Many weeks had now passed since Hugh Stanbury had paid his visit to St Diddulph’s, and Nora Rowley was beginning to believe that her rejection of her lover had been so firm and decided that she would never see him or hear from him more, and she had long since confessed to herself that if she did not see him or hear from him soon, life would not be worth a straw to her. To all of us a single treasure counts for much more when the outward circumstances of our life are dull, unvaried, and melancholy, than it does when our days are full of pleasure, or excitement, or even of business. With Nora Rowley at St Diddulph’s life at present was very melancholy. There was little or no society to enliven her. Her sister was sick at heart, and becoming ill in health under the burden of her troubles. Mr Outhouse was moody and wretched; and Mrs Outhouse, though she did her best to make her house comfortable to her unwelcome inmates, could not make it appear that their presence there was a pleasure to her. Nora understood better than did her sister how distasteful the present arrangement was to their uncle, and was consequently very uncomfortable on that score. And in the midst of that unhappiness, she of course told herself that she was a young woman miserable and unfortunate altogether. It is always so with us. The heart when it is burdened, though it may have ample strength to bear the burden, loses its buoyancy and doubts its own power. It is like the springs of a carriage which are pressed flat by the superincumbent weight. But, because the springs are good, the weight is carried safely, and they are the better afterwards for their required purposes because of the trial to which they have been subjected.
Nora had sent her lover away, and now at the end of three months from the day of his dismissal she had taught herself to believe that he would never come again. Amidst the sadness of her life at St Diddulph’s some confidence in a lover expected to come again would have done much to cheer her. The more she thought of Hugh Stanbury, the more fully she became convinced that he was the man who as a lover, as a husband, and as a companion, would just suit all her tastes. She endowed him liberally with a hundred good gifts in the disposal of which Nature had been much more sparing. She made for herself a mental portrait of him more gracious in its flattery than ever was canvas coming from the hand of a Court limner. She gave him all gifts of manliness, honesty, truth, and energy, and felt regarding him that he was a Paladin such as Paladins are in this age, that he was indomitable, sure of success, and fitted in all respects to take the high position which he would certainly win for himself. But she did not presume him to be endowed with such a constancy as would make him come to seek her hand again. Had Nora at this time of her life been living at the West-end of London, and going out to parties three or four times a week, she would have been quite easy about his coming. The springs would not have been weighted so heavily, and her heart would have been elastic.
No doubt she had forgotten many of the circumstances of his visit and of his departure. Immediately on his going she had told her sister that he would certainly come again, but had said at the same time that his coming could be of no use. He was so poor a man; and she, though poorer than he, had been so little accustomed to poverty of life, that she had then acknowledged to herself that she was not fit to be his wife. Gradually, as the slow weeks went by her, there had come a change in her ideas. She now thought that he never would come again; but that if he did she would confess to him that her own views about life were changed. ‘I would tell him frankly that I could eat a crust with him in any garret in London.’ But this was said to herself, never to her sister. Emily and Mrs Outhouse had determined together that it would be wise to abstain from all mention of Hugh Stanbury’s name. Nora had felt that her sister had so abstained, and this reticence had assisted in producing the despair which had come upon her. Hugh, when he had left her, had certainly given her encouragement to expect that he would return. She had been sure then that he would return. She had been sure of it, though she had told him that it would be useless. But now, when these sad weeks had slowly crept over her head, when during the long hours of the long days she had thought of him continually, telling herself that it was impossible that she should ever become the wife of any man if she did not become his, she assured herself that she had seen and heard the last of him. She must surely have forgotten his hot words and that daring embrace.
Then there came a letter to her. The question of the management of letters for young ladies is handled very differently in different houses. In some establishments the post is as free to young ladies as it is to the reverend seniors of the household. In others it is considered to be quite a matter of course that some experienced discretion should sit in judgment on the correspondence of the daughters of the family. When Nora Rowley was living with her sister in Curzon Street, she would have been very indignant indeed had it been suggested to her that there was any authority over her letters vested in her sister. But now, circumstanced as she was at St Diddulph’s, she did understand that no letter would reach her without her aunt knowing that it had come. All this was distasteful to her, as were indeed all the details of her life at St Diddulph’s, but she could not help herself. Had her aunt told her that she should never be allowed to receive a letter at all, she must have submitted till her mother had come to her relief. The letter which reached her now was put into her hands by her sister, but it had been given to Mrs Trevelyan by Mrs Outhouse. ‘Nora,’ said Mrs Trevelyan, ‘here is a letter for you. I think it is from Mr Stanbury.’
‘Give it me,’ said Nora greedily.
‘Of course I will give it you. But I hope you do not intend to correspond with him.’
‘If he has written to me I shall answer him of course,’ said Nora, holding her treasure.
