Dr Thorne, in the few words which he spoke to his niece before he left Boxall Hill, had called himself an old man; but he was as yet on the right side of sixty by five good years, and bore about with him less of the marks of age than most men of fifty-five do bear. One would have said, in looking at him, that there was no reason why he should not marry if he found that such a step seemed good to him; and, looking at the age of the proposed bride, there was nothing unsuitable in that respect. But nevertheless he felt almost ashamed of himself, in that he allowed himself even to think of the proposition which his niece had made. He mounted his horse that day at Boxall Hill — for he made all his journeys about the county on horseback — and rode slowly home to Greshambury, thinking not so much of the suggested marriage as of his own folly in thinking of it. How could he be such an ass at this time of life as to allow the even course of his way to be disturbed by any such ideas? Of course he could not propose to himself such a wife as Miss Dunstable without having some thoughts about her wealth; and it had been the pride of his life so to live that the world might know that he was indifferent about money. His profession was all in all to him; the air which he breathed as well as the bread which he ate; and how could he follow his profession if he made such a marriage as this? She would expect him to go to London with her; and what would he become, dangling at her heels there, known only to the world as the husband of the richest woman in the town? The kind of life was one which would be unsuitable to him; and yet, as he rode home, he could not resolve to rid himself of the idea. He went on thinking of it, though he still continued to condemn himself for keeping it in his thoughts. That night at home he would make up his mind, so he declared to himself; and would then write to his niece begging her to drop the subject. Having so far come to a resolution he went on meditating what course of life it might be well for him to pursue if he and Miss Dunstable should after all become man and wife.
There were two ladies whom it behoved him to see on the day of his arrival — whom, indeed, he generally saw every day except when absent from Greshambury. The first of these — first in the general consideration of the people of the place — was the wife of the squire, Lady Arabella Gresham, a very old patient of the doctor’s. Her it was his custom to visit early in the afternoon; and then, if he were able to escape the squire’s daily invitation to dinner, he customarily went to see the other, Lady Scatcherd, when the rapid meal in his own house was over. Such, at least, was his summer practice. ‘Well, doctor, how are they all at Boxall Hill?’ said the squire, waylaying him on the gravel sweep before the door. The squire was very hard set for occupation in these summer months.
‘Quite well, I believe.’
‘I don’t know what’s come to Frank. I think he hates this place now. He’s full of the election, I suppose.’
‘Oh, yes; he told me to say that he should be over here soon. Of course there’ll be no contest, so he need not trouble himself.’
‘Happy dog, isn’t he, doctor? to have it all before him instead of behind him. Well, well; he’s as good a lad as ever lived — as ever lived. And let me see; Mary’s time —’ And then there were a few very important words spoken on that subject.
‘I’ll just step up to Lady Arabella now,’ said the doctor.
‘She’s as fretful as possible,’ said the squire. ‘I’ve just left her.’
‘Nothing special the matter, I hope?’
‘No, I think not; nothing in your way, that is; only specially cross, which always comes in my way. You’ll stop and dine today, of course?’
‘Not today, squire.’
‘Nonsense; you will. I have been quite counting on you. I have a particular reason for wanting to have you today — a most particular reason.’ But the squire always had his particular reasons.
‘I’m very sorry, but it is impossible today. I shall have a letter to write that I must sit down to seriously. Shall I see you when I come down from her ladyship?’ The squire turned away sulkily, almost without answering him, for he now had no prospect of any alleviation to the tedium of the evening; and the doctor went upstairs to his patient. For Lady Arabella, though it cannot be said that she was ill, was always a patient. It must not be supposed that she kept her bed and swallowed daily doses, or was prevented from taking her share in such prosy gaieties as came from time to time in the way of her prosy life; but it suited her turn of mind to be an invalid and to have a doctor; and as the doctor whom her good fates had placed at her elbow thoroughly understood her case, no great harm was done.
