‘I’ll bet you half-a-crown, my lad, you’re thrown over at last, like the rest of them. There’s nothing she likes so much as taking some one up in order that she may throw him over afterwards.’ It was thus that Mr Bartholomew Burgess cautioned his nephew Brooke.
‘I’ll take care that she shan’t break my heart, Uncle Barty. I will go my way and she may go hers, and she may give her money to the hospital if she pleases.’
On the morning after his arrival Brooke Burgess had declared aloud in Miss Stanbury’s parlour that he was going over to the bank to see his uncle. Now there was in this almost a breach of contract. Miss Stanbury, when she invited the young man to Exeter, had stipulated that there should be no intercourse between her house and the bank. ‘Of course, I shall not need to know where you go or where you don’t go,’ she had written; ‘but after all that has passed there must not be any positive intercourse between my house and the bank And now he had spoken of going over to C and B, as he called them, with the utmost indifference. Miss Stanbury had looked very grave, but had said nothing. She had determined to be on her guard, so that she should not be driven to quarrel with Brooke if she could avoid it.
Bartholomew Burgess was a tall, thin, ill-tempered old man, as well-known in Exeter as the cathedral, and respected after a fashion. No one liked him. He said ill-natured things of all his neighbours, and had never earned any reputation for doing good-natured acts. But he had lived in Exeter for nearly seventy years, and had achieved that sort of esteem which comes from long tenure. And he had committed no great iniquities in the course of his fifty years of business. The bank had never stopped payment, and he had robbed no one. He had not swallowed up widows and orphans, and had done his work in the firm of Cropper and Burgess after the old-fashioned safe manner, which leads neither to riches nor to ruin. Therefore he was respected. But he was a discontented, sour old man, who believed himself to have been injured by all his own friends, who disliked his own partners because they had bought that which had, at any rate, never belonged to him and whose strongest passion it was to hate Miss Stanbury of the Close.
‘She’s got a parson by the hand now,’ said the uncle, as he continued his caution to the nephew.
‘There was a clergyman there last night.’
‘No doubt, and she’ll play him off against you, and you against him; and then she’ll throw you both over. I know her.’
‘She has got a right to do what she likes with her own, Uncle Barty.’
‘And how did she get it? Never mind. I’m not going to set you against her, if you’re her favourite for the moment. She has a niece with her there hasn’t she?’
‘One of her brother’s daughters.’
‘They say she’s going to make that clergyman marry her.’
‘What, Mr Gibson?’
‘Yes. They tell me he was as good as engaged to another girl, one of the Frenches of Heavitree. And therefore dear Jemima could do nothing better than interfere. When she has succeeded in breaking the girl’s heart —’
‘Which girl’s heart, Uncle Barty?’
‘The girl the man was to have married; when that’s done she’ll throw Gibson over. You’ll see. She’ll refuse to give the girl a shilling. She took the girl’s brother by the hand ever so long, and then she threw him over. And she’ll throw the girl over too, and send her back to the place she came from. And then she’ll throw you over.’
‘According to you, she must be the most malicious old woman that ever was allowed to live!’
‘I don’t think there are many to beat her, as far as malice goes. But you’ll find out for yourself. I shouldn’t be surprised if she were to tell you before long that you were to marry the niece.’
‘I shouldn’t think that such very hard lines either,’ said Brooke Burgess.
‘I’ve no doubt you may have her if you like,’ said Barty, ‘in spite of Mr Gibson. Only I should recommend you to take care and get the money first.’
When Brooke went back to the house in the Close, Miss Stanbury was quite fussy in her silence. She would have given much to have been told something about Barty, and, above all, to have learned what Barty had said about herself. But she was far too proud even to mention the old man’s name of her own accord. She was quite sure that she had been abused. She guessed, probably with tolerable accuracy, the kind of things that had been said of her, and suggested to herself what answer Brooke would make to such accusations. But she had resolved to cloak it all in silence, and pretended for awhile not to remember the young man’s declared intention when he left the house. ‘It seems odd to me,’ said Brooke, ‘that Uncle Barty should always live alone as he does. He must have a dreary time of it.’
‘I don’t know anything about your Uncle Barty’s manner of living.’
‘No I suppose not. You and he are not friends.’
