At last came the night which Harry had fixed for his visit to Bolton Street. He had looked forward certainly with no pleasure to the interview, and, now that the time for it had come, was disposed to think that Lady Ongar had been unwise in asking for it. But he had promised that he would go, and there was no possible escape.
He dined that evening in Onslow Crescent, where he was now again established with all his old comfort. He had again gone up to the children’s nursery with Cecilia, had kissed them all in their cots, and made himself quite at home in the establishment. It was with them there as though there had been no dreadful dream about Lady Ongar. It was so altogether with Cecilia and Florence, and even Mr. Burton was allowing himself to be brought round to a charitable view of Harry’s character. Harry on this day had gone to the chambers in the Adelphi for an hour, and, walking away with Theodore Burton, had declared his intention of working like a horse. “If you were to say like a man, it would perhaps be better,” said Burton. “I must leave you to say that,” answered Harry; “for the present I will content myself with the horse.” Burton was willing to hope, and allowed himself once more to fill into his old pleasant way of talking about the business, as though there were no other subject under the sun so full of manifold interest. He was very keen at the present moment about Metropolitan railways, and was ridiculing the folly of those who feared that the railway projectors were going too fast. “But we shall never get any thanks,” he said. “When the thing has been done, and thanks are over due, people will look upon all our work so much as a matter of course that it will never occur to them to think that they owe us anything. They will have forgotten all their cautions, and will take what they get as though it were simply their due. Nothing astonishes me so much as the fear people feel before a thing is done when I join it with their want of surprise or admiration afterward.” In this way even Theodore Burton had resumed his terms of intimacy with Harry Clavering.
Harry had told both Cecilia and Florence of his intended visit to Bolton Street, and they had all become very confidential on the subject. In most such cases, we may suppose that a man does not say much to one woman of the love which another woman has acknowledged for himself. Nor was Harry Clavering at all disposed to make any such boast. But in this case, Lady Ongar herself had told everything to Mrs. Burton. She had declared her passion, and had declared also her intention of making Harry her husband if he would take her. Everything was known, and there was no possibility of sparing Lady Ongar’s name.
“If I had been her, I would not have asked for such a meeting,” Cecilia said. The three were at this time sitting together, for Mr. Burton rarely joined them in their conversation.
“I don’t know,” said Florence. “I do not see why she and Harry should not remain as friends.”
“They might be friends without meeting now,” said Cecilia.
“Hardly. If the awkwardness were not got over at once, it would never be got over. I almost think she is right, though if I was her I should long to have it over.” That was Florence’s judgment in the matter. Harry sat between them, like a sheep as he was, very meekly — not without some enjoyment of his sheepdom, but still feeling that he was a sheep. At half-past eight he started up, having already been told that a cab was waiting for him at the door. He pressed Cecilia’s hand as he went, indicating his feeling that he had before him an affair of some magnitude, and then, of course, had a word or two to say to Florence in private on the landing. Oh, those delicious private words, the need for which comes so often during those short halcyon days of one’s lifetime! They were so pleasant that Harry would fain have returned to repeat them after he was seated in his cab; but the inevitable wheels carried him onward with cruel velocity, and he was in Bolton Street before the minutes had sufficed for him to collect his thoughts.
Lady Ongar, when he entered the room, was sitting in her accustomed chair, near a little work-table which she always used, and did not rise to meet him. It was a pretty chair, soft and easy, made with a back for lounging, but with no arms to impede the circles of a lady’s hoops. Harry knew the chair well, and had spoken of sits graceful comfort in some of his visits to Bolton Street. She was seated there when he entered; and though he was not sufficiently experienccd in the secrets of feminine attire to know at once that she had dressed herself with care, he did perceive that she was very charming, not only by force of her own beauty, but by the aid also of her dress. And yet she was in deep mourning — in the deepest mourning; nor was there anything about her of which complaint might fairly be made by those who do complain on such subjects. Her dress was high round her neck, and the cap on her head was indisputably a widow’s cap; but enough of her brown hair was to be seen to tell of its rich loveliness; and the black dress was so made as to show the full perfection of her form; and with it all there was that graceful feminine brightness that care and money can always give, and which will not come without care and money. It might be well, she had thonght, to surrender her income, and become poor and dowdy hereafter, but there could be no reason why Harry Clavering should not be made to know all that he had lost.
“Well, Harry,” she said, as he stepped up to her and took her offered hand, “I am glad that you have come that I may congratulate you. Better late than never, eh, Harry?”
How was he to answer her when she spoke to him in this strain? “I hope it is not too late,” he said, hardly knowing what the words were which were coming from his mouth.
“Nay, that is for you to say. I can do it heartily, Harry, if you mean that. And why not? Why should I not wish you happy? I have always liked you — have always wished for your happiness. You believe that I am sincere when I congratulate you, do you not?”
“Oh yes, you are always sincere.”
“I have always been so to you. As to any sincerity beyond that, we need say nothing now. I have always been your good friend — to the best of my ability. Ah! Harry, you do not know how much I have thought of your welfare — how much I do think of it. But never mind that. Tell me something now of this Florence Burton of yours. Is she tall?” I believe that Lady Ongar, when she asked this question, knew well that Florence was short of stature.
