Miss Stanbury was divine in her wrath, and became more and more so daily as new testimony reached her of dishonesty on the part of the Frenches and of treachery on the part of Mr Gibson. And these people, so empty, so vain, so weak, were getting the better of her, were conquering her, were robbing her of her prestige and her ancient glory, simply because she herself was too generous to speak out and tell the truth! There was a martyrdom to her in this which was almost unendurable.
Now there came to her one day at luncheon time, on the day succeeding that on which Miss French had promised to sacrifice her chignon, a certain Mrs Clifford from Budleigh Salterton, to whom she was much attached. Perhaps the distance of Budleigh Salterton from Exeter added somewhat to this affection, so that Mrs Clifford was almost closer to our friend’s heart even than Mrs MacHugh, who lived just at the other end of the cathedral. And in truth Mrs Clifford was a woman more serious in her mode of thought than Mrs MacHugh, and one who had more in common with Miss Stanbury than that other lady. Mrs Clifford had been a Miss Noel of Doddiscombe Leigh, and she and Miss Stanbury had been engaged to be married at the same time each to a man of fortune. One match had been completed in the ordinary course of matches. What had been the course of the other we already know. But the friendship had been maintained on very close terms. Mrs MacHugh was a Gallio at heart, anxious chiefly to remove from herself and from her friends also all the troubles of life, and make things smooth and easy. She was one who disregarded great questions; who cared little or nothing what people said of her; who considered nothing worth the trouble of a fight. Epicuri de grege porca. But there was nothing swinish about Mrs Clifford of Budleigh Salterton. She took life thoroughly in earnest. She was a Tory who sorrowed heartily for her country, believing that it was being brought to ruin by the counsels of evil men. She prayed daily to be delivered from dissenters, radicals, and wolves in sheep’s clothing by which latter bad name she meant especially a certain leading politician of the day who had, with the cunning of the devil, tempted and perverted the virtue of her own political friends. And she was one who thought that the slightest breath of scandal on a young woman’s name should be stopped at once. An antique, pure-minded, anxious, self-sacrificing matron was Mrs Clifford, and very dear to the heart of Miss Stanbury.
After lunch was over on the day in question Mrs Clifford got Miss Stanbury into some closet retirement, and there spoke her mind as to the things which were being said. It had been asserted in her presence by Camilla French that she, Camilla, was authorised by Mr Gibson to declare that he had never thought of proposing to Dorothy Stanbury, and that Miss Stanbury had been ‘labouring under some strange misapprehension in the matter.’ ‘Now, my dear, I don’t care very much for the young lady in question,’ said Mrs Clifford, alluding to Camilla French.
‘Very little, indeed, I should think,’ said Miss Stanbury, with a shake of her head.
‘Quite true, my dear, but that does not make the words out of her mouth the less efficacious for evil. She clearly insinuated that you had endeavoured to make up a match between this gentleman and your niece, and that you had failed.’ So much was at least true. Miss Stanbury felt this, and felt also that she could not explain the truth, even to her dear old friend. In the midst of her divine wrath she had acknowledged to herself that she had brought Mr Gibson into his difficulty, and that it would not become her to tell any one of his failure. And in this matter she did not herself accuse Mr Gibson. She believed that the lie originated with Camilla French, and it was against Camilla that her wrath raged the fiercest.
‘She is a poor, mean, disappointed thing,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘Very probably, but I think I should ask her to hold her tongue about Miss Dorothy,’ said Mrs Clifford.
The consultation in the closet was carried on for about half-an-hour, and then Miss Stanbury put on her bonnet and shawl and descended into Mrs Clifford’s carriage. The carriage took the Heavitree road, and deposited Miss Stanbury at the door of Mrs French’s house. The walk home from Heavitree would be nothing, and Mrs Clifford proceeded on her way, having given this little help in counsel, and conveyance to her friend. Mrs French was at home, and Miss Stanbury was shown up into the room in which, the three ladies were sitting.
