing would of course have been all right before now.” As to the correctness of this assertion the reader probably will have doubts of his own. Then she handed him the letter, and sat on his bedside while he read it. At first he was startled, and made almost indignant at the firmness of the girl’s words. She gave him up as though it were a thing quite decided, and uttered no expression of her own regret in doing so. There was no soft woman’s wail in her words. But there was in them something which made him unconsciously long to get back the thing which he had so nearly thrown away from him. They inspired him with a doubt whether he might yet succeed, which very doubt greatly increased his desire. As he read the letter for the second time, Julia became less beautiful in his imagination; and the charm of Florence’s character became stronger.
“Well, dear,” said his mother, when she saw that he had finished the second reading of the epistle.
He hardly knew how to express, even to his mother, all his feelings — the shame that he felt, and with the shame something of indignation that he should have been so repulsed. And of his love, too, he was afraid to speak. He was willing enough to give the required assurance, but after that he would have preferred to have been left alone. But his mother could not leave him without some further word of agreement between them as to the course which they would pursue.
“Will you write to her, mother, or shall I?”
“I shall write, certainly — by to-day’s post. I would not leave her an hour, if I could help it, without an assurance of your unaltered affection.”
“I could go to town to-morrow, mother — could I not?”
“Not to-morrow, Harry. It would be foolish. Say on Monday.”
“And you will write to-day?”
“I will send a line also — just a line.”
“And the parcel?”
“I have not opened it yet.”
“You know what it contains. Send it back at once, Harry — at once. If I understand her feelings, she will not be happy till she gets it into her hands again. We will send Jem over to the post-office, and have it registered.”
When so much was settled, Mrs. Clavering went away about the affairs of her house, thinking as she did so of the loving words with which she would strive to give back happiness to Florence Burton.
Harry, when he was alone, slowly opened the parcel. He could not resist the temptation of doing this, and of looking again at the things which she had sent back to him. And he was not without an idea — perhaps a hope — that there might be with them some short note — some scrap containing a few words for himself. If he had any such hope he was disappointed. There were his own letters, all scented with lavender from the casket in which they had been preserved; there was the rich bracelet which had been given with some little ceremony, and the cheap brooch which he had thrown to her as a joke, and which she had sworn that she would value the most of all because she could wear it every day; and there was the pencil-case which he had fixed on to her watch-chain, while her fingers were touching his fingers, caressing him for his love while her words were rebuking him for his awkwardness. He remembered it all as the things lay strewed upon his bed. And he re-read every word of his own words. “What a fool a man makes of himself!” he said to himself at last, with something of the cheeriness of laughter about his heart. But as he said so he was quite ready to make himself a fool after the same fashion again, if only there were not in his way that difficulty of recommencing. Had it been possible for him to write again at once in the old strain, without any reference to his own conduct during the last month, he would have begun his fooling without waiting to finish his dressing.
“Did you open the parcel?” his mother asked him, some hour or so before it was necessary that Jem should be started on his mission.
“Yes, I thought it best to open it.”
“And have you made it up again?”
“Not yet, mother.”
“Put this with it, dear.” And his mother gave him a little jewel, a cupid in mosaic surrounded by tiny diamonds, which he remembered her to wear ever since he had first noticed the things she had worn. “Not from me, mind. I give it to you. Come — will you trust me to pack them?” Then Mrs. Clavering again made up the parcel, and added the trinket which she had brought with her.
Harry at last brought himself to write a few words.
DEAREST, DEAREST FLORENCE:— They will not let me out, or I would go to you at once. My mother has written, and though I have not seen her letter, I know what it contains. Indeed, indeed you may. believe it all. May I not venture to return the parcel? I do send it back, and implore you to keep it. I shall be in town, I think, on Monday, and will go to Onslow Crescent — instantly.
Your own, H. C.