‘Aunt Mary thinks that you should not do so till papa and mamma have arrived.’
‘If Aunt Mary is afraid of me let her tell me so, and I will contrive to go somewhere else.’ Poor Nora knew that this threat was futile. There was no house to which she could take herself.
‘She is not afraid of you at all, Nora. She only says that she thinks you should not write to Mr Stanbury.’ Then Nora escaped to the cold but solitary seclusion of her bed-room and there she read her letter.
The reader may remember that Hugh Stanbury when he last left St Diddulph’s had not been oppressed by any of the gloomy reveries of a despairing lover. He had spoken his mind freely to Nora, and had felt himself justified in believing that he had not spoken in vain. He had had her in his arms, and she had found it impossible to say that she did not love him. But then she had been quite firm in her purpose to give him no encouragement that she could avoid. She had said no word that would justify him in considering that there was any engagement between them; and, moreover, he had been warned not to come to the house by its mistress. From day to day he thought of it all, now telling himself that there was nothing to be done but to trust in her fidelity till he should be in a position to offer her a fitting home, and then reflecting that he could not expect such a girl as Nora Rowley to wait for him, unless he could succeed in making her understand that he at any rate intended to wait for her. On one day he would think that good faith and proper consideration for Nora herself required him to keep silent; on the next he would tell himself that such maudlin chivalry as he was proposing to himself was sure to go to the wall and be neither rewarded nor recognised. So at last he sat down and wrote the following letter:
‘Lincoln’s Inn Fields, January, 186—.
Ever since I last saw you at St Diddulph’s, I have been trying to teach myself what I ought to do in reference to you. Sometimes I think that because I am poor I ought to hold my tongue. At others I feel sure that I ought to speak out loud, because I love you so dearly. You may presume that just at this moment the latter opinion is in the ascendant.
As I do write I mean to be very bold — so bold that if I am wrong you will be thoroughly disgusted with me and will never willingly see me again. But I think it best to be true, and to say what I think. I do believe that you love me. According to all precedent I ought not to say so, but I do believe it. Ever since I was at St Diddulph’s that belief has made me happy though there have been moments of doubt. If I thought that you did not love me, I would trouble you no further. A man may win his way to love when social circumstances are such as to throw him and the girl together; but such is not the case with us; and unless you love me now, you never will love me.’ ‘I do I do!’ said Nora, pressing the letter to her bosom. ‘If you do, I think that you owe it me to say so, and to let me have all the joy and all the feeling of responsibility which such am assurance will give me.’ ‘I will tell him so,’ said Nora; ‘I don’t care what may come afterwards, but I will tell him the truth.’ ‘I know,’ continued Hugh, ‘that an engagement with me now would be hazardous, because what I earn is both scanty and precarious; but it seems to me that nothing could ever be done without some risk. There are risks of different kinds.’ She wondered whether he was thinking when he wrote this of the rock on which her sister’s barque had been split to pieces ‘and we may hardly hope to avoid them all. For myself, I own that life would be tame to me, if there were no dangers to be overcome.
If you do love me, and will say so, I will not ask you to be my wife till I can give you a proper home; but the knowledge that I am the master of the treasure which I desire will give me a double energy, and will make me feel that when I have gained so much I cannot fail of adding to it all other smaller things that may be necessary.
Pray, pray send me an answer. I cannot reach you except by writing, as I was told by your aunt not to come to the house again.
Dearest Nora, pray believe
That I shall always be truly yours only,
Write to him! Of course she would write to him. Of course she would confess to him the truth. ‘He tells me that I owe it to him to say so, and I acknowledge the debt,’ she said aloud to herself. ‘And as for a proper home, he shall be the judge of that.’ She resolved that she would not be a fine lady, not fastidious, not coy, not afraid to take her full share of the risk of which he spoke in such manly terms. ‘It is quite true. As he has been able to make me love him, I have no right to stand aloof even if I wished it.’ As she was walking up and down the room so resolving her sister came to her.
‘Well, dear!’ said Emily. ‘May I ask what it is he says?’
Nora paused a moment, holding the letter tight in her hand, and then she held it out to her sister. ‘There it is. You may read it.’ Mrs Trevelyan took the letter and read it slowly, during which Nora stood looking out of the window. She would not watch her sister’s face, as she did not wish to have to reply to any outward signs of disapproval. ‘Give it me back,’ she said, when she heard by the refolding of the paper that the perusal was finished.
‘Of course I shall give it you back, dear.’
‘Yes thanks. I did not mean to doubt you.’
‘And what will you do, Nora?’
‘Answer it of course.’
‘I would think a little before I answered it,’ said Mrs Trevelyan.
‘I have thought a great deal, already.’
‘And how will you answer it?’
