There had been various letters passing, during the last six weeks, between Priscilla Stanbury and her brother, respecting the Clock House at Nuncombe Putney. The ladies at Nuncombe had, certainly, gone into the Clock House on the clear understanding that the expenses of the establishment were to be incurred on behalf of Mrs Trevelyan. Priscilla had assented to the movement most doubtingly. She had disliked the idea of taking the charge of a young married woman who was separated from her husband, and she had felt that a going down after such an uprising, a fall from the Clock House back to a cottage, would be very disagreeable. She had, however, allowed her brother’s arguments to prevail, and there they were. The annoyance which she had anticipated from the position of their late guest had fallen upon them: it had been felt grievously, from the moment in which Colonel Osborne called at the house; and now that going back to the cottage must be endured. Priscilla understood that there had been a settlement between Trevelyan and Stanbury as to the cost of the establishment so far, but that must now be at an end. In their present circumstances, she would not continue to live there, and had already made inquiries as to some humble roof for their shelter. For herself she would not have cared had it been necessary for her to hide herself in a hut for herself, as regarded any feeling as to her own standing in the village. For herself, she was ashamed of nothing. But her mother would suffer, and she knew what Aunt Stanbury would say to Dorothy. To Dorothy at the present moment, if Dorothy should think of accepting her suitor, the change might be very deleterious; but still it should be made. She could not endure to live there on the very hard-earned proceeds of her brother’s pen, proceeds which were not only hard-earned, but precarious. She gave warning to the two servants who had been hired, and consulted with Mrs Crocket as to a cottage, and was careful to let it be known throughout Nuncombe Putney that the Clock House was to be abandoned. The Clock House had been taken furnished for six months, of which half were not yet over; but there were other expenses of living there much greater than the rent, and go she would. Her mother sighed and assented; and Mrs Crocket, having strongly but fruitlessly advised that the Clock House should be inhabited at any rate for the six months, promised her assistance. ‘It has been a bad business, Mrs Crocket,’ said Priscilla; ‘and all we can do now is to get out of it as well as we can. Every mouthful I eat chokes me while I stay there.’ ‘It ain’t good, certainly, miss, not to know as you’re all straight the first thing as you wakes in the morning,’ said Mrs Crocket who was always able to feel when she woke that everything was straight with her.
Then there came the correspondence between Priscilla and Hugh. Priscilla was at first decided, indeed, but mild in the expression of her decision. To this, and to one or two other missives couched in terms of increasing decision, Hugh answered with manly, self-asserting, overbearing arguments. The house was theirs till Christmas; between this and then he would think about it. He could very well afford to keep the house on till next Midsummer, and then they might see what had best be done. There was plenty of money, and Priscilla need not put herself into a flutter. In answer to that word flutter, Priscilla wrote as follows:
‘Clock House, September 16, 186-DEAR HUGH,
I know very well how good you are, and how generous, but you must allow me to have feelings as well as yourself. I will not consent to have myself regarded as a grand lady out of your earnings. How should I feel when some day I heard that you had run yourself into debt? Neither mamma nor I could endure it. Dorothy is provided for now, at any rate for a time, and what we have is enough for us. You know I am not too proud to take anything you can spare us, when we are ourselves placed in a proper position; but I could not live in this great house, while you are paying for everything, and I will not. Mamma quite agrees with me, and we shall go out of it on Michaelmas-day. Mrs Crocket says she thinks she can get you a tenant for the three months, out of Exeter, if not for the whole rent, at least for part of it. I think we have already got a small place for eight shillings a week, a little out of the village, on the road to Cockchaffington. You will remember it. Old Soames used to live there. Our old furniture will be just enough. There is a mite of a garden, and Mrs Crocket says she thinks we can get it for seven shillings, or perhaps for six and sixpence, if we stay there. We shall go in on the 29th. Mrs Crocket will see about having somebody to take care of the house.
Your most affectionate sister,
On the receipt of this letter, Hugh proceeded to Nuncombe. At this time he was making about ten guineas a week, and thought that he saw his way to further work. No doubt the ten guineas were precarious; that is, the ‘Daily Record’ might discontinue his services tomorrow, if the ‘Daily Record’ thought fit to do so. The greater part of his earnings came from the ‘D. R.,’ and the editor had only to say that things did not suit any longer, and there would be an end of it. He was not as a lawyer or a doctor with many clients who could not all be supposed to withdraw their custom at once; but leading articles were things wanted with at least as much regularity as physic or law; and Hugh Stanbury, believing in himself, did not think it probable that an editor, who knew what he was about, would withdraw his patronage. He was proud of his weekly ten guineas, feeling sure that a weekly ten guineas would not as yet have been his had he stuck to the Bar as a profession. He had calculated, when Mrs Trevelyan left the Clock House, that two hundred a year would enable his mother to continue to reside there, the rent of the place furnished, or half-furnished, being only eighty; and he thought that he could pay the two hundred easily. He thought so still, when he received Priscilla’s last letter; but he knew something of the stubbornness of his dear sister, and he, therefore, went down to Nuncombe Putney, in order that he might use the violence of his logic on his mother.
