Hugh Stanbury, when he reached the parsonage, found no difficulty in making his way into the joint presence of Mrs Outhouse, Mrs Trevelyan, and Nora. He was recognised by the St. Diddulph’s party as one who had come over to their side, as a friend of Trevelyan who had found himself constrained to condemn his friend in spite of his friendship, and was consequently very welcome. And there was no difficulty about giving the address. The ladies wondered how it came to pass that Mr Trevelyan’s letters should be sent to such a locality, and Hugh expressed his surprise also. He thought it discreet to withhold his suspicions about Mr Bozzle, and simply expressed his conviction that letters sent in accordance with the directions given by the club-porter would reach their destination. Then the boy was brought down, and they were all very confidential and very unhappy together. Mrs Trevelyan could see no end to the cruelty of her position, and declared that her father’s anger against her husband was so great that she anticipated his coming with almost more of fear than of hope. Mrs Outhouse expressed an opinion that Mr Trevelyan must surely be mad; and Nora suggested that the possibility of such perversity on the part of a man made it almost unwise in any woman to trust herself to the power of a husband, ‘But there are not many like him, thank God,’ said Mrs Outhouse, bridling in her wrath. Thus they were very friendly together, and Hugh was allowed to feel that he stood upon comfortable terms in the parsonage; but he did not as yet see how he was to carry out his project for the present day.
At last Mrs Trevelyan went away with the child. Hugh felt that he ought to go, but stayed courageously. He thought he could perceive that Nora suspected the cause of his assiduity; but it was quite evident that Mrs Outhouse did not do so. Mrs Outhouse, having reconciled herself to the young man, was by no means averse to his presence. She went on talking about the wickedness of Trevelyan, and her brother’s anger, and the fate of the little boy, till at last the little boy’s mother came back into the room. Then Mrs Outhouse went. They must excuse her for a few minutes, she said. If only she would have gone a few minutes sooner, how well her absence might have been excused. Nora understood it all now; and though she became almost breathless, she was not surprised, when Hugh got up from his chair and asked her sister to go away. ‘Mrs Trevelyan,’ he said, ‘I want to speak a few words to your sister, I hope you will give me the opportunity.’
‘Nora!’ exclaimed Mrs Trevelyan.
‘She knows nothing about it,’ said Hugh.
‘Am I to go?’ said Mrs Trevelyan to her sister. But Nora said never a word. She sat perfectly fixed, not turning her eyes from the object on which she was gazing.
‘Pray, pray do,’ said Hugh.
‘I cannot think that it will be for any good,’ said Mrs Trevelyan; ‘but I know that she may be trusted. And I suppose it ought to be so, if you wish it.’
‘I do wish it, of all things,’ said Hugh, still standing up, and almost turning the elder sister out of the room by the force of his look and voice. Then, with another pause of a moment, Mrs Trevelyan rose from her chair and left the room, closing the door after her.
Hugh, when he found that the coast was clear for him, immediately began his task with a conviction that not a moment was to be lost. He had told himself a dozen times that the matter was hopeless, that Nora had shown him by every means in her power that she was indifferent to him, that she with all her friends would know that such a marriage was out of the question; and he had in truth come to believe that the mission which he had in hand was one in which success was not possible. But he thought that it was his duty to go on with it. ‘If a man love a woman, even though it be the king and the beggar-woman reversed though it be a beggar and a queen, he should tell her of it. If it be so, she has a right to know it and to take her choice. And he has a right to tell her, and to say what he can for himself.’ Such was Hugh’s doctrine in the matter; and, acting upon it, he found himself alone with his mistress.
‘Nora,’ he said, speaking perhaps with more energy than the words required, ‘I have come here to tell you that I love you, and to ask you to be my wife.’
Nora, for the last ten minutes, had been thinking that this would come, that it would come at once; and yet she was not at all prepared with an answer. It was now weeks since she had confessed to herself frankly that nothing else but this this one thing which was now happening, this one thing which had now happened, that nothing else could make her happy, or could touch her happiness. She had refused a man whom she otherwise would have taken, because her heart had been given to Hugh Stanbury. She had been bold enough to tell that other suitor that it was so, though she had not mentioned the rival’s name. She had longed for some expression of love from this man when they had been at Nuncombe together, and had been fiercely angry with him because no such expression had come from him. Day after day, since she had been with her aunt, she had told herself that she was a broken-hearted woman, because she had given away all that she had to give and had received nothing in return. Had he said a word that might have given her hope, how happy could she have been in hoping. Now he had come to her with a plain-spoken offer, telling her that he loved her, and asking her to be his wife, and she was altogether unable to answer. How could she consent to be his wife, knowing as she did that there was no certainty of an income on which they could live? How could she tell her father and mother that she had engaged herself to marry a man who might or might not make 400 pounds a year, and who already had a mother and sister depending on him?
In truth, had he come more gently to her, his chance of a happy answer of an answer which might be found to have in it something of happiness would have been greater. He might have said a word which she could not but have answered softly and then from that constrained softness other gentleness would have followed, and so he would have won her in spite of her discretion. She would have surrendered gradually, accepting on the score of her great love all the penalties of a long and precarious engagement. But when she was asked to come and be his wife, now and at once, she felt that in spite of her love it was impossible that she should accede to a request so sudden, so violent, so monstrous. He stood over her as though expecting an instant answer; and then, when she had sat dumb before him for a minute, he repeated his demand. ‘Tell me, Nora, can you love me? If you knew how thoroughly I have loved you, you would at least feel something for me.’
