But Sir Hugh did not get away from Clavering Park on the next morning, as he had intended. There came to him that same afternoon a message by telegraph, to say that Lord Ongar was dead. He had died at Florence on the afternoon of Christmas-day, and Lady Ongar had expressed her intention of coming at once to England.
“Why the devil doesn’t she stay where she is?” said Sir Hugh, to his wife. “People would forget her there, and in twelve months time the row would be all over.”
“Perhaps she does not want to be forgotten,” said Lady Clavering.
“Then she should want it. I don’t care whether she has been guilty or not. When a woman gets her name into such a mess as that, she should keep in the background.”
“I think you are unjust to her, Hugh.”
“Of course you do. You don’t suppose that I expect anything else. But if you mean to tell me that there would have been all this row if she had been decently prudent, I tell you that you’re mistaken.”
“Only think what a man he was.”
She knew that when she took him, and should have borne with him while he lasted. A woman isn’t to have seven thousand a year for nothing.”
“But you forget that not a syllable has been proved against her, or been attempted to be proved. She has never left him, and now she has been with him in his last moments. I don’t think you ought to be the first to turn against her.”
“If she would remain abroad, I would do the best I could for her. She chooses to return home; and as I think she’s wrong, I won’t have her here — that’s all. You don’t suppose that I go about the world accusing her?”
“I think you might do something to fight her battle for her.”
“I will do nothing — unless she takes my advice and remains abroad. You must write to her now, and you will tell her what I say. It’s an infernal bore, his dying at this moment; but I suppose people won’t expect that I’m to shut myself up.”
For one day only did the baronet shut himself up, and on the following he went whither he had before intended.
Lady Clavering thought it proper to write a line to the rectory, informing the family there that Lord Ongar was no more. This she did in a note to Mrs. Clavering; and when it was received, there came over the faces of them all that lugubrious look, which is, as a matter of course, assumed by decorous people when tidings come of the death of any one who has been known to them, even in the most distant way. With the exception of Harry, all the rectory Claverings had been introduced to Lord Ongar, and were now bound to express something approaching to sorrow. Will any one dare to call this hypocrisy? If it be so called, who in the world is not a hypocrite? Where is the man or woman who has not a special face for sorrow before company? The man or woman who has no such face, would at once be accused of heartless impropriety.
“It is very sad,” said Mrs. Clavering; “only think, it is but little more than a year since you married them!”
“And twelve such months as they have been for her!” said the Rector, shaking his head. His face was very lugubrious, for though as a parson he was essentially a kindly, easy man, to whom humbug was odious, and who dealt little in the austerities of clerical denunciation, still he had his face of pulpit sorrow for the sins of the people — what I may perhaps call his clerical knack of gentle condemnation — and could therefore assume a solemn look, and a little saddened motion of his head, with more ease than people who are not often called upon for such action.
“Poor woman!” said Fanny, thinking of the woman’s married sorrows, and her early widowhood.
“Poor man!” said Mary, shuddering as she thought of the husband’s fate.
“I hope,” said Harry, almost sententiously, “that no one in this house will condemn her upon such mere rumors as have been heard.”
“Why should any one in this house condemn her,” said the Rector, “even if there were more than rumors? My dears, judge not, lest ye be judged. As regards her, we are bound by close ties not to speak ill of her — or even to think ill, unless we cannot avoid it. As far as I know, we have not even any reason for thinking ill.” Then he went out, changed the tone of his countenance among the rectory stables, and lit his cigar.
Three days after that, a second note was brought down from the great house to the rectory, and this was from Lady Clavering to Harry. “Dear Harry,” ran the note —“Could you find time to come up to me this morning? Sir Hugh has gone to North Priory. Ever yours, H. C.” Harry, of course, went, and as he went, he wondered how Sir Hugh could have had the heart to go to North Priory at such a moment. North Priory was a hunting seat some thirty miles from Clavering, belonging to a great nobleman with whom Sir Hugh much consorted. Harry was grieved that his cousin had not resisted the temptation of going at such a time, but he was quick enough to perceive that Lady Clavering alluded to the absence of her lord as a reason why Harry might pay his visit to the house with satisfaction.
“I’m so much obliged to you for coming,” said Lady Clavering. “I want to know if you can do something for me.” As she spoke, she had a paper in her hand which he immediately perceived to be a letter from Italy.
“I’ll do anything I can, of course, Lady Clavering.”
“But I must tell you, that I hardly know whether I ought to ask you. I’m doing what would make Hugh very angry. But he is so unreasonable and so cruel about Julia. He condemns her simply because, as he says, there is no smoke without fire. That is such a cruel thing to say about a woman; is it not?”
Harry thought that it was a cruel thing, but as he did not wish to speak evil of Sir Hugh before Lady Clavering, he held his tongue.
