It was now New Year’s day, and there was some grief and perhaps more excitement in Exeter for it was rumoured that Miss Stanbury lay very ill at her house in the Close. But in order that our somewhat uneven story may run as smoothly as it may be made to do, the little history of the French family for the intervening months shall be told in this chapter, in order that it may be understood how matters were with them when the tidings of Miss Stanbury’s severe illness first reached their house at Heavitree.
After that terrible scene in which Miss Stanbury had so dreadfully confounded Mr Gibson by declaring the manner in which he had been rebuffed by Dorothy, the unfortunate clergyman had endeavoured to make his peace with the French family by assuring the mother that in very truth it was the dearest wish of his heart to make her daughter Camilla his wife. Mrs French, who had ever been disposed to favour Arabella’s ambition, well knowing its priority and ancient right, and who of late had been taught to consider that even Camilla had consented to waive any claim that she might have once possessed, could not refrain from the expression of some surprise. That he should be recovered at all out of the Stanbury clutches was very much to Mrs French — was so much that, had time been given her for consideration, she would have acknowledged to herself readily that the property had best be secured at once to the family, without incurring that amount of risk, which must unquestionably attend any attempt on her part to direct Mr Gibson’s purpose hither or thither. But the proposition came so suddenly, that time was not allowed to her to be altogether wise. ‘I thought it was poor Bella,’ she said, with something of a piteous whine in her voice. At the moment Mr Gibson was so humble, that he was half inclined to give way even on that head. He felt himself to have been brought so low in the market by that terrible story of Miss Stanbury’s which he had been unable either to contradict or to explain that there was but little power of fighting left in him. He was, however, just able to speak a word for himself, and that sufficed, ‘I hope there has been no mistake,’ he said; ‘but really it is Camilla that has my heart.’ Mrs French made no rejoinder to this. It was so much to her to know that Mr Gibson’s heart was among them at all after what had occurred in the Close, that she acknowledged to herself after that moment of reflection that Arabella must be sacrificed for the good of the family interests. Poor, dear, loving, misguided, and spiritless mother! She would have given the blood out of her bosom to get husbands for her daughters, though it was not of her own experience that she had learned that of all worldly goods a husband is the best. But it was the possession which they had from their earliest years thought of acquiring, which they first expected, for which they had then hoped, and afterwards worked and schemed and striven with every energy and as to which they had at last almost despaired. And now Arabella’s fire had been rekindled with a new spark, which, alas, was to be quenched so suddenly! ‘And am I to tell them?’ asked Mrs French, ‘with a tremor in her voice. To this, however, Mr Gibson demurred. He said that for certain reasons he should like a fortnight’s grace; and that at the end of the fortnight he would be prepared to speak. The interval was granted without further questions, and Mr Gibson was allowed to leave the house.
After that Mrs French was not very comfortable at home. As soon as Mr Gibson had departed, Camilla at once returned to her mother and desired to know what had taken place. Was it true that the perjured man had proposed to that young woman in the Close? Mrs French was not clever at keeping a secret, and she could not keep this by her own aid. She told all that happened to Camilla, and between them they agreed that Arabella should be kept in ignorance till the fatal fortnight should have passed. When Camilla was interrogated as to her own purpose, she said she should like a day to think of it. She took the twenty-four hours, and then made the following confession of her passion to her mother. ‘You see, mamma, I always liked Mr Gibson, always.’
‘So did Arabella, ‘my dear before you thought of such things.’
‘I dare say that may be true, mamma; but that is not my fault. He came here among us on such sweetly intimate terms that the feeling grew up with me before I knew what it meant. As to any idea of cutting out Arabella, my conscience is quite clear. If I thought there had been anything really between them. I would have gone anywhere, to the top of a mountain, rather than rob my sister of a heart that belonged to her.’
‘He has been so slow about it,’ said Mrs French.
‘I don’t know about that,’ said Camilla. ‘Gentlemen have to be slow, I suppose, when they think of their incomes. He only got St. Peter’s-cum-Pumpkin three years ago, and didn’t know for the first year whether he could hold that and the minor canonry together. Of course a gentleman has to think of these things before he comes forward.’
‘My dear, he has been very backward.’
‘If I’m to be Mrs Gibson, mamma, I beg that I mayn’t hear anything said against him. Then there came all this about that young woman; and when I saw that Arabella took on so, which I must say was very absurd, I’m sure I put myself out of the way entirely. If I’d buried myself under the ground I couldn’t have done it more. And it’s my belief that what I’ve said, all for Arabella’s sake, has put the old woman into such a rage that it has made a quarrel between him and the niece; otherwise that wouldn’t be off. I don’t believe a word of her refusing him, and never shall. Is it in the course of things, mamma?’ Mrs French shook her head. ‘Of course not. Then when you question him very properly he says that he’s devoted to poor me. If I was to refuse him, he wouldn’t put up with Bella.’
