As Hugh Stanbury went over to Lessboro’, and from thence to Nuncombe Putney, he thought more of himself and Nora Rowley than he did of Mr and Mrs Trevelyan. As to Mrs Trevelyan and Colonel Osborne, he felt that he knew everything that it was necessary that he should know. The man had been there, and had seen Mrs Trevelyan. Of that there could be no doubt. That Colonel Osborne had been wickedly indifferent to the evil consequences of such a visit, and that all the women concerned had been most foolish in permitting him to make it, was his present conviction. But he did not for a moment doubt that the visit had in itself been of all things the most innocent. Trevelyan had sworn that if his wife received the man at Nuncombe Putney, he would never see her again. She had seen him, and this oath would be remembered, and there would be increased difficulties. But these difficulties, whatever they might be, must be overcome. When he had told himself this, then he allowed his mind to settle itself on Nora Rowley.
Hitherto he had known Miss Rowley only as a fashionable girl living with the wife of an intimate friend of his own in London. He had never been staying in the same house with her. Circumstances had never given to him the opportunity of assuming the manner of an intimate friend, justifying him in giving advice, and authorising him to assume that semi-paternal tone which is by far the easiest preliminary to love-making. When a man can tell a young lady what she ought to read, what she ought to do, and whom she ought to know, nothing can be easier than to assure her that, of all her duties, her first duty is to prefer himself to all the world. And any young lady who has consented to receive lessons from such a teacher, will generally be willing to receive this special lesson among others. But Stanbury had hitherto had no such opportunities. In London Miss Rowley had been a fashionable young lady, living in Mayfair, and he had been well, anything but a fashionable young man. Nevertheless, he had seen her often, had sat by her very frequently, was quite sure that he loved her dearly, and had, perhaps, some self-flattering idea in his mind that had he stuck to his honourable profession as a barrister, and were he possessed of some comfortable little fortune of his own, he might, perhaps, have been able, after due siege operations, to make this charming young woman his own. Things were quite changed now. For the present, Miss Rowley certainly could not be regarded as a fashionable London young lady. The house in which he would see her was, in some sort, his own. He would be sleeping under the same roof with her, and would have all the advantages which such a position could give him. He would have no difficulty now in asking, if he should choose to ask; and he thought that she might be somewhat softer, somewhat more likely to yield at Nuncombe Putney, than she would have been in London. She was at Nuncombe in weak circumstances, to a certain degree friendless; with none of the excitement of society around her, with no elder sons buzzing about her and filling her mind, if not her heart, with the glories of luxurious primogeniture. Hugh Stanbury certainly did not dream that any special elder son had as yet been so attracted as to have made a journey to Nuncombe Putney on Nora’s behalf. But should he on this account, because she would be, as it were, without means of defence from his attack, should he therefore take advantage of her weakness? She would, of course, go back to her London life after some short absence, and would again, if free, have her chance among the favoured ones of the earth. What had he to offer to her? He had taken the Clock House for his mother, and it would be quite as much as he could do, when Mrs Trevelyan should have left the village, to keep up that establishment and maintain himself in London, quite as much as he could do, even though the favours of the ‘D. R.’ should flow upon him with their fullest tides. In such circumstances, would it be honourable in him to ask a girl to love him because he found her defenceless in his mother’s house?
‘If there bain’t another for Nuncombe,’ said Mrs. Clegg’s Ostler to Mrs Clegg’s Boots, as Stanbury was driven off in a gig.
‘That be young Stanbury, a-going of whome.’
‘They be all a-going for the Clock House. Since the old ‘ooman took to thick there house, there be folk a-comin’ and a-goin’ every day loike.’
‘It’s along of the madam that they keeps there, Dick,’ said the Boots.
‘I didn’t care if there’d be madams allays. They’re the best as is going for trade anyhow,’ said the ostler. What the ostler said was true. When there comes to be a feeling that a woman’s character is in any way tarnished, there comes another feeling that everybody on the one side may charge double, and that everybody on the other side must pay double, for everything. Hugh Stanbury could not understand why he was charged a shilling a mile, instead of ninepence, for the gig to Nuncombe Putney. He got no satisfactory answer, and had to pay the shilling. The truth was, that gigs to Nuncombe Putney had gone up, since a lady, separated from her husband, with a colonel running after her, had been taken in at the Clock House.
‘Here’s Hugh!’ said Priscilla, hurrying to the front door. And Mrs Stanbury hurried after her. Her son Hugh was the apple of her eye, the best son that ever lived, generous, noble, a thorough man, almost a god!
‘Dear, dear, oh dear! Who’d have expected it? God bless you, my boy! Why didn’t you write? Priscilla, what is there in the house that he can eat?’
‘Plenty of bread and cheese,’ said Priscilla, laughing, with her hand inside her brother’s arm. For though Priscilla hated all other men, she did not hate her brother Hugh. ‘If you wanted things nice to eat directly you got here, you ought to have written.’
