When Harry’s letter, with the tidings of the fate of his cousins, reached Florence at Stratton, the whole family was, not unnaturally, thrown into great excitement. Being slow people, the elder Burtons had hardly as yet realized the fact that Harry was again to be accepted among the Burton Penates as a pure divinity. Mrs. Burton, for some weeks past, had grown to be almost sublime in her wrath against him. That a man should live and treat her daughter as Florence was about to be treated! Had not her husband forbidden such a journey, as being useless in regard to the expenditure, she would have gone up to London that she might have told Harry what she thought of him. Then came the news that Harry was again a divinity — an Apollo, whom the Burton Penates ought only to be too proud to welcome to a seat among them!
And now came this other news that this Apollo was to be an Apollo indeed! When the god first became a god again, there was still a cloud upon the minds of the elder Burtons as to the means by which the divinity was to be sustained. A god in truth, but a god with so very moderate an annual income — unless, indeed, those old Burtons made it up to an extent which seemed to them to be quite unnatural! There was joy among the Burtons, of course, but the joy was somewhat dimmed by these reflections as to the slight means of their Apollo. A lover who was not an Apollo might wait; but, as they had learned already, there was danger in keeping such a god as this suspended on the tenter-hooks of expectation.
But now there came the further news! This Apollo of theirs had already a place of his own among the gods of Olympus. He was the eldest son of a man of large fortune, and would be a baronet! He had already declared that he would marry at once — that his father wished him to do so, and that an abundant income would be forthcoming. As to his eagerness for an immediate marriage, no divinity in or out of the heavens could behave better. Old Mrs. Burton, as she went through the process of taking him again to her heart, remembered that that virtue had been his even before the days of his backsliding had come — a warm-hearted, eager, affectionate divinity, with only this against him, that he wanted some careful looking after in these his unsettled days. “I really do think that he’ll be as fond of his own fireside as any other man, when he has once settled down,” said Mrs. Burton.
It will not, I hope, be taken as a blot on the character of this mother that she was much elated at the prospect of the good things which were to fall to her daughter’s lot. For herself she desired nothing. For her daughters she had coveted only good, substantial, painstaking husbands, who would fear God and mind their business. When Harry Clavering had come across her path and had demanded a daughter from her, after the manner of the other young men who had learned the secrets of their profession at Stratton, she had desired nothing more than that he and Florence should walk in the path which had been followed by her sisters and their husbands. But then had come that terrible fear, and now had come these golden prospects. That her daughter should be Lady Clavering, of Clavering Park! She could not but be elated at the thought of it. She would not live to see it, but the consciousness that it would be so was pleasant in her old age. Florence had ever been regarded as the flower of the flock, and now she would be taken up into high places, according to her deserts.
First had come the letter from Harry, and then, after an interval of a week, another letter from Mrs. Clavering, pressing her dear Florence to go to the parsonage. “We think that at present we all ought to be together,” said Mrs. Clavering, “and therefore we want you to be with us.” It was very flattering. “I suppose I ought to go, mamma,” said Florence. Mrs. Burton was of opinion that she certainly ought to go. “You should write to her ladyship at once,” said Mrs. Burton, mindful of the change which had taken place. Florence, however, addressed her letter, as heretofore, to Mrs. Clavering, thinking that a mistake on that side would be better than a mistake on the other. It was not for her to be over-mindful of the rank with which she was about to be connected. “You won’t forget your old mother now that you are going to be so grand?” said Mrs. Burton, as Florence was leaving her.
“You only say that to laugh at me,” said Florence. “I expect no grandness, and I am sure you expect no forgetfulness.”
The solemnity consequent upon the first news of the accident had worn itself off; and Florence found the family at the parsonage happy and comfortable. Mrs. Fielding was still there, and Mr. Fielding was expected again after the next Sunday. Fanny also was there, and Florence could see during the first half hour that she was very radiant. Mr. Saul, however, was not there, and it may as well be said at once that Mr. Saul as yet knew nothing of his coming fortune. Florence was received with open arms by them all, and by Harry with arms which were almost too open. “I suppose it may be in about three weeks from now,” he said at the first moment in which he could have her to himself.
“Oh, Harry — no,” said Florence.
“No — why no? That’s what my mother proposes.”