‘By no means, Brooke.’
‘He lives there all alone in that poky bank-house, and nobody ever goes near him. I wonder whether he has any friends in the city?’
‘I really cannot tell you anything about his friends. And, to tell you the truth, Brooke, I don’t want to talk about your uncle. Of course, you can go to see him when you please, but I’d rather you didn’t tell me of your visits afterwards.’
‘There is nothing in the world I hate so much as a secret,’ said he. He had no intention in this of animadverting upon Miss Stanbury’s secret enmity, nor had he purposed to ask any question as to her relations with the old man. He had alluded to his dislike of having secrets of his own. But she misunderstood him.
‘If you are anxious to know —’ she said, becoming very red in the face.
‘I am not at all curious to know. You quite mistake me.’
‘He has chosen to believe or to say that he believed that I wronged him in regard to his brother’s will. I nursed his brother when he was dying as I considered it to be my duty to do. I cannot tell you all that story. It is too long, and too sad. Romance is very pretty in novels, but the romance of a life is always a melancholy matter. They are most happy who have no story to tell.’
‘I quite believe that.’
‘But your Uncle Barty chose to think indeed, I hardly know what he thought. He said that the will was a will of my making. When it was made I and his brother were apart; we were not even on speaking terms. There had been a quarrel, and all manner of folly. I am not very proud when I look back upon it. It is not that I think myself better than others; but your Uncle Brooke’s will was made before we had come together again. When he was ill it was natural that I should go to him after all that had passed between us. Eh, Brooke?’
‘It was womanly.’
‘But it made no difference about the will. Mr Bartholomew Burgess might have known that at once, and must have known it afterwards. But he has never acknowledged that he was wrong, never even yet.’
‘He could not bring himself to do that, I should say.’
‘The will was no great triumph to me. I could have done without it. As God is my judge, I would not have lifted up my little finger to get either a part or the whole of poor Brooke’s money. If I had known that a word would have done it, I would have bitten my tongue before it should have been spoken.’ She had risen from her seat, and was speaking with a solemnity that almost filled her listener with awe. She was a woman short of stature; but now, as she stood over him, she seemed to be tall and majestic. ‘But when the man was dead,’ she continued, ‘and the will was there the property was mine, and I was bound in duty to exercise the privileges and bear the responsibilities which the dead man had conferred upon me. It was Barty, then, who sent a low attorney to me, offering me a compromise. What had I to compromise? Compromise! No. If it was not mine by all the right the law could give, I would sooner have starved than have had a crust of bread out of the money.’ She had now clenched both her fists, and was shaking them rapidly as she stood over him, looking down upon him.
‘Of course it was your own.’
‘Yes. Though they asked me to compromise, and sent messages to me to frighten me, both Barty and your Uncle Tom; ay, and your father too, Brooke; they did not dare to go to law. To law, indeed! If ever there was a good will in the world, the will of your Uncle Brooke was good. They could talk, and malign me, and tell lies as to dates, and strive to make my name odious in the county; but they knew that the will was good. They did not succeed very well in what they did attempt.’
‘I would try to forget it all now, Aunt Stanbury.’
‘Forget it! How is that to be done? How can the mind forget the history of its own life? No I cannot forget it. I can forgive it.’
‘Then why not forgive it?’
‘I do. I have. Why else are you here?’
‘But forgive old Uncle Barty also!’
‘Has he forgiven me? Come now. If I wished to forgive him, how should I begin? Would he be gracious if I went to him? Does he love me, do you think or hate me? Uncle Barty is a good hater. It is the best point about him. No, Brooke, we won’t try the farce of a reconciliation after a long life of enmity. Nobody would believe us, and we should not believe each other.’
‘Then I certainly would not try.’
‘I do not mean to do so. The truth is, Brooke, you shall have it all when I’m gone, if you don’t turn against me. You won’t take to writing for penny newspapers, will you, Brooke?’ As she asked the question she put one of her hands softly on his shoulder.
‘I certainly shan’t offend in that way.’
‘And you won’t be a Radical?’
‘No, not a Radical.’
‘I mean a man to follow Beales and Bright, a republican, a putter-down of the Church, a hater of the Throne. You won’t take up that line, will you, Brooke?’