Then there was scrawled a postscript which was worth all the rest put together — was better than his own note, better than his mother’s letter, better than the returned packet. “I love no one better than you — no one half so well — neither now, nor ever did.” These words, whether wholly true or only partially so, were at least to the point, and were taken by Cecilia Burton, when she heard of them, as a confession of faith that demanded instant and plenary absolution.
The trouble which had called Harry down to Clavering remained I regret to say, almost in full force now that his prolonged visit had been brought so near its close. Mr. Saul, indeed, had agreed to resign his curacy, and was already on the look-out for similar employment in some other parish. And, since his interview with Fanny’s father, he had never entered the rectory or spoken to Fanny. Fanny had promised that there should be no such speaking, and, indeed, no danger of that kind was feared. Whatever Mr. Saul might do, he would do openly — nay, audaciously. But, though there existed this security, nevertheless things as regarded Fanny were very unpleasant. When Mr. Saul had commenced his courtship, she had agreed with her family in almost ridiculing the idea of such a lover. There had been a feeling with her as with the others, that poor Mr. Saul was to be pitied. Then she had come to regard his overtures as matters of grave import — not, indeed, avowing to her mother anything so strong as a return of his affection, but speaking of his proposal as one to which there was no other objection than that of a want of money. Now, however, she went moping about the house as though she were a victim of true love, condemned to run unsmoothly forever — as though her passion for Mr. Saul were too much for her, and she were waiting in patience till death should relieve her from the cruelty of her parents. She never complained. Such victims never do complain. But she moped and was wretched, and when her mother questioned her, struggling to find out how strong this feeling might in truth be, Fanny would simply make her dutiful promises — promises which were wickedly dutiful — that she would never mention the name of Mr. Saul any more. Mr. Saul, in the mean time, went about his parish duties with grim energy, supplying the rector’s shortcomings without a word. He would have been glad to preach all the sermons and read all the services during these six months, had he been allowed to do so. He was constant in the schools — more constant than ever in his visitings. He was very courteous to Mr. Clavering when the necessities of their position brought them together. For all this, Mr. Clavering hated him — unjustly. For a man placed as Mr. Saul was placed, a line of conduct exactly level with that previously followed is impossible, and it was better that he should become more energetic in his duties than less so. It will be easily understood that all these things interfered much with the general happiness of the family at the rectory at this time.
The Monday came, and Harry Clavering, now convalescent, and simply interesting from the remaining effects of his illness, started on his journey for London. There had come no further letters from Onslow Terrace to the parsonage, and, indeed, owing to the intervention of Sunday, none could have come unless Florence had written by return of post. Harry made his journey, beginning with some promise of happiness to himself; but becoming somewhat uneasy as his train drew near to London. He had behaved badly, and he knew that in the first place he must own that he had done so. To men such a necessity is always grievous. Women not unfrequently like the task. To confess, submit, and be accepted as confessing and submitting, comes naturally to the feminine mind. The cry of peccavi sounds soft and pretty when made by sweet lips in a loving voice. But a man who can own that he has done amiss without a pang — who can so own it to another man, or even to a woman — is usually but a poor creature. Harry must now make such confession, and therefore he became uneasy. And then, for him, there was another task behind the one which he would be called upon to perform this evening — a task which would have nothing of pleasantness in it to redeem its pain. He must confess not only to Florence — where his confession might probably have its reward — but he must confess also to Julia. This second confession would, indeed, be a hard task to him. That, however was to be postponed till the morrow. On this evening he had pledged himself that he would go direct to Onslow Terrace, and this he did as soon after he had reached his lodgings as was possible. It was past six when he reached London, and it was not yet eight when, with palpitating heart, he knocked at Mr. Burton’s door.
