The triumph of Miss Stanbury when she received her niece’s letter was certainly very great — so great that in its first flush she could not restrain herself from exhibiting it to Dorothy. ‘Well well what do you think, Dolly?’
‘About what, aunt? I don’t know who the letter is from.’
‘Nobody writes to me now so constant as your sister Priscilla. The letter is from Priscilla. Colonel Osborne has been at the Clock House, after all. I knew that he would be there. I knew it! I knew it!’
Dorothy, when she heard this, was dumbfounded. She had rested her defence of her mother and sister on the impossibility of any such visit being admitted. According to her lights the coming of Colonel Osborne, after all that had been said, would be like the coming of Lucifer himself. The Colonel was, to her imagination, a horrible roaring lion. She had no idea that the erratic manoeuvres of such a beast might be milder and more innocent than the wooing of any turtle-dove. She would have asked whether the roaring lion had gone away again, and, if so, whether he had taken his prey with him, were it not that she was too much frightened at the moment to ask any question. That her mother and sister should have been wilfully concerned in such iniquity was quite incredible to her, but yet she did not know how to defend them. ‘But are you quite sure of it, Aunt Stanbury? May there not be another mistake?’
‘No mistake this time, I think, my dear. Any way, Priscilla says that he is there.’ Now in this there was a mistake. Priscilla had said nothing of the kind.
‘You don’t mean that he is staying at the Clock House, Aunt Stanbury?’
‘I don’t know where he is now. I’m not his keeper. And, I’m glad to say, I’m not the lady’s keeper either. Ah, me! It’s a bad business. You can’t touch pitch and not be defiled, my dear. If your mother wanted the Clock House, I would sooner have taken it for her myself than that all this should have happened for the family’s sake.’
But Miss Stanbury, when she was alone, and when she had read her niece’s three letters again and again, began to understand something of Priscilla’s honesty, and began also to perceive that there might have been a great difficulty respecting the Colonel, for which neither her niece nor her sister-inlaw could fairly be held to be responsible. It was perhaps the plainest characteristic of all the Stanburys that they were never wilfully dishonest. Ignorant, prejudiced, and passionate they might be. In her anger Miss Stanbury, of Exeter, could be almost malicious; and her niece at Nuncombe Putney was very like her aunt. Each could say most cruel things, most unjust things, when actuated by a mistaken consciousness of perfect right on her own side. But neither of them could lie even by silence. Let an error be brought home to either of them so as to be acknowledged at home and the error would be assuredly confessed aloud. And, indeed, with differences in the shades, Hugh and Dorothy were of the same nature. They were possessed of sweeter tempers than their aunt and sister, but they were filled with the same eager readiness to believe themselves to be right and to own themselves to others to be wrong, when they had been constrained to make such confession to themselves. The chances of life, and something probably of inner nature, had made Dorothy mild and obedient; whereas, in regard to Hugh, the circumstances of his life and disposition had made him obstinate and self-reliant. But in all was to be found the same belief in self which amounted almost to conceit, the same warmth of affection, and the same love of justice.
When Miss Stanbury had again perused the correspondence, and had come to see, dimly, how things had gone at Nuncombe Putney, when the conviction came upon her mind that Priscilla had entertained a horror as to the coming of this Colonel equal to that which she herself had felt when her imagination painted to her all that her niece had suffered, her heart was softened somewhat. She had declared to Dorothy that pitch, if touched, would certainly defile; and she had, at first, intended to send the same opinion, couched in very forcible words, to her correspondents at the Clock House. They should not continue to go astray for want of being told that they were going astray. It must be acknowledged, too, that there was a certain amount of ignoble wrath in the bosom of Miss Stanbury because her sister-inlaw had taken the Clock House. She had never been told, and had not even condescended to ask Dorothy, whether the house was taken and paid for by her nephew on behalf of his mother, or whether it was paid for by Mr Trevelyan on behalf of his wife. In the latter case, Mrs Stanbury would, she thought, be little more than an upper servant, or keeper as she expressed it to herself. Such an arrangement appeared to her to be quite disgraceful in a Stanbury; but yet she believed that such must be the existing arrangement, as she could not bring herself to conceive that Hugh Stanbury could keep such an establishment over his mother’s head out of money earned by writing for a penny newspaper. There would be a triumph of democracy in this which would vanquish her altogether. She had, therefore, been anxious enough to trample on Priscilla and upon all the affairs of the Clock House; but yet she had been unable to ignore the nobility of Priscilla’s truth, and having acknowledged it to herself she found herself compelled to acknowledge it aloud. She sat down to think in silence, and it was not till she had fortified herself by her first draught of beer, and till she had finished her first portion of bread and cheese, that she spoke. ‘I have written to your sister herself, this time,’ she said. ‘I don’t know that I ever wrote a line to her before in my life.’