The reader will doubtless remember the promise which Arabella had made to Mr Gibson. That promise she had already fulfilled to the amazement of her mother and sister; and when Miss Stanbury entered the room the elder daughter of the family was seen without her accustomed head-gear. If the truth is to be owned, Miss Stanbury gave the poor young woman no credit for her new simplicity, but put down the deficiency to the charge of domestic slatternliness. She was unjust enough to declare afterwards that she had found Arabella French only half dressed at between three and four o’clock in the afternoon! From which this lesson may surely be learned: that though the way down Avernus may be, and customarily is, made with great celerity, the return journey, if made at all, must be made slowly. A young woman may commence in chignons by attaching any amount of an edifice to her head; but the reduction should be made by degrees. Arabella’s edifice had, in Miss Stanbury’s eyes, been the ugliest thing in art that she had known; but, now, its absence offended her, and she most untruly declared that she had come upon the young woman in the middle of the day just out of her bed-room and almost in her dressing-gown.
And the whole French family suffered a diminution of power from the strange phantasy which had come upon Arabella. They all felt, in sight of the enemy, that they had to a certain degree lowered their flag. One of the ships, at least, had shown signs of striking, and this element of weakness made itself felt through the whole fleet. Arabella, herself, when she saw Miss Stanbury, was painfully conscious of her head, and wished that she had postponed the operation till the evening. She smiled with a faint watery smile, and was aware that something ailed her.
The greetings at first were civil, but very formal, as are those between nations which are nominally at peace, but which are waiting for a sign at which each may spring at the other’s throat. In this instance the Juno from the Close had come quite prepared to declare her casus belli as complete, and to fling down her gauntlet, unless the enemy should at once yield to her everything demanded with an abject submission. ‘Mrs French,’ she said, ‘I have called today for a particular purpose, and I must address myself chiefly to Miss Camilla.’
‘Oh, certainly,’ said Mrs French.
‘I shall be delighted to hear anything from you, Miss Stanbury,’ said Camilla not without an air of bravado. Arabella said nothing, but she put her hand up almost convulsively to the back of her head.
‘I have been told today by a friend of mine, Miss Camilla,’ began Miss Stanbury, ‘that you declared yourself, in her presence, authorised by Mr Gibson to make a statement about my niece Dorothy.’
‘May I ask who was your friend?’ demanded Mrs French.
‘It was Mrs Clifford, of course,’ said Camilla. ‘There is nobody else would try to make difficulties.’
‘There need be no difficulty at all, Miss Camilla,’ said Miss Stanbury, ‘if you will promise me that you will not repeat the statement. It can’t be true.’
‘But it is true,’ said Camilla.
‘What is true?’ asked Miss Stanbury, surprised by the audacity of the girl.
‘It is true that Mr Gibson authorised us to state what I did state when Mrs Clifford heard me.’
‘And what was that?’
‘Only this, that people had been saying all about Exeter that he was going to be married to a young lady, and that as the report was incorrect, and as he had never had the remotest idea in his mind of making the young lady his wife.’ Camilla, as she said this, spoke with a great deal of emphasis, putting forward her chin and shaking her head, ‘and as he thought it was uncomfortable both for the young lady and for himself, and as there was nothing in it, the least in the world, nothing at all, no glimmer of a foundation for the report, it would be better to have it denied everywhere. That is what I said; and we had authority from the gentleman himself. Arabella can say the same, and so can mamma, only mamma did not hear him.’ Nor had Camilla heard him, but that incident she did not mention.
The circumstances were, in Miss Stanbury’s judgment, becoming very remarkable. She did not for a moment believe Camilla. She did not believe that Mr Gibson had given to either of the Frenches any justification for the statement just made. But Camilla had been so much more audacious than Miss Stanbury had expected, that that lady was for a moment struck dumb. ‘I’m sure, Miss Stanbury,’ said Mrs French, ‘we don’t want to give any offence to your niece — very far from it.’
‘My niece doesn’t care about it two straws,’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘It is I that care. And I care very much. The things that have been said have been altogether false.’
‘How false, Miss Stanbury?’ asked Camilla.
‘Altogether false; as false as they can be.’
