Miss Stanbury for a long time persisted in being neither better nor worse. Sir Peter would not declare her state to be precarious, nor would he say that she was out of danger; and Mr Martin had been so utterly prostrated by the nearly-fatal effects of his own mistake that he was quite unable to rally himself and talk on the subject with any spirit or confidence. When interrogated he would simply reply that Sir Peter said this and Sir Peter said that, and thus add to, rather than diminish, the doubt, and excitement, and varied opinion which prevailed through the city. On one morning it was absolutely asserted within the limits of the Close that Miss Stanbury was dying, and it was believed for half a day at the bank that she was then lying in articulo mortis. There had got about, too, a report that a portion of the property had only been left to Miss Stanbury for her life, that the Burgesses would be able to reclaim the houses in the city, and that a will had been made altogether in favour of Dorothy, cutting out even Brooke from any share in the inheritance; and thus Exeter had a good deal to say respecting the affairs and state of health of our old friend. Miss Stanbury’s illness, however, was true enough. She was much too ill to hear anything of what was going on, too ill to allow Martha to talk to her at all about the outside public. When the invalid herself would ask questions about the affairs of the world, Martha would be very discreet and turn away from the subject. Miss Stanbury, for instance, ill as she was, exhibited a most mundane interest, not exactly in Camilla French’s marriage, but in the delay which that marriage seemed destined to encounter. ‘I dare say he’ll slip out of it yet,’ said the sick lady to her confidential servant. Then Martha had thought it right to change the subject, feeling it to be wrong that an old lady on her death-bed should be taking joy in the disappointment of her young neighbour. Martha changed the subject, first to jelly, and then to the psalms of the day. Miss Stanbury was too weak to resist; but the last verse of the last psalm of the evening had hardly been finished before she remarked that she would never believe it till she saw it. ‘It’s all in the hands of Him as is on high, mum,’ said Martha, turning her eyes up to the ceiling, and closing the book at the same time, with a look strongly indicative of displeasure.
Miss Stanbury understood it all as well as though she were in perfect health. She knew her own failings, was conscious of her worldly tendencies, and perceived that her old servant was thinking of it. And then sundry odd thoughts, half-digested thoughts, ideas too difficult for her present strength, crossed her brain. Had it been wicked of her when she was well to hope that a scheming woman should not succeed in betraying a man by her schemes into an ill-assorted marriage; and if not wicked then, was it wicked now because she was ill? And from that thought her mind travelled on to the ordinary practices of death-bed piety. Could an assumed devotion be of use to her now, such a devotion as Martha was enjoining upon her from hour to hour, in pure and affectionate solicitude for her soul? She had spoken one evening of a game of cards, saying that a game of cribbage would have consoled her. Then Martha, with a shudder, had suggested a hymn, and had had recourse at once to a sleeping draught. Miss Stanbury had submitted, but had understood it all. If cards were wicked, she had indeed been a terrible sinner. What hope could there be now, on her death-bed, for one so sinful? And she could not repent of her cards, and would not try to repent of them, not seeing the evil of them; and if they were innocent, why should she not have the consolation now when she so much wanted it? Yet she knew that the whole household, even Dorothy, would be in arms against her, were she to suggest such a thing. She took the hymn and the sleeping draught, telling herself that it would be best for her to banish such ideas from her mind. Pastors and masters had laid down for her a mode of living, which she had followed, but indifferently perhaps, but still with an intention of obedience. They had also laid down a mode of dying, and it would be well that she should follow that as closely as possible. She would say nothing more about cards. She would think nothing more of Camilla French. But, as she so resolved, with intellect half asleep, with her mind wandering between fact and dream, she was unconsciously comfortable with an assurance that if Mr Gibson did marry Camilla French, Camilla French would lead him the very devil of a life.
During three days Dorothy went about the house as quiet as a mouse, sitting nightly at her aunt’s bedside, and tending the sick woman with the closest care. She, too, had been now and again somewhat startled by the seeming worldliness of her aunt in her illness. Her aunt talked to her about rents, and gave her messages for Brooke Burgess on subjects which seemed to Dorothy to be profane when spoken of on what might perhaps be a death-bed. And this struck her the more strongly, because she had a matter of her own on which she would have much wished to ascertain her aunt’s opinion, if she had not thought that it would have been exceedingly wrong of her to trouble her aunt’s mind at such a time by any such matter. Hitherto she had said not a word of Brooke’s proposal to any living being. At present it was a secret with herself, but a secret so big that it almost caused her bosom to burst with the load that it bore. She could not, she thought, write to Priscilla till she had told her aunt. If she were to write a word on the subject to any one, she could not fail to make manifest the extreme longing of her own heart. She could not have written Brooke’s name on paper, in reference to his words to herself without covering it with epithets of love. But all that must be known to no one if her love was to be of no avail to her. And she had an idea that her aunt would not wish Brooke to marry her, would think that Brooke should do better; and she was quite clear that in such a matter as this her aunt’s wishes must be law. Had not her aunt the power of disinheriting Brooke altogether? And what then if her aunt should die, should die now, leaving Brooke at liberty to do as he pleased? There was something so distasteful to her in this view of the matter that she would not look at it. She would not allow herself to think of any success which might possibly accrue to herself by reason of her aunt’s death. Intense as was the longing in her heart for permission from those in authority over her to give herself to Brooke Burgess, perfect as was the earthly Paradise which appeared to be open to her when she thought of the good thing which had befallen her in that matter, she conceived that she would be guilty of the grossest ingratitude were she in any degree to curtail even her own estimate of her aunt’s prohibitory powers because of her aunt’s illness. The remembrance of the words which Brooke had spoken to her was with her quite perfect. She was entirely conscious of the joy which would he hers, if she might accept those words as properly sanctioned; but she was a creature in her aunt’s hands according to her own ideas of her own duties; and while her aunt was ill she could not even learn what might be the behests which she would be called on to obey.