‘I shall want my dinner, like any other Christian in due time,’ said Hugh. ‘And how is Mrs Trevelyan and how is Miss Rowley?’
He soon found himself in company with those two ladies, and experienced some immediate difficulty in explaining the cause of his sudden coming. But this was soon put aside by Mrs Trevelyan.
‘When did you see my husband?’ she asked.
‘I saw him yesterday. He was quite well.’
‘Colonel Osborne has been here,’ she said.
‘I know that he has been here. I met him at the station at Exeter. Perhaps I should not say so, but I wish he had remained away.’
‘We all wish it,’ said Priscilla.
Then Nora spoke. ‘But what could we do, Mr Stanbury? It seemed so natural that he should call when he was in the neighbourhood. We have known him so long; and how could we refuse to see him?’
‘I will not let any one think that I’m afraid to see any man on earth,’ said Mrs Trevelyan. ‘If he had ever in his life said a word that he should not have said, a word that would have been an insult, of course it would have been different. But the notion of it is preposterous. Why should I not have seen him?’
‘I think he was wrong to come,’ said Hugh.
‘Of course he was wrong, wickedly wrong,’ said Priscilla.
Stanbury, finding that the subject was openly discussed between them, declared plainly the mission that had brought him to Nuncombe. ‘Trevelyan heard that he was coming, and asked me to let him know the truth,’
‘Now you can tell him the truth,’ said Mrs Trevelyan, with something of indignation in her tone, as though she thought that Stanbury had taken upon himself a task of which he ought to be ashamed.
‘But Colonel Osborne came specially to pay a visit to Cockchaffington,’ said Nora, ‘and not to see us. Louis ought to know that.’
‘Nora, how can you demean yourself to care about such trash?’ said Mrs Trevelyan. ‘Who cares why he came here? His visit to me was a thing of course. If Mr Trevelyan disapproves of it, let him say so, and not send secret messengers.’
‘Am I a secret messenger?’ said Hugh Stanbury.
‘There has been a man here, inquiring of the servants,’ said Priscilla. So that odious Bozzle had made his foul mission known to them! Stanbury, however, thought it best to say nothing of Bozzle, not to acknowledge that he had ever heard of Bozzle. ‘I am sure Mrs Trevelyan does not mean you,’ said Priscilla.
‘I do not know what I mean,’ said Mrs Trevelyan.
‘I am so harassed and fevered by these suspicions that I am driven nearly mad.’ Then she left the room for a minute and returned with two letters. ‘There, Mr Stanbury; I got that note from Colonel Osborne, and wrote to him that reply. You know all about it now. Can you say that I was wrong to see him?’
‘I am sure that he was wrong to come,’ said Hugh.
‘Wickedly wrong,’ said Priscilla, again.
‘You can keep the letters, and show, them to my husband,’ said Mrs Trevelyan; ‘then he will know all about it.’ But Stanbury declined to keep the letters.
He was to remain the Sunday at Nuncombe Putney and return to London on the Monday. There was, therefore, but one day on which he could say what he had to say to Nora Rowley. When he came down to breakfast on the Sunday morning he had almost made up his mind that he had nothing to say to her. As for Nora, she was in a state of mind much less near to any fixed purpose. She had told herself that she loved this man — had indeed done so in the clearest way, by acknowledging the fact of her love, to another suitor, by pleading to that other suitor the fact of her love as an insuperable reason why he should be rejected. There was no longer any doubt about it to her. When Priscilla had declared that Hugh Stanbury was at the door, her heart had gone into her mouth. Involuntarily she had pressed her hands to her sides, and had held her breath. Why had he come there? Had he come there for her? Oh! if he had come there for her, and if she might dare to forget all the future, how sweet, sweetest of all things in heaven or earth, might be an August evening with him among the lanes! But she, too, had endeavoured to be very prudent. She had told herself that she was quite unfit to be the wife of a poor man, that she would be only a burden round his neck, and not an aid to him. And in so telling herself, she had told herself also that she had been a fool not to accept Mr Glascock. She should have dragged out from her heart the image of this man who had never even whispered a word of love in her ears, and should have constrained herself to receive with affection a man in loving whom there ought to be no difficulty. But when she had been repeating those lessons to herself, Hugh Stanbury had not been in the house. Now he was there, and what must be her answer if he should whisper that word of love? She had an idea that it would be treason in her to disown the love she felt, if questioned concerning her heart by the man to whom it had been given.
