When Miss Dunstable met her friends the Greshams — young Frank Gresham and his wife — at Gatherum Castle, she immediately asked after one Dr Thorne, who was Mrs Gresham’s uncle. Dr Thorne was an old bachelor, in whom both as a man and a doctor Miss Dunstable was inclined to place much confidence. Not that she had ever entrusted the cure of her bodily ailments to Dr Thorne — for she kept a doctor of her own, Dr Easyman, for this purpose — and it may moreover be said that she rarely had bodily ailments requiring the care of any doctor. But she always spoke of Dr Thorne among her friends as a man of wonderful erudition and judgement; and had once or twice asked and acted on his advice in matters of much moment. Dr Thorne was not a man accustomed to the London world; he kept no house there, and seldom even visited the metropolis; but Miss Dunstable had known him at Greshamsbury, where he lived, and there had for some months past grown up a considerable intimacy between them. He was now staying at the house of his niece, Mrs Gresham; but the chief reason of his coming up had been a desire expressed by Miss Dunstable, that he should do so. She had wished for his advice; and at the instigation of his niece he had visited London and given it. The special piece of business as to which Dr Thorne had thus been summoned from the bedside of Lady Arabella Gresham, to whose son his niece was married, related to certain large money interests, as to which one might have imagined that Dr Thorne’s advice would not be peculiarly valuable. He had never been much versed in such matters on his own account, and was knowing neither in the ways of the share market, nor in the prices of land. But Miss Dunstable was a lady accustomed to have her own way, and to be indulged in her own wishes without being called on to give adequate reasons for them. ‘My dear,’ she said to young Mrs Gresham, ‘if your uncle don’t come up to London now, when I make such a point of it, I shall think that he is a bear and a savage; and I certainly will never speak to him again — or to Frank — or to you; so you had better see to it.’ Mrs Gresham had not probably taken her friend’s threat as meaning quite all that it threatened. Miss Dunstable habitually used strong language; and those who knew her well, generally understood when she was to be taken as expressing her thoughts by figures of speech. In this instance she had not meant it at all; but, nevertheless, Mrs Gresham had used violent influence in bringing the poor doctor up to London. ‘Besides,’ said Miss Dunstable, ‘I have resolved on having the doctor at my conversazione, and if he won’t come of himself, I shall go down and fetch him. I have set my heart on trumping my dear friend Mrs Proudie’s best card; so I mean to get everybody!’
The upshot of all this was, that the doctor did come up to town, and remained the best part of a week at his niece’s house in Portman Square — to the great disgust of Lady Arabella, who conceived that she must die if neglected for three days. As to the matter of business, I have no doubt but that he was of great use. He was possessed of common sense and an honest purpose; and I am inclined to think that they are often a sufficient counterpoise to considerable amount of worldly experience also —! True! but then it is difficult to get everything. But with that special matter of business we need not have any further concern. We will presume it to have been discussed and completed, and will not dress ourselves for Miss Dunstable’s conversazione. But it must not be supposed that she was so poor in genius as to call her party openly by a name borrowed for the nonce from Mrs Proudie. It was only among her specially intimate friends, Mrs Harold Smith and some few dozen others, that she indulged in this little joke. There had been nothing in the least pretentious about the card with which she summoned her friends to her house on this occasion. She had merely signified in some ordinary way, that she would be glad to see them as soon after nine o’clock on Thursday evening, the — instant, as might be convenient. But all the world understood that all the world was to be gathered together at Miss Dunstable’s house on the night in question — that an effort was to be made to bring together people of all classes, gods and giants, saints and sinners, those rabid through the strength of their morality, such as our dear friend Lady Lufton, and those who were rabid in the opposite direction, such as Lady Hartletop, the Duke of Omnium, and Mr Sowerby. An orthodox martyr had been caught from the East, and an oily latter-day St Paul, from the other side of the water — to the horror and amazement of Archdeacon Grantly, who had come up all the way from Plumstead to be present on the occasion. Mrs Grantly also had hankered to be there; but when she heard of the presence of the latter-day St Paul, she triumphed loudly over her husband, who had made no offer to take her. That Lords Brock and De Terrier were to be at the gathering was nothing. The pleasant king of the gods and the courtly chief of the giants could shake hands with each other in any house with the greatest pleasure; but men were to meet who, in reference to each other, could shake nothing but their heads or their fists. Supplehouse was to be there, and Harold Smith, who now hated the enemy with a hatred surpassing that of women — or even of politicians. The minor gods, it was thought, would congregate together in one room, very bitter in their present state of banishment; and the minor giants in another, terribly loud in their triumph. That is the fault of the giants, who, otherwise, are not bad fellows; they are unable to endure the weight of any temporary success. When attempting Olympus — and this work of attempting is doubtless their natural condition — they scratch and scramble, diligently using both toes and fingers, with a mixture of good-humoured virulence and self-satisfied industry that is gratifying to all parties. But, whenever their efforts are unexpectedly, and for themselves unfortunately successful, they are so taken aback that they lose the power of behaving themselves with even gigantesque propriety.
