It was on Christmas-day that Sir Peter Mancrudy, the highest authority on such matters in the west of England, was sent for to see Miss Stanbury; and Sir Peter had acknowledged that things were very serious. He took Dorothy on one side, and told her that Mr Martin, the ordinary practitioner, had treated the case, no doubt, quite wisely throughout; that there was not a word to be said against Mr Martin, whose experience was great, and whose discretion was undeniable; but, nevertheless, at least it seemed to Dorothy, that this was the only meaning to be attributed to Sir Peter’s words: Mr Martin had in this case taken one line of treatment, when he ought to have taken another. The plan of action was undoubtedly changed, and Mr Martin became very fidgety, and ordered nothing without Sir Peter’s sanction. Miss Stanbury was suffering from bronchitis, and a complication of diseases about her throat and chest. Barty Burgess declared to more than one acquaintance in the little parlour behind the bank, that she would go on drinking four or five glasses of new port wine every day, in direct opposition to Martin’s request. Camilla French heard the report, and repeated it to her lover, and perhaps another person or two, with an expression of her assured conviction that it must be false at any rate, as regarded the fifth glass. Mrs MacHugh, who saw Martha daily, was much frightened. The peril of such a friend disturbed equally the repose and the pleasures of her life. Mrs Clifford was often at Miss Stanbury’s bedside and would have sat there reading for hours together, had she not been made to understand by Martha that Miss Stanbury preferred that Miss Dorothy should read to her. The sick woman received the Sacrament weekly not from Mr Gibson, but from the hands of another minor canon; and, though she never would admit her own danger, or allow others to talk to her of it, it was known to them all that she admitted it to herself because she had, with much personal annoyance, caused a codicil to be added to her will. ‘As you didn’t marry that man,’ she said to Dorothy, ‘I must change it again.’ It was in vain that Dorothy begged her not to trouble herself with such thoughts. ‘That’s trash,’ said Miss Stanbury, angrily. ‘A person who has it is bound to trouble himself about it. You don’t suppose I’m afraid of dying do you?’ she added. Dorothy answered her with some commonplace declaring how strongly they all expected to see her as well as ever. ‘I’m not a bit afraid to die,’ said the old woman, wheezing, struggling with such voice as she possessed; ‘I’m not afraid of it, and I don’t think I shall die this time; but I’m not going to have mistakes when I’m gone.’ This was on the eve of the new year, and on the same night she asked Dorothy to write to Brooke Burgess, and request him to come to Exeter. This was Dorothy’s letter:
‘Exeter, 31st December, 186—.
MY DEAR MR BURGESS,
Perhaps I ought to have written before, to say that Aunt Stanbury is not as well as we could wish her; but, as I know that you cannot very well leave your office, I have thought it best not to say anything to frighten you. But tonight Aunt herself has desired me to tell you that she thinks you ought to know that she is ill, and that she wishes you to come to Exeter for a day or two, if it is possible. Sir Peter Mancrudy has been here every day since Christmas-day, and I believe he thinks she may get over it. It is chiefly in the throat what they call bronchitis and she has got to be very weak with it, and at the same time very liable to inflammation. So I know that you will come if you can.
Yours very truly,
Perhaps I ought to tell you that she had her lawyer here with her the day before yesterday; but she does not seem to think that she herself is in danger. I read to her a good deal, and I think she is generally asleep; when I stop she wakes, and I don’t believe she gets any other rest at all.’
When it was known in Exeter that Brooke Burgess had been sent for, then the opinion became general that Miss Stanbury’s days were numbered. Questions were asked of Sir Peter at every corner of the street; but Sir Peter was a discreet man, who could answer such questions without giving any information. If it so pleased God, his patient would die; but it was quite possible that she might live. That was the tenor of Sir Peter’s replies and they were read in any light, according to the idiosyncrasies of the reader. Mrs MacHugh was quite sure that the danger was over, and had a little game of cribbage on the sly with old Miss Wright for, during the severity of Miss Stanbury’s illness, whist was put on one side in the vicinity of the Close. Barty Burgess was still obdurate, and shook his head. He was of opinion that they might soon gratify their curiosity, and see the last crowning iniquity of this wickedest of old women. Mrs Clifford declared that it was all in the hands of God; but that she saw no reason why Miss Stanbury should not get about again. Mr Gibson thought that it was all up with his late friend; and Camilla wished that at their last interview there had been more of charity on the part of one whom she had regarded in past days with respect and esteem. Mrs French, despondent about everything, was quite despondent in this case. Martha almost despaired, and already was burdened with the cares of a whole wardrobe of solemn funereal clothing. She was seen peering in for half-an-hour at the windows and doorway of a large warehouse for the sale of mourning. Giles Hickbody would not speak above his breath, and took his beer standing; but Dorothy was hopeful, and really believed that her aunt would recover. Perhaps Sir Peter had spoken to her in terms less oracular than those which he used towards the public.