Nora paused again before she replied. ‘As nearly as I know how to do in such words as he would put into my mouth. I shall strive to write just what I think he would wish me to write.’
‘Then you will engage yourself to him, Nora?’
‘Certainly I shall. I am engaged to him already. I have been ever since he came here.’
‘You told me that there was nothing of the kind.’
‘I told you that I loved him better than anybody in the world, and that ought to have made you know what it must come to. When I am thinking of him every day, and every hour, how can I not be glad to have an engagement settled with him? I couldn’t marry anybody else, and I don’t want to remain as I am.’ The tears came into the married sister’s eyes, and rolled down her cheeks, as this was said to her. Would it not have been better for her had she remained as she was? ‘Dear Emily,’ said Nora, ‘you have got Louey still.’
‘Yes and they mean to take him from me. But I do not wish to speak of myself. Will you postpone your answer till mamma is here?’
‘I cannot do that, Emily. What; receive such a letter as that, and send no reply to it!’
‘I would write a line for you, and explain —’
‘No, indeed, Emily. I choose to answer my own letters. I have shewn you that, because I trust you; but I have fully made up my mind as to what I shall write. It will have been written and sent before dinner.’
‘I think you will be wrong, Nora.’
‘Why wrong! When I came over here to stay with you, would mamma ever have thought of directing me not to accept any offer till her consent had been obtained all the way from the Mandarins? She would never have dreamed of such a thing.’
‘Will you ask Aunt Mary?’
‘Certainly not. What is Aunt Mary to me? We are here in her house for a time, under the press of circumstances; but I owe her no obedience. She told Mr Stanbury not to come here; and he has not come; and I shall not ask him to come. I would not willingly bring any one into Uncle Oliphant’s house that he and she do not wish to see. But I will not admit that either of them have any authority over me.’
‘Then who has, dearest?’
‘Nobody except papa and mamma; and they have chosen to leave me to myself.’
Mrs Trevelyan found it impossible to shake her sister’s firmness, and could herself do nothing, except tell Mrs Outhouse what was the state of affairs. When she said that she should do this, there almost came to be a flow of high words between the sisters; but at last Nora assented. ‘As for knowing, I don’t care if all the world knows it. I shall do nothing in a corner. I don’t suppose Aunt Mary will endeavour to prevent my posting my letter.’
Emily at last went to seek Mrs Outhouse, and Nora at once sat down to her desk. Neither of the sisters felt at all sure that Mrs Outhouse would not attempt to stop the emission of the letter from her house; but, as it happened, she was out, and did not return till Nora had come back from her journey to the neighbouring post-office. She would trust her letter, when written, to no hands but her own; and as she herself dropped it into the safe custody of the Postmaster-General, it also shall be revealed to the public:
‘Parsonage, St Diddulph’s, January, 186—.
For I suppose I may as well write to you in that way now. I have been made so happy by your affectionate letter. Is not that a candid confession for a young lady? But you tell me that I owe you the truth, and so I tell you the truth. Nobody will ever be anything to me, except you; and you are everything. I do love you; and should it ever be possible, I will become your wife.
I have said so much, because I feel that I ought to obey the order you have given me; but pray do not try to see me or write to me till mamma has arrived. She and papa will be here in the spring, quite early in the spring, we hope; and then you may come to us. What they may say, of course, I cannot tell; but I shall be true to you.
Your own, with truest affection,
Of course, you knew that I loved you, and I don’t think that you are a conjuror at all.’
As soon as ever the letter was written, she put on her bonnet, and went forth with it herself to the post-office. Mrs Trevelyan stopped her on the stairs, and endeavoured to detain her, but Nora would not be detained. ‘I must judge for myself about this,’ she said. ‘If mamma were here, it would be different, but, as she is not here, I must judge for myself.’
What Mrs Outhouse might have done had she been at home at the time, it would be useless to surmise. She was told what had happened when it occurred, and questioned Nora on the subject. ‘I thought I understood from you,’ she said, with something of severity in her countenance, ‘that there was to be nothing between you and Mr Stanbury at any rate, till my brother came home?’
‘I never pledged myself to anything of the kind, Aunt Mary,’ Nora said. ‘I think he promised that he would not come here, and I don’t suppose that he means to come. If he should do so, I shall not see him.’
With this Mrs Outhouse was obliged to be content. The letter was gone, and could not be stopped. Nor, indeed, had any authority been delegated to her by which she would have been justified in stopping it. She could only join her husband in wishing that they both might be relieved, as soon as possible, from the terrible burden which had been thrown upon them. ‘I call it very hard,’ said Mr Outhouse ‘very hard, indeed. If we were to desire them to leave the house, everybody would cry out upon us for our cruelty; and yet, while they remain here, they will submit themselves to no authority. As far as I can see, they may, both of them, do just what they please, and we can’t stop it.’
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26