‘I suppose not,’ said Mrs French.
‘He hates Bella. I’ve known it all along, though I wouldn’t say so. If I were to sacrifice myself ever so it wouldn’t be of any good and I shan’t do it.’ In this way the matter was arranged.
At the end of the fortnight, however, Mr Gibson did not come, nor at the end of three weeks. Inquiries had of course been made, and it was ascertained that he had gone into Cornwall for a parson’s holiday of thirteen days. That might be all very well. A man might want the recruiting vigour of some change of air after such scenes as those Mr Gibson had gone through with the Stanburys, and before his proposed encounter with new perils. And he was a man so tied by the leg that his escape could not be for any long time. He was back on the appointed Sunday, and on the Wednesday Mrs French, under Camilla’s instruction, wrote to him a pretty little note. He replied that he would be with her on the Saturday. It would then be nearly four weeks after the great day with Miss Stanbury, but no one would be inclined to quarrel with so short a delay as that. Arabella in the meantime had become fidgety and unhappy. She seemed to understand that something was expected, being quite unable to guess what that something might be. She was true throughout these days to the simplicity of head-gear which Mr Gibson had recommended to her, and seemed in her questions to her mother and to Camilla to be more fearful of Dorothy Stanbury than of any other enemy. ‘Mamma, I think you ought to tell her,’ said Camilla more than once. But she had not been told when Mr Gibson came on the Saturday. It may truly be said that the poor mother’s pleasure in the prospects of one daughter was altogether destroyed by the anticipation of the other daughter’s misery. Had Mr Gibson made Dorothy Stanbury his wife they could have all comforted themselves together by the heat of their joint animosity.
He came on the Saturday, and it was so managed that he was closeted with Camilla before Arabella knew that he was in the house. There was a quarter of an hour during which his work was easy, and perhaps pleasant. When he began to explain his intention, Camilla, with the utmost frankness, informed him that her mother had told her all about it. Then she turned her face on one side and put her hand in his; he got his arm round her waist, gave her a kiss, and the thing was done. Camilla was fully resolved that after such a betrothal it should not be undone. She had behaved with sisterly forbearance, and would not now lose the reward of virtue. Not a word was said of Arabella at this interview till he was pressed to come and drink tea with them all that night. He hesitated a moment; and then Camilla declared, with something perhaps of imperious roughness in her manner, that he had better face it all at once. ‘Mamma will tell her, and she will understand,’ said Camilla. He hesitated again, but at last promised that he would come.
Whilst he was yet in the house Mrs French had told the whole story to her poor elder daughter. ‘What is he doing with Camilla?’ Arabella had asked with feverish excitement.
‘Bella, darling don’t you know?’ said the mother.
‘I know nothing. Everybody keeps me in the dark, and I am badly used. What is it that he is doing?’ Then Mrs French tried to take the poor young woman in her arms, but Arabella would not submit to be embraced. ‘Don’t!’ she exclaimed. ‘Leave me alone. Nobody likes me, or cares a bit about me! Why is Cammy with him there, all alone?’
‘I suppose he is asking her to be his wife.’ Then Arabella threw herself in despair upon the bed, and wept without any further attempt at control over her feelings. It was a death-blow to her last hope, and all the world, as she looked upon the world then, was over for her. ‘If I could have arranged it the other way, you know that I would,’ said the mother.
‘Mamma,’ said Arabella jumping up, ‘he shan’t do it. He hasn’t a right. And as for her Oh, that she should treat me in this way! Didn’t he tell me the other night, when he drank tea here with me alone —’
‘What did he tell you, Bella?’
‘Never mind. Nothing shall ever make me speak to him again, not if he married her three times over; nor to her. She is a nasty, sly, good-for-nothing thing!’
‘But, Bella —’
‘Don’t talk to me, mamma. There never was such a thing done before since people were people at all. She has been doing it all the time. I know she has.’
Nevertheless Arabella did sit down to tea with the two lovers that night. There was a terrible scene between her and Camilla; but Camilla held her own; and Arabella, being the weaker of the two, was vanquished by the expenditure of her own small energies. Camilla argued that as her sister’s chance was gone, and as the prize had come in her own way, there was no good reason why it should be lost to the family altogether, because Arabella could not win it. When Arabella called her a treacherous vixen and a heartless, profligate hussy, she spoke out freely, and said that she wasn’t going to be abused. A gentleman to whom she was attached had asked her for her hand, and she had given it. If Arabella chose to make herself a fool she might but what would be the effect? Simply that all the world would know that she, Arabella, was disappointed. Poor Bella at last gave way, put on her discarded chignon, and came down to tea. Mr Gibson was already in the room when she entered it. ‘Arabella,’ he said, getting up to greet her, ‘I hope you will congratulate me.’ He had planned his little speech and his manner of making it, and had wisely decided that in this way might he best get over the difficulty.