“No, she is not tall,” said Harry.
“What — a little beauty? Upon the whole, I think I agree with your taste. The most lovely women that I have ever seen have been small, bright, and perfect in their proportions. It is very rare that a tall woman has a perfect figure.” Julie’s own figure was quite perfect. “Do you remember Constance Vane? Nothing ever exceeded her beauty.” Now Constance Vane — she, at least, who had in those days been Constance Vane, but who now was the stout mother of two or three children — had been a waxen doll of a girl, whom Harry had known, but had neither liked nor admired. But she was highly bred, and belonged to the cream of English fashion; she had possessed a complexion as pure in its tints as are the interior leaves of a blush rose, and she had never had a thought in her head, and hardly ever a word on her lips. She and Florence Burton were as poles asunder in their differences. Harry felt this at once, and had an indistinct notion that Lady Ongar was as well aware of the fact as was he himself. “She is not a bit like Constance Vane,” he said.
“Then what is she like? If she is more beautiful than what Miss Vane used to be, she must be lovely indeed.”
“She has no prentensions of that kind,” said Harry, almost sulkily.
“I have heard that she was so very beautiful!” Lady Ongar had never heard a word about Florence’s beauty — not a word. She knew nothing personally of Florence beyond what Mrs. Burton had told her. But who will not forgive her the little deceit that was necessary to her little revenge?
“I don’t know how to describe her,” said Harry. “I hope the time may soon come when you will see her, and be able to judge for yourself.”
“I hope so too. It shall not be my fault if I do not like her.”
“I do not think you can fail to like her. She is very clever, and that will go further with you than mere beauty. Not but what I think her very — very pretty.”
“Ah! I understand. She reads a great deal, and that sort of thing. Yes, that is very nice. But I shouldn’t have thought that that would have taken you. You used not to care much for talent and learning — not in women, I mean.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Harry, looking very foolish.
“But a contrast is what you men always like. Of course I ought not to say that, but you will know of what I am thinking. A clever, highly-educated woman like Miss Burton will be a much better companion to you than I could have been. You see I am very frank, Harry.” She wished to make him talk freely about himself; his future days, and his past days, while he was simply anxious to say on these subjects as little as possible. Poor woman! The excitement of having a passion which she might indulge was over with her — at any rate, for the present. She had played her game and had lost woefully; but before she retired altogether from the gaming-table she could not keep herself from longing for a last throw of the dice.
“These things, I fear, go very much by chance,” said Harry.
“You do not mean me to suppose that you are taking Miss Burton by chance. That would be as uncomplimentary to her as to yourself.”
“Chance, at any rate, has been very good to me in this instance.”
“Of that I am sure. Do not suppose that I am doubting that. It is not only the paradise that you have gained, but the pandemonium that you have escaped!” Then she laughed slightly, but the laughter was uneasy, and made her angry with herself. She had especially determined to be at ease during this meeting, and was conscious that any falling off in that respect on her part would put into his hands the power which she was desirous of exercising.
“You are determined to rebuke me, I see,” said he. “If you choose to do so, I am prepared to bear it. My defence, if I have a defence, is one that I can not use.”
“And what would be your defence?”
“I have said that I can not use it!”
“As if I did not understand it all! What you mean to say is this — that when your good stars sent you in the way of Florence Burton, you had been ill treated by her who would have made your pandemonium for you, and that she therefore — she who came first, and behaved so badly, can have no right to find fault with you in that you have obeyed your good stars and done so well for yourself. That is what you call your defence. It would be perfect, Harry, perfect, if you had only whispered to me a word of Miss Burton when I first saw you after my return home. It is odd to me that you should not have written to me and told me when I was abroad with my husband. It would have comforted me to have known that the wound which I had given had been cured — that is, if there was a wound.”
“You know that there was a wound.”
“At any rate, it was not mortal. But when are such wounds mortal? When are they more than skin-deep?”
“I can say nothing as to that now.”
“No, Harry, of course you can say nothing. Why should you be made to say anything? You are fortunate and happy, and have all that you want. I have nothing that I want.”
There was a reality in the tone of sorrow in which this was spoken which melted him at once, and the more so in that there was so much in her grief which could not but be flattering to his vanity. “Do not say that, Lady Ongar,” he exclaimed.
“But I do say it. What have I got in the world that is worth having? My posessions are ever so many thousands a year — and a damaged name.”
“I deny that. I deny it altogether. I do not think that there is one who knows of your story who believes ill of you.”
“I could tell you of one, Harry, who thinks very ill of me — nay, of two; and they are both in this room. Do you remember how you used to teach me that terribly conceited bit of Latin — Nil conscire sibi? Do you suppose that I can boast that I never grow pale as I think of my own fault? I am thinking of it always, and my heart is ever becoming paler and paler. And as to the treatment of others — I wish I could make you know what I suffered when I was fool enough to go to that place in Surrey. The coachman who drives me no doubt thinks that I poisoned my husband, and the servant who let you in just now supposes me to be an abandoned woman because you are here.”