‘It frets me dreadfully that I cannot get to see Mary,’ Lady Arabella said, as soon as the first ordinary question as to her ailments had been asked and answered.
‘She’s quite well, and will be over to see you before long.’
‘Now I beg that she won’t. She never thinks of coming when there can be no possible objection, and travelling at the present moment, would be —’ Whereupon the Lady Arabella shook her head very gravely. ‘Only think of the importance of it, doctor,’ she said. ‘Remember the enormous stake there is to be considered.
‘It would not do her a ha’porth of harm if the stake were twice as large.’
‘Nonsense, doctor, don’t tell me; as if I didn’t know myself. I was very much against her going to London this spring, but of course what I said was overruled. It always is. I do believe Mr Gresham went over to Boxall Hill on purpose to induce her to go. But what does he care? He’s fond of Frank; but he never thinks of looking beyond the present day. He never did, as you know well enough, doctor.’
‘The trip did her all the good in the world,’ said Dr Thorne, preferring anything to a conversation respecting the squire’s sins.
‘I very well remember that when I was in that way it wasn’t thought that such trips would do me any good. But, perhaps, things are altered since then.’
‘Yes, they are,’ said the doctor. ‘We don’t interfere so much nowadays.’
‘I know I never asked for such amusements when so much depended on quietness. I remember before Frank was born — and indeed, when all of them were born — But, as you say, things were different then; and I can easily believe that Mary is a person quite determined to have her own way.’
‘Why, Lady Arabella, she would have stayed at home without wishing to stir if Frank had done so much as hold up a little finger.’
‘So did I always. If Mr Gresham made the slightest hint I gave way. But I really don’t see what one gets in return for such implicit obedience. Now this year, doctor, of course I should have liked to been up in London for a week or two. You seemed to think yourself that I might as well see Sir Omicron.’
‘There could be no possible objection, I said.’
‘Well; no; exactly; and as Mr Gresham knew I wished it, I think he might as well have offered it. I suppose there can be no reason now about money.’
‘But I understood that Mary specially asked you and Augusta.’
‘Yes; Mary was very good. She did ask me. But I know very well that Mary wants all the room she has got in London. The house is not at all too large for herself. And, for the matter of that, my sister, the countess, was very anxious that I should be with her. But one does like to be independent if one can, and for one fortnight I do think that Mrs Gresham might have managed it. When I knew that he was so dreadfully out at elbows I never troubled him about it — though goodness knows, all that was never my fault.’
‘The squire hates London. A fortnight there in warm weather would nearly be the death of him.’
‘He might at any rate have paid me the compliment of asking me. The chances are ten to one I should not have gone. It is that indifference that cuts me so. He was here just now, and would you believe it? —’
But the doctor was determined to avoid further complaint for the present day. ‘I wonder what you would feel, Lady Arabella, if the squire were to take it into his head to go away and amuse himself, leaving you at home. There are worse men than Mr Gresham, if you will believe me.’ All this was an allusion to Earl de Courcy, her ladyship’s brother, as Lady Arabella very well understood; and the argument was one which was very often used to silence her.
‘Upon my word, then, I should like it better than his hanging about here doing nothing but attend to those nasty dogs. I really sometimes think that he has no spirit left.’
‘You are mistaken there, Lady Arabella,’ said the doctor, rising with his hat in his hand, and making his escape without further parley. As he went home he could not but think that that phase of married life was not a very pleasant one. Mr Gresham and his wife were supposed by the world to live on the best of terms. They always inhabited the same house, went out together when they did go out, always sat in their respective corners in the family pew, and in their wildest dreams after the happiness of novelty never thought of Sir Cresswell Cresswell. In some respect — with regard for instance, to the continued duration of their joint domesticity at the family mansion at Greshambury — they might have been taken for a pattern couple. But yet, as far as the doctor could see, they did not seem to add much to the happiness of each other. They loved one another, doubtless, and had either of them been in real danger, that danger would have made the other miserable; but yet it might well be a question whether either would not be more comfortable without the other.