Such, so great and so various, was to be the intended gathering at Miss Dunstable’s house. She herself laughed, and quizzed herself — speaking of the affair to Mrs Harold Smith as though it were an excellent joke, and to Mrs Proudie as though she were simply emulous of rivalling those world-famous assemblies of Gloucester Place; but the town at large knew that an effort was being made, and it was supposed that even Miss Dunstable was somewhat nervous. In spite of her excellent joking it was presumed that she would be unhappy if she failed. To Mrs Frank Gresham she did speak with some little seriousness. ‘But why on earth should you give yourself all this trouble?’ that lady had said, when Miss Dunstable owned that she was doubtful, and unhappy in her doubts, as to the coming of one of the great colleagues of Mr Supplehouse. ‘When such hundreds are coming, big wigs and little wigs of all shades, what can it matter whether Mr Towers be there or not?’ But Miss Dunstable had answered almost with a screech —
‘My dear, it will be nothing without him. You don’t understand; but the fact is that Tom Towers is everybody and everything at present.’ And then, by no means for the first time, Mrs Gresham began to lecture her friend as to her vanity; in answer to which lecture Miss Dunstable mysteriously hinted, that if she were only allowed her full swing on this occasion — if all the world would now indulge her, she would — She did not quite say what she would do, but the inference drawn by Mrs Gresham was this: that if the incense now offered on the altar of Fashion were accepted, Miss Dunstable would at once abandon the pomp and vanities of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh.
‘But the doctor will stay, my dear? I hope I may look on that as fixed.’ Miss Dunstable, in making this demand on the doctor’s time, showed an energy quite equal to that with which she invoked the gods that Tom Towers might not be absent. Now, to tell the truth, Dr Thorne had at first thought it very unreasonable that he should be asked to remain up in London in order that he might be present at an evening party, and had for a while pertinaciously refused; but when he learned that three or four prime ministers were expected, and that it was possible that even Tom Towers might be there in the flesh, his philosophy also had become weak, and he had written to Lady Arabella to say that his prolonged absence for two days further must be endured, and that the mild tonics, morning and evening, might be continued. But why should Miss Dunstable be so anxious that Dr Thorne should be present on this grand occasion? Why, indeed, should she be so frequently inclined to summon him away from his country practice, his compounding board, and his useful ministrations to rural ailments? The doctor was connected with her by no ties of blood. Their friendship, intimate as it was, had as yet been but of short date. She was a very rich woman, capable of purchasing all manner of advice and good counsel, whereas he was so far from being rich, that any continued disturbance to his practice might be inconvenient to him. Nevertheless, Miss Dunstable seemed to have no more compunction in making calls upon his time, than she might have felt had he been her brother. No ideas on this matter suggested themselves to the doctor himself. He was a simple-minded man, taking things as they came, and especially so taking things that came pleasantly. He liked Miss Dunstable, and was gratified by her friendship, and did not think of asking himself whether she had a right to put him to trouble and inconvenience. But such ideas did occur to Mrs Gresham, the doctor’s niece. Had Miss Dunstable any object, and if so, what object? Was it simply veneration for the doctor, or was it caprice? Was it eccentricity — or could it possibly be love? In speaking of the ages of these two friends it may be said in round terms that the lady was well past forty, and that the gentleman was well past fifty. Under such circumstances could it be love? The lady, too, was one who had had offers almost by the dozen — offers from men of rank, from men of fashion, and from men of power; from men endowed with personal attractions, with pleasant manners, with cultivated tastes, and with eloquent tongues. Not only had she loved none such, but by none such had she been cajoled into an idea that it was possible that she could love them. That Dr Thorne’s tastes were cultivated, and his manners pleasant, might probably be admitted by three or four old friends in the country who valued him; but the world in London, that world to which Miss Dunstable was accustomed, and which was apparently becoming dearer to her day by day, would not have regarded the doctor as a man likely to become the object of a lady’s passion. But nevertheless the idea did occur to Mrs Gresham. She had been brought up at the elbow of the country practitioner; she had lived with him as though she had been his daughter; she had been for years the ministering angel of his household; and, till her heart had opened to the natural love of womanhood, all her closest sympathies had been with him. In her eyes the doctor was all but perfect; and it did not seem to her to be out of the question that Miss Dunstable should have fallen in love with her uncle.