‘It isn’t my way at present, Aunt Stanbury. But a man shouldn’t promise.’
‘Ah me! It makes me sad when I think what the country is coming to. I’m told there are scores of members of Parliament who don’t pronounce their h’s. When I was young, a member of Parliament used to be a gentleman and they’ve taken to ordaining all manner of people. It used to be the case that when you met a clergyman you met a gentleman. By-the-bye, Brooke, what do you think of Mr Gibson?’
‘Mr Gibson! To tell the truth, I haven’t thought much about him yet.’
‘But you must think about him. Perhaps you haven’t thought about my niece, Dolly Stanbury?’
‘I think she’s an uncommonly nice girl.’
‘She’s not to be nice for you, young man. She’s to be married to Mr Gibson.’
‘Are they engaged?’
‘Well, no; but I intend that they shall be. You won’t begrudge that I should give my little savings to one of my own name?’
‘You don’t know me, Aunt Stanbury, if you think that I should begrudge anything that you might do with your money.’
‘Dolly has been here a month or two. I think it’s three months since she came, and I do like her. She’s soft and womanly, and hasn’t taken up those vile, filthy habits which almost all the girls have adopted. Have you seen those Frenches with the things they have on their heads?’
‘I was speaking to them yesterday.’
‘Nasty sluts! You can see the grease on their foreheads when they try to make their hair go back in the dirty French fashion. Dolly is not like that is she?’
‘She is not in the least like either of the Miss Frenches.’
‘And now I want her to become Mrs Gibson. He is quite taken.’
‘Oh dear, yes. Didn’t you see him the other night at dinner and afterwards? Of course he knows that I can give her a little bit of money, which always goes for something, Brooke. And I do think it would be such a nice thing for Dolly.’
‘And what does Dolly think about it?’
‘There’s the difficulty. She likes him well enough; I’m sure of that. And she has no stuck-up ideas about herself. She isn’t one of those who think that almost nothing is good enough for them. But —’
‘She has an objection.’
‘I don’t know what it is. I sometimes think she is so bashful and modest she doesn’t like to talk of being married even to an old woman like me.’
‘Dear me! That’s not the way of the age is it, Aunt Stanbury?’
‘It’s coming to that, Brooke, that the girls will ask the men soon. Yes and that they won’t take a refusal either. I do believe that Camilla French did ask Mr Gibson.’
‘And what did Mr Gibson say?’
‘Ah I can’t tell you that. He knows too well what he’s about to take her. He’s to come here on Friday at eleven, and you must be out of the way. I shall be out of the way too. But if Dolly says a word to you before that, mind you make her understand that she ought to accept Gibson.’
‘She’s too good for him, according to my thinking.’
‘Don’t you be a fool. How can any young woman be too good for a gentleman and a clergyman? Mr Gibson is a gentleman. Do you know, only you must not mention this, that I have a kind of idea we could get Nuncombe Putney for him. My father had the living, and my brother; and I should like it to go on in the family.’
No opportunity came in the way of Brooke Burgess to say anything in favour of Mr Gibson to Dorothy Stanbury. There did come to be very quickly a sort of intimacy between her and her aunt’s favourite; but she was one not prone to talk about her own affairs. And as to such an affair as this, a question as to whether she should or should not give herself in marriage to her suitor, she, who could not speak of it even to her own sister without a blush, who felt confused and almost confounded when receiving her aunt’s admonitions and instigations on the subject, would not have endured to hear Brooke Burgess speak on the matter. Dorothy did feel that a person easier to know than Brooke had never come in her way. She had already said as much to him as she had spoken to Mr Gibson in the three months that she had made his acquaintance. They had talked about Exeter, and about Mrs MacHugh, and the cathedral, and Tennyson’s poems, and the London theatres, and Uncle Barty, and the family quarrel. They had become quite confidential with each other on some matters. But on this heavy subject of Mr Gibson and his proposal of marriage not a word had been said. When Brooke once mentioned Mr Gibson on the Thursday morning, Dorothy within a minute had taken an opportunity of escaping from the room.