“You will be angry with me, perhaps, if I say that these feelings are morbid and will die away. They show the weakness which has come from the ill usage you have suffered.”
“You are right in part, no doubt. I shall become hardened to it all, and shall fall into some endurable mode of life in time. But I can look forward to nothing. What future have I? Was there ever any one so utterly friendless as I am? Your kind cousin has done that for me; and yet he came here to me the other day, smiling and talking as though he were sure that I should be delighted by his condescension. I do not think that he will ever come again.”
“I did not know you had seen him.”
“Yes; I saw him, but I did not find much relief from his visit. We won’t mind that, however. We can talk about something better than Hugh Clavering during the few minutes that we have together — can we not? And so Miss Burton is very learned and very clever?”
“I did not quite say that.”
“But I know she is. What a comfort that will be to you! I am not clever, and I never should have become learned. Oh dear! I had but one merit, Harry — I was fond of you.”
“And how did you show it?” He did not speak these words, because he would not triumph over her, nor was he willing to express that regret on his own part which these words would have implied; but it was impossible for him to avoid a thought of them. He remained silent, therefore, taking up some toy from the table into his hands, as though that would occupy his attention.
“But what a fool I am talk of it — am I not? And I am worse than a fool. I was thinking of you when I stood up in church to be married — thinking of that offer of your little savings. I used to think of you at every harsh word that I endured — of your modes of life when I sat through those terrible nights by that poor creature’s bed — of you when I knew that the last day was coming. I thought of you always, Harry, when I counted up my gains. I never count them up now. Ah! how I thought of you when I came to this house in the carriage which you had provided for me, when I had left you at the station almost without speaking a word to you! I should have been more gracious had I not had you in my thoughts throughout my whole journey home from Florence. And after that I had some comfort in believing that the price of my shame might make you rich without shame. Oh, Harry, I have been disappointed! You will never understand what I felt when first that evil woman told me of Miss Burton.”
“Oh, Julia, what am I to say?”
“You can say nothing; but I wonder that you had not told me.”
“How could I tell you? Would it not have seemed that I was vain enough to have thought of putting you on your guard?”
“And why not? But never mind. Do not suppose that I am rebuking you. As I said in my letter, we are quits now, and there is no place for scolding on either side. We are quits now; but I am punished and you are rewarded.”
Of course he could not answer this. Of course he was hard pressed for words. Of course he could neither acknowledge that he had been rewarded, nor assert that a share of the punishment of which she spoke had fallen upon him also. This was the revenge with which she had intended to attack him. That she should think that he had in truth been punished and not rewarded, was very natural. Had he been less quick in forgetting her after her marriages he would have had his reward without any punishment. If such were her thoughts who shall quarrel with her on that account?
“I have been very frank with you,” she continued. “Indeed, why should I not be so? People talk of a lady’s secret, but my secret has been no secret from you? That I was made to tell it under — under — what I will call an error, was your fault, and it is that that has made us quits.”
“I know that I have behaved badly to you.”
“But then, unfortunately, you know also that I had deserved bad treatment. Well, we will say no more about it. I have been very candid with you, but then I have injured no one by my candor. You have not said a word to me in reply; but then your tongue is tied by your duty to Miss Burton — your duty and your love together, of course. It is all as it should he, and now I will have done. When are you to be married, Harry?”
“No time has been flied. I am a very poor man, you know.”
“Alas! alas! yes. When mischief is done, how badly all the things turn out. You are poor and I am rich, and yet we can not help each other.”
“I fear not.”
“Unless I could adopt Miss Burton, and be a sort of mother to her. You would shrink, however, from any such guardianship on my part. But you are clever, Harry, and can work when you please, and will make your way? If Miss Burton keeps you waiting now by any prudent fear on her part, I shall not think so well of her as I am inclined to do.”
“The Burtons are all prudent people.”
“Tell her, from me, with my love, not to be too prudent. I thought to be prudent, and see what has come of it.”
“I will tell her what you say.”
“Do, please; and, Harry, look here. Will she accept a little present from me? You, at any rate, for my sake, will ask her to do so. Give her this — it is only a trifle,” and she put her hand on a small jeweler’s box which was close to her arm upon the table, “and tell her — of course she knows all our story, Harry?”
“Yes, she knows it all.”
“Tell her that she whom you have rejected sends it with her kindest wishes to her whom you have taken.”
“No, I will not tell her that.”
“Why not? It is all true. I have not poisoned the little ring, as the ladies would have done some centuries since. They were grander then than we are now, and perhaps hardly worse, though more cruel. You will bid her take it, will you not?”
“I am sure she will take it without bidding on my part.”
“And tell her not to write me any thanks. She and I will both understand that that had better be omitted. If, when I shall see her at some future time as your wife, it shall be on her finger, I shall know that I am thanked.” Then Harry rose to go. “I did not mean by that to turn you out, but perhaps it may be as well. I have no more to say; and as for you, you can not but wish that the penance should be over.” Then he pressed her hand, and with some muttered farewell, bade her adieu. Again she did not rise from her chair, but, nodding at him with a sweet smile, let him go without another word.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14