“When we got the first news by telegraph, Julia said that she intended to come home at once. Hugh thinks that she should remain abroad for some time, and indeed I am not sure but that would be best. At any rate, he made me write to her, and advise her to stay. He declared that if she came at once he would do nothing for her. The truth is, he does not want to have her here, for if she were again in the house he would have to take her part, if ill-natured things were said.”
“That’s cowardly,” said Harry, stoutly.
“Don’t say that, Harry, till you have heard it all. If he believes these things, he is right not to wish to meddle. He is very hard, and always believes evil. But he is not a coward. if she were here, living with him as my sister, he would take her part, whatever he might himself think.”
“But why should he think ill of his own sister-in-law? I have never thought ill of her.”
“You loved her, and he never did; though I think he liked her too, in his way. But that’s what he told me to do, and I did it. I wrote to her, advising her to remain at Florence till the warm weather comes, saying that, as she could not specially wish to be in London for the season, I thought she would be more comfortable there than here; and then I added that Hugh also advised her to stay. Of course I did not say that he would not have her here — but that was his threat.”
“She is not likely to press herself where she is not wanted.”
“No — and she will not forget her rank and her money; for that must now be hers. Julia can be quite as hard and as stubborn as he can. But I did write as I say, and I think that if she had got my letter before she had written herself, she would perhaps have stayed. But here is a letter from her, declaring that she will come at once. She will be starting almost as soon as my letter gets there, and I am sure she will not alter her purpose now.”
“I don’t see why she should not come if she likes it.”
“Only that she might be more comfortable there. But read what she says. You need not read the first part. Not that there is any secret; but it is about him and his last moments, and it would only pain you.”
Harry longed to read the whole, but he did as he was bid, and began the letter at the spot which Lady Clavering marked for him with her finger. “I have to start on the third, and as I shall stay nowhere except to sleep at Turin and Paris, I shall be home by the eighth — I think on the evening of the eighth. I shall bring only my own maid, and one of his men who desires to come back with me. I wish to have apartments taken for me in London. I suppose Hugh will do as much as this for me.”
“I am quite sure Hugh won’t,” said Lady Clavering, who was watching his eye as he read.
Harry said nothing, but went on reading. “I shall only want two sitting-rooms and two bedrooms — one for myself and one for Clara — and should like to have them somewhere near Piccadilly — in Clarges street, or about there. You can write me a line, or send me a message to the Hotel Bristol, at Paris. If anything fails, so that I should not hear, I shall go to the Palace Hotel; and, in that case, should telegraph for rooms from Paris.”
“Is that all I’m to read?” Harry asked.
“You can go on and see what she says as to her reason for coming.” So Harry went on reading. “I have suffered much, and of course I know that I must suffer more; but I am determined that I will face the worst of it at once. It has been hinted to me that an attempt will be made to interfere with the settlement —” “Who can have hinted that?” said Harry. Lady Clavering suspected who might have done so, but she made no answer. “I can hardly think it possible; but, if it is done, I will not be out of the way. I have done my duty as best I could, and have done it under circumstances that I may truly say were terrible; and I will go on doing it. No one shall say that I am ashamed to show my face and claim my own. You will be surprised when you see me. I have aged so much —”
“You need not go on,” said Lady Clavering. “The rest is about nothing that signifies.”
Then Harry refolded the letter and gave it back to his companion.
“Sir Hugh is gone, and therefore I could not show him that in time to do anything; but if I were to do so, he would simply do nothing, and let her go to the hotel in London. Now that would be unkind — would it not?”
“Very unkind, I think.”
“It would seem so cold to her on her return.”
“Very cold. Will you not go and meet her?”
Lady Clavering blushed as she answered. Though Sir Hugh was a tyrant to his wife, and known to be such, and though she knew that this was known, she had never said that it was so to any of the Claverings; but now she was driven to confess it. “He would not let me go, Harry. I could not go without telling him, and if I told him he would forbid it.”
“And she is to be all alone in London, without any friend?”
“I shall go to her as soon as he will let me. I don’t think he will forbid my going to her, perhaps, after a day or two; but I know he would not let me go on purpose to meet her.”
“It does seem hard.”
“But about the apartments, Harry? I thought that perhaps you would see about them. After all that has passed, I could not have asked you, only that now, as you are engaged yourself, it is nearly the same as though you were married. I would ask Archibald, only then there would be a fuss between Archibald and Hugh; and somehow I look on you more as a brother-in-law than I do Archibald.”
“Is Archie in London?”
“His address is at his club, but I dare say he is at North Priory also. At any rate, I shall say nothing to him.”
“I was thinking he might have met her.”