‘Poor Priscilla!’ Dorothy did not mean to be severe on her aunt, either in regard to the letters which had not been written, or to the one letter which now had been written. But Dorothy pitied her sister, whom she felt to be in trouble.
‘Well; I don’t know about her being so poor. Priscilla, I’ll be bound, thinks as well of herself as any of us do.’
‘She’d cut her fingers off before she’d mean to do wrong,’ said Dorothy.
‘But what does that come to? What’s the good of that? It isn’t meaning to do right that will save us. For aught I know, the Radicals may mean to do right. Mr Beales means to do right perhaps.’
‘But, aunt if everybody did the best they could?’
‘Tush, my dear! you are getting beyond your depth. There are such things still, thank God! as spiritual pastors and masters. Entrust yourself to them. Do what they think right.’ Now if aught were known in Exeter of Miss Stanbury, this was known that if any clergyman volunteered to give to her, unasked and uninvited, counsel, either ghostly or bodily, that clergyman would be sent from her presence with a wigging which he would not soon forget. The thing had been tried more than once, and the wigging had been complete. There was no more attentive listener in church than Miss Stanbury; and she would, now and again, appeal to a clergyman on some knotty point. But for the ordinary authority of spiritual pastors and masters she shewed more of abstract reverence than of practical obedience.
‘I’m sure Priscilla does the best she can,’ said Dorothy, going back to the old subject.
‘Ah well yes. What I want to say about Priscilla is this. It is a thousand pities she is so obstinate, so pigheaded, so certain that she can manage everything for herself better than anybody else can for her.’ Miss Stanbury was striving to say something good of her niece, but found the task to be difficult and distasteful to her.
‘She has managed for mamma ever so many years; and since she took it we have hardly ever been in debt,’ said Dorothy.
‘She’ll do all that, I don’t doubt. I don’t suppose she cares much for ribbons and false hair for herself.’
‘Who? Priscilla! The idea of Priscilla with false hair!’
‘I dare say not, I dare say not. I do not think she’d spend her mother’s money on things of that kind.’
‘Aunt Stanbury, you don’t know her.’
‘Ah; very well. Perhaps I don’t. But, come, my dear, you are very hard upon me, and very anxious to take your sister’s part. And what is it all about? I’ve just written to her as civil a letter as one woman ever wrote to another. And if I had chosen, I could have could have h m m.’ Miss Stanbury, as she hesitated for words in which to complete her sentence, revelled in the strength of the vituperation which she could have poured upon her niece’s head, had she chosen to write her last letter about Colonel Osborne in her severe strain.
‘If you have written kindly to her, I am so much obliged to you,’ said Dorothy.
‘The truth is, Priscilla has meant to be right. Meaning won’t go for much when the account is taken, unless the meaning comes from a proper source. But the poor girl has done as well as she has known how. I believe it is Hugh’s fault more than anybody else’s.’ This accusation was not pleasant to Dorothy, but she was too intent just now on Priscilla’s case to defend her brother, ‘That man never ought to have been there; and that woman never ought to have been there. There cannot be a doubt about that. If Priscilla were sitting there opposite to me, she would own as much. I am sure she would.’ Miss Stanbury was quite right if she meant to assert that Priscilla had owned as much to herself. ‘And because I think so, I am willing to forgive her part in the matter. To me, personally, she has always been rude — most uncourteous and, and, and unlike a younger woman to an older one, and an aunt, and all that. I suppose it is because she hates me.’
‘Oh, no, Aunt Stanbury!’
‘My dear, I suppose it is. Why else should she treat me in such a way? But I do believe of her that she would rather eat an honest, dry crust, than dishonest cake and ale.’
‘She would rather starve than pick up a crumb that was dishonest,’ said Dorothy, fairly bursting out into tears.
‘I believe it. I do believe it. There; what more can I say? Clock House, indeed! What matter what house you live in, so that you can pay the rent of it honestly?’
‘But the rent is paid honestly,’ said Dorothy, amidst her sobs.
‘It’s paid, I don’t doubt. I dare say the woman’s husband and your brother see to that among them. Oh, that my boy, Hugh, as he used to be, should have brought us all to this! But there’s no knowing what they won’t do among them. Reform, indeed! Murder, sacrilege, adultery, treason, atheism — that’s what Reform means; besides every kind of nastiness under the sun.’ In which latter category Miss Stanbury intended especially to include bad printer’s ink, and paper made of straw.
The reader may as well see the letter, which was as civil a letter as ever one woman wrote to another, so that the collection of the Stanbury correspondence may be made perfect.
‘The Close, August 6, 186-.