I must take the reader back with me for a few minutes, in order that we may see after what fashion the letters from Clavering were received by the ladies in Onslow Terrace. On that day Mr. Burton had been required to go out of London by one of the early trains, and had not been in the house when the postman came. Nothing had been said between Cecilia and Florence as to their hopes or fears in regard to an answer from Clavering — nothing, at least, since that conversation in which Florence had agreed to remain in London for yet a few days; but each of them was very nervous on the matter. Any answer, if sent at once from Clavering, would arrive on this morning, and, therefore, when the well-known knock was heard, neither of them was able to maintain her calmness perfectly. But yet nothing was said, nor did either of them rise from her seat at the breakfast table. Presently the girl came in with apparently a bundle of letters, which she was still sorting when she entered the room. There were two or three for Mr. Burton, two for Cecilia, and then two besides the registered packet for Florence. For that a receipt was needed, and as Florence had seen the address and recognized the writing, she was hardly able to give her signature. As soon as the maid was gone Cecilia could keep her seat no longer. “I know those are from Clavering,” she said, rising from her chair, and coming round to the side of the table. Florence instinctively swept the packet into her lap, arid, leaning forward, covered the letters with her hands. “Oh, Florence, let us see them — let us see them at once. If we are to be happy, let us know it.” But Florence paused, still leaning over her treasures, and hardly daring to show her burning face. Even yet it might be that she was rejected. Then Cecilia went back to her seat, and simply looked at her sister with beseeching eyes. “I think I’ll go up stairs,” said Florence. “Are you afraid of me, Flo?” Cecilia answered reproachfully. “Let me see the outside of them.” Then Florence brought them round the table, and put them into her sister’s hands. “May I open this one from Mrs. Clavering?” Florence nodded her head. Then the seal was broken, and in one minute the two women were crying in each other’s arms. “I was quite sure of it,” said Cecilia, through her tears —” perfectly sure. I never doubted it for a moment. How could you have talked of going to Stratton?” At last Florence got herself away up to the window, and gradually mustered courage to break the envelope of her lover’s letter. It was not at once that she showed the postscript to Cecilia, nor at once that the packet was opened. That last ceremony she did perform in the solitude of her own room. But before the day was over the postscript had been shown, and the added trinket had been exhibited. “I remember it well,” said Florence. “Mrs. Clavering wore it on her forehead when we dined at Lady Clavering’s.” Mrs. Burton in all this saw something of the gentle persuasion which the mother had used, but of that she said nothing. That he should be back again, and should have repented, was enough for her.
Mr. Burton was again absent when Harry Clavering knocked in person at the door, but on this occasion his absence had been specially arranged by him with a view to Harry’s comfort. “He won’t want to see me this evening,” he had said. “Indeed, you’ll all get along a great deal better without me.” He therefore had remained away from home, and, not being a club man, had dined most uncomfortably at an eating-house. “Are the ladies at home?” Harry asked, when the door was opened. Oh yes, they were at home. There was no danger that they should be found out on such an occasion as this. The girl looked at him pleasantly, calling him by his name as she answered him, as though she too desired to show him that he had again been taken into favor — into her favor as well as that of her mistress.
He hardly knew what he was doing as he ran up the steps to the drawing-room. He was afraid of what was to come, but nevertheless he rushed at his fate as some young soldier rushes at the trench in which he feels that he may probably fall. So Harry Clavering hurried on, and before he had looked round upon the room which he had entered, found his fate with Florence on his bosom.
Alas! alas! I fear that justice was outraged in the welcome that Harry received on that evening. I have said that he would be called upon to own his sins, and so much, at least, should have been required of him. But he owned no sin. I have said that a certain degradation must attend him in that first interview after his reconciliation. Instead of this, the hours that he spent that evening in Onslow Terrace were hours of one long ovation. He was, as it were, put upon a throne as a king who had returned from his conquest, and those two women did him honor, almost kneeling at his feet. Cecilia was almost as tender with him as Florence, pleading to her own false heart the fact of his illness as his excuse. There was something of the pallor of the sick-room left with him — a slight tenuity in his hands and brightness in his eye which did him yeoman’s service. Had he been quite robust, Cecilia might have felt that she could not justify to herself the peculiar softness of her words. After the first quarter of an hour he was supremely happy. His awkwardness had gone, and as he sat with his arm round Florence’s waist, he found that the little pencil-case had again been attached to her chain, and as he looked down upon her he saw that the cheap brooch was again on her breast. It would have been pretty, could an observer have been there, to see the skill with which they both steered clear of any word or phrase which could be disagreeable to him. One might have thought that it would have been impossible to avoid all touch of a rebuke. The very fact that he was forgiven would seem to imply some fault that required pardon. But there was no hint at any fault. The tact of women excels the skill of men and so perfect was the tact of these, that not a word was said which wounded Harry’s ear. He had come again into their fold, and they were rejoiced and showed their joy. He who had gone astray had repented, and they were beautifully tender to the repentant sheep.