“Julia never liked him. And, indeed, I don’t think she will care so much about being met. She was always independent in that way, and would go over the world alone better than many men. But couldn’t you run up and manage about the apartments? A woman coming home as a widow, and in her position, feels a hotel to be so public.”
“I will see about the apartments.”
“I knew you would. And there will be time for you to send to me, so that I can write to Paris, will there not? There is more than a week, you know.”
But Henry did not wish to go to London on this business immediately. He had made up his mind that he would not only take the rooms, but that he would also meet Lady Ongar at the station. He said nothing of this to Lady Clavering, as, perhaps, she might not approve; but such was his intention. He was wrong, no doubt. A man in such cases should do what he is asked to do, and do no more. But he repeated to himself the excuse that Lady Clavering had made — namely, that he was already the same as a married man, and that, therefore, no harm could come of his courtesy to his cousin’s wife’s sister. But he did not wish to make two journeys to London, nor did he desire to be away for a full week out of his holidays. Lady Clavering could not press him to go at once, and, therefore, it was settled as he proposed. She would write to Paris immediately, and he would go up to London after three or four days. “If we only knew of any apartment, we could write,” said Lady Clavering. “You could not know that they were comfortable,” said Harry; “and you will find that I will do it in plenty of time.” Then he took his leave; but Lady Clavering had still one other word to say to him. “You had better not say anything about all this at the rectory, had you?” Harry, without considering much about it, said that he would not mention it.
Then he went away and walked again about the park, thinking of it all. He had not seen her since he had walked round the park, in his misery, after parting with her in the garden. How much had happened since then! She had been married in her glory, had become a countess, and then a widow, and was now returning with a tarnished name, almost repudiated by those who had been her dearest friends; but with rank and fortune at her command — and again a free woman. He could not but think what might have been his chance were it not for Florence Burton! But much had happened to him also. He had almost perished in his misery — so he told himself — but had once more “tricked his beams”— that was his expression to himself — and was now “flaming in the forehead” of a glorious love. And even if there had been no such love, would a widowed countess with a damaged name have suited his ambition, simply because she had the rich dower of the poor wretch to whom she had sold herself? No, indeed. There could be no question of renewed vows between them now; there could have been no such question even had there been no “glorious love,” which had accrued to him almost as his normal privilege, in right of his pupilage in Mr. Burton’s office. No; there could be, there could have been, nothing now between him and the widowed Countess of Ongar. But, nevertheless, he liked the idea of meeting her in London. He felt some triumph in the thought that he should be the first to touch her hand on her return after all that she had suffered. He would be very courteous to her, and would spare no trouble that would give her any ease. As for her rooms, he would see to everything of which he could think that might add to her comfort; and a wish crept upon him, uninvited, that she might be conscious of what he had done for her.
Would she be aware, he wondered, that he was engaged? Lady Clavering had known it for the last three months, and would probably have mentioned the circumstance in a letter. But perhaps not. The sisters, he knew, had not been good correspondents; and he almost wished that she might not know it. “I should not care to be talking to her about Florence,” he said to himself.
It was very strange that they should come to meet in such a way, after all that had passed between them in former days. Would it occur to her that he was the only man she had ever loved? For, of course, as he well knew, she had never loved her husband. Or would she now be too callous to everything but the outer world to think at all of such a subject? She had said that she was aged, and he could well believe it. Then he pictured her to himself in her weeds, worn, sad, thin, but still proud and handsome. He had told Florence of his early love for the woman whom Lord Ongar had married, and had described with rapture his joy that that early passion had come to nothing. Now he would have to tell Florence of this meeting; and he thought of the comparison he would make between her bright young charms and the shipwrecked beauty of the widow. On the whole, he was proud that he had been selected for the commission, as he liked to think of himself as one to whom things happened which were out of the ordinary course. His only objection to Florence was that she had come to him so much in the ordinary course.
“I suppose the truth is, you are tired of our dullness,” said his father to him, when he declared his purpose of going up to London, and, in answer to certain questions that were asked him, had hesitated to tell his business.
“Indeed, it is not so,” said Harry, earnestly; “but I have a commission to exernite for a certain person, and I cannot explain what it is.”
“Another secret — eh, Harry?”
“I am very sorry — but it is a secret. It is not one of my own seeking; that is all I can say.” His mother and sisters also asked him a question or two; but when he became mysterious they did not persevere. “Of course it is something about Florence,” said Fanny. “I’ll be bound he is going to meet her. What will you bet me, Harry, you don’t go to the play with Florence before you come home?” To this Henry deigned no answer; and after that no more questions were asked.