Brooke Burgess came, and had an interview with Sir Peter, and to him Sir Peter was under some obligation to speak plainly, as being the person whom Miss Stanbury recognised as her heir. So Sir Peter declared that his patient might perhaps live, and perhaps might die. ‘The truth is, Mr Burgess,’ said Sir Peter, ‘a doctor doesn’t know so very much more about these things than other people.’ It was understood that Brooke was to remain three days in Exeter, and then return to London. He would, of course, come again if if anything should happen. Sir Peter had been quite clear in his opinion, that no immediate result was to be anticipated either in the one direction or the other. His patient was doomed to a long illness; she might get over it, or she might succumb to it.
Dorothy and Brooke were thus thrown much together during these three days. Dorothy, indeed, spent most of her hours beside her aunt’s bed, instigating sleep by the reading of a certain series of sermons in which Miss Stanbury had great faith; but nevertheless, there were some minutes in which she and Brooke were necessarily together. They eat their meals in each other’s company, and there was a period in the evening, before Dorothy began her night-watch in her aunt’s room, at which she took her tea while Martha was nurse in the room above. At this time of the day she would remain an hour or more with Brooke; and a great deal may be said between a man and a woman in an hour when the will to say it is there. Brooke Burgess had by no means changed his mind since he had declared it to Hugh Stanbury under the midnight lamps of Long Acre, when warmed by the influence of oysters and whisky toddy. The whisky toddy had in that instance brought out truth and not falsehood as is ever the nature of whisky toddy and similar dangerous provocatives. There is no saying truer than that which declares that there is truth in wine. Wine is a dangerous thing, and should not be made the exponent of truth, let the truth be good as it may; but it has the merit of forcing a man to show his true colours. A man who is a gentleman in his cups may be trusted to be a gentleman at all times. I trust that the severe censor will not turn upon me, and tell me that no gentleman in these days is ever to be seen in his cups. There are cups of different degrees of depth; and cups do exist, even among gentlemen, and seem disposed to hold their own let the censor be ever so severe. The gentleman in his cups is a gentleman always; and the man who tells his friend in his cups that he is in love, does so because the fact has been very present to himself in his cooler and calmer moments. Brooke Burgess, who had seen Hugh Stanbury on two or three occasions since that of the oysters and toddy, had not spoken again of his regard for Hugh’s sister; but not the less was he determined to carry out his plan and make Dorothy his wife if she would accept him. But could he ask her while the old lady was, as it might be, dying in the house? He put this question to himself as he travelled down to Exeter, and had told himself that he must be guided for an answer by circumstances as they might occur. Hugh had met him at the station as he started for Exeter, and there had been a consultation between them as to the propriety of bringing about, or of attempting to bring about, an interview between Hugh and his aunt. ‘Do whatever you like,’ Hugh had said. ‘I would go down to her at a moment’s warning, if she should express a desire to see me.’
On the first night of Brooke’s arrival this question had been discussed between him and Dorothy. Dorothy had declared herself unable to give advice. If any message were given to her she would deliver it to her aunt; but she thought that anything said to her aunt on the subject had better come from Brooke himself. ‘You evidently are the person most important to her,’ Dorothy said, ‘and she would listen to you when she would not let any one else say a word.’ Brooke promised that he would think of it; and then Dorothy tripped up to relieve Martha, dreaming nothing at all of that other doubt to which the important personage downstairs was now subject. Dorothy was, in truth, very fond of the new friend she had made; but it had never occurred to her that he might be a possible suitor to her. Her old conception of herself that she was beneath the notice of any man had only been partly disturbed by the absolute fact of Mr Gibson’s courtship. She had now heard of his engagement with Camilla French, and saw in that complete proof that the foolish man had been induced to offer his hand to her by the promise of her aunt’s money. If there had been a moment of exaltation, a period in which she had allowed herself to think that she was, as other women, capable of making herself dear to a man, it had been but a moment. And now she rejoiced greatly that she had not acceded to the wishes of one to whom it was so manifest that she had not made herself in the least dear.