But circumstances did give him an opportunity of speaking to Mr Gibson. On the Wednesday afternoon both he and Mr Gibson were invited to drink tea at Mrs French’s house on that evening. Such invitations at Exeter were wont to be given at short dates, and both the gentlemen had said that they would go. Then Arabella French had called in the Close and had asked Miss Stanbury and Dorothy. It was well understood by Arabella that Miss Stanbury herself would not drink tea at Heavitree. And it may be that Dorothy’s company was not in truth desired. The ladies both declined. ‘Don’t you stay at home for me, my dear,’ Miss Stanbury said to her niece. But Dorothy had not been out without her aunt since she had been at Exeter, and understood perfectly that it would not be wise to commence the practice at the house of the Frenches. ‘Mr Brooke is coming, Miss Stanbury; and Mr Gibson,’ Miss French said. And Miss Stanbury had thought that there was some triumph in her tone. ‘Mr Brooke can go where he pleases, my dear,’ Miss Stanbury replied. ‘And as for Mr Gibson, I am not his keeper.’ The tone in which Miss Stanbury spoke would have implied great imprudence, had not the two ladies understood each other so thoroughly, and had not each known that it was so.
There was the accustomed set of people in Mrs French’s drawing-room, the Crumbies, and the Wrights, and the Apjohns. And Mrs MacHugh came also knowing that there would be a rubber. ‘Their naked shoulders don’t hurt me,’ Mrs MacHugh said, when her friend almost scolded her for going to the house. ‘I’m not a young man. I don’t care what they do to themselves.’ ‘You might say as much if they went naked altogether,’ Miss Stanbury had replied in anger. ‘If nobody else complained, I shouldn’t,’ said Mrs MacHugh. Mrs MacHugh got her rubber; and as she had gone for her rubber, on a distinct promise that there should be a rubber, and as there was a rubber, she felt that she had no right to say ill-natured things. ‘What does it matter to me,’ said Mrs MacHugh, ‘how nasty she is? She’s not going to be my wife.’ ‘Ugh!’ exclaimed Miss Stanbury, shaking her head both in anger and disgust.
Camilla French was by no means so bad as she was painted by Miss Stanbury, and Brooke Burgess rather liked her than otherwise. And it seemed to him that Mr Gibson did not at all dislike Arabella, and felt no repugnance at either the lady’s noddle or shoulders now that he was removed from Miss Stanbury’s influence. It was clear enough also that Arabella had not given up the attempt, although she must have admitted to herself that the claims of Dorothy Stanbury were very strong. On this evening it seemed to have been specially permitted to Arabella, who was the elder sister, to take into her own hands the management of the case. Beholders of the game had hitherto declared that Mr Gibson’s safety was secured by the constant coupling of the sisters. Neither would allow the other to hunt alone. But a common sense of the common danger had made some special strategy necessary, and Camilla hardly spoke a word to Mr Gibson during the evening. Let us hope that she found some temporary consolation in the presence of the stranger.
‘I hope you are going to stay with us ever so long, Mr Burgess?’ said Camilla.
‘A month. That is ever so long isn’t it? Why I mean to see all Devonshire within that time. I feel already that I know Exeter thoroughly and everybody in it.’
‘I’m sure we are very much flattered.’
‘As for you, Miss French, I’ve heard so much about you all my life, that I felt that I knew you before I came here.’
‘Who can have spoken to you about me?’
‘You forget how many relatives I have in the city. Do you think my Uncle Barty never writes to me?’
‘Not about me.’
‘Does he not? And do you suppose I don’t hear from Miss Stanbury?’
‘But she hates me. I know that.’
‘And do you hate her?’
‘No, indeed. I’ve the greatest respect for her. But she is a little odd; isn’t she, now, Mr Burgess? We all like her ever so much; and we’ve known her ever so long, six or seven years since we were quite young things. But she has such queer notions about girls.’
‘What sort of notions?’
‘She’d like them all to dress just like herself; and she thinks that they should never talk to young men. If she was here she’d say I was flirting with you, because we’re sitting together.’
‘But you are not; are you?’
‘Of course I am not.’
‘I wish you would,’ said Brooke.
‘I shouldn’t know how to begin. I shouldn’t, indeed. I don’t know what flirting means, and I don’t know who does know. When young ladies and gentlemen go out, I suppose they are intended to talk to each other.’
‘But very often they, don’t, you know.’