Harry staid a little too long with his love — a little longer, at least, than had been computed, and, in consequence, met Theodore Burton in the Crescent as he was leaving it. This meeting could hardly be made without something of pain, and perhaps it was well for Harry that he should have such an opportunity as this for getting over it quickly. But when he saw Mr. Burton under the bright gas-lamp, he would very willingly have avoided him, had it been possible.
“Well, Harry,” said Burton, giving his hand to the repentant sheep.
“How are you, Burton?” said Harry, trying to speak with an unconcerned voice. Then, in answer to an inquiry as to his health, he told of his own illness, speaking of that confounded fever having made him very low. He intended no deceit, but he made more of the fever than was necessary.
“When will you come back to the shop?” Burton asked. It must be remembered that, though the brother could not refuse to welcome back to his home his sister’s lover, still he thought that the engagement was a misfortune. He did not believe in Harry as a man of business, and had almost rejoiced when Florence had been so nearly quit of him. And now there was a taint of sarcasm in his voice as he asked as to Harry’s return to the chambers in the Adeiphi.
“I can hardly quite say as yet,” said Harry, still pleading his illness. “They were very much against my coming up to London so soon. Indeed, I should not have done it had I not felt so very — very anxious to see Florence. I don’t know, Burton, whether I ought to say anything to you about that.”
“I suppose you have said what you had to say to the women.”
“Oh yes. I think they understand me completely, and I hope that I understand them.”
“In that case, I don’t know that you need say anything to me. Come to the Adelphi as soon as you can — that’s all. I never think myself that a man becomes a bit stronger after an illness by remaining idle.” Then Harry passed on, and felt that he had escaped easily in that interview.
But as he walked home he was compelled to think of the step which he must next take. When he had last seen Lady Ongar he had left her with a promise that Florence was to be deserted for her sake. As yet that promise would by her be supposed to be binding. Indeed, he had thought it to be binding on himself till he had found himself under his mother’s influence at the parsonage. During his last few weeks in London he had endured an agony of doubt, but in his vacillations the pendulum had always veered more strongly toward Bolton Street than to Onslow Crescent. Now the swinging of the pendulum had ceased altogether. From henceforth Bolton Street must be forbidden ground to him, and the sheepfold in Onslow Crescent must be his home till he should have established a small peculiar fold for himself. But, as yet, he had still before him the task of communicating his final decision to the lady in Bolton Street. As he walked home he determined that he had better do so in the first place by letter, and so eager was he as to the propriety of doing this at once, that on his return to his lodgings he sat down and wrote the letter before he went to his bed. It was not very easily written. Here, at any rate, he had to make those confessions of which I have before spoken — confessions which it may be less difficult to make with pen and ink than with spoken words, but which, when so made, are more degrading. The word that is written is a thing capable of permanent life, and lives frequently to the confusion of its parent. A man should make his confessions always by word of mouth, if it be possible. Whether such a course would have been possible to Harry Clavering may be doubtful. It might have been that in a personal meeting the necessary confession would not have got itself adequately spoken. Thinking, perhaps, of this, he wrote his letter as follows on that night:
BLOOMSBURY SQUARE, July, 186-.
The date was easily written, but how was he to go on after that? In what form of affection or indifference was he to address her whom he had at that last meeting called his own, his dearest Julia? He got out of his difficulty ill the way common to ladies and gentlemen under such stress, and did not address her by any name or any epithet. The date he allowed to remain, and then he went away at once to the matter of his subject.