My Dear Niece,
Your letter has not astonished me nearly as much as you expected it would. I am an older woman than you, and, though you will not believe it, I have seen more of the world. I knew that the gentleman would come after the lady. Such gentlemen always do go after their ladies. As for yourself, I can see all that you have done, and pretty nearly hear all that you have said, as plain as a pikestaff. I do you the credit of believing that the plan is none of your making. I know who made the plan, and a very bad plan it is.
As to my former letters and the other man, I understand all about it. You were very angry that I should accuse you of having this man at the house; and you were right to be angry. I respect you for having been angry. But what does all that say as to his coming — now that he has come?
If you will consent to take an old woman’s advice, get rid of the whole boiling of them. I say it in firm love and friendship, for I am
Your affectionate aunt,
The special vaunted courtesy of this letter consisted, no doubt, in the expression of respect which it contained, and in that declaration of affection with which it terminated. The epithet was one which Miss Stanbury would by no means use promiscuously in writing to her nearest relatives. She had not intended to use it when she commenced her letter to Priscilla. But the respect of which she had spoken had glowed, and had warmed itself into something of temporary love; and feeling at the moment that she was an affectionate aunt, Miss Stanbury had so put herself down in her letter. Having done such a deed she felt that Dorothy, though Dorothy knew nothing about it, ought in her gratitude to listen patiently to anything that she might now choose to say against Priscilla.
But Dorothy was in truth very miserable, and in her misery wrote a long letter that afternoon to her mother which, however, it will not be necessary to place entire among the Stanbury records begging that she might be informed as to the true circumstances of the case. She did not say a word of censure in regard either to her mother or sister; but she expressed an opinion in the mildest words which she could use, that if anything had happened which had compromised their names since their residence at the Clock House, she, Dorothy, had better go home and join them. The meaning of which was that it would not become her to remain in the house in the Close, if the house in the Close would be disgraced by her presence, Poor Dorothy had taught herself to think that the iniquity of roaring lions spread itself very widely.
In the afternoon she made some such proposition to her aunt in ambiguous terms. ‘Go home!’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘Now?’
‘If you think it best, Aunt Stanbury’
‘And put yourself in the middle of all this iniquity and abomination! I don’t suppose you want to know the woman?’
‘Or the man?’
‘Oh, Aunt Stanbury!’
‘It’s my belief that no decent gentleman in Exeter would look at you again if you were to go and live among them at Nuncombe Putney while all this is going on. No, no. Let one of you be saved out of it, at least.’ Aunt Stanbury had more than once made use of expressions which brought the faintest touch of gentle pink up to her niece’s cheeks. We must do Dorothy the justice of saying that she had never dreamed of being looked at by any gentleman, whether decent or indecent. Her life at Nuncombe Putney had been of such a nature, that though she knew that other girls were looked at, and even made love to, and that they got married and had children, no dim vision of such a career for herself had ever presented itself to her eyes. She had known very well that her mother and sister and herself were people apart, ladies, and yet so extremely poor that they could only maintain their rank by the most rigid seclusion. To live, and work unseen, was what the world had ordained for her. Then her call to Exeter had come upon her, and she had conceived that she was henceforth to be the humble companion of a very imperious old aunt. Her aunt, indeed, was imperious, but did not seem to require humility in her companion. All the good things that were eaten and drunk were divided between them with the strictest impartiality. Dorothy’s cushion and hassock in the church and in the cathedral were the same as her aunt’s. Her bed-room was made very comfortable for her. Her aunt never gave her any orders before company, and always spoke of her before the servants as one whom they were to obey and respect. Gradually Dorothy came to understand the meaning of this, but her aunt would sometimes say things about young men which she did not quite understand. Could it be that her aunt supposed that any young man would come and wish to marry her — her, Dorothy Stanbury? She herself had not quite so strong an aversion to men in general as that which Priscilla felt, but she had not as yet found that any of those whom she had seen at Exeter were peculiarly agreeable to her. Before she went to bed that night her aunt said a word to her which startled her more than she had ever been startled before. On that evening Miss Stanbury had a few friends to drink tea with her. There were Mr and Mrs Crumbie, and Mrs MacHugh of course, and the Cheritons from Alphington, and the Miss Apjohns from Helion Villa, and old Mr Powel all the way from Haldon, and two of the Wrights from their house in the Northernhay, and Mr Gibson; but the Miss Frenches from Heavitree were not there. ‘Why don’t you have the Miss Frenches, aunt?’ Dorothy had asked.
‘Bother the Miss Frenches! I’m not bound to have them every time. There’s Camilla has been and got herself a band-box on the back of her head a great deal bigger than the place inside where her brains ought to be.’ But the band-box at the back of Camilla French’s head was not the sole cause of the omission of the two sisters from the list of Miss Stanbury’s visitors on this occasion.