‘I call that stupid,’ said Camilla. ‘And yet, when they do, all the old maids say that the girls are flirting. I’ll tell you one thing, Mr Burgess. I don’t care what any old maid says about me. I always talk to people that I like, and if they choose to call me a flirt, they may. It’s my opinion that still waters run the deepest.’
‘No doubt the noisy streams are very shallow,’ said Brooke.
‘You may call me a shallow stream if you like, Mr Burgess.’
‘I meant nothing of the kind.’
‘But what do you call Dorothy Stanbury? That’s what I call still water. She runs deep enough.’
‘The quietest young lady I ever saw in my life.’
‘Exactly. So quiet, but so clever. What do you think of Mr Gibson?’
‘Everybody is asking me what I think of Mr Gibson.’
‘You know what they say. They say he is to marry Dorothy Stanbury. Poor man! I don’t think his own consent has ever been asked yet but, nevertheless, it’s settled.’
‘Just at present he seems to me to be what shall I say? I oughtn’t to say flirting with your sister; ought I?’
‘Miss Stanbury would say so if she were here, no doubt. But the fact is, Mr Burgess, we’ve known him almost since we were infants, and of course we take an interest in his welfare. There has never been anything more than that. Arabella is nothing more to him than I am. Once, indeed — but, however that does not signify. It would be nothing to us, if he really liked Dorothy Stanbury. But as far as we can see, and we do see a good deal of him, there is no such feeling on his part. Of course we haven’t asked. We should not think of such a thing. Mr Gibson may do just as he likes for us. But I am not quite sure that Dorothy Stanbury is just the girl that would make him a good wife. Of course when you’ve known a person seven or eight years you do get anxious about his happiness. Do you know, we think her perhaps a little sly.’
In the meantime, Mr Gibson was completely subject to the individual charms of Arabella. Camilla had been quite correct in a part of her description of their intimacy. She and her sister had known Mr Gibson for seven or eight years; but nevertheless the intimacy could not with truth be said to have commenced during the infancy of the young ladies, even if the word were used in its legal sense. Seven or eight years, however, is a long acquaintance; and there was, perhaps, something of a real grievance in this Stanbury intervention. If it be a recognised fact in society that young ladies are in want of husbands, and that an effort on their part towards matrimony is not altogether impossible, it must be recognised also that failure will be disagreeable, and interference regarded with animosity. Miss Stanbury the elder was undoubtedly interfering between Mr Gibson and the Frenches; and it is neither manly nor womanly to submit to interference with one’s dearest prospects. It may, perhaps, be admitted that the Miss Frenches had shown too much open ardour in their pursuit of Mr Gibson. Perhaps there should have been no ardour and no pursuit. It may be that the theory of womanhood is right which forbids to women any such attempts, which teaches them that they must ever be the pursued, never the pursuers. As to that there shall be no discourse at present. But it must be granted that whenever the pursuit has been attempted, it is not in human nature to abandon it without an effort. That the French girls should be very angry with Miss Stanbury, that they should put their heads together with the intention of thwarting her, that they should think evil things of poor Dorothy, that they should half despise Mr Gibson, and yet resolve to keep their hold upon him as a chattel and a thing of value that was almost their own, was not perhaps much to their discredit.
‘You are a good deal at the house in the Close now,’ said Arabella, in her lowest voice, in a voice so low that it was almost melancholy.
‘Well; yes. Miss Stanbury, you know, has always been a staunch friend of mine. And she takes an interest in my little church.’ People say that girls are sly; but men can be sly, too, sometimes.
‘It seems that she has taken you so much away from us, Mr Gibson.’
‘I don’t know why you should say that, Miss French.’
‘Perhaps I am wrong. One is apt to be sensitive about one’s friends. We seem to have known you so well. There is nobody else in Exeter that mamma regards as she does you. But, of course, if you are happy with Miss Stanbury that is everything.’
‘I am speaking of the old lady,’ said Mr Gibson, who, in spite of his slyness, was here thrown a little off his guard.