Miss Dunstable once said to Mrs Harold Smith that it was possible that she might marry, the only condition then expressed being this, that the man elected should be one who was quite indifferent as to money. Mrs Harold Smith, who, by her friends, was presumed to know the world with tolerable accuracy, had replied that such a man Miss Dunstable would never find in this world. All this had passed in that half-comic of banter which Miss Dunstable so commonly used when conversing with such friends as Mrs Harold Smith; but she had spoken words of the same import more than once to Mrs Gresham; and Mrs Gresham, putting two and two together as women do, had made four of the little sum; and as the final result of the calculation, determined that Miss Dunstable would marry Dr Thorne if Dr Thorne would ask her. And then Mrs Gresham began to rethink herself of two other questions. Would it be well that her uncle should marry Miss Dunstable? and if so, would it be possible to induce him to make such a proposition? After the consideration of many pros and cons, and the balancing of very various arguments, Mrs Gresham thought that the arrangement on the whole might not be a bad one. For Miss Dunstable she herself had a sincere affection, which was shared by her husband. She had often grieved at the sacrifices Miss Dunstable made to the world, thinking that her friend was falling into vanity, indifference, and an ill mode of life; but such a marriage as this would probably cure all that. And then as to Dr Thorne himself, to whose benefit were of course applied to Mrs Gresham’s most earnest thoughts in this matter, she could not but think that he would be happier married than he was single. In point of temper, no woman could stand higher than Miss Dunstable; no one had ever heard of her being in an ill-humour; and then though Mrs Gresham was gifted with a mind which was far removed from being mercenary, it was impossible not to feel that some benefit must accrue from the bride’s wealth. Mary Thorne, the present Mrs Frank Gresham, had herself been a great heiress. Circumstances had weighed her hand with enormous possessions, and hitherto she had not realized the truth of that lesson which would teach us to believe that happiness and riches are incompatible. Therefore she resolved that it might be well if the doctor and Miss Dunstable were brought together. But could the doctor be induced to make such an offer? Mrs Gresham acknowledged a terrible difficulty in looking at the matter from that point of view. Her uncle was fond of Miss Dunstable; but she was sure that an idea of such a marriage had never entered his head; that it would be very difficult — almost impossible — to create such an idea; and that if the idea were there, the doctor could hardly be instigated to make the proposition. Looking at the matter as a whole, she feared that the match was not practicable.
On the day of Miss Dunstable’s party, Mrs Gresham and her uncle dined together alone in Portman Square. Mr Gresham was not yet in Parliament, but an almost immediate vacancy was expected in his division of the county, and it was known that no one could stand against him with any chance of success. This threw him much among the politicians of his party — those giants, namely, who it would be his business to support — and on this account he was a good deal away from his own house at the present moment. ‘Politics make a terrible demand on a man’s time,’ he said to his wife; and then went down to dine at his club in Pall Mall, with sundry other young philogeants. On men of that class politics do make a great demand — at the hour of dinner and thereabouts.
‘What do you think of Miss Dunstable?’ said Mrs Gresham to her uncle, as they sat together over their coffee. She added nothing to the question, but asked it in all its baldness.
‘Think about her!’ said the doctor; ‘well, Mary, what do you think about her? I dare say we think the same.’
‘But that’s not the question. What do you think about her? Do you feel she’s honest?’
‘Honest? Oh, yes, certainly — very honest, I should say.’
‘Well, yes; and affectionate. I should certainly say that she is affectionate.’
‘I’m sure she’s clever.’
‘Yes, I think she’s clever.’
‘And, and — and womanly in her feelings.’ Mrs Gresham felt that she could not quite say lady-like, though she would fain have done so if she dared.
‘Oh, certainly,’ said the doctor. ‘But, Mary, why are you dissecting Miss Dunstable’s character with so much ingenuity?’
‘Well, uncle, I will tell you why; because —’ and Mrs Gresham, while she was speaking, got up from her chair, and going round the table to her uncle’s side, put her arm round his neck till her face was close to his, and then continued speaking as she stood behind him out of his sight —‘because — I think that Miss Dunstable is — is very fond of you; and that it would make her happy if you would — ask her to be your wife.’
‘Mary!’ said the doctor, turning round with an endeavour to look his niece in the face.
‘I am quite in earnest, uncle — quite in earnest. From little things that she has said, and little things that I have seen, I do believe what I now tell you.’
‘And you want me to —’
‘Dear uncle; my own one darling uncle, I want you only to do that which will make you — make you happy. What is Miss Dunstable to me compared to you?’ And then she stooped down and kissed him. The doctor was apparently too much astounded by the intimation given him to make any further immediate reply. His niece, seeing this, left him that she might go and dress; and when they met again in the drawing-room Frank Gresham was with them.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01