She was sitting one evening alone, thinking of all this, having left Martha with her aunt, and was trying to reconcile the circumstances of her life as it now existed with the circumstances as they had been with her in the old days at Nuncombe Putney, wondering at herself in that she should have a lover, and trying to convince herself that for her this little episode of romance could mean nothing serious, when Martha crept down into the room to her. Of late days — the alteration might perhaps be dated from the rejection of Mr Gibson — Martha, who had always been very kind, had become more respectful in her manner to Dorothy than had heretofore been usual with her. Dorothy was quite aware of it, and was not unconscious of a certain rise in the world which was thereby indicated. ‘If you please, miss,’ said Martha, ‘who do you think is here?’
‘But there is nobody with my aunt?’ said Dorothy.
‘She is sleeping like a babby, and I came down just for a moment. Mr Gibson is here, miss in the house! He asked for your aunt, and when, of course, he could not see her, he asked for you.’ Dorothy for a few minutes was utterly disconcerted, but at last she consented to see Mr Gibson. ‘I think it is best,’ said Martha, ‘because it is bad to be fighting, and missus so ill. “Blessed are the peace-makers,” miss, “for they shall be called the children of God.”’ Convinced by this argument, or by the working of her own mind, Dorothy directed that Mr Gibson might be shewn into the room. When he came, she found herself unable to address him. She remembered the last time in which she had seen him, and was lost in wonder that he should be there. But she shook hands with him, and went through some form of greeting in which no word was uttered.
‘I hope you will not think that I have done wrong,’ said he, ‘in calling to ask after my old friend’s state of health?’
‘Oh dear, no,’ said Dorothy, quite bewildered.
‘I have known her for so very long, Miss Dorothy, that now in the hour of her distress, and perhaps mortal malady, I cannot stop to remember the few harsh words that she spoke to me lately.’
‘She never means to be harsh, Mr Gibson.’
‘Ah; well; no perhaps not. At any rate I have learned to forgive and forget. I am afraid your aunt is very ill, Miss Dorothy.’
‘She is ill, certainly, Mr Gibson.’
‘Dear, dear! We are all as the grass of the field, Miss Dorothy, here today and gone tomorrow, as sparks fly upwards. Just fit to be cut down and cast into the oven. Mr Jennings has been with her, I believe?’ Mr Jennings was the other minor canon.
‘He comes three times a week, Mr Gibson.’
‘He is an excellent young man, a very good young man. It has been a great comfort to me to have Jennings with me. But he’s very young, Miss Dorothy; isn’t he?’ Dorothy muttered something, purporting to declare, that she was not acquainted with the exact circumstances of Mr Jennings’ age. ‘I should be so glad to come if my old friend would allow me,’ said Mr Gibson, almost with a sigh. Dorothy was clearly of opinion that any change at the present would be bad for her aunt, but she did not know how to express her opinion; so she stood silent and looked at him. ‘There needn’t be a word spoken, you know, about the ladies at Heavitree,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘Oh dear, no,’ said Dorothy. And yet she knew well that there would be such words spoken if Mr Gibson were to make his way into her aunt’s room. Her aunt was constantly alluding to the ladies at Heavitree, in spite of all the efforts of her old servant to restrain her.
‘There was some little misunderstanding,’ said Mr Gibson; ‘but all that should be over now. We both intended for the best, Miss Dorothy; and I’m sure nobody here can say that I wasn’t sincere.’ But Dorothy, though she could not bring herself to answer Mr Gibson plainly, could not be induced to assent to his proposition. She muttered something about her aunt’s weakness, and the great attention which Mr Jennings shewed. Her aunt had become very fond of Mr Jennings, and she did at last express her opinion, with some clearness, that her aunt should not be disturbed by any changes at present. ‘After that I should not think of pressing it, Miss Dorothy,’ said Mr Gibson; ‘but, still, I do hope that I may have the privilege of seeing her yet once again in the flesh. And touching my approaching marriage, Miss Dorothy —’ He paused, and Dorothy felt that she was blushing up to the roots of her hair. ‘Touching my marriage,’ continued Mr Gibson, ‘which however will not be solemnized till the end of March;’— it was manifest that he regarded this as a point that would in that household be regarded as an argument in his favour —‘I do hope that you will look upon it in the most favourable light and your excellent aunt also, if she be spared to us.’