‘Oh yes of course,’ she said, with a little giggle, and then a sob, and then a flood of tears.
‘Dear Bella feels these things so strongly,’ said Mrs French.
‘We have never been parted yet,’ said Camilla. Then Arabella tapped the head of the sofa three or four times sharply with her knuckles. It was the only protest against the reading of the scene which Camilla had given of which she was capable at that moment. After that Mrs French gave out the tea, Arabella curled herself upon the sofa as though she were asleep, and the two lovers settled down to proper lover-like conversation.
The reader may be sure that Camilla was not slow in making the fact of her engagement notorious through the city. It was not probably true that the tidings of her success had anything to do with Miss Stanbury’s illness; but it was reported by many that such was the case. It was in November that the arrangement was made, and it certainly was true that Miss Stanbury was rather ill about the same time. ‘You know, you naughty Lothario, that you did give her some ground to hope that she might dispose of her unfortunate niece,’ said Camilla playfully to her own one, when this illness was discussed between them. ‘But you are caught now, and your wings are clipped, and you are never to be a naughty Lothario again.’ The clerical Don Juan bore it all, awkwardly indeed, but with good humour, and declared that all his troubles of that sort were over, now and for ever. Nevertheless he did not name the day, and Camilla began to feel that there might be occasion for a little more of that imperious roughness which she had at her command.
November was nearly over and nothing had been fixed about the day. Arabella never condescended to speak to her sister on the subject; but on more than one occasion made some inquiry of her mother. And she came to perceive, or to think that she perceived, that her mother was still anxious on the subject. ‘I shouldn’t wonder if he wasn’t off some day now,’ she said at last to her mother.
‘Don’t say anything so dreadful, Bella.’
‘It would serve Cammy quite right, and it’s just what he’s likely to do.’
‘It would kill me,’ said the mother.
‘I don’t know about killing,’ said Arabella; ‘it’s nothing to what I’ve had to go through. I shouldn’t pretend to be sorry if he were to go to Hong-Kong tomorrow.’
But Mr Gibson had no idea of going to Hong-Kong. He was simply carrying out his little scheme for securing the advantages of a ‘long day’. He was fully resolved to be married, and was contented to think that his engagement was the best thing for him. To one or two male friends he spoke of Camilla as the perfection of female virtue, and entertained no smallest idea of ultimate escape. But a ‘long day’ is often a convenience. A bill at three months sits easier on a man than one at sixty days; and a bill at six months is almost as little of a burden as no bill at all.
But Camilla was resolved that some day should be fixed. ‘Thomas,’ she said to her lover one morning, as they were walking home together after service at the cathedral, ‘isn’t this rather a fool’s Paradise of ours?’
‘How a fool’s Paradise?’ asked the happy Thomas.
‘What I mean is, dearest, that we ought to fix something. Mamma is getting uneasy about her own plans.’
‘In what way, dearest?’
‘About a thousand things. She can’t arrange anything till our plans are made. Of course there are little troubles about money when people ain’t rich.’ Then it occurred to her that this might seem to be a plea for postponing rather than for hurrying the marriage, and she mended her argument. ‘The truth is, Thomas, she wants to know when the day is to be fixed, and I’ve promised to ask. She said she’d ask you herself, but I wouldn’t let her do that.’
‘We must think about it, of course,’ said Thomas.
‘But, my dear, there has been plenty of time for thinking. What do you say to January?’ This was on the last day of November.
‘January!’ exclaimed Thomas, in a tone that betrayed no triumph. ‘I couldn’t get my services arranged for in January.’
‘I thought a clergyman could always manage that for his marriage,’ said Camilla.
‘Not in January. Besides, I was thinking you would like to be away in warmer weather.’
They were still in November, and he was thinking of postponing it till the summer! Camilla immediately perceived how necessary it was that she should be plain with him. ‘We shall not have warm weather, as you call it, for a very long time, Thomas and I don’t think that it would be wise to wait for the weather at all. Indeed, I’ve begun to get my things for doing it in the winter. Mamma said that she was sure January would be the very latest. And it isn’t as though we had to get furniture or anything of that kind. Of course a lady shouldn’t be pressing.’ She smiled sweetly and leaned on his arm as she said this. ‘But I hate all girlish nonsense and that kind of thing. It is such a bore to be kept waiting. I’m sure there’s nothing to prevent it coming off in February.’
The 31st of March was fixed before they reached Heavitree, and Camilla went into her mother’s house a happy woman. But Mr Gibson, as he went home, thought that he had been hardly used. Here was a girl who hadn’t a shilling of money, not a shilling till her mother died, and who already talked about his house, and his furniture, and his income as if it were all her own! Circumstanced as she was, what right had she to press for an early day? He was quite sure that Arabella would have been more discreet and less exacting. He was very angry with his dear Cammy as he went across the Close to his house.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55