“In three weeks! She could not have said that. Nobody has begun to think of such a thing yet at Stratton.”
“They are so very slow at Stratton!”
“And you are so very fast at Clavering! But, Harry, we don’t know where we are going to live.”
“We should go abroad at first, I suppose.”
“And what then? That would only be for a month or so.”
“Only for a month? I mean for all the Winter — and the Spring. Why not? One can see nothing in a month. If we are back for the shooting next year, that would do; and then, of course, we should come here. I should say next Winter — that is, the Winter after the next — we might as well stay with them at the big house, and then we could look about us, you know. I should like a place near to this, because of the hunting.”
Florence, when she heard all this, became aware that in talking about a month she had forgotten herself. She had been accustomed to holidays of a month’s duration, and to honeymoon trips fitted to such vacations. A month was the longest holiday ever heard of in the chambers of the Adelphi, or at the house in Onslow Crescent. She had forgotten herself. It was not to be the lot of her husband to earn his bread, and fit himself to such periods as business might require. Then Harry went on describing the tour which he had arranged — which, as he said, he only suggested. But it was quite apparent that in this matter he intended to be paramount. Florence indeed made no objection. To spend a fortnight in Paris — to hurry over the Alps before the cold weather came — to spend a month in Florence, and then go on to Rome — it would all be very nice. But she declared that it would suit the next year better than this.
“Suit ten thousand fiddlesticks,” said Harry.
“But it is October now.”
“And therefore there is no time to lose.”
“I haven’t a dress in the world but the one I have on, and a few others like it. Oh, Harry, how can you talk in that way?”
“Well, say four weeks then from now. That will make it the seventh of November, and we’ll only stay a day or two in Paris. We can do Paris next year — in May. If you’ll agree to that, I’ll agree.” But Florence’s breath was taken away from her, and she could agree to nothing. She did agree to nothing till she had been talked into doing so by Mrs. Clavering.
“My dear,” said her future mother-in-law, “what you say is undoubtedly true. There is no absolute necessity for hurrying. It is not an affair of life and death. But you and Harry have been engaged quite long enough now, and I really don’t see why you should put it off. If you do as he asks you, you will just have time to make yourselves comfortable before the cold weather begins.”
“But mamma will be so surprised.”
“I’m sure she will wish it, my dear. You see Harry is a young man of that sort — so impetuous I mean, you know, and so eager — and so — you know what I mean — that the sooner he is married the better. You can’t but take it as a compliment, Florence, that he is so eager.”
“Of course I do.”
“And you should reward him. Believe me, it will be best that it should not be delayed.” Whether or no Mrs. Clavering had present in her imagination the possibility of any further danger that might result from Lady Ongar, I will not say, but if so she altogether failed in communicating her idea to Florence.
“Then I must go home at once,” said Florence, driven almost to bewail the terrors of her position.
“You can write home at once and tell your mother. You can tell her all that I say, and I am sure she will agree with me. If you wish it, I will write a line to Mrs. Burton myself.” Florence said that she would wish it. “And we can begin, you know, to get your things ready here. People don’t take so long about all that now-a-days as they used to do.” When Mrs. Clavering had turned against her, Florence knew that she had no hope, and surrendered, subject to the approval of the higher authorities at Stratton. The higher authorities at Stratton approved also, of course, and Florence found herself fixed to a day with a suddenness that bewildered her. Immediately — almost as soon as the consent had been extorted from her — she began to be surrounded with incipient preparation for the event, as to which, about three weeks since, she had made up her mind it would never come to pass.
On the second day of her arrival, in the privacy of her bed-room, Fanny communicated to her the decision of her family in regard to Mr. Saul. But she told the story at first as though this decision referred to the living only — as though the rectory were to be conferred on Mr. Saul without any burden attached to it. “He has been here so long, dear,” said Fanny, “and understands the people so well.”
“I am so delighted,” said Florence.
“I am sure it is the best thing papa could do — that is, if he quite makes up his mind to give up the parish himself.”
This troubled Florence, who did not know that a baronet could hold a living.
“I thought he must give up being a clergyman now that Sir Hugh is dead?”