The doctor, as was his custom, dined at five, and at seven, went up to the cottage of his old friend Lady Scatcherd. Lady Scatcherd was not a refined woman, having in her early days been a labourer’s daughter, and having then married a labourer. But her husband had risen in the world — as has been told in these chronicles before mentioned — and his widow was now Lady Scatcherd with a pretty cottage and a good jointure. She was in all things the very opposite of Lady Arabella Gresham; nevertheless under the doctor’s auspices, the two ladies were in some measure acquainted with each other. Of her married life, also, Dr Thorne had seen something, and it may be questioned whether the memory of that was more alluring than the reality now existing at Greshambury. Of the two women Dr Thorne much preferred his humbler friend, and to her he made his visits not in the guise of a doctor, but as a neighbour. ‘Well, my lady,’ he said, as he sat down by her on a broad garden seat — all the world called Lady Scatcherd ‘my lady,’—‘and how do these long summer days agree with you? Your roses are twice better out than any I see up in the big house.’
‘You may well call them long, doctor. They’re long enough surely.’
‘But not too long. Come, now, I won’t have you complaining. You don’t mean to tell me that you have anything to make you wretched? You had better not, for I won’t believe you.’
‘Eh; well; wretched! I don’t know as I’m wretched. It’d be wicked to say that, and I with such comforts about me.’
‘I think it would, almost.’ The doctor did not say this harshly, but in a soft, friendly, tone, and pressing her hand gently as he spoke.
‘And I didn’t mean to be wicked. I’m very thankful for everything — leastways, I always try to be. But, doctor, it is so lonely like.’
‘Lonely! Not more lonely than I am.’
‘Oh, yes; you’re different. You can go everywheres. But what can a lone woman do? I’ll tell you what, doctor; I’d give it all up to have Roger back with his apron on and his pick in his hand. How well I mind his look when he’d come home o’ nights!’
‘And yet it was a hard life you had then, eh, old woman? It would be better for you to be thankful for what you’ve got.’
‘I am thankful. Didn’t I tell you so before?’ said she, somewhat crossly. ‘But it’s a sad life, this living alone. I declares I envy Hannah, ‘cause she’s got Jemima to sit in the kitchen with her. I want her to sit with me sometimes, but she won’t.’
‘Ah! but you shouldn’t ask her. It’s letting yourself down.’
‘What do I care about down or up? It makes no difference, as he’s gone. If he had lived one might have cared about being up, as you call it. Eh, deary; I’ll be going after him before long, and it will be no matter then.’
‘We shall all be going after him, sooner or later; that’s sure enough.’
‘Eh, dear, that’s true surely. It’s only a span long, as Parson Oriel tells us, when he gets romantic in his sermons. But it’s a hard thing, doctor, when two is married, as they can’t have their span, as he calls it, out together. Well, I must only put up with it, I suppose, as others does. Now, you’re not going, doctor? You’ll stop and have a dish of tea with me. You never see such cream as Hannah has from the Alderney cow. Do’ey now, doctor.’ But the doctor had his letter to write, and would not allow himself to be tempted even by the promise of Hannah’s cream. So he went his way, angering Lady Scatcherd by his departure as he had before angered the squire, and thinking as he went which was most unreasonable in her wretchedness, his friend Lady Arabella or his friend Lady Scatcherd. The former was always complaining of an existing husband who never refused her any moderate request; and the other passed her days in murmuring at the loss of a dead husband, who in his life had ever been to her imperious and harsh, and had sometimes been cruel and unjust.