The party went off very much as usual. There were two whist tables, for Miss Stanbury could not bear to cut out. At other houses than her own, when there was cutting out, it was quite understood that Miss Stanbury was to be allowed to keep her place. ‘I’ll go away, and sit out there by myself, if you like,’ she would say. But she was never thus banished; and at her own house she usually contrived that there should be no system of banishment. She would play dummy whist, preferring it to the four-handed game; and, when hard driven, and with a meet opponent, would not even despise double-dummy. It was told of her and of Mrs MacHugh that they had played double-dummy for a whole evening together; and they who were given to calumny had declared that the candles on that evening had been lighted very early. On the present occasion a great many sixpenny points were scored, and much tea and cake were consumed. Mr Gibson never played whist nor did Dorothy. That young John Wright and Mary Cheriton should do nothing but talk to each other was a thing of course, as they were to be married in a month or two. Then there was Ida Cheriton, who could not very well be left at home; and Mr Gibson made himself pleasant to Dorothy and Ida Cheriton, instead of making himself pleasant to the two Miss Frenches. Gentlemen in provincial towns quite understand that, from the nature of social circumstances in the provinces, they should always be ready to be pleasant at least to a pair at a time. At a few minutes before twelve they were all gone, and then came the shock.
‘Dolly, my dear, what do you think of Mr Gibson?’
‘Think of him, Aunt Stanbury?’
‘Yes; think of him think of him. I suppose you know how to think?’
‘He seems to me always to preach very drawling sermons.’
‘Oh, bother his sermons! I don’t care anything about his sermons now. He is a very good clergyman, and the Dean thinks very much about him.’
‘I am glad of that, Aunt Stanbury.’ Then came the shock. ‘Don’t you think it would be a very good thing if you were to become Mrs Gibson?’
It may be presumed that Miss Stanbury had assured herself that she could not make progress with Dorothy by ‘beating about the bush.’ There was an inaptitude in her niece to comprehend the advantages of the situations, which made some direct explanation absolutely necessary. Dorothy stood half smiling, half crying, when she heard the proposition, her cheeks suffused with that pink colour, and with both her hands extended with surprise.
‘I’ve been thinking about it ever since you’ve been here,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘I think he likes Miss French,’ said Dorothy, in a whisper.
‘Which of them? I don’t believe he likes them at all. Maybe, if they go on long enough, they may be able to toss up for him. But I don’t think it of him. Of course they’re after him, but he’ll be too wise for them. And he’s more of a fool than I take him to be if he don’t prefer you to them.’ Dorothy remained quite silent. To such an address as this it was impossible that she should reply a word. It was incredible to her that any man should prefer herself to either of the young women in question; but she was too much confounded for the expression even of her humility. ‘At any rate you’re wholesome, and pleasant and modest,’ said Miss Stanbury.
Dorothy did not quite like being told that she was wholesome; but, nevertheless, she was thankful to her aunt.
‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ continued Miss Stanbury; ‘I hate all mysteries, especially with those I love. I’ve saved two thousand pounds, which I’ve put you down for in my will. Now, if you and he can make it up together, I’ll give you the money at once. There’s no knowing how often an old woman may alter her will; but when you’ve got a thing, you’ve got it. Mr Gibson would know the meaning of a bird in the hand as well as anybody. Now those girls at Heavitree will never have above a few hundreds each, and not that while their mother lives.’ Dorothy made one little attempt at squeezing her aunt’s hand, wishing to thank her aunt for this affectionate generosity; but she had hardly accomplished the squeeze, when she desisted, feeling strangely averse to any acknowledgment of such a boon as that which had been offered to her. ‘And now, good night, my dear. If I did not think you a very sensible young woman, I should not trust you by saying all this.’ Then they parted, and Dorothy soon found herself alone in her bedroom.
To have a husband of her own, a perfect gentleman too, and a clergyman and to go to him with a fortune! She believed that two thousand pounds represented nearly a hundred a year. It was a large fortune in those parts according to her understanding of ladies’ fortunes. And that she, the humblest of the humble, should be selected for so honourable a position! She had never quite known, quite understood as yet, whether she had made good her footing in her aunt’s house in a manner pleasant to her aunt. More than once or twice she had spoken even of going back to her mother, and things had been said which had almost made her think that her aunt had been angry with her. But now, after a month or two of joint residence, her aunt was offering to her two thousand pounds and a husband!
But was it within her aunt’s power to offer to her the husband? Mr Gibson had always been very civil to her. She had spoken more to Mr Gibson than to any other man in Exeter. But it had never occurred to her for a moment that Mr Gibson had any special liking for her. Was it probable that he would ever entertain any feeling of that kind for her? It certainly had occurred to her before now that Mr Gibson was sometimes bored by the Miss Frenches but then gentlemen do get bored by ladies.
And at last she asked herself another question: had she any special liking for Mr Gibson? As far as she understood such matters everything was blank there. Thinking of that other question, she went to sleep.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01