‘Mr Gibson must know his own mind,’ said Camilla.
‘My dear, there’s a little disappointment,’ said Miss French, ‘and it don’t signify.’
‘There’s no disappointment at all,’ said Miss Stanbury, ‘and it does signify very much. Now that I’ve begun, I’ll go to the bottom of it. If you say that Mr Gibson told you to make these statements, I’ll go to Mr Gibson. I’ll have it out somehow.’
‘You may have what you like out for us, Miss Stanbury,’ said Camilla.
‘I don’t believe Mr Gibson said anything of the kind.’
‘That’s civil,’ said Camilla.
‘But why shouldn’t he?’ asked Arabella.
‘There were the reports, you know,’ said Mrs French.
‘And why shouldn’t he deny them when there wasn’t a word of truth in them?’ continued Camilla. ‘For my part, I think the gentleman is bound for the lady’s sake to declare that there’s nothing in it when there is nothing in it.’ This was more than Miss Stanbury could bear. Hitherto the enemy had seemed to have the best of it. Camilla was firing broadside after broadside, as though she was assured of victory. Even Mrs French was becoming courageous; and Arabella was forgetting the place where her chignon ought to have been. ‘I really do not know what else there is for me to say,’ remarked Camilla, with a toss of her head, ‘and an air of impudence that almost drove poor Miss Stanbury frantic.
It was on her tongue to declare the whole truth, but she refrained. She had schooled herself on this subject vigorously. She would not betray Mr Gibson.’ Had she known all the truth or had she believed Camilla French’s version of the story there would have been no betrayal. But looking at the matter with such knowledge as she had at present, she did not even yet feel herself justified in declaring that Mr Gibson had offered his hand to her niece, and had been refused. She was, however, sorely tempted. ‘Very well, ladies,’ she said. ‘I shall now see Mr Gibson, and ask him whether he did give you authority to make such statements as you have been spreading abroad everywhere.’ Then the door of the room was opened, and in a moment Mr Gibson was among them. He was true to his promise, and had come to see Arabella with her altered headdress, but he had come at this hour thinking that escape in the morning would be easier and quicker than it might have been in the evening. His mind had been full of Arabella and her head-dress even up to the moment of his knocking at the door; but all that was driven out of his brain at once when he saw Miss Stanbury.
‘Here is Mr Gibson himself,’ said Mrs French.
‘How do you do, Mr Gibson?’ said Miss Stanbury, with a very stately courtesy. They had never met since the day on which he had been, as he stated, turned out of Miss Stanbury’s house. He now bowed to her; but there was no friendly greeting, and the Frenches were able to congratulate themselves on the apparent loyalty to themselves of the gentleman who stood among them. ‘I have come here, Mr Gibson,’ continued Miss Stanbury, ‘to put a small matter right in which you are concerned.’
‘It seems to me to be the most insignificant thing in the world,’ said Camilla.
‘Very likely,’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘But it is not insignificant to me. Miss Camilla French has asserted publicly that you have authorised her to make a statement about my niece Dorothy.’
Mr Gibson looked into Camilla’s face doubtingly, inquisitively, almost piteously.’ ‘You had better let her go on,’ said Camilla.‘she will make a great many mistakes, no doubt, but you had better let her go on to the end.’
‘I have made no mistake as yet, Miss Camilla. She so asserted, Mr Gibson, in the hearing of a friend of mine, and she repeated the assertion here in this room to me just before you came in. She says that you have authorised her to declare that — that — that; I had better speak it out plainly at once.’
‘Much better,’ said Camilla.
‘That you never entertained an idea of offering your hand to my niece.’ Miss Stanbury paused, and Mr Gibson’s jaw fell visibly. But he was not expected to speak as yet; and Miss Stanbury continued her accusation. ‘Beyond that, I don’t want to mention my niece’s name, if it can be avoided.’
‘But it can’t be avoided,’ said Camilla.
‘If you please, I will continue. Mr Gibson will understand me. I will not, if I can help it, mention my niece’s name again, Mr Gibson. But I still have that confidence in you that I do not think that you would have made such a statement in reference to yourself and any young lady unless it were some young lady who had absolutely thrown herself at your head.’ And in saying this she paused, and looked very hard at Camilla.