I feel that I owe it you at once to tell you what has been my history during the last few weeks. I came up from Clavering to-day, and have since that been with Mrs. and Miss Burton. Immediately on my return from them I sit down to write you.
After having said so much, Harry probably felt that the rest of his letter would be surplusage. Those few words would tell her all that it was required that she should know. But courtesy demanded that he should say more, and he went on with his confession.
You know that I became engaged to Miss Burton soon after your own marriage. I feel now that I should have told you this when we first met; but yet, had I done so, it would have seemed as though I told it with a special object. I don’t know whether I make myself understood in this. I can only hope that I do so.
Understood! Of course she understood it all. She required no blundering explanation from him to assist her intelligence.
I wish now that I had mentioned it. It would have been better for both of us. I should have been saved much pain, and you, perhaps, some uneasiness.
I was called down to Clavering a few weeks ago about some business in the family, and then became ill, so that I was confined to my bed instead of returning to town. Had it not been for this I should not have left you so long in suspense — that is, if there has been suspense. For myself, I have to own that I have been very weak — worse than weak, I fear you will think. I do not know whether your old regard for me will prompt you to make any excuse for me, but I am well sure that I can make none for myself which will not have suggested itself to you without my urging it. If you choose to think that I have been heartless — or, rather, if you are able so to think of me, no words of mine, written or spoken now, will remove that impression from your mind.
I believe that I need write nothing further. You will understand from what I have said all that I should have to say were I to refer at length to that which has passed between us. All that is over now, and it only remains for me to express a hope that you may be happy. Whether we shall ever see each other again, who shall say? but if we do I trust that we may not meet as enemies. May God bless you here and hereafter.
When the letter was finished, Harry sat for a while by his open window looking at the moon, over the chimney-pots of his square, aud thinking of his career in life as it had hithertho been fulfilled. The great promise of his earlier days had not been kept. His plight in the world was now poor enough, though his hopes had been so high. He was engaged to be married, but had no income on which to marry. He had narrowly escaped great wealth. Ah! it was hard for him to think of that without a regret; but he did strive so to think of it. Though he told himself that it would have been evil for him to have depended on money which had been procured by the very act which had been to him an injury — to have dressed himself in the feathers which had been plucked from Lord Ongar’s wings — it was hard for him to think of all he had missed, and rejoice thoroughly that he had missed it. But he told himself that he so rejoiced, and endeavored to be glad that he had not soiled his hands with riches which never would have belonged to the woman he had loved had she not earner them by being false to him. Early on the following morning he sent off his letter, and then, putting himself into a cab, bowled down to Onslow Crescent. The sheepfold was now very pleasant to him when the head shepherd was away, and so much gratification it was natural that he should allow himself.
That evening, when he came from his club, he found a note from Lady Ongar. It was very short, and the blood rushed to his face as he felt ashamed at seeing with how much apparent ease she had answered him. He had written with difficulty, and had written awkwardly. But there was nothing awkward in her words:
DEAR HARRY:— We are quits now. I do not know why we should ever meet as enemies. I shall never feel myself to he an enemy of yours. I think it would be well that we should see each other, and, if you have no objection to seeing me, I will be at home any evening that you may call. Indeed, I am at home always in the evening. Surely, Harry, there can be no reason why we should not meet. You need not fear that there will be danger in it.
Will you give my compliments to Miss Florence Burton, with my best wishes for her happiness? Your Mrs. Burton I have seen — as you may have heard, and I congratulate you on your friend. Yours always, J. 0.