He had heard of Mr Gibson from both Priscilla and from Dorothy, and was certainly desirous that ‘dear old Dolly,’ as he called her, should be settled comfortably. But when dear old Dolly wrote to him declaring that it could not be so, that Mr Gibson was a very nice gentleman, of whom she could not say that she was particularly fond, ‘though I really do think that he is an excellent man, and if it was any other girl in the world, I should recommend her to take him,’ and that she thought that she would rather not get married, he wrote to her the kindest brotherly letter in the world, telling her that she was a ‘brick,’ and suggesting to her that there might come some day some one who would suit her taste better than Mr Gibson. ‘I’m not very fond of parsons myself,’ said Hugh, ‘but you must not tell that to Aunt Stanbury.’ Then he suggested that as he was going down to Nuncombe, Dorothy should get leave of absence and come over and meet him at the Clock House. Dorothy demanded the leave of absence somewhat imperiously, and was at home at the Clock House when Hugh arrived.
‘And so that little affair couldn’t come off?’ said Hugh at their first family meeting.
‘It was a pity,’ said Mrs Stanbury, plaintively. She had been very plaintive on the subject. What a thing it would have been for her, could she have seen Dorothy so well established!
‘There’s no help for spilt milk, mother,’ said Hugh. Mrs Stanbury shook her head.
‘Dorothy was quite right,’ said Priscilla.
‘Of course she was right,’ said Hugh. ‘Who doubts her being right? Bless my soul! “What’s any girl to do if she don’t like a man except to tell him so?” I honour you, Dolly, not that I ever should have doubted you. You’re too much of a chip of the old block to say you liked a man when you didn’t.’
‘He is a very excellent young man,’ said Mrs Stanbury.
‘An excellent fiddlestick, mother. Loving and liking don’t go by excellence. Besides, I don’t know about his being any better than anybody else, just because he’s a clergyman.’
‘A clergyman is more likely to be steady than other men,’ said the mother.
‘Steady, yes; and as selfish as you please.’
‘Your father was a clergyman, Hugh.’
‘I don’t mean to say that they are not as good as others; but I won’t have it that they are better. They are always dealing with the Bible, till they think themselves apostles. But when money comes up; or comfort, or for the matter of that either, a pretty woman with a little money, then they are as human as the rest of us.’
If the truth had been told on that occasion, Hugh Stanbury would have had to own that he had written lately two or three rather stinging articles in the ‘Daily Record,’ as ‘to the assumed merits and actual demerits of the clergy of the Church of England.’ It is astonishing how fluent a man is on a subject when he has lately delivered himself respecting it in this fashion.
Nothing on that evening was said about the Clock House, or about Priscilla’s intentions. Priscilla was up early on the next morning, intending to discuss it in the garden with Hugh before breakfast; but Hugh was aware of her purpose and avoided her. It was his intention to speak first to his mother; and though his mother was, as he knew, very much in awe of her daughter, he thought that he might carry his point, at any rate for the next three months, by forcing an assent from the elder lady. So he managed to waylay Mrs Stanbury before she descended to the parlour.
‘We can’t afford it, my dear, indeed we can’t,’ said Mrs Stanbury.
‘That’s not the question, mother. The rent must be paid up to Christmas, and you can live here as cheap as you can anywhere.’
‘But Priscilla —’
‘Oh, Priscilla! Of course we know what Priscilla says. Priscilla has been writing to me about it in the most sensible manner in the world; but what does it all come to? If you are ashamed of taking assistance from me, I don’t know who is to do anything for anybody. You are comfortable here?’
‘Very comfortable; only Priscilla feels —’
‘Priscilla is a tyrant, mother; and a very stern one. Just make up your mind to stay here till Christmas. If I tell you that I can afford it, surely that ought to be enough.’ Then Dorothy entered the room, and Hugh appealed to her. Dorothy had come to Nuncombe only on the day before, and had not been consulted on the subject. She had been told that the Clock House was to be abandoned, and had been taken down to inspect the cottage in which old Soames had lived but her opinion had not been asked. Priscilla had quite made up her mind, and why should she ask an opinion of any one? But now Dorothy’s opinion was demanded. ‘It’s what I call the rhodomontade of independence,’ said Hugh.
‘I suppose it is very expensive,’ suggested Dorothy.
‘The house must be paid for,’ said Hugh ‘and if I say that I’ve got the money, is not that enough? A miserable, dirty little place, where you’ll catch your death of lumbago, mother.’