‘And I am speaking of the old lady too,’ said Arabella. ‘Of whom else should I be speaking?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Of course,’ continued Arabella, ‘I hear what people say about the niece. One cannot help what one hears, you know, Mr Gibson; but I don’t believe that, I can assure you.’ As she said this, she looked into his face, as though waiting for an answer; but Mr Gibson had no answer ready. Then Arabella told herself that if anything was to be done it must be done at once. What use was there in beating round the bush, when the only chance of getting the game was to be had by dashing at once into the thicket. ‘I own I should be glad,’ she said, turning her eyes away from him, ‘if I could hear from your own mouth that it is not true.’
Mr Gibson’s position was one not to be envied. Were he willing to tell the very secrets of his soul to Miss French with the utmost candour, he could not answer her question either one way or the other, and he was not willing to tell her any of his secrets. It was certainly the fact, too, that there had been tender passages between him and Arabella. Now, when there have been such passages, and the gentleman is cross-examined by the lady, as Mr Gibson was being cross-examined at the present moment, the gentleman usually teaches himself to think that a little falsehood is permissible. A gentleman can hardly tell a lady that he has become tired of her, and has changed his mind. He feels the matter, perhaps, more keenly even than she does; and though, at all other times he may be a very Paladin in the cause of truth, in such strait as this he does allow himself some latitude.
‘You are only joking, of course,’ he said.
‘Indeed, I am not joking. I can assure you, Mr Gibson, that the welfare of the friends whom I really love can never be a matter of joke to me. Mrs Crumbie says that you positively are engaged to marry Dorothy Stanbury.’
‘What does Mrs Crumbie know about it?’
‘I dare say nothing; It is not so is it?’
‘And there is nothing in it is there?’
‘I wonder why people make these reports,’ said Mr Gibson, prevaricating.
‘It is a fabrication from beginning to end, then?’ said Arabella, pressing the matter quite home. At this time she was very close to him, and though her words were severe, the glance from her eyes was soft. And the scent from her hair was not objectionable to him as it would have been to Miss Stanbury. And the mode of her head-dress was not displeasing to him. And the folds of her dress, as they fell across his knee, were welcome to his feelings. He knew that he was as one under temptation, but he was not strong enough to bid the tempter avaunt. ‘Say that it is so, Mr Gibson!’
‘Of course, it is not so,’ said Mr Gibson lying.
‘I am so glad. For, of course, Mr Gibson, when we heard it we thought a great deal about it. A man’s happiness depends so much on whom he marries doesn’t it? And a clergyman’s more than anybody else’s. And we didn’t think she was quite the sort of woman that you would like. You see, she has had no advantages, poor thing! She has been shut up in a little country cottage all her life, just a labourer’s hovel, no more, and though it wasn’t her fault, of course, and we all pitied her, and were so glad when Miss Stanbury brought her to the Close — still, you know, though one was very glad of her as an acquaintance, yet, you know, as a wife and for such a dear, dear friend.’ She went on, and said many other things with equal enthusiasm, and then wiped her eyes, and then smiled and laughed. After that she declared that she was quite happy, so happy; and so she left him. The poor man, after the falsehood had been extracted from him, said nothing more; but sat, in patience, listening to the raptures and enthusiasm of his friend. He knew that he had disgraced himself; and he knew also that his disgrace would be known, if Dorothy Stanbury should accept his offer on the morrow. And yet how hardly he had been used! What answer could he have given compatible both with the truth and with his own personal dignity?
About half an hour afterwards, he was walking back to Exeter with Brooke Burgess, and then Brooke did ask him a question or two.
‘Nice girls those Frenches, I think,’ said Brooke.
‘Very nice,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘How Miss Stanbury does hate them,’ says Brooke.
‘Not hate them, I hope,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘She doesn’t love them does she?’
‘Well, as for love, yes; in one sense I hope she does. Miss Stanbury, you know, is a woman who expresses herself strongly.’
‘What would she say, if she were told that you and I were going to marry those two girls? We are both favourites, you know.’
‘Dear me! What a very odd supposition,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘For my part, I don’t think I shall,’ said Brooke.
‘I don’t suppose I shall either,’ said Mr Gibson, with a gravity which was intended to convey some smattering of rebuke.
‘A fellow might do worse, you know,’ said Brooke. ‘For my part, I rather like girls with chignons, and all that sort of get-up. But the worst of it is, one can’t marry two at a time.’
‘That would be bigamy,’ said Mr Gibson. ‘Just so,’ said Brooke.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26