On the second day of his visit, Brooke was summoned to Miss Stanbury’s room at noon. She was forbidden to talk, and during a great portion of the day could hardly speak without an effort; but there would be half hours now and again in which she would become stronger than usual, at which time nothing that Martha and Dorothy could say would induce her to hold her tongue. When Brooke came to her on this occasion he found her sitting up in bed with a great shawl round her; and he at once perceived she was much more like her own self than on the former day. She told him that she had been an old fool for sending for him, that she had nothing special to say to him, that she had made no alteration in her will in regard to him ‘except that I have done something for Dolly that will have to come out of your pocket, Brooke.’ Brooke declared that too much could not be done for a person so good, and dear, and excellent as Dorothy Stanbury, let it come out of whose pocket it might. ‘She is nothing to you, you know,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘She is a great deal to me,’ said Brooke.
‘What is she?’ asked Miss Stanbury.
‘Oh a friend; a great friend.’
‘Well; yes. I hope it may be so. But she won’t have anything that I haven’t saved,’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘There are two houses at St. Thomas’s; but I bought them myself, Brooke out of the income.’ Brooke could only declare that as the whole property was hers, to do what she liked with it as completely as though she had inherited it from her own father, no one could have any right to ask questions as to when or how this or that portion of the property had accrued. ‘But I don’t think I’m going to die yet, Brooke,’ she said. ‘If it is God’s will, I am ready. Not that I’m fit, Brooke. God forbid that I should ever think that. But I doubt whether I shall ever be fitter. I can go without repining if He thinks best to take me.’ Then he stood up by her bedside, with his hand upon hers, and after some hesitation asked her whether she would wish to see her nephew Hugh. ‘No,’ said she, sharply. Brooke went on to say how pleased Hugh would have been to come to her. ‘I don’t think much of death-bed reconciliations,’ said the old woman grimly. ‘I loved him dearly, but he didn’t love me, and I don’t know what good we should do each other.’ Brooke declared that Hugh did love her; but he could not press the matter, and it was dropped.
On that evening at eight Dorothy came down to her tea. She had dined at the same table with Brooke that afternoon, but a servant had been in the room all the time and nothing had been said between them. As soon as Brooke had got his tea he began to tell the story of his failure about Hugh. He was sorry, he said, that he had spoken on the subject as it had moved Miss Stanbury to an acrimony which he had not expected.
‘She always declares that he never loved her,’ said Dorothy.‘she has told me so twenty times.’
‘There are people who fancy that nobody cares for them,’ said Brooke.
‘Indeed there are, Mr Burgess; and it is so natural.’
‘Just as it is natural that there should be dogs and cats that are petted and loved and made much of, and others that have to crawl through life as they can, cuffed and kicked and starved.’
‘That depends on the accident of possession,’ said Brooke.
‘So does the other. How many people there are that don’t seem to belong to anybody and if they do, they’re no good to anybody. They’re not cuffed exactly, or starved; but —’
‘You mean that they don’t get their share of affection?’
‘They get perhaps as much as they deserve,’ said Dorothy.
‘Because they’re cross-grained, or ill-tempered, or disagreeable?’
‘Not exactly that.’
‘What then?’ asked Brooke.
‘Because they’re just nobodies. They are not anything particular to anybody, and so they go on living till they die. You know what I mean, Mr Burgess. A man who is a nobody can perhaps make himself somebody or, at any rate, he can try; but a woman has no means of trying. She is a nobody and a nobody she must remain. She has her clothes and her food, but she isn’t wanted anywhere. People put up with her, and that is about the best of her luck. If she were to die somebody perhaps would be sorry for her, but nobody would be worse off. She doesn’t earn anything or do any good. She is just there and that’s all.’