‘Of course it’s not a comfortable house;’ said Mrs Stanbury who, of herself, was not at all indifferent to the comforts of her present residence.
‘And it is very dirty,’ said Dorothy.
‘The nastiest place I ever saw in my life. Come, mother; if I say that I can afford it, ought not that to be enough for you? If you think you can’t trust me, there’s an end of everything, you now.’ And Hugh, as he thus expressed himself, assumed an air of injured virtue.
Mrs Stanbury had very nearly yielded, when Priscilla came in among them. It was impossible not to continue the conversation, though Hugh would much have preferred to have forced an assent from his mother before he opened his mouth on the subject to his sister. ‘My mother agrees with me,’ said he abruptly, ‘and so does Dolly, that it will be absurd to move away from this house at present.’
‘Mamma!’ exclaimed Priscilla.
‘I don’t think I said that, Hugh,’ murmured Dorothy, softly.
‘I am sure I don’t want anything for myself,’ said Mrs Stanbury.
‘It’s I that want it,’ said Hugh. ‘And I think that I’ve a right to have my wishes respected, so far as that goes.’
‘My dear Hugh,’ said Priscilla, ‘the cottage is already taken, and we shall certainly go into it. I spoke to Mrs Crocket yesterday about a cart for moving the things. I’m sure mamma agrees with me. What possible business can people have to live in such a house as this with about twenty-four shillings a week for every thing? I won’t do it. And as the thing is settled, it is only making trouble to disturb it.’
‘I suppose, Priscilla,’ said Hugh, ‘you’ll do as your mother chooses?’
‘Mamma chooses to go. She has told me so already.’
‘You have talked her into it.’
‘We had better go, Hugh,’ said Mrs Stanbury. ‘I’m sure we had better go.’
‘Of course we shall go,’ said Priscilla. ‘Hugh is very kind and very generous, but he is only giving trouble for nothing about this. Had we not better go down to breakfast?’
And so Priscilla carried the day. They went down to breakfast, and during the meal Hugh would speak to nobody. When the gloomy meal was over he took his pipe and walked out to the cottage. It was an untidy-looking, rickety place, small and desolate, with a pretension about it of the lowest order, a pretension that was evidently ashamed of itself. There was a porch. And the one sitting-room had what the late Mr Soames had always called his bow window. But the porch looked as though it were tumbling down, and the bow window looked as though it were tumbling out. The parlour and the bedroom over it had been papered but the paper was torn and soiled, and in sundry places was hanging loose. There was a miserable little room called a kitchen to the right as you entered the door, in which the grate was worn out, and behind this was a shed with a copper. In the garden there remained the stumps and stalks of Mr Soames’s cabbages, and there were weeds in plenty, and a damp hole among some elder bushes called an arbour. It was named Laburnum Cottage, from a shrub that grew at the end of the house. Hugh Stanbury shuddered as he stood smoking among the cabbage-stalks. How could a man ask such a girl as Nora Rowley to be his wife, whose mother lived in a place like this? While he was still standing in the garden, and thinking of Priscilla’s obstinacy and his own ten guineas a week, and the sort of life which he lived in London where he dined usually at his club, and denied himself nothing in the way of pipes, beer, and beef-steaks, he heard a step behind him, and turning round, saw his elder sister.
‘Hugh,’ she said, ‘you must not be angry with me.’
‘But I am angry with you.’
‘I know you are; but you are unjust. I am doing what I am sure is right.’
‘I never saw such a beastly hole as this in all my life.’
‘I don’t think it beastly at all. You’ll find that I’ll make it nice. Whatever we want here you shall give us. You are not to think that I am too proud to take anything at your hands. It is not that.’
‘It’s very like it.’
‘I have never refused anything that is reasonable, but it is quite unreasonable that we should go on living in such a place as that, as though we had three or four hundred a year of our own. If mamma got used to the comfort of it, it would be hard then upon her to move. You shall give her what you can afford, and what is reasonable; but it is madness to think of living there. I couldn’t do it.’
‘You’re to have your way at any rate, it seems.’
‘But you must not quarrel with me, Hugh. Give me a kiss. I don’t have you often with me; and yet you are the only man in the world that I ever speak to, or even know. I sometimes half think that the bread is so hard and the water so bitter, that life will become impossible. I try to get over it; but if you were to go away from me in anger, I should be so beaten for a week or two that I could do nothing.’
‘Why won’t you let me do anything?’
‘I will whatever you please. But kiss me.’ Then he kissed her, as he stood among Mr Soames’s cabbage-stalks. ‘Dear Hugh; you are such a god to me!’
‘You don’t treat me like a divinity.’
‘But I think of you as one when you are absent. The gods were never obeyed when they showed themselves. Let us go and have a walk. Come; shall we get as far as Ridleigh Mill?’
Then they started together, and all unpleasantness was over between them when they returned to the Clock House.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01