He went up to London and took rooms in Bolton street. There was a pretty fresh-looking light drawing-room, or, indeed, two drawing-rooms, and a small dining-room, and a large bedroom looking over upon the trees of some great nobleman’s garden. As Harry stood at the window it seemed so odd to him that he should be there. And he was busy about everything in the chamber, seeing that all things were clean and well ordered. Was the Woman of the house sure of her cook? Sure; of course she was sure. Had not old Lady Dimdaff lived there for two years, and nobody ever was so particular about her victuals as Lady Dimdaff. “And would Lady Ongar keep her own carriage?” As to this Harry could say nothing. Then came the question of price, and Harry found his commission very difficult. The sum asked seemed to be enormous. “Seven guineas a week at that time of the year?” Lady Dimdaff had always paid seven guineas. “But that was in the season,” suggested Harry. To this the woman replied that it was the season now. Harry felt that he did not like to drive a bargain for the Countess, who would probably care very little what she paid, and therefore assented. But a guinea a day for lodgings did seem a great deal of money. He was prepared to marry and commence housekeeping upon a less sum for all his expenses. However, he had done his commission, had written to Lady Clavering, and had telegraphed to Paris. He had almost brought himself to write to Lady Ongar, but when the moment came he abstained. He had sent the telegram as from H. Clavering. She might think that it came from Hugh, if she pleased. He was unable not to attend specially to his dress when he went to meet her at the Victoria Station. He told himself that he was an ass — but still he went on being an ass. During the whole afternoon he could do nothing but think of what he had in hand. He was to tell Florence everything, but had Florence known the actual state of his mind, I doubt whether she would have been satisfied with him. The train was due at 8 p.m. He dined at the Oxford and Cambridge Club at six, and then went to his lodgings to take one last look at his outer man. The evening was very fine, but he went down to the station in a cab, because he would not meet Lady Ongar in soiled boots. He told himself again that he was an ass; and then tried to console himself by thinking that such an occasion as this seldom happened once to any man — could hardly happen more than once to any man. He had hired a carriage for her, not thinking it fit that Lady Ongar should be taken to her new home in a cab; and when he was at the station, half an hour before the proper time, was very fidgety because it had not come. Ten minutes before eight he might have been seen standing at the entrance to the station looking out anxiously for the vehicle. The man was there, of course, in time, but Harry made himself angry because he could not get the carriage so placed that Lady Ongar might be sure of stepping into it without leaving the platform. Punctually to the moment the coming train announced itself by its whistle, and Harry Clavering felt himself to be in a flutter.
The train came up along the platform, and Harry stood there expecting to see Julia Brabazon’s head projected from the first window that caught his eye. It was of Julia Brabazon’s head, and not of Lady Ongar’s, that he was thinking. But he saw no sign of her presence while the carriages were coming to a stand-still, and the platform was covered with passengers before he discovered her whom he was seeking. At last he encountered in the crowd a man in livery, and found from him that he was Lady Ongar’s servant. “I have come to meet Lady Ongar,” said Harry, “and have got a carriage for her.” Then the servant found his mistress, and Harry offered his hand to a tall woman in black. She wore a black straw bat with a veil, but the veil was so thick that Harry could not at all see her face.
“Is that Mr. Clavering?” said she.
“Yes,” said Harry, “it is I. Your sister asked me to take rooms for you, and as I was in town I thought I might as well meet you to see if you wanted anything. Can I get the luggage?”
“Thank you; the man will do that. He knows where the things are.”
“I ordered a carriage; shall I show him where it is? Perhaps you will let me take you to it? Ihey are so stupid here. They would not let me bring it up.”
“It will do very well I’m sure. It’s very kind of you. The rooms are in Bolton street. I have the number here. Oh! thank you.” But she would not take his arm. So he led the way, and stood at the door while she got into the carriage with her maid. “I’d better show the man where you are now.” This he did, and afterward shook hands with her through the carriage window. This was all he saw of her, and the words which have been repeated were all that were spoken. Of her face he had not caught a glimpse.
As he went home to his lodgings he was conscious that the interview had not been satisfactory. He could not say what more he wanted, but he felt that there was something amiss. He consoled himself, however, by reminding himself that Florence Burton was the girl whom he had really loved, and not Julia Brabazon. Lady Ongar had given him no invitation to come and see her, and therefore he determined that he would return home on the following day without going near Bolton street. He had pictured to himself beforehand the sort of description he would give to Lady Clavering of her sister; but, seeing how things had turned out, he made up his mind that he would say nothing of the meeting. Indeed, he would not go up to the great house at all. He had done Lady Clavering’s commission, at some little trouble and expense to himself, and there should be an end of it. Lady Ongar would not mention that she had seen him. He doubted, indeed, whether she would remember whom she had seen. For any good that he had done, or for any sentiment that there had been, his cousin Hugh’s butler might as well have gone to the train. In this mood he returned home, consoling himself with the fitness of things which had given him Florence Burton instead of Julia Brabazon for a wife.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14