Brooke had never heard her speak after this fashion before, had never known her to utter so many consecutive words, or to put forward any opinion of her own with so much vigour. And Dorothy herself, when she had concluded her speech, was frightened by her own energy and grew red in the face, and shewed very plainly that she was half ashamed of herself. Brooke thought that he had never seen her look so pretty before, and was pleased by her enthusiasm. He understood perfectly that she was thinking of her own position, though she had entertained no idea that he would so read her meaning; and he felt that it was incumbent on him to undeceive her, and make her know that she was not one of those women who are ‘just there and that’s all.’ ‘One does see such a woman as that now and again,’ he said.
‘There are hundreds of them,’ said Dorothy. ‘And of course it can’t be helped.’
‘Such as Arabella French,’ said he, laughing.
‘Well yes; if she is one. It is very easy to see the difference. Some people are of use and are always doing things. There are others, generally women, who have nothing to do, but who can’t be got rid of. It is a melancholy sort of feeling.’
‘You at least are not one of them.’
‘I didn’t mean to complain about myself,’ she said. ‘I have got a great deal to make me happy.’
‘I don’t suppose you regard yourself as an Arabella French,’ said he.
‘How angry Miss French would be if she heard you.. She considers herself to be one of the reigning beauties of Exeter.’
‘She has had a very long reign, and dominion of that sort to be successful ought to be short.’
‘That is spiteful, Mr Burgess.’
‘I don’t feel spiteful against her, poor woman. I own I do not love Camilla. Not that I begrudge Camilla her present prosperity.’
‘Nor I either, Mr Burgess.’
‘She and Mr Gibson will do very well together, I dare say.’
‘I hope they will,’ said Dorothy, ‘and I do not see any reason against it. They have known each other a long time.’
‘A very long time,’ said Brooke. Then he paused for a minute, thinking how he might best tell her that which he had now resolved should be told on this occasion. Dorothy finished her tea and got up as though she were about to go to her duty upstairs. She had been as yet hardly an hour in the room, and the period of her relief was not fairly over. But there had come something of a personal flavour in their conversation which prompted her, unconsciously, to leave him. She had, without any special indication of herself, included herself among that company of old maids who are born and live and die without that vital interest in the affairs of life which nothing but family duties, the care of children, or at least of a husband, will give to a woman. If she had not meant this she had felt it. He had understood her meaning, or at least her feeling, and had taken upon himself to assure her that she was not one of the company whose privations she had endeavoured to describe. Her instinct rather than her reason put her at once upon her guard, and she prepared to leave the room. ‘You are not going yet,’ he said.
‘I think I might as well. Martha has so much to do, and she comes to me again at five in the morning.’
‘Don’t go quite yet,’ he said, pulling out his watch. ‘I know all about the hours, and it wants twenty minutes to the proper time.’
‘There is no proper time, Mr Burgess.’
‘Then you can remain a few minutes longer. The fact is, I’ve got something I want to say to you.’
He was now standing between her and the door, so that she could not get away from him; but at this moment she was absolutely ignorant of his purpose, expecting nothing of love from him more than she would from Sir Peter Mancrudy. Her face had become flushed when she made her long speech, but there was no blush on it as she answered him now. ‘Of course, I can wait,’ she said, ‘if you have anything to say to me.’
‘Well I have. I should have said it before, only that that other man was here.’ He was blushing now up to the roots of his hair, and felt that he was in a difficulty. There are men, to whom such moments of their lives are pleasurable, but Brooke Burgess was not one of them. He would have been glad to have had it done and over so that then he might take pleasure in it.
‘What man?’ asked Dorothy, in perfect innocence.
‘Mr Gibson, to be sure. I don’t know that there is anybody else.’
‘Oh, Mr Gibson. He never comes here now, and I don’t suppose he will again. Aunt Stanbury is so very angry with him.’
‘I don’t care whether he comes or not. What I mean is this. When I was here before, I was told that you were going to marry him.’
‘But I wasn’t.’