The doctor had his letter to write, but even yet he had not quite made up his mind what he would put in it; indeed, he had not hitherto resolved to whom it should be written. Looking at the matter as he had endeavoured to look at it, his niece, Mrs Gresham, would be his correspondent; but if he brought himself to take this jump in the dark, in that case he would address himself direct to Miss Dunstable. He walked home, not by the straightest road, but taking a considerable curve, round by narrow lanes, and through thick flower-laden hedges — very thoughtful. He was told that she wished to marry him; and was he to think only of himself? And as to that pride of his about money, was it in truth a hearty, manly feeling; or was it a false pride, of which it behoved him to be ashamed as it did of many cognate feelings? If he acted rightly in this matter, why should he be afraid of the thoughts of any one? A life of solitude was bitter enough as poor Lady Scatcherd had complained. But then, looking at Lady Scatcherd, and looking also at his other near neighbour, his friend the squire, there was little thereabouts to lead him on to matrimony. So he walked home slowly through the lanes, very meditative, with his hands behind his back. Nor when he got home was he much more inclined to any resolute line of action. He might have drunk his tea with Lady Scatcherd, as well as have sat there in his own drawing-room, drinking it alone; for he got no pen and paper, and he dawdled over his teacup with the utmost dilatoriness, putting off, as it were, the evil day. To only one thing was he fixed — to this, namely, that that letter should be written before he went to bed.
Having finished his tea, which did not take place till near eleven, he went downstairs to an untidy little room which lay behind his depot of medicines, and in which he was wont to do his writing; and herein he did at last set himself down to his work. Even at that moment he was in doubt. But he would write his letter to Miss Dunstable and see how it looked. He was almost determined not to send it; so, at least, he said to himself: but he could do no harm by writing it. So he did write it, as follows:—‘Greshambury, June 185-. My dear Miss Dunstable —’ When he had got so far, he leaned back in his chair and looked at the paper. How on earth was he to find words to say that which he now wished to have said? He had never written such a letter in his life, or anything approaching to it, and now found himself overwhelmed with a difficulty of which he had not previously thought. He spent another half-hour in looking at the paper, and was at last nearly deterred by this new difficulty. He would use the simplest, plainest language, he said to himself over and over again; but it is not always easy to use simple, plain language — by no means so easy as to mount on stilts, and to march along with sesquipedalian words, with pathos, spasms, and notes of interjection. But the letter did at last get itself written, and there was not a note of interjection in it.
‘MY DEAR MISS DUNSTABLE,
‘I think it right to confess that I should not now be writing this letter to you, had I not been led to believe by other judgement than my own that the proposition which I am going to make would be regarded by you with favour. Without such other judgement I should, I own, have feared that the great disparity between you and me in regard to money would have given to such a proposition an appearance of being false and mercenary. All I ask of you now, with confidence, is to acquit me of such fault as that.
‘When you have read so far you will understand what I mean. We have known each other now somewhat intimately, though indeed not very long, and I have sometimes fancied that you were almost as well pleased to be with me as I have been to be with you. If I have been wrong in this, tell me so simply, and I will endeavour to let our friendship run on as though this letter had not been written. But if I have been right, and if it be possible that you can think of a union between us will make us both happier than we are single, I will plight you my word and troth with good faith, and will do what an old man may do to make the burden of the world lie light on your shoulders. Looking at my age I can hardly keep myself from thinking that I am an old fool; but I try to reconcile myself to that by remembering that you yourself are no longer a girl. You see that I pay you no compliments, and that you need expect none from me.
‘I do not know that I could add anything to the truth of this, if I were to write three times as much. All that is necessary is, that you should know what I mean. If you do not believe me to be true and honest already, nothing that I can write will make you believe it.
‘God bless you. I know you will not keep me long in suspense for an answer.