To tell him that she did not love him was impossible to her. But how was she to refuse him without telling him either a lie, or the truth? Some answer she must give him; and as to that matter of marrying him, the answer must be a negative. Her education had been of that nature which teaches girls to believe that it is a crime to marry a man without an assured income. Assured morality in a husband is a great thing. Assured good temper is very excellent. Assured talent, religion, amiability, truth, honesty, are all desirable. But an assured income is indispensable. Whereas, in truth, the income may come hereafter; but the other things, unless they be there already, will hardly be forthcoming. ‘Mr Stanbury,’ she said, ‘your suddenness has quite astounded me.’
‘Ah, yes; but how should I not be sudden? I have come here on purpose to say this to you. If I do not say it now —’
‘You heard what Emily said.’
‘No, what did she say?’
‘She said that it would not be for good that you should speak to me thus.’
‘Why not for good? But she is unhappy, and looks gloomily at things.’
‘But all the world need not be sad for ever because she has been unfortunate.’
‘Not all the world, Mr Stanbury, but you must not be surprised if it affects me.’
‘But would that prevent your loving me if you did love me? But, Nora, I do not expect you to love me not yet. I do not say that I expect it ever. But if you would —. Nora, I can do no more than tell you the simple truth. Just listen to me for a minute. You know how I came to be intimate with you all in Curzon Street. The first day I saw you I loved you; and there has come no change yet. It is months now since I first knew that I loved you. Well; I told myself more than once when I was down at Nuncombe for instance that I had no right to speak to you. What right can a poor devil like me have, who lives from hand to mouth, to ask such a girl as you to be his wife? And so I said nothing though it was on my lips every moment that I was there.’ Nora remembered at the moment how she had looked to his lips, and had not seen the words there. ‘But I think there is something unmanly in this. If you cannot give me a grain of hope, if you tell me that there never can be hope, it is my misfortune. It will be very grievous, but I will bear it. But that will be better than puling and moping about without daring to tell my tale. I am not ashamed of it. I have fallen in love with you, Nora, and I think it best to come for an answer.’
He held out his arms as though he thought that she might perhaps come to him. Indeed he had no idea of any such coming on her part; but she, as she looked at him, almost thought that it was her duty to go. Had she a right to withhold herself from him, she who loved him so dearly? Had he stepped forward and taken her in his arms, it might be that all power of refusal would soon have been beyond her power.
‘Mr Stanbury,’ she said, ‘you have confessed yourself that it is impossible.’
‘But do you love me, do you think that it is possible that you should ever love me?’
‘You know, Mr Stanbury, that you should not say anything further. You know that it cannot be.’
‘But do you love me?’
‘You are ungenerous not to take an answer without driving me to be uncourteous.’
‘I do not care for courtesy. Tell me the truth. Can you ever love me? With one word of hope I will wait, and work, and feel myself to be a hero. I will not go till you tell me that you cannot love me.’
‘Then I must tell you so.’
‘What is it you will tell me, Nora? Speak it. Say it. If I knew that a girl disliked me, nothing should make me press myself upon her. Am I odious to you, Nora?’
‘No; not odious, but very, very unfair.’
‘I will have the truth if I be ever so unfair,’ he said. And by this time probably some inkling of the truth had reached his intelligence. There was already a tear in Nora’s eye, but he did not pity her. She owed it to him to tell him the truth, and he would have it from her if it was to be reached. ‘Nora,’ he said, ‘listen to me again. All my heart and soul are in this. It is everything to me. If you can love me you are bound to say so. By Jove, I will believe you do, unless you swear to me that it is not so!’ He was now holding her by the hand and looking closely into her face.
‘Mr Stanbury,’ she said, ‘let me go; pray, pray let me go.’
‘Not till you say that you love me. Oh, Nora, I believe that you love me. You do; yes; you do love me. Dearest, dearest Nora, would you not say a word to make me the happiest man in the world?’ And now he had his arm round her waist.
‘Let me go,’ she said, struggling through her tears and covering her face with her hands. ‘You are very, very wicked. I will never speak to you again. Nay, but you shall let me go!’ And then she was out of his arms and had escaped from the room before he had managed to touch her face with his lips.
As he was thinking how he also might escape now, might escape and comfort himself with his triumph, Mrs Outhouse returned to the chamber. She was very demure, and her manner towards him was considerably changed since she had left the chamber. ‘Mr Stanbury,’ she said, ‘this kind of thing mustn’t go any further indeed, at least not in my house.’
‘What kind of thing, Mrs Outhouse?’
‘Well, what my elder niece has told me. I have not seen Miss Rowley since she left you. I am quite sure she has behaved with discretion.’
‘Indeed she has, Mrs Outhouse.’
‘The fact is my nieces are in grief and trouble, and this is no time or place for love-making. I am sorry to be uncivil, but I must ask you not to come here any more.’
‘I will stay away from this house, certainly, if you bid me.’
‘I am very sorry; but I must bid you. Sir Marmaduke will be home in the spring, and if you have anything to say to him of course you can see him.’
Then Hugh Stanbury took his leave of Mrs Outhouse; but as he went home, again on the knifeboard of an omnibus, he smoked the pipe of triumph rather than the pipe of contemplation.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26