‘How was I to know that, when you didn’t tell me? I certainly did know it after I came back from Dartmoor.’ He paused a moment, as though she might have a word to say. She had no word to say, and did not in the least know what was coming. She was so far from anticipating the truth, that she was composed and easy in her mind. ‘But all that is of no use at all,’ he continued. ‘When I was here before Miss Stanbury wanted you to marry Mr Gibson; and, of course, I had nothing to say about it. Now I want you to marry me.’
‘Dorothy, my darling, I love you better than all the world. I do, indeed.’ As soon as he had commenced his protestations he became profuse enough with them, and made a strong attempt to support them by the action of his hands. But she retreated from him step by step, till she had regained her chair by the tea-table, and there she seated herself safely, as she thought; but he was close to her, over her shoulder, still continuing his protestations, offering up his vows, and imploring her to reply to him. She, as yet, had not answered him by a word, save by that one half-terrified exclamation of his name. ‘Tell me, at any rate, that you believe me, when I assure you that I love you,’ he said. The room was going round with Dorothy, and the world was going round, and there had come upon her so strong a feeling of the disruption of things in general, that she was at the moment anything but happy. Had it been possible for her to find that the last ten minutes had been a dream, she would at this moment have wished that it might become one. A trouble had come upon her, out of which she did not see her way. To dive among the waters in warm weather is very pleasant; there is nothing pleasanter. But when the young swimmer first feels the thorough immersion of his plunge, there comes upon him a strong desire to be quickly out again. He will remember afterwards how joyous it was; but now, at this moment, the dry land is everything to him. So it was with Dorothy. She had thought of Brooke Burgess as one of those bright ones of the world, with whom everything is happy and pleasant, whom everybody loves, who may have whatever they please, whose lines have been laid in pleasant places. She thought of him as a man who might some day make some woman very happy as his wife. To be the wife of such a man was, in Dorothy’s estimation, one of those blessed chances which come to some women, but which she never regarded as being within her own reach. Though she had thought much about him, she had never thought of him as a possible possession for herself; and now that he was offering himself to her, she was not at once made happy by his love. Her ideas of herself and of her life were all dislocated for the moment, and she required to be alone, that she might set herself in order, and try herself all over, and find whether her bones were broken.‘say that you believe me,’ he repeated.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ she whispered.
‘I’ll tell you what to say. Say at once that you will be my wife.’
‘I can’t say that, Mr Burgess.’
‘Why not? Do you mean that you cannot love me?’
‘I think, if you please, I’ll go up to Aunt Stanbury. It is time for me; indeed it is; and she will be wondering, and Martha will be put out. Indeed I must go up.’
‘And will you not answer me?’
‘I don’t know what to say. You must give me a little time to consider. I don’t quite think you’re serious.’
‘Heaven and earth!’ began Brooke.
‘And I’m sure it would never do. At any rate, I must go now. I must, indeed.’
And so she escaped, and went up to her aunt’s room, which she reached at ten minutes after her usual time, and before Martha had begun to be put out. She was very civil to Martha, as though Martha had been injured; and she put her hand on her aunt’s arm, with a soft, caressing, apologetic touch, feeling conscious that she had given cause for offence. ‘What has he been saying to you?’ said her aunt, as soon as Martha had closed the door. This was a question which Dorothy, certainly, could not answer. Miss Stanbury meant nothing by it nothing beyond a sick woman’s desire that something of the conversation of those who were not sick should be retailed to her; but to Dorothy the question meant so much! How should her aunt have known that he had said anything? She sat herself down and waited, giving no answer to the question. ‘I hope he gets his meals comfortably,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘I am sure he does,’ said Dorothy, infinitely relieved. Then, knowing how important it was that her aunt should sleep, she took up the volume of Jeremy Taylor, and, with so great a burden on her mind, she went on painfully and distinctly with the second sermon on the Marriage Ring. She strove valiantly to keep her mind to the godliness of the discourse, so that it might be of some possible service to herself; and to keep her voice to the tone that might be of service to her aunt. Presently she heard the grateful sound which indicated her aunt’s repose, but she knew of experience that were she to stop, the sound and the sleep would come to an end also. For a whole hour she persevered, reading the sermon of the Marriage Ring with such attention to the godly principles of the teaching as she could give with that terrible burden upon her mind.