The writing of this letter seemed to have been easy enough, and certainly there was nothing in it that was awkward; but I think that the writer had suffered more in the writing than Harry had done in producing his longer epistle. But she had known how to hide her suffering, and had used a tone which told no tale of her wounds. We are quits now, she had said, and she had repeated the words over and over again to herself as she walked up and down her room. Yes, they were quits now, if the reflection of that fact could do her any good. She had ill-treated him in her early days; but, as she had told herself so often, she had served him rather than injured him by that ill-treatment. She had been false to him; but her falsehood had preserved him from a lot which could not have been fortunate. With such a clog as she would have been round his neck — with such a wife, without a shilling of fortune, how could he have risen in the world? No! Though she had deceived him, she had served him. Then, after that, had come the tragedy of her life, the terrible days in thinking of which she still shuddered, the days of her husband and Sophie Gordeloup — that terrible death-bed, those attacks upon her honor, misery upon misery, as to which she never now spoke a word to any one, and as to which she was resolved she never would speak again. She had sold herself for money, and had got the price, but the punishment of her offence had been very heavy. And now, in these latter days, she had thought to compensate the man she had loved for the treachery with which she had used him. That treachery had been serviceable to him, but not the less should the compensation be very rich. And she would love him too. Ah! yes, she had always loved him. He should have it all now — every thing, if only he would consent to forget that terrible episode in her life, as she would strive to forget it. All that should remain to remind them of Lord Ongar would be the wealth that should henceforth belong to Harry Clavering. Such had been her dream, and Harry had come to her with words of love which made it seem to be a reality. He had spoken to her words of love which he was now forced to withdraw, and the dream was dissipated. It was not to be allowed to her to escape her penalty so easily as that! As for him, they were now quits. That being the case, there could be no reason why they should quarrel.
But what now should she do with her wealth, and especially how should she act in respect to that place down in the country? Though she had learned to hate Ongar Park during her solitary visit there, she had still looked forward to the pleasure the property might give her when she should be able to bestow it upon Harry Clavering. But that had been part of her dream, and the dream was now over. Through it all she had been conscious that she might hardly dare to hope that the end of her punishment should come so soon — and now she knew that it was not come. As far as she could see, there was no end to the punishment in prospect for her. From her first meeting with Harry Clavering on the platform of the railway station, his presence, or her thoughts of him, had sufficed to give some brightness.to her life — had enabled her to support the friendship of Sophie Gordeloup, and also to support her solitude when poor Sophie had been banished. But now she was left without any resource. As she sat alone, meditating on all this, she endeavored to console herself with the repetition that, after all, she was the one whom Harry loved — whom Harry would have chosen had he been free to choose. But the comfort to be derived from that was very poor. Yes, he had loved her once — nay, perhaps he loved her still. But when that love was her own she had rejected it. She had rejected it, simply declaring to him, to her friends, and to the world at large, that she preferred to be rich. She had her reward, and, bowing her head upon her hands, she acknowledged that the punishment was deserved.
Her first step after writing her note to Harry was to send for Mr. Turnbull, her lawyer. She had expected to see Harry on the evening of the day on which she had written, but instead of that she received a note from him in which he said that he would come to her before long. Mr. Turnbull was more instant in obeying her commands, and was with her on the morning after he received her injunction. He was almost a perfect stranger to her, having only seen her once, and that for a few moments after her return to England. Her marriage settlements had been prepared for her by Sir Hugh’s attorney; but during her sojourn in Florence it had become necessary that she should have some one in London to look after her own affairs, and Mr. Turnbull had been recommended to her by lawyers employed by her husband. He was a prudent, sensible man, who recognized it to be his imperative interest to look after his client’s interest. And he had done his duty by Lady Ongar in that trying time immediately after her return. An offer had then been made by the Courton family to give Julia her income without opposition if she would surrender Ongar Park. To this she had made objections with indignation, and Mr. Turnbull, though he had at first thought that she would be wise to comply with the terms proposed, had done her work for her with satisfactory expedition. Since those days she had not seen him, but now she had summoned him, and he was with her in Bolton Street.
“I want to speak to you, Mr. Turnbull,” she said, “about that place down in Surrey. I don’t like it.”
“Not like Ongar Park?” he said, “I have always heard that it is so charming.”
“It is not charming to me. It is a sort of property that I don’t want, and I mean to give it up.”