‘Affectionately your friend ‘THOMAS THORNE’
When he had finished he meditated again for another half-hour whether it would not be right that he should add something about her money. Would it not be well for him to tell her — it might be said in a postscript — that with regard to all her wealth she would be free to do what she chose? At any rate he owed no debts for her to pay, and would still have his own income, sufficient for his own purposes. But about one o’clock he came to the conclusion that it would be better to leave the matter alone. If she cared for him, and could trust him, and was worthy also that he should trust her, no omission of such statement would deter her from coming to him: and if there were no such trust, it would not be created by any such assurance on his part. So he read the letter over twice, sealed it, and took it up, together with his bed candle, into his bedroom. Now that the letter was written it seemed to be a thing fixed by fate that it must go. He had written it that he might see how it looked when written; but now that it was written, there remained no doubt that it must be sent. So he went to bed, with the letter on the toilette-table beside him; and early in the morning — so early as to make it seem that the importance of the letter had disturbed his rest — he sent it off by a special messenger to Boxall Hill. ‘I’se wait for an answer?’ said the boy.
‘No,’ said the doctor: ‘leave the letter and come away.’
The breakfast hour was not very early at Boxall Hill in these summer months. Frank Gresham, no doubt, went round his farm before he came in for prayers, and his wife was probably looking to the butter in the dairy. At any rate, they did not meet till near ten, and therefore, though the ride from Greshambury to Boxall Hill was nearly two hours’ work, Miss Dunstable had her letter in her own room before she came down. She read it in silence as she was dressing, while the maid was with her in the room; but she made no sign which could induce her Abigail to think that the epistle was more than ordinarily important. She read it, and then quietly refolding it and placing it in the envelope, she put it down on the table at which she was sitting. It was full fifteen minutes afterwards that she begged her servant to see if Mrs Gresham were still in her own room. ‘Because I want to see her for five minutes, alone, before breakfast,’ said Miss Dunstable.
‘You traitor; you false, black traitor!’ were the first words which Miss Dunstable spoke when she found herself alone with her friend.
‘Why, what is the matter?’
‘I did not think there was so much mischief in you, nor so keen and commonplace a desire for match-making. Look here. Read the first four lines; not more, if you please; the rest is private. Whose is the other judgement of whom your uncle speaks in his letter?’
‘Oh, Miss Dunstable! I must read it all.’
‘Indeed you’ll do no such thing. You think it’s a love-letter, I dare say; but indeed there’s not a word about love in it.’
‘I know he has offered. I shall be glad, for I know you like him.’
‘He tells me that I am an old woman, and insinuates that I may probably be an old fool.’
‘I am sure he does not say that.’
‘Ah! but I’m sure that he does. The former is true enough, and I never complain of the truth. But as to the latter, I am by no means certain that it is true — not in the sense that he means it.’
‘Dear, dearest woman, don’t go on in that way now. Do speak out to me, and speak without jesting.’
‘Whose was the other judgement to whom he trusts so implicitly? Tell me that.’
‘Mine, mine, of course. No one else can have spoken to him about it. Of course I talked to him.’
‘And what did you tell him?’
‘I told him —’
‘Well, out with it. Let me have the real facts. Mind, I tell you fairly that you had no right to tell him anything. What passed between us, passed in confidence. But let us hear what you did say.’
‘I told him that you would have him if he offered.’ And Mrs Gresham, as she spoke, looked into her friend’s face doubtingly, not knowing whether in very truth Miss Dunstable were pleased or displeased. If she were displeased, then how had her uncle been deceived!’
‘You told him that as a fact?’
‘I told him that I thought so.’
‘Then, I suppose I am bound to have him,’ said Miss Dunstable, dropping the letter on to the floor in mock despair.
‘My dear, dear, dearest woman!’ said Mrs Gresham, bursting into tears, and throwing herself on to her friend’s neck.
‘Mind you are a dutiful niece,’ said Miss Dunstable. ‘And let me go and finish dressing.’
In the course of the afternoon, an answer was sent back to Greshambury, in these words.
‘DEAR DR THORNE, I do and will trust you in everything; and it shall be as you would have it. Mary writes to you; but do not believe a word she says. I never will again, for she has behaved so bad in this matter. ‘Yours very affectionately and very truly, ‘MARTHA DUNSTABLE.
‘And so I am going to marry the richest woman in England,’ said Dr Thorne to himself, as he sat down that day to his mutton-chop.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01