“Oh dear, no.” And then Fanny, who was great on ecclesiastical subjects, explained it all. “Even though he were to be a peer, he could hold a living if he pleased. A great many baronets are clergymen, and some of them do hold preferments. As to papa, the doubt has been with him whether he would wish to give up the work. But he will preach sometimes, you know, though of course he will not be able to do that unless Mr. Saul lets him. No one but the rector has a right to his own pulpit except the bishop, and he can preach three times a year if he likes it.”
“And suppose the bishop wanted to preach four times?”
“He couldn’t do it — at least I believe not. But, you see, he never wants to preach at all — not in such a place as this — so that does not signify.”
“And will Mr. Saul come and live here, in this house?”
“Some day I suppose he will,” said Fanny, blushing.
“And you, dear?”
“I don’t know how that may be.”
“Indeed I don’t, Florence, or I would tell you. Of course Mr. Saul has asked me. I never had any secret with you about that — have I?”
“No; you were very good.”
“Then he asked me again — twice again. And then there came — oh, such a quarrel between him and papa. It was so terrible. Do you know, I believe they wouldn’t speak in the vestry! Not but what each of them has the highest possible opinion of the other. But of course Mr. Saul couldn’t marry on a curacy. When I think of it, it really seems that he must have been mad.”
“But you don’t think him so mad now, dear?”
“He doesn’t know a word about it yet — not a word. He hasn’t been in the house since, and papa and he didn’t speak — not in a friendly way — till the news came of peer Hugh’s being drowned. Then he came up to papa, and, of course, papa took his hand. But he still thinks he is going away.”
“And when is he to be told that he needn’t go?”
“That is the difficulty. Mamma will have to do it, I believe. But what she will say I’m sure I, for one, can’t think.”
“Mrs. Clavering will have no difficulty.”
“You mustn’t call her Mrs. Clavering.”
“Lady Clavering, then.”
“That’s a great deal worse. She’s your mamma now — not quite so much as she is mine, but the next thing to it.”
“She’ll know what to say to Mr. Saul.”
“But what is she to say?”
“Well, Fanny, you ought to know that. I suppose you do — love him?”
“I have never told him so.”
“But you will?”
“It seems so odd. Mamma will have to — Suppose he were to turn round and say he didn’t want me.”
“That would be awkward.”
“He would in a minute, if that was what he felt. The idea of having the living would not weigh with him a bit.”
“But when he was so much in love before, it won’t make him out of love, will it?”
“I don’t know,” said Fanny. “At any rate, mamma is to see him to-morrow, and after that I suppose — I’m sure I don’t know — but I suppose he’ll come to the rectory as he used to do.”
“How happy you must be,” said Florence, kissing her. To this Fanny made some unintelligible demur. It was undoubtedly possible that, under the altered circumstances of the case, so strange a being as Mr. Saul might have changed his mind.
There was a great trial awaiting Florence Burton. She had to be taken up to call on the ladies at the great house — on the two widowed ladies who were still remaining there when she came to Clavering. It was only on the day before her arrival that Harry had seen Lady Ongar. He had thought much of the matter before he went across to the house, doubting whether it would not be better to let Julia go without troubling her with a further interview. But he had not then seen even Lady Clavering since the tidings of her bereavement had come, and he felt that it would not be well that he should let his cousin’s widow leave Clavering without offering her his sympathy. And it might be better, also, that he should see Julia once again, if only that he might show himself capable of meeting her without the exhibition of any peculiar emotion. He went, therefore, to the house, and having inquired for Lady Clavering, saw both the sisters together. He seen found that the presence of the younger one was a relief to him. Lady Clavering was so sad, and so peevish in her sadness — so broken-spirited, so far as yet from recognizing the great enfranchisement that had come to her, that with her alone he would have found himself almost unable to express the sympathy which he felt. But with Lady Ongar he had no difficulty. Lady Ongar, her sister being with them in the room, talked to him easily, as though there had never been anything between them to make conversation difficult. That all words between them should, on such an occasion as this, be sad, was a matter of course; but it seemed to Harry that Julia had freed herself from all the effects of that feeling which had existed between them, and that it would become him to do this as effectually as she had done it. Such an idea, at least, was in his mind for a moment; but when he left her she spoke one word which dispelled it. “Harry,” she said, “you must ask Miss Burton to come across and see me. I hear that she is to be at the rectory to-morrow.” Harry of course said that he would send her. “She will understand why I can not go to her, as I should do-but for poor Hermy’s position. You will explain this, Harry.” Harry, blushing up to his forehead, declared that Florence would require no explanation, and that she would certainly make the visit as proposed. “I wish to see her, Harry — so much. And if I do not see her now, I may never have another chance.”