“Lord Ongar’s uncles would buy your interest in it, I have no doubt.”
“Exactly. They have sent to me, offering to do so. My brother-in.law, Sir Hugh Clavering, called on me with a message from them saying so. I thought that he was very foolish to come, and so I told him. Such things should be done by one’s lawyers. Don’t you think so, Mr. Turnbull?” Mr. Turnbull smiled as he declared that, of course, he, being a lawyer, was of that opinion. “I am afraid they will have thought me uncivil,” continued Julia, “as I spoke rather brusquely to Sir Hugh Clavering. I am not inclined to take any steps through Sir Hugh Clavering, but I do not know that I have any reason to be angry with the little lord’s family.”
“Really, Lady Ongar, I think not. When your ladyship returned there was some opposition thought of for a while, but I really do not think it was their fault.”
“No, it was not their fault.”
“That was my feeling at the time; it was, indeed.”
“It was the fault of Lord Ongar — of my husband. As regards all the Courtons, I have no word of complaint to make. It is not to be expected — it is not desirable that they and I should be friends. It is impossible, after what has passed, that there should be such friendship. But they have never injured me, and I wish to oblige them. Had Ongar Park suited me, I should doubtless have kept it; but it does not suit me, and they are welcome to have it back again.
“Has a price been named, Lady Ongar?”
“No price need be named. There is to be no question of a price. Lord Ongar’s mother is welcome to the place — or rather to such interest as I have in it.”
“And to pay a rent?” suggested Mr. Turnbull.
“To pay no rent. Nothing would induce me to let the place, or to sell my right in it. I will have no bargain about it. But as nothing also will induce me to live there, I am not such a dog in the manger as to wish to keep it. If you will have the kindness to see Mr.Courton’s lawyer, and to make arrangements about it.”
“But, Lady Ongar, what you call your right in the estate is worth over twenty thousand pounds — it is, indeed. You could borrow twenty thousand pounds on the security of it to-morrow.”
“But I don’t want to borrow twenty thousand pounds.”
“No, no, exactly — of course you don’t. But I point out that fact to show the value. You would be making a present of that sum of money to people who do not want it — who have no claim upon you. I really don’t see how they could take it.”
“Mrs. Courton wishes to have the place very much.”
“But, my lady, she has never thought of getting it without paying for it. Lady Ongar, I really can not advise you to take any such step as that — indeed, I can not. I should be wrong, as your lawyer, if I did not point out to you that such a proceeding would be quite romantic — quite so — what the world would call Quixotic. People don’t expect such things as that — they don’t, indeed.”
“People don’t often have such reasons as I have,” said Lady Ongar. Mr. Turnbull sat silent for a while, looking as though he were unhappy. The proposition made to him was one which, as a lawyer, he felt to be very distasteful to him. He knew that his client had no male friends in whom she confided, and he felt that the world would blame him if he allowed this lady to part with her property in the way she had suggested. “You will find that I am in earnest,” she continued, smiling, “and you may as well give way to my vagaries with a good grace.”
“They would not take it, Lady Ongar.”
“At any rate, we can try them. If you will make them understand that I don’t at all want the place, and that it will go to rack and ruin because there is no one to live there, I am sure they will take it.”
Then Mr. Turnbull again sat silent and unhappy, thinking with what words he might best bring forward his last and strongest argument against this rash proceeding.
“Lady Ongar,” he said, “in your peculiar position, there are double reasons why you should not act in this way.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Turnbull? What is my peculiar position?”
“The world will say that you have restored Ongar Park because you were afraid to keep it. Indeed, Lady Ongar, you had better let it remain as it is.”
“I care nothing for what the world says,” she exclaimed, rising quickly from her chair —“nothing, nothing!”
“You should really hold by your rights — you should, indeed. Who can possibly say what other interests may be concerned? You may marry, and live for the next fifty years, and have a family. It is my duty, Lady Ongar, to point out these things to you.”