‘Thank you thank you; that will do, my dear. Shut it up,’ said the sick woman. ‘It’s time now for the draught.’ Then Dorothy moved quietly about the room, and did her nurse’s work with soft hand, and soft touch, and soft tread. After that her aunt kissed her, and bade her sit down and sleep.
‘I’ll go on reading, aunt, if you’ll let me,’ said Dorothy. But Miss Stanbury, who was not a cruel woman, would have no more of the reading, and Dorothy’s mind was left at liberty to think of the proposition that had been made to her. To one resolution she came very quickly. The period of her aunt’s illness could not be a proper time for marriage vows, or the amenities of love-making. She did not feel that he, being a man, had offended; but she was quite sure that were she, a woman, the niece of so kind an aunt, the nurse at the bedside of such an invalid were she at such a time to consent to talk of love, she would never deserve to have a lover. And from this resolve she got great comfort. It would give her an excuse for making no more assured answer at present, and would enable her to reflect at leisure as to the reply she would give him, should he ever, by any chance, renew his offer. If he did not, and probably he would not, then it would have been very well that he should not have been made the victim of a momentary generosity. She had complained of the dullness of her life, and that complaint from her had produced his noble, kind, generous, dear, enthusiastic benevolence towards her. As she thought of it all, and by degrees she took great pleasure in thinking of it, her mind bestowed upon him all manner of eulogies. She could not persuade herself that he really loved her, and yet she was full at heart of gratitude to him for the expression of his love. And as for herself, could she love him? We who are looking on of course know that she loved him; that from this moment there was nothing belonging to him, down to his shoe-tie, that would not be dear to her heart and an emblem so tender as to force a tear from her. He had already become her god, though she did not know it. She made comparisons between him and Mr Gibson, and tried to convince herself that the judgment, which was always pronounced very clearly in Brooke’s favour, came from anything but her heart. And thus through the long watches of the night she became very happy, feeling but not knowing that the whole aspect of the world was changed to her by those few words which her lover had spoken to her. She thought now that it would be consolation enough to her in future to know that such a man as Brooke Burgess had once asked her to be the partner of his life, and that it would be almost ungenerous in her to push her advantage further and attempt to take him at his word. Besides, there would be obstacles. Her aunt would dislike such a marriage for him, and he would be bound to obey her aunt in such a matter. She would not allow herself to think that she could ever become Brooke’s wife, but nothing could rob her of the treasure of the offer which he had made her. Then Martha came to her at five o’clock, and she went to her bed to dream for an hour or two of Brooke Burgess and her future life.
On the next morning she met him at breakfast. She went down stairs later than usual, not till ten, having hung about her aunt’s room, thinking that thus she would escape him for the present. She would wait till he was gone out, and then she would go down. She did wait; but she could not hear the front door, and then her aunt murmured something about Brooke’s breakfast. She was told to go down, and she went. But when on the stairs she slunk back to her own room, and stood there for awhile, aimless, motionless, not knowing what to do. Then one of the girls came to her, and told her that Mr Burgess was waiting breakfast for her. She knew not what excuse to make, and at last descended slowly to the parlour. She was very happy, but had it been possible for her to have run away she would have gone.
‘Dear Dorothy,’ he said at once. ‘I may call you so, may I not?’
‘And you will love me and be my own, own wife?’
‘No, Mr Burgess.’
‘I mean that is to say —’
‘Do you love me, Dorothy?’
‘Only think how ill Aunt Stanbury is, Mr Burgess; perhaps dying! How can I have any thought now except about her? It wouldn’t be right would it?’
‘You may say that you love me.’
‘Mr Burgess, pray, pray don’t speak of it now. If you do I must go away.’
‘But do you love me?’
‘Pray, pray don’t, Mr Burgess!’
There was nothing more to be got from her during the whole day than that. He told her in the evening that as soon as Miss Stanbury was well, he would come again, that in any case he would come again. She sat quite still as he said this, with a solemn face but smiling at heart, laughing at heart, so happy! When she got up to leave him, and was forced to give him her hand, he seized her in his arms and kissed her. ‘That is very, very wrong,’ she said, sobbing, and then ran to her room the happiest girl in all Exeter. He was to start early on the following morning, and she knew that she would not be forced to see him again. Thinking of him was so much pleasanter than seeing him!
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26