They all went to church on the Sunday morning, and up to that time Nora had not been a moment alone with the man. It had been decided that they should dine early, and then ramble out, when the evening would be less hot than the day had been, to a spot called Niddon Park. This was nearly three miles from Nuncombe, and was a beautiful wild slope of ground full of ancient, blighted, blasted, but still half-living oaks, oaks that still brought forth leaves overlooking a bend of the river Teign. Park, in the usual sense of the word, there was none, nor did they who lived round Nuncombe Putney know whether Niddon Park had ever been enclosed. But of all the spots in that lovely neighbourhood, Priscilla Stanbury swore that it was the loveliest; and, as it had never yet been seen by Mrs Trevelyan or her sister, it was determined that they would walk there on this August afternoon. There were four of them and as was natural, they fell into parties of two and two. But Priscilla walked with Nora, and Hugh Stanbury walked with his friend’s wife. Nora was talkative, but demure in her manner, and speaking now and again as though she were giving words and not thoughts. She felt that there was something to hide, and was suffering from disappointment that their party should not have been otherwise divided. Had Hugh spoken to her and asked her to be his wife, she could not have accepted him, because she knew that they were both poor, and that she was not fit to keep a poor man’s house. She had declared to herself most plainly that that must be her course but yet she was disappointed, and talked in the knowledge that she had something to conceal.
When they were seated beneath an old riven, withered oak, looking down upon the river, they were still divided in the same way. In seating herself she had been very anxious not to disarrange that arrangement, almost equally anxious not to seem to adhere to it with any special purpose. She was very careful that there should be nothing seen in her manner that was in any way special, but in the meantime she was suffering an agony of trouble. He did not care for her in the least. She was becoming sure of that. She had given all her love to a man who had none to give her in return. As she thought of this she almost longed for the offer of that which she knew she could not have accepted had it been offered to her. But she talked on about the scenery, about the weather, descanting on the pleasure of living where such loveliness was within reach. Then there came a pause for a moment. ‘Nora’ said Priscilla, ‘I do not know what you are thinking about, but it is not of the beauty of Niddon Park. Then there came a faint sound as of an hysterical sob, and then a gurgle in the throat, and then a pretence at laughter.
‘I don’t believe I am thinking of anything at all’ said Nora.
After which Hugh insisted on descending to the bank of the river, but, as the necessity of re-climbing the slope was quite manifest, none of the girls would go with him. ‘Come, Miss Rowley’ said he, ‘will you not show them that a lady can go up and down a hill as well as a man?’
‘I had rather not go up and down the hill’ said she.
Then he understood that she was angry with him; and in some sort surmised the cause of her anger. Not that he believed that she loved him; but it seemed possible to him that she resented the absence of his attention. He went down, and scrambled out on the rocks into the bed of the river, while the girls above looked down upon him, watching the leaps that he made. Priscilla and Mrs Trevelyan called to him, bidding him beware; but Nora called not at all. He was whistling as he made his jumps, but still he heard their voices, and knew that he did not hear Nora’s voice. He poised himself on the edge of a rock in the middle of the stream, and looked up the river and down the river, turning himself carefully on his narrow foothold; but he was thinking only of Nora. Could there be anything nobler than to struggle on with her, if she only would be willing? But then she was young; and should she yield to such a request from him, she would not know what she was yielding. He turned again, jumping from rock to rock till he reached the bank, and then made his way again up to the withered oak.
‘You would not have repented it if you had come down with me’ he said to Nora.
‘I am not so sure of that’ she answered.
When they started to return she stepped on gallantly with Priscilla; but Priscilla was stopped by some chance, having some word to say to her brother, having some other word to say to Mrs Trevelyan. Could it be that her austerity had been softened, and that in kindness they contrived that Nora should be left some yards behind them with her brother? Whether it were kindness, or an unkind error, so it was. Nora, when she perceived what destiny was doing for her, would not interfere with destiny. If he chose to speak to her she would hear him and would answer him. She knew very well what answer she would give him. She had her answer quite ready at her fingers’ ends. There was no doubt about her answer.
They had walked half a mile together and he had spoken of nothing but the scenery. She had endeavoured to appear to be excited. Oh, yes, the scenery of Devonshire was delightful. She hardly wanted anything more to make her happy. If only this misery respecting her sister could be set right!
‘And you, you yourself’ said he, ‘do you mean that there is nothing you want in leaving London?’
‘Not much, indeed.’
‘It sometimes seemed to me that that kind of life was was very pleasant to you.’
‘What kind of life, Mr Stanbury?’
‘The life that you were living — going out, being admired, and having the rich and dainty all around you.’
‘I don’t dislike people because they are rich’ she said.
‘No; nor do I; and I despise those who affect to dislike them. But all cannot be rich.’
‘Nor all dainty, as you choose to call them.’
‘But they who have once been dainty as I call them never like to divest themselves of their daintiness. You have been one of the dainty, Miss Rowley.’
‘Certainly; I doubt whether you would be happy if you thought that your daintiness had departed from you.’
‘I hope, Mr Stanbury, that nothing nice and pleasant has departed from me. If I have ever been dainty, dainty I hope. I may remain. I will never, at, any rate, give it up of my own accord’. Why she said this, she could never explain to herself. She had certainly not intended to rebuff him when she had been saying it. But he spoke not a word to her further as they walked home, either of her mode of life or of his own.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14