“I am sure you are quite right, Mr. Turnbull.” she said, struggling to maintain a quiet demeanor. “You, of course, are only doing your duty. But whether I marry or whether I remain as I am, I shall give up this place. And as for what the world, as you call it, may say, I will not deny that I cared much for that on my immediate return. What people said then made me very unhappy. But I care nothing for it now. I have established my rights, and that has been sufficient. To me it seems that the world, as you call it, has been civil enough in its usage of me lately. It is only of those who should have been my friends that I have a right to complain. If you will please to do this thing for me, I will be obliged to you.”
“If you are quite determined about it —”
“I am quite determined. What is the use of the place to me? I never shall go there. What is the use even of the money that comes to me? I have no purpose for it. I have nothing to do with it.”
There was something in her tone as she said this which well filled him with pity.
“You should remember,” he said, “how short a time it is since you became a widow. Things will be different with you soon.”
“My clothes will be different, if you mean that,” she answered, “but I do not know that there will be any other change in me. But I am wrong to trouble you with all this. If you will let Mr. Courton’s lawyer know, with my compliments to Mrs. Courton, that I have heard that she would like to have the place, and that I do not want it, I will be obliged to you.” Mr. Turnbull having by this time perceived that she was quite in earnest, took his leave, having promised to do her bidding.
In this interview she had told her lawyer only a part of the plan which was now running in her head. As for giving up Ongar Park, she took to herself no merit for that. The place had been odious to her ever since she had endeavored to establish herself there, and had found that the clergyman’s wife would not speak to her — that even her own housekeeper would hardly condescend to hold converse with her. She felt that she would be a dog in the manger to keep the place in her possession. But she had thoughts beyond this — resolutions only as yet half formed as to a wider surrender. She had disgraced herself, ruined herself; robbed herself of all happiness by the marriage she had made. Her misery had not been simply the misery of that lord’s lifetime. As might have been expected, that was soon over. But an enduring wretchedness had come after that from which she saw no prospect of escape. What was to be her future life, left as she was and would be, in desolation? If she were to give it all up — all the wealth that had been so ill-gotten — might there not then be some hope of comfort for her?
She had been willing enough to keep Lord Ongar’s money, and use it for the purposes of her own comfort, while she had still hoped that comfort might come from it. The remembrance of all that she had to give had been very pleasant to her, as long as she had hoped that Harry Clavering would receive it at her hands. She had not at once felt that the fruit had all turned to ashes. But now — now that Harry was gone from her — now that she had no friend left to her whom she could hope to make happy by her munificence, the very knowledge of her wealth was a burden to her. And as she thought of her riches in these first days of her desertion, as she had indeed been thinking since Cecilia Burton had been with her, she came to understand that she was degraded by their acquisition. She had done that which had been unpardonably bad, and she felt like Judas when he stood with the price of his treachery in his hand. He had given up his money, and would not she do as much? There had been a moment in which she had nearly declared all her purpose to the lawyer, but she was held back by the feeling that she ought to make her plans certain before she communicated them to him.
She must live. She could not go out and hang herself as Judas had done. And then there was her title and rank, of which she did not know whether it was within her power to divest herself. She sorely felt the want of some one from whom in her present need she might ask counsel; of some friend to whom she could trust to tell her in what way she might now best atone for the evil she had done. Plans ran through her head which were thrown aside almost as soon as made, because she saw that they were impracticable. She even longed in these days for her sister’s aid, though of old she had thought but little of Hermy as a counsellor. She had no friend whom she might ask — unless she might still ask Harry Clavering.
If she did not keep it all, might she still keep something — enough for decent life — and yet comfort herself with the feeling that she had expiated her sin? And what would be said of her when she had made this great surrender? Would not the world laugh at her instead of praising her — that world as to which she had assured Mr. Turnbull that she did not care what its verdict about her might be? She had many doubts. Ah! why had not Harry Clavering remained true to her? But her punishment had come upon her with all its severity, and she acknowledged to herself now that it was not to be avoided.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01