It was nearly a week after this that Florence went across to the great house with Mrs. Clavering and Fanny. I think that she understood the nature of the visit she was called upon to make, and no doubt she trembled much at the coming ordeal. She was going to see her great rival — her rival, who had almost been preferred to her — nay, who had been preferred to her for some short space of time, and whose claims as to beauty and wealth were so greatly superior to her own. And this woman whom she was to see had been the first love of the man whom she now regarded as her own, and would have been about to be his wife at this moment had it not been for her own treachery to him. Was she so beautiful as people said? Florence, in the bottom of her heart, wished that she might have been saved from this interview.
The three ladies from the rectory found the two ladies at the great house sitting together in the small drawing-room. Florence was so confused that she could hardly bring herself to speak to Lady Clavering, or so much as look at Lady Ongar. She shook hands with the elder sister, and knew that her hand was then taken by the other. Julia at first spoke a very few words to Mrs. Clavering, and Fanny sat herself down beside Hermione. Florence took a chair at a little distance, and was left there for a few minutes without notice. For this she was very thankful, and by degrees was able to fix her eyes on the face of the woman whom she so feared to see, and yet on whom she so desired to look. Lady Clavering was a mass of ill-arranged widow’s weeds. She had assumed in all its grotesque ugliness those paraphernalia of outward woe which women have been condemned to wear, in order that for a time they may be shorn of all the charms of their sex. Nothing could be more proper or unbecoming than the heavy, drooping, shapeless blackness in which Lady Clavering had enveloped herself. But Lady Ongar, though also a widow, though as yet a widow of not twelve months’ standing, was dressed — in weeds, no doubt, but in weeds which had been so cultivated that they were as good as flowers. She was very beautiful. Florence owned to herself as she sat there in silence, that Lady Ongar was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. But hers was not the beauty by which, as she would have thought, Harry Clavering would have been attracted. Lady Ongar’s form, bust, and face were, at this period of her life, almost majestic, whereas the softness and grace of womanhood were the charms which Harry loved. He had sometimes said to Florence that, to his taste, Cecilia Burton was almost perfect as a woman; and there could be no contrast greater than that between Cecilia Burton and Lady Ongar. But Florence did not remember that the Julia Brabazon of three years since had not been the same as the Lady Ongar whom now she saw.
When they had been there some minutes Lady Ongar came and sat beside Florence, moving her seat as though she were doing the most natural thing in the world. Florence’s heart came to her mouth, but she made a resolution that she would, if possible, bear herself well. “You have been at Clavering before, I think,” said Lady Ongar. Florence said that she had been at the parsonage during the last Easter. “Yes, I heard that you dined here with my brother-in-law.” This she said in a low voice, having seen that Lady Clavering was engaged with Fanny and Mrs. Clavering. “Was it not terribly sudden?”
“Terribly sudden,” said Florence.
“The two brothers! Had you not met Captain Clavering?”
“Yes; he was here when I dined with your sister.”
“Poor fellow! Is it not odd that they should have gone, and that their friend, whose yacht it was, should have been saved? They say, however, that Mr. Stuart behaved admirably, begging his friends to get into the boat first. He stayed by the vessel when the boat was carried away, and he was saved in that way. But he meant to do the best he could for them. There’s no doubt of that.”
“But how dreadful his feelings must be!”
“Men do not think so much of these things as we do. They have so much more to employ their minds. Don’t you think so?” Florence did not at the moment quite know what she thought about men’s feelings, but said that she supposed that such was the case. “But I think that, after all, they are juster than we are,” continued Lady Ongar —“juster and truer, though not so tender-hearted. Mr. Stuart, no doubt, would have been willing to drown himself to save his friends, because the fault was in some degree his. I don’t know that I should have been able to do so much.”
“In such a moment, it must have been so difficult to think of what ought to be done.”
“Yes, indeed; and there is but little good in speculating upon it now. You know this place, do you not — the house, I mean, and the gardens?”