‘I am sure we hope that you will be happy, Mr Gibson.’
‘What was I to do, Miss Dorothy? I know that I have been very much blamed but so unfairly! I have never meant to be untrue to a mouse, Miss Dorothy.’ Dorothy did not at all understand whether she were the mouse, or Camilla French, or Arabella. ‘And it is so hard to find that one is ill-spoken of because things have gone a little amiss.’ It was quite impossible that Dorothy should make any answer to this, and at last Mr Gibson left her, assuring her with his last word that nothing would give him so much pleasure as to be called upon once more to see his old friend in her last moments.
Though Miss Stanbury had been described as sleeping ‘like a babby,’ she had heard the footsteps of a strange man in the house, and had made Martha tell her whose footsteps they were. As soon as Dorothy went to her, she darted upon the subject with all her old keenness.
‘What did he want here, Dolly?’
‘He said he would like to see you, aunt when you are a little better, you know. He spoke a good deal of his old friendship and respect.’
‘He should have thought of that before. How am I to see people now?’
‘But when you are better, aunt?’
‘How do I know that I shall ever be better? He isn’t off with those people at Heavitree is he?’
‘I hope not, aunt.’
‘Psha! A poor, weak, insufficient creature, that’s what he is. Mr Jennings is worth twenty of him.’ Dorothy, though she put the question again in its most alluring form of Christian charity and forgiveness, could not induce her aunt to say that she would see Mr Gibson. ‘How can I see him, when you know that Sir Peter has forbidden me to see anybody, except Mrs Clifford and Mr Jennings?’
Two days afterwards there was an uncomfortable little scene at Heavitree. It must, no doubt, have been the case, that the same train of circumstances which had produced Mr Gibson’s visit to the Close, produced also the scene in question. It was suggested by some who were attending closely to the matter that Mr Gibson had already come to repent his engagement with Camilla French; and, indeed, there were those who pretended to believe that he was induced, by the prospect of Miss Stanbury’s demise, to transfer his allegiance yet again, and to bestow his hand upon Dorothy at last. There were many in the city who could never be persuaded that Dorothy had refused him, these being, for the most part, ladies in whose estimation the value of a husband was counted so great, and a beneficed clergyman so valuable among suitors, that it was to their thinking impossible that Dorothy Stanbury should in her sound senses have rejected such an offer. ‘I don’t believe a bit of it,’ said Mrs Crumbie to Mrs Apjohn; ‘is it likely?’ The ears of all the French family were keenly alive to rumours, and to rumours of rumours. Reports of these opinions respecting Mr Gibson reached Heavitree, and had their effect. As long as Mr Gibson was behaving well as a suitor, they were inoperative there. What did it matter to them how the prize might have been struggled for, might still be struggled for elsewhere, while they enjoyed the consciousness of possession? But when the consciousness of possession became marred by a cankerous doubt, such rumours were very important. Camilla heard of the visit in the Close, and swore that she would have justice done her. She gave her mother to understand that, if any trick were played upon her, the diocese should be made to ring of it, in a fashion that would astonish them all, from the bishop downwards. Whereupon Mrs French, putting much faith in her daughter’s threats, sent for Mr Gibson.
‘The truth is, Mr Gibson,’ said Mrs French, when the civilities of their first greeting had been completed, ‘my poor child is pining.’
‘Pining, Mrs French!’
‘Yes pining, Mr Gibson. I am afraid that you little understand how sensitive is that young heart. Of course, she is your own now. To her thinking, it would be treason to you for her to indulge in conversation with any other gentleman; but, then, she expects that you should spend your evenings with her of course!’
‘But, Mrs French, think of my engagements, as a clergyman.’
‘We know all about that, Mr Gibson. We know what a clergyman’s calls are. It isn’t like a doctor’s, Mr Gibson.’
‘It’s very often worse, Mrs French.’
‘Why should you go calling in the Close, Mr Gibson?’ Here was the gist of the accusation.
‘Wouldn’t you have me make my peace with a poor dying sister?’ pleaded Mr Gibson.
‘After what has occurred,’ said Mrs French, shaking her head at him, ‘and while things are just as they are now, it would be more like an honest man of you to stay away. And, of course, Camilla feels it. She feels it very much and she won’t put up with it neither.’
‘I think this is the cruellest, cruellest thing I ever heard,’ said Mr Gibson.
‘It is you that are cruel, sir.’
Then the wretched man turned at bay. ‘I tell you what it is, Mrs French if I am treated in this way, I won’t stand it. I won’t, indeed. I’ll go away. I’m not going to be suspected, nor yet blown up. I think I’ve behaved handsomely, at any rate to Camilla.’
‘Quite so, Mr Gibson, if you would come and see her on evenings,’ said Mrs French, who was falling back into her usual state of timidity.
‘But, if I’m to be treated in this way, I will go away. I’ve thoughts of it as it is. I’ve been already invited to go to Natal, and if I hear anything more of these accusations, I shall certainly make up my mind to go.’ Then he left the house, before Camilla could be down upon him from her perch on the landing-place.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26