‘That’s just what Dorothy Stanbury has been doing,’ said Camilla.
‘She has been doing nothing of the kind, and you know she hasn’t,’ said Miss Stanbury, raising her arm as though she were going to strike her opponent. ‘But I am quite sure, Mr Gibson, that you never could have authorised these young ladies to make such an assertion publicly on your behalf. Whatever there may have been of misunderstanding between you and me, I can’t believe that of you.’ Then she paused for a reply. ‘If you will be good enough to set us right on that point, I shall be obliged to you.’
Mr Gibson’s position was one of great discomfort. He had given no authority to anyone to make such a statement. He had said nothing about Dorothy Stanbury to Camilla; but he had told Arabella, when hard pressed by that lady, that he did not mean to propose to Dorothy. He could not satisfy Miss Stanbury because he feared Arabella. He could not satisfy the Frenches because he feared Miss Stanbury. ‘I really do not think,’ said he, ‘that we ought to talk about a young lady in this way.’
‘That’s my opinion too,’ said Camilla; ‘but Miss Stanbury will.’
‘Exactly so. Miss Stanbury will,’ said that lady. ‘Mr Gibson, I insist upon it, that you tell me whether you did give any such authority to Miss Camilla French, or to Miss French.’
‘I wouldn’t answer her, if I were you,’ said Camilla.
‘I really don’t think this can do any good,’ said Mrs French.
‘And it is so very harassing to our nerves,’ said Arabella.
‘Nerves! Pooh!’ exclaimed Miss Stanbury. ‘Now, Mr Gibson, I am waiting for an answer.’
‘My dear Miss Stanbury, I really think it better the situation is so peculiar, and, upon my word, I hardly know how not to give offence, which I wouldn’t do for the world.’
‘Do you mean to tell me that you won’t answer my question?’ demanded Miss Stanbury.
‘I really think that I had better hold my tongue,’ pleaded Mr Gibson.
‘You are quite right, Mr Gibson,’ said Camilla.
‘Indeed, it is wisest,’ said Mrs French.
‘I don’t see what else he can do,’ said Arabella.
Then was Miss Stanbury driven altogether beyond her powers of endurance. ‘If that be so,’ said she, ‘I must speak out, though I should have preferred to hold my tongue. Mr Gibson did offer to my niece the week before last twice, and was refused by her. My niece, Dorothy, took it into her head that she did not like him; and, upon my word, I think she was right. We should have said nothing about this, not a word; but when these false assertions are made on Mr Gibson’s alleged authority, and Mr Gibson won’t deny it, I must tell the truth.’ Then there was silence among them for a few seconds, and Mr Gibson struggled hard, but vainly, to clothe his face in a pleasant smile. ‘Mr Gibson, is that true?’ said Miss Stanbury. But Mr Gibson made no reply. ‘It is as true as heaven,’ said Miss Stanbury, striking her hand upon the table. ‘And now you had better, all of you, hold your tongues about my niece, and she will hold her tongue about you. And as for Mr Gibson, anybody who wants him after this is welcome to him for us. Good-morning, Mrs French; good-morning, young ladies.’ And so she stalked out of the room, and out of the house, and walked back to her house in the Close.
‘Mamma,’ said Arabella as soon as the enemy was gone, ‘I have got such a headache that I think I will go upstairs.’
‘And I will go with you, dear,’ said Camilla.
Mr Gibson, before he left the house, confided his secret to the maternal ears of Mrs French. He certainly had been allured into making an offer to Dorothy Stanbury, but was ready to atone for this crime by marrying her daughter Camilla as soon as might be convenient. He was certainly driven to make this declaration by intense cowardice — not to excuse himself, for in that there could be no excuse — but how else should he dare to suggest that he might as well leave the house? ‘Shall I tell the dear girl?’ asked Mrs French. But Mr Gibson requested a fortnight, in which to consider how the proposition had best be made.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14