“Not very well.” Florence, as she answered this question, began again to tremble. “Take a turn with me, and I will show you the garden. My hat and cloak are in the hall.” Then Florence got up to accompany her, trembling very much inwardly. “Miss Burton and I are going out for a few minutes,” said Lady Ongar, addressing herself to Mrs. Clavering. “We will not keep you waiting very long.”
“We are in no hurry,” said Mrs. Clavering. Then Florence was carried off, and found herself alone with her conquered rival.
“Not that there is much to show you,” said Lady Ongar —“indeed nothing; but the place must be of more interest to you than to any one else, and if you are fond of that sort of thing, no doubt you will make it all that is charming.”
“I am very fond of a garden,” said Florence.
“I don’t know whether I am. Alone, by myself I think I should care nothing for the prettiest Eden in all England. I don’t think I would care for a walk through the Elysian fields by myself. I am a chameleon, and take the color of those with whom I live. My future colors will not be very bright, as I take it. It’s a gloomy place enough, is it not? But there are fine trees, you see, which are the only things which one can not by any possibility command. Given good trees, taste and money may do anything very quickly, as I have no doubt you’ll find.”
“I don’t suppose I shall have much to do with it — at present.”
“I should think that you will have everything to do with it. There, Miss Burton, I brought you here to show you this very spot, and to make to you my confession here, and to get from you, here, one word of confidence, if you will give it me.” Florence was trembling now outwardly as well as inwardly. “You know my story — as far, I mean, as I had a story once, in conjunction with Harry Clavering?”
“I think I do,” said Florence.
“I am sure you do,” said Lady Ongar. “He has told me that you do, and what he says is always true. It was here, on this spot, that I gave him back his troth to me, and told him that I would have none of his love, because he was poor. That is barely two years ago. Now he is poor no longer. Now, had I been true to him, a marriage with him would have been, in a prudential point of view, all that any woman could desire. I gave up the dearest heart, the sweetest temper, ay, and the truest man that, that — Well, you have won him instead, and he has been the gainer. I doubt whether I ever should have made him happy, but I know that you will do so. It was just here that I parted from him.”
“He has told me of that parting,” said Florence.
“I am sure he has. And, Miss Burton, if you will allow me to say one word further — do not be made to think any ill of him because of what happened the other day.”
“I think no ill of him,” said Florence, proudly.
“That is well. But I am sure you do not. You are not one to think evil, as I take it, of any body, much less of him whom you love. When he saw me again, free as I am, and when I saw him, thinking him also to be free, was it strange that some memory of old days should come back upon us? But the fault, if fault there has been, was mine.”
“I have never said that there was any fault.”
“No, Miss Burton, but others have said so. No doubt I am foolish to talk to you in this way, and I have not yet said that which I desired to say. It is simply this — that I do not begrudge you your happiness. I wished the same happiness to be mine, but it is not mine. It might have been, but I forfeited it. It is past, and I will pray that you may enjoy it long. You will not refuse to receive my congratulations?”
“Indeed I will not.”
“Or to think of me as a friend of your husband’s?”
“That is all, then. I have shown you the gardens, and now we may go in. Some day, perhaps, when you are Lady Paramount here, and your children are running about the place, I may come again to see them — if you and he will have me.”
“I hope you will, Lady Ongar. In truth I hope so.”
“It is odd enough that I said to him once that I would never go to Clavering Park again till I went there to see his wife. That was long before those two brothers perished — before I had ever heard of Florence Burton. And yet, indeed, it was not very long ago. It was since my husband died. But that was not quite true, for here I am, and he has not yet got a wife. But it was odd, was it not?”
“I can not think what should have made you say that.”
“A spirit of prophecy comes on one sometimes, I suppose. Well, shall we go in? I have shown you all the wonders of the garden, and told you all the wonders connected with it of which I know aught. No doubt there would be other wonders more wonderful, if one could ransack the private history of all the Claverings for the last hundred years. I hope, Miss Burton, that any marvels which may attend your career here may be happy marvels.” She then took Florence by the hand, and, drawing close to her, stooped over and kissed her. “You will think me a fool, of course,” said she, “but I do not care for that.” Florence now was in tears, and could make no answer in words; but she pressed the hand which she still held, and then followed her companion back into the house. After that the visit was soon brought to an end, and the three ladies from